Pride and Prejudice and the Problem of Elizabeth, Jane, and Mr. Bennet

Pride and Prejudice and the Problem of Elizabeth, Jane, and Mr. BennetPride and Prejudice and the Problem of Elizabeth, Jane, and Mr. Bennet

Several relationships in Pride and Prejudice deserve primary attention.  Elizabeth and Charlotte concern themselves with marriage and whether a romantic view of marriage (esteem, love, and so on) is relevant in a pragmatic world where women marry predominantly to “secure”[1] a husband, as Charlotte often reminds Elizabeth and does so herself when she marries Collins.  Elizabeth and Jane each view and treat people differently; Jane tends to look for the good in others, often to the point of naiveté, whereas Elizabeth’s criticism is usually sarcastic and cynical.  Then there is Elizabeth and her father, Mr. Bennet.  She tends to defend her father’s doings and shares his sarcasm and cynicism.  In what follows below, we will look more closely at Elizabeth’s tendency to be like her father; Jane will be assessed to provide an opposite view.   A problem for the novel, then, is whether Elizabeth and her father’s sarcastic, cynical approach to life is better than Jane’s benevolence.  

Mr. Bennet, in conversation with his wife in chapter one, unreservedly favors Elizabeth over his other four daughters.  He says

[my daughters] are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but [Elizabeth] has something more of quickness than her sisters.

Mr. Bennet’s mean, cynical attitude towards his daughters is evident as he holds human intellect highly.  “Silly” and “ignorant” both describe what Mr. Bennet believes is the weak, ignorant condition of the average female mind (“like other girls”).  His excluding Elizabeth from the female populace—particularly his other daughters, due to her mind’s “quickness”—is a first step to understand why he prefers Elizabeth and how human intellect unites them.     

Why emphasize the power of Elizabeth’s mind rather than other qualities (such as female “accomplishments,” which are valued by other characters in the novel, or, in this context, being “good humoured” (sic) and “handsome,” attributes mentioned by Mrs. Bennet)?  In the immediate context, the narrator draws our attention to Mr. Bennet’s “quick parts,” which, like Elizabeth, refer to his intellectual abilities.  Consequently, his four “silly” daughters, along with Mrs. Bennet’s “mean understanding,” would certainly make them outcasts to those possessing higher intellectual abilities.

While a reader could argue that Mr. Bennet is simply not nice to his daughters and wife here, the narrator does not seem to sympathize with them, particularly Mrs. Bennet, when she says that Mrs. Bennet only has “solace” in life with “visiting and [husband-related] news”; she is nervous otherwise.  That is significant because the narrator, while not a defender of Mr. Bennet’s sarcasm in an official sense, reinforces the latter’s annoyance and the value he puts on human intellect by allowing Mr. Bennet’s referring to his wife’s nerves as his “old friends” and commenting on her mind’s “mean understanding” to pass by unchecked[2]

Along with human intellect, Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth share laughter.  Elizabeth “dearly love[s] a laugh,” but she includes a moral component to guide her laughter: she only wants to laugh at “[f]ollies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies;” she does not want to laugh at what is “wise and good.” (She makes this confession after Mr. Darcy warns her that a virtuous action is often “rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke,” which is an eventual pushback against Mr. Bennet’s laughter-and-“sport” philosophy that will be referenced throughout this essay).  For Elizabeth, laughing at others is a “diver[sion].”  A “diversion” is usually something that brings the mind temporary pleasure; the mind is directed away from its usual course, but will eventually resume its regular path once the “diversion” ends.  Knowing when laughter is appropriate is important to Elizabeth, it seems, especially when Mr. Darcy suspects her to do otherwise.

A distinction between Elizabeth and her father is the moral aspect of laughter.  This difference is gradually made known before and during Collins’ visit to the Bennets when we look at how Elizabeth, Jane, and Mr. Bennet react to him.  Mr. Bennet reads Collins’ letter in chapter 13, and Jane and Elizabeth are both confused as to why Collins would apologize for being the next in the entail since he obviously did not have a choice.  If one has no choice legally, then that person is innocent of wrong doing.  Despite initial confusion, Jane says Collins’ “wish” to “make us the atonement…is certainly due to his credit,” whereas Elizabeth says his writing “stile” (sic) is “very pompous,” and he must be an “oddity.”  She even questions whether Collins is “sensible.”  Elizabeth unforgivingly, but quite accurately, recognizes that Collins is a fool, whereas Jane gives him the benefit of the doubt and tries to think of him in gentler terms.  As Elizabeth’s assessment is correct, Jane’s “thinking too well of others” is problematic since Collins’ motive behind mending fences is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s command rather than his good will.

