Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Pride and Prejudice questions.
What is important about the opening of Pride and Prejudice?
The opening of Pride and Prejudice is a complex one and one that is ofttimes misunderstood. This elusiveness of understanding is complicated by film versions of the novel that compound the misunderstandings of Austen's opening.
The difficulties begin with the tone of the narrator. Austen famously employs a narratorial voice that is close in proximity, subjective and wittily ironic. This intrusive narratorial mode can create difficulties if not read with an eye to clues in grammar and vocabulary that open a correct understanding of what or who is being commented upon or described.
Let's look at Mrs. Bennet since Austen begins with her. Mrs. and Mr. Bennet begin the novel, with only indirect reference to the principal characters of Elizabeth and Jane (the daughters are introduced in Chapter 2), in order to embed the story within the elements that lead to Darcy's objections to the Bennet family of Longbourn: Mrs. Bennet's small-mindedness and unpolished manners, which we find infect the manners of three of her five girls, and Mr. Bennet's neglectful management of his family.
One misunderstanding that arises from this ironical opening is that the Bennets have a "middle class" social station. This is not true. Mr. Bennet is in the same class as Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy: all three are gentlemen of independent wealth. Thus all three are in the upper class. The differences between the three upper class men is that (1) Darcy's wealth is attached to a country estate and both are inherited through many generations; (2) Bingley's wealth is newly built by his industrialist father, and Bingley is the first to inherit it; (3) Mr. Bennet's wealth is also attached to a country estate but he has foolishly spent more than he has inherited in capital.
The definition of upper class in Austen's time period included nobility, like lady Catherine de Bourgh, landed gentlemen of large fortune, like Darcy and (foolish) Bennet, and men who had amassed a large fortune through business of some sort, like the Bingleys. By English custom and law, all in the upper class were equals and entitled to marry without social stigma. This is why Elizabeth has the effrontery to contradict Lady de Bourgh with the statement that she and Darcy are equals: "In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting [my social] sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal" (Ch 56).
Mr. Bennet married for beauty. Mrs. Bennet, who was once Miss Gardner, was beautiful, vivacious, fun and charming. She was, however, the daughter of a man from the second social tier: Mr. Bennet married beneath is own social class. Darcy and Lady de Bourgh object to Mrs. Bennet's "connections." She has a brother, Mr. Gardner, who is in business and lives in an unfashionable area of London. She has a sister, Mrs. Philips, who married a country lawyer and lives in Meryton. Mrs. Bennet's manners and those of Mrs. Philips are exemplary of their class connections: they are unpolished though Mrs. Bennet's are also pretentious. The manners and deportment of Mr. and Mrs. Gardner present a happy contrast to the social coarseness of the Gardner women, Mrs. Bennet and Mrs. Philips.
So while Mr. Bennet married below his station, and that the Bennet connections are inferior, and that Mrs. Bennet is of lower class, the Bennets are definitely upper class. If this were not so, Elizabeth could not have dared to contradict Lady de Bourgh. Thus it is equally untrue to say that Mrs. and/or Mr. Bennet were intent upon having their daughters marry above their station: they are upper class; they can marry no higher than the upper class (although they might exceed all expectations and marry nobility, though this would be improbable).
Another misunderstanding concerns the portrayal of Mrs. Bennet. While she is portrayed by the narrator as "a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper" who is "discontented" and narrow-minded, she is not portrayed as a working farm-wife who has no understanding of society's regulating manners. On the contrary, she is portrayed as a woman of great pride who is above doing any home- or farm-work and who is above the social restraints that regulate lesser individuals.
[Mrs. Bennet] assured [Collins] with some asperity that they were very well able to keep a good cook, and that her daughters had nothing to do in the kitchen.
This pride of hers is what compels her to act so boorishly in public: she fancies herself above and superior to all others in her neighborhood, including newcomers. In short, she fancies herself a local "Lady de Bourgh" in matter of consequence. Thus Mrs. Bennet isn't an overworked frump; she is a lady who believes her consequence, on account of marrying an upper class gentleman, is far greater than anyone else sees it to be. She is limited by her own "mean understanding" and prideful, shallow narrow-mindedness.
[Mrs. Bennet's] mind was less difficult to develop. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.
Another misunderstanding that can arise relates to the dynamic between Mrs. and Mr. Bennet in relation to her opening discourse with Mr. Bennet in which she request that he go visit Mr. Bingley when he arrives at Netherfield. She is not initiating a new or controversial idea in so requesting. It is Mr. Bennet's social obligation to call upon and open social relations with any single man who moves into the neighborhood. This is why he asks if Mr. Bingley is married or single: "Is he married or single?" If he were married, then Mrs. Bennet might initiate social contact by visiting the wife. Mrs. Bennet does not "push" Mr. Bennet into doing something that is out of the ordinary, she merely reminds him of his social duty; she has no reason to expect that he might refuse.
However, Mrs. Bennet does not understand the dissatisfied, satirical, ironical turn of her husband's disappointed mind, a turn that impels him to tease her and undermine her expectations at every opportunity:
Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, .... [He] was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley. He had always intended to visit him,....
Thus, it must said that when Mrs. Bennet confidently reminded Mr. Bennet of his social obligation to his wife, daughters and neighbors, she was shocked to hear of his reticence to fulfill that obligation and felt forced to cajole him into cooperation.
