Pride and Prejudice has a well-knit, coherent plot where all events and characters are integrated and exemplify the same theme. The Lydia-Wickham episode is one of the sub-plots of the novel and contributes much to the main plot of the Elizabeth-Darcy courtship and marriage.
Wickham as a Foil to Darcy
Wickham’s first importance is to deepen Elizabeth’s prejudice against Darcy. Darcy appears proud and forbidding when he mortifies Elizabeth by refusing to dance with her for she is not sufficiently beautiful to tempt him. His haughtiness and general demeanor make him unlikeable to Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth, the whole of Meryton and even to the reader, who all wish to see this proud man from Derbyshire receive a set-down. And Wickham in the early chapters seems to be just the person to do it.
He is precisely what Darcy is not – and more to Elizabeth’s point he is attentive to her, unlike Darcy who had ignored her. When he first meets Elizabeth, he singles her out and makes her his confidant. Elizabeth fascinated by his grace, charm and attentiveness flirts with him and is so taken in by his polished manners that she is ready to believe the slanderous falsehoods that Wickham has to tell about Darcy. Thus, Wickham is integral in driving the wedge of prejudice deeper in Elizabeth, alienating her further from Darcy. Significantly Darcy’s supposed villainy towards Wickham is one of Elizabeth’s reasons for refusing Darcy’s first proposal at Hunsford. Wickham is, therefore, integral to the main plot of the Elizabeth-Darcy affair.
The Lydia-Wickham elopement comes off exactly at the moment when Elizabeth starts cherishing hopes of marriage with Darcy. Just as Wickham had jeopardized any attraction between Elizabeth and Darcy by deepening Elizabeth’s prejudice in the beginning and just as Lydia’s foolish and flirtatious behavior had initially hardened Darcy against the vulgarity of the Bennet family: the two by eloping together jeopardize the chances of Jane and
Elizabeth to happy marriages with Bingley and Darcy. But the set back is merely temporary though essential in highlighting the feelings of Elizabeth and Darcy. Elizabeth’s sense of frustration suggests her newly acquired feeling for him. It helps her to realize that Darcy is exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents is most suited to her. Darcy too gets the opportunity to prove to Elizabeth that he has shed his earlier pride and reveals his real and inherent nobility. His love for Elizabeth is deep enough for him to overcome his disgust for Wickham and associate himself with the Bennet family’s disgrace by marrying Elizabeth. His nobility is revealed when he even pays off Wickham’s debts, buys him a new commission in the army and forces him to marry Lydia. Thus, the Lydia-Wickham sub-plot is integral to the main plot of Elizabeth and Darcy and is instrumental in providing the
initial conflict. It also finally paves the way for the Elizabeth-Darcy marriage.
A Marriage Based on Passion and Economics
The Lydia-Wickham episode is relevant too in exemplifying the theme of marriage in the novel. Theirs is a marriage based only on passion on the part of Lydia and economic consideration on the part of Wickham. Wickham’s flight is occasioned by his mounting debts and only when Darcy is ready to pay off the debts he marries Lydia. Such a marriage is bound to be unsuccessful and sink into indifference. The Lydia-Wickham marriage based as it is on the wrong considerations of infatuation and economics, highlights, by contrast, the propriety of the Darcy- Elizabeth marriage.
Relevance to Theme of Parenthood
Lydia is relevant also to the theme of parenthood in the novel. Lydia’s flirtatiousness and her lack of moral sense is a criticism of the inadequacy of her parents. Mrs. Bennet is a woman of mean understanding and Mr. Bennet has cynically withdrawn himself from any moral responsibility towards his family. Their unhappy marriage affects the daughters who are flighty and immature except for Jane and Elizabeth. Mr. Bennet is morally culpable in allowing Lydia to go to Brighton despite Elizabeth’s warning regarding Lydia’s exuberant spirits. He is wrong in being willing to buy personal peace at the cost of family honor and the result is Lydia’s elopement with Wickham and the disgrace it brings to the entire family even jeopardizing the marital prospects of the two elder Bennet sisters.
Thus, the Lydia-Wickham episode is relevant and integral to the novel both thematically and structurally.