Still, Elizabeth and Jane’s conflicting views could make a reader initially shrug her shoulders and say, ‘I do not know what to make of Collins.’  Mr. Bennet affirms Elizabeth’s cynicism:

I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse [of sensible].  There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well.  I am impatient to see him.

Being “impatient” is not usually a virtue, nor does it suggest having a calm mind, something valued by Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth.  However, he views the letter as foreshadowing much amusement for him in Collins’ upcoming visit.  Being able to laugh at the “follies and nonsense” of others in a particular moment (a “diversion”) is something that Elizabeth values, but we do not get an indication that she shares her father’s “impatience” to see Collins.  Needless to say, Collins, in all his glory, does not disappoint Mr. Bennet’s quest for amusement in chapter 14.

Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet soon divide on Collins’ behavior when he reads around three pages from Fordyce’s sermons[3].  Lydia (amusingly) interrupts Collins’ sermon to ask about her Uncle Philips’ doings.  Her outburst is disagreeable to Elizabeth and Jane who both “bid” Lydia to “hold her tongue.”  Mr. Bennet, whose “impatient” goal of finding Collins “amusing” has been satisfied, does not reinforce Elizabeth’s “bid” to Lydia to remain silent while Collins preaches at them.  Although Elizabeth likely finds Collins’ sermon “absurd,” which it is, she understands Lydia’s interruption is inappropriate for the occasion as does Jane.     

One question to consider further is why Mr. Bennet does not “bid” Lydia to remain silent whereas Elizabeth and Jane do.  The narrator says

Mr. Bennet’s expectations were fully answered.  [Collins] was as absurd as he had hoped, and he listened to him with the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance, and except in an occasional glance at Elizabeth, requiring no partner in his pleasure.  By tea time, however, the dose had been enough, and Mr. Bennet was glad to take his guest into the drawing-room again, and when tea was over, glad to invite him to read aloud to the ladies.

This is one of the novel’s key Mr. Bennet passages.  As previously stated above, he had “expectations” that were “fully answered.”  “Enjoy[ing]” “keen[ly]” Collin’s “absurd[ity]” creates a further problem, “occasional[ly] glanc[ing]” at Elizabeth to share “his pleasure.”  This “pleasure” is shared by Elizabeth in another scene where she says that she is entitled to the “enjoyment of her original dislike” of Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst.  “Dislik[ing]” someone is fine, for both women are ostentatious, and, in the above passages, Collins is an idiot.  In Elizabeth’s situation with Bingley’s sisters, when Jane visits Netherfield and becomes sick, Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, “three or four times,” express how “grieved” they were, how “shocking” it was to have a cold, and how “excessively” they disliked being ill themselves; then they “thought no more of the matter.”  Hyperbole is their way to mask their true indifference towards Jane.  While telling Jane that they do not really care would be mean-spirited, Elizabeth would probably prefer that they remain silent than pretend to have concern for Jane.  Elizabeth’s walking to Netherfield (which is significant for several reasons), prior to this scene, is a strong counterpoint to Bingley’s sisters: Elizabeth ignores social boundaries (and literal fence boundaries) out of love for Jane’s well-being; cynicism is absent as Elizabeth adheres to her heart (feeling/emotion), not to her mind (reason).   

Although Elizabeth “dislikes” Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, and the novel would certainly share her “dislike,” Pride and Prejudice is troubled by her feeling entitled to this “original dislike.”  “Original” refers to her first impression of them.  While her first impression of these women is, again, correct, “enjoying” that first impression does not allow for change any more than Jane’s benevolence blinds her from seeing Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst for whom they truly are. 

For example, towards the novel’s end, Jane and Elizabeth reflect on all the misfortunes that had occurred between Jane and Bingley.  When Elizabeth broaches the topic of why Bingley did not realize Jane was in town last spring, she asks Jane to give Bingley’s “account [of] it.”  Jane says

It must have been his sisters’ doing.  They were certainly no friends to his acquaintance with me, which I cannot wonder at, since he might have chosen so much more advantageously in many respects.  But when they see, as I trust they will, that their brother is happy with me, they will learn to be contented, and we shall be on good terms again; though we can never be what we once were to each other.

