Mrs. Bennet: Character Analysis in Pride and Prejudice

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      Like most of the other characters in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennet has ridiculous oddities. She is one of the most successful comic creations of Jane Austen. As she makes her appearance in the beginning, she is a matron fairly advanced in age, with five daughters to care for. But a full account of her as she was in her youth is given towards the end of the novel. She is described to have been beautiful as a girl and it is her beauty which had attracted Mr. Bennet. But beauty seems to have been her only qualification. She is devoid of even elementary common sense. Age has not improved her in the least. If anything, she has grown worse. Since her only asset, namely a beautiful appearance, has deserted her with the advance of years, she is left with nothing but her silly notions on all things and ‘her poor nerves with which Mr. Bennet is plagued for years.’ He regrets having married her and might have become quite desperate if he had not possessed a philosophy of his own. He consoles himself with the books in the library avoiding her company unless it is indispensable. He shows his contempt for her without any reserve and Elizabeth is pained to note that he does not spare her even in the company of his children.

      Though we might agree with Elizabeth in this respect, we do not have the heart to condemn Mr. Bennet for his treatment of his wife. For, she would try the patience of anybody. Even Jane, who can put up with almost anything, wishes that her mother would not be tactless and be constantly harping on Mr. Bingley as Mrs. Bennet was doing. This aspect about her is revealed in the first chapter itself. Her one passion in life is to see all her daughters married. With Mrs. Bennet it has become an obsession. She believes that she has a good reason for her desire. For, there is an entail on the property and Mrs. Bennet is afraid that she and her daughters would be turned out mercilessly after the melancholy death of her husband. Not a day passes without her referring to the entail. Jane and Elizabeth try their best to make her reasonable and resigned to what is inevitable. Mr. Bennet tries to cure her folly in his characteristic way by telling her that they might pray for the death of Mrs. Bennet first. But the lady is not consoled by such thoughts and nothing can set her at case on the points. “Her poor nerves” are shattered by the bleak prospect before her.

      It is not surprising, therefore, that Mrs. Bennet imagination and heart run riot the moment she learns that Netherfield is to be occupied by a gentleman with “five thousand pounds a year.” Mr. Bennet has good reason to curse the day when the lease is taken, for he does not have a moment’s peace of mind thereafter. His wife enjoins upon him his duty to visit Mr. Bingley first, since otherwise, the other “selfish persons of the village,” particularly the Lucases would secure the newcomer for one of their daughters. She does not stop to analyse whether her own motives arc ‘unselfish.’ She is incapable of such thoughts since she has developed a passion for husband-hunting for her daughters.

      We might be tempted to pardon her efforts on behalf of her daughters, since the getting of husbands was considered to be the peculiar function of parents in those days. But the objection against Mrs. Bennet is that she does not know how to do it in the proper manner. She makes herself ridiculous and actually defeats her own purpose by her clumsy and obvious manoeuvres. She shows her want of breeding in the course of her first meeting with the Bingley's and Mr. Darcy. Mr. Bingley has a partiality for Jane on account of the merits of the girl herself. But it is her mother’s behaviour that prejudices Jane’s cause. She makes her intentions ridiculously plain when she declares that Jane is too ill to be removed from Netherfield. She cuts a poorer figure in the course of the ball at Netherfield. She talks about the expected marriage between Jane and Bingley aloud in the presence of Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth is heartily ashamed of her mother and requests her to lower her voice. But this merely worsens the situation. Mrs. Bennet remarks offensively so as to be heard by Darcy that she cares nothing for him. It is not a surprise therefore that the guests at Netherfield take the earliest opportunity to leave the place. All the Bennets disgrace themselves in the eyes of the newcomers, it is true. Elizabeth feels that ‘if her family had made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with more spirit, or finer success.’ But we feel that the prize must be given to Mrs. Bennet in the matter. It is she who is mainly responsible for the postponement of the happiness of Jane, whose marriage it is her intention to promote. Elizabeth feels offended when Darcy explains to her the reason for his opposition to the marriage between his friend and her sister. But she feels later that he is fully justified. There would be nothing undutiful if Jane had prayed that God should save her from her mother. With the best of intentions, Mrs. Bennet scares away the most eligible of men from her eldest daughter. It is not the delay that is caused over the marriage that is a surprise, but the fact that it materialized at all.

      While the part played by Mrs. Bennet in the Bingley-Jane affair is ridiculous enough, her character reaches the height of its absurdity in her reactions to the elopement of Lydia. Jane Austen attributes the defects of Lydia’s character almost entirely to the defective training of her mother. It is Mrs. Bennet that defends her silly daughter again and again when Mr. Bennet directs his satire against the latter. If Mr. Bennet ridicules Lydia’s craze for the officers, Mrs. Bennet interposes with the remark that she was equally crazy while she was young. She adds in defence of her daughter that Mr. Bennet cannot expect her to have their good sense at that age. Mr. Bennet would have chuckled within himself to note that his wife includes herself too among ‘sensible persons.’ Later, Mrs. Bennet goes all out in support of Lydia’s plan to pay a visit to Brighton. Indeed, she desires the entire family to go there and cannot forgive her husband for not permitting it. It is her foolish indulgence and active encouragement over the visit to Brighton that is responsible for the elopement of Lydia. But strangely enough, Mrs. Bennet lays the blame on her husband. She remarks that if the entire family had gone to Brighton the calamity might not have happened. We cannot but feel that Mrs. Bennet is incorrigible. Her reaction to the news that Lydia and Wickham are married are also ridiculous. In fact, even before the event takes place, she sends word through her brother that Lydia need not worry about the wedding clothes. It is not surprising therefore that she is the only person who is thrown into transports of wild joy over the marriage of Lydia. She begins to form plans about the house where her daughter and son-in-law might live. She is proud of them both when they are permitted to come to Longbourn and is not ashamed to talk about the notice which has appeared in the papers about the marriage, before Darcy and Bingley. One wonders whether there is any limit to her silliness.

      It is a tribute to the genius of Jane Austen that, in spite of all her foolishness, we do not hate Mrs. Bennet. We have a contempt for her, it is true. But there is no ill-will in our heart for her, though she harms almost all her daughters. This is because of the saving feature of maternal affection in her. She is a fool but not a bad character like Miss Bingley. Her lack of judgment is shown in her support of the suit of Mr. Collins also. But all these foolish actions are the result of the obsession which she has about the entail of the estate. Her genuine joy over the engagement of Jane and Bingley compensates for all her former blundering words and actions. In fact, Jane indicates that we should forgive her mother by her action in telling her mother the news of the engagement herself. Mrs. Bennet is unable to control her joy on the occasion. A greater surprise is in store for her when Elizabeth breaks the news of her engagement to Darcy. Mrs. Bennet is thrown into a confusion over the information since she had been insulting the gentleman consistently. That is why Elizabeth chooses to tell her about it in private. But the moment she is able to recover, Mrs. Bennet breaks out into an expression which is quite characteristic of her. Her mind jumps immediately to the ten thousand pounds of Mr. Darcy, his house in town, Lizzy’s pinmoney, jewels and carriages. The “disagreeable Mr. Darcy” is forgotten by her thoroughly. While we laugh at the things she values, we cannot be blind to the warm mother’s heart that glows with joy. Foolish she is, and selfish and worldly without even knowing how to gain what she has at heart. Still, our verdict on her is that “a mother is a mother for all that.”

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