In this chapter, Austen introduces the entail, an old British custom designed to keep a family estate within the bloodline. In this case, Longbourn can only pass on to a male heir. Because the Bennets have only daughters, they are likely to lose the estate to a distant relation upon Mr. Bennet's death.
Lydia and Kitty often visit their aunt, Mrs. Phillips, in nearby Meryton. They increase the frequency of their visits after the arrival of a militia regiment because they enjoy flirting with the soldiers. Mr. Bennet often complains of his two younger daughters' foolishness, but Mrs. Bennet does not consider their obsession with the officers to be a cause for concern.
Jane receives an invitation from the Bingley girls to dine at Netherfield. Mrs. Bennet instructs Jane to go on horseback, hoping that the rain will force Jane to spend the night and have an opportunity to interact with Mr. Bingley. Jane does not like her mother's scheme but has no choice but to go along with it. The plan works too well, however. Not only does the rain detain Jane at Netherfield, but she falls ill as a result of getting soaked on her ride there. The Bingley family expects Jane to stay at Netherfield until she recovers.
After receiving the letter informing the Bennets of Jane's illness, Elizabeth insists on visiting her sister at Netherfield. She walks through the wet fields because there are no horses available. By the time she arrives at Netherfield, Elizabeth is disheveled and has mud all over her dress. The Bingley sisters are shocked by her messy appearance. Darcy, on the other hand, quietly notices that the exercise has improved Elizabeth's complexion. Meanwhile, Jane's condition has intensified and she cannot leave her bed. Elizabeth attends to her sister with great solicitude all day. Jane does not want Elizabeth to leave her side that evening, so Caroline invites the younger Bennet sister to stay the night at Netherfield.
After dinner, Elizabeth leaves the table to attend to Jane, and the party begins to talk about her. Caroline harshly criticizes Elizabeth's pride and stubborn independence, but Mr. Bingley and Darcy admire her devotion to Jane. The Bingley sisters also deride the Bennets's low family connections. Bingley does not seem to care about the Bennets's social standing, although Darcy considers lowly status an impediment to the Bennet girls' chances of marrying well.
After Jane falls asleep, Elizabeth joins the others in the drawing room and participates in a conversation about what it means for a woman to be accomplished. Throughout the debate, Elizabeth and Darcy frequently disagree, although they argue with great wit. Darcy and Caroline provide unrealistic criteria for a woman to be considered accomplished, inciting Elizabeth to exclaim that she has never met such a woman in her life.
Elizabeth asks that her mother be summoned to visit Jane, and Bingley complies. When Mrs. Bennet arrives, she is pleased to see that Jane will eventually recover but still ill enough to remain at Netherfield (and in proximity to Mr. Bingley). Mrs. Bennet lacks subtlety and her intentions become quite clear to everyone at Netherfield. She is also openly rude to Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth is embarrassed by her mother's behavior and pleased when Mrs. Bennet departs.
That evening in the drawing room, Darcy writes a letter to his sister while Caroline makes silly comments intended to flatter his letter-writing style. He ignores her attempts at flirtation. The group affectionately mocks Bingley for his pliable character, but Elizabeth defends him, suggesting that it is a virtue to yield to the persuasions of one's friends. Again, most of the debate takes place between Elizabeth and Darcy.
Later, the Bingley sisters sing and play the piano. Elizabeth notices how frequently Mr. Darcy is looking at her, assuming that it is a sign of his disapproval. When Mr. Darcy asks her to dance, Elizabeth believes that his request is sarcastic and responds with a witty refusal. Caroline notices the interaction and later, privately taunts Darcy about the possibility of his marrying into a common family like the Bennets.
After dinner, Jane feels well enough to join the others in the drawing room. Elizabeth is delighted to see that Bingley is showing Jane so much attention. Meanwhile, Caroline continues her attempts to attract Darcy, and even feigns a love for reading. She then walks around the room in order to attract Darcy's admiration. She fails to arouse his attention, so she invites Elizabeth to walk with her. She notices that Darcy puts his book down and watches them. The group converses about Darcy's character, and Darcy admits that he has a tendency to be resentful. Elizabeth chastises him over his admission that he never changes his first impression of a person.
