Jane Austen’s Mr Bennet
Among the inexhaustible pleasures of Pride and Prejudiceis the character of Mr Bennet. Married to a vulgar drama queen and the father of five daughters, three of them deeply disappointing, he passes the time reading in his library, from which he emerges to savour the foolishness of those around him, willfully fail to communicate with his wife, and utter unforgettable lines: ‘You have delighted us long enough.’ (spoken after a dismal performance on the piano) ‘An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. You mother will not see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.’ ‘Next to being married, a girl likes to be crossed in love a little now and then. It is something to think of, and gives her a sort of distinction among her companions.’ How can one not warm to such a person?
The action of the novel tales place in a time of great difficulties for the Bennet household. The innocent and open-hearted eldest daughter seems to have lost the man to whom she was well suited, the prejudice (the word’s literal sense of judgment in advance is appropriate here) of the second stands in the way of her taking up with a man she believes to be of great pride, and the youngest is morally ruined. These disasters, the more serious in that marriage was the only possible escape the girls had from future poverty, could have been avoided. There were people who knew the character of the chief villain, but failed to expose him when there was still time. And in other respects Mr Bennet, too lethargic to bestir himself on behalf of his daughters, bears some of the responsibility.
We sympathize with him, and are clearly expected to like him; on the other hand, we do not approve of his indolence. He is strong on irony but weak in deed, and his withdrawal from activity has terrible consequences for those for whom he bears responsibility. Although our instinct throughout the novel is to laugh with Mr Bennet, and to laugh at Mrs Bennet, he is the more culpable. Jane Austen has created a character to whom we must respond in a complicated way.