PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.32, NO.1 (Winter 2011)

Pride and Potentiality: Doubling Elizabeth Bennet

Megan Stoner Morgan

 

Megan Stoner Morgan (email: meganjs@uga.edu) is a doctoral student at the University of Georgia, where she specializes in nineteenth-century British and American fiction.  She has published on film adaptations, and her critical edition of Henry James’s Daisy Miller, co-edited with Kristin Boudreau, is forthcoming from Broadview Press.

 

Pride and Prejudice is about Elizabeth Bennet.  To say so seems redundant to the point of superfluity. † We haven’t been reading eagerly the story of Mary or Kitty Bennet for nearly two hundred years.  But attention to Austen’s careful crafting of her characters in the novel reveals the centrality of Elizabeth to the narrative in ways that are not immediately obvious.  Specifically, Austen suggests a doubling between Elizabeth and several of the other characters in the novel, but in a way that encourages readers to view Elizabeth as the superior character.  By reading the doubles of Elizabeth, readers discover the alternatives she might have taken:† had she remained too much like any of the characters who share traits with her, her narrative might have turned out much differently.  The novelís treatment of these doubles encourages readers to focus on Elizabeth’s literal and figurative movement away from them as a positive occurrence and to celebrate Elizabeth’s ending through the realization of what might have been.

 

“Doubleness” has long been accepted as a characteristic of Austen’s writing. † As Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue, Austen was “indisputably fascinated by double-talk, by conversations that imply the opposite of what they intend” (127), and Anne Waldron Neumann has observed that Austen’s prose is characterized by its incorporation of “double-voiced” verbs that “conflate narration with reported discourse . . . to confuse—intentionally—a character’s subjective speech with the narrator’s objective account of that character’s thoughts or feelings” (365).  Austen carefully employs such doubling for specific rhetorical purposes, to encourage readers to make connections between words and between persons.

 

Doubling characters also has a history in Austen; for example, Gilbert and Gubar’s reading of Northanger Abbey persuasively argues that Catherine Morland matures as heroine through her “double” Isabella Thorpe’s being “completely punished and revealed in all her monstrous aspiration” (142-43). † Pride and Prejudice, too, has its share of acknowledged character doublings. † Susan Fraiman has famously argued that Elizabeth Bennet is “in many respects [Mr. Bennet’s] heir,” sharing her father’s “ironic distance from the world, his habit of studying and appraising those around him, his role of social critic” (71).1 † Elizabeth, in Fraiman’s reading, is Mr. Bennet’s “surrogate son” (71), but despite their close relationship, she does not ultimately benefit from this similarity between herself and her father. † As Fraiman argues, Elizabeth lacks independent agency and gains authority only “second-hand,” through her identification with her father (71)—authority which she must “largely relinquish” as the novel progresses (63).

 

Nor is Elizabeth’s father her only perceived double.  John Wiltshire argues that Mrs. Bennet, so often maligned as unsympathetic caricature, nevertheless displays an “ugly form of symbiosis” with her daughters, even her “least favorite,” Elizabeth (183).  In Wiltshire’s reading, Mrs. Bennet’s “baffled energies” become a “distorted, bizarre version of her daughter’s transgressive high spirits,” and Elizabeth’s “provocative social manner . . . reproduces, in moderated form, her mother’s forwardness” (183).  In this framework, Lydia, very much her mother’s daughter, also ends up doubling elements of Elizabeth.  Lydia’s “insouciance” and “ineducability,” shared by her mother and also by Elizabeth, become “a kind of strength,” one which readers may be challenged to perceive regardless of whether Elizabeth sees them in this way (Wiltshire 185).

