Because of her headache, Elizabeth stays behind at Hunsford while Maria and Mr. and Mrs. Collins go to dine at Rosings. When the doorbell rings, Elizabeth thinks that it might be Colonel Fitzwilliam, but is surprised to discover Darcy there instead.
After inquiring about Elizabeth's health, Mr. Darcy nervously paces around the room for a few minutes. Suddenly, he declares his love for her. He starts by eloquently expressing his admiration. He then refers to the inferiority of Elizabeth's social connections and explains that her family's rather unattractive behavior dissuaded him from proposing sooner. Elizabeth is offended and harshly declines his proposal, much to Darcy's surprise. Elizabeth explains her reasons for turning him down. First, she cites the arrogant manner of his proposal. Second, she explains her distaste over the way he worked to separate Bingley from Jane. Finally, she claims that she could never marry a man who could treat Wickham so badly.
Angry and resentful, Darcy suggests that Elizabeth might have overlooked his faults had he not offered his honest opinion about her family. She simply retorts that the manner of his proposal has no influence on her other than to "spare me the concern of refusing you, had you acted in a more gentlemanlike manner." After this, Darcy quickly leaves the room. Once he is gone, Elizabeth collapses and cries. Though Elizabeth is somewhat flattered by his proposal, she quickly remembers that Darcy's "abominable pride" has injured both Jane and Wickham, allowing her to release any regret in rejecting him.
The next morning, Elizabeth decides to go for a walk, avoiding her usual route. Nevertheless, Mr. Darcy finds her. He quickly hands her a letter and leaves. Naturally, Elizabeth is curious to know its contents, and reads Darcy's letter right away. In it, he provides explanations for the many charges she leveled at him the night before.
First, Darcy explains his reasons for persuading Bingley not to marry Jane. Darcy admits that the Bennet family's low connections and impropriety convinced him that Jane was a poor match for his friend. However, he adds that his main reason for dissuading Bingley was that Jane did not seem to show much preference for Bingley. Her attitude was always somewhat aloof, albeit pleasant, which is ultimately why Bingley started to believe Darcy's claims. He adds that his sole regret is his decision to conceal Jane's presence in London from Bingley, since Darcy does not usually approve of such subterfuge.
Then, Darcy denies Wickham's account. Darcy's father had indeed been very fond of Wickham and ensured that the boy received an excellent education. Before his death, Darcy's father asked Darcy to promote Wickham's professional advancement and provide him an income, stipulating that young Wickham become a clergyman (which was Wickham's professed aspiration). Wickham, however, had no actual desire to become a clergyman and after the elder Darcy's death, asked Mr. Darcy to give him the money to study law. Darcy gave Wickham 3,000 pounds, provided Wickham give up all claims to any further assistance. Wickham quickly abandoned his studies and squandered the money. Broke, he promised Mr. Darcy that he would become a clergyman in exchange for more money. When Darcy refused, Wickham was furious. Soon thereafter, Wickham deceived Georgiana Darcy into eloping with him, even though she was only fifteen. Luckily, Darcy caught wind of the plan and stopped his sister from following through. He is certain that Wickham was motivated both by Georgiana's fortune and his desire to punish Darcy.
Elizabeth reads the letter several times "with a strong prejudice against everything [Darcy] might say." At first, she does not accept that Darcy actually thought Jane impartial to Bingley, nor does she want to believe Darcy's allegations against Wickham. She resolves not to think about it anymore and puts the letter away. She cannot help herself, though, and soon examines it again. After long deliberation, Elizabeth starts to see the potential truth in Darcy's account. She realizes that Wickham told a very personal story to a practical stranger (Elizabeth) with very little solicitation, and later spread that story to the whole town. Then, remembering his mercenary pursuit of Miss King, Elizabeth begins to realize that she might have misjudged Wickham.
Once Elizabeth realizes how badly she has misjudged Darcy, she becomes ashamed of having been "blind, partial, prejudiced, [and] absurd." Moreover, she acknowledges that her error is the result of a weakness in her powers of discernment. Ultimately, she accepts that vanity has been the cause of her prejudice. Elizabeth rereads the first page of the letter, in which Darcy details his influence over Bingley. She realizes that he could indeed have doubted Jane's attachment, since Jane was always so coy with expressing her affections (as even Charlotte pointed out). Finally, Elizabeth acknowledges that Darcy's criticism of her mother and younger sisters is just. After wandering through the park for two hours, Elizabeth returns to the parsonage only to discover that both Mr. Darcy and Colonel Fitzwilliam had stopped by to say goodbye, but have since left. Elizabeth is glad to have missed them.
Lady Catherine invites Elizabeth, Maria and the Collinses to dinner. She is bored now that her nephews have left. There, Elizabeth cannot help thinking how she might have attended this dinner as Lady Catherine's future niece and amuses herself by imagining Lady Catherine's indignant reaction. Lady Catherine attempts to persuade Elizabeth and Maria to stay on for another fortnight, but Elizabeth insists that her father wants her to come home.
