The novel centres on Elizabeth Bennet, the second of the five daughters of a country gentleman. Elizabeth's father, Mr Bennet, is a bookish man, and somewhat neglectful of his responsibilities. In contrast Elizabeth's mother, Mrs Bennet, a woman who lacks social graces, is primarily concerned with finding suitable husbands for her five daughters. Jane Bennet, the eldest daughter, is distinguished by her kindness and beauty; Elizabeth Bennet shares her father's keen wit and occasionally sarcastic outlook; Mary is not pretty, but is studious, devout and musical albeit lacking in taste; Catherine, sometimes called Kitty, the fourth sister, follows where her younger sister leads, while Lydia is flirtatious and lacks maturity.
The narrative opens with news in the Bennet family that Mr Bingley, a wealthy, charismatic and sociable young bachelor, is moving into Netherfield Park in the neighbourhood. Mr Bingley is soon well received, while his friend Mr Darcy makes a less favourable impression by appearing proud and condescending at a ball that they attend (he detests dancing and is not one for light conversation). Mr Bingley singles out Jane for particular attention, and it soon becomes apparent that they have formed an attachment to each other. While Jane does not alter her conduct for him, she confesses her great happiness only to Lizzie. By contrast, Darcy slights Elizabeth, who overhears and jokes about it despite feeling a budding resentment.
On paying a visit to Mr Bingley's sister, Caroline, Jane is caught in a heavy downpour, catches cold, and is forced to stay at Netherfield for several days. Elizabeth arrives to nurse her sister and is thrown into frequent company with Mr Darcy, who begins to act less coldly towards her.
Mr Collins, a clergyman, and heir to Longbourn, the Bennet estate, pays a visit to the Bennets. Mr Bennet and Elizabeth are much amused by his obsequious veneration of his employer, the noble Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as well as by his self-important and pedantic nature. It soon becomes apparent that Mr Collins has come to Longbourn to choose a wife from among the Bennet sisters (his cousins) and Jane is initially singled out, but because of Jane's budding romance with Mr Bingley, Mrs Bennet directs him toward Elizabeth. After refusing his advances, and much to the consternation of her mother, Elizabeth instead forms an acquaintance with Mr Wickham, a militia officer who relates having been very seriously mistreated by Mr Darcy, despite having been a godson and favourite of Darcy's father. This accusation and her attraction to Mr Wickham increase Elizabeth's dislike of Mr Darcy.
At a ball given by Mr Bingley at Netherfield, Mr Darcy becomes aware of a general expectation that Mr Bingley and Jane will marry, and the Bennet family, with the exception of Jane and Elizabeth, make a public display of poor manners and decorum. The following morning, Mr Collins proposes marriage to Elizabeth, who refuses him, much to her mother's distress. Mr Collins recovers and promptly becomes engaged to Elizabeth's close friend Charlotte Lucas, a homely woman with few prospects. Mr Bingley abruptly quits Netherfield and returns to London, devastating Jane, and Elizabeth becomes convinced that Mr Darcy and Caroline Bingley have colluded to separate him from Jane.
Jane is persuaded by letters from Caroline Bingley that Mr Bingley is not in love with her, but goes on an extended visit to her aunt and uncle Gardiner in London in the hope of maintaining her relationship with Caroline if not with Charles Bingley. Whilst there she visits Caroline and eventually her visit is returned. She does not see Mr Bingley and is forced to realise that Caroline doesn't care for her.
In the spring, Elizabeth visits Charlotte and Mr Collins in Kent. Elizabeth and her hosts are frequently invited to Rosings Park, home of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy's aunt; coincidentally, Darcy also arrives to visit. Elizabeth meets Darcy's cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, who vouches for Darcy's loyalty, using as an example how Darcy had recently stepped in on behalf of a friend, who had formed an attachment to a woman against whom "there were some very strong objections." Elizabeth rightly assumes that the said friend is none other than Mr Bingley, and her dislike of Darcy deepens. Thus she is of no mood to accept when Darcy arrives and, quite unexpectedly, confesses love for her and begs her hand in marriage. His proposal is flattering, he is a very distinguished man, but it is delivered in a manner ill suited to recommend it. He talks of love but also of revulsion at her inferior position and family. Despite assertions to the contrary, he assumes she will accept him.