[Mrs. Bennet said], "But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general, you know, they visit no newcomers. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him if you do not." [...] Mr. Bennet was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley. He had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go; and till the evening after the visit was paid she had no knowledge of it.
What happens after the Meryton Assembly?
Mr. Bennet and Sir William Lucas had paid calls on Bingley. He had returned the call to Mr. Bennet, but had not met the Bennet girls. It was at the Meryton assembly that all the neighborhood had their first sight of the Netherfield party. Mr. Bingley makes himself generally agreeable and dances readily with many partners, including Charlotte and Maria Lucas, Jane (twice) and Elizabeth Bennet. Mr. Hurst, husband of one of Bingley's sisters, is rather dull and uninteresting, as is his wife. Miss Bingley, the eldest sister, is elegant and fashionable but reserved. Mr. Darcy, though initially admired, falls into general disapproval because he is too aloof and proud to converse or to dance with anyone outside his own party, in contrast to Mr. Bingley.
While the text says that "Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room," this does not mean that Mr. Bingley met all five of Mrs. Bennet daughters, though he probably met Mrs. Bennet herself.
Since Mr. Bingley danced with Jane twice, "and the two fifth with Jane again," and spoke of her to Darcy as being "the most beautiful creature I ever beheld," it is understandable that, in a culture that valued marriage, their romance developed quickly. It is true that Darcy and the Bingley sisters were not pleased, but their reasons had nothing to do with Jane's "lower status," or lower social class, because, as they knew, Jane's social class was equal to theirs. What was not equal to theirs was the amount of wealth Mr. Bennet had (he squandered his wealth because he erroneously believed he would produce a son and heir to rebuild his estate), and what may not have been acceptable to them was the size of the dowry Jane was entitled to. Also, Mrs. Bennet's boasting and rudeness, her unpolished and arrogantly proud manners, were not tolerable to any but easy-tempered Bingley.
Mrs. Bennet is delighted with Mr. Bingley's attentions to Jane. She even plots to trap Jane at Netherfield by having her ride there in inclement weather, in response to an invitation from Miss Bingley. Her motive is to keep Jane there until Mr. Bingley returns from London the next day. Her plan works out, rainstorm and all, except that Jane develops a dangerous cold as a result (this turns out well for Darcy as Elizabeth comes to Jane's aid allowing him to be entranced by her "complexion"). Jane stays until Bingley returns, but is confined to bed with a high fever and comes under the care of an apothecary.
An unintentional result of Mrs. Bennet's plan, is that Elizabeth's presence spurs Darcy's reconsideration of her and his newfound attraction to her. Elizabeth takes alarm at the note Jane sends regarding her illness, reading much more meaning into it than their mother does, and walks immediately to Netherfield to ascertain for herself the condition Jane is in.
When Elizabeth enters the Netherfield front door, she is shown by the servant into the "breakfast-parlour, where all but Jane were assembled, and where her appearance created a great deal of surprise" because of her dirtied and invigorated appearance.
Elizabeth [walked] crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.
While Darcy was concerned that Elizabeth's risk and over-exertion were not called for in the circumstances, he was also struck with "admiration of the brilliancy which exercise had given to her complexion." As the days of Jane's illness went by and Darcy had more and more conversations in which Elizabeth, as well as the Bingley sisters, took part, his admiration for her "fine eyes," initiated at Sir William Lucas's earlier impromptu dance party, expanded into admiration for her "sweetness and archness." He is led to realize that had it not been for the Bennet's inferior family connections, he might be in danger of feelings of love for her.
Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her. He really believed, that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger. ... He began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention.
It must be stressed that while inferior family connections—the Gardner grandfather having been a lawyer, Mr. Gardner being in business, Mr. Philips being a Meryton lawyer—may also mean inferior degrees of wealth, it is not necessarily so. Take the Bingleys, newly made wealth for example: they may be presumed to still have inferior connections themselves, though they are wealthy enough to move to the upper class. It must be clearly understood that it is not correct to change Darcy's statement that Elizabeth's "inferiority of ... connections" sways him against her so that it reads that Elizabeth's economic inferiority is what sways him against her. While the two may go hand-in-hand, what bothers Darcy are the connections the Bennets have with inferior people, using proud and boastful Mrs. Bennet as his standard of judgement against their connections.
What happens between Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas?
Mr. William Collins has a grand scheme to help himself and to help his cousin, Mr. Bennet. A clergyman, Mr. Collins has been encouraged by his patroness, Lady de Bourgh, to set a proper example for the parish by marrying. As the holder of the entail to the Bennet estate—as the one who will legally inherit the estate of Longbourn because Mr. Bennet has no male heir, only daughters—Mr. Collins hopes to provide for the Bennet women after Mr. Bennet's death by marrying one of girls. This way he will honor his patroness's wishes and simultaneously save his cousins from becoming homeless.
Told that Jane is on the verge of an engagement, Collins sets his sights on the second eldest, Elizabeth. Collins has so much pride because of his perceived success in the world and because of the magnanimity of his offer that he cannot imagine any of his cousins turning his offer of marriage down. He is only mildly deterred when Elizabeth refuses him.