Elizabeth then tells Jane that that is the “most unforgiving speech…that [she] ever heard [her] utter.”  Elizabeth’s sarcasm here is meant to be instructive rather than cynical: she does not want Jane to be “duped” again by the sisters’ insincerity.  What makes Jane’s analysis interesting is that she says something critical about Bingley’s sisters even though she does not detect Elizabeth’s sarcasm.  Prior to that criticism, Jane’s kindness directs her to blame herself: Bingley’s sisters do not desire “his acquaintance” with her, and Bingley “might have chosen so much more advantageously”; thus, they could never be in the wrong.  Then her naiveté convinces her that the sisters will “see” that Mr. Bingley is “happy” with her and that they will “learn to be contented,” putting everyone on “good terms again.”  The word “again” indicates a change from the relationship’s original condition.  Her assumption, which is incorrect, is that the Bingley sisters liked her until Bingley wanted to marry her.  She then falsely assumes that their brother’s “happiness” will essentially become their “happiness”: this shared “happiness”[4] will put Jane back into what she deems is original good standing with the sisters. 

The above is how Jane understands the situation until she adds: “though we can never be what we once were to each other.”  “Never” rules out any possibility for the relationship to return to its original form as Jane originally understood it.  However, her final assessment is an accurate way of seeing things even though I am not sure that Jane understands why it is accurate.  In her mind, because the marriage to Bingley was problematic and because she blames herself, the sisters’ effort to affectionate Jane is nothing short of heroic.  In reality, the sisters never liked Jane from the beginning, so they certainly will “never be what we once were to each other” if Jane assumes that “what we once were” means being on good terms.  At the same time, it would also be correct because the level of dislike has probably increased greatly since Miss Bingley wanted Bingley to marry Georgiana to strengthen her marital standing with Mr. Darcy.  However Jane understands this situation, she will be kind to her enemies, which morally goes much further than Elizabeth and her father’s respective “enjoyment” of “disliking” someone; Jane also does not allow major disappointments to darken her life and eventual marriage. That means Jane’s naiveté weirdly has value.  She recognizes a difference in her relationship with the Bingley sisters but honestly thinks that her marriage will be favored by all, allowing her to “enjoy” her new marriage without relying on the sarcastic-cynical approach to life. 

Returning now to Mr. Bennet’s problematic “keen enjoyment” of Collins’ absurd behavior, once he had his fill of Collins, he invites him to read aloud to the females in the room.  Lydia then interrupts the sermon, as mentioned above.  Mr. Bennet allows Collins to preach to his daughters as to how they should live their lives.  Normally, a father would have a large hand in such instruction.  However, in a passage that we will examine further later in this essay, Elizabeth does acknowledge that her father has never put forth appropriate effort to teach his daughters; instead, he left them to their own devices.  As Elizabeth seems to be naturally “quick,” Mr. Bennet’s other daughters are not.  Rather than making effort to improve their minds, Mr. Bennet turned his favor towards Elizabeth and occupied his remaining time with his “principle enjoyments”: “the country and…books.”  He soon developed a cynical view towards those not like himself.  Elizabeth, in “bidding” Lydia to remain silent, is taking her father’s role upon herself.  While this is not an attack on Mr. Bennet directly, Elizabeth, whether she is consciously aware of this, is picking up the slack for her father.  Even though Collins is inappropriate, he still recognizes most of the daughters need oversight to improve their “silly” behavior.  This view pushes back against Mr. Bennet because his idle efforts seem to be largely responsible for his daughters’ “silly” behavior; he could have done much more to improve them.  Instead, he makes fun of them and “enjoys” the moment.   

Mr. Bennet’s cynical “enjoyment” becomes further problematic when he “enjoy[s] the scene” as Mrs. Bennet hobnobs with the Bingleys after the ball in chapter 18.  We should remember that Elizabeth, when Mr. Bennet “enjoyed” Collins’ visit, did not critique her father though she did take Jane’s side, “bidding” Lydia to be silent.  After the ball,

the Longbourn party were the last of all the company to depart and, by the  manoeuvre (sic) of Mrs. Bennet, had to wait for their carriages a quarter of an hour after everybody else was gone, which gave them time to see how heartily they were wished away by some of the family.  Mrs. Hurst and her sister scarcely opened their mouths except to complain of fatigue and were evidently impatient to have the house to themselves.  They repulsed every attempt of Mrs. Bennet at conversation, and by so doing, threw a languor over the whole party, which was very little relieved by the long speeches of Mr. Collins, who was complimenting Mr. Bingley and his sisters on the elegance of their entertainment, and the hospitality and politeness which had marked their behavior to their guests.  Darcy said nothing at all. Mr. Bennet, in equal silence, was enjoying the scene.  Mr. Bingley and Jane were standing together, a little detached from the rest, and talked only to each other.  Elizabeth preserved as steady a silence as either Mrs. Hurst or Miss Bingley; and even Lydia was too much fatigued to utter more than the occasional exclamation of ‘Lord, how tired I am!’ accompanied by a violent yawn.    