 

I propose here another unlikely double of Elizabeth:† her cousin Mr. Collins.  As with her other doubles in the novel, this doubling reveals elements of Elizabeth’s character not only as it is, but as it might be. † Reading Mr. Collins as a double of Elizabeth allows readers an alternative trajectory to the one proposed for Elizabeth by Fraiman.  Rather than the chronology of Elizabeth’s decline, spurred largely by Mr. Bennet’s “handing over” of her to Darcy, the novel and its ending can be read as a triumph of personal development for Elizabeth.  Although Elizabeth may well be, as Austen described her, “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” (29 January 1813), a sentiment echoed for nearly two centuries, Elizabeth’s doubles encourage readers to view her skeptically—no mean feat.  By subtly but repeatedly confronting readers with the suggestion that the inimitable Elizabeth bears uncomfortable similarities to the odious Mr. Collins, Austen challenges readers’ immediate and understandable affection for her heroine and urges us to question our own responses to the text.  Austen remarked of Pride and Prejudice that it is “rather too light & bright & sparkling;—it wants shade” (4 February 1813); the novel, she continued, needs “sense if it could be had, if not of solemn specious nonsense—. . . anything that would form a contrast & bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness & Epigrammatism of the general stile.”  Reading Mr. Collins as a double of Elizabeth provides the contrast of “solemn specious nonsense” to Elizabeth’s “playfulness,” to be sure, but it does more than that:† just as Elizabeth must be educated away from her similarities to her abhorrent cousin, readers too must learn that Elizabeth’s “light & bright & sparkling” character has its shady side, and this understanding allows us more clearly to perceive and appreciate the trajectory of her education.

 

 

“‘Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life.’”

To suggest that Elizabeth and Mr. Collins have anything in common is to read the novel against the heroine’s own energetic protestations.  We would like to believe Elizabeth’s spirited refusal of his proposal, in which she exclaims that “‘You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so. . . . I am . . . in every respect ill qualified for the situation’” (120), if only because—as Fraiman argues—we have, like Elizabeth, been predisposed by Mr. Bennet’s reading of his letter to find Mr. Collins ridiculous (Fraiman 71).  But Austen describes their characters as not so dissimilar as we would like at first to think.  Through her characterization of these two, particularly in her use of free indirect discourse and diction, Austen subtly suggests that Elizabeth and her cousin Mr. Collins are more kin than would perhaps make either of them happy.

 

To begin with, both characters, at least in the beginning of the novel, tend to place unwonted emphasis on the appearance of things over their substance.  Elizabeth’s initial trust of Wickham is directly attributable to her opinion, which the narrator remarks she “could have” stated but does not, that Wickham’s “‘very countenance may vouch for [his] being amiable’” (90).  She even defends Wickham to Jane by claiming that “‘there was truth in his looks’” (96).  Her emphasis on Wickham’s physical attractiveness, and the implicit value she places on his exterior appearance, mirrors Collins’s own concern with outward signs, such as his incessant reference to Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s many possessions and properties.  The narrator’s use of free indirect discourse in many of these passages makes Collins appear a laughingstock, for example, when he “carefully instruct[s]” Elizabeth and Sir William Lucas “in what they were to expect, that the sight of such rooms, so many servants, and so splendid a dinner [at Rosings] might not wholly overpower them” (181), or enumerates in “raptures” the number of windows at Rosings and the cost of their glazing (182).  Collins’s mindless valorization of the De Bourghs’ aristocratic trappings is obviously ridiculous to readers, and our disdain of him is punishment enough.

 

But Elizabeth is also punished for her credulous, appearance-based belief in Wickham’s value; when her estimation of him is revealed by Darcy’s letter to be based on false premises, the narrator states that “[a]stonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her” (227).  She must even admit to herself that Wickham’s “countenance, voice, and manner” had been the foundation of her trust in him, rather than any real information about his character (228).  Her later assertion to Wickham that “‘[i]n essentials, I believe, [Darcy] is very much what he ever was’” (260)—itself a sly instance of “double-talk” in which Elizabeth lets Wickham know he has been found out—suggests that she has come to realize her earlier misplaced valuation and has moved away from her cousin’s concern with appearances towards a more solid understanding of “essentials” over exteriors.

