Pride and Prejudice Summary and Analysis
by Jane Austen
Volume I, Chapters 15-23
The narrator provides some insight into Mr. Collins. Owing to both an "illiterate and miserly father" and the unexpected good fortune of finding Lady Catherine for a patroness, he is both overly humble and yet full of himself. His intention is to "make amends" for the entailment, by marrying one of the Bennet daughters. Though initially attracted to Jane because of her beauty, he shifts his attention to Elizabeth after learning from Mrs. Bennet that Jane might soon be engaged.
Mr. Collins joins the ladies on a walk to Meryton. There, they meet Mr. Denny, an officer whom Lydia and Kitty know. He introduces them to Mr. Wickham, a new member of the regiment and a handsome and charming man. During the conversation, Bingley and Darcy pass by and greet them. Elizabeth notices that Darcy and Wickham grow extremely uncomfortable upon regarding one another. Soon enough, Bingley and Darcy continue on their way.
Once the party arrives at the Phillips house, Mr. Denny and Wickham take their leave. Inside, Jane introduces Mr. Collins to Mrs. Phillips, who promises to invite the entire household to dinner the next night. She also plans to invite Wickham.
The narrative shifts to the dinner engagement the following evening. Before dinner, Mr. Collins praises Lady Catherine and her mansion Rosings to Mrs. Phillips, who is favorably impressed.
During dinner, Elizabeth forms a very favorable impression of Mr. Wickham, and converses with him at length throughout the evening. On top of being charmed, she wants to investigate the animosity she observed between him and Darcy. Wickham raises the subject by asking how long Darcy has been in the area. When Elizabeth confesses her dislike, Wickham pretends to avoid the subject but quickly enough tells his story.
Wickham was raised at Pemberly, the Darcy estate, son to one of the family's servants. Because Wickham's father was such a loyal servant, Mr. Darcy's father bequeathed young Wickham an ample living in his will. However, Darcy circumvented his father's promise after the elder man died, and gave that money to someone else, solely from jealousy of Wickham. In other words, Darcy cruelly doomed Wickham to a life of poverty.
Outraged, Elizabeth suggests that Darcy should be publicly dishonored, but Wickham refuses to do so from respect for the man's father. Together, they criticize Darcy's pride, and Wickham explains that Darcy is occasionally generous with his money, but solely to avoid disgracing the family. Further, he suggests that Darcy takes great care of Georgiana Darcy, his sister, and hints that he himself was one close with the girl.
Wickham also tells Elizabeth that Lady Catherine de Bourgh is Mr. Darcy's aunt, and that Mr. Darcy is expected to marry Miss de Bourgh in order to unite the fortunes of the two families.
The next day, Elizabeth tells Jane about her conversation with Wickham, but Jane refuses to think ill of either Wickham or Darcy, and assumes that there must simply be a misunderstanding.
Mr. Bingley and his sisters visit Netherfield to announce a ball. Mr. Collins tells the family that he plans to attend with them, and asks Elizabeth to save the first two dances for him. Though disappointed - she had hoped to dance those dances with Wickham, to whom she is now clearly attracted - she grants him the favor. Subsequently, she realizes that he is considering her as a future wife, and she does her best to ignore his insinuations of it.
The night of the Netherfield ball arrives, and Elizabeth takes extra care preparing. However, she is disappointed to discover that Wickham is not there; she assumes he avoided the dance because of Darcy's presence.
After relating her disappointment to Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth suffers through her two dances with Mr. Collins. Mr. Darcy then asks her to dance, and she is so taken by surprise that she accepts.
During the dance, Elizabeth makes a bit of sarcastic conversation, poking fun at Darcy's character. She alludes to her new acquaintance with Wickham, and insinuates that she knows of Darcy's poor behavior. They change the subject after Sir William Lucas briefly interrupts them, but Elizabeth directs the conversation towards Darcy's previous admission of his tendency toward resentment. After the dance, they part in silence. To himself, Darcy blames Wickham for the trouble.
Caroline, having learned from Jane about Elizabeth's new relationship with Wickham, warns Elizabeth not to trust Wickham. In fact, she insists that it is Wickham who mistreated Darcy. Elizabeth reacts rudely. Jane also tells Elizabeth that Bingley believes Wickham to be the villain in the situation, but Elizabeth dismisses this as well - she believes that Bingley must be blinded to the truth by his friendship for Darcy.
