The novel centers on the Bennet family, consisting of the bookish Mr Bennet, his wife, a woman somewhat lacking in social graces and primarily concerned with her family's fortunes, and their five daughters. The youngest, Lydia, most takes after Mrs Bennet; the eldest, Jane, is kind-hearted and proper; and the central character, Elizabeth Bennet, is the second-eldest and most takes after her father, sharing his keen wit and occasionally sarcastic outlook.
The narrative opens with Mr Bingley's, a wealthy, charismatic and social young bachelor, moving into Netherfield Park in the neighbourhood of the Bennet family. Mr Bingley is soon well received, while his friend Mr Darcy makes a less favorable first impression by appearing proud and condescending at a ball that they attend (he detests dancing and is not much for light conversation). Mr Bingley singles out Jane for particular attention, and it soon becomes apparent that they have formed an attachment to each other, though Jane does not alter her conduct for him, confessing her great happiness only to Lizzie. By contrast, Darcy slights Elizabeth, who overhears and jokes about it despite feeling a budding resentment.
Mr Collins, a clergyman, pays a visit to the Bennets. Mr Bennet and Elizabeth are much amused by his obsequious veneration of his employer, the noble Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as well as by his self-important and pedantic nature. It soon becomes apparent that Mr Collins has come to Longbourn to choose a wife from among the Bennet sisters (his cousins) and Elizabeth has been singled out. At the same time, Elizabeth forms an acquaintance with Mr Wickham, a militia officer who claims to have been very seriously mistreated by Mr Darcy, despite having been a ward of Mr Darcy's father. This tale, and Elizabeth's attraction to Mr Wickham, fuels her dislike of Mr Darcy.
At a ball given by Mr Bingley at Netherfield, Mr Darcy becomes aware of a general expectation that Mr Bingley and Jane will marry, and the Bennet family, with the exception of Jane and Elizabeth, make a public display of poor manners and decorum. The following morning, Mr Collins proposes marriage to Elizabeth, who refuses him, much to her mother's distress. Mr Collins recovers and promptly becomes engaged to Elizabeth's close friend Charlotte, a homely woman with few prospects. Mr Bingley abruptly quits Netherfield and returns to London, devastating Jane, and Elizabeth becomes convinced that Mr Darcy and Caroline Bingley have colluded to separate him from Jane.
In the spring, Elizabeth visits Charlotte and Mr Collins in Kent. Elizabeth and her hosts are frequently invited to Rosings Park, home of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy's aunt; coincidentally, Darcy also arrives to visit. Elizabeth meets Darcy's cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, who vouches for Darcy's loyalty, using as an example how Darcy had recently stepped in on behalf of a friend, who had formed an attachment to a woman against whom "there were some very strong objections." Elizabeth is astonished to discover that said friend was none other than Mr Bingley, and her dislike of Darcy hardens further. Thus she is of no mood to accept when Darcy arrives and, quite unexpectedly, confesses love for her and begs her hand in marriage. Elizabeth rebukes him, and a heated discussion follows; she charges him with destroying her sister's happiness, with treating Mr Wickham disgracefully, and with having conducted himself towards her in an arrogant, ungentleman-like manner. Mr Darcy, shocked, ultimately responds with a letter giving a good account of (most of) his actions: Wickham had exchanged his legacies for a cash payment, only to return after gambling away the money to reclaim the forfeited inheritance; he then attempted to elope with Darcy's young sister Georgiana, thereby to capture her fortune. Regarding Jane, Darcy claims he had observed no reciprocal interest in Jane for Bingley, and had assumed her not to be in love with him. In addition to this, he cites the "want of propriety" in the behaviour of Mrs Bennet and her three younger daughters. Elizabeth, who had previously despaired over these very behaviors, is forced to admit the truth of Mr Darcy's observations, and begins to wonder whether she has misjudged him.
Some months later, Elizabeth and her Aunt and Uncle Gardiner visit Pemberley, Darcy's estate, believing he will be absent for the day. He returns unexpectedly, and though surprised, he is gracious and welcoming. He treats the Gardiners with great civility. Darcy introduces Elizabeth to his sister, and Elizabeth begins to realize her attraction to him. Their reacquaintance is cut short, however, by the news that Lydia has run away with Mr Wickham. Elizabeth and the Gardiners return to Longbourn, where Elizabeth grieves that her renewed acquaintance with Mr Darcy will end as a result of her sister's disgrace.
Lydia and Wickham are soon found, then married by the clergy; they visit Longbourn, where Lydia lets slip that Mr Darcy was in attendance at her wedding but that this was to have been a secret. Elizabeth is able to discover, from her Aunt Mrs. Gardiner, that in fact Mr. Darcy was responsible for finding the couple and negotiating their marriage, at great personal and monetary expense. Elizabeth is shocked but is unable to dwell further on the topic due to Mr Bingley's return and subsequent proposal to Jane, who immediately accepts.
Lady Catherine de Bourgh later bursts in on Longbourn; intending to thwart local rumour, she warns Elizabeth against marrying Mr Darcy. Elizabeth refuses her demands. Disgusted, Lady Catherine leaves and drops by to inform her nephew on Elizabeth's abominable behaviour. However, this lends hope to Darcy that Elizabeth's opinion of him may have changed. He travels to Longbourn and proposes again, and this time, his pride and her prejudice done away with, Elizabeth accepts.