George Wickham: How Jane Austen Masterfully Uses a Minor Character to Drive the Main Plot of “Pride and Prejudice”

George Wickham: How Jane Austen Masterfully Uses a Minor Character to Drive the Main Plot of “Pride and Prejudice”

How a Minor Character Controls the Story’s Action: Jane Austen’s Use of George Wickham

Today, I thought we might take a closer look at George Wickham’s importance to Pride and Prejudice’s plot. For a minor character, with few lines and little description, the action of Pride and Prejudice greatly rests on the scoundrel’s shoulders.

What do we know of George Wickham? There is much in Jane Austen’s introduction of Mr. Wickham.

But the attention of every lady was soon caught by a young man, whom they had never seen before, of most gentlemanlike appearance, walking with an officer on the other side of the way. The officer was the very Mr. Denny, concerning whose return from London Lydia came to inquire, and he bowed as they passed. All were struck with the stranger’s air, all wondered who he could be, and Kitty and Lydia, determined if possible to find out, led the way across the street, under pretence of wanting something in an opposite shop, and fortunately had just gained the pavement when the two gentlemen, turning back, had reached the same spot. Mr. Denny addressed them directly, and entreated permission to introduce his friend, Mr. Wickham, who had returned with him the day before from town, and he was happy to say, had accepted a commission in their corps. This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming. His appearance was greatly in his favour; he had all the best part of beauty — a fine countenance, a good figure, and very pleasing address. The introduction was followed up on his side by a happy readiness of conversation — a readiness at the same time perfectly correct and unassuming; and the whole party were still standing and talking together very agreeably, when the sound of horses drew their notice, and Darcy and Bingley were seen riding down the street. On distinguishing the ladies of the group, the two gentlemen came directly towards them, and began the usual civilities. Bingley was the principal spokesman, and Miss Bennet the principal object. He was then, he said, on his way to Longbourn on purpose to inquire after her. Mr. Darcy corroborated it with a bow, and was beginning to determine not to fix his eyes on Elizabeth, when they were suddenly arrested by the sight of the stranger, and Elizabeth happening to see the countenance of both as they looked at each other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting. Both changed colour, one looked white, the other red. Mr. Wickham, after a few moments, touched his hat — a salutation, which Mr. Darcy just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it? — It was impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know.images-1

Elizabeth Bennet’s observation lays the basis for her believing Mr. Wickham’s lies about Mr. Darcy. What we do not see in this passage is what Mr. Wickham notes during the exchange. Some scholars believe that Wickham is a good “reader” of Darcy’s notice of Elizabeth Bennet, and that the man sets his sights on Elizabeth as part of his revenge on Darcy. At a minimum, Wickham, as Darcy’s childhood friend, would recognize how Darcy would react to Wickham’s presence. Poor Darcy operates within a strict code of behavior, and Wickham holds no scruples in manipulating his former friend.

Wickham is very much a scoundrel and a cad. He is perceptive. Likely, he has heard of Darcy’s snub of Elizabeth at the Meryton Assembly. It was common knowledge among several families in the neighborhood. Such gossip would provide Wickham with the opportunity to build on the general dislike of Mr. Darcy’s manners by coloring Darcy’s actions. Wickham is looking for a rich wife, and gossip is important to him in that cause. He will use whatever he discovers to his benefit.

Mr. Denny confirms that Wickham has spoken ill of Darcy to the regiment when he says, I do not imagine his business would have called him away just now, if he had not wished to avoid a certain gentleman here.

One must notice how Wickham’s attacks on Darcy’s reputation increase after the Netherfield Ball. First, Darcy has withdrawn, and Mr. Wickham no longer fears that anyone will “correct” his insinuations. Secondly, it is likely that Denny and the other officers have informed Wickham of Darcy’s attentions to Elizabeth at the ball. Because Darcy has danced with no other female from Hertfordshire, he has labeled Elizabeth as someone he admires. Wickham would understand this fact.

Please recall it is Wickham who tells Elizabeth that Darcy will marry his cousin Anne De Bourgh, an assumption of Lady Catherine’s, but never a possibility in Darcy’s mind. Instead of listening to what Mr. Wickham does not say, Elizabeth concentrates on the irony of Miss Bingley’s ill-fated pursuit of Mr. Darcy.

