If you’re like me, since early childhood you have been exposed to a wide variety of romantic heroes: fairy tale princes, billionaires, superheroes, spies, cops, bad boys, vampires…the list goes on and on. But yet somehow Mr. Darcy always stands apart. He isn’t Prince Charming or James Bond or Superman or Edward Cullen, yet Darcy somehow manages to feel more real and more romantic than his fictional counterparts. Austen herself wrote some great romantic heroes, but Darcy is somehow different. Why is that? What is his enduring appeal?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Any fictional character with such a powerful grip on our collective imagination is bound to be a complex and multi-faceted cultural phenomenon. But I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Darcy’s appeal as I’ve written stories about him, and I’ve identified some salient traits. While these characteristics are not necessarily completely unique to Darcy, they do set him apart from the majority of other romantic heroes.
- He is steadfast. She turns him down, but he still holds out hope for gaining her love.
- He is willing to overlook her family. Yeah, it takes him a while to get there, but he must love her an awful lot to put up with Mrs. Bennet, Lydia and Wickham. Talk about difficult in-laws…
- He likes her intelligence. This is a biggie. He does think she has fine eyes, but what he really likes is her wit, cleverness, lively conversation. Wouldn’t every woman like to be appreciated for her brain?
- He values her backbone. One of the first things he notices about her is that she stands up to him. I always assume most women treat him like Miss Bingley, fawning over him and agreeing with everything he says. Darcy likes Elizabeth because she’s her own person.
- He defends her to other people. Isn’t this a female fantasy? A guy who will tell other people (including catty women) you’re beautiful and smart when they’re criticizing you.
- He fixes problems for her. Yeah she generally takes care of her own issues, but she can’t fix the Lydia/Wickham fiasco. He wades into the scandal for her sake, and doesn’t even want to take credit for it.
- He’s played by Colin Firth (and that other guy who’s kind of cute too).
However, in my opinion #8 is the biggest single contributor to his enduring appeal: Darcy is willing to change his behavior for Elizabeth’s sake.
Let me say it a different way: He admits he was wrong and tries to be a better person so he can deserve her.
He essentially starts as a selfish character (at least in the way he views love and marriage) and evolves into one whose primary consideration is the happiness of the woman he loves. Who wouldn’t love that guy?
I don’t know about you, but this is a bigger fantasy for me than a guy who can play baccarat smoothly or defend me from gangsters (not just because those other situations don’t arise very often). No matter how much you love your significant other, there are always ways you wish he or she could change to make your life easier. But Darcy’s kind of change is a bit of a fantasy. Real life is far more messy. If your beloved does change his/her behavior for you, it tends to be with far more strife, more gradually, and over a longer period of time. In other words, changing one’s behavior (at least the behavior that springs from one’s intrinsic nature and beliefs) is a long, painful process.
But in Pride and Prejudice, this rich, powerful, handsome man who could wed just about any woman, changes his behavior because he wants Elizabeth Bennet. (Sigh. Swoon.) His willingness to change is a testament both to Elizabeth’s worth and to the power of love—which is part of the appeal of Pride and Prejudice itself.