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Pride and Prejudice

Jane Austen

Chapters 18–23

Summary Chapters 18–23

Analysis: Chapters 18–23

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.