 

This shared concern with appearances may in part be attributable to the preoccupation both Elizabeth and Collins have with their own opinions.  Collins’s discourse is littered with superfluous, self-centered, first-person tags—“‘I am happy . . . to”’ (76), “‘I confess’” (77, 181), “‘I know very well’” (93), and countless others—and these tags “subordinate the ostensible matter of his sentences to his own state of mind” (Neumann 379).  When Collins speaks, it is less to communicate meaning to others than to draw attention to himself as the one speaking.  Indeed, one of Collins’s primary character traits appears to be his willingness to volunteer opinions that nobody has asked him for, such as when he compares Mrs. Philips’s drawing-room to the “small summer breakfast parlour at Rosings” (84), or when he initiates a discourse on the appropriateness of a clergyman’s pursuit of music after Mary Bennet’s embarrassment at the Netherfield ball, a tangent so uncalled-for that the narrator reports that “Many stared.—Many smiled” and Mrs. Bennet “seriously commended [him] for having spoken so sensibly” (113), in the novel’s world, the sure sign of inappropriate speech.

 

Yet Elizabeth too is presented, at least at the beginning of the novel, as rather taken with her own opinions.  Lady Catherine’s censure of Elizabeth, that “‘you give your opinion very decidedly for so young a person’” (187), is not inaccurate.  When Jane claims that “‘[o]ne does not know what to think’” of Wickham’s story about Darcy, Elizabeth characteristically replies, “‘I beg your pardon;—one knows exactly what to think’” (96).  Furthermore, Elizabeth’s opinions, particularly of other characters in the novel, are often expressed in language that echoes Collins’s speech patterns of excess and hyperbole.  When thinking of Wickham early in the novel, “Elizabeth felt that she had neither been seeing him before, nor thinking of him since, with the smallest degree of unreasonable admiration” (85), and when she refuses Darcy’s first proposal, she exclaims that “‘I had not known you a month before I felt that you were the last man in the world whom I could ever be prevailed on to marry’” (215).  Such stylistic choices are more commonly found in Collins’s speech, such as when he agrees to attend the Netherfield ball:† “he entertained no scruple whatever on that head, and was very far from dreading a rebuke either from the Archbishop, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, by venturing to dance” (97).

 

Austen’s use of reported speech further marks Elizabeth and Collins as similar in their fondness for definitive overstatement and formulaic phrases. † When Collins proposes to Elizabeth, he states that “‘nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection’” (119).  At this point, Elizabeth interrupts him with her refusal, which Collins dismisses as “‘merely words of course’” (121).  Readers, like Elizabeth, see Collins in this scene as patently silly, too wrapped up in his conceptions of Elizabeth and his own significance to see the situation clearly.  However, Elizabeth herself uses the same diction just six chapters later, in complete seriousness (or as close to it as Elizabeth usually comes), when speaking to Mrs. Gardiner about Bingley’s departure from Longbourn:† “‘We do not suffer by accident.  It does not often happen that the interference of friends will persuade a young man of independent fortune to think no more of a girl, whom he was violently in love with only a few days before’” (159-60).  Mrs. Gardiner, the figure of maternal sense in the novel, challenges Elizabethís overstatement:† “‘that expression of “violently in love” is so hackneyed, so doubtful, so indefinite, that it gives me very little idea.  It is as often applied to feelings which arise from an half hour’s acquaintance, as to a real, strong attachment’” (160).  The shared language and the quasi-authorial judgment with which Mrs. Gardiner pronounces on such a choice highlight the similarity between Collins’s and Elizabeth’s sentiments and suggest that both Collins and Elizabeth know less about love than they would like to acknowledge.  Both are performing a well-rehearsed, even “hackneyed” part:† Collins the desperate lover, Elizabeth the outraged sister.

