Pride and Prejudice and Social Anxiety
A profound and kindred fondness for Mr. Darcy based on the shared experience of mental illness.
There is no doubt that Jane Austen intended Mr. Darcy to be the proud half of the “Pride and Prejudice” dichotomy. Most people in the end fall in love with Mr. Darcy because they hyper-romanticize his ultimate devotion to Elizabeth, therefore forgiving him his prideful trespasses. Deep down readers want to believe that love makes people capable of great transformation. However from the very moment Elizabeth Bennet first developed her obstinate disdain for Mr. Darcy and his unfortunate countenance, I fell with painstaking empathy for him over his detest of social obligations.
As a person with social anxiety, I identified with his lack of interest in socializing with any of the women he wasn’t already acquainted with.
Consider the following passage:
Elizabeth Bennet had been obliged, by the scarcity of gentlemen, to sit down for two dances; and during part of that time Mr. Darcy had been standing near enough for her to overhear a conversation between him and Mr. Bingley, who came from the dance for a few minutes, to press his friend to join it.
“Come, Darcy,” said he, “I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance.”
“I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.”
He then goes on to mention how Bingley is already dancing with the most handsome girl in the room, and when Bingley points out Elizabeth he says she’s alright but not beautiful enough to tempt him into dancing, plus he’s not interested in a girl who has been slighted by other men. Elizabeth overhears them and is super cool about it, she is understandably annoyed, but she doesn’t let it get her upset. She just accepts that he has made himself her mortal enemy for all of eternity and continues on partying.
I’m not apologizing for Darcy’s words here, he was a dick, all joking around with his closest friend aside. But to me this passage didn’t read pride, instead it screamed DEFENSE MECHANISM. Darcy is clearly not comfortable dancing, or even otherwise communicating, with the guests he doesn’t know. Imagine attending a house party full of people you’ve never met. Your friends leave you alone to go talk to other people, then your best friend takes you aside and says “Look we’re all busy right now and you look like a loser sitting alone, so why don’t you go talk to that other girl that’s sitting alone!” I’m sure there are extroverts out there thinking that this seems like a perfectly reasonable suggestion, but I’m having heart palpitations just imagining it. For someone with social anxiety that sounds like the ninth circle of hell.
On a strictly academic level, if you read this novel to interpret Austen’s intentions, she has indeed crafted a beautiful balance between the two titular themes; Darcy’s pride stems from his prejudice toward people of lower social status, and Elizabeth’s prejudice comes from a place of pride after being insulted. On a personal level, I still feel it’s arguable that a lot of his general personality flaws could come down to misinterpretation.
At a lot of the social gatherings moving forward in the novel people continue to view him as cold or unfriendly and believing himself to be better than everyone else. Wherein these large social settings Darcy is merely depicted as serious and reserved. His perceived lack of “friendliness” is taken as rudeness. However in smaller settings in the comfort of his close relations, he is amiable and talkative and humorous, even when the group expands to include Elizabeth and Jane of lower social status.
Mr. Darcy has definitely been conditioned to have pride in his wealth and status, this is made clear in his horrendously botched initial marriage proposal. But the closer Elizabeth gets to Darcy’s life, and his family, the more she hears people singing his praises. His sister adores him, his cousin admires him more than anyone else in the world, Bingley trusts him implicitly, even the housekeeper at Pemberley refers to him as “the sweetest, most generous-hearted boy in the world.” As the story progresses it becomes less and less believable that he is the stoic, pretentious character that his previous public appearances lent him to be.
This I feel is fairly common in people with social anxiety, especially in those with an anxiety disorder who can easily pass as someone without. As for myself, I don’t often have full on panic attacks in public. When I am out of my element or there is a lot of attention on me I feel many of the initial symptoms of panic (chest pain, difficulty breathing, claustrophobia, redness in my face and neck, difficulty speaking, etc.) but unless someone really knew what to look for they might not even notice I was struggling.
People with social anxiety tend also to have difficulty interpreting social protocols. For example when I am put on the spot I often have trouble forming immediate and/or appropriate responses. Even though I present very normal in these situations, I get so nervous on the inside. I feel like a deer in headlights. My brain gets so frazzled that I can’t process how I am supposed react. I get very quiet and clipped, and a lot of times I tend to just shrug off the interactions altogether. I am constantly worried that despite my true intentions, this behavior comes off as rude or dismissive.
I have so much compassion for Mr. Darcy in this way. When I read Pride and Prejudice I read him as someone with similar struggles. His quietness and lack of interaction was interpreted by his community as rude and dismissive. Although he was proud it is worth considering that maybe he was quiet and dismissive because of his disorder rather than because of his pride.