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Pride and Audience Prejudice: How Scene Composition Shapes Our Perception of Mr. Darcy

More than 200 years after its original publication, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice continues to amass impassioned fans, enamored by the individual characters of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, as well as the ultimate romantic culmination of the pair. My fondness for Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of the 1813 classic ignited a desire to learn more about this so-called “novel of manners.”  However, as I struggled with the nineteenth-century text, I was soon met with what countless literary scholars have strained to grasp and many filmmakers have capitalized on: the elusiveness of Mr. Darcy.

Austen does little to shed light on the character of Mr. Darcy, providing directors the opportunity to do so. Joe Wright almost emphasizes this indefinability, leaving viewers with a sense of unease when Darcy graces the screen. First viewing Pride and Prejudice, I found that I only accepted the male protagonist’s “goodness” when Elizabeth relented to his affection. However, upon re-watching the film, I realized Darcy’s disposition is primarily revealed not through dialogue, but rather as an intended consequence of meticulous scene composition. In particular, the scene in which Darcy is formally introduced sets a precedent for the majority of his future interactions.

Mr. Darcy is first shown to the audience (and Elizabeth Bennet) at a town ball. When Darcy and his similarly wealthy companions enter the room, the metaphorical “sea” parts. Music and dancing cease. Silence ensues. The viewer, however, is presented with only a glimpse of Darcy’s rear profile, allowing one to fully see the reaction of the room to his arrival. Due to Darcy’s high social standing and unmarried status, men and women alike are in awe of his mere presence. This veneration is emphasized by the film technique used to depict the scene, which draws attention to the pronounced effect that Mr. Darcy has on others, as opposed to Mr. Darcy himself. By noting the visual accentuation of Darcy’s first impression, I came to view the character as not so much an enigma, but rather a man defined by the expectations of those around him.

This single cinematic choice reaffirmed the notion that Mr. Darcy is wary and perhaps even cynical of the world, because he is almost exclusively accustomed to exchanges with those who possess ulterior, self-serving motives. Thus, it can be inferred that he initially rebuffs and insults Elizabeth out of an instinctual assumption that she ranks among the many women desiring not his acquaintance, but rather his fortune and status. Perhaps Darcy’s admiration for Elizabeth seemingly grows alongside her disdain for him because through such disdain, her inner fortitude is revealed.

Despite his ultimately central role, Mr. Darcy’s entrance in Pride and Prejudice is decidedly humble. The film technique used to display him epitomizes what I have now come to view as his key internal struggle: a profound aversion to the attention that he inevitably draws. Whether the audience consciously registers it or not, perhaps characters are unmasked as much by their presentation and reception as by their dialogue.

Ellie is a Political Science and Policy Studies double major at Rice University, with a minor in Politics, Law and Social Thought. She spent the spring of 2017 studying/interning in London, and hopes to return to England for grad school. Academically, Ellie's passion lies in evaluating policies that further the causes of gender equality, LGBT rights, and access to satisfactory healthcare, specifically as it pertains to women's health and mental health. She also loves feminist memoirs, eighteenth-century history, old bookstores, and new places. She's continuously inspired by the many strong females in her life, and is an unequivocal proponent of women supporting women.
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