How Does Jane Austen Present Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice? What is His Significance in the Novel, Particularly in Relation to the Theme of Marriage? ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. ‘ Yet not all such single men are as desirable as others, for example, a certain Mr Collins. ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is a novel set in the beginning of the 19th Century, a time when women were oppressed into being good wives and mothers and little else. All that was important was the marrying off of daughters and the settling down of women.
This is apparent in the nature and purpose of Mrs Bennet, whose sole motivation is to marry off each of her five daughters as soon as possible. And Mr Collins is one such ‘contender’ for the Bennet sisters. With the entrance of Mr Collins comes bad news for the family, Mr Collins is Mr Bennet’s cousin, he works as a clergyman, and because he is the next male in line to Mr Bennet, he stands to inherit Longbourne after Mr Bennet’s death. He is seen as a ‘villain’ who has the power to take away anything the girls stand to inherit.
From the very first mention of Mr Collins in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, there is a certain air of resentment between him and the Bennet family, and this estrangement carries on throughout the book. Jane Austen uses Mr Collins to show a veiled satire towards the clergy of that time, he is her object of mockery; a joke in her eyes, and to most of the characters in the book. During the 19th Century, being a clergyman was simply a job; it had nothing to do with divinity or having any Christian faith. Young men could take up the occupation, on the basis of just gaining a degree alone.
Jane Austen shows her acute mockery of this through her portrayal of Mr Collins, who, although supposedly being a man of God, is far from it. Mr Collins writes a lot of letters throughout the novel; each of which show a little more of his personality; his first for example gives a perfect impression of the man who is to follow. Throughout his initial letter he talks of his duty and he seems to feel a certain need to elaborate everything. ‘As a clergyman, moreover, I feel it my duty to promote and establish the blessing of peace…
‘ Mr Collins also manages to fit in the first mention of his precious ‘Right honourable Lady Catherine De Bough, widow of Sir Lewis De Bough, whose bounty and beneficence had preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish. ‘ This letter takes on a very formal and convoluted manner, which is later shown in Mr Collins’ character. He is a social climber and does anything to flatter people, yet his manners do not come easily and they have a forced and rehearsed edge to them. Mr Collin’s first mention of his intention to marry is in this initial letter, this is what induces Mrs Bennet to change her mind about him.
Originally she says ‘I cannot bear to hear that mentioned. Pray do not talk of that odious man,’ but later ‘there is some sense in what he says about the girls however… and I shall not be the one to discourage him. ‘ This shows her obvious desperation to marry off her daughters to anyone possible, and also her volatile nature, in that she changes her view on Mr Collins, because he has suddenly become useful to her. Mr Bennet’s first words show his initial reaction to his cousin’s letter, ‘at four o’clock we may expect the peace-making gentleman… he seems to be a most conscientious and polite young man.
‘ He talks of this very formal and solemn letter in a playful manner, which shows his mockery of Mr Collins. ‘Elizabeth was struck by his extraordinary deference… “There is something very pompous about his style…. Can he be a sensible man? ” Mr Bennet then replies ‘I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse… His mixture of servility and self-importance promises well. ‘ This clearly shows that Mr Bennet finds Mr Collin’s character asinine, without even having met him, and is looking forward to making a fool of the new arrival. As hoped for by Lizzie and Mr Bennet Mr Collins is completely absurd, he is almost laughable.
During their first meal he explains to Mr Bennet that his compliments ‘are the kind of little things which please her ladyship (Lady Catherine)… which I conceive myself most peculiarly bound to pay. ‘ Mr Bennet shows open satire at this point and asks ‘May I ask whether these pleasing attentions proceed from impulse of the moment, or are they the result of some previous study? ‘ ‘They arise chiefly from what is passing… although sometimes I amuse myself with suggesting and arranging such little compliments… I always wish to give them as unstudied an air as possible.
‘ It is at this point that we realise what a fool Mr Collins really is; ‘Mr Bennet’s expectations are fully fulfilled. His cousin is as absurd as he had hoped… ‘ Mr Bennet then carries on with the conversation with ‘the keenest enjoyment, maintaining at the same time the most resolute composure of countenance. ‘ Mr Collins’ may think these compliments flatter people but they are more likely to make him seem more desperate than polite. Mr Bennet is the opposite of Mr Collins, he is completely reserved and prefers to watch Mr Collins make a fool of himself, rather like a comedy show in which he finds amusement.
At the start of Chapter 15 Austen gives us an acute analysis of Mr Collins’ background and personality: he is ‘not a sensible man, and the deficiency of nature has been but little assisted by education or society’: the effect on him of his father and of ‘his’ condescending Lady Catherine is that he is ‘a mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility’. Mr Collin’s personality is shallow and petty and his conversation is riddled with talk of money and material possessions; he adores Lady Catherine and is eager to tell everyone about her.
He is like a child; he boasts and seems excited about the smallest of things. His social status prior to his patronage to Lady Catherine was nothing to brag about, yet Mr Collins seems to have forgotten his previously more humble status, and instead takes great pain in telling everyone and anyone his few connections with the aristocracy. He looks down upon people who are his equals by birth right. In this description Austen also comments on his lack of sense shows that he has little sound judgement or reason.
It is also made clear the reason why Mr Collins comes to Longbourne; he has been ordered by Lady Catherine to find and marry a suitable wife, and Mr Collins comes to do just that. His decisions on who he should marry change a lot; firstly he chooses Jane, and then he suddenly changes to the young Elizabeth the following day after his arrival. His similarity to Mrs Bennet is clear in how fickle he is in his choices, ‘Mr Collins had only to change from Jane to Elizabeth- and it was soon done- done while Mrs Bennet was stirring the fire. ‘ This shows how little time and persuasion it took for him to change his mind from Jane to Elizabeth.
It is that day that Mr Collins accompanies the girls to Meryton; this is where Mr Wickham is introduced. The timing of his arrival is vital to the comparison of Collins and Wickham, Mr Collin’s being almost like a reverse reflection of Mr Wickham. Collins is obsequious and proud, he has an oleaginous manner and shows excessive deference to any of those superior to him, this is quite the contrary to Mr Wickham, who is charming and relaxed and gives a perfect initial impression. The only similarity between the two is that they both show a darker side that is hidden until later in the novel.