Over the next few days, Elizabeth spends a great deal of time reflecting on Darcy's letter and her past conduct. She does not regret turning Darcy down, but she does feel bad about misjudging him. She also ponders the fact that Lydia and Kitty's ridiculous behavior is a result of her father's aloofness and mother's silliness, and that her two younger sisters may never change. Finally, Elizabeth realizes that her family's indecorum might have cost Jane a happy marriage.
Elizabeth and Maria leave the parsonage on Saturday morning, after lengthy parting civilities from Mr. Collins. Before returning to Hertfordshire, they stop in London to spend a few days with the Gardiners. Jane returns home with them. Though Elizabeth is anxious to tell Jane what has happened with Darcy, she decides to wait. She wants to keep the secret from Maria and give herself time to decide how much to reveal to her sister.
Kitty and Lydia greet their sisters upon their return to Hertfordshire. Elizabeth is happy to hear that the regiment will soon be leaving Meryton, although Kitty and Lydia are upset. Lydia hopes that Mr. Bennet will allow them all to visit Brighton that summer, since the officers will be there. During lunch, Lydia tells Jane and Elizabeth that Miss King has left the area, meaning Wickham is available again.
On the carriage ride back home from lunch, Lydia overwhelms her sisters with stories of all the balls and dances she and Kitty have attended with the officers in Meryton. When the Bennets return to Longbourn, they have dinner with the Lucases. After dinner, Lydia urges everyone to walk with her to Meryton, but Elizabeth stays home because she wants to avoid seeing Wickham.
The next morning, Elizabeth tells Jane about Darcy's proposal and about the part of his letter regarding Wickham. She does not mention Darcy's comments about Bingley, fearing they might hurt Jane.
Jane is more shocked about Wickham than she is about the proposal. Even she cannot find any way to justify Wickham's behavior. The sisters discuss whether or not to tell the town about Wickham's true character. They ultimately decide it would be best to keep the matter quiet, since Wickham is leaving soon and the truth would slander Georgiana Darcy's name. After observing Jane at leisure, Elizabeth sees that her sister is unhappy and still very much in love with Bingley.
Kitty, Lydia, and Mrs. Bennet are still disappointed that the regiment is leaving Meryton. However, Lydia receives an invitation from Mrs. Forster, the wife of the regiment's Colonel, to accompany her to Brighton. Elizabeth entreats her father to prevent Lydia from going, explaining that such an experience will only increase her frivolousness. Mr. Bennet does not listen, insisting that Colonel Forster will look after Lydia, and anyway she is too poor for the officers to seduce.
Over the next few months, Elizabeth sees Wickham frequently. He attempts to charm her again, but his friendliness annoys her. At a party on the last day of the regiment's stay in Meryton, Elizabeth insinuates to Wickham that she knows the truth about his past. He avoids addressing her comments, but tellingly ignores her for the rest of the day. After the party, Lydia returns to Meryton with Mrs. Forster, as they plan to leave for Brighton early the next morning.
The narrator offers some background on Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Mrs. Bennet's beauty initially captivated her future husband, but her foolishness soon dissolved any of his emotional affection for her. Mr. Bennet now derives enjoyment solely from books and spending time in the country. Elizabeth has always recognized her father's shortcomings as a husband, but is now especially aware of how her parents' loveless marriage has impacted their children. She faults her father for not having used his education to at least preserve his daughters' respectability.
The following weeks at Longbourn are particularly unpleasant, especially because Mrs. Bennet and Kitty complain incessantly about their desire to go to Brighton. Elizabeth consoles herself by looking forward to her upcoming trip to the Lakes with her aunt and uncle. The environment at home soon stabilizes, and Elizabeth hopes that Kitty's behavior will improve with distance from Lydia. When it comes time for Elizabeth to leave for her trip with the Gardiners, Mr. Gardiner has work commitments that force him to delay. Therefore, they cannot travel all the way to the Lakes. Though she is disappointed, Elizabeth is glad for any excuse to travel.
As they are traveling to their destination, the party passes near Pemberley (the Darcy estate). Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner want to visit, but Elizabeth is terrified of running into Darcy. Fortunately, Mrs. Reynolds (the Pemberley housekeeper) informs them that the Darcy family is not expected until the following day.
Darcy's proposal takes place roughly at the mid-point of Pride and Prejudice. Many critics have observed that the novel is split around this incident. For the first half of the novel, Austen focuses on developing a complicated series of relationships and progressing the plot. The pace of the second half slows down considerably and Austen focuses more on Elizabeth's reflection and personal analysis. This interpretation of the novel indicates that the primary arc of Pride and Prejudice follows Elizabeth's increasing self-awareness.
Darcy's proposal comes as a complete shock to Elizabeth, illustrating how much her prejudice has clouded her judgement. Though Austen has been giving her readers hints of Darcy's affection, the protagonist herself has no idea. Overall, the proposal scene is a prime example of the way Austen uses dialogue to reveal character. Elizabeth's lively, straightforward personality and her disregard for considerations of rank are manifest in her reaction to Darcy's proposal. Of course, her harsh rejection also reveals her pride. Meanwhile, Elizabeth's lack of civility is largely based on mistaken assumptions, causing her to interpret Darcy's comments about her family to be much more caustic than he intends.
