Last week I asked, how many suitors does Lizzie Bennet have?
Most people say three: Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Darcy. But a writer would say she has four.
Lizzie Bennet’s Four Symbols
In a romance, every suitor is a symbol. The suitor offers the protagonist a possible life, and by offering her that life, he represents a vision of what happiness or fulfillment could be. When the protagonist chooses a suitor, she chooses the life she will have – but she enables the author to speak about what lives we all can or should have. So, what symbols does Lizzie consider, and what do they symbolize?
Mr. Collins and the Claims of Conventionality
First there is Mr. Collins. Pompous, proud, self-centered Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins represents the financial exigencies of marriage in Austen’s day. He is the Bennets’ cousin and, as the closest male relative of Lizzie’s father, he will receive the Bennet family’s home and income when her father dies. Lizzie’s mother is overjoyed that he proposes to her, for he is everything that Mrs. Bennet looks for in a man.
If Lizzie were to choose Mr. Collins, she would choose respectability, security, and a good income; she would declare, “I do not care about finding a husband who is well matched for me, only about finding a living.” He is a symbol of the social order that tells women to marry for money and social stability, and Lizzie pursues marital happiness against the pressure of these social expectations.
However, in a stroke of true brilliance, Austen uses Mr. Collins to humble Lizzie and to make a surprisingly compelling case for conventional, money-bound ideas about marriage. After Lizzie rejects Mr. Collins, her friend Charlotte Lucas accepts his proposal of marriage. Lizzie is aghast, and says to her friend’s face that the match is “impossible.” But Charlotte is poor, twenty-seven, and not pretty. She faces a life of hardship if she does not marry soon, and no man has ever proposed to her. Some months after their marriage, Lizzie visits the Collinses and finds that Charlotte has built a comfortable, respectable life – the life that was the best prospect for many women (and not a few men) in Austen’s day. The whole sequence reminds us that Pride and Prejudice is a kind of fairy tale, and that not everyone gets Lizzie Bennet’s happy ending.
George Wickham, Lizzie’s “Perfect” Match
Mr. Wickham, a dashing, handsome young officer, is everything that Mr. Collins is not. He makes a good impression on everyone he meets. He’s charming, he’s funny, and he speaks to you as though you’re the most important person in the world. I’ll have more to say about Mr. Wickham, and Austen’s talent in his portrayal, in a later newsletter. For now, I want to point out that he takes Lizzie in…and he takes her in precisely because of who she is.
When she meets Wickham, Lizzie has already formed a snap judgment about Mr. Darcy: he is cold, aloof, and proud. She does not want to think well of him. Lizzie observes Wickham run into Darcy and sees that there is tension between them; Wickham observes her observation. Later, they meet at a party, and Wickham sounds her out. He hints that she might have noticed the tension between himself and Darcy; he susses out that she dislikes Darcy; and he tells her a story by which Darcy deprived Wickham of his inheritance. He composes his story out of half-truths and misrepresentations, but relatively few outright lies, and Lizzie is left admiring him and despising Darcy.
Wickham has everything that Lizzie thinks she is looking for, except for goodness. He is witty, clever, observant, and thoughtful. He is poor—which, from a writer’s perspective, makes him an especially good suitor because he contrasts so perfectly with Mr. Collins.
If Jane Austen were telling a simpler and less interesting story, she would give Lizzie a choice between true love and social convention. In that story, Wickham would be Lizzie’s man. And precisely because Wickham can mold himself to look like what Lizzie wants, he fools her. She learns, by being wrong about Wickham, that people are not always what they seem, that wit and cleverness are not as important as she thought, and that her initial judgments of people can be horribly wrong.
Mr. Bennet and Lizzie’s Beginnings
Lizzie’s father is obviously not a literal suitor. But in terms of story strucure, he is exactly that. At the story’s beginning we see him as Lizzie does: clever, easygoing, funny, and sarcastic. He makes swift judgments and delivers bon mots, just as Lizzie does. He pokes fun at his wife’s silly ambitions and wants to see Lizzie with someone who will make her happy. It is no wonder that Lizzie adores him.
Lizzie’s father is a symbol for another life path – and it’s the path that Lizzie is following when the story begins. It’s a path of gentleness and ease, one that doesn’t take the world too seriously, but sits back and laughs at it. It’s also one that sizes up the world quickly and enjoys its idiosyncrasies. Frequently, Lizzie and her father bond by exchanging clever observations about the people around them. Like Lizzie, Mr. Bennet trusts his own assessment of people, most of whom he thinks are ridiculous. And once he has assessed someone, he rarely changes his opinion or exerts himself on their behalf.
Lizzie grows during the novel, and my favorite summation of her growth is this: she learns why her father’s way of living is not enough. When Lizzie reads Mr. Darcy’s letter, she learns the truth about George Wickham. She also learns how much her family’s bad manners contributed to Mr. Bingley’s leaving Jane. She begins to reassess everyone in the novel – not only herself, Darcy, and Wickham, but also her parents and her sisters. For the first time, she begins to take her younger sisters seriously.
Up to this point, Lizzie has never done much besides make fun of her sisters, but now she starts to consider their welfare. Shortly after Lizzie reads the letter, her yongest sister Lydia, who is only 15, receives an invitation to travel with a friend to a resort town where a regiment’s officers are quartered. The friend is married to one of the officers, but she is not much older than Lydia and nowhere near mature enought to keep Lydia safe. Lizzie does something she has never done before: she tries to protect Lydia. And she does it by talking to their father.
Lizzie urges Mr. Bennet to forbid Lydia from taking this trip, fearing that Lydia will do something that endangers herself and the family. She tells her father that Lydia’s rudeness has already endangered the family’s reputation (she is thinking of Jane’s engagement to Mr. Bingley, which was torpedoed by their sisters’ and mother’s behavior). Mr. Bennet responds by teasing her – he has no idea what happened to Jane, and he jokes that Lizzie might have lost one of her admirers.
Then he sees that Lizzie is seriously upset and he tries to comfort her.
Mr. Bennet saw that her whole heart was in the subject, and affectionately taking her hand said in reply:
“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters. We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton. Let her go, then. Colonel Forster is a sensible man, and will keep her out of any real mischief; and she is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to anybody. At Brighton she will be of less importance even as a common flirt than she has been here. The officers will find women better worth their notice. Let us hope, therefore, that her being there may teach her her own insignificance. At any rate, she cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorising us to lock her up for the rest of her life.”(Chapter 41)
He says, in other words: “There’s no helping Lydia. She’s an idiot. And anyone who knows you and Jane will know that you are not like Lydia. Hopefully, this trip will teach her that no one cares about her; and if not, at least we’ll have some peace and quiet.”
It’s an incredibly cruel thing to say about his own daughter – but it is exactly what Lizzie would have thought at the start of the novel. In fact, two chapters earlier, Lydia said something rude, and Lizzie realized that she had often thought exactly the same thing. She realizes – and her father does not – that she is not as different from Lydia as she had thought.
Mr. Darcy and Character Growth
We’ll spend next week’s newsletter on Mr. Darcy, Lizzie’s fourth suitor. But it’s important to have the other suitors – and especially Mr. Bennet – in mind, because so much of Darcy’s symbolism depends on his differences from the other suitors. Mr. Darcy doesn’t just represent the life that Lizzie wants. He represents the life that Lizzie, at her best, could have – but for which she will need to undergo some painful change. And (another mark of Austen’s genius) Darcy’s own change is just as dramatic, and just as necessary, as Lizzie’s own.
Til next week, happy writing,