Pride and Prejudice Summary and Analysis
by Jane Austen
Volume I, Chapters 15-23
The narrator offers some insight into Mr. Collins's past. Owing to the combination of an "illiterate and miserly father" and the unexpected good fortune of finding Lady Catherine as a patroness, Collins is both overly humble and yet completely full of himself. His intention in coming to Longbourn is to "make amends" for the entailment by marrying one of the Bennet daughters. Though he is initially attracted to Jane because of her beauty, Collins 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. On the way, they meet Mr. Denny, an officer that Lydia and Kitty know. He introduces them to Mr. Wickham, a handsome and charming new member of the regiment. While the parties are conversing, Bingley and Darcy pass by and greet them. Elizabeth notices that Darcy and Wickham grow extremely uncomfortable around each other. Soon enough, Bingley and Darcy continue on their way. Once the party arrives at the Phillips house, Mr. Denny and Mr. 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 Mr. Wickham.
The narrative shifts to the dinner engagement at the Phillips home the following evening. Before dinner, Mr. Collins praises Lady Catherine and her mansion, Rosings, to Mrs. Phillips, who is impressed. During dinner, Elizabeth forms a very favorable impression of Mr. Wickham and converses with him at length throughout the evening. In addition to enjoying the charming flirtation, Elizabeth wants to investigate the animosity she observed between him and Darcy. Wickham raises the subject by asking her how long Darcy has been in the area. When Elizabeth confesses her dislike, Wickham pretends to avoid the subject but changes his mind quickly enough and relays his story.
Wickham is the son of one of the servants at Pemberly, the Darcy family's estate. Wickham's father was a loyal servant for many years, so 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 Wickham's intended inheritance to someone else. Wickham believes that Darcy's jealousy grew out of observing the elder Darcy's affection for young Wickham. In order to punish his rival, Darcy cruelly subjected Wickham to live a life of poverty (against his late father's wishes).
Outraged, Elizabeth suggests that Darcy should be publicly dishonored, but Wickham refuses to do so out of respect for the man's father. Together, they criticize Darcy's pride. Wickham explains that Darcy is only generous with his money when he is trying to avoid disgracing the family. Furthermore, Wickham shares that Darcy is very close to and protective of his younger sister, Georgiana Darcy, 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 young 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. Instead, Jane assumes that there must simply be a misunderstanding between them. Mr. Bingley and his sisters announce a ball and invite the Bennet family. Mr. Collins informs the Bennets that he plans to attend the ball as well, and asks Elizabeth to save the first two dances for him. She is disappointed because she had hoped to dance with Wickham, but Elizabeth grants her cousin the favor. Subsequently, Elizabeth realizes that Mr. Collins is considering her to be his wife and tries to ignore his insinuations in the hopes of putting him off.
The night of the Netherfield ball arrives, and Elizabeth takes extra care in preparing herself for the occasion. However, she is disappointed to discover that Wickham is not there; she assumes he has avoided the ball because of Darcy's presence. After relating her disappointment to Charlotte Lucas, Elizabeth suffers through her two dances with the awkward Mr. Collins. After that, Mr. Darcy asks Elizabeth to dance and she is so shocked that she accepts.
While dancing with Mr. Darcy, Elizabeth makes sarcastic comments to poke fun at Darcy's character. She alludes to her new acquaintance with Wickham and insinuates that she knows about the extent of Darcy's poor behavior. Sir William Lucas briefly interrupts them, but Elizabeth soon 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.
Meanwhile, Jane has informed Caroline Bingley about Elizabeth's new relationship with Wickham. Caroline warns Elizabeth not to trust Wickham. In fact, she insists that it was Wickham who mistreated Darcy and not the other way around. Elizabeth reacts rudely, rejecting the suggestion. Jane also tells Elizabeth that Bingley believes Wickham to be the villain in the situation, but Elizabeth dismisses this as well. She concludes that Bingley must be blind to the truth because of his friendship with Darcy.