As Anne Waldron Neumann argues, word choice in Austen is hardly accidental, and her narrative style often “makes words a character has previously said a vehicle for satire” (369).  Thus, Austen’s employment of the “hackneyed” convention once more at the end of the novel, when the narrator claims that Darcy’s second proposal expresses his desire “as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do” (407), reminds us of the satirical instances in which we have seen this phrase before.  We cannot help but read this doubling similarly:† like the once-hyperbolic Elizabeth, Darcy still has learning to do, and—as Austen confidently recounts—the reformed Elizabeth, no longer echoing Collins, will assist his education.

 

Neumann also asserts that Austen’s free indirect discourse that “highlights selected words or phrases . . . is nearly always satiricĒ (372).  In addition to the “hackneyed” phrase discussed above, certain words consistently reappear in relation to both Collins and Elizabeth.  One sustained instance of this deployment is Austen’s use of the word “impertinent.”  Of the fourteen instances in the novel of the words “impertinent” or “impertinence,” five refer to Elizabeth’s behavior and two to Collins’s. † (Another three refer to Lady Catherine, who also doubles aspects of Elizabeth’s character.)  Three of the first four occurrences refer to Elizabeth, and Mrs. Bennet’s initial comments on Collins also include the word, for she exclaims to her husband that “‘it was very impertinent of [Collins] to write to you at all’” (69).  Although the words themselves are not an explicit connection between Collins and Elizabeth, the pattern of repetition suggests their ironic resemblance.  Elizabeth “trie[s] hard to dissuade” Collins from introducing himself to Darcy by “assuring him that Mr. Darcy would consider [Collins’s] addressing him without introduction as an impertinent freedom, rather than a compliment to his aunt” (109).2 † Collins, in typically stubborn fashion, refuses to acknowledge her adjuration:† “Mr. Collins listened to her with the determined air of following his own inclination” (109).  Collins presents himself to Darcy, and we see, through Elizabeth’s eyes, the anticipated outcome:† “she eagerly watched. . . . [T]hough she could not hear a word of it, she felt as if hearing it all. . . . Mr. Darcy was eyeing [Collins] with unrestrained wonder, and when at last Mr. Collins allowed him time to speak, replied with an air of distant civility” (109-10).

 

“Impertinence” from Mr. Collins is indubitably a bad thing, at least when readers focalize his actions through Elizabeth, who is “vexed” by his refusal to heed her caution (110).  Yet although she is quick to see Collins’s “impertinence” towards Darcy, Elizabeth is less judgmental towards her own, even though the effects are similar.  Elizabeth’s conversation with Darcy just before she urges Collins to avoid taking “impertinent freedom” with him reflects her own determination to follow her “inclination.” † When she attempts to “make out” Darcy’s character, he rebuffs her:† “‘I could wish, Miss Bennet, that you were not to sketch my character at the present moment, as there is reason to fear that the performance would reflect no credit on either’” (105). † Elizabeth’s reply is immediate, not set apart in the text by dialogue tags or authorial comment:† “‘But if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity’” (105).  Darcy’s reply is “cold,” and they finish the dance “in silence” (105).  Just as her cousin’s does later in this scene, Elizabeth’s willfulness has effectively killed the conversation, but she does not appear to view the situation in that light.

 

Indeed, Elizabeth seems almost proud of her impertinence:† earlier she glibly tells Charlotte that she knows Darcy is eavesdropping on her conversation and exclaims that “‘if he does it any more I shall certainly let him know that I see what he is about. . . .[I]f I do not begin by being impertinent myself, I shall soon grow afraid of him’” (26).  By the end of the novel, Elizabeth playfully characterizes her early behavior towards Darcy as the opposite of “‘civility, of deference’” and asks:† “‘Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?’” (421).  Even if Elizabeth herself does not see the connection between her early interactions with Darcy and those of her cousin, the repetition of the word seems to suggest that readers should.  Yet this final occurrence of the word in the novel also reminds readers that Elizabeth is more self-aware than she had been previously. † Whereas, like her cousin Mr. Collins, she had earlier not fully recognized her impertinence in dealing with Darcy, her admission to Darcy that “[h]ad you not been really amiable you would have hated me for it” (421) suggests that she has learned to recognize real flaws and mend them—something Collins remains blissfully unable to do.