The above passage is similar to Collins’ visit.  Lydia has an outburst, and Mr. Bennet, who “enjoys” the scene, does nothing to intercede.  His passive “enjoyment” also is at the expense of his wife, who is being snubbed by Miss Bingley and Mrs. Hurst, and Collins’ foolish behavior satisfies Mr. Bennet’s “impatient” itch for “amusement.”  Mr. Bennet’s inaction has further consequence as Jane and Bingley were “detached” from the group, and Mr. Darcy said “nothing at all.”  Mr. Darcy’s observation is important because he eventually references this scene when he defends his decision to separate Bingley-Jane and when he gives Elizabeth, in one of the most unromantic but brutally honest proposals in literature, multiple objections to his marrying her.  Additionally, Elizabeth’s “silence” is different than her father’s.  Here, she is likely embarrassed by her family’s behavior in front of Mr. Darcy, whom she strongly dislikes at the moment, and is concerned for Jane’s marital standing with Bingley.  Mr. Bennet is “silent,” so he simply “enjoys the scene” without interruption.

A key moment for Elizabeth’s gradual separation from her father, philosophically speaking, happens after she rejects Mr. Darcy’s first proposal.  Austen’s heroines frequently reflect on previous events in a room of their own.  In her own room, Elizabeth reads Mr. Darcy’s letter, which explains Wickham’s duplicity and why he (Mr. Darcy) separated Jane and Bingley.  Finishing the letter, Elizabeth says that she “never knew” herself until “this moment.”  That revelation is significant for several reasons.  In chapter four, for example, Jane and Elizabeth reflect on the dance (where Mr. Darcy snubbed Elizabeth, and Bingley danced with Jane).  Jane says that she was “very much flattered” by Bingley’s asking her to dance twice and did not “expect such a compliment.”  Elizabeth proceeds to reinforce Bingley’s “compliment,” ending sarcastically with 

[Bingley] certainly is very agreeable, and I give you leave to like him.  You have liked many a stupider person

to reinforce that Bingley seems like a good man for Jane.  From there, Elizabeth tells Jane

you are a great deal too apt…to like people in general.   You never see a fault in any body.  All the world are good and agreeable in your eyes.  I never heard you speak ill of a human being in my life.

Jane agrees, saying

                        I would wish not to be hasty in censuring any one; but I always speak what I think.

Elizabeth proceeds to call Jane “honestly blind” and rails on how Jane is “candid without ostentation or design,” but takes the “good” of everyone’s character and makes it “still better.”  This conversation is very important because Jane agrees that she always holds positive views of people, not wanting to be “hasty” in “censuring” anyone, but always says what she truly feels.  While Elizabeth also strives to be honest with what she thinks and feels, “knowing herself better now” leads to several startling realizations, one of which is Wickham had deceived her about Mr. Darcy.  While this is not the first Austen heroine to be deceived by a handsome, well-spoken man, Elizabeth’s reflection is significant because she recognizes her own “blindness.”  (A careful reading of Wickham’s story concerning Mr. Darcy shows Elizabeth making several critical errors both in judgment (reason) and in her interpretation of what Wickham says.  For example, Wickham’s telling his story “without ceremony” does not mean that he is telling the truth.  One can obviously say something that seems sincere but still lie.  Elizabeth also listened to Wickham’s account with a “determined” “dislike” of Mr. Darcy. And so on).

Another revelation in Elizabeth’s reflection is that she singles out Jane.  While Jane is obviously relevant due to Mr. Darcy’s decision to separate her and Bingley, that is not the situation that first enters Elizabeth’s mind:

I [Elizabeth], who have valued myself on my abilities!  who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister [Jane], and gratified my vanity…How humiliating this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!

This confession changes the landscape of the novel in terms of how it views Jane’s benevolence.  Elizabeth “disdained” Jane’s “generous candour,” which is similar to Mr. Bennet’s cynical feelings towards his wife because he, as Elizabeth later mentions, was “captivated by [Mrs. Bennet’s] youth and beauty.”   Blaming Mrs. Bennet’s beauty for “captivating” him is not only unreasonable (though understandable as to why he would be upset long-term about his decision), but mean.  Consequently, Mr. Bennet becomes sarcastic and cynical in effort to deal with life’s problems, particularly his mistake in marrying Mrs. Bennet. 

While much can be written about why Elizabeth “disdains” Jane’s “generous candour,” a place to begin is Elizabeth’s increasing disgust with the people who live in her world.  Earlier, Elizabeth, after learning about Charlotte’s marriage to Collins, says

The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.  I have met with two instances lately; one I will not mention (Bingley and Jane); the other is Charlotte’s marriage.  It is unaccountable!  In every view, it is unaccountable!        

