Pride and Prejudice and Social Anxiety

I recently re-read Pride and Prejudice and have come to the shocking realization that I am Mr. Darcy. Besides the fact that he is the big book collector of the story, (What a delightful library you have at Pemberley, Mr. Darcy!”), I identified a lot with the mental health struggles his character face. After this new look at the text, I noticed a lot of details that made me view Darcy’s character less as prideful and more as socially anxious.

dear-mr-darcy gifs | WiffleGif
Matthew Macfadyen’s portrayal of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (2005) captures the essence of anxiety better than any other adaptation yet.

Mr. Darcy has definitely been conditioned to take pride in his riches and status, and he comes off as arrogant, standoffish, and cold. But the more Elizabeth learns about Darcy’s life and family, the more she hears people singing his praises. His sister adores him, his cousin admires him over anyone else in the world, Bingley trusts him implicitly, and 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 believable that he is the cold, pretentious character that his previous public appearances made him seem. I think this is pretty common for people with social anxiety, especially those who hide it well.

The word “anxiety” is used 19 times in the text, and “anxious” is used 28 times. (For anyone curious, Pride is used 48 times, and prejudice is used just 7 times!)

Social anxiety is a mental health condition characterized by fear and self-consciousness in social settings. People with social anxiety are often afraid that others are judging them and consistently worry about potential embarrassment. These extreme fears are often irrational, but to those with social anxiety they feel painfully real. Social anxiety can hinder sufferers’ ability to interact with new people, participate in social functions, or speak up in large group settings. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 7% of Americans suffer from social anxiety. Though the condition is not uncommon, it doesn’t receive a lot of attention, which can leave people with social anxiety feeling lonely and misunderstood.

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The reader is introduced to Darcy’s social anxiety the moment we meet him. At the ball, he refuses to dance, saying: “I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner.” As someone who can recognize anxiety, this sounds like a defense mechanism. Darcy is not comfortable dancing, or even communicating, with the guests he doesn’t know. For Lizzy, she misunderstands and thinks Darcy is just really rude, but for someone with social anxiety, I understand where he is coming from because it does sound like the ninth circle of hell.

“I certainly have not the talent which some people possess,” said Darcy, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Sally B. Palmer
Here we see Darcy standing off to the side, which represents how he feels like an outsider in social gatherings.

Later in the book, Darcy admits to Lizzy that he struggles to “converse easily” with people he doesn’t know yet. This is a massive moment of growth for Darcy—he’s letting his walls down and admitting to Lizzy that he struggles, and it shows how much Darcy trusts Lizzy already. For Darcy to verbalize that he struggles with this is a momentous thing: In this era, social anxiety wouldn’t have been discussed, and probably wasn’t very accepted. We see this in Lizzy’s dismissive tease about how he should just ‘practice’ more when it comes to speaking to strangers—today, we know more about anxiety and understand that it doesn’t really work like that, Elizabeth.

After this re-reading of Pride and Prejudice, I am seeing Mr. Darcy as someone who struggles with anxiety. While he is prideful in some ways, I cant help but think that maybe the reason he is so quiet and dismissive is actually due to an anxiety disorder, rather than cut-and-dry pridefulness.

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