Mr. Collins learns that Darcy is Lady Catherine's nephew, and introduces himself despite Elizabeth's warnings that he is overstepping formality because of Darcy's superior social status. Darcy is surprised by Mr. Collins, but replies to him politely before walking away.
Throughout the evening, Jane enjoys a wonderful time with Bingley, and Elizabeth enjoys observing her sister's happiness. Mrs. Bennet is equally happy, and during the dinner speaks unceasingly and loudly about the likelihood of an engagement. Elizabeth is particularly mortified that Mr. Darcy is clearly able to overhear her mother's babbling.
After dinner, Mary accepts an invitation to play and sing at the piano, and is insensible to Elizabeth's hints that she ought to decline. After Mary's second piece, Elizabeth convinces her father to stop Mary from continuing. Mr. Collins then delivers a speech about the importance of music, insisting likewise that it is inferior to other clerical duties. Overall, Elizabeth is completely embarrassed by her family's conduct throughout the evening.
At the end of the ball, Mrs. Bennet invites Bingley to dinner at Longbourn, and he promises to come as soon as he returns form a short trip to London.
The next day, Mr. Collins proposes to Elizabeth, in a long and pompous speech. He explains that it is appropriate for someone at his place in life to marry, and that he wants to marry one of the Miss Bennets in order to compensate for the entailment.
Elizabeth refuses him in no uncertain terms, but Mr. Collins refuses to believe that her refusal could be sincere. He considers initial refusal to be a formality of female coquetry, meant to flatter a woman's ego. Elizabeth repeats and strengthens her refusal, but when he continues to deny her sincerity, she simply leaves.
When Mrs. Bennet learns from Mr. Collins that Elizabeth has refused to marry him, she entreats Mr. Bennet to force Elizabeth to change her mind. Mr. Bennet agrees to speak with Elizabeth, but actually tells her that he refuses to let her marry someone like Mr. Collins. Mrs. Bennet does not give up, however, and continually argues with Elizabeth over her refusal.
In the midst of all this confusion, Charlotte Lucas comes to visit. Eventually, Mr. Collins accepts Elizabeth's refusal.
Mr. Collins treats Elizabeth coldly for the rest of the day, and shifts his attentions to Charlotte Lucas.
After breakfast, the girls walk together to Meryton. There, Elizabeth speaks with Wickham, and he accompanies them back to Longbourn, paying particular attention to Elizabeth during the walk.
Upon their return, Jane finds a letter from Caroline Bingley, stating that they have all left Netherfield for London, and have no intention of returning for at least another six months. The letter also reveals the family's expectation that Mr. Bingley will marry Georgiana Darcy, implying that they do not want him to marry Jane.
Elizabeth attempts to comfort Jane by reassuring her that Caroline is cruelly trying to prevent a union that Bingley clearly wants. She believes that Bingley will most assuredly return to Netherfield.
For the rest of the day, Charlotte engages Mr. Collins in conversation. It is clear she is deliberately soliciting his interest. Early the next morning, Mr. Collins walks to Lucas Lodge to propose to Charlotte. She accepts, and Sir William and Lady Lucas approve the match.
Mr. Collins leaves the next day, without informing the Bennets of his engagement. He promises, however, to return soon, and is oblivious to Mr. Bennet's sarcastic assurances that he need not rush.
Later that day, Charlotte tells Elizabeth about her engagement. Elizabeth is shocked, but tries to be kind in her reaction. She is, however, very unhappy about Charlotte's decision because she thinks that the match is completely unsuitable, and is disappointed that Charlotte would marry for such materialistic reasons.
Soon after Charlotte confesses her news, Sir William Lucas arrives at Longbourn to announce the engagement. The rest of the family is surprised, and Mrs. Bennet incredulous. Once she is convinced of the truth, she grows angry with Elizabeth for having lost a potential husband.
Over time, Elizabeth and Charlotte do not discuss the subject of the marriage with each other, and their friendship gradually diminishes.
Meanwhile, Jane and Elizabeth both grow concerned at not hearing any news from Mr. Bingley.
