William Collins: Character Analysis in Pride and Prejudice

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      William Collins takes his place among the best comic characters of not only all the works of Jane Austen but of all English literature. This is no fanciful exaggeration. The test of any great character is that he must come to life before the reader and have an existence almost independent of his creator. Falstaff of Shakespeare, and Mr. Micawber of Charles Dickens belong to this group. They step out of the canvas so to say and move among us as though we have known them all our lives and not merely as characters in a book. Mr. Collins belongs to this delightful company of great English comic characters.

      Jane Austen herself might have been surprised that such is the impression given by the character created by her. Her main intention was to ridicule the clergymen of the age who hunted after positions and forgot the sacredness of their calling. They had to court some great man or woman to gain their patronage and a living, and servility and toadying were at a premium. Rich persons like Darcy and Lady Catherine had ‘preferments’ at their disposal and the Wickhams and Collinses had to court their favour assiduously. Mr. Collins is represented as a typical toady who has lost all sense of human dignity and dignity as a clergyman in his blind adoration of Lady Catherine, who has given him the living of Hunsford. He provokes contempt in all the other characters of the novel, except Mrs. Bennet.

      William Collins character is revealed in the first letter he writes to Mr. Bennet. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in it and Elizabeth asks her father whether he can be a sensible man. Her father replies that he cannot, that he would make an interesting study and that he is impatient to see him. Besides writing about his own good fortune in securing the favour of Lady Catherine de Bourgh and his determination to please both her and God as much as lay within his power, the worthy clergyman adds that he is sorry for the entail of the Longbourn estate on him and proposes to make whatever amends might lie within his power. The reference to the entail provokes the ridicule of Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth and they expect to see one of the oddest creatures of their experience.

      Mr. Collins does indeed prove to be one of the oddest creatures. He is a young man of five and twenty. Jane Austen gives a brief account of his early life and his character to explain his pompous and formal behaviour to Mrs. Bennet whom he is to succeed at Longboum and his five fair cousins. Nature had not endowed him with good sense and he had not improved a bit by his education and contact with society. He had been under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father and this had produced a habitual humility in him. But an early prosperity consequent on the favour of Lady Catherine had made him conceited and there is a mixture of servility and self-importance in him as pointed out by Mr. Bennet. He is inordinately obsequious to everything connected with Lady Catherine and excessively proud of his position in life. These two aspects, combined with his absolute lack of sense, make him the most comic creature in the novel. He alludes tactlessly to the entail in the course of his conversation with the Bennets and praises his patroness in a fulsome manner. He is not ashamed to display his servility towards her. Mr. Bennet enjoys his absurdities very much during the first day and as a critic puts it, one of the golden moments in the life of the lover of oddities is when Mr. Collins admits that his compliments to Lady Catherine were partly premeditated and partly born on the spur of the moment. But the entertainment given by his absurdities lasts only for a day. Mr. Bennet gets tired of him soon and Elizabeth too feels that they have had enough of him. But he forces himself on his fair cousins and indeed sets about the plan of choosing one of them as his partner in life. His choice falls on Jane first; but Mrs. Bennet tells him that she is likely to be engaged soon. Mr. Collins is not disturbed by this information at all. He transfers his attentions to the next in birth and beauty, Elizabeth. Mrs. Bennet encourages him heartily in his new choice and the two make an admirable pair. In fact, the Mrs. Bennet-Collins combination is as diverting as the Lady Catherine-Collins combination. Thinking that nothing could come in the way of his success, Mr. Collins tries to make himself quite agreeable to all. He speaks in high terms of his patroness wherever he goes and Aunt Phillips is stunned by his praise. It is diverting to think of the many persons that are imposed on by his pomposity. He plays whist and gives out his intention to dance also though he does not know how to. He is excessively attentive to Elizabeth and the lively girl is bored by his company. He forces himself on her by asking her hand at dance. It is in the course of the ball that he makes himself most ridiculous and introduces himself to Mr. Darcy in spite of the warnings given by Elizabeth. When the lady tells him not to do any such foolish thing since Mr. Darcy would treat an advance of that nature as a piece of vulgar impertinence, Mr. Collins talks of the peculiar dignity that attaches to the profession of a clergyman, and marches forward to introduce himself to the proud Darcy. The peculiarity about him is that he does not recognize that he is treated with contempt by Mr. Darcy. Later in the day also, Mr. Collins makes a foolish speech about music and bows to Mr. Darcy at the end of it, since he is the relative of his patron's. The whole assembly is surprised over this strange creature. But Mr. Collins has no doubt that he has made a wonderful impression and Mrs. Bennet thinks likewise. We cannot imagine, a more ridiculous creature than Mr. Collins as he appears at that moment.