The next day [after the Netherfield ball] opened a new scene at Longbourn. Mr. Collins made his declaration [of marriage] in form. Having resolved to do it without loss of time, as his leave of absence extended only to the following Saturday .... "I am persuaded that when sanctioned by the express authority of both your excellent parents, my proposals will not fail of being acceptable."
Collins is brought to a reconsideration of his proposal by Mrs. Bennet's remarks: "Lizzy shall be brought to reason. ... She is a very headstrong, foolish girl." He says, "[If] [Elizabeth] is really headstrong and foolish, I know not whether she would altogether be a very desirable wife to a man in my situation."
While Mr. and Mrs. Bennet continue to work out the situation with Elizabeth ("Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do"), Charlotte Lucas, ventures into the confusion. Charlotte makes herself useful for several days by paying attention to and listening to Collins. Yet Charlotte's real aim was to "secure ... Mr. Collins's addresses ... towards herself."
Charlotte's motives for engaging Mr. Collins' affections is one of the controversial elements of the novel. Some see it as strictly a marriage of convenience; some see it as an act of greed. Elizabeth sees it as the sacrifice of "every better feeling" within Charlotte. What does Charlotte see it as?
Charlotte is the eldest daughter of a man who holds a knighthood but has very little wealth. She is not beautiful like Jane nor as witty as Elizabeth. She is not able to go to London during the social season to meet men who might choose to marry her. Her prospects are limited to Meryton and the village of Longbourn where, at best, she might meet officers who find her too serious.
Charlotte believed that if she were ever to have any independence from her parents and a home and family of her own, her best chance lay with Mr. Collins. True, she saw that he was silly and vainly proud, yet, she saw too that he had a good position in his profession, a good yearly income, a good social standing with his patroness, and a prestigious place in Lady de Bourgh's village of Rosings. Charlotte traded obscure dependency with her parents for independence and her own comfortable home and family with Mr. Collins. She was content. He was happy. It turns out that Charlotte was exactly suited to adapt to a life in which she could make advantages outweigh disadvantages.
"I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state."
What do we learn about Charlotte's life with Mr. Collins at Hunsford Parsonage?
Charlotte's first report of her new life as Mrs. William Collins was, "Mr. Collins's picture of Hunsford and Rosings rationally softened."
When the narrator takes us with Elizabeth to Hunsford Parsonage in Rosings Park, Kent, we are able to see for ourselves, along with Elizabeth, what kind of life Charlotte has found for herself. The probable negative aspects that we might wonder about, (1) Miss de Bourgh, (2) Lady de Bourgh and (3) Mr. Collins himself, are shown early as Charlotte experiences them.
Charlotte encourages Mr. Collins to pursue his exercise of gardening as much as possible: "Charlotte talked of the healthfulness of the exercise, and owned she encouraged it as much as possible."
We see that this gives Charlotte the double advantage of solitary hours indoors and a husband who has the emotional vigor and good humor resulting from fresh air and sunshine. From this we learn right off that Charlotte has influence over Mr. Collins and uses it to both their advantages. She also discloses that she has taken a back room, away from the lane, as her day room.
This adds another layer of distance and solitary activity to Charlotte's new life. We recognize that Charlotte is wisely buffering herself, in the most gentle and acceptable way possible, from potential aggravation by her husband's vain silliness. Charlotte has acknowledged Collins' deficits and used them to their mutual advantage thus gaining peace and content for herself along with esteem and increased dignity for her husband.
How is Austen a moralist?
Peter Smith introduced in an essay for Oxford Review (1966) the idea of Jane Austen as a moralist (different from a moralizer), an idea that now has strong support. Smith shows that Austen focuses on universal moral questions and examines them from an Aristotelian perspective that sees moral qualities in degrees and kinds rather than in a Calvinistic binary/dichotomy of black or white, is or is not, has or has not.
Applying this Aristotelian framework supporting Austenian prose aesthetic to Pride and Prejudice, each character represents a kind and degree of pride and/or prejudice. Austen examines the shades of pride and the degrees of prejudice. Characters are contrasted against each other to reveal the effects of the degrees of these moral qualities on love, family and marriage. Austen thus employs the same Aristotelian aesthetic framework that Sir Sidney Philip expounds upon and that Edmund Spenser espouses. In the end, the principal characters, after significant development, represent right-minded moral qualities that have beneficial effects on love, family and marriage.
ELIZABETH: She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd. "How despicably I have acted!" she cried; "I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery!" (36)
DARCY: "As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. [...] My object then," replied Darcy, "was to show you, by every civility in my power, that I was not so mean as to resent the past; and I hoped to obtain your forgiveness, to lessen your ill opinion, by letting you see that your reproofs had been attended to." (58)
How would you describe the different relationships in the novel?
