Introverts are often misunderstood and even criticized for their reticence. It can be easy for others around them to assume that their silence indicates some kind of negative judgment against the more gregarious. Having recently reread Jane Austen's Mansfield Park, however, I was struck with the virtuous character of the introvert Fanny Price, particularly in contrast with one of Austen's other introverted characters, Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. Neither Fanny nor Darcy are talkative, but the thoughts behind their respective silences are quite different; Fanny's thoughts and subsequent actions are almost always charitable indicating her humility, whereas Darcy's (early in the novel) tend toward criticism, indicating his pride. Though remaining an introvert, Darcy's major character growth comes in his willingness to sacrifice his pride and discomfort in speaking in order to be kind and charitable to others.
Mr. Darcy is contrasted early in the novel with his friend Mr. Bingley: "Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room; he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball closed so early, and talked of giving one himself at Netherfield. Such amiable qualities must speak for themselves. What a contrast between him and his friend! Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party. His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again." (Chapter 3).
It may appear an unfair judgment on an introvert, particularly as Darcy mentions at a later part in the book that he does not feel easy around people and doesn't speak as quickly as he would like: "I certainly have not the talent which some people possess...of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation or appear interested in their concerns, as I often seen done." (Chapter 31)
Had Austen merely left us with the assessments given by those observing Darcy, we might have rightly thought Darcy only to be a misunderstood introvert. However, Austen provides us with the thoughts behind Darcy's quiet behavior. When his friend Bingley approaches Darcy and suggests that he dance with Eliza Bennett, Darcy explains quite clearly why he is choosing not to dance with Eliza or anyone: "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men." (Chapter 3). In other words, Darcy's silence here does indicate a criticism of those around him. Eliza Benett is not handsome enough, and he is not willing to take on the "leftovers." When Eliza shares this overheard remark with others, it serves to confirm their initial judgment of Darcy. Eliza's mother is quite struck by Darcy's behavior: "So high and conceited that there was no enduring him! He walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great!" (Chapter 3)
Austen later describes Darcy as "clever," as well as "haughty, reserved, and fastidious, and his manners, though well-bred, were not inviting...Darcy was continually giving offense." In discussing the ball later, Darcy gives his impression: "[He] had seen a collection of people in whom there was little beauty and no fashion, for none of whom he had felt the smallest interest, and from none received either attention of pleasure. Miss [Jane] Bennett he acknowledged to be pretty, but she smiled too much" (Chapter 4).
While Darcy quickly grows in admiration for Eliza Bennett, his criticism of her family remains, and in particular, her mother's behavior evokes critique. Even when Darcy finally proposes to Eliza, he does so while insulting her family by noting her inferiority in society, not to mention the objections to her family also led Darcy influence Mr. Bingley to end the relationship with Eliza's sister Jane.
Contrast this early picture of Mr. Darcy with one of Austen's other introverts, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. The destitute niece of the wealthy Bertrams, Fanny is brought to live with them as a child. She is raised amid her cousins, but her Aunt Norris assures Fanny's constant realization that she is not at the same level as her four Bertram cousins: Tom, Edmund, Maria, and Julia. After Fanny's initial adjustment, with the help of her kind cousin Edmund, she becomes a part of the Bertram family, aiding her aunts, listening to her cousins, and helping friends and family as they prepare to act in a play. Fanny, like Darcy, is an introvert. "Her favourite indulgence" is simply to be allowed to "sit silent and unattended to." While at a dinner party at the Grants' house with Mr. and Miss Crawford, Austen writes that "...she found, while they were at table, such a happy flow of conversation prevailing, in which she was not required to take any part...as to leave her the fairest prospect of having only to listen in quiet, and of passing a very agreeable day" (Chapter 23).
Like Darcy, Fanny also often observes the character of the people around her and finds them wanting. Mr. Crawford, in particular, she notices as problematic in his simultaneous attentions to and flirtations with both of her female cousins. Miss Crawford as well she finds to be a bit superficial, as well as having some problematic moral views. When Fanny returns home for the first time in 10 years to visit the Price family, she also quietly observes the problems there. But unlike Darcy, Fanny's judgments regarding these other people do not contribute to her own pride. Rather, her continued kind attentions to such people, and willingness to help them, indicates her charity. She listens attentively to Miss Crawford and begins to reassess her judgment of Mr. Crawford. At the Price home, Fanny uses her own money to solve a dispute between her sisters over a contested silver knife, and she works extended hours at sewing her brother's naval clothes. While frustrated with the constant arguments and disorder of the house, she never complains or criticizes it outright to others, but rather seeks quiet and solitude as she can and aids her family to the best of her ability.
Fanny may appear not merely as an introvert, but also as a pushover. At Mansfield Park, her aunts often command her in various ways, with little regard for Fanny's comfort. Yet when Mr. Crawford proposes to her, the family learns Fanny's steadfastness in her convictions. She is quiet, she is charitable, she is humble, but she is also incapable of accepting a marriage proposal from someone she does not respect or love as she feels she ought...no matter how wealthy he is! Despite the harsh criticisms Fanny receives as a result of her refusal, she remains steadfast. Being an introvert does not mean not having opinions or feelings or convictions. The virtuous introvert does not sacrifice virtue in order to avoid talking; when necessary, she uses words, trying to explain her thoughts to others.
In the case of Mr. Darcy, it is his marriage proposal to Eliza Bennett that is the beginning of Darcy's becoming a more humble introvert, akin to Fanny. Upon reflection on Eliza's strong refusal, Darcy realizes the rudeness embedded in his proposal. When he meets Eliza with her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner at his estate of Pemberley later in the novel, Eliza notices a change in his behavior; Darcy seems to have taken her criticisms to heart and has decided to make an effort. Despite the earlier disparaging of Eliza's relatives, he now engages Mr. Gardiner in conversation and walks with them on his grounds at Pemberley, making an effort at kindness and hospitality. Perhaps Darcy never becomes someone who is naturally talkative, but on the other hand, he grows in two particular areas of virtue: humility and charity. He realizes that he must accept Eliza as she is, with her "inferior" connections (and annoying mother!!!). He must show respect for the Bennett family and act kindly to them when they are in distress.
Both Fanny and Darcy prefer to remain quiet, especially in group settings. And yet Austen provides us with a wonderful illustration in these two virtuous introverts. There is nothing wrong with reticence as such. Yet this silence may underlie humble, charitable thoughts or it may underlie prideful, critical thoughts. The virtuous introvert is the one whose observations, however astute, lead the person toward humility and kindness, a willingness to accept the faults of others and yet still to assist them kindly in their needs, rather than criticizing them internally or to more intimate friends. The virtuous introvert, moreover, is distinguished by excellent listening, like that of Fanny's, that grows out of an esteem for others, including those whose natural dispositions tend more toward vivacity and gregariousness. The virtuous introvert is not a pushover, but rather will speak when necessary to defend herself. Finally, the virtuous introvert, despite the discomfort it gives himself, prefers to speak rather than give offense to others by his silence. This perhaps is the most difficult sacrifice that indicates the greatest humility and charity, namely, for the introvert to sacrifice his own comfort and preference for the benefit of those around him. This might easily be seen as having a flipside for the virtuous extrovert. For such a person, the most difficult sacrifice is no doubt checking his talkativeness for the benefit of those around him, remaining silent and listening patiently despite his desire to dominate the conversation. But neither extrovert nor introvert is better; it is the virtue within the person that makes the difference in how this natural disposition is lived in the presence of others.