Darcy's own pride and prejudice also come to the fore in this scene. Despite the fact that Elizabeth has never shown him any partiality or affection, she can tell that he has "no doubt of a favorable answer." This is likely because Darcy's immense pride makes it impossible for him to see why Elizabeth might decline the chance to marry into a higher social class. Darcy's resentful reaction to Elizabeth's refusal confirms her suspicion. Furthermore, he makes his strong class prejudices clear in his long speech about the inferiority of her connections. Even worse is the insensitive and tactless manner in which Darcy voices his criticisms. He does not at all consider that his harsh judgement will hurt Elizabeth on a personal level.
When Elizabeth comments, "had you acted in a more gentlemanlike manner," Darcy suddenly realizes his folly (as we learn later on in the novel.) Despite his seemingly open mind, Darcy delivers the kind of address more fit for Lady Catherine because he assumes the universal superiority of high rank. Elizabeth's harsh rejection of Darcy's proposal is a turning point in the novel. Their argument is so heated that it appears to be the end of their relationship. At least, it is unlikely that this couple will end up together unless they themselves can change.
First and foremost, Elizabeth must recognize that she holds a similar prejudice to that which she has criticized in Darcy; she realizes this when she finally accepts the truth about Wickham. Austen has offered the reader many clues as to Wickham's true character: his tactless gossip about Darcy, his seduction of the wealthy Miss King, Mrs. Gardiner's warnings - all of which now become apparent to Elizabeth. The force of this realization makes Elizabeth see herself differently, too. Despite her disapproval of Darcy, Elizabeth never believed him to be in any way dishonorable. However, Elizabeth quickly accepted the idea of Darcy as a villain after only a mere suggestion from Wickham, a man she was romantically interested in.
Understanding Darcy's interference in the relationship between Jane and Bingley is a much more complicated matter for Elizabeth. The truth is that Jane is suffering for the very behavior Charlotte Lucas warned her about: she was not open enough with her feelings for Bingley. Two prejudices blinded Elizabeth to the truth of Jane and Bingley's separation. First, her partiality to Jane prohibited her from accepting that her sister was at fault. Secondly, Elizabeth's proud insistence that a woman should not condescend to attract a man to marriage has proven to be untrue in Jane's case. While Austen clearly approves of Elizabeth's approach to marriage, she here posits that it is a bit naive when taken to the extreme. A woman must use her charms to secure a man's affections - as Charlotte Lucas has - lest she otherwise lose her chance to marry well (as Jane may have).
Elizabeth's prejudice is so strong that she has to read Mr. Darcy's letter many times before she can accept that he is telling the truth. However, the fact that Elizabeth changes her perspective so quickly suggests Austen's optimism about a person's ability to improve and adapt. Now that all of Elizabeth's illusions about Darcy's bad character have been dispelled, it seems possible that she may yet fall in love with him. Austen therefore gives her reader hope that both Bennet girls might be united with their proper mates in time. Elizabeth's behavior during her her final encounters with Wickham reveals her maturity. She no longer allows her vanity to cloud her judgement. "She had even learned to detect, in the very gentleness which had first delighted her, an affectation and a sameness to disgust and weary."
Meanwhile, many of the tangential characters in Pride and Prejudice prove to be foils for the protagonists because they do not undergo any kind of significant change. For instance, Kitty and Lydia have continued to revel in their frivolity during Jane and Elizabeth's absence. When the sisters all meet for lunch, Jane and Elizabeth have to pay the bill because Lydia and Kitty have spent all their money on whimsical purchases. On the ride home, Lydia speaks excitedly about her adventures in Meryton. She boasts about hers and Kitty's improper conduct, which includes dressing one of the officers up as a woman. Neither Kitty nor Lydia has received a decent education and as a result, they have no sense of propriety. Meanwhile, the parental negligence of the Bennets becomes increasingly more clear when they allow Lydia to go to Brighton. Mrs. Bennet supports the trip and wishes should could join. Mr. Bennet simply does not care. Mr. Bennet's negligence is perhaps worse than Mrs. Bennet's, since he recognizes Lydia's faults but is unwilling to do anything to change her.
Finally, many critics have questioned the disappearance of the regiment. England was embroiled in a serious war with France at the time when Austen wrote the novel (1813), but Austen chose to exclude any mention of wartime. In fact, the plot of Pride and Prejudice proceeds as though the conflict has no effect on England at all. Similarly, the regiment's presence in Meryton and then in Brighton (as opposed to being overseas) is difficult to justify, especially because the soldiers seem to have a great deal of time for leisure. It remains unclear whether Austen deliberately meant to ignore the war (perhaps to stress the female experience over the male-driven act of war) or if she simply did not feel equipped to write about it.