One theme Austen explores in Pride and Prejudice is that of Equality of Personhood. Essentially, she is answering the question of whether connections (family or other ones) and wealth determines equality between persons in family, love and marriage, and if so, how and to what extent? She examines this through the relationships between characters, especially between:
- Mr. Bennet / Mrs. Bennet
- Elizabeth / Lady Catherine
- Elizabeth / Darcy
- Elizabeth / Charlotte
- Jane / Elizabeth
- Jane / Bingley sisters
- Bingley / Darcy
- Darcy / Wickham
- Phillips / Gardners / Bennets
- Bingley sisters / Gardners
- Collins / Bennets
- Collins / Elizabeth
- Collins / Charlotte
- Collins / Darcy
- Collins / Lady Catherine
This list brings the unlikely central role of Mr. Collins into prominence. Collins has a relationship with each of the principals in the examination of this equality, or equilibrium and disequilibrium, theme. Collins has a significant relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth, Darcy, Charlotte and Lady Catherine de Bourgh. To illustrate his central, or hub, role, Elizabeth has a relationship with Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Darcy, Charlotte, Lady Catherine and Collins: Elizabeth, the primary protagonist, has a circle of relationships that shares key points with the circle that Collins has. This leads to the revelation that Collins is intended for more than a caricature of ridiculous comic relief. He is intended as a dynamic character who has a central role in the examination of connections and wealth touching upon the question of equality of personhood in relationships of love, family and marriage.
Elizabeth and Lady Catherine
[Lady Catherine,] "If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere in which you have been brought up."
[Elizabeth,] "In marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal."
"True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? (Ch 56)
The relationship between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine is perhaps the one that most easily illustrates the thematic question of equality of personhood in relationships. As the quotation above shows, Lady Catherine vehemently questions whether Elizabeth could ever attain equal personhood with Mr. Darcy because Elizabeth has an inferior mother and, through her, connections to inferior "uncles and aunts":
"But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts?"
Lady Catherine grants that Elizabeth's position in the upper class as "a gentleman's daughter" is undisputed, yet she strongly questions that that position alone is enough to grant Elizabeth equality of personhood with Darcy. Lady Catherine implies strongly that Elizabeth's family connections are enough to undermine Elizabeth's personhood and create disequilibrium between her and Darcy, and certainly between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine, who, through Elizabeth's marriage to Darcy, would then be connected--much against her will--to Elizabeth and, through Elizabeth, to the Philips of Meryton and the Gardners of Cheapside, London.
To refresh readers' memory, Mr. Bennet is in the upper class as a landed gentleman of independent wealth (though now that wealth is all but squandered), but he married a woman in a lower class from the Gardner family. He married beneath his social class. This worked to Miss Gardner's benefit, now Mrs. Bennet, because her marriage to him raised her and her children to the upper class. Nonetheless, her relations--Mrs. Phillips and Mr. Gardner--remain in a lower class. This is the connection which Lady Catherine queries Elizabeth about and to which she so strongly objects.
Austen leads us to her understanding of a true perspective on the question of equality in personhood through Elizabeth's reaction to Lady Catherine at the instance of their first meeting. Visiting at Hundsford parsonage, Elizabeth is anxiously briefed by Mr. Collins on what to expect from Lady Catherine and on how to properly deport herself before Lady Catherine. With this building suspense, Elizabeth finally climbs the steps of Rosings and encounters Lady Catherine and Miss de Bourgh, accompanied by her governess ("the three ladies before her"). The narrator reports on Elizabeth's reaction to the initial encounter:
Elizabeth found herself quite equal to the scene, and could observe the three ladies before her composedly. (Ch 29)
Elizabeth is "equal" to the encounter, including metaphorically and symbolically equal. In terms of this theme, Elizabeth finds herself equal in personhood to a titled lady if not equal in wealth or connection. Austen is suggesting that within equal classes connection and wealth do not affect equilibrium or disequilibrium of personhood in relationships. The relationship between Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine presents the converse of this perspective.
Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine
Mr. Collins as a clergyman (clergy are in lower classes) believes that the office of the clergy elevates him to the level of the highest persons in the land, as he tells Elizabeth at Bingley's Netherfield ball:
"give me leave to observe that I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom" (Ch 18).
Yet, if it weren't for Lady Catherine bestowing an important "living" upon him (living: the pastoral position and income granted by a benefactor to a clergyman in Great Britain), he would not have the connections or income to back up that claim: his parish might as likely be poor and insignificant as well-to-do. Austen uses Collins' unique position in relation to external connections to illustrate the theme of equality of personhood even more clearly.
Charlotte, the daughter of a knight, Sir William Lucas, marries beneath her upper class status--just as Mr. Bennet did--yet, because of Collins' connections to Lady Catherine, Charlotte's material position is not lessened but actually raised. She has access, though limited, to the highest level of upper class society. She has a life of sufficient ease and comfort. She has gained independence from her position as a dependent unmarried daughter. She has gained social prominence, influence and importance in her new parish. Collins' connection to Lady Catherine has (1) created greater equality of personhood for him, thus raising him to Charlotte's level, enough for her to consider a marriage to him, while simultaneously (2) having elevated Charlotte's own position in society to one of greater equality of personhood by bestowing on her importance, connections and influence.
This equality is a result relating to the question of equality of personhood that Elizabeth could not have predicted. Indeed, it is one that, even as a visitor, she cannot see even though Charlotte does [the narrator's report of Elizabeth's ironic thoughts upon departing from Charlotte provide one instance in which Elizabeth is presented as an unreliable character: her opinion of Charlotte's choices, "Her home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry, ... had not yet lost their charms," may have been entirely different if solicited after having learned to shed her prejudice]. The many other relationships between characters further examines equality of personhood in all its varying shades, degrees and kinds.
Is Elizabeth Bennet a reliable narrator?
