What does Mr. Bennet mean when he describes Mr. Collins as a mixture of servility and self-importance in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen?
Elizabeth was chiefly struck with his extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine, and his kind intention of christening, marrying, and burying his parishioners whenever it were required.
"He must be an oddity, I think," said she. "I cannot make him out. -- There is something very pompous in his stile. -- And what can he mean by apologizing for being next in the entail? -- We cannot suppose he would help it, if he could. -- Can he be a sensible man, sir?"
"No, my dear; I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him." (Pride and Prejudice, Vol. I, Ch. 13)
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Mr. Collins is a man with no great personal gifts or attractions who has succeeded in establishing a good position in his career based on a successful education. He now is in a position to feel all the status of his achievements; he feels all the importance of the place on a great estate he has gained. Of course, Collins was given his "living" (place as the parish clergyman) by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is the landowner for all the parish, the residents of which are all her tenants. It is these residents, along with the de Bourgh family, to whom Collins intends to minister and for whom he intends to perform the rites of living: baptism, christening, marriage, burial.
Mr. Bennet calls Mr. Collins servile (meaning showing characteristics of a servant) because of Collins' excessive gratitude to Lady de Bourgh for his living. He is over-eager to perform all her wishes, even to marrying at her suggestion. Mr. Bennet is aware of this servility because of the obsequious remarks he makes in his initial letter to Mr. Bennet:
"it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England." (Mr. Collins' letter; Vol. I, Ch. 13)
Mr. Bennet calls Mr. Collins self-important because of the vain and ... self-important ... remarks he makes in the same letter. "Self-important" means having feelings of unjustifiable greatness stemming from excessive pride. Mr. Collins expresses this feeling in his letter, thus Mr. Bennet is able to identify this quality in him: this is much like we do when we read a text for character analysis.
"I have been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, ..." (Mr. Collins' letter; Vol. I, Ch. 13)
Mr. Collins tends to boast that he is a servant of the church. Unfortunatly, he also tents to boast about how wonderful it is at Rosings and how amazing his life is compared to others; and yet he is an "ever humble servant." Mr. Bennet is just pointing out that while Mr. Collins seems to think himself important, he is also submissive and a servant himself.
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