One of the most famous extracts from the novel, Austen allows her two protagonists to take each other on in a battle of words and wits, showing up the intellectual superiority of the two in sharp contrast to the superfluous nature of the people around them. Miss Bingley's attempts to attract Darcy's attentions are lost in an extract that enhances Austen's themes, develops her narrative and allows the romantic readers to catch their breath as we see Darcy and Elizabeth begin to fall for each other, despite their independent states of denial.
By way of context, the dialogue between Darcy and Elizabeth takes place following Miss Bingley's attempt to show up Elizabeth's ill breeding by parading around the room in front of Mr Darcy. In Miss Bingley's mind, as they walk their figures would be shown off and hers would emerge as the more desirable because of her tall stature and good breeding. However quite the opposite happens. Darcy takes no notice of either of their figures (or at least this is not mentioned by the narrator) but rather turns his focus to an intellectual exchange with Elizabeth regarding the flaws of their respective natures. This interchange allows Austen to prove the intellectual superiority of both Darcy and Elizabeth as they are the only two who are able to hold such a conversation in a society that has up to this point been shown as largely frivolous, an array of parties, backstabbing, gossip-mongering and Mrs Bennet's relentless pursuit of five men in possession of `a good fortune' (page 1) to marry her daughters.
Picking up halfway through the conversation Darcy comments, "[y]es, vanity is a weakness." This statement is directly pointed at the trivial nature of Miss Bingley's walk around the room. He is criticising her and she is unaware of it and thus unable to respond. This emphasises her intellectual weakness, reinforcing the overwhelming feeling that Austen has toward these type of characters: that no matter how well bred you are, to succumb to the pressures of society in a sheep-like manner is worthy of judgement, and throughout the novel Austen places the narrator and the reader in a position to judge the characters that she feels fits this mould: Miss Bingley, Mrs Bennet, the younger Bennet sisters, and of course the hideous Mr Collins.
Vanity is physical pride, and so here Austen makes a distinction between pride in intellect and pride in physical appearance condemning only the latter, whereas the former "where there is real superiority of mind... will always be under good regulation." Thus Austen shows that there is a form of `good pride' and makes room to allow some characters to have this pride, namely: Mr Darcy, Elizabeth and, to a large extent, Mr Bennet.
Austen's use of irony and sarcasm in the novel shines through in this extract. For example, the irony of Darcy's aforementioned statement lies in the fact that Darcy makes it, and Darcy was the man who originally deemed Elizabeth not pretty enough to...