He tells her that he is an expert on Mr. Darcy. You could not have met with a person more capable of giving you certain information on that head myself – for I have been connected with his family in a particular manner from my infancy. Elizabeth’s unspoken obsession with Mr. Darcy leads her to believe Mr. Wickham’s falsehoods. The man later reinforces her prejudices when Austen uses these to describe Wickham’s subtle manipulation of Elizabeth: And in his manner of bidding her adieu, wishing her every enjoyment, reminding her of what she was to expect in Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and trusting their opinion of her – their opinion of every body – would always coincide, there was a solicitude, an interest which she felt must ever attach her to him with a most sincere regard. Notice this is right before Darcy and Elizabeth reunite and Darcy’s disastrous first proposal. Is it possible that Wickham was aware that Darcy regularly attended Lady Catherine for the Lady’s Day tax cycle? 

After her return from Rosings and Mr. Darcy’s letter, Elizabeth has a better understanding of Mr. Wickham’s character, and she baits him. However, Mr. Wickham is not easily swayed from his goal of destroying Mr. Darcy. “You, who so well know my feelings towards Mr. Darcy, will readily comprehend how sincerely I must rejoice that he is wise enough to assume even the appearance of what is right…I only fear that the sort of cautiousness, to which you, I imagine, have been alluding, is merely adopted on his visits to his aunt, of whose good opinion and judgment he stands much in awe. His fear of her, has always operated, I know, when they were together, and a good deal is to be imputed to his wish of forwarding the match with Miss De Bourgh, which I am certain he has very much at heart.” Needless to say, Elizabeth has first hand knowledge that Darcy does not intend to marry his cousin Anne. He has proposed to Elizabeth and has been refused.

Even after Wickham marries Lydia and returns to Longbourn, he does not abandon his tale. Did you go by the village of Kympton? I mention it because it is the living, which I ought to have had. A most delightful place! Excellent parsonage house! It would have suited me in every respect.

So, I ask dear readers what would Pride and Prejudice be without George Wickham’s manipulations? A bland short story? Mr. Wickham is the impetus behind Elizabeth’s continued blindness regarding Mr. Darcy’s true character; the designer of a carefully constructed “revenge” plan that disrupts the lives of each of the story’s families; a scoundrel and a cad; a master manipulator. George Wickham is the man we love to hate.

31 Responses to George Wickham: How Jane Austen Masterfully Uses a Minor Character to Drive the Main Plot of “Pride and Prejudice”

  1. I would say that your analysis demonstrates that Wickham is not a minor character at all. The plot and the love story turns on his character and his actions. He’s the antagonist of the story.

    I don’t think Wickham suspected that Elizabeth would see Darcy at Rosings because if he did, he would not have attempted the blatant lie about Darcy marrying his cousin, which exposes him to Elizabeth’s astute discriminations, but I find the idea that Wickham learned from the other officers that Darcy only danced with Elizabeth at Netherfield and that this fact made him court her in order to get back at Darcy fascinating. If Wickham wanted to turn Elizabeth against Darcy and secure her affections to himself so Darcy would be thwarted in his attentions to her, he certainly succeeded if we judge by the first marriage proposal scene!

    When you wrote “Instead of listening to what Mr. Wickham does not say, Elizabeth concentrates on the irony of Miss Bingley’s ill-fated pursuit of Mr. Darcy,” what part of what Wickham does not say are you referring to? I’m curious.


    • Wickham does not say that Darcy paid him £3,000 for the sum of the living promised to him.
      Wickham does not say that a man of the elder Mr. Darcy’s character, a man whom Wickham claims to admire for his excellence and one who is so generous he provides a “gentleman’s” education for the son of his estate steward (when the elder Wickham could not provide as such for his son, considering the indulgences of Mrs. Wickham) is not likely to turn from Darcy, his heir and first born, especially as the audience knows Darcy is a bit of a prat, but he is kind to Bingley and tolerant of Bingley’s sisters and is a loving brother. Why would Darcy be jealous of Wickham?
      Wickham does not say that Darcy’s “defects” are ones of his manner and supposed ambivalence, which borders on extreme shyness, rather than of character or situation.
      Wickham does not transfer information regarding his attempted seduction of Georgiana Darcy, rather he speaks of her as “prideful” and says he has not seen her since she was younger. He does speak of Georgiana’s allegiance to him for he helped entertain her when she was a young child, a fact he used to worm his way into her good graces.

