Much to Elizabeth’s dismay, Wickham does not attend the ball. Mr. Denny tells Elizabeth and Lydia that Darcy’s presence keeps Wickham away from Netherfield. Elizabeth’s unhappiness increases during two clumsy dances with Mr. Collins and reaches its peak when she finds herself dancing with Darcy. Their conversation is awkward, especially when she mentions Wickham, a subject Darcy clearly wishes to avoid. At the end of the dance, Elizabeth encounters Miss Bingley, who warns her not to trust Wickham. Elizabeth assumes that Bingley’s sister is only being spiteful, however, and chooses to ignore the warning. Jane then tells her sister that she has asked Bingley for information about Wickham. But everything Bingley knows about the officer comes from Darcy and is therefore (in Elizabeth’s mind) suspect.
Mr. Collins, meanwhile, realizes that Darcy is related to his patroness, Lady Catherine. In spite of Elizabeth’s best attempts to dissuade him, he introduces himself. Darcy treats Mr. Collins with contempt, but Mr. Collins is so obtuse that he does not notice.
At supper, Mrs. Bennet discusses the hoped-for union of Bingley and Jane so loudly that Elizabeth criticizes her, noting that Darcy is listening. Mrs. Bennet, however, ignores Elizabeth and continues rambling about the impending marriage. At the end of the meal, Mary performs a terrible song for the company, and Mr. Collins delivers a speech of epic and absurd pomposity. Elizabeth feels that her family has completely embarrassed itself.
The next day, Mr. Collins proposes marriage to Elizabeth, assuming that she will be overjoyed. She turns him down as gently as possible, but he insists that she will change her mind shortly. Mrs. Bennet, who regards a match between her daughter and Mr. Collins as advantageous, is infuriated. She tells Elizabeth that if she does not marry Mr. Collins she will never see her again, and she asks Mr. Bennet to order Elizabeth to marry the clergyman. Her husband refuses and, befitting his wit and his desire to annoy his wife, actually informs his daughter that if she were to marry Mr. Collins, he would refuse to see her again.
A few days after the refused proposal, Elizabeth encounters Wickham in Meryton. He apologizes for his absence from the ball and walks her home, where Elizabeth introduces him to her parents. That same day, a letter arrives for Jane from Miss Bingley, informing her that Bingley and his party are returning to the city indefinitely and implying that Bingley plans to marry Darcy’s sister, Georgiana. Elizabeth comforts Jane, telling her that this turn of events is all Miss Bingley’s doing, not her brother’s, and that Bingley will return to Netherfield.
Suddenly, news arrives that Mr. Collins has proposed to Charlotte Lucas and that Elizabeth’s friend has accepted. Elizabeth is shocked, despite Charlotte’s insistence that the match is the best for which she could hope. Mrs. Bennet, of course, is furious with her daughter for allowing a husband to escape her, and as the days go by with no word from Bingley, Jane’s marriage prospects, too, begin to appear limited.
Elizabeth’s prejudice against Darcy survives these chapters, despite Miss Bingley’s warning. It is difficult to blame Elizabeth for not seeing the truth, however. Austen has established Miss Bingley as a spiteful, treacherous figure in the preceding chapters, and Elizabeth has no reason to value her warning about Wickham more than the trust she instinctively places in him. Elizabeth’s failure to ask Darcy about the matter directly while they are dancing is less excusable, however: she brings the issue up in a manner that assumes Wickham to be telling the truth (an assumption that is her key error). Unsurprisingly, Darcy is unwilling to talk given those terms.
The absurdity of Collins’s snobbery is played to the hilt when he approaches Darcy and fails to notice the contempt with which Darcy replies to his introduction. Disdain and rejection do not have a place in Mr. Collins’s perception of himself, by which his connection to Lady Catherine guarantees him a lofty place in society. His behavior in proposing to Elizabeth further illustrates his obtuseness. Austen tends to describe proposals in full only when they meet with rejection, primarily because rejections have so many comic and dramatic possibilities. Elizabeth’s later rebuff of Darcy constitutes a thrilling moment in the story; here, Mr. Collins’s lengthy speech is an opportunity for Austen to make him completely ridiculous. His refusal to accept “no” as an answer is, of course, unsurprising. His complete self-absorption blinds him to any answer other than “yes.”
Mr. Collins’s subsequent proposal to Charlotte Lucas, on the other hand, is far from comic because Charlotte accepts. Readers often argue that Pride and Prejudice and the rest of Austen’s novels are unrealistic in their frequent portrayals of happy marriages. Charlotte’s marriage to Collins injects a grim note into the romantic happiness that Elizabeth will later find. Indeed, one can interpret Charlotte’s fate as a component of Austen’s critique of a male-dominated society that leaves unmarried women without a future. Whereas Elizabeth is an idealist who will not marry solely for money, to either a fool (Collins) or a man she dislikes (Darcy, at first), Charlotte, six years older than her friend and lacking a fortune, is a pragmatist: she must capitalize on any opportunity that presents itself in order to avoid the societal scorn that accompanies old maid status. As Austen says of Charlotte: she “accepted [Mr. Collins] solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment.”
While the novel ultimately delivers Jane and Elizabeth to happiness, at this point in the story it seems as though the Bennet girls are losing out in their respective pursuits of husbands. When Charlotte says, “I am not a romantic you know . . . I ask only a comfortable home,” it seems as though romanticism compels Elizabeth to ask for too much, to seek more than her society is willing to grant her.
Jane must now cope with the snobbery of Miss Bingley, who is apparently not content to disparage the Bennets solely orally, just as Elizabeth earlier faced Miss Bingley’s scorn in reaction to Darcy’s attraction to her. The suggestion in her letters that Bingley may marry Darcy’s sister makes it clear that Miss Bingley, like Darcy himself, considers Jane too “low” to marry her brother. Indeed, while Darcy is later blamed for the temporary separation of Bingley and Jane, Miss Bingley’s words and behavior suggest that she, too, plays a role in it.