While Jane has letdowns in life, she never loses her kind nature and belief in human goodness, so Elizabeth’s “inconsistency of all human characters” is not Jane’s view, who is directly affected by Bingley’s departure.  Elizabeth, like her father, has had multiple disappointments, some of which she has brought onto herself (as already mentioned) and could have otherwise avoided had she not “valued” her abilities as highly as she did.  Such pride and prejudice never spoil Jane’s temperament as she always gives everyone the benefit of the doubt.  That is one reason as to why she cannot blame either Wickham or Darcy after hearing about Wickham’s tale.  As it turns out, Wickham is to blame.  Still, as Jane also cleared the Bingley sisters from wrong doing, Jane’s naiveté and benevolence do not lead to the number of damaging errors that Elizabeth’s reason often does.  Her misjudgment of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet’s marriage to Mrs. Bennet, and Mr. Bennet’s role in Lydia’s downfall are three of the most spectacular mess ups in the novel.

Additionally, Elizabeth says, “in every view,” Charlotte’s marriage and Bingley’s alleged jilting of Jane are both “unaccountable.”  Elizabeth’s cynicism is problematic here as her “dissatisfaction” with the world has convinced her that all humans are “inconsistent.”  While that is not an unreasonable claim that people are “inconsistent,” Charlotte’s pragmatism is “consistent,” and Bingley’s malleability is also “consistent.”  Both characters gave various clues that Elizabeth chose not to take seriously (e.g., when Charlotte told Elizabeth that she wants to “secure” a husband and that in marriage “happiness is a matter of chance,” Elizabeth laughed and told Charlotte that her thinking was not “sound.  [Charlotte] know[s] it is not sound…and…would never act in this way”).  Something is only “unaccountable” if other possibilities have been closed off.  Elizabeth’s “knowing herself better now” would seemingly welcome previously viewed “unaccountable” possibilities so that she can revise her original opinions.  Mr. Bennet never revises his thinking.

The last point from Mr. Darcy’s letter worth noting is Elizabeth’s realization as to how ridiculous her family truly is.  Her sense of “shame was severe.”  When she is able to set aside the person, Mr. Darcy, from the accusation, her family’s “impropriety of conduct,” and consider the ball scene honestly, she realizes that Mr. Darcy was not incorrect to take action against Bingley and Jane, especially not knowing that Jane had feelings for Bingley (in an earlier discussion, Charlotte had warned Elizabeth that Jane needed to be more open or Bingley may not think she was interested in him; Elizabeth argued otherwise.  As matters stand, Charlotte was correct, and Elizabeth realizes that now: “she could not help remembering what Charlotte’s opinion had always been.”)  We should remember that Mr. Bennet did not feel “shame” after the ball; again, he simply “enjoyed the scene.”    

After Elizabeth’s reflection and enhanced self-knowledge, the next thirty pages or so deal largely with Elizabeth, Jane, and Mr. Bennet.  These pages are significant because Elizabeth continues to see the world in a different way than her father does and now begins to recognize that difference.  For example, Elizabeth and Jane decide not to reveal Wickham’s true nature.  Elizabeth says

Mr. Darcy has not authorized me to make his communication public.  On the contrary, every particular relative to his sister was meant to be kept as much as possible to myself, and if I endeavor to undeceive people as to the rest of his conduct, who will believe me?  The general prejudice against Mr. Darcy is so violent, that it would be the death of half the good people in Meryton, to attempt to place him in an amiable light. I am not equal to it.  Wickham will soon be gone; and, therefore, it will not signify it to anybody here, what he really is.  Sometime hence it will be all found out, and then we may laugh at their stupidity in not knowing it before.  At present I will say nothing about it.

Jane agrees:

To have [Wickham’s] errors made public might ruin him forever.  He is now perhaps sorry for what he has done, and anxious to re-establish a character.  We must not make him desperate.

Jane’s assessment is per usual.  While informing the public about Wickham’s duplicity has benefits, which will be explained when we look at Elizabeth’s view in the next paragraph, Jane is more concerned about Wickham’s reputation than exposing him as a villain.  Jane’s humanity is commendable here, for a person’s reputation can be ruined forever once one’s dirty laundry is aired for public viewing.  However, Wickham never gives evidence that he is “anxious” to redeem himself; his “anxiousness” is a product of Jane’s assuming the best about him. 

