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What do the phrases in bold mean in this passage from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice?

Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.

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Darcy’s discoveries are ‘mortifying’ (humbling, humiliating) because they are wounding to his pride. The appearance of ‘pride’ in the title of the novel alerts us to the significance of this aspect of his character. Darcy is a man who is especially proud of his social position, family connection, and self-sufficiency. At the Meryton assembly in chapter 3,

he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased

Let’s look at the passage from the question in detail.

he made it clear to himself and his friends that she hardly had a good feature in her face

It seems that Darcy and his friends—that is, Mr. Bingley, Caroline Bingley and Louisa Hurst—had been disparaging the attractiveness of the young women they had met at the assembly, and that Darcy’s contribution to the game was to criticize the appearance of Elizabeth Bennet. But no sooner had he done so,

he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes

This is his first ‘discovery’ and he finds it ‘mortifying’ because it makes him a liar and hypocrite, and because according to his self-conception, Elizabeth’s social position ought to place her beneath him. Later on he will describe “his sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination”.

Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing, and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.

Here the important words are ‘forced’ and ‘caught’. Darcy believes that his self-control and self-sufficiency ought to make him invulnerable to Elzabeth’s charms, and that he should be able to impose his principles on his heart, but he finds that it is otherwise. The narrative later says that Darcy “had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her”, and in his botched proposal of marriage, he will tell Elizabeth that he “liked her against his will, against his reason, and even against his character.”

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One of the many senses of "mortify" is (according to Wiktionary)

(transitive, usually used passively) To embarrass, to humiliate. To injure one's dignity. [from 17th c.]

and it is easy to find examples of forms of this word being used this way in 18th-20th century writing. James Boswell, in his Life of Johnson, for instance, has

Soon after this time Dr. Johnson had the mortification of being informed by Mrs. Thrale, that, 'what she supposed he never believed,' was true; namely, that she was actually going to marry Signor Piozzi, an Italian musick-master.

People often do not like to be contradicted, and often do not like to discover for themselves that they were wrong about something; mortification is one term for this feeling of dislike. Darcy realizes that his initial assessment of Elizabeth was incorrect, or at least incomplete. It is perhaps hyperbole on Austen's part to use a word that can also mean to feel like dying, but there it is: Darcy realizes that there is more to Elizabeth than he saw at first, and is, to some extent, embarrassed about this.

  • The only common and familiar meaning of "mortify" in present-day English is to humiliate or embarrass; those other "many senses" are rare or obsolete. – user14111 Aug 18 at 6:48
  • @user14111 Yes, but so what? In Austen's time the other meanings were somewhat more common. "Mortification of the flesh" was in active use in religious and in medical contexts during the period 1700-1900. – kimchi lover Aug 18 at 14:29

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