Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Mrs. Bennet's Least Favorite Daughter. (Miscellany)

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Mrs. Bennet's Least Favorite Daughter. (Miscellany)

Article excerpt

In her daughter the mother does not hail a member of the superior caste; in her she seeks a double. She projects upon her daughter all the ambiguity of her relation with herself; and when the otherness of this alter ego manifests itself, the mother feels herself betrayed.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1)

MOST READERS AND CRITICS, quite rightly, think of Pride and Prejudice as a love story, the romance of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. Its special quality as a romantic narrative, as Roger Gard puts it, is that the obstacles to the lovers' fulfillment are "psychological and internal, not a matter of external bars" (99). Encountering each other at first with antagonism, the two main figures must pass through this misunderstanding, work through their initial mistakes until they recognize their feelings (and each other) for what they are. As I argued in my paper at the Boston JASNA meeting in 2000, Jane Austen's profound presentation of the relation at the heart of her novel involves the reader in a reappraisal of the meaning of love. (2) Austen's work is illuminated by Jessica Benjamin's contention that recognition of the other person's uniqueness is a rare potential of the psyche, a release from the otherwise ubiquitous "bonds of love." Similar reasoning, focused on the central couple, leads the celebra ted philosopher Slavoj Zizek to suggest that Austen is a novelist who is comparable in stature to Hegel as a thinker. Imagining as "a comical hypothesis" that "the first encounter of the future lovers was a success--that Elizabeth had accepted Darcy's proposal," he asks, "What would happen? Instead of being bound together in true love, they would become a vulgar everyday couple, a liaison of an arrogant, rich man and a pretentious, empty-headed young girl. If we want to spare ourselves the painful roundabout route through the misrecognition, we miss the Truth itself: only the working through' of the misrecognition allows us to accede to the true nature of the other and at the same time to overcome our own deficiency" (Zizek 64). It can certainly be claimed then, that the central relation of the novel is not only an alluring romance, but a profound account--at once epistemological and psychological--of the meaning of love.

But it is not quite true to say that the obstacles to the love of Darcy and Elizabeth are internal rather than external, nor quite just to the novel to treat the ethical and personal drama of their relation as the exclusive focus of the text. The character who illustrates this most clearly is Mrs. Bennet, and in this paper I shall focus on this figure, whose relation to her second daughter has not received extensive critical attention--surprisingly little, considering the dominant position she has in the first chapters of the novel, the important role she plays in her daughter's fate, and--as I shall suggest--the rather profound and disconcerting kinds of dramatic implication that Austen succeeds in generating around her. Mrs. Bennet, though, is not easy to think about: and to dismiss her is perhaps, after all, only to defend oneself against her.

For one common approach to the character is to consider it as a caricature, of which Pride and Prejudice contains several, including Mr. Collins--as a figure somehow beyond the pale, whom we need not take seriously. What might justify this treatment? On the first page of Pride and Prejudice, writes Julia Prewitt Brown, "we have only the disembodied voices of wife and husband clashing in an empty space" (Brown 66). D. W. Harding notes too this "stageyness of technique" and suggests that [t]he influence of the eighteenth-century theatre in some parts of the novel is consistent with the very strongly marked caricature of some figures and a rather sharp transition from them to the seriously portrayed characters" (99). A caricature, roughly speaking, is a figure which does not interact with others and thus does not develop, does not deepen in interest to the reader, but merely goes on displaying the same traits in different circumstances--the amusement to be gained from such figures being in the nature of the runn ing joke. …

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