 

Mr. Collins’s “impertinent” obstinacy at the ball is one indication among many of his “perseverance in wilful self-deception” (122).  This phrase occurs via free indirect discourse in Chapter Nineteen, and it is one of the instances in which Elizabeth’s language is practically “indistinguishable from the narrator’s idiom” (Neumann 372).  In this scene, Collins has just proposed to Elizabeth, and she has attempted—unsuccessfully—to convince him that his suit is hopeless.  He persists in claiming that she is an “‘elegant female[ ]’” who is “‘uniformly charming’” in her attempts at “‘increasing [his] love by suspense’” (122) while “[t]o such perseverance in wilful self-deception Elizabeth would make no reply” (122).  Because the scene between Collins and Elizabeth has unfolded from her point of view, it seems likely that this bit of free indirect discourse represents Elizabeth’s judgment, for as Neumann points out, “the narrator devotes many passages to sharing with Elizabeth the rendition of her thought—blending tagged indirect thought with the free indirect thought of whole sentences” to create a generally sympathetic effect for readers (381).

 

Regardless of its source, it is nearly impossible for the reader to disagree with this evaluation of Mr. Collins’s character.  Yet Austen also presents Elizabeth’s behavior in ways that suggest that she may be as willfully self-deceived as her despised cousin—ways that Elizabeth does not see, but that a perceptive reader may.  By the time readers are confronted with this contest of obstinacy between Collins and Elizabeth, we are already familiar with Elizabeth’s weakness in judging character and situations.  In Chapter Eighteen, Austen’s narrator alerts readers to this weakness:† Elizabeth’s “certainty of meeting [Wickham] had not been checked by any of those recollections that might not unreasonably have alarmed her” (100).  The double negative here draws our attention to the very “unreasonableness” of Elizabeth’s perception, which is emphasized again later in the chapter by Elizabeth’s flippant reply to Jane that “‘I shall venture still to think of both gentlemen [Wickham and Darcy] as I did before’” (108), regardless of any evidence to the contrary.

 

Thus, by the time we read in Chapter Nineteen that Collins is “persever[ing] in wilful self-deception” in his interactions with Elizabeth (122), we are aware that Elizabeth is just as capable of such a flaw as Collins, although she is unaware that her behavior is similar.  Like her tenacious defense of Wickham, Collins’s dismissal of Elizabeth’s refusal rests on a fundamental, willful misunderstanding of her character.  Although he has been given plenty of evidence to the contrary, Collins persists in believing that Elizabeth is merely an elegant female, and Austen reveals in a passage of free indirect discourse at the beginning of Chapter Twenty that Collins reads Elizabeth’s rejection of his meritorious offer as “naturally flow[ing] from her bashful modesty and the genuine delicacy of her character” (123) rather than from her palpable distaste for him.  Given what we have seen of Elizabeth’s character by this point in the novel, we understand this perception to be the very “wilful self-deception” that Elizabeth judges it to be, but we are also aware—perhaps uncomfortably so—that Collins is not the only one guilty of such a flaw.

 

While Elizabeth’s specious judgment does not excuse Collins’s delusions, it does create an uncomfortable parallel between them.  We obviously like Elizabeth much better than we do Mr. Collins, and, because of Austen’s consistent conflation of her “subjective speech” with the “narrator’s objective account” (Neumann 365), we naturally privilege Elizabeth’s viewpoint, experiencing the novel through her eyes.  Yet Collins’s impertinent narcissism casts hers into relief.  As readers, we must conclude that should Elizabeth remain as she is, she has the potential to become as foolish and self-centered as Collins appears; we cannot be blind to her flaws, and we are meant to wish to see them remedied in the course of the novel.