Additionally, Jane says “perhaps” Wickham is “sorry for what he has done.”  On one hand, Jane’s “perhaps” realizes Wickham has never directly apologized, nor has he given any indication that he is “sorry” for his wrongdoings.  In fact, history suggests the opposite in the way that he took advantage of the Darcy family and then proceeded to deceive Elizabeth and others for his advantage.   People can change, and some do.  Wickham is not one of them, so Jane’s “perhaps” is better than saying ‘he will be sorry’ but is still an unrealistic outcome. 

On the other hand, Jane’s “perhaps” is followed by her assuming Wickham is “anxious” to restore his reputation.   Although Wickham is not “anxious,” Jane’s thinking well of Wickham, in itself, is not bad.  She is being honest with how she feels, and she is not cynical or sarcastic here, a contrast to Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet’s usual thought processes.  Yet, if Wickham feels no remorse, then it becomes increasingly difficult not to inform the public about his bad doings.

Elizabeth, unlike Jane, now assumes the worst about Wickham.  Her initial thinking honors Mr. Darcy’s wish to keep the details relating to Wickham and his sister quiet, for he would be worried about his sister’s reputation.  The choice belongs to Georgina and Mr. Darcy as to how much information should be leaked to the public, and Elizabeth agrees.  That is good.

After her initial good will in remaining silent about Wickham, Elizabeth’s pride begins to influence her thinking.  Sarcastically, Elizabeth exaggerates the public opinion when she says the “general prejudice” against Mr. Darcy is “so violent, that it would be the death of half the good people in Meryton, to attempt to place him in an amiable light.”  Elizabeth has no way of confirming that statement, nor did that sentiment factor into her original motive, which was to protect Georgiana Darcy’s reputation. 

Elizabeth then says that soon people will learn about Wickham’s true nature.  At that time, Elizabeth will “laugh” at their “stupidity” for not knowing about Wickham’s treachery before.  Elizabeth’s initial good will is now cynical.  Why might she be cynical here when her motive to protect Georgiana is good?   Looking back at Mr. Bennet’s cynicism towards his wife, whom he blames for being beautiful, we see a similar way of thinking here with Elizabeth.  Earlier in the novel, whether it was to Mrs. Gardiner or to Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth fervently championed Wickham’s cause.  In this passage, she seems to have forgotten about her favoritism towards Wickham and has forgotten that she was tempted by him.  While her prejudice against Darcy helped fuel the temptation, Wickham still had the ability to sway Elizabeth’s feelings, both with his looks and with his rhetoric.  Elizabeth is usually a rational woman, and even Mr. Darcy’s late father thought highly of Wickham.  If he can persuade them to think well of him, then Elizabeth should not be surprised that others can be fooled by him as well.  “Laughing” at those whom Wickham has duped is not helpful or kind.

A final point, which is an extension of the previous point, is that other women could, and Lydia does, fall for Wickham.  Elizabeth, thanks largely to Mr. Darcy’s letter and Miss King’s temporary engagement, was spared (she did not leave Wickham per her own will; Wickham left her).  Instead of Elizabeth, Lydia takes the fall when she goes to Brighton and eventually meets Wickham.  Had Mr. Darcy not forced Wickham’s hand to marry Lydia, her reputation would have been ruined forever.  That is not worthy of “laughter.”

A question, then, is whether keeping silent about Wickham is good, considering the above pros and cons.  Before addressing this question, Mr. Bennet’s view of Lydia’s trip to Brighton and her marriage to Wickham need to be considered.  In chapter 41, Elizabeth expresses her concern to her father about Lydia’s trip.  Seeing that Elizabeth’s “whole heart was in the subject,” Mr. Bennet’s rationale behind allowing Lydia to visit Brighton is fueled by his usual cynicism and sarcasm:

[S]he is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to anybody.  At Brighton, she will be of less importance even as a common flirt than she has been here.  The officers will find women better worth their notice.  Let us hope, therefore, that her being there may teach her her own insignificance.  At any rate she cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorizing us to lock her up for the rest of her life.

While Lydia has not displayed virtue and lacks a sensible mind, we have established that Mr. Bennet’s passivity is problematic.  Such is the case here.  Lydia’s being taught an object lesson is not bad, for those teachings can often lead one to reflect on and change behavior for the better once it is understood that the current way of life is not advantageous.  However, handing his responsibility over to Colonel Forster to “keep [Lydia] out of any real mischief” is not what a responsible father would do.  Wishing that his daughter would be jilted by multiple men is also harsh.  Elizabeth can only

force…[herself] to be content; but her own opinion [about Lydia’s Brighton trip] continued the same, and she left [her father] disappointed and sorry.

Knowing that she could do nothing to change her father’s opinion, Elizabeth’s consolation was that she had “performed her duty.”

