Sunday, May 23, 2010

There's Something About Mary: A Pride & Prejudice Character Study

I bet a bunch of you, just like you heartheartheart Disney movies, also heartheartheart Pride and Prejudice. And other things involving bonnets and turns about the garden and going "La!" instead of "Sweet!" when something exciting happens.

Yeah, me too.

So this character study is going to veer away from the normal Disney-fied version and into the world of Pemberly, Pride, and Prejudice. Today, I'm wondering....what on earth ever happened to Mary Bennet?!

Let's check out the facts. What do we know about Mary Bennet?
  • She's the only Bennet daughter with no romantic interest or involvement in the book.

  • She's openly described by Jane Austen as being rather plain looking (versus Jane, who is quite beautiful.)

  • She prefers books over balls.

  • She's the third of the Bennet daughters.

  • She's pretty much in the background the entire novel, although she often will make pleas for attention.

  • Her only moment of being in the spotlight is when she performs at the piano forte & sings at Netherfield, which goes horribly and is embarrassing to herself and the entire family.

So, the question is: what's her deal? And why does Austen look down on Mary so much?

(poor Mary. Why does she have to wear the ugly sea foam green dress? Where are her delicate necklace and elbow length gloves?)

Every story needs an ugly duckling. Mary's issue is that she never transforms into the swan. Let's see how things go for the other Bennet girls.

Jane: gorgeous, woe-is-me story of possibly unrequited love, but ultimately lives happily ever after.

Lydia: scandal scandal scandal! Even though she goes about it the totally wrong way, and ends up with the questionable Mr. Wickham, she loves the bad boy and gets what she wants.

Kitty: the other background-type character in the novel, Kitty doesn't do a whole lot in the story other than giggle with Lydia over cute soldiers. But we know she's cute, and considering who Jane & Lizzie marry, the reader can rest assured that things will turn out okay for Kitty.

Lizzie: she bucks tradition, is selfish enough to refuse a marriage that could secure her family's future, is tempestuous and too-smart and under-qualified in ladylike skills (she can't even play the piano forte, for goodness sakes!), but manages to get the coveted Mr. Darcy at the end, not to mention $10,000 a year.

But what about Mary? It's interesting that Austen dumps on Mary so hard, considering she's all about her female characters (male, even) bucking tradition and doing what is right for them

rather than what is proper in society. So what if Mary's piano forte is sub par and she sings off-key?

Look how awkward-yet-lovable she is!

I think what puzzles me most about Austen's relationship with Mary is the whole Mr. Collins deal. (For those who don't remember, or for the blasphemous few that haven't read P&P, Mr. Collins, because Mr. Bennet has no sons, is the heir to the Bennet estate, as it were. Which means if Mr. Bennet bites it, Mr. Collins can either decide to be nice and let the poor womenfolk stay, or kick them all out to the street.)

Obviously it's important for the Bennet family to have a positive relationship with Mr. Collins, not to mention that he comes to Longbourn with the idea of walking away with a Bennet girl on his arm. BUT, as we've all seen in the many adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Collins is weird/ugly/awkward (and not in that America's Next Top Model way, either.)

Needless to say, Lizzie and Jane want nothing to do with him, and poor Charlotte Lucas gets stuck with him.

Here's my issue: Why not hand over Mary? From a writer's perspective, it immediately creates an issue: the tension of the underlying issue of what man will care for the Bennet women is fixed, which means that technically, it doesn't matter if Jane & Lizzie end up with Bingley and Darcy, as the family is secure. And I guess back in the day the potential of unrequited romance wasn't enough of a page-turner? Maybe?

But honestly, it's not enough for me, and considering how skilled of a writer Austen was, I don't buy it that she couldn't have kept the tension up even with that subplot resolved. And sure, maybe she liked Charlotte Lucas better because Austen wasn't ever able to marry so she wanted to give a fellow old maid some props, but I'm still rooting for Mary.

