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Pride and Prejudice - CHARACTERS - Austen

We must remember that character creation is a construct; an artefact and central ones do not necessarily represent the author.  Characters are either portrayed sympathetically or unsympathetically.  The former are called protagonists, heroes or good guys while the latter are antagonists, villains or bad guys.  Sometimes main characters are picaresque – likeable but harmless rogues, larrikins or scoundrels –“loveable rogues”.

Martin Amis points out that over two millennia humans first told stories of Gods, then Kings, then Epic Heroes, then ordinary people , then anti-heroes, then villains, then demons and finally themselves.

One of Jane Austen’s greatest talents was the depiction of live, vibrant, idiosyncratic characters; her art lies in her ability to put us into the minds and hearts of the wide range of her main characters providing a multiple perspective.

Austen’s masterful art of shifting our allegiances is most clearly seen in her depiction of Mr Wickham and Mr Darcy; we are pro the former and against the latter until a turning point when suddenly their perception is reversed. At first we are led to believe Jane and Bingley are the central characters, but they are eventually replaced by Elizabeth and Darcy.

Following Aristotle’s advice on revelation she does this by showing us, not telling us.  The characters are revealed through their dialogue, their actions, their interactions and their thoughts, often through the letters they compose and sometimes through the author’s comments.

The good characters are sensible, amiable and tolerant while the foolish ones are exaggerated caricatures who shoot themselves in the foot by their folly, often through inane comments or actions. 

We can also divide the characters into two categories (as Karl Jung did 100 years later);  introverts and extroverts.  Jane Austen tends to disparage the extroverts – Mrs Bennet,  Mr Collins,  Lady Catherine de Bourgh,  Wickham, Lydia……  and quietly approve of the introverts –Jane, Elizabeth, Darcy, Mr Bennet ……..

While Jane Austen created these characters for our amusement, each one represents something she wishes to comment on about her society, giving us a rich portrait gallery of quotidian life 200 years ago.

Mrs. Bennet – The role of wife-and-mother is so difficult that most of Austen’s wives-and- mothers are hopeless at it. The best mothers are the dead ones. Mrs Bennet is the empty-headed, self-indulgent, match-making mother of five daughters. The wife of Mr. Bennet and "a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper," who embarrasses her older daughters with her lack of class and entertains her husband with her ignorance. Mrs. Bennet is a raucous vulgarian, avoided and ridiculed by her husband, who has nevertheless fathered five children with her. Her chief purpose in life is to marry off her five daughters and she will use any means to do so:

"No, my dear, you had better go on horseback, because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night." 

Mr. Bennet

Fathers or men, do not get a good run in Austen’s novels but at least Mr. Bennet is one of the more entertaining. 

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character.

He spends most of his time in the solitude of his library to get away from the madhouse of his feminine family.

Elizabeth Bennet has a real father, but he’s a bit of a bumbler who has made a foolish marriage, and is incapable of governing his unruly gang of daughters. When Lydia runs off with the worthless Wickham, it is Mr. Darcy, an Alpha male, who fulfils the father role, by saving the family from disgrace and seeing that Lydia is properly provided for. Mr. Darcy is tall, haughty, unbending, unsmiling and master of Pemberley while Mr. Bennet is not even master of his own house. (Germaine Greer)

His humility and stoical approach to life:  After his return from London failing to find Wickham and Lydia he candidly accepts the blame:

“No Lizzy, let me once in my life feel how much I have been to blame.  I am not afraid of being overpowered by the impression.  It will pass soon enough.”  (205)

He is fond of books and can be witty and wryly amusing making some of the most perceptive droll and sardonic comments of all in the Novel.  He already has a keen sense of the absurdities of life.

His philosophical purpose of life:

“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn”  (251)

"If any young men come for Kitty or Mary, send them in, for I am quite at leisure."  (261)

He is quite right to blame himself for Lydia’s rash elopement as he has taken little care or interest in restraining the impetuous urges of his youngest daughters.  Austen has little time for most men, especially fathers in her novels.

Jane Bennet - The eldest daughter of the Bennets who is pretty, shy, calm, gentle and good-natured; she falls in love with and is destined to marry Mr. Bingley.

‘My dear Jane ... you are too good. Your sweetness and disinterestedness are really angelic; I do not know what to say to you. I feel as if I had never done you justice, or loved you as you deserve.’    Pride and Prejudice, pp. 134, 135.

