This post originally appeared on Austen Authors on June 26, 2019. Enjoy!
I’ve always liked Mr. Bennet as a character in Pride and Prejudice. He’s sarcastic and funny, he provides several priceless moments, and is Elizabeth’s true supporter, sometimes in direct confrontation with his wife. I am well aware that in looking after her daughters’ needs (i.e. wishing to see them married) Mrs. Bennet feels like she is killing two birds with one stone, but I’ve always thought her motives were primarily selfish—in securing her daughters’ futures, she’s really securing her own. Mr. Bennet, however, is more focused on what is best for Elizabeth.
One thing that’s always surprised me, however, is that Mr. Bennet is as beloved a character as he is. I’ve had several conversations with other people who also claim to enjoy him as a character, and only few who disagree. To be honest, I’ve always wondered why that ratio did not swing the other way. Let’s face it, Mr. Bennet is actually a bit of an ass. Let’s dig a little into his character.
In many ways, Mr. Bennet is a reprehensible character. Among his faults are:
- Sarcasm, if used correctly, is altogether acceptable, and by that, I mean it’s not directed toward someone in a mean way. Mr. Bennet is a master of sarcasm, and all too often, it’s directed at his youngest daughters and, more often, his wife. The fact that his wife is not really able to understand a lot of his witticisms is not a mitigating factor—though Mrs. Bennet is a twit, I’m sure she frequently understands that he’s making fun of her, even if she doesn’t understand what he’s saying. In modern terms, this could be called a form of emotional abuse.
- Mr. Bennet’s neglect of his family beyond dispute. Other than Elizabeth, and occasionally Jane, he doesn’t have time for any of his daughters, except to make fun of them. This neglect, of course, culminates in Lydia’s elopement and the near ruin of his family. They are saved from this calamity, not because of Mr. Bennet, but almost in spite of him. And while he does vow to do better, his attempts consist of telling Kitty she won’t be out for ten years, and a few words about soldiers in a raised voice.
- Mr. Bennet takes no thought for the family’s eventual support until he is forced to do so. His excuse is that he expected to father a son to provide for his daughters and widow. This, again, is Mr. Bennet taking the easy way out, as he would simply pass the burden to a son. It’s also short-sighted, as without dowries, the girls face a difficult time attracting a husband, and if unable to do so, would leave them dependent upon their brother, who would likely come to see them as a burden.
- Furthermore, the family’s situation is truly desperate. We are told Mr. Bennet has to watch his wife or she will exceed his income, and yet, if he passed away early, he would leave his wife and daughters homeless, to attempt to subsist on an income of £200, when they would be accustomed to ten times that amount. There was a reason why Mrs. Bennet feared genteel poverty, though her way of showing it is reprehensible.
- The younger girls are allowed to run wild. As the master of the house, Mr. Bennet possesses the power to compel obedience and teach good behavior, but he allows his wife to teach the girls when she’s clearly not equipped to do so. This makes it doubly difficult for the girls to attract good suitors—not only would a man not wish to marry a woman who will embarrass him, many would not wish to marry a woman whose sisters might do so, to say nothing of eventually having to support them.
By these accounts, Mr. Bennet’s faults are heavy, indeed. But do not despair, for Mr. Bennet also possesses may sterling qualities, though they are not all shown in proper ways. Consider the following:
- Mr. Bennet is a good provider. You can look at this as both a negative and a positive, but he rarely forbids his girls anything, and they always have everything they require. The girls are always dressed well, have been given a good home and a good life which, though of the lower gentry, would have been the envy of the majority of those who lived at that time.
- Within the Bennet family, Mr. Bennet plays the role of Elizabeth’s protector. Mrs. Bennet and Elizabeth have never seen eye to eye. She is habitually critical of her second eldest daughter and would have forced her into a disastrous marriage with Mr. Collins if she had her way. And no one can forget the memorable line from Mr. Bennet on the occasion: “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.” Knowing his daughter as he does, he knows what will make her happy and what will not. He truly is her protector.
- Mr. Bennet is an intelligent man, and the one daughter of his who could share in his intellect, he made certain she learned as much as she wished. I’ve always thought Mr. Bennet would have been better suited to be a university professor or a researcher, though I suppose we’re never really told where his literary tastes tend. Regardless, it’s clear he’s not really cut out to be a landowner, as he can’t bother himself with the estate’s maintenance. But he certainly is a smart man.
- Though his methods of dealing with his wife are not always laudable, Mr. Bennet does not descend to some of the behaviors which were common in his day. He does not have a mistress (though we’re not told directly, I am confident we can infer this), so he doesn’t go looking elsewhere to satisfy needs Mrs. Bennet cannot meet. He also does not physically mistreat his wife. Let’s face it—being married to a woman like Mrs. Bennet would drive most around the twist! There is a counter argument there, but the fact that he does none of these things, though society would not have condemned him if he did, is a point in his favor.
Regardless of these facts, it seems the majority of the fandom appreciates Mr. Bennet’s good points, while recognizing those which are not so laudable. He’s a flawed character, but somehow we love him all the more for it. Then again, who wants to read books about perfect people? It’s a character’s weakness that makes them interesting! The reason I often tend toward writing variations where Mr. Bennet is a little changed or rises to the occasion, is because I do like him as a character and would like to see him realize a little more of the potential that lurks under his sardonic exterior. Thanks for reading!