Mr. Bennet: Character Analysis in Pride and Prejudice

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      The usual, the instinctive attitude of Jane Austen as a novelist is that of the humorist. The delicate humour in her works arises from the fact that the characters go against common sense and what is normal. They have an unerring genius for saying and doing exactly what ought not to be done and the reader’s sense of humour is tickled by this tendency on their part. Such enjoyment is heightened by the contrast presented between the comic characters and others who are free from those oddities. The comments of the latter draw our attention pointedly to them. To this class of characters belong Elizabeth, Jane and Mr. Bennet. It can be said that Jane Austen views the other characters through the eyes of Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth. This is particularly applicable to the former, since Elizabeth is an active participant in the plot, whereas Mr. Bennet is more a spectator, than an actor in it.

      Indeed, the main aspect about Mr. Bennet is that he is a spectator of life. He is the philosopher in it and, through him that the novelist expresses some of the most significant truths about life. His one business in life is to derive pleasure out of the oddities of others. Life had taught him that human beings are, in general, marked out for ridicule and he decides to make the most of it. Such an attitude is the result of his own experiences in life. Though, like his wife, he is presented in the beginning of the novel at an advanced age in his life, his past history is referred to briefly towards the end. He had married Mrs. Bennet in a thoughtless mood of infatuation at an age when he was more heart and less head, attracted by her beauty. But it must not have taken him a long time to discover that beauty was the only qualification of his wife and that she was thoroughly devoid of common sense. As the novelist puts it, a less philosophical man might have derived consolation for his disappointment from objectionable pleasures like drinking. But Mr. Bennet has a better alternative in books and love of the countryside. Hence he has been leading a life of retirement at Longbourn for a long time. His turn for philosophy and capacity to look at life with complete detachment has enabled him to make the most of what is available to him. He has a shrewd intellect and a keen power of observation and this procures for him the best enjoyment of life. As is said of a famous author, “odd and out-of-the-way characters” please him most and he indulges in an intellectual ‘game,’ hunting out such characters from the shelter of his well-equipped library. He finds food for satire in plenty; for the world is never wanting in fools. In fact, his own house provides ‘prey’ for him in plenty. All the members of his household, with the exception of Jane and Lizzy, are ‘silly’ and Mr. Bennet derives no end of pleasure in ridiculing them. His special victim is his wife; but he does not spare any one of his relatives.

      Mr. Bennet particular delight is to spring surprises on his daughters and wife and watch their reactions. This tendency is revealed when his wife suggests that he must begin angling for Mr. Bingley by being the first to pay him a visit at Netherfield. Mr. Bennet refuses to go about making the acquaintance of all newcomers to the village and asks his wife and daughters to fend for themselves if they are so anxious. But, in fact, he is one of the earliest to call on Mr. Bingley. It is just like him that he does not inform them of his visit for quite a long time, thereby keeping them in suspense. It is as a surprise that they learn he has paid the visit already. Even so, he does not oblige them with a complete account of the newcomer which they are thirsting to hear. In a similar manner, he does not reveal the letter of Mr. Collins announcing his arrival at Longbourn, for nearly a month after its receipt. He keeps them guessing about the expected visitor and makes the information most unpleasant for his nervy wife by telling her that the visitor is the man that will turn them all out of the house the moment he is dead. It is not his wife alone that he treats in this manner. He plays the same trick on his favorite Lizzy too when he receives a letter from the same Mr. Collins warning the family of the danger of contracting an alliance with Darcy. Elizabeth, who has already received the shock of the interview of Lady Catherine, is burning to know whom the letter might be from. She wonders whether it is from Darcy himself. It is only after giving her a few anxious moments on the point that he tells her that it is from Mr. Collins. Commenting on the letter at the end, he remarks. “For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” This remark sums up his views on life and his attitude to it.

      Such an Olympian view of life is certainly admirable. But we are not sure that Mr. Bennet does not carry it too far. We need not grudge him the pleasure that he derives in exposing his silly wife and daughters to ridicule within the family circle. But he indulges in that pastime even in other house holds, which is going rather too far. He derives immense pleasure from the manner in which Mr. Collins and his daughter Mary expose themselves during the ball at Netherfield. He is delighted by the speech which Mr. Collins gives over his willingness to sing, if only he knew how to sing. He enjoys Mary’s ridiculous performance also with absolute impartiality. But it is an unforgivable action on his part to ask his daughter to stop singing “so that the other ladies might exhibit themselves.” Elizabeth feels embarrassed by the rude manner in which her father puts an end to Mary’s songs in company, and wounds the feelings of the other ladies too by his sarcastic remark. It is this ill-timed speech that induces Mr. Darcy to include Mr. Bennet among the ‘ill-bred’ relatives of Elizabeth. The only defence of Mr. Bennet is that he enjoys the fun going on so much that he forgets himself for the time being.

