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Mr Darcy and The Awkward Man: the perils of shyness in literature

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen1 Mr Darcy and The Awkward Man: the perils of shyness in literatureThe Story Girl by LM Montgomery Mr Darcy and The Awkward Man: the perils of shyness in literature

LM Montgomerys The Story Girl features a character described as the Awkward Man, a man who rarely goes out into society because of his crippling shyness and difficulty in managing in social situations. However, when the Awkward Man is in his own element hes articulate and accomplished, to the point that those who havent seen him engage with others in public are baffled by his nickname.

 As we sat there the Awkward Man passed by, with his gun over his shoulder and his dog at his side. He did not look like an awkward man, there in the heart of the maple woods. He strode along right masterfully and lifted his head with the air of one who was monarch of all he surveyed.

The Story Girl kissed her fingertips to him with the delightful audacity which was a part of her; and the Awkward Man plucked off his hat and swept her a stately and graceful bow.

I dont understand why they call him the awkward man, said Cecily, when he was out of earshot.

Youd understand why if you ever saw him at a party or a picnic, said Felicity, trying to pass plates and dropping them whenever a woman looked at him. They say its pitiful to see him.

For people who struggle with shyness or social anxiety, being in an unfamiliar environment or around unfamiliar people can be a crippling ordeal. But their awkwardness in a social situation is not only owned by them, but also by others, who construct an identity around them. An identity that while not necessarily incorrect is certainly misleading: it doesnt show the full picture.

I am personally shy enough that even the term wall-flower is too gregarious in application. I am more the rendering of a flower on a piece of wall-paper. For me, social situations are crushingly exhausting. I find myself at a loss not only for what to say, but about why on earth anyone would be interested in hearing it, and after a few hours I simply wilt: the strength thats needed to bear up against the interpersonal press of a social event is something that my schmoozing muscles lack. Sadly, whatever was there in the first place has atrophied over time.

And yet, shyness is so often taken as standoffishness, aloofness and superiority, among goodness knows how many other negative traits. I cant count the number of times that Ive been accused of all of these when the truth of it is rather that at the time of my supposed cold-shouldering I was desperately treading the chill social waters and fighting some base instinct to flee.

There are factors, however, that help me overcome my shyness, and these include time, a companion who will help share the social burden, and also an environment that feels safe and non-threatening. Give me all of these and Ill speak at astonishing length and with something approaching confidence. If you allow me that time, then you might even grow to like mebut many people dont have that patience. Im the Awkward Girl: a person of two identities, the presence of which is decided by a roll of the social die.

I might at times seem to be my own evil twin, but the point is that not all Jekyll and Hydes are malevolent characters.

Needless to say, I identified tremendously with Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, a man in whose actions and comportment I saw myself to an astonishing degree (even though sadly I am not someone on the modern-day equivalent of ten thousand a year). Ive read all manner of things about Mr Darcy being a cold, proud individual who basks in passive-aggressiveness and pointedly closes his world to those who are not of his social standing. Ive read accusations of his being the precursor to the modern-day literary alpha male, someone who is cruel, manipulative and emotionally withdrawn.

And yet, I saw none of these things, not even though our perceptions of Mr Darcy are filted through Elizabeth Bennetts experience. Instead I, quite heart-breakingly, saw myself. Take, for example, our introduction to Mr Darcy, an initial meeting that takes place an environment that is frankly an introverts nightmare (it is, however, a dream for an extroverted character such as Mr Bingley, a man who thrives in social gatherings). Being thrust into a ball situation where only one or two people are known to me is to me patently terrifying, and I have little doubt that like Mr Darcy I would spend the night in something approaching withdrawn silence, and that I would be doing all in my power to avoid the dance floor despite the years of dance classes Ive taken.

To be fond of dancing may well be a certain step towards falling in love, as the quote goes, but an initial reticence does not necessarily indicate a lack of fondnessof dancing, or of the person with whom one is to dance.

Sadly, where Mr Bingley is beloved for being lively and unreserved [and dancing] every dance, Mr Darcy is immediately vilified as having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.

And yet where an extrovert might see plenty to condemn at first glance, an introvert sees things quite differently indeed. For example, Mr Darcys assertion that there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with is tied to his comment about only enjoying dancing when he is particularly acquainted with his partner: he is expressing his discomfort regarding dancing with those who are unknown to him, not an unreasonable dislike of everyone in the room. Hence Bingleys later remark to Jane that Mr Darcy tends only to be vociferous among his intimate acquaintances, with whom he is remarkably agreeable.

I dare say that if Mr Darcy had not his ten thousand a year, he would have been given little opportunity beyond this initial ball, for first impressions very quickly and tenaciously take hold, and for an introvert a first impression can very often be a last one.

Shyness is something that has to be overcome with time, and it can require a patience and understanding that many people are not willing to afford to someone who is a mere acquaintance. It is certainly a barrier to developing a deeper relationship, and there are a good many who would rather engage with those who are immediately open and vivacious, who share the burden of developing a relationship. But for a shy person, any engagement is sharing that burden: the issue is that we are capable of shouldering a lesser amount and that for a smaller amount of time.

