Pride and Prejudice: On Foolishness

In my final look at Pride and Prejudice, I’m going to focus on foolishness. Much of the novel’s considerable humour is found in the behaviour of foolish characters, whose actions and dialogue not only provide comic relief, but also an interesting commentary on class snobbery and the consequences of poor parental guidance. I think one of the most enduringly appealing aspects of Austen’s writing is that she is so good at capturing people who are blind to their own faults. Let’s take Mrs Bennett, to start off with. Poor Mrs Bennett has become the epitome of the ’embarrassing mother’ – she is totally socially unaware, and sees no shame in talking indiscreetly about her daughter’s marriage prospects, or lack of them, in the most inappropriate of company. She is easily flattered and likes a bit of fun as much as her wayward younger daughters, thoroughly enjoying the attentions of the soldiers without realising how vulgar she is being. She refuses to hear criticism, always thinks she is right, and is shallow to almost painful proportions; as soon as Lydia’s marriage is confirmed, Mrs Bennett starts ordering clothes and talking about how wonderful it will be to have a married daughter to brag about. The shame of the circumstances and the blight this will bring on the prospects of her other daughters doesn’t even seem to occur to her. Mrs Bennett only sees and understands what she wants to, and she is quickly brought around in her dislikes of others when her personal gain is involved.

Mrs Bennett is comic relief because she is undeniably hilarious; her melodramatic, gossipy nature is is brought to life wonderfully in Austen’s portrayal of her speech and actions, and we can’t help but laugh at her. However, Mrs Bennett isn’t totally lacking in wits. Her desperation to see her daughters married isn’t because she’s stupid or shallow, but because she knows they will have practically nothing to live on when their father dies, and she wants them to be financially secure. Her artful wiles, such as getting Jane to go over to Netherfield on horseback in the rain so that she will catch cold, are silly, but they work. Even so, this isn’t to say that Mrs Bennett goes about things in the right way. Austen gives her the credit of having motivations, but her poor intelligence and childlike desire to get her own way have serious consequences. It is thanks to her poor parenting and poor governance of her own tongue that Mr Darcy removes Mr Bingley from Netherfield and poor Jane and Elizabeth nearly have their hearts broken, not to mention Lydia running off with Mr Wickham and causing not only much shame, anxiety and embarrassment, but a lifetime’s worth of an unhappy and unfulfilling marriage. Mrs Bennett is funny, yes, but Austen never lets us lose sight that her foolishness is dangerous, and causes far more harm than good.

Up next is Mr Collins. Oh, Mr Collins! Austen is a genius at portraying the deluded, and Mr Collins is on a par with Mr Elton when it comes to total lack of self awareness and genuine belief in his own fabulousness. What I especially love about Mr Collins is this self belief; where he has got it from, I don’t know, but his confidence in himself and his own abilities is truly astounding. He comes to stay at the Bennetts with the express purpose of leaving with a wife; the thought that he might get turned down never seems to enter his head. When Elizabeth refuses him, he thinks that she is playing a game as ladies are wont to, and proceeds to inform her that really he’s the best offer she’s ever likely to get, and she’d be mad to refuse him. Part of Mr Collins’ belief in his own immense value – not just to the opposite sex but to mankind in general – is his relationship with the De Bourgh family, to whom he grovels with an intensity one might liken to a pet dog. Mr Collins is a huge snob, and will do anything to be noticed by someone with a title. He thrives on Lady Catherine’s condescension and it is the highlight of his sad little life to think up appropriate compliments that he may drop oh-so-casually into later conversation to please Lady Catherine and her sickly daughter.

However, like Mrs Bennett, Mr Collins is not completely stupid; he may be totally insufferable with a hugely overinflated ego, but he has his head screwed on. His patronisation of the right sort of upper class type – namely that who also has an overinflated ego and thrives on being flattered – is hugely beneficial to his career and fortune. Lady Catherine’s patronage has assured him an excellent parish with promotional opportunities, not to mention good connections and a free meal at the big house several times a week. The old adage of ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ certainly rings true for Mr Collins, and though he values style over substance and money over morals, it can’t be denied that his laughable egotism and toe curlingly cringeworthy flattery of his social superiors have helped to secure him a very comfortable life indeed. Even though he does prosper financially, however, he never prospers emotionally; he has no true friends, and his wife married him for convenience, not love. Everyone with sense and heart can’t stand him, and his company is suffered, not desired. His inability to see the true value in other human beings will ensure that he never experiences the true happiness of life, that of loving and being loved, which really makes him the greatest of fools.