Elizabeth’s main concern is the reputation of both Lydia and the Bennet family.  She has already been the recipient of Mr. Darcy’s criticism towards her family, and Jane, for now, has lost the opportunity to marry Bingley due to her family’s embarrassing behavior.  Lydia would only make matters worse.  While Elizabeth does not challenge her father nor dwell on his decision to do nothing, she is “disappointed” in him.

This “disappointment” then encourages Elizabeth to reflect further on her father.  She says, in a passage that we had mentioned earlier in this essay,

[Mr. Bennet] was fond of the country and of books; and from these tastes had arisen his principle enjoyments.  To his wife, he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement.  That is not the sort of happiness which a man would in general wish to owe to his wife; but where other powers of entertainment are wanting, the true philosopher will derive benefit from such as are given.  Elizabeth, however, had never been blind to the impropriety of her father’s behavior as a husband.  She had always seen it with pain; but respecting his abilities and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself she endeavored to forget what she could not overlook and to banish from her thoughts that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.  But she never felt so strongly as now, the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage, nor ever been so fully aware of the evils arising from so ill-judged a direction of talents; talents, which rightly used, might at least have preserved the respectability of his daughters, even if incapable of enlarging the mind of his wife. 

Mr. Bennet is not “the true philosopher.”  “The true philosopher” finds happiness in any circumstance; said “philosopher” is not sarcastic and cynical as Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth are.  Elizabeth feels “strongly” the “disadvantages” of Mr. Bennet’s misuse of his “talents” because this reflection is immediately after her “disappointment” that her father did not prevent Lydia from traveling to Brighton to flirt with men.  Moreover, Mr. Darcy had just proposed to Elizabeth, despite having multiple issues with her family, and Bingley listened to Mr. Darcy and temporarily ended his involvement with Jane.  While Elizabeth’s prejudice  and flawed reason are responsible for multiple problems in her life, the novel seems to put more blame on Mr. Bennet as Elizabeth, though “grateful for [her father’s] affectionate treatment of herself,” does not hesitate to blame him here.  The novel also does not question Elizabeth’s critique as it does elsewhere.

The capstone moment for the novel’s faulting Mr. Bennet’s sarcasm and cynicism is when he is “proud” of Wickham, the man who seduced, then tried to abandon, and only married Lydia when Mr. Darcy intervened. Mr. Bennet says

[Wickham] is as fine a fellow…as ever I saw.  He simpers, and smirks, and makes love to us all.  I am prodigiously proud of him.  I defy even Sir William Lucas himself, to produce a more valuable son-in-law. 

Wickham is “valuable” to Mr. Bennet due to his contemptible qualities.  (We see similar sarcasm and cynicism when he tells Elizabeth, earlier in the novel, that Wickham would jilt her “credibly”).  Moreover, Mr. Bennet’s “impatience” to see Collins was frustrated when Charlotte married him.  As Mr. Bennet’s “philosophy” relies heavily on others to “amuse” him, Wickham now satisfies the “impatience” that Mr. Bennet once had to see Collins, which is why he “defies” Sir William Lucas to “produce a more valuable son-in-law.”  This “defiance” is not how “the true philosopher” finds happiness in life.  

Now considering the motives of Mr. Bennet and considering Elizabeth and Jane’s silence about Wickham, Jane comes out on top, for she is the most unselfish of the three.  Elizabeth glories in being right, while others could be fooled by Wickham, and Mr. Bennet wants a “valuable” son-in-law for his amusement.  Additionally, blame is cast more on Mr. Bennet because his lack of parenting is largely responsible for Lydia’s situation.  Had he intervened, Lydia never falls for Wickham.

The final philosophical breech between Elizabeth and her father is in chapter 57.  Mr. Bennet’s belief is that what he and Elizabeth live for is to “make sport for our neighbours (sic), and laugh at them in our turn.”  The context is that Mr. Bennet has received word that Mr. Darcy wants to marry Elizabeth.  With usual sarcasm, he tells Elizabeth that Mr. Darcy only looks at women to see a “blemish” and probably never looked at Elizabeth in his life.  Elizabeth, as she similarly did earlier in the novel, “force[d]” a “most reluctant smile.”  Her father’s “wit” was not “agreeable” to her.  That is when Mr. Bennet asks Elizabeth the above question, following his question by noting how Mr. Darcy’s “indifference” and Elizabeth’s “pointed dislike” make the whole idea of Mr. Darcy’s proposing “delightfully absurd.”  Elizabeth “forces” out a laugh, and the chapter ends with Elizabeth questioning whether she had “fancied too much” in regards to marrying Mr. Darcy.  Mr. Bennet unknowingly distresses his daughter, but he only believes Mr. Darcy to be “indifferent” because Elizabeth cynically said so throughout the novel; in a way, she gets a taste of her own medicine as her father “enjoys” the moment at her expense but assumes that she also shares in his “enjoyment.”