Take Caroline Bingleys comment about Mr Darcys painstaking letter-writing: It is a rule with me that a person who can write a long letter with ease cannot write ill, suggesting that openness and gratuity are the mark of a kind person, and that in shyness there is something cruel and wrong. Or Elizabeths speech, where she says that both she and Mr Darcy are of unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a proverb, at which Mr Darcy comments that this is not at all how he sees himself: his laconic nature is not due to wanting to leave a series of pithy epigrams in his wake, but rather due to his shyness.

These misconceptions are eventually reconsidered, but largely due to the constant kind words of othersMr Bingley, for example, and Mr Darcys household staff. If it were not for these words in his favour and the constant reassertion that Mr Darcy is an individual whose seemingly brusque, proud nature is merely a symptom of his shyness, not a thread that runs through his entire personality, theres little doubt that Mr Darcy would never have been allowed the time and opportunity he needs in order to demonstrate that there   is more to his person than might be seen at first glance. Think, after all, of how quickly word of his glaring social inadequacies and apparent cold temper spread after that first fateful ball. I wonder how many of my friendships might have fallen before my shyness had not I had someone in the wings ready to act as my reference.

This is not to suggest that Mr Darcy does not have his flaws, and certainly there are times when his behaviour does warrant admonishment. But is this so surprising from someone who is universally judged and found wanting by those around him, who is put regularly into social situations where it is inevitable that he is going to fail, and who is judged again for that?

We live in a world that prizes the traits of the extrovert, where boldness and confidence and a silky social nous are things that work in ones favour, where ease of association and an ability to recharge by diving into a social occasion is valued. Introverts, on the other hand, thrive in situations where no one is around to see them doing so. We are the inverse of the extrovert: rather than our charms being on the outside and our insecurities hidden within, the opposite is true.

There is a distinct sense of uncertainty and disquiet where introverts are involved, as though we are secretive and prideful people, when the truth is that we would love for you to give us the opportunity to let our true selves come out from behind the Awkward Man garb we cant help but don as our public uniform. It just may take some time and some withholding of judgementboth in books, and in real life.


  1. Have you read Quiet by Susan Cain? Its all about introverts and being drained by being on at social occasions.

    • Stephanie /

      I havent, but Ive heard of it. It sounds like something right up my alley (assuming I can find a peaceful place to read it :) ).

  2. The Internet is the best thing to happen to introverts since the Gutenberg press! Great post!

    • Stephanie /

      So true, Laurie! I do love that I can build/maintain relationships online. It takes off so much of the pressure. Ive met with two publishing peeps for coffee in the past week, and having used Twitter as an ice-breaker definitely helped.

      Oh, if only Mr Darcy had had Twitter!

  3. Honestly Im shocked to discover there isnt a Mr. Darcy twitter account. (At least that I can find.)

    While I dont consider myself a shy person, I am very wary in going into situations that I am unfamiliar with. Crowds often lead to panic attacks and I refuse to go to any kind of fair without someone who will hold my hand. My quiet observations of situations before insertion of my personality is something Ive learned to do as many people find me odd and those comments do not help my social anxieties. I consider myself quiet like a cat waiting to pounce.

    The first year I lived in Chicago I said nary a word to most people, scrunched into the recesses of a ratted couch in my moms art studio as vivacious people (who had known each other for years) wondered in an out, I peeping behind my reading of Vanity Fair (ugh, horrid book)until I felt I could insert myself into the group.

    Now all anyone can comment on is how opinionated I am. Everyone wonders what happened to the quiet girl. I was never just being quiet, I was quietly waiting to pounce. Besides I cant help it if people are being daft. :D But I do feel for Mr. Darcy, and I too read most of his blundering as social ineptness and not pure maliciousness.

    I agree, the internet was the best thing to happen to people who can only go awkwardly forward. I spent a good bit of my internets experience in the wings watching until I felt I was ready to insert myself into this group of beings also.

    I assume you all are beings. :)

    • Stephanie /

      I know exactly what you mean, Jami: its a sort of watch-and-assess method that lets people figure out how things work and whats what before leaping into the fray and stirring things up. Its something that I do think theres huge value in. I do think that there might be plenty of benefits that might come of people sitting and thinking for a while before taking action.

      Im still very much a lurker on the internet, if that makes you feel any better!

  4. What a great post, Stephanie. I loved the poor old Awkward Man when I read The Story Girl, and I also read Mr Darcys awkwardness as shyness but only when I was older and able to see nuances.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for your lovely words, Deborah. Its interesting that you mention the nuance of shyness, and I wonder whether it applies as much in real life as it does in books. Authors are always being told to be better writers, but its not so often that readers are told to be better readers. Perhaps if we opened ourselves more to nuance in our social interactions we might be less inclined to our knee-jerk judgements of others. :)

  5. Love love love this post! Totally agree with you about Mr Darcy, poor guy.
    I totally relate too. I feel that when I was younger I was quite confident, but as I grow older, oddly enough, I become more of an introvert. I think for me its related to my self esteem. The past few years its kind of plummeted and with that so has my comfort in social situations.

    • Stephanie /

      I think Im much the same, Belle. I wonder whether we are naturally introverted, or whether we become that way due to certain influences and the ways that our lives play out.

      Certainly since finishing uni Ive become a lot more quiet and have a far greater need for time to myself. Social situations for me are awful right now, because Im in an awkward place career-wise, and at 27 Im getting to the age where people expect me to have achieved somethingbut I havent. :S I feel like a bit of a failure as a result, and Im sure it shows in my interactions.