How Does Jane Austen Develop the Character of Mr Collins in “Pride and Prejudice”?
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In Pride and Prejudice, the character of Mr Collins is developed in many different ways. On some occasions, character traits are fully brought to the reader’s attention in one go; in other instances the trait is developed gradually throughout the entire novel, with the final development being in Collins’ last appearance in the novel.
Jane Austen introduces Collins into Pride and Prejudice very well, showing the reader some of his key character traits which will continue all through the novel, merely through a letter of his. When the reader first hears of Mr Collins, regarding his letter to Mr Bennet, the reader is presented with an original view of Collins as a well-spoken, proud man who tries very hard to seem humble, even when “trespassing on [the Bennets’] hospitality” (p.62), and has a certain fondness for Lady Catherine de Bourgh. There are many times after this letter where, although Collins’ character is developed further, these underlying tendencies of his still come out.
In this letter, Collins speaks very highly of Lady Catherine, telling Mr Bennet that “it shall be my earnest endeavour to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship” (p.61). In this sentence, Austen subtly gives the reader an insight into the sort of person Collins will turn out to be, which can only be truly appreciated by reading this sentence again with some knowledge of Collins’ character. The use of the word “demean” is very clever, giving it a double meaning, something on which Austen thrives. “Demean” can mean both conduct oneself and humiliate. Collins means it with the former meaning, but after finding out about his character, the reader can see the double meaning and that Austen wrote it with that in mind. In the rest of the novel, Collins constantly does “demean” himself “with grateful respect towards her Ladyship”, as he pays Lady Catherine too many compliments, thus demeaning himself with the latter meaning of humiliate.
Throughout the novel, Austen develops Collins’ ‘braggart humility’ gradually. A trait in some ways defining Collins as a character, braggart humility implies that he is boasting about his humility, however these two things are contradictory. Bragging is showing pride, however humility is a lack of pride. This defines Collins as lying to everyone around him and possibly himself. Collins often uses the phrase “I flatter myself” gratuitously. Usually this phrase is used with humility, but in the case of Collins, with braggart humility. One example of this is his over-usage of the phrase “I flatter myself”, which also has a double meaning, although not intended by Collins to do so. Collins’ braggart humility is brought out copiously on the day marking the end of Elizabeth’s stay at Hunsford when Mr Collins and Elizabeth meet at breakfast and Collins exaggerates both his home’s and the surrounding area’s humility, calling his house merely a “humble abode” (p.208). By bringing this trait out at this time, Austen shows and further develops Collins’ tendency to misjudge the correct ways to speak and use individual words.
Austen uses many double meanings to develop the character of Mr Collins. Main characters, such as Mr Darcy and Elizabeth, who the reader sees as intelligent, chose their words very carefully and understand how double meanings can make them seem ridiculous, and understand the possible double meanings of certain words, however Collins does not and therefore he seems ridiculous. Examples of these double meanings for words are “I flatter myself”, which he always uses before he is about to compliment himself, and the word “condescend”, which he often uses when describing how Lady Catherine conducts herself. The two uses of “I flatter myself” are, firstly, using it to signify an unintentionally proud remark, and secondly, using it to signify an intentionally proud remark. Collins uses the phrase in the latter way, making him seem foolish. The two meanings of “condescend” are to lower oneself to do something which is below them, and to conduct oneself. Collins, once again, uses the word with the latter meaning, but the reader sees it to mean both, making Collins, once again, seem ridiculous.
Austen develops Collins’ misuse of the phrase “I flatter myself” by having Collins do this many times. Were Collins only to misuse the phrase once, the reader may dismiss it as just a mistake, however because he misuses it many times, the reader realises that he is misusing it unknowingly, whilst his saying it is a habit of his. Collins understands this phrase to be correctly inserted into a conversation when he is about to boast, however the reader understands him to be wrong.
When Mr Collins proposes to Elizabeth, Austen shows Collins for more of what he really is than before this event, giving the reader a different perception of Collins after the proposal than before. Many times in Pride and Prejudice, the reader hears of Collins’ long speeches, but his proposal to Elizabeth is the main example of a long speech of which Austen gives the reader a full description. Austen develops parts of Collins’ character and parts of his reason for coming to Longbourn in this speech. The reader starts to understand there is a certain double meaning to the word “proposal”, even if Collins does not call his asking Elizabeth to marry him a proposal. The meaning of proposal one is to expect in this situation is a marriage proposal where Collins expresses his love for Elizabeth and tries to convince her to accept him through affection; instead, in this sense, both the reader and Elizabeth understand proposal to mean business proposal, as Collins speaks mostly of economy and how Lady Catherine told him that he “must marry” (p.103).