Shortly after this scene, Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, and they have a key conversation outlining their respective life philosophies.  Elizabeth says that “we should only think of the past as its remembrance gives us pleasure.”  This philosophy is not Jane’s benevolence and is not exactly naiveté, but it is similar in the way that it focuses on previous good moments in life and does not involve sarcasm and cynicism or her father’s life motto to “make sport” and “laugh” at neighbours.  Furthermore, this philosophy is different from previous passages where Elizabeth dwelled on her errors.  Mr. Bennet has also made mistakes, but his solution was to punish his wife with sarcastic remarks and neglect his other four daughters.  Elizabeth chooses to put her errors behind her now and only “remember” what brings “pleasure.”  Mr. Bennet’s “pleasure” is books and countryside; neither of those, while respectively good, involves caring for another person; instead, they involve isolating himself from others. 

Mr. Darcy has also proposed to Elizabeth.  Often, when a person suffers from mistakes or the effects of mistakes, she will reproach herself.  Elizabeth is now happy, so her mind is able to set those mistakes behind.  Additionally, Mr. Darcy is reproaching himself for his letter, which was examined earlier in this essay, to Elizabeth.  Knowing that Mr. Darcy is suffering, Elizabeth may state her philosophy out of kindness and love, wanting both parties to enjoy their new marriage and life together.  If Mr. Darcy has life-long regrets, those regrets can make marriage miserable, as Elizabeth has seen with her parents, and remind her of her own misjudgments concerning Mr. Darcy.  Still, Elizabeth does not necessarily strive to improve if she simply wants to forget anything that does not bring “pleasure,” and Mr. Bennet did not use his previous mistakes to improve himself or his children, finding “pleasure” at the expense of others.  While both of these “pleasures” have problems, Elizabeth’s is not at the expense of others, making it better than the sarcastic-cynical approach.   

Overall, Jane, Elizabeth, and Mr. Bennet are probably the three most problematic characters in Pride and Prejudice in the way that they challenge a reader to think about which is better: Jane’s benevolence, which largely stems from naiveté, or Mr. Bennet’s (and Elizabeth’s tendency to be like her father) sarcastic and cynical rational-based thinking?  While the novel tends to favor reason, this view does not mean that Jane’s wanting to be nice to everyone is bad, for how we treat people is often of the highest importance.  We have also seen that reason can have major shortcomings; sometimes, what makes sense is not always correct.  Perhaps, as in Emma, the motive behind a decision matters more, at times, than the decision itself.  Either way, the problem of Elizabeth, Jane, and Mr. Bennet will forever be worth discussing.

 

[1] Throughout this essay, when I refer to specific words from Pride and Prejudice¸ I will put these words in quotation marks.

[2] This point is important because Jane Austen’s narrators are capable of irony and criticism.  (e.g., Emma “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence,” Charlotte’s marriage to Collins was the “only honourable (sic) provision” for a woman in her position, and so on.  These passages, and there are many others, question whether the narrator speaks straightforwardly or ironically).

[3] These sermons were religious in content and addressed topics deemed relevant to females that included dating, marriage, education, and so forth.  In short, these sermons used religion to foster duty and obedience in females; additionally, Collins’ strong disapproval of novels, which featured characters usually relatable to most readers, were viewed as a degradation to the female mind and would presumably arouse her to excessive emotion (or sensibility) as the female mind was seen as weak (or, as mentioned earlier, “silly”).  In Jane Eyre, Mr. Brocklehurst—a tyrannical, religious bully whom the novel despises, thankfully— subjects girls to inhumane, unjust punishments when they fail to submit and obey authority.   Mary Wollstonecraft, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, says, “I should not allow girls to peruse [Fordyce], unless I designed to hunt every spark of nature out of their composition, melting every human quality into female meekness and artificial grace.  I say artificial, for true grace arises from some kind of independence of mind.”      

[4] This shared happiness is similar to John Keats’s narrator, in “Ode to a Nightingale,” when he believes that his heart “aches” from being “too happy in [the nightingale’s] happiness” (the true source of the narrator’s “ache” is debatable in the poem). 


     Seth Snow has a master’s degree in English Literature from The University of Akron and teaches a course called Jane Austen, where he and his students read and discuss Emma and Persuasion. He also teaches Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility in British Literature and Women’s Literature, respectively.

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