Finally, there is Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She is a well built, handsome woman, with a huge house, a large fortune and a massive ego. She loves nothing better than putting other people in their place and reminding them of hers; she enjoys Mr Collins’ company so much because he shows her the deference she believes she deserves. Lady Catherine takes every opportunity to make those she considers to be beneath her feel small, and Elizabeth’s spirited exchanges with her and refusal to be cowed into submission takes her completely by surprise because she has clearly never been challenged before. Lady Catherine’s identity and sense of wellbeing is built on her high opinion of herself, but she is sadly deluded about many aspects of her life. She believes that her nephew Mr Darcy loves and respects her; he doesn’t, because she has never given him any reason to. She believes that her daughter, the silent and sickly Miss Anne, is a genuine catch and that Mr Darcy, handsome and eligible as he is, will marry her. She believes that she is a Lady Bountiful, valued and appreciated by those to whom she dispenses her advice; really she is a strongly disliked busybody who is more of an inconvenience than a blessing. Lady Catherine is a fool because she is blind to the realities of her behaviour and how it impacts on others; she is blind because she cannot see the human value in people beyond their parentage and their bank balance; and she is blind because she cannot see that she only inspires respect in those who need her for her money and influence, and no one truly loves her for who she is. Her demeanour and dialogue are funny because they demonstrate her pompousness and her delusion, but they are also rather sad, because they demonstrate how lacking in kindness and love she is. She will forever be stuck in her big house, alone with the pathetic daughter she knows deep down will never make a good marriage, visited only out of duty rather than pleasure. What a fool she is indeed.

Austen’s depiction of foolishness is not just for comic effect, or to mock. It raises questions of what is good, and what is moral; it raises questions about the duties of parents, and of those blessed with rank and influence. It sets up comparisons between characters, demonstrating that those in society who deserve respect are not those with money and titles, but those who put others first and judge people’s worth on their actions rather than the size of their house and their connections. There is also a degree of sadness about the foolishness of her characters; their behaviour prevents them from enjoying the respect of those around them, and from entering into meaningful, fulfilling relationships. All of them are lonely in their own way, and compared to the happiness of those they are wont to criticise, their lives are small indeed.

Re-reading Pride and Prejudice has once again highlighted just how brilliant Austen is; every time I come back to her novels, they offer me a fresh and delightful new perspective. I notice new details, new insights, and marvel at just how complex Austen’s supposedly simple, romantic tales are. All of humanity is within her pages, and as we as readers grow and change over time, so do her novels, offering us further riches each time we return, a little older and a little more experienced. I think really, if it came down to it, I could just get rid of all my other books and read Austen for the rest of my days, and never cease to be satisfied. I am so pleased I started on this re-reading project; next up will be Emma. I hope some of you will join me to read this wonderful novel next month.

23 comments

  1. Hi!

    Another great review. I feel for mrs bennett – when I was younger I think I only saw the foolishness, but I now see the need to always look at the positives when it comes to your children and whilst her ways are humorous and slightly over the top, I appreciate her honesty / abrasiveness. I don’t feel so black and white about her as I do about Mr Collins or Lady Catherine. Who doesn’t want the best for their children?!! And some people are a bit socially ackward! I must read it again, but Emma!!!! Will definitely be with you for that one!!

    1. Hi Jane! Yes – Mrs Bennett is certainly more complex than just an embarrassing mother – to be fair to her, she has had very little scope for education or society to enable her to improve herself and her sister is very similar to her, so we can draw the conclusion fairly safely that their mother set a similar example. At heart she wants the best for her daughters and I think even Lizzie can see that.

      Glad to her you’ll be along for reading Emma – can’t wait to get discussing!🙂

  2. a great review.all the three reviews on pride and prejudice were interesting to read with anew perspective. i think austen novels will be relevant to all times as human nature remains more or less the same.ihave to reread this book.hope to read emma also with you

  3. I’m a new reader of your blog and I’m thoroughly enjoying it! I’m finding so much reading inspiration. I dusted off some of my unread Austen. I had read Northanger Abbey and Persuasion but had left some of her better known works unread for the sole reason that after seeing so many television and movie adaptions I felt a bit saturated. What a mistake! I haven’t been able to put them down! On Pride and Prejudice I have to say that I’m surprised Mr Bennett gets let off the hook so easily by everybody! Mr Darcy is the only one who ever sees the depth of his neglect in raising his daughters. Little education to speak of, a former reliance on the birth of a son to secure their financial future which never came to pass and continually shirking any parental responsibility to spend time in his study. Jane Austen’s understanding of human nature is remarkable and I only wish I had read them all as a teenager. How many Wickham’s and Willoughby’s might I have avoided! I will definately be reading Emma with you!

