The morning after his daughters return from Netherfield, Mr. Bennet informs his wife of an imminent visit from a Mr. William Collins, who will inherit Mr. Bennet’s property. Mr. Collins, the reader learns from a letter he sends to the Bennets, is a clergyman whom the wealthy noblewoman Lady Catherine de Bourgh has recently selected to serve her parish. His letter, as Mr. Bennet puts it, contains “a mixture of servility and self-importance,” and his personality is similar. He arrives at Longbourn and apologizes for being entitled to the Bennets’ property but spends much of his time admiring and complimenting the house that will one day be his.
At dinner, Mr. Collins lavishes praise on Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her daughter, a lovely invalid who will one day inherit the de Bourgh fortune. After the meal, he is asked to read to the girls, but he refuses to read a novel and reads from a book of sermons instead. Lydia becomes so bored that she interrupts his reading with more gossip about the soldiers. Mr. Collins is offended and abandons the reading, choosing to play backgammon with Mr. Bennet.
Mr. Collins is in search of a wife and when Mrs. Bennet hints that Jane may soon be engaged, he fixes his attention on Elizabeth. The day after his arrival, he accompanies the sisters to the town of Meryton, where they encounter one of Lydia’s officer friends, Mr. Denny. Denny introduces his friend, Mr. Wickham, who has just joined the militia, and the young women find Wickham charming. While they converse, Darcy and Bingley happen by, and Elizabeth notices that Wickham and Darcy are extremely cold to each other.
Darcy and Bingley depart, and the company pays a visit to Mrs. Phillips, Mrs. Bennet’s sister, who invites the Bennets and Mr. Collins to dine at her house the following night. The girls convince her to invite Wickham as well. They return home and Mr. Collins spends the evening telling Mrs. Bennet how greatly her sister’s good breeding impresses him.
At the Phillips’s dinner party, Wickham proves the center of attention and Mr. Collins fades into the background. Eventually, Wickham and Elizabeth find themselves in conversation, and she hears his story: he had planned on entering the ministry, rather than the militia, but was unable to do so because he lacked money. Darcy’s father, Wickham says, had intended to provide for him, but Darcy used a loophole in the will to keep the money for himself.
Elizabeth, who instinctively likes and trusts Wickham, accepts his story immediately. Later in the evening, while she is watching Mr. Collins, Wickham tells her that Darcy is Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s nephew. He describes Lady Catherine as “dictatorial and insolent.” Elizabeth leaves the party thinking of nothing “but Mr. Wickham, and what he had told her, all the way home.” She decides that Darcy deserves nothing but contempt.
Elizabeth expresses these feelings to Jane the next day, and Jane defends Darcy, saying that there is probably a misunderstanding between the two men. Elizabeth will have none of it, and when Bingley invites the neighborhood to a ball the following Tuesday, she looks forward to seeing Wickham. Unfortunately, she is forced to promise the first two dances to Mr. Collins.
These chapters introduce Mr. Collins, the target of Jane Austen’s greatest satire, and Wickham, the novel’s most villainous character. Collins, a parody of a serious cleric, serves as a vehicle for criticism of the practice of entailment, by which the law forces Mr. Bennet to leave his property to such a ridiculous man instead of his own daughters. Collins functions as another example of Austen’s criticism of snobbery. He differs, however, from Miss Bingley and Lady de Bourgh in that he is not snobbish because of his own rank; rather, he is snobbish by association. He is a man who believes wholeheartedly in class, even though he gains only the second helpings of its benefits. And in order to receive those benefits, he must toady himself to Lady de Bourgh. Rather than feel embarrassment at his behavior, he believes so strongly in the value conferred upon a person by class that he is full of self-importance because he has a noblewoman as his patroness.
Additionally, Collins’s long, foolish speeches render him a prime example of Austen’s talent for making stupidity comical. His absurdity increases as the story progresses, but even when the reader first meets him, he reveals himself to be so full of self-importance and exaggerated politeness that Mr. Bennet cannot resist making fun of him (Elizabeth’s father suggests that Collins’s pretense runs even deeper when he asks if his compliments are thought up in advance). With no sense of how foolish he sounds—none of the ridiculous characters in Pride and Prejudice are aware of their own absurdity—Mr. Collins replies that his flattering remarks “arise chiefly from what is passing at the time, and though I sometimes amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such elegant compliments as may be adapted to ordinary occasions, I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.” The reader can only agree with Mr. Bennet that “his cousin was as absurd” as he had hoped.
The arrival of Collins immediately precedes the first appearance of Wickham, and the clergyman’s foolishness contrasts with Wickham’s ability to charm. Wickham himself is one of the only male characters described by Austen as being extremely good-looking: his appeal exists only on the surface, but it is an attractive surface. This superficial appeal is crucial because it makes his story about Darcy’s mistreatment of him believable, at least to Elizabeth. Darcy’s pride has been obvious from his first appearance in the novel, but Elizabeth’s decision to trust Wickham introduces her “prejudice” into the story. The reader may wonder about a man who tells self-pitying stories about his own life to a woman he barely knows, but Elizabeth seems to have few doubts—a testament, again, to the power of “first impressions” that is so important in the novel. She dislikes Darcy the first time she meets him. In contrast, she likes Wickham at their first acquaintance, leading her to believe his story even without hearing Darcy’s side of it, and against Jane’s greater sensibility.
These chapters also bring the reader to Mrs. Phillips’s house for the first time. Mrs. Phillips is less shrill than her sister, Mrs. Bennet, but remains another low-class connection for the Bennet sisters to live down. Mr. Phillips is a Meryton attorney, which places him in a significantly lower station than the Darcys and Bingleys of the world.