The only times Collins mentions any feelings or affections are when he says “before I am run away with by my feelings on this subject” (p.103) and, after his proposals of economical gain for Elizabeth, “nothing remains for me but to assure you in the most animated language of the violence of my affection” (p.104). In the first instance, these words are followed by “perhaps it will be advisable to state my reasons for marrying”, however one would expect the running away with his feelings to be the very reasons for marrying, as opposed to reasons of economy and necessity. In the second instance, Collins follows these words with more talk of economy. After preparing Elizabeth to be assured “in the most animated language of the violence of my affection”, Collins does not deliver this assurance. The only animated language used is “violence”, which is a word not usually associated with “affection”.
Collins’ pride is greatly developed in his proposal to Elizabeth, and his inability to believe her refusal. At first, Collins dismisses her refusal as “the usual practice of elegant females” (p.106), still being sure that she will eventually except. When this theory is also rejected, Collins’ pride is amplified when he cannot believe that she is turning down a proposal of such financial gain to both herself and her family, and he asks for Elizabeth’s “leave to flatter myself” (p.106). This pride and arrogance is a key trait of Mr Collins throughout the novel, being developed right up until his final appearance.
Up until Elizabeth’s visit to Hunsford, the reader sees Collins as a character to make fun of. Whenever Collins is engaged in a conversation, the reader looks forward to Collins inevitably making himself seem ridiculous. During Elizabeth’s stay at Hunsford, Collins’ character is developed in many ways, with the reader being given an entirely new perspective on him. Up until this time, Collins is a comic figure; after Hunsford, he is to be taken more seriously.
Collins’ fondness for Lady Catherine is also developed gradually by Austen, starting as incessant compliments but, by the end of the novel, becoming something with reason; the reason being that Lady Catherine was the person who gave Collins his living and has the power to give him another. Therefore Collins’ motive is to be given another living, or perhaps more than one more. He is shown to be even more of a sycophant when the reader discovers this motive, as Collins compliments Lady Catherine so much when he is not in her presence, nor the presence of any of her previous acquaintances. One of Collins’ reasons for proposing to marry Elizabeth is that Lady Catherine has said to him that “a clergyman like you must marry” (p.103). When Elizabeth tells Collins that Lady Catherine would find her “in every respect ill qualified for the situation [the marriage to Collins]” (p.105), Collins says that he would never have proposed to Elizabeth “were it certain that Lady Catherine would think so” (p.105). This is a very shallow remark, showing that obeying Lady Catherine is Collins’ real motive for the proposal, which is much unlike when Darcy defies Lady Catherine by marrying Elizabeth, showing love to be his reason, not duty.
In Collins’ final letter to Mr Bennet, regarding the events concerning Lydia, Austen develops the character of Mr Collins more than at any other time in the novel. Collins starts his letter by sympathising with Mr Bennet, by saying “I feel myself called upon…to condole with you on the grievous affliction you are now suffering under” (p.281). At the beginning of the letter, the reader is lead to believe that this will be a letter of polite condolences, but then realises that in fact it is not. In this letter, Austen shows Collins to be very proud and rude, seemingly going for a moral high ground.
This is all related to his complete lack of self-awareness and never knowing what to say and what not to say, even if it is of general opinion. Collins finishes by telling Mr Bennet “to throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence” (p.282). This is the only time in the novel where Collins lets himself become overrun by his feelings, and all of these feelings are negative. But what is worse than his feelings is the fact that he expresses them in a letter which he will have read through and decided to send to Mr Bennet, as opposed to having just said it all without thinking about it. This develops his lack of self-awareness, and also brings a new trait to the reader’s attention: Collins’ belief that as he is a member of the clergy, he has the moral high ground and should tell people when they have done something wrong, or when they should condemn another wrongdoer.
Austen develops the character of Mr Collins gradually throughout Pride and Prejudice, with some traits being revealed early on in the novel, and others being held back until nearly the end, finally showing Collins to the reader as the “mixture of pride and obsequiousness, self-importance and humility” (p.69) that he is, with the contradictions in this description being contradictions between the reader’s views of Collins and Collins’ views of himself. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, Collins’ character never changes; it is merely the reader’s perspective and knowledge of Collins that develop gradually.