    1. Hi Lisa! I’m so glad to have you and so pleased you’re enjoying reading!🙂 Brilliant that you’ve dusted off Austen – we are so satured with her that sometimes fatigue sets in and we forget how fantastic the actual novels are. She never disappoints! Oh absolutely – you are quite right. Mr Bennett is horribly neglectful and if I had have had time I’d have written a whole post about that! He brings about the ruin of his family by being too lazy to educate or discipline his daughters, not to mention being openly disrespectful of his wife in front of their children. He can’t be bothered to step in when he needs to and nearly brings about the ruin of the whole family – I’m glad that he eventually sees the error of his ways!

      I’m delighted that you will be reading along with Emma – fantastic!

  4. Lovely! I love the line “all of humanity is within her pages” – so true and it always astounds me how real her characters are. I wish I could meet them in real life😉 I like how you point out that Austen does not merely poke fun at the foolish characters to mock them and make us laugh, but to reveal important truths about what it means to be human and what we should value in life and in each other. Mr. Collins makes me laugh so hard, but the foolishness of his world view can still be applied to modern society and reveal the very same flaws and the same kind of sadness.

    I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Emma!

    And on a different note, I’ve almost finished watching Season 2 of Downton Abbey and I have to say, it’s just not as good as the first!! At least it’s still beautiful to look at.

    1. Thanks Lucy! Yes exactly – Austen’s characters’ faults and frailties are completely timeless and therein lies her enduring appeal!

      No it’s not as good as the first – the writing is terrible and the plot is all over the place. But hang on in there because the Christmas special is worth the disappointment – it’s completely back on form and the ending is magnificent!

  5. I really enjoyed reading your posts on Jane Austen, and your reflections on the characters and the society in which it is set. Your discussion on some of the minor characters was especially interesting… I’ve often wondered how Mr Collins would have coped when he eventually inherited Longbourn – he’s so obsequious to anyone with money or position, without any talent or opinions of his own,

    1. Thank you Christine – I’m so pleased! Yes – I can’t imagine Mr Collins being a well respected member of the community, or contributing much to the wellbeing of his poorer neighbours – though who knows – Charlotte may have worked a miracle with him by then! I live in hope!

  6. I’m glad Lisa raised the point about Mr Bennett flying under the radar so to speak. It’s always intrigued me how much of the plot hinges on his indolence (the fact that he doesn’t exert himself on behalf of his daughters thus allowing Mrs Bennett to make the running) and his faulty judgement (letting Lydia go away despite Lizzie’s urgings to the contrary) being the major example.

    His wonderful dry sense of humour and wit tend to obscure his sins of omission and commission. JA is so clever; I agree with your point about reading her for the rest of your days.

    Can’t wait to read your reviews of Emma.

    1. Yes – I didn’t mention him and if I’d had time I’d have done a whole post on how he is in fact one of the most foolish and irresponsible characters in the book through doing precisely nothing – he fails to act when he should act and he fails to exert any effort in the discipline and management of his family. He has given up and prefers to just hide away rather than face the shortcomings of his idleness. As he is clearly intelligent and has a wry sense of humour we do tend to give him far more credit than he is due!

      Look forward to hearing your comments on Emma!

  7. Great analysis of the deeper layers behind some of the more foolish characters. With each time I reread P&P, I’ve become more aware of things like the lonliness behind Mr. Collins’s facade, or the cleverness and cunning behind some of Mrs. Bennet’s inappropriate behavior. I thought the most recent film adaptation (with Keira Knightly) did a really good job at showing little moments here and there that illuminate these layers.

    1. Thank you! I know – on each read you understand better and can see deeper behind the characters and their motivations. Austen certainly doesn’t ‘do’ one dimensional people. I don’t think I’ve seen that version all the way through – I found the portrayal of Mr Darcy to be incredibly annoying!

  8. I love this! I had never thought much about these characters and how they truly are ridiculous. It makes me feel a bit sad for them but not too sad because as you say, they are blind to their own shortcomings.

    Reading Emma next month? That’s an Austen I haven’t picked up yet. I may have to join in.

    1. Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. Ridiculous behaviour comes in so many forms in Austen’s novels – there is much more to come in Emma. I hope you will have time to join in!🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s