Once Jane has recovered, the Bennets plan to leave Netherfield. Mrs. Bennet is unwilling to send the carriage, hoping her daughters will stay longer, but the girls ask if they might borrow Bingley's carriage. He grants the favor. Everyone but Mr. Bingley is pleased to see Jane and Elizabeth go. Darcy is glad to be removed from the danger of Elizabeth's company, and Miss Bingley is glad to be rid of her competition.
The narrative shifts back to Longbourn. At breakfast the following day, Mr. Bennet announces that the family is expecting a visitor: Mr. Collins, the distant cousin who is next in the entail for the Longbourn estate (meaning that Mr. Collins will inherit the estate upon Mr. Bennet's death, since the latter produced no male heirs). Though nobody in the family has ever met Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet hates him right away because of the entail. Mr. Bennet reads Mr. Collins's letter to the family. In it, Collins explains that he has recently been ordained and is receiving patronage from an aristocrat named Lady Catherine De Bourgh.
Mr. Collins arrives the following afternoon, right on time. He is 25 years old, tall and heavyset, with a grave air and very formal manners. He tends to speak in long, overly-effusive monologues. Before dinner, Mr. Collins acknowledges the hardship that the entail presents to the Bennet family and professes his desire to make amends. He claims that he has come to Longbourn "prepared to admire" the young ladies of the household. Before he can explain his meaning, they are called to dinner. During dinner, Mr. Collins expresses his admiration for the house and the quality of the food.
After dinner, Mr. Bennet invites Mr. Collins to speak about his patroness Lady Catherine. Mr. Collins describes Lady Catherine with great solemnity and effusive praise, remarking on her great affability towards him, in spite of her high rank. He also describes Lady Catherine's daughter, Miss de Bourgh, as quite charming but rather sickly. Collins had worked to ingratiate himself with Lady Catherine by showering her daughter with flattering phrases. After this display, Mr. Bennet decides that Mr. Collins is absurd.
After tea, Mr. Bennet asks Mr. Collins to read aloud. Mr. Collins declares that he never reads novels, and instead begins to read from a book of sermons with "monotonous solemnity." After a few pages, Lydia interrupts the reading to ask her mother a question about her Uncle Philips. Mr. Collins is offended, but takes the hint and stops reading after briefly reprimanding Lydia's frivolity. He then proposes playing a game of backgammon.
When studying Jane Austen's work, it is useful to understand the organization of social classes during her time. The British class system was extremely complex. In effect, every family that has appeared thus far in Pride and Prejudice would have been considered 'upper class,' but there are several gradations within that ranking. The titled aristocrats, like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, represent the highest social class in the novel. Below that are families like the Darcys and the Bingleys. They are not fully aristocratic, but their social standing is defined by the profitability of their estates (on an annual basis). These families are what might be called "old money" in contemporary slang.
The Bennets are also an upper class family (they could be considered the lowest rung of upper-middle-class). They have an estate which yields an annual income, they do not work, and they partake in social service. However, the Bingleys and Darcys see the Bennets as inferior because of their rough behavior and lack of access to luxuries like multiple servants, additional rented estates, and endless disposable income. Elizabeth and Jane's stay at Netherfield is a dramatic vehicle for Austen to highlight the importance of class in Pride and Prejudice. Caroline Bingley and Mrs. Hurst make constant references to the Bennets's low connections, with particularly harsh comments about the fact that one of their relations in an attorney. While attorneys are well-respected in contemporary society, it was considered a "working profession" in Austen's day. Those in working professions made money from a trade rather than from an estate, therefore making attorneys utterly middle class.