Elizabeth rebukes him, and a heated discussion follows; she charges him with destroying her sister's and Bingley's happiness, with treating Mr Wickham disgracefully, and with having conducted himself towards her in an arrogant, ungentleman-like manner. Mr Darcy, shocked, ultimately responds with a letter giving a good account of his actions: Wickham had exchanged his legacies for a cash payment, only to return after frittering away the money to reclaim the forfeited inheritance; he then attempted to elope with Darcy's young sister Georgiana, and thereby secure her fortune for himself. Regarding Jane and Bingley, Darcy claims he had observed no reciprocal interest in Jane for Bingley, and had assumed that she was not in love with him. In addition to this, he cites the "want of propriety" in the behaviour of Mr and Mrs Bennet and her three younger daughters. Elizabeth, who had previously despaired over this very behavior, is forced to admit the truth of Mr Darcy's observations, and begins to see that she has misjudged him. She quite rightly attributes her prejudice to his coldness towards herself at the beginning of their acquaintance.
Some months later, Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle Gardiner visit Pemberley, Darcy's estate, believing he will be absent for the day. He returns unexpectedly, and though surprised, he is gracious and welcoming, quite unlike his usual self. He treats the Gardiners with great civility, surprising Elizabeth who assumes he will "decamp immediately" on learning who they are. Darcy introduces Elizabeth to his sister, which Elizabeth knows is the highest compliment he can bestow, and Elizabeth begins to acknowledge her attraction to him. Their re-acquaintance is cut short, however, by the news that Lydia has eloped with Mr Wickham. Elizabeth and the Gardiners return to Longbourn (the Bennet family home), where Elizabeth grieves that her renewed acquaintance with Mr Darcy will end as a result of her sister's disgrace.
Lydia and Wickham are soon found and are persuaded to marry, thus enabling the Bennet family to preserve some appearance of decorum. Jane, Elizabeth, and Mr Bennet conclude that Uncle Gardiner must have bribed Wickham to marry Lydia, and they are ashamed of their indebtedness and inability to repay him.
Mrs Bennet, quite typically, has no such scruples and is ecstatic to have a daughter married, never stopping to consider the want of propriety and honesty throughout the affair. Mr and Mrs Wickham visit Longbourn, where Lydia lets slip that Mr Darcy was in attendance at their wedding but that this was to have been a secret. Elizabeth is able to discover by letter from her aunt Mrs Gardiner, that in fact Mr Darcy was responsible for finding the couple and negotiating their marriage, at great personal and monetary expense. Elizabeth is shocked and flattered as "her heart did whisper that he had done it for her" but is unable to dwell further on the topic due to Mr Bingley's return and subsequent proposal to Jane, who immediately accepts.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh pays an unexpected visit to Longbourn. She has heard a rumour that Elizabeth will marry Mr Darcy and attempts to persuade Elizabeth to agree not to marry. Lady Catherine wants Mr Darcy to marry her daughter (his cousin) Anne De Bourgh and thinks Elizabeth is beneath him. Elizabeth refuses her demands. Disgusted, Lady Catherine leaves, promising that the marriage can never take place. Elizabeth assumes she will apply to Darcy and is worried that he may be persuaded.
Darcy returns to Longbourn. Chance allows Elizabeth and Darcy a rare moment alone. She immediately thanks him for intervening in the case of Lydia and Wickham. He renews his proposal of marriage and is promptly accepted. Elizabeth soon learns that his hopes were revived by his aunt's report of Elizabeth's refusal to promise not to marry him.
The novel closes with a "happily-ever-after" chapter including a summary of the remaining lives of the main characters. None of the characters change very much in this summary, but Kitty has grown slightly more sensible from association with Jane and Elizabeth and distance from Lydia, and Lady Catherine eventually condescends to visit the Darcys.