  2. Yes, I agree that this minor character plays a major role. He is even more evil in some of the variations and then in some he is killed off or shipped out to one of the “colonies”. I have learned to hate him myself and refuse to read books in which I learn that he has become engaged to, slept with or even married Elizabeth. I don’t really care that in the end Darcy and Elizabeth come together…I want no part of reading that Wickham in any way won more of her admiration than he did in canon. Some of the other minor characters you mention are just not as evil in my books but I am sure some author can or has written them as darker characters. I wonder if any author has written a variation with NO Wickham? I have read ones with more evil on the part of Lady Catherine and even Collins and in some there is little mention of those two…but Wickham? Has anyone left him out. Recently I did read My Brother’s Keeper and it paints an entirely reformed Wickham…imagine that.

    Thanks for sharing.

  3. Wonderful post. We definitely love to hate George Wickham. A minor character with great power to turn the story. Austen has atleast one in every story. You have a gift to stir discussion!

  4. I agree that GW is a good reader of Darcy, however, in Darcy’s Melody, I turned the tables on him. In my story since Wickham missed the attraction and realized too late that he missed his opportunity. Poor guy. Thanks for your post. Jen Red

  5. Regina, I was tickled to read your analysis on Wickham as I used his ability to read Darcy in my November release…Darcy and Elizabeth Serendipity.
    I had always thought his flirtation with Elizabeth had an ulterior motive. Knowing Darcy from childhood, Wickham would know pretty much what was going on in Darcy’s heart, and seek to ruin his happiness. Revenge served cold.

  6. I had never realized before that Wickham might well be aware of Darcy’s interest in Elizabeth. It’s an interesting thought, and adds to our understanding of the novel. And it certainly does make you wonder if he knew that E and D would encounter each other again at Rosings. So many questions!

    • It makes sense to me that Wickham would be aware of Darcy’s attending Lady Catherine regularly. I imagine the late Mr. Darcy did the same, even after the death of Lady Anne. Perhaps Darcy’s father used the yearly journey as a teaching tool for his son. Just speculation, but sounds probable!

  7. I love the idea that Wickham is a good “reader” of Darcy – that he picks up on subtle clues that Darcy is attracted to her and goes after her for that reason. It’s the behavior of a true predator. Great post!

    • I always thought that Darcy might be able to school his expression in public, but not the flash of his eyes or the quick intake of his breath or the twitch of his jaw muscle. Wickham would recognize such subtleties. I imagine he learned from his fellow officers that Darcy only danced with the Bingley sisters and Elizabeth Bennet at the Netherfield Ball. He might have put these tidbits of information together and came up with another means to get back at Darcy.

  8. Thank you for your post, Regina. Darcy used some very strong adjectives in describing Wickham in his letter to Elizabeth. He is a true ‘bad guy.’ And, I agree with you that he would become more daring the longer he got away with his lies. Austen’s depiction of Wickham lets me know he was capable of anything given the circumstances and opportunity.

  9. Regina,I really enjoyed this post. Thought it very thought provoking and loved that you included Austen’s own words to back up your points.
    Wickham is the fulcrum around which Elizabeth and Darcy rotate,in ever decreasing circles until they at last meet,the fog of lies that previously mugged their brains,now clear,freeing them to see the other for who they truly are.

  10. Loved this post, Regina! A minor character who is not minor 🙂 I also like how Jane Austen uses these minor characters as foils to the true heroes of her stories. The contrast here between Darcy and Wickham, once the truth is know, highlights Darcy’s superior character so well.

  11. Yes I see what you mean. Even though I don’t like Wickham I suppose he makes the story what it is. He epitomizes the saying Every good book needs a villain! I’m just happy that Elizabeth believed Darcy and saw Wickham for what he was.

  12. What a useful and well thought out analysis! Your cites from Austen show that many JAFF authors have kept the original in mind even though Wickham evolves into a far more evil soul whose “mischief” is wholly toxic. Thanks again!

    • What I say above, Katherine, can also apply to Mr. Willoughby, Frank Churchill, Mr. Elliot, Henry Crawford, and General and Captain Tilney. As to Wickham’s evolvement, I am of the persuasion that the longer he is able to get away with his manipulations, the more daring he would become. That is what I was making reference to when I spoke of his not abandoning his lies even when Elizabeth makes him aware of her growing knowledge of him.

      • Maybe he believed his lie. He thinks Darcy horribly mistreated him by not giving him the living. Even after previously getting a significant sum of money from Darcy in leu of the preferment, Wickham believes Darcy is rich enough to give him a job in the church and ought to be forever helping out his father’s favorite.

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