      But William Collins attains to new heights in the art of making himself ridiculous in his famous proposal to Elizabeth, which has been described to be the most comical proposal in the language. Servility to his patroness breathes in all his words to the lady. He explains elaborately the reasons for his proposing to her, the most important of which is that his patroness had advised him twice, and that too unasked, that a clergyman like him must marry and set an example to others. She had also promised to visit his wife, if he married a gentlewoman for her sake and a good housewife, for his own sake. He dangles before her the advantage of dining at Rosings every now and then and has no doubt at all that Elizabeth would jump at the offer. When she rejects him, he refuses to take her at her word and attributes her words to the nature of elegant females. Elizabeth gets annoyed over his foolishness and speaks still more plainly. But he cannot understand how he can possibly be rejected and gives his reasons for refusing to believe her. He does not hesitate to tell her that she will never get such an offer again. The whole scene is a monument of tactlessness on his part. He does not take her at her word even when she goes away from, the room. Indeed he tells Mrs. Bennet that he has good reason to be highly satisfied and that Elizabeth would surely come round in a short time. But Mrs. Bennet is alarmed and does not take his rosy view of things. It is clear from this that Mr. Collins is more stupid than the stupid mother of Elizabeth herself. It is only when she says that Elizabeth is a headstrong girl that he realizes what has happened and doubts whether Elizabeth would be a suitable partner for him, if that were the case. When Mrs. Bennet has failed in her attempts at persuasion and Mr. Bennet is found to be on the side of his daughter and Elizabeth’s rejection comes home to him as a settled fact, Mr. Collins grows angry. He had never imagined that he would be seriously refused by any girl. For, it was not he alone, but all that was associated with Rosings and Lady Catherine, that had been insulted.

      But Mr. Collins is not cowed down for long and does not leave Longbourn as expected. He merely transfers his affections to Charlotte and proposes to her the very next day and is accepted. He has come to Hertfordshire to get married and get married he would, in spite of Elizabeth. He thinks that he has taken sufficient revenge on the ungrateful girl by fixing up the marriage with Charlotte. He leaves Longbourn only on the day originally fixed by him, after promising to come again, and a letter of thanks for all the hospitality that had been extended to him. His offer to come again surprises the Bennets since they have been kept in the dark about his engagement to Charlotte. His letter of thanks arrives and he too, as arranged. He is not ruffled in the least at his being rejected by Elizabeth. It seems to be his view that if she had not accepted, so much the worse for her!

      Mr. Collins does not improve in the least after marriage. Elizabeth finds him to be the same man during her visit to Hunsford Parsonage which she undertakes for the sake of her dear friend. Indeed, Mr. Collins looks upon it as an excellent occasion to bring home to Elizabeth what she had lost. He promises her the gracious attentions of Lady Catherine and he is unable to control himself for joy when the invitation comes to him the very next day. Elizabeth notes his servility towards the gracious lady in person and her contempt for him and sympathy for Charlotte increase. Still, he calls upon her to congratulate him and his fortunate situation. When she speaks in mild praise of Lady Catherine for the sake of politeness, he is not satisfied with her enthusiasm and “takes the matter into his own hands.”

