Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Lit Review Special: Reading Mr Collins as a Nice Guy

I usually pride myself on being into subversive things. However, of my more shameful habits I have to say, I enjoy reading canon literature. I go back to Steinbeck, Austen, & Dostoevsky when I want to read something “fun”. I don't want to defend this habit nor would I argue that it is the BEST way of reading. I just wanted to share something fun I noticed while reading Pride and Prejudice (again) this winter. If you have never read (or watched the BBC version of) P&P then this will probably make only a small amount of sense or impact. What follows is my analysis of a secondary (or even tertiary) character in the novel Pride and Prejudice.

Mr Collins is a picture perfect example of what is today known as a nice guy.
He may not exude the token insecurity nice guys™ are known for but he seriously socially awkward and tries & fails harder than any other character in Pride & Prejudice to be seen as “good” and “amiable”. Now, trying to look good isn't necessarily nice guy™ pre-req but folks in the nice guy™ club tend to generally ooze this trait. On the reader's first encountering him at the Longbourn dinner table he brags that he takes great pleasure in being able to compose and deliver "those delicate compliments which are always acceptable to the ladies." I don't know about y'all but whenever I read this line it always sounds as if it came straight out of the mouth of a pick up artist.

Mr Collins looks even more like a nice guy™ if you focus on his persistence when proposing marriage to Lizzie. He assumes for quite some time after several of her clear refusals that he and his request must certainly be accepted soon, simply on the basis of the merit of his words and his moral and material wealth. This is classic nice guy™ behavior. In the same vein as "But I did all the right things! I buy her flowers and go to all of her poetry readings. I listen to her talking and I tell her she is pretty. So why does she still say NO when I ask her out?" Because dumbshit; she doesn't want to be with you romantically. In the same way as is done by the modern nice guy™, Mr Collins denies repeatedly the agency or existence of any preference that Lizzie might have. Now certainly those sorts of denials run rampant through the book (and during the social climate of that period) but Mr Collins' post-denial proposals are especially persistent and painful to watch (the only person who ignores Lizzie's agency more than this is Lady Catherine de Bourgh in what I like to call the "final battle" scene). 

The unfortunate thing for Lizzie (and also for many of us modern ladies!) is that it's not only Mr. Collins who sees her as ungrateful and not having any agency in the matter but also her mother and many of her peers. I see this as akin to someone saying to the lead in a romcom or a sitcom today “Why won't you go out with him (the guy in unsuccessful pursuit of the protagonist), he's a great/nice guy.” The implication being that she is so lucky to have a man pursuing her that she should acquiesce to a romance she clearly doesn't desire.

Mr Collins brings his nice guy™ mindset into full period prose after he discovers through gossip that Lydia and Wickham have run off together. In the letter he sends the family about the whole debacle, Mr. Collins engages in what can only be called pure slut shaming. In a classic act of asserting the Madonna/whore paradigm claims that it would be better if Lydia had died and that the whole family should permanently sever connections with her as quickly as possible:
The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this. And it is the more to be lamented, because there is reason to suppose as my dear Charlotte informs me, that this licentiousness of behaviour in your daughter has proceeded from a faulty degree of indulgence; though, at the same time, for the consolation of yourself and Mrs. Bennet, I am inclined to think that her own disposition must be naturally bad, or she could not be guilty of such an enormity, at so early an age.

Even more than that though, what cements of him as a nice guy™ in my mind is his servile and unrelenting commitment to the superficial and the hierarchical concerns of life. His straight up worship of Lady Catherine's material and moral superiority and his attention to personal presentation and material opulence make him especially fit to carry the title of nice guy™. He in meticulous about the way he appears and actually even admits at one point, that he wants a wife not because it is his particular wish or that he has fallen in love, but because it is the expected thing for a clergyman to do, as professed by a character imposing the status quo (Lady Catherine).

And finally, this is my favorite part, Lizzie herself jokes with Jane, who, having just wished Lizzie to be as happily engaged as she, receives the response "If I am very luck, I may in time meet with another Mr Collins."
Which is the rhetorical equivalent of a woman today (think Liz Lemon) cynically grumbling out the side of her mouth about how if she's very lucky she might meet a man as nice as her last bf (who she dumped for pulling some entitled nice guy™ crap)." Lizzie's response is a pitch perfect critique of the way her society expects her to settle for nice guys like Mr Collins. As women (and really not just women), let us hope that in this day and age we are closer to being over such societal evils as expecting and encouraging one another to settle so below our own convictions.

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