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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.