An interesting question is whether Austen structures Elizabeth's character so that she represents a reliable character or an unreliable character. While the terminology for unreliability in literature was first coined by Wayne Booth in 1961, unreliability in literary characters and narrators has been existent since Roman times.
Are there any instances in which Elizabeth's understanding and thus her statements and thoughts have proven unreliable? We know that her understanding of Darcy and Wickham are proven unreliable. When new light is shed on their situations—in the Rosings letter and at Pemberley—Darcy is vindicated and proven honorable, though proud, while Wickham is proven villainous, vengeful and greedy. Are there other instances of faulty understanding and unreliability?
Instances of Elizabeth's Unreliability
- Her misunderstanding of Charlotte's stated views on love and marriage.
- Her reaction to Charlotte's engagement to Collins.
- Her misunderstanding of Charlotte's tolerance of Lady Catherine.
- Her misunderstanding of Charlotte's tolerance of and gratitude toward Collins.
- Her thoughts about Charlotte upon ending her visit to Hunsford Parsonage.
- Her initial approval of and affection for Wickham.
- Her immediate disapprobation of Darcy.
- Her failure to see her father, mother and younger sisters the way others correctly see them as, in order, being neglectful, proud, and uncontrolled.
Instances of Elizabeth's Reliability
- Her comments to Jane about Jane's character flaw: Jane thinks no ill of anyone.
- Her accurate understanding of Aunt and Uncle Gardner.
- Her dislike of the Bingley sisters.
- The sincere, genuine and unaffected nature of her character as illustrated by walking to Netherfield and keeping Jane company.
- The sincere and genuine expression of her opinions: she is not duplicitous, though she is civil.
- Her resistance to inappropriate influence such as her resistance to Lady Catherine's pressures about her piano playing.
Narrator's Role in Establishing Elizabeth's Unreliability
How does the narrator develop Elizabeth as an unreliable character while building a depth of sympathy and affection for her?
The use of irony: irony pokes fun at characters' folly and at inconsistency in situations.
The use of indirect dialogue through which the narrator extensively reveals a wealth of Elizabeth's thoughts, musings, inner debates and feelings.
The development of Elizabeth as an avid and astute observer of others and of human foibles (though she misunderstands and misinterprets what she observes).
The development of Elizabeth as confident and kindhearted. She does not take insults to heart, but rather she laughs at them and, as with Darcy and the Bingley sisters, keeps them at arm's length.
The conclusion of this examination of Elizabeth's reliability as a character is that Austen uses the ironic and intrusive (close in proximity and active in commenting) narrator to establish Elizabeth as an observant yet unreliable character because of her prejudicial and prideful misunderstandings and misinterpretations. We know about these through indirect dialogue, which allows ironic narratorial comment to shed the light of understanding on individual instances even though Elizabeth doesn't see it.
In what ways is Lady Catherine de Bourgh a complex character?
Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a difficult character to fully understand. Her role in Pride and Prejudice is complex. Yes, she is arrogant, pompous, intrusive and annoying, yet she is also a woman with extensive authority and power in an era when women were as a rule without authority and power. Married women in Austen's era were legally an extension of their husbands; they were in a sense no more important legally than a household domestic, although, when you consider it, even single female domestic workers could enter into contracts, such as their employment contracts (a point illustrated so well by Hardy in Tess of the d'Ubervilles), whereas any married woman could not.
This was according to the English legal principle of couverture which distinguished between feme solo (unmarried) and feme covert (married). The difference between the two designations was that single, feme solo, women could legally own property and enter into contracts while married, feme covert, women could perform neither of those legal activities. The reason is that a woman's identity was legally subsumed under her husband's identity upon marriage.
Then here you have Lady Catherine. Austen's narrator makes a point of informing us that Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family saw no need to neglect the female line of the family and render it powerless: Sir Lewis's will had specified that Lady Catherine de Bourgh was to inherit all his estate and all the power and authority that went with it.
[Lady Catherine says,] "I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family."
And, yes, she greatly enjoyed the exercise of that power and authority. Remember, though, that, regardless of her abrasive personality, she attempted (successfully or not) to use that power for good amongst her villagers to help them be prosperous and lead peaceful lives.
Elizabeth soon perceived ... [that] this great lady ... was a most active magistrate in her own parish, ... and whenever any of the cottagers were disposed to be quarrelsome, discontented, or too poor, she sallied forth into the village to settle their differences, silence their complaints, and scold them into harmony and plenty.
Austen uses Lady Catherine to make a case for female legal identity and power. Yet by showing that Lady Catherine's unusual power is still exercised in accordance with the cultural prejudices prevalent in their society, as seen during her confrontation with Elizabeth about a rumored engagement to Darcy, Austen also uses Lady Catherine to illustrate the theme of equality of personhood in love and marriage (see Themes Insights: Equality of Personhood).
While Lady Catherine's characterization challenges the legal prejudices against women, her character also shows uncompromising cultural prejudice against people in lower classes, namely Elizabeth's mother, aunts and uncles who are of a lower class:
"True. You are a gentleman's daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts?"
Lady Catherine is a complex character who illustrates (1) Austen's social protest about the legal position of women, (2) Austen's social protest about prejudice against lower classes, and (3) Austen's interesting theme relating to what affects the equality of personhood in family, love and marriage.