 

Happily, Elizabeth does not become a female Collins, both because she refuses to take his name through marriage and because this is a noveló—as so many have remarked—about Elizabeth’s education as a heroine.  Collins, as a double of Elizabeth, bears a kind of vicarious narrative “humiliation” by revealing what her unchecked character flaws could lead to.  Elizabeth’s movement away from qualities they share allows readers to more thoroughly appreciate her reform, because through Collins’s doubling we understand how easily she might have become too much like the very character whom we, with Elizabeth, abhor instead of the “light & bright & sparkling” heroine with whom we are enraptured.  Furthermore, in such a reading, the marriage plot that some critics3 have found troubling becomes a “happy ending,” for it removes Elizabeth from those doubles who represent her negative qualities—including her father, mother, and sister Lydia—and places her in proximity to characters who share and develop her positive traits, such as the Gardiners, who have been throughout the representatives of level-headed decency, and Georgiana, for whom she can fulfill the role of the guiding maternal figure that she herself never had.  Just as her doubling with Collins reveals the flaws that Elizabeth must overcome in the course of the novel, the potential doubling with other characters insinuated by the novel’s ending reveals Elizabethís potential for continued growth and success.

 

 

Notes

 

1. Ivor Morris also argues for the similarities between Elizabeth and her parents, although he dismisses Elizabeth’s likeness to her mother, in her “tendency to indignant expostulation, and, if not ignorance of them, momentary forgetfulness of the demands of polite conversation” as “a trick of temperament.”  He suggests that Elizabeth shares “substantial qualities of personality” with her father, including a “certain formality or methodicalness of approach in matters of judgment” and her similar sense of humor.

 

2. While Austen presents this assertion in free indirect discourse, it seems unlikely to be anyone’s but Elizabeth’s utterance; as Neumann notes, the majority of Collins’s speech is littered with the “I” pronoun (379-80), and he is the master of prolix sentences that offer very little in the way of actual information.  This direct and concise statement seems much more in the spirit of Elizabeth’s tendencies toward provocative abruptness, as does Austen’s choice of the verb “assure.”

 

3. For example, Judith Lowder Newton admits that, while she reads the end of the novel as empowering to Elizabeth, “marriage as a happy ending” is ultimately an “ambivalent blessing” in which the reader “witnesses a decline in Elizabeth Bennet, for .†.†. the end, the reward, of woman’s apprenticeship to life is marriage, and marriage demands resignation even as it prompts rejoicing, initiates new life while it confirms a flickering suspicion that the best is already over” (41).  Nina Auerbach asserts that while Darcy’s portrait represents the “awesomely institutionalized power of a man,” Elizabeth herself “will doubtless be content not to have her own portrait displayed after her marriage” (52).  Instead, by “choosing to emphasize her own prejudice over Darcy’s most palpable pride, she can wonder freely at his portrait while her own (if there is one) will be closeted away” (54).

 

 

Works Cited

 

Auerbach, Nina.  Communities of Women.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978.

Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997.

_____.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Pat Rogers.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.

Fraiman, Susan.  “The Humiliation of Elizabeth Bennet.”  Unbecoming Women: British Women Writers and the Novel of Development.  New York: Columbia UP, 1993.† 59-87.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar.  The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination.  2nd ed.† New Haven: Yale UP, 2000.

Morris, Ivor.  “Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet.” † Persuasions On-Line 25.1 (Win. 2004).

Neumann, Anne Waldron.  “Characterization and Comment in Pride and Prejudice: Free Indirect Discourse and ‘Double-Voiced’ Verbs of Speaking, Thinking, and Feeling.”  Style 20.3 (1986): 364-94.

Newton, Judith Lowder.  “Pride and Prejudice: Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen.”  Feminist Studies 4.1 (Feb. 1978): 27-42.

Wiltshire, John.  “Mrs. Bennetís Least Favorite Daughter.”  Persuasions 23 (2001): 179-87.

 

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