Think about it: she would have been in a societal proper marriage, with connections with the rich, but remained humble by being the wife of a minister. She could've practiced pianoforte until her heart's content. Sang all those church hymns off-key for the next 50 years. Is that really so much to ask?

So what do you all think? Why was Austen so harsh on Mary? Didn't she deserve a little love, too?
I'll end with this picture. This is Mary from the Keira Knightley version of Pride & Prejudice. This is, by far, the loveliest imagining of Mary I've come across (with the exception of the graphic novelization of P&P, which, if you find it, is hilarious. Even Mary got size F boobs in that one.)
I feel like this moment of Mary thinking really sums up how I feel about her--I feel like she was the one character that Austen couldn't get into the head of, and so she just assassinated her instead.

But maybe I'm totally wrong. What do YOU all think? And are there any other characters that you've been similarly frustrated with?


  1. *sigh* I can't really comment because I have yet to finish P&P--I got 64 pages in and no further. :(

    Are you going to throw vegetables at me now?

  2. How funny that I JUST finished watching the Kiera Knightley version about an hour ago!

    Ah, Mary... every family has one.

  3. I have no idea - but your post is great. Very thought provoking, since I'd never really thought of Mary like that before. I will ask my English-major P&P-obsessed ex-roommate and see what she thinks.

    - Rebecca

  4. I don't think Collins would have had Mary. She's too homely and awkward and gloomy. His patron, Lady Katherine de Bourgh, would not have approved. So he went for Charlotte who, however homely herself, is far more pleasant and socially scrupled. I think that, however unscrupulous he is in himself, he recognizes it in others. I feel bad for Charlotte, ending up with that ridiculous man, even if it was her choice.

    I wonder, would Mary have had Collins if he'd been tossed her way?

  5. I've felt the same way. In the BBC version, Mary even swoons over Mr. Collins' "wit". I thought it was adorable. But I hadn't thought about the attachment keeping the stakes low. Interesting.

  6. I always felt kinda bad for Mary. Maybe Austen just didn't care about her - Mary was one of those expendable characters that she added for scenery???

  7. Mireyah--have you ever watched any of the movie adaptations of P&P?

    Kat--I know a lot of people had issues with that version, but I love it!

    Readerly Person--I'm glad you enjoyed the post! I think Mary is usually overlooked, so I wanted to give her a little love.

    Janine--that's a good point. Mr. Collins may not have been well-liked, but he certainly wasn't stupid--if he was going to get a Bennet girl, it was going to be a pretty one. For Mary, I think it depends--in the book it's kind of a non-issue/not addressed, but in the various movie/tv adaptations, it goes about 50/50. I do feel bad for Charlotte, though.

    Emily--It was something I didn't consider until I started writing this post, either. I still think Austen could've made it work, though.

    KM--It does seem that way, doesn't it? I just feel like a writer with Austen's ability wouldn't do something like have her just for the sake of it--I feel like everything in her novels serves some sort of purpose.

  8. Good point about purpose. I think she's a foil for both the sensible and the ridiculous sisters. The juxtaposition of them all heightens the sense as well as the non-sense. She is more of a character in the film adaptations than in the book, though, isn't she. It's hard to keep them all sorted in my mind.

  9. I haven't read P&P in ages, but I FINALLY read this post, and I wanted to throw my two cents in.

    I don't think Mary and Mr. Collins would've worked, but I do wish she were less of a background character. I remember disliking her only slightly less than I disliked Lydia... I just wanted to smack some sense into Lydia and give Mary a personality.

    But oh, that one scene where Mary tries to sing and play piano -- I distinctly remember cringing with embarrassment for her while reading it.

  10. It's been more than two years since this was posted, yet I feel I need to throw in something. What lead me here was a search as to why, oh why, was there a particular focus on Mary after the blundering failure of Mr. Collins' proposal in the 2005 film adaptation.

    Wright is a very particular director, and you can see his interesting thