Seeing our own weakness exemplified in someone else, including and perhaps especially in artistic representation, can be a great opportunity for us—if we recognize ourselves, and also see the weakness for what it is.
Recently as we were reading Pride and Prejudice out loud my young son commented, “I love Mr. Bennet!” This was, of course, after Mr. Bennet had wittily put Mrs. Bennet in her place. At the time I smiled to myself.
But now, I am realizing once again Jane Austen’s remarkable portrayal of human life and how it challenges me in root ways.
It is easy to dislike Mrs. Bennet. She is a striking portrait of a small-minded wife and mother. As such, it is easy to ‘sympathize’ with Mr. Bennet and to lap us his droll mockery of his wife.
Yet as the story unfolds his apparent failures as husband, father, and man of the household come more and more to light. So I the reader—especially I the husband, father, and man of the household—might begin to take a more critical look and also wonder what I have in common with him.
We have from the start windows onto Mr. Bennet as a father, such as when at the first dance assembly we read of his younger daughters that “Catherine and Lydia had been fortunate to be never without partners, which was all that they had learnt to care for at a ball.” The unfolding of the plot will amply raise the issue of Mr. Bennet’s formation of his daughters. Perhaps a less considered issue is the connection between Mrs. Bennet’s character flaws and Mr. Bennet as a husband.
When I read in the opening chapter that Mrs. Bennet was “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper” and “discontented,” I don’t think I ever asked myself why she is of uncertain temper and discontented.
We are of course immediately in deep waters here, and I must make myself clear. I take for granted that every adult should take first responsibility for his or her own actions, and further that much is brought to marriage from one’s life and choices prior to it. That said, I think the nature of marriage calls for a scrutiny of how each spouse is aiding the other on the path to greater self-knowledge and virtuous character development.
I go further. Given that in saying “I do” a woman has uniquely given herself to the care of her husband, he has a unique responsibility to ask himself whether he is providing the support, the context, and indeed the lead in crafting their life together. As such, I the reader of Pride and Prejudice can and should be prompted at least to ask the question: how has Mr. Bennet failed his wife, and how does he continue to do so, as evidenced in part by his standing on the outside criticizing her.
I certainly do not imply that he has simply ‘made’ her be this way, nor that he could somehow ‘fix’ her. But I do assert—and here is something I want to take to heart—that he could take a very different approach to her. He can ask first how his actions and failures aggravate her weaknesses and undermine her standing in the family. That in any case would be a first step toward realizing that sarcasm, criticism, and the withholding of any real compassion for his wife—even if seemingly merited—are worse faults than what he thinks he is responding to in her.
Life, and marriage, are astoundingly challenging. My eleven-year-old son understandably chuckles at Mr. Bennet’s witty handling of his wife. I ask myself what it will take for him, and me, to see beyond; to see and to love as Mr. Bennet has failed to do.
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