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The plot, which had slowed since Darcy’s proposal, now picks up speed as it rushes toward its conclusion. Amid the turmoil of Lydia’s folly, Elizabeth turns immediately to Darcy, illustrating the closeness developing between them. Their shared sense of guilt about failing to expose Wickham’s true nature (which they believe would have prevented the elopement) aligns them emotionally and gives them a common purpose.
Though she and her husband are obviously at fault, Mrs. Bennet reacts to the news of Lydia’s elopement by blaming Colonel Forster. The Bennet parents come across as highly inadequate at this point in the text—Mrs. Bennet because of her stupidity and Mr. Bennet because of his refusal to take responsibility for his children. The issue for Jane and Elizabeth about family connections has receded somewhat into the background, but here it reappears and reminds the reader that the Bennet parents’ lack of refinement still threatens the prospective romances of the two eldest Bennet daughters.
During the crisis, the Gardiners again step forward to act responsibly. It is Mr. Gardiner, rather than Mr. Bennet, who takes charge of the search in the city—Mr. Bennet even returns home after a time. (Mrs. Bennet’s fear that her husband will die in London and leave her destitute typifies her general tendency to ignore real problems and magnify trivial ones.) It is not terribly surprising that Mr. Gardiner apparently finds Lydia, or even that he apparently pays Wickham to convince him to marry her. He is simply filling the adult role that the Bennet parents have vacated.
Pride and Prejudice is critical of the difficulties faced by women in English society of the period. Whereas Austen passes judgment on both the practice of entailment and the necessity of marriage for women to avoid public scorn (which leads to Charlotte’s union with Mr. Collins for practicality’s sake), she does not question the idea that living with a man out of wedlock ruins a girl. Elizabeth, the voice of reason and common sense at this point in the novel, condemns Lydia’s behavior as “infamy” and declares that if Lydia does not marry Wickham, “she is lost forever.” The only voice of moral relativism belongs to Mrs. Bennet, who is so happy to have Lydia married that she does not care about the manner of the marriage’s accomplishment. While Lydia may have escaped social stigma, Mr. Bennet still condemns her and Wickham, saying, “I will not encourage the impudence of either, by receiving them at Longbourn.” Though she criticizes sexism, Austen lets bourgeois morality alone.