Mr. Collins learns that Darcy is Lady Catherine's nephew. He introduces himself to Darcy despite Elizabeth's warnings that he is overstepping his social bounds. While Mr. Collins's effusive introduction catches Darcy by surprise, he nevertheless replies to Collins politely before walking away. Throughout the evening, Jane enjoys Bingley's company, and Elizabeth is overjoyed upon observing her sister's happiness. Mrs. Bennet is thrilled about the connection and speaks loudly and incessantly about the likelihood of an engagement. Elizabeth is particularly mortified that Mr. Darcy is close enough to overhear her mother's babbling.
After dinner, Mary accepts an invitation to play and sing at the piano, ignoring 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, but makes sure to insist 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 rejects Collins's proposal in no uncertain terms, but Mr. Collins refuses to believe her. He vocalizes his belief that her initial refusal is simply a formality of female coquetry. Elizabeth repeats and strengthens her stance, but when Collins continues to deny her sincerity, she simply leaves the room.
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 continues to argue with Elizabeth about the matter. 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 Bennet girls walk together to Meryton. While there, Elizabeth speaks with Wickham. He accompanies the party back to Longbourn, paying particular attention to Elizabeth during their walk. Upon their return home, Jane finds a letter from Caroline Bingley. She writes that the entire Bingley family has 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, thus implying that they do not want him to marry Jane.
Elizabeth attempts to comfort Jane by reassuring her that Caroline is trying to manipulate her brother in order to prevent him from marrying a socially inferior woman. Elizabeth 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 Longbourn the next day without informing the Bennets of his engagement. However, he mysteriously promises to return soon, remaining oblivious to Mr. Bennet's sarcastic insistence 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. She is disappointed that her friend would marry for such materialistic reasons.
Soon after Charlotte shares the news of her engagement with Elizabeth, Sir William Lucas arrives at Longbourn to make the official announcement. The rest of the Bennet family is surprised, and Mrs. Bennet is absolutely incredulous. Once she finally accepts the truth, Mrs. Bennet grows angry with Elizabeth for having let go of a potential husband. Over time, Elizabeth and Charlotte do not discuss the subject of the marriage with each other, and their friendship briefly diminishes. Meanwhile, Jane and Elizabeth both grow concerned about of the lack of correspondence from Mr. Bingley.
Eventually, Mr. Collins returns to Longbourn in order to make preparations for his marriage. The Bennets are not exactly happy to see him and are grateful that he spends most of his time at Lucas Lodge.
The novel's primary themes of pride and prejudice come to the fore in these chapters as conflict arises between the families in Hetfordshire. In particular, Elizabeth's association with Mr. Wickham reveals the depth of her prejudice and her blindness to this flaw. Remaining confident in her ability as a shrewd judge of character, Elizabeth quickly forms a favorable opinion of the charming and handsome Mr. Wickham. However, Elizabeth's pride is so strong that she cannot see how much her attraction to this handsome stranger has shaped her initial assessment of him. Additionally, while Elizabeth often criticizes other women for their silliness, she proves to be prone to superficial behavior as well; she spends extra time primping for the Netherfield ball because she expects to see Wickham there.
Wickham inadvertently inflates Elizabeth's pride by corroborating her opinion of Darcy. She easily believes Wickham's description of Darcy's sinister, petty nature because it confirms her first impression of him and because she is attracted to Wickham. However, from an objective standpoint, Wickham's behavior proves him to be less than trustworthy. For one, Wickham brings up the subject of Darcy but then claims he does not want to speak out of turn about Darcy, allegedly out of respect for the latter's father. However, he soon confesses a lot of unsolicited information to Elizabeth, whom he has just met. Later in the novel, Elizabeth remembers this scene and recognizes all of Wickham's inconsistencies in retrospect. She realizes that she believed him because she wanted to.
Elizabeth lets her prejudice against Darcy influence her behavior. She is positively cruel to him at the Netherfield ball. An objective reader can see that Darcy is attempting to transcend the limitations of his own pride by asking Elizabeth to dance. She belongs to a lower class and he knows that his feelings are not socially 'proper,' and yet he indulges them. Elizabeth cannot (or does not want to) see this, however, and makes sarcastic comments towards Darcy while they are dancing, insinuating that Darcy behaved ill towards Wickham.