Eventually, Mr. Collins returns to Longbourn in order to make preparations for his marriage. The Bennets are not happy to see him, but are glad at least that he spends most of his time at Lucas Lodge.
Austen's primary themes - pride and prejudice, as reflected in the title - come even more to the fore in these chapters. In particular, the introduction of Mr. Wickham reveals to us to the depth of both Elizabeth's prejudice and her blindness to it. Always confident of her ability to judge the characters of others, Elizabeth quickly forms a favorable opinion of Mr. Wickham. And yet her pride in her ability is so complete that she cannot recognize how much that opinion is shaped by her attraction to him. For all the silliness that Elizabeth (and Austen) criticize other females over, Elizabeth is not above such influences, as evidenced by the extra time she takes preparing herself for the ball.
Further, her pride is somewhat flattered when she learns that her opinion of Darcy was so on point. Though she does not doubt Wickham's accusations of Darcy's sinister, petty nature - partly because they confirm her own feelings and partly because she is so charmed by Wickham - a careful reader can easily discern reasons to be suspicious of him. For one, Wickham's method of bringing Darcy up, and then feigning interest in changing the subject before telling her the entire story, is suspect. At the same time that he claims he does not want to talk too openly of Darcy, allegedly out of respect for the latter's father, he is in fact confessing a lot of unsolicited information to someone barely more than a stranger. His behavior is easier to see as contradictory if one is not charmed by him as Elizabeth is. Later, Elizabeth will remember this scene and notice all these things, but she is entirely unable to recognize anything suspicious in Wickham in the moment.
Once again, we see how Elizabeth's prejudgments of Darcy lead to a complete lack of objectivity. Of course, these prejudgments themselves are a result of wounded pride. In the same way that Wickham's attentions flatter her and predispose her to believe him, so was her first impression of Darcy tempered by the insult he unknowingly leveled at her.
Amusingly, while Elizabeth rightly criticizes Jane on several occasions for her incessant optimism, Elizabeth's cynicism is less on point in this matter, precisely because it is she who is blinded. Jane ultimately proves correct in giving Darcy the benefit of the doubt.
Worst of all, Elizabeth lets her prejudice influence her behavior. Because she so blindly believes what she has heard about Darcy, she is positively cruel to him at the Netherfield ball. Ironically, the reader realizes that Darcy is attempting to transcend the limitations of his pride by asking her to dance. She remains of a lower class, and he knows that his feelings are not 'proper,' and yet he indulges them. Elizabeth cannot see this, however, and persists in both speaking sarcastically to him and insinuating that he was cruel towards Wickham.
Their attitudes after their dance present an interesting contrast. She is given two occasions - from Caroline and Mr. Bingley - to question her assumptions. And yet she refuses. Darcy, on the other hand, refuses to let Elizabeth's slight to his pride influence his feelings for her. Instead, he forgives her to himself, and (correctly) assumes that Wickham must be the culprit. Yet again, Elizabeth ironically criticizes others (the Bingleys) for being influenced by prejudice (for Darcy), while it in fact she whose prejudice (against Darcy) prohibits the truth from coming out.
(As a side note, a contemporary reader might be confused about the nature of these dances, especially since so much conversation occurs during them. Upper class balls at this time involved dances that lasted over several pieces of music, and a very formal style that allowed experienced dancers to talk at leisure.)
Class remains a significant source of prejudice on all sides. The social interactions at the ball provide the reader with a picture of the formalities of early 19th century English society, and the extreme importance which rank and wealth played in social relations. Elizabeth is extremely aware of these social conventions, and is continually embarrassed by her family's lack of propriety. The question of Austen's conservative nature is again raised, since she is no way criticizes such separation. Instead, she seems to be firmly on Elizabeth's side here.
That being said, Austen does seem to consider personal behavior as more important than class. She is willing to criticize Darcy for his pride and Mrs. Bennet for her foolishness in equal stride, and obviously sees the transcending of class difficulties as possible. Ultimately, Elizabeth's family is meant to be judged for their behavior not solely because they transgressed propriety, but because they do so in such a foolish way.