What are Mr. Darcy's strengths and weaknesses?
Mr. Darcy's failures parallels Elizabeth's in regards to misunderstanding and misinterpreting what could be accurately observed.
What are some things Darcy misunderstands and misinterprets?
He misunderstands and misinterprets (1) his social duty regarding Wickham ("[he] confessed that he had before thought it beneath him to lay his private actions open"), (2) his presentation of his nature to people ("His character was to speak for itself"), (3) the effect of his proposal to Elizabeth ("'I shall never forget: "had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner."'"), (4) Jane's feelings for Bingley ("'though she received his attentions with pleasure, she did not invite them'"), (5) the effects of marriage into the Bennet family ("its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination").
Darcy has more frequent clarity than Elizabeth.
With perhaps a little more frequent clarity than Elizabeth, there are instances in which Darcy has correct understandings and interpretations of that which he observes. This calls up the question: Why would Austen make Darcy a bit more astute than Elizabeth? It would not be in support of the cultural prejudice against women since part of the thematic intention of Pride and Prejudice is to protest that cultural prejudice. Perhaps Austen's choice represents an accurate presentation of the cultural disparity between the public education and experience that gives men the advantage of wider exposure.
Austen can never be used to illustrate the notion that upper class women were poorly educated, although Elizabeth and Jane do illustrate that upper class women were narrowly educated--narrowly in subject and depth--and confined in experience. This is perhaps the reason Darcy has a few more significant instances in which he correctly understands and interprets what he observes: he has broader, deeper education and experience.
What does Darcy correctly understand and interpret of what he observes?
Mr. Bennet's flaw of satirical parental negligence: "The mischief of neglect and mistaken indulgence..."
Mrs. Bennet's flaw of prideful behavior, impropriety and crassness: "total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by [your mother]..."
The meaning of Lady Catherine's failure in her confrontation with Elizabeth: "'It taught me to hope ... as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.'"
How to correct his behavior after Elizabeth's rebuke and rejection of his marriage proposal: "'I hoped to obtain your forgiveness, to lessen your ill opinion, by letting you see that your reproofs had been attended to.'"
With perhaps as many failings as strengths, why is Darcy so appealing to readers?
Mr. Darcy, who makes such a bad first impression, is one of the most beloved heroes in literature. What makes him so beloved in the hearts of readers?
Of Austen's characterizing techniques, three stand out as especially significant. The first is that, before he has gone along too very far, Austen characterizes him as keenly observant and as having the same serious criticisms of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet that we have (this provides support for the ideas that Mrs. Bennet is not just a foolish character meant for comic relief and that Mr. Bennet is not just a satirical diversion).
The second is that Austen very soon shows him as yielding and able to change. For him, Elizabeth's beauty increases with his appreciation of intelligence emanating from her "fine eyes" and with the thoughtful concern that motivates her otherwise ill-advised walk to Netherfield resulting in her freshened "complexion."
The third and key characterization technique Austen uses in regards to endearing Darcy to readers' hearts is the letter he writes to Elizabeth. Readers feel the sincere transparency of his words. When Darcy finally has a chance to show his improved, inner character, gracious, kind, and ready to help the Bennet family during Lydia's elopement, he is fully immortalized as one of literature's best loved heroes.
Is Mrs. Bennet just comic relief?
Mrs. Bennet is one of three characters in Pride and Prejudice thought to mostly function as comic relief. Does Mrs. Bennet have another function in the novel?
It cannot be said that Mrs. Bennet "develops" through the novel, that is, that she comes to a greater understanding of herself or life, yet she is a well developed character.
Character development is defined as (1) the multiple sets of qualities, attitudes, traits that emerge over the course of a novel and as (2) the progression of a character from one state or condition to another improved or more successful one.
What personality traits of Mrs. Bennet do we see?
Mrs. Bennet is a multifaceted character, who is critical in the development and illustration of several of Austen's themes. Of course, the first manifestation of Mrs. Bennet's personality we see is her euphoria over the appearance at Longbourn village of a marriageable bachelor, Mr. Bingley. Her adamant interest in discovering five excellent marriages for her five daughters motivates her elation.
While it often supposed that this opening characterization is Mrs. Bennet's "default," base-line expression of personality, it can hardly be true that her euphoria over an eligible bachelor and her normal condition could be one and the same. Her normal deportment may continue to display her "mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper" but with an absence in normal times of her adamant euphoria.
The second time Mrs. Bennet's temperament is shown is in her reaction to Mr. Darcy when he is observed by all at the Meryton ball: "Lizzy does not lose much by not suiting his fancy; for he is a most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing. So high and so conceited that there was no enduring him!" While the zeal of her deprecation of Darcy has almost the same vigor as her euphoria over Mr. Bingley's arrival at Netherfield, it shows an entirely different aspect of her psychology. Not only is she single-mindedly enthusiastic over the prospect of marriage for at least one of her daughters (which should lead to encounters with other eligible young men for her other daughters), she is quick to be adamantly against someone who offends her sensibilities.
Her lack of reasonableness, her "mean understanding," and her haste to jump to extreme conclusions provide a unifying psychological connection and predict the unifying psychological basis for upcoming elements.