After their dance, Elizabeth has two separate occasions - during conversations with Caroline and Mr. Bingley - to question her assumptions about Darcy, but 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 of the misinformation. Yet again, Elizabeth ironically criticizes others (the Bingleys) for being influenced by personal prejudice (their friendship with Darcy), while it in fact Elizabeth's prejudice against Darcy and attraction to Wickham that prohibits the truth from coming out. As a side note, readers might be confused about the nature of these dances that enable the partners to converse at length. At these upper class balls, each "dance" lasted for several pieces of music. The choreography was formal and consistent at every party, so experienced dancers could easily talk at leisure while on the dance floor.
The social interactions at the Netherfield ball introduce contemporary readers to the formalities of early 19th century English society. Overall, rank and wealth played the most crucial role in the formation of social relations. Elizabeth is extremely aware of these social conventions, and is embarrassed by her family's lack of propriety over the course of the evening. Austen seems aligned with Elizabeth in her shame, which could potentially be proof of the author's conservatism. That being said, Austen does seem to put a greater emphasis on personal conduct than social class. Darcy's pride is just as unflattering as Mrs. Bennet's foolishness, which indicates that bad behavior knows no class boundaries. Ultimately, Elizabeth (and therefore, Austen) does not judge her family for their behavior because they have transgressed propriety, but because they have done so in such a foolish way.
Similarly, the Bingleys's sudden departure from the countryside appears to be one of Caroline Bingley's schemes. Austen makes it clear that Jane and Bingley are fond of each other, but also is realistic about the odds their union would have faced. Elizabeth asserts that Bingley must have been pushed into quitting Jane's company, probably because of the Bennets's social status. Austen clearly believes that love can transcend rigid class separations. She paints an unfavorable portrait of class-obsessed individuals (like Caroline) who manipulate love in order to enforce such rigid separations.
Mr. Collins embodies Austen's critique of marriage as a loveless contract. His mechanical proposal to Elizabeth seems more appropriate for a business deal than a declaration of love (and recalls the first line of the novel). Collins starts out his proposal by listing the practical reasons for a marriage to Elizabeth: Lady Catherine's advice, his desire to make amends with the Bennets, and the expectations for his profession. Only after finishing his list does he mention his regard for Elizabeth. He also shows his profound lack of self-awareness (or pride) by refusing to accept Elizabeth's refusal. He decides to view her repeated rejections as a demonstration of her coy, feminine nature instead of facing the truth about himself. While his bumbling proposal is completely devoid of love or romance, Collins does speak truthfully about his reasons for marriage, thus serving as a mouthpiece for Austen's criticism of the system.
Some critics believe that Austen's portrayal of Mary Bennet is in itself a criticism of the pressure for women to marry. Mary is repeatedly cast off as irrelevant, like when Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet stop her from playing the piano. Throughout the novel, Mary only appears to provide a moment of comic relief before returning to her studies. Because Mary is the least "marriage-able" of the Bennet sisters, her insignificance in the novel appears to be a comment on the importance of marriage in defining a woman. Mary has excused herself from marital pressures; she seems entirely uninterested in them. It is possible that Mary is a cipher for Austen herself - the studious, bookish sister. If this interpretation is valid, then it provides a potential illustration of Austen's sympathies.
Elizabeth and Charlotte are best friends, despite their differing views on marriage. However, they grow apart when those ideas translate into actions. When Charlotte accepts Mr. Collins's proposal, Elizabeth can make no sense of it. In fact, she judges her friend so harshly that Charlotte slips significantly in Elizabeth's esteem. On the other hand, Austen frames Charlotte's situation in a sympathetic way. Because she lacks an independent fortune, Charlotte must marry well in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. "Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been [Charlotte's] 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 uses Charlotte's 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 in marrying a man she loves who also happens to be rich does not detract from the unfortunate reality of what leads Charlotte to make her choice. At this point in the novel, Austen presents a potential tragedy: with Bingley gone, Jane Bennet may be forced to make a similar compromise in order to find a husband.
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