At the beginning of the novel, Darcy firmly believes that class is an indicator of personality. He thinks to himself, "were it not for the inferiority of [Elizabeth's] connections, he should be in some danger," insinuating that her class would make it impossible for them to marry. However, this is an example of Austen's masterful use of dramatic irony (which is when the reader or audience know something that the characters do not). The fact that Darcy articulates the possibility of "danger" means that he is already falling for Elizabeth despite her class status. Throughout the novel, Austen uses this irony to frame Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship. Both Elizabeth and Darcy claim to believe in their first impressions of each other. In the same way that Darcy allows his class awareness to prejudice him against Elizabeth, her unyielding nature prejudices her against considering Darcy's virtues. However, their conversations and debates are charged with unique wit and energy - an indicator of their natural chemistry.
Elizabeth's dark, beautiful eyes are the symbolic core of Darcy's attraction to her. However, the darkness of her eyes are also representative of Elizabeth's weakness: allowing pride and prejudice to cloud her perception of other people. While she prides herself on being an excellent judge of character, it is her judgement of Darcy that makes Elizabeth blind to his affections. Her initial impression creates a lens through which she filters all of their interactions. When Darcy asks Elizabeth if she is inclined to dance a reel, she assumes he is mocking her and refuses him. When the group is speaking about Darcy's character, she identifies his flaw as "a propensity to hate everybody," while Darcy perceptively replies that Elizabeth's flaw is "willfully to misunderstand them." Elizabeth judges Darcy for over-valuing his first impression while she is actively exhibiting the same vice in her assessment of him.
Austen views the family as the fundamental unit of society, asserting that it is parents' responsibility to teach morals and values to their children. Kitty and Lydia learn their foolishness from their mother, but it is also the result of their father's neglect. From the beginning of the novel, Mr. Bennet simply writes off his younger daughters as silly and makes little effort to truly correct their behavior. Instead, he treats them in the same aloof manner that Elizabeth treats Darcy.
The question of surrounding Austen's conservatism becomes increasingly complex as the novel goes on. It is unclear how much she intended [Pride and Prejudice] to be a criticism of her society. However, Austen uses the circumstances of the entail to show her sympathy towards women during her time. Elizabeth and Jane moderate their reactions to the entailment because their education has acclimated them to the reality of the gender divide. Even if they do not like the rule, they also know better than to argue against it. On the other hand, Mrs. Bennet is vocal in denouncing the injustice of entailment. Without the income from the estate, her daughters must marry well in order to secure their livelihood. Furthermore, the entailment decreases the Bennet girls' marriage prospects because they will only receive small inheritances.
Some scholars argue that the only two women who speak up for gender equality in the context of the entail - Mrs. Bennet and later, Lady Catherine - are boorish and unappealing characters, therefore serving as proof of Austen's conservatism. Meanwhile, Austen's more sympathetic protagonists - Jane and Elizabeth - remain silent on the subject. However, it is also possible that because of the patriarchal culture she lived in, Austen needed to craft these outrageous characters in order to state an unequivocal truth without inciting too much controversy. Furthermore, it is important to note that that Austen paints Mr. Collins, the legal male heir of Longbourn, as the silliest character of all. In fact, Collins's buffoonery highlights the preposterous nature of a rule that grants Mr. Bennet's property to a distant relation instead of to his own daughters.
A supercilious man with overly formal manners and a strange combination of self-importance and obsequiousness, Mr. Collins is a heightened embodiment of the kinds of personalities that resulted from a strict class system. His exaggerated affection for Lady Catherine sets the reader up to judge her critically. Furthermore, Collins's attitude towards marriage is more absurdly pragmatic than any other character in the novel. He hopes to marry one of the Bennet daughters, believing that such a union will translate into a kind deed. He never even considers their personalities. Ultimately, Mr. Collins is another mouthpiece through which Austen can indirectly criticize certain social beliefs surrounding class and marriage.
Austen also made the bold choice of leading her readers to root for a union between a rich man (Darcy) and a poor girl (Elizabeth). However, Elizabeth later argues that her father is a "gentleman" as well - even though he has less money than Darcy. Elizabeth therefore promotes her own social stature in order to prove her equality to Darcy as opposed to openly suggesting that class structure is altogether meaningless.