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Civility, or politeness, is a delicate topic in the novel Pride and Prejudice. It is presented as an expectation, rather than a choice, under the perspective of social rank and societal expectations.
The aristocratic characters in Pride and Prejudice show their civility through their dry tolerance of those whom they consider to be of a lower class than themselves. For example, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst are examples of this type of civility. Their kindness to Jane was only temporary, and was mostly out of kindness when they felt that Mr. Bingley was interested. Once Darcy intervened and separated Bingley from Jane, Miss Bingley ceased her acquaintance with Jane in a flat and mean way as if Jane was not worthy of her friendship in the first place.
Equally, the lower and middle classes were almost expected to be always civil to the aristocrats no matter what went on. The best example is the entrance of Lady Catherine de Bourgh in the Bennet household. Lady Catherine entered the house as if it were her own property. She demanded to see Elizabeth with no manners whatsoever, and yet, Mrs. Bennet was quite civil to Lady Catherine just for the sake of the latter’s social rank. We see the same form of ridiculous civility in the character of Mr. Collins, who basically belittles himself in front of Lady Catherine and constantly boasts about her patronage.
Matters do change with Elizabeth Bennet. Upon being called by Lady Catherine, Elizabeth drew the line immediately and cared very little about social civility. She told Lady Catherine off whenever she felt insulted by her. She did the same thing with Darcy when he proposed to her and exclaimed how “low” he was dropping by proposing to her. Elizabeth even spoke quite honestly to Wickham, and used her civility towards him (even after he had betrayed her family) only to make him feel even more worthless.
Therefore, Pride and Prejudice presents civility as a social practice that has to be followed in order to ensure propriety. Yet, Elizabeth breaks with that tradition in speaking out on behalf of herself and her family, and defending what she believes is fair.
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