The third psychological element revealed comes during her experience with clergyman and cousin, William Collins, the holder of the Longbourn estate entail. As her experience with Mr. Collins unfolds, three unique psychological elements are drawn from her: (1) confusion, guilt and rejection, (2) acceptance and readiness to be pleased, (3) apologetic determination to fight.
When Mr. Collins' visit is first introduced by Mr. Bennet on the very day of his expected arrival, Mrs. Bennet is overcome with confusion exacerbated by guilt and her sentiment deploring Collins.
But where does the confusion and guilt come from? We are told much later in Chapter 50 that she and Mr. Bennet always intended to produce a male child who would break the entailment of the property to Collins. In that belief and to that end, they squandered their wealth without setting any aside because it would all be restored by their male heir.
Yet, it was five daughters that were given birth to. Mrs. Bennet held on to the belief that she even then would produce a male child but the "event had at last been despaired of...." Mrs. Bennet believed she could do her part in breaking the entail. This is the source of the confusion and guilt that underlie Mrs. Bennet's protestations against the entail and her finding Mr. Collins deplorable.
As soon as Collins declares his intention of taking a bride from one of the five Bennet girls, Mrs. Bennet has a renewal of hope and a surge of good will toward the previously deplorable man. This, though it seems illogical at first encounter, has a logical basis in her history, for part of her anxiety over the entail is that she and her unmarried daughters will be turned out of Longbourn upon the death of Mr. Bennet since Collins would then hold the hereditary claim.
Hence when Collins offers Mrs. Bennet a solution to her most worrisome and guilt-ridden problem, she shows a psychological turn toward being completely accepting (this is probably the side Mr. Bennet first knew of her when they were happy, quick to spend and confident of a male heir) and ready to be pleased by all he utters, which is shear folly since his utterances are mere obsequiousness.
Austen subtly develops a rounded character--one with "many traits"--in Mrs. Bennet by revealing various aspects of her psychological make-up including her apologetic willingness to fight Collins' battle for him and argue Elizabeth into accepting his offer of marriage:
"But, depend upon it, Mr. Collins," [Mrs. Bennet] added, "that Lizzy shall be brought to reason. I will speak to her about it directly. She is a very headstrong, foolish girl, and does not know her own interest but I will make her know it."
One of the more telling psychological traits that Austen develops in Mrs. Bennet is brought to light in her encounter with Lady Catherine de Bourgh who invades their modest home--by comparison to Rosings--for the purpose of demanding from Elizabeth a renunciation of her rumored engagement to Mr. Darcy. Upon Lady Catherine's bursting into their sitting room, Mrs. Bennet, to whom Elizabeth whispered the name of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, was stunned and awed into silence, a remarkable condition for Mrs. Bennet. More importantly, Mrs. Bennet was stunned into the "utmost politeness.":
"Mrs. Bennet, all amazement, though flattered ... received [Lady Catherine] with the utmost politeness."
This meant in part, by the laws of social propriety, that Mrs. Bennet could not initiate conversation. She had to wait until Lady Catherine requested an introduction even though the Lady was in her home: "no request of introduction had been made." So in polite silence Mrs. Bennet sat. This didn't last long of course, and as soon as Lady Catherine provided a socially acceptable opening (though not a socially correct opening because Lady Catherine's question was addressed to Elizabeth), Mrs. Bennet began talking about her girls, beginning with inappropriate praise of Lydia, her youngest but first to marry, which is happiness to Mrs. Bennet but would have been a horror to Lady Catherine had she bothered to hear.
Mrs. Bennet is here fully developed as a round character: she has a full range of psychological characteristics that motivate different actions and reactions in differing situations, including her legitimate anguish, though dramatized for greatest impact, over Lydia's ruinous elopement with Wickham to London, with no stop in Gretna Green for a quick marriage ceremony. Still, how is Mrs. Bennet related to theme development?
Mrs. Bennet and Theme Development
Mrs. Bennet is significantly connected to the development of the themes of female education, vanity and conceit, manners associated with varying classes, marriage of daughters (especially when juxtaposed to Charlotte Lucas), along with estate entailment and the "female line": "I see no occasion for entailing estates from the female line. It was not thought necessary in Sir Lewis de Bourgh's family" (Lady Catherine). The education theme is most significantly brought out when Lady Catherine grills Elizabeth about the tutors and masters she and her sisters had, or, more correctly, did not have:
"Five daughters brought up at home without a governess! I never heard of such a thing. Your mother must have been quite a slave to your education."
Elizabeth could hardly help smiling as she assured her that had not been the case.
"Then, who taught you? who attended to you? Without a governess, you must have been neglected."
"Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means. We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary."
When Elizabeth has her eyes open to the real deficits of her family, she takes a clearer view of the disadvantages Mary, Kitty and Lydia suffered by not being submitted to a regular education.
There is little difficulty is associating Mrs. Bennet with the theme of vanity and conceit, a theme Mary at one point waxes philosophical over. We see that Mrs. Bennet's vain and conceited ideas of elevated self-importance lead to improper conduct in relation to her duties, in relation to her deportment in social settings, in relation to her hasty and inadequate judgements of other people, and in relation to her willingness to expose the family's folly to any who might listen.