      Such is the picture of Mr. Collins as given by Jane Austen. He is the embodiment of foolishness and servility mixed with self-importance. He is held up for ridicule as being typical of many clergymen of those days. But some critics are not satisfied merely with such an interpretation of his character and there is much truth in what they say. According to them, Mr. Collins would not be the great comic character that he is, if he were nothing more than a cringing toady. They see in him a poet of a strange type. Mr. Priestley remarks, for example, that Jane Austen only once achieved poetry and that was when she created Mr. Collins. Though he is no doubt a toady, he is not merely that. He is given, so to say, a fourth dimension. Though all dislike him, Jane Austen introduces him again even after he is comfortably settled with Charlotte at Hunsford. He must comment on the elopement of Lydia unasked. It is characteristic of him again that he writes a letter of warning about the rumoured marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy. This gives rise to the most satirical remarks of Mr. Bennet in his reply in which he asks Mr. Collins to congratulate him and Lizzy for the impending alliance with Darcy. He requests Mr. Collins to console Lady Catherine as best as he could and at the same time to stand by the nephew, since he has more to give. These letters of Collins are not strictly called for by the development of the plot and we are not wrong in thinking that Jane Austen is attracted by Mr. Collins unconsciously. As Priestley puts it, she indulges him all over the place “just as Shakespeare was blackmailed by Falstaff again.”

      Further, in spite of his toadyism, Mr. Collins is a poet. He is so much overwhelmed by the glamour of Lady Catherine, Rosings and Hunsford Parsonage that the things become an end in themselves and not just means to another end. He is a snob no doubt, but not a snob of the ordinary type who adopts flattery for personal ends. A snob, to quote Priestley again, is one who meanly admires mean things. Mr. Collins does not admire meanly, though he admires mean things. All that pertains to Lady Catherine partakes of a glory and a vision. He adores the lady and all that is hers as a young lover would adore his mistress. It is ridiculous of course that he should lose his sense of proportion over such trifles. But the intensity of the passion lifts him above an ordinary snob. He imagines himself to be living in fairyland. He sets out for Longbourn to choose his wife, as a knight-errant would have ridden out to conquer his mistress in olden times. “He sees everything in life bathed in the light that was never on land or sea.” When he speaks of the advantages of married life with him to Elizabeth, he speaks nothing but what he feels to be the truth. For, there could be no higher ambition in life than to be invited for tea by Lady Catherine, in his view. That is why he is resentful when Elizabeth rejects him. She has insulted not only himself but his ideals in life. It is not fanciful to compare his feelings over the rejection to the disappointment of Mr. Darcy when he too is first rejected by Elizabeth. The two are entirely different in many ways but both are equally conceited, though for different reasons. There is nothing wrong in the view that Mr. Collins worships Lady Catherine and what she stands for just as Mr. Darcy worships himself and his own fancied superiority. Further, it can be noted that though Mr. Collins bores others nothing bores him. He is the happiest creature in the novel and nothing comes amiss for him. He does not worry about the rejection of Elizabeth much and is crowned with success when he approaches Charlotte, a woman who is more suited to him. He walks on air when he shows Elizabeth the beauties of Rosings Park and is sure that she would be dazzled by Lady Catherine’s tea table. She is not: but that is nothing for Mr. Collins. For, in his own mind, he is sure that he has scored a victory. The mind is its own place and can make a hell of heaven and heaven of hell and Mr. Collins has the capacity to be rapturous over trifles. He is really a child pretending to be grown up and has all the child’s capacity to be pleased with what others might ignore. “He marches under the banner of toadyism with such a devotion that it is no longer the banner of toadyism.” We laugh at him when he cries out for joy at the sight of a phaeton passing the gate and knows strange ecstasies at a dowager’s tea table. At the same time, there is something to be envied in the capacity of a person to make himself happy by such means. None of us would like to be Mr. Collins; but none would like to miss his acquaintance in the pages of Jane Austen.

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