Jane plays a secondary role in the novel as an uncomplicated foil to the more complex and maturing Elizabeth.

Elizabeth Bennet (Lizzy) - The second daughter of the Bennets who is lively, intelligent, witty and learns sensibility.

I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least I do not know. (Jane Austen – Letters to her sister Cassandra, January 29 1813)

Elizabeth is the main character because we share a lot of time with her intimately; when she is alone, thinking, reading, reflecting.  Though she is immediately drawn to Darcy, she will not admit the attraction until later when she meets him again at Pemberley.  We empathise with her lack of power, uncertain future and her struggle to forge an individual identity distinct from her embarrassing family.

A full Character Analysis of Elizabeth here.

Mary Bennet - The third daughter, who is didactic, pedantic, tasteless, plain, vain, silly, and affected. Her moral lectures (homilies) are a source of ridicule:

"Unhappy as the event must be for Lydia, we may draw from it this useful lesson: that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable -- that one false step involves her in endless ruin -- that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful, -- and that she cannot be too much guarded in her behaviour towards the undeserving of the other sex."

 Catherine Bennet (Kitty) – a hapless minion, of the whims of her younger sister.  Together they are "vain, ignorant,idle, and uncontrouled ", representing the product of permissive parents too busy to regulate the wild urges of young blood.

 Lydia Bennet - The youngest daughter who is silly, thoughtless, stupid, unprincipled, flirtatious, loud-mouthed and scatter brained; not surprisingly, she is Mrs. Bennet’s favorite daughter. She flirts with all the officers of the regiment and eventually elopes with Wickham, totally oblivious of the scandal she has caused her family. A clone of her mother?

"Lydia Bennet, at sixteen is a piece of trash.  She earns our contempt not so much by eloping, but by jeering at a social inferior, an innocent waiter who has just served her: 'but he is such an ugly fellow! I never saw such a long chin in my life.' 

We don't need Austen to explain how Lydia's coarse behaviour risks destroying her sister's mariageability. A line of dominoes will topple whispering to the ground if she is not reined in.  And Austen does not scruple to sheet home Lydia's awfulness to her ill-matched parents. 

In a letter of shattering selfishness Lydia dashes off to her married friend, merrily telling her that she and Wickham have run away, she sends a message to her servant: 'I wish you would tell Sally to mend a great slit in my worked muslin gown'. Helen Garner 

George Wickham - A  seemingly charming, handsome militia officer, a decoy; at first we are induced to admire and side with him as a favourable match for Lizzie, but gradually we are led to see him for the false, shallow man that he is – selfish, unprincipled, extravagant, a true villain, he gambles, philanders, dissembles and betrays all he encounters. A man with attractive manners, who elopes with Lydia Bennet.  While Austen follows and adheres to the traditional “Civil code of Behaviour” and values amiability and cordiality, she is acutely aware that outwardly manners and style can mask the true character of people. 

For a crucial while, Elizabeth believes Wickham. She and Jane have a chats about him.   “Besides, there was truth in his looks.” She has been fooled by Wickham’s charm.  He turns out to be the real villain of the novel, when he elopes with Lydia Bennet.

 Rev. Mr. Collins – The main target of Austen’s clever satire –an outrageous caricature, he is Mr. Bennet’s cousin who is to inherit Mr. Bennet’s property. He is a pompous, undignified mixture of servility and self- importance. His smarmy toadying and sycophancy towards Lady Catherine de Bourgh reveals reverence of class and therefore his snobbery.   Even though he becomes an outrageous butt of her ridicule, he is always plausible.

He is introduced to us through his letter which informs us in an unctuous tone of his desire to "heal the rift in the family" caused by his inheritance of the family estate with the possibility of marrying one of their daughters.   When the letter is read aloud, Elizabeth queries:

"Can this be a sensible man?"

To which Mr Bennet replies:
"No, my dear; I think not, I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse,  I am impatient to meet him". 
There are many other actions, comments and especially letters where he exposes himself for the fool he is.

Mr. Collins [before the marriage]:

"[We] sincerely sympathise with you, and all your respectable family, in your present distress, which must be of the bitterest kind, because proceeding from a cause which no time can remove. [i.e. Lydia can't get her presumed lost virginity back, so that anything anyone might try to do for her would be useless.] ... The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. ... [The De Bourghs] agree with me in apprehending that this false step in one daughter will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others; for who, as Lady Catherine herself condescendingly says, will connect themselves with such a family. ... Let me advise you then, my dear Sir, to console yourself as much as possible, to throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence ..."

