Any man who tries to argue Jane Austen’s ability to draw characters would be undoubtedly a fool, for the author’s talent in that area of prose is hard to match. However even the most ardent fans of Austen will have to agree with the fact that the personages she creates are not appealing to every man. An exception to that trend in this reader’s opinion would be the character of Mr. Bennet, who by his sharp wit and stark realism alone redeems Pride and Prejudice for any audience who under other circumstances would take no joy in reading any novel by Austen, this one included.
In many ways Mr. Bennet stands as a literary monument to the writer’s amazing storytelling ability. While his personality sticks out among others in the novel like a sore thumb, his place in the plot has monumental importance not only to the task of saving an unappreciative reader from boredom but also to the movement and the development of the work as a whole. One of his most meaningful contributions to the plot is the influence he exerts on Elizabeth. She is obviously his favorite, and probably the only one in his family that he feels real fatherly love for.
This is seen from the fact that even though he is often very reserved and distant, the one time he shows emotion it is directed towards her. The act takes place towards the end of the novel, after Darcy announces to him his intention of marriage. The reader first notices that he is not his usual self when Lizzy walks into the library. He is not cool and composed as in other times he is present, but instead is “walking around the room, looking grave and anxious. ” (Austen, 334)
As he starts to speak it becomes clear just how much Darcy’s announcement affected Mr. Bennet. “My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life” (Austen, 335) he exclaims, not only admitting the mistake of his marriage but also showing enough love to admit that he doesn’t want the same fate to befall Elizabeth. This is very important, as a man who is as cynical as Mr. Bennet would not usually own up to any folly this directly and easily, and although he makes several blunders in the course of the plot this is one of only two he acknowledges.
Such a self-infraction of his character could only be explained by the fact that he cares for Elizabeth more than he ever shows, more even than the reader ever realizes. Taking into consideration Elizabeth’s perceptive nature the reader is made to understand the true depth of the relationship between her and her father. It would be impossible for her to grow up without noticing the affection that he felt, and not to benefit from it. Because she is the only child he really cares for, she truly becomes her father’s daughter – smart, witty and realistic.
Even as she develops as a person during the progress of the events, the qualities Elizabeth obviously inherited from Mr. Bennet allow her for a better perception of what is really going on inside her. It is true that she dares to do something her father doesn’t, which is to put the same method of analysis that she uses on other people to herself, but without that skill of interpretation she would not be able to grow and that skill was acquired from none other than her Mr. Bennet.
She is, in other words, a direct derivation of her parental genes – the next improved and more modern step up in the evolution of character and abilities exemplified by her father. As mentioned above, Mr. Bennet admits to two mistakes in the course of the novel. The first one he avows to is his marriage. The second, of course, is his failure in fatherly duties to which he confesses in Chapter VI of Volume III. This instance is different from the other, simply because he really does not loose his composure as he discusses the subject with Elizabeth.
The way he chastises Kitty is vintage Mr. Bennet, full of sarcasm and hyperbole to the extent that makes his youngest daughter cry. It is obvious to the reader that he is not really going to prohibit all balls or not allow her to leave the house, and yet at the same time there is a feeling that he really has learned his lesson. He realizes that there is still time to change Kitty for the better, and though his methods might not be as severe as he threatens, his fifth daughter will still benefit from them. Although all throughout this scene Mr. Bennet shows very few chinks in his armor, his admission is very profound.
Not only does he display the guilt he feels for being an irresponsible and distant father but also assumes a part of the blame for the way his family has become. This is the most evident display of this character’s importance to the plot by far. All through the novel the Bennet family is in an unfavorable way, the mother and the three insensible daughters making continuous fools of themselves. This behavior is generally blamed on the mother being a poor example for her offspring, but with Mr. Bennet’s acknowledgment of poor fathering the condition takes on a new light.
Perhaps if he has shown more love and more guidance to his three youngest children they would not be so infected with their mother’s character traits and act more amiably like their older sisters. Perhaps had he have been more caring he would have taken Elizabeth’s advice and prohibited Lydia’s going to Brighton, thereby destroying the whole eloping scheme at the root. Truly, had he been a better father most of the unfortunate predicaments faced by his family could have been prevented, an inference which reveals the true depth of his importance in Pride and Prejudice.
Put quite simply, without a character of Mr. Bennet the irresponsible father, Austen would have no plot. Vital to the plot, Mr. Bennet is also crucial to the reader’s perception of the world that Austen is describing. Most members of this society are greedy and mercenary, and those who are not are so entangled in their own passions that they almost never see the absurdity of the world around them. Mr. Bennet is different however. While being realistic, he also takes great pleasure of observing the sad silliness of the world around him, and poking fun at it on many occasions.
For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn. ” (Austen, 75) is an expression that could be his life’s motto, as he spends most of his time in his library reading and reflecting on the failures of the realm he lives in. In those rear moments that the audience is allowed to see through Mr. Bennet’s eyes the reader begins to comprehend how truly unbearable and disgusting the society around him is to man like himself – a strong, intelligent, independent man.
One almost begins to wonder if he would not react similarly had he been placed in a similar situation as Mr. Bennet, and in some ways to understand the reason for his failings as a father. While if judged purely by his actions the character may be seen as somewhat of a submissive coward, his words show him to be a man of great ability placed in a losing position. Austen has a purpose behind this set up, which goes hand in hand with this character’s importance as discussed earlier. The purpose is such that in order for Elizabeth to possess the personality that she has in the novel there had to be an influence on her that’s counteractive to the society in which she is raised.
This influence had to come from someone who is sufficiently close to her to make a difference, and at the same time old enough to have experience to draw on. The person also had to be positive and strong and at the same time flawed enough as to not be domineering. All these requirements are fulfilled in Mr. Bennet – he’s an intelligent man, disillusioned with the world he lives in and his marriage and driven into retreat by the sheer absurdity of the same. Thus Austen allows Elizabeth to be sufficiently affected by him and yet have room to develop and grow as a person on her own accord.
This of course is crucial to the plot, as Elizabeth would not have been able to fall in love with Darcy had it not been for her change as a person. Though Mr. Bennet is a character who possesses many faults by design of the author, he is also likable by that same design. While he is often very mean to his wife in his direct making fun of her, the reader feels no pity for Mrs. Bennet because she is so fickle and shallow. Instead of feeling sorry, the reader almost feels glad that her constant stream of meaningless and some times embarrassing phrases is checked by her husband’s witty remarks and one liners.
A similar situation is created with Mr. Collins, whom Mr. Bennet is unashamedly amused by during his first call to Longbourn despite the seriousness that the visit carries. Mr. Bennet is glad that “his cousin was as absurd as he hoped” (Austen, 60), and the audience delights with him through that whole scene as he cleverly sets up Collins to make a complete fool out of himself. It is a cruel endeavor, and yet still the reader stay’s on Mr. Bennet’s side readily partaking in his little sin. These little details and plot points are what make Mr. Bennet appealing to not only Austen fans but to any reader of Pride and Prejudice.
While having an immense weight in the plot he also has a large part in the character structure of the novel, a part that is equally if not more important. He has the role that in the old fairy tales would be the role of a wise jester, a comic relief with kernels of truth hidden between the lines of jokes. Without him those who do not appreciate the author’s prose and plot are in danger of boredom as well as missing or misinterpreting some major themes of the book. Mr. Bennet enriches this literary work like no other character, and in this reader’s humble opinion Pride and Prejudice would lose most of its entertainment value without him.