      The irrepressible hunter after absurdities has the supreme experience of his life when Mr. Collins thrusts himself on his notice. Both Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth enjoy the clergyman’s introductory letter with great, relish. Mr. Bennet realises with his flair for detecting character that he has hit two birds in the same shot, by chance, Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins. He agrees with Elizabeth that Mr. Collins must be an extremely interesting personality and “is impatient to see him.” This impatience is characteristic of Mr. Bennet, since it indicates his eagerness to find new victims for his satire. When the carry does turn up, Mr. Bennet runs him down without the least mercy. Even the silent observation of Mr. Collins while he exhibits himself in his speeches to his cousins, gives him great delight. But Mr. Bennet is not satisfied with that pleasure. He leads Collins deeper and deeper into absurdity by asking him about his patroness and whether his compliments to her were premeditated or extempore performances. Mr. Collins replies innocently that they were partly premeditated and partly born on the spur of the moment. This is indeed capital and as Priestley remarks “the dialogue must have been one of the golden moments in the life of Mr. Bennet, to be treasured in his memory.” He must have rolled the joke over and over in his tongue. Another such moment occurs when Mr. Bennet receives Mr. Collins’s letter warning the Bennet's of the danger of entering into an alliance with Darcy since it has not been properly sanctioned by Lady Catherine. Mr. Bennet treats it as a joke first, since he thinks that Elizabeth and Darcy do not have any regard for each other. But when things take a different turn, Bennet enjoys the situation from another angle and he writes probably the best letter of his life in reply to Mr. Collins’s. After calling upon the other for congratulations for a second time, he adds, “Console Lady Catherine as well as you can. But, if I were you, I would stand by the nephew. He has more to give.” There is little in the field of satire to excel this.

      The supreme master of epigrams and pithy witticisms has his defects, and the novelist makes them too perfectly clear. The attitude of a spectator makes Mr. Bennet too indolent to take any action. Elizabeth is aware of this tendency on her father’s part and does not like his policy of taking the line of least resistance in all matters. He commits a grave mistake in neglecting the upbringing of his children. When the children have native good sense and a steady character like Jane and Elizabeth, there is no harm done. But Mr. Bennet adopts the same indifferent attitude towards Lydia and Kilty. It is not wrong to say that her father is more to blame for the elopement of Lydia than her mother. For Mrs. Bennet is an acknowledged fool. Mr. Bennet who knows better ought not to have permitted her to go to Brighton. But he follows the path of least resistance even after Elizabeth warns him of the clanger inherent in the situation, lie tries to give arguments for his attitude by remarking that Lydia would learn her own insignificance by the neglect she would sustain at Brighton. But the real reason is that Mr. Bennet desires to avoid the endless trouble she would give if she is not permitted to go. The ultimate result is the elopement and the consequent disgrace to the whole family. For once, Mr. Bennet bestirs himself and goes to London in search of his erring daughter. But when he is not successful and when Mr. Gardiner offers to take over the job, Mr. Bennet does not have the least objection in going back to the country and his library. He is mightily relieved when Mr. Gardiner undertakes to make arrangements for the financial settlement himself. He acts quickly on this occasion too and sends the power of attorney at the earliest moment. He is glad that the Lydia affair has been settled at so little expense and moreover, at so little trouble to himself. He recovers from the shock of self-reproach so much as to indulge in his habitual witticism that ‘he likes all his three sons-in-law immensely, though Mr. Wickham is his favourite.’ Mr. Bennet is not the type of man who can be Riffled easily and for long. For, the whole world is for him a stage and life but a walking shadow, consisting mainly of comic elements, with a slight admixture of serious things, perhaps, which will however set themselves right with the Gardiners and Darcy's in it. Though we might be annoyed now and then by his too easy an attitude to life: we cannot blame him when we remember that it is such an attitude that makes him capable of remarks like the following: “If any young men come for Mary and Kitty, send them in, for I am quite at leisure.” The words have a deeper significance than Mr. Bennet is aware of. Mr. Bennet is always quite at leisure.

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