A rather interesting theme with which Mrs. Bennet is connected is that of the difference of manners between the upper and lower classes. Mrs. Bennet, when single, was Miss Gardner, sister of Mr. Gardner (uncle to her daughters and partial savior of Lydia) and Mrs. Philips of Meryton. Their father was in trade, as is Mr. Gardner. Mrs. Bennet nee Miss Gardner married above her class because Mr. Bennet was an upper class gentleman of independent wealth. Though now of the upper class herself by virtue of marriage, her manners are still lower class and have been imparted to her three youngest daughters. Darcy makes a point of this when he says that Elizabeth and Jane cannot be discredited ("to have conducted yourselves so as to avoid any share of the like censure, is praise no less generally bestowed on you and your elder sister" Ch 35) and it is reinforced by Mr. Bennet's own comment to the same effect ("Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued" Ch 41).
The difference is shown also in the contrast between the Bingley sisters, the daughters of a tradesman, and Miss de Bourgh, who represents (quietly) elegant upper class manners. There is also a surprising similarity between Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine, also based on conceit, but of a different nature since Lady Catherine has actual authority and power to back up her conceit because of recognition in the de Bourgh family of "the female line."
How does Charlotte Lucas demonstrate pragmatism?
Charlotte Lucas is critical in illustrating Austen's theme of love and marriage, which is developed through the representation of various kinds: arranged marriage after failed elopement; marriage for esteem and love; marriage for beauty and pleasure; exploitative marriage; pragmatic marriage.
Austen's favored kind of marriage is, quite naturally, marriage for esteem and love as represented by both Elizabeth and Darcy, and Jane and Bingley. Yet Austen acknowledges the pragmatic marriage, as represented by Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins, is a valid and viable alternative.
Austen herself had some experience with the pragmatic marriage, though her experience was one of twenty-four hours, a time period that ended with her hasty flight and a message left with her brother to be delivered to her cousin and would-be suitor. On a holiday to visit her brother, Austen's cousin proposed marriage to her, and she accepted. Overnight, she regretted this engagement and fled the scene at break of day. Yet, she has the presence of mind to understand that, for a pragmatic woman, with no lost love still kindling her heart, a pragmatic marriage was an effective solution to the social difficulties facing an unmarried woman.
Charlotte Lucas embodies this pragmatic woman and approach, although Elizabeth refuses to take her seriously down to the last:
"[It] is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life." "You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself." (Ch 6)
Charlotte, believing that happiness in marriage is a gamble,—Mr. and Mrs. Bennet affirm that couples "grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation"—weighs the consequences of remaining single in her father's large household, operating on a modest budget, in a remote country village, against the consequences of marrying a foolish man with good intentions and a good position in his profession. She finds that marriage to Collins is less of a loss to her than continuing her life of dependency at her father's country home.
What is interesting is Elizabeth's staunch refusal to take Charlotte seriously, even up until Charlotte's announcement of her engagement to Mr. Collins. If we examine the evidence presented in the novel, we are faced with a married Charlotte who is happy in married life, who has shielded herself from unnecessary vexation from her husband, who enjoys the company and social advantages of her new neighbors at Rosings, and who is satisfied that her pragmatic decision was the right decision.
Charlotte's pragmatic nature is developed by Austen before her decision to marry Collins. If this were not so, we might be taken by surprise and find a logical inconsistency within Charlotte's character.
Three instances of Charlotte's development as a pragmatic character stand out. The first is her conversation with Elizabeth about whether Jane has spent sufficient time with Bingley to be able to know if she loves and would marry him.
"[If] she were married to him to-morrow, I should think she had as good a chance of happiness as if she were to be studying his character for a twelvemonth. Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance."
This discussion leads into Charlotte's assertion that "it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life." While Elizabeth took her to be remarking in jest, later events concerning Collins show that she was indeed quite serious.
The second instance of Austen's development of Charlotte as a pragmatic woman occurs at the Netherfield ball during which Darcy surprises Elizabeth by requesting the pleasure of dancing with her. Elizabeth accepts him out of stunned surprise rather than out of willingness. While Elizabeth "was left to fret over her own want of presence of mind," Charlotte took the opportunity to caution her with pragmatic appropriateness not to be prejudiced by Wickham's charm and neglectful of Darcy's "consequence":
When the dancing recommenced, however, and Darcy approached to claim [Elizabeth's] hand, Charlotte could not help cautioning her in a whisper, not to be a simpleton, and allow her fancy for Wickham to make her appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man ten times his consequence.
The third instance relates to the aftermath of Collins' rejection by Elizabeth. Collins' has made his clumsy proposal. Elizabeth has refused. Mrs. Bennet is the height of dismayed and distraught. She is about to assure Collins that she will do everything to persuade Elizabeth that it is her best interest to accept Collins.
Elizabeth and all the other daughters quickly leave the room, but Charlotte, who has been visiting and has heard everything from Elizabeth, is first detained by Collins' polite inquiries after her family and then detained by curiosity. Charlotte lingers by a distant window to overhear what might be passing in so unusual a scene. This deliberate eavesdropping is a very calculated and pragmatic step, one that portends a pragmatic young woman suddenly calling to mind her own interests and concerns.
We have watched Charlotte develop and know that, while she has respect for persons of consequence, she has never said anything that sets her apart as a woman interested in material gain aside from gain in happiness and independence. Austen has used Charlotte to build a convincing case for the acceptability of a pragmatic marriage for a pragmatic woman.
"I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state."