Similarly, Bingley's disappearance from the countryside is presented as a scheme launched by Caroline Bingley. Because the reader sees so clearly that Jane and Bingley do have a mutual regard for one another, it seems obvious that he must have been persuaded to quit Jane's company, and likely for reasons of social status. And yet Austen clearly does not find this type of separation acceptable - instead, she champions the joining of like-minded people over rigid class separations, and looks down on those (like Caroline) who scheme to enforce such rigid separations. Overall, Austen seems to admit the value in acknowledging class, but does not see it as all-encompassing.
Austen's attitudes towards marriage are far more complex. Overall, the novel does criticize the idea of marriage as a materialistic institution, especially for women who otherwise have so little agency in society. And yet she is far from revolutionary in her thinking, since she has so much sympathy for those who have to endure these realities.
Her strongest critique of marriage as a loveless contract comes through Mr. Collins. The style of his proposal to Elizabeth - which seems more appropriate for a business deal than for a declaration of love - reinforces the way many men saw marriage, and recalls the novel's first line. As he lists out his reasons - Lady Catherine's advice, his desire to make amends, the expectations for his profession - before mentioning his regard for Elizabeth, he is certainly absurd, but hardly untruthful. Instead, his foolishness arguably allows him to be more honest about the sad truth of most proposals than a more worldly man might be.
Further, his refusal to accept her refusal suggests a rather ugly view of women. He assumes that all females refuse on the first request, as a source of pride. For Mr. Collins, everything is an expression of social propriety; he is unable to hear the meaning behind words, and instead can only judge whether something is socially acceptable or not. Her refusal, then, is to him simply a manifestation of some bizarre female tradition.
One could write this off as a character trait if the attitude were not reflected in so many other places. Mrs. Bennet is the most immediate example, but even more telling, Mr. Darcy's proposal later in the novel shares certain characteristics with Collins's. The latter one lacks any sense of comedy, but shares a similar arrogance, assumption about female behavior, and personal outrage at the refusal. Clearly, the idea that marriage works as a business partnership is not only true for the fools.
Some critics even see Austen's treatment of Mary, arguably the novel's least-important character, as a criticism of marriage pressures placed on females. In these chapters, Mary is actually judged as irrelevant, her piano playing demeaned and stopped. Throughout the novel, she tends to enter a scene for a moment of comic relief before returning to her studies. Some critics see Mary as a cipher for Austen herself - the silent, bookish sister - but others see Mary's irrelevance as a comment on the centrality of marriage pressures in the world. Mary has excused herself from those pressures; she seems entirely uninterested in them. Perhaps Austen was representing her as irrelevant because her world has no use for women who do not participate in the pressures of courtship and marriage. Because she would be ignored by the patriarchy that is seeking wives as part of a business arrangement, so does Austen ignore her. If this interpretation is valid, then it provides a potential illustration of Austen's sympathies.
But Austen's greatest sympathies are reflected through Charlotte Lucas, who does accept Mr. Collins. First, it is important to recognize that though we do not see much of Charlotte in the novel, we should consider her a level-headed woman. Elizabeth has little tolerance for those who are not intelligent and interesting, and Charlotte is presented as her best friend.
And yet when Charlotte accepts Mr. Collins, Elizabeth can make no sense of it. In fact, her esteem quickly lessens (again showing the harshness of her prejudice). Charlotte has already expressed her belief that marriage is a financial arrangement, and yet Elizabeth is disgusted by this conventional, pragmatic view. Austen, on the other hand, is arguably sympathetic to the reality of Charlotte's situation. Without an independent income, Charlotte must marry in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle, and has no particular hopes of actually finding a husband whom she loves. Austen is straightforward about this fact: "Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want."
Austen thus uses Charlotte and her pragmatic view of marriage as a contrast to Elizabeth's resolve to marry on the basis of love. Charlotte acts as the prototype of a typical upper class young woman in Austen's time, while Elizabeth is the exception. She is willing to sacrifice the assurance of being comfortably married in the hopes of obtaining greater happiness by marrying someone whom she actually loves. That Elizabeth is successful - landing a man whom she not only admires but who is also rich as the heavens - does not detract from the sad reality of what led Charlotte to make her choice. And at this point in the novel, a potential tragedy has been presented: with Bingley gone, will the lovely Jane Bennet be forced to make a similar compromise in order to find a husband?
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