Friday, July 8, 2016
The character of Collins in Pride and Prejudice
Obviously people have written books about the various characters in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and I'm definitely not going to do that, but a few words here about one (or maybe 2) of the characters, thinking today of the odious and obsequious Mr. Collins, who is so overbearing in his pomposity that it's all Elizabeth can do to treat him with courtesy and civility and others - Mr. Bennet, I think, was one - won't even offer him that much. His world is entirely self-centered - he literally cannot imagine the idea that Eliz would turn down his marriage proposal, and in a wryly comic scene he attributes her repeated refusals to a "typically feminine" mode of flirtation - except when he turns his countenance to his loathsome benefactress, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (sp?). He fawns all over and and dotes on every particle and particular in her being and her dwelling - and he says, and perhaps believes, that she is so generous in taking such an interest in him (and in the Bennet family), she deigns to "condescend" to them - a word that over the past 2 centuries has developed more of a negative connotation, maybe in fact because of P&P, and he cannot recognize what every other character in the novel and reader of the novel knows: he's a fool, and she's an imperious snob. Yes, we laugh at Collins and his pretensions, but think of how different he is from a Dickens villain (or fool): Austen never truly satirizes her characters, and though she exaggerates his traits for comic effect, it's never the way Dickens does because the comic characterization is always mitigated by Elizabeth's sensibility. Her character is darker and more nearly tragic than a Dickens fool, in that Austen often, with a degree of subtlety, has Eliz reflect upon the misery of life with Collins as a mate: her poor friend Charlotte Lucas has married Collins, and perhaps that's the best she can do - the repeated theme is that women have no chance for a life independent of a husband, and the pickings in this tightly knit society are slim - and Eliz cannot help but thinking how horrible it would be to have to listen to Collins all day, to bend to all of his whims, to actually pretend to love him. (For ex., he chooses the front room as his sitting room, confining Charlotte to the back of the house, and his main purpose is to watch and report at regular intervals on the comings and goings of Lady Catherine. What a life!) We laugh at Collins, but not without sorrow, not without pity for those who can't leave him. For that, we have to wait another 100 years.