Pride & Prejudice: When Core Values Fell in Love

Single-mindedness is what makes a character a character. They have a single unified mind (or personality).  If they have more than one personality, then they are a broken, twisted mind. Even when a person’s mind is “double-minded” it’s really just a mind in conflict with itself over a core value.  Incidentally that’s what also makes a story.

The word character comes from the Greek word for “engraved mark” but also had the metaphorical sense of “a defining quality or individual feature.” The definitions meaning “a sum of qualities that define and distinguish a person from another” or “the moral qualities of a person” were later adaptations of the word.  Nevertheless, the basic idea is still the same—a singleness or unity that holds a persona together.

Speaking of adaptations—when you adapt a story for film, or carry characters over from one film to the other—what will make it or break it is if you capture the characters created in the former and transfer them over to the latter so that the characters do not act “out of character.”

For example, look at one of the most popular sources of adaptation: Pride and Prejudice. The novel by Jane Austen, first published in 1813, has such a powerful structure of story inside that it launched a thousand versions—including a Zombie-themed one! For our purposes, let’s look at the 2005 version directed by Joe Wright and starring Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightly in the roles that emobody the titular concepts:  Mr. Darcy (Pride) and Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet (Prejudice).

This adapation is especially noteworthy as it successfully took a narrative that has many loyal and highly-protective fans and chopped and squeezed it into a feature film length.  It’s IMDB rating is a very respectful 7.8, and it was nominated for several Oscars.  One of the only other adapatons that tends to get the same or more love is a BBC Mini-Series that starred Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy—an adaptation that had the room to delve into all the details of the novel.

So how did Joe Wright’s version of P&P make it through the gauntlet? It seems he simply paid attention to the crux of the matter—he kept the key story beats that beautifully captured the core values of it’s two classic characters.

For anyone who has not read the novel or seen one of the versions, you’ll find it’s a pretty simple set-up: Lizzie Bennet is the second of five daughters of a middle-aged, middle-class English couple who have no inheritance to give because it can only be passed down to a male relative. Lizzie’s mother is a distraught mess throughout, manipulating and pressuring her daughters to be married off in the hopes they will not be left destitute.  Lizzie, however, is the Bennet’s strong-willed child, refusing to marry only for money.  And that is the situation that Mr. Darcy, a wealthy land-owner, steps into. An obvious set-up for Lizzie to have both love and money!  There’s only problem…she has prejudged him as being too proud!

Of course, they get together in the end (when they get over the whole pride vs. prejudice problem) but along the way there are two moments that truly captured the spirit of both of their Core Values:  Now, it’s important to note here that pride and prejudice are not their core values—they are the shadow of their core values:

For Lizzie, her Core Value moment came early on, when Mr. Collins, the obseqious clergyman and heir to the Bennet estate, asks for her hand in marriage.  Although all pressure was on her to be sensible and accept the offer, Lizzie tells him “no.”  Despite her mother’s fury, Lizzy has is determined to marry for love.  This decision is echoed in the opening lines of the novel: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife…this truth so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”  In other words, Lizzie’s opening argument is that a man has a right to determine whom he shall marry, despite having a large pile of money. She then goes on to argue that a woman has that same right to say “yes” or “no” to a proposal —that is, to determine her mate for whatever reason she sees fit.  If you haven’t noticed yet, “prejudice” is the shadow side of “determination.”

For Mr. Darcy, his Core Value moment comes later in the story when Lizzie’s younger more impestuous say-yes-to-anything sister Lydia runs off with the two-faced Mr. Wickam.  And here is where Mr. Darcy captures her heart— he quietly arranges for Mr. Wickam to marry Lydia, thereby preserving the Bennet’s family honor. He does not force the marriage, however, instead convincing Mr. Wickam to say yes to the proposal by paying Mr. Wickam’s debts (thereby respecting Lizzie’s core value in the process).  So although Mr. Darcy did have a prideful streak to him, at his core was a sense of honor.  That’s good news for Lizzie, as she has been in a quandry because she is deeply attracted to Mr. Darcy despite her better judgment. But when she sees that Mr. Darcy has valued her core by using his, she then determines that he is the man for her. And when Mr. Darcy proposes to her in the end, she trusts him to honorher commitment to determination.

So how is this story single-minded when it has two ideas that stand against each other?

Because there is a third value that is not in the title, but is most central to their attraction and resolution.  It seems this value is “steadfast” which means “to be fixed, resolute, unwavering.”  It’s the opposite of flexible, adaptable, changing. But it is their mutually preferred way of being in marriage as well as in life.

Areas of Harmony and Conflict in the Core Values of Lizzie and Mr. Darcy
Areas of Harmony and Conflict in the Core Values of Lizzie and Mr. Darcy

On a bad day, both of these characters’ embody the shadow side of steadfast—inflexibility, uncompromising, and stubborness—bad qualities that are bound to lead any love affair to a worse divorce. On their good days, a balance of their values brings out the light in each. Honor is externally-directed sense of steadfastness that is based on moral principles.  Determination is internally-directed and based on paying attention to your personal interests. So even though our lovers are cut from the same cloth, they are polar opposites when it comes to their orientation and sense of duty. And in order for them to say yes to the same One Word, steadfastness, they must also say yes to the idea that steadfastness needs to have some room to balance out both considerations for others (morality) and for self.

I can’t imagine, however, that this classic would have succeeded in the marketplace if it had been called “Steadfastness: A Love Story.”  By the same token, Jane Austen’s original title, “First Impressions,” leaves part of the equation out. The title Jane Austen eventually picked was quite abstract, yet simply brilliant, for it showed a single mind in conflict with itself where the different parts could eventually say “YES!” to each other. 

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