Monday, April 12, 2010

Pride and Prejudice, Chapters 12-24

We catch up with the Bennet sisters at Netherfield, where they are still staying since Mrs. Bennet refuses to fetch them until they've been there a week. Luckily Bingley sends them home, where Mr. Bennet is pleased to see them and his wife is annoyed they have returned "early."

This section is dominated by Mr. Collins, a cousin of Mr. Bennet's who is in line to inherit Longbourn, as he is Bennet's closest male relative. Collins comes to visit and it turns out that he doesn't want to check out his future inheritance but rather decide which Bennet sister to propose to. Unfortunately for Collins, all the Bennets (Mrs. excluded) think he's a big fool - he's long-winded, self-absorbed, and generally unpleasant to be around.

During his visit, Collins and the Bennet sisters walk over to Meryton, where they run into Darcy and Mr. Wickham, a charming, handsome man. Elizabeth notices some animosity between the two men, but doesn't discover its source until she sits next to Wickham at a dinner: he tells her that he has known the Darcy family for some time, and that Darcy's father promised to give him a parish at their estate. After his father's death Darcy broke the promise. Wickham paints Darcy in an ill light, matching Elizabeth's initial impressions of him, and she encourages his negative comments. She also finds herself mildly smitten with Wickham.

The Bingleys throw a ball at Netherfield and Elizabeth is disappointed when Wickham doesn't come. She does, however, dance and spar gloriously with Darcy. The ball is a mess, though, thanks to the Bennet family's strange behavior — Mrs. Bennet brags loudly that Jane will marry Bingley, Mary sings loudly and awkwardly for the entire party, and the Bennets are the last people to leave. Elizabeth is mortified.

The next day Collins proposes to Elizabeth. Elizabeth shoots him down repeatedly, but he takes this as encouragement. Mrs. Bennet, outraged that her daughter would turn down a marriage proposal, refuses to speak to her. She goes to her husband for help, and he delivers the best line of the novel so far: "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do." Amazing.

Miss Bingley writes Jane a letter to tell her that she and her brother have left Netherfield for good, and that she expects her brother will marry Miss Darcy. Jane is pretty upset, and Elizabeth tells her that the Bingley sisters are trying to keep Jane and Bingley apart, but Jane doesn't believe her. Things get awkward for everyone when Elizabeth's friend Charlotte woos Collins, and he proposes to her - right after he proposed to Elizabeth. The Bennets question how Charlotte could marry someone like Collins, while Mrs. Bennet laments the loss of the estate from their family.

I'm interested in the ways Austen portrays class in Pride and Prejudice, and class becomes even more important in the section we're reading for next week. The novel has characters who look down on others for their social standing (Darcy, Miss Bingley) and of characters who look up to others because of their social standing (the younger Bennet girls, Mrs. Bennet). Austen uses Collins to satirize the latter type of character, as he praises his ridiculous patroness Lady Catherine ad nauseum throughout his visit to the Bennets. For Austen, class isn't everything — it's just a tiny part of who you are.

Anyone have thoughts on class in the novel? Or about how lucky we are that our mothers are not like Mrs. Bennet? Next week's reading is Chapters 25-39.


  1. I love Lizzie's scene with Mr. Collins, as I think it's some of Austen's most unambiguously feminist writing. When he persists in dismissing her refusal as the ruse of an "elegant female" and Lizzie shuts him down, I feel like cheering every time. Rereading, I'm almost shocked by my undiminished joy in lines like this one:

    "I do assure you, sir, that I have no pretensions whatever to that kind of elegance which consists in tormenting a respectable man. I would rather be paid the compliment of being believed sincere."

    I mean, that, there, is a great line. And it's even more astonishing because, although many things have changed, many men are still trained to view a women's refusal as the opening volley in an argument he can still win, rather than a final, honest answer to a question. So when Lizzie stands up for her own right to state the meaning of her words, it's more empowering than it should be.

    Another thought I've had, reading this right on the heels of Sense and Sensibility, is that Austen has done a much, much better job divying out flaws here. While it was difficult to take Marianne seriously and Elinor often came off like a martyr, her Jane and Elizabeth compliment each other so well, and are both genuinely good, lovable people. Jane's flaw, being too trusting and refusing all but the best possible interpretations of someone's actions, is not a moral failing. Lizzie's propensity to pre-judge people and satirize foibles is actually a more serious shortcoming, but because it is rooted in good humor and genuine emotional insight, neither is it wholly bad. And, more importantly, it's very fun to read about. This even extends to the book's "villains" who, because they have either diminished power or are merely stupid, rather than truly mean-spirited, end up being much more comic than depressing. Comparing Fanny Dashwood and Caroline Bingley, for example, shows two similar snobbish characters, but because Caroline is an unmarried girl shown to be pathetically in love with a man who does not return her interest, rather than the woman in control of kicking Elizabeth's mother out of her home, Caroline is easy to laugh at, and even feel sorry for.

  2. I like your point about Austen divvying up flaws in "Pride and Prejudice" - the characters here seem more realistic and well-rounded than in "Sense and Sensibility."

    And overall, I can see why this is the Austen novel that gets the most attention. She's improved on every point where "Sense and Sensibility" needed to be improved upon - characters are more fleshed out, dialogue is snappier than before, her heroine is astounding. It's really great stuff.