[After the marriage:]

"I am truly rejoiced that my cousin Lydia's sad business has been so well hushed up, and am only concerned that their living together before the marriage took place should be so generally known. I must not... refrain from declaring my amazement at hearing that you received the young couple into your house as soon as they were married. ... You ought certainly to forgive them as a Christian, but never to admit them in your sight, or allow their names to be mentioned in your 

This indicates his hypocrisy or limited understanding of Christian charity.  It is interesting that Jane Austen reserves her most acidic satire for the clergy.  The fact that her father was one would have brought many of his colleagues to her home may account for this as she pierced their outer piety.

 Mr. Bingley

 A wealthy country gentleman, who is kind and charming. He falls in love with and marries Jane Bennett and is Darcy’s best friend.

Mr.Charles Bingley was good-looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion. His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman.

Mr. Bingley had soon made himself acquainted with all the principal people in the room: he was lively and unreserved, danced every dance, was angry that the ball ended so early.

Jane in praise of Mr. Bingley … pressed to her sister how very much she admired him.

"He is just what a young man ought to be," said she, "sensible, good-humoured, lively. And I never saw such happy manners! -so much ease, with such perfect good breeding !"

"He is also handsome," replied Elizabeth, "which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can. His character is thereby complete."

They (Bingley’s)  were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother's fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.

 Fitzwilliam Darcy - The wealthy, best friend of Charles Bingley who at first appears proud, arrogant/diffident, rude, and unpleasant; after falling in love with Elizabeth, he is shown to be discreet, shrewd, generous, and magnanimous; in the end, he wins Elizabeth’s love.

Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general  circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.

He (Darcy) looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own, and coldly said,   (in her hearing)

"She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men”.

Minor Characters

Georgiana Darcy - The younger sister of Fitzwilliam Darcy who is shy, reserved, and warm-hearted.

Mrs. Reynolds - The trusted housekeeper of Pemberley who gives Elizabeth favourable side of Darcy and had only warm praise for her master, whom she has known since he was four years old — ‘“and he was always the sweetest-tempered, most generous-hearted, boy in the world.”

Colonel Fitzwilliam - The cousin of Mr. Darcy who is handsome and well-mannered. He is a foil to Darcy and a catalyst in bringing Darcy and Elizabeth together.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh – A representative of the higher nobility, an object of satire.   Mr. Darcy’s aunt who is arrogant, over-bearing, domineering, interfering, vulgar and affected; she cannot tolerate any opposition and is shown as a loser.   Elizabeth demonstrates her mastery of self-control when she stands up to Lady Catherine's bullying, by refusing to cower in the face of her demands to give up Darcy. 

Ann de Bourgh - Lady Catherine’s daughter who is sickly and coddled by her mother and who has no mind of her own but meant for an arranged marriage with Darcy.

Mrs. Jenkinson - Ann de Bourgh’s teacher.

Caroline Bingley - Mr. Bingley’s unmarried sister, who is snobbish, conceited, scheming and jealous.

Mrs. Hurst - Bingley’s married sister who lives a lazy, purposeless life.

Mr. Hurst - Bingley’s brother-in-law, who is lazy and purposeless, like his wife.

Sir William and Lady Lucas - Neighbors and friends of the Bennet family and parents of Charlotte.

Charlotte Lucas - The eldest daughter in the Lucas family who is plain, practical, intelligent and absolutely unromantic; she  is a very close friend of Elizabeth.,

"Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance.”

Elizabeth sees “Charlotte the wife of Mr Collins was a most humiliating picture!”

And now, for the first time, she begins to see Charlotte as she really is: and ‘felt persuaded that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again’.

Mr. and Mrs. Gardiner - Mrs. Bennet’s brother and his wife who are sensible and refined; The only exemplary model marriage in the book.  The fact that they have to work for their money and live in Cheapside, is a cause for ridicule by Caroline Bingley. 

Mrs. Gardiner is a confidante of Jane and Elizabeth Bennet.

Mrs. Philips - Mrs. Bennet’s sister, who is as vulgar and ridiculous as her sister; her husband is an attorney.

Mary King - An acquaintance of the Bennet family who becomes a rival of Elizabeth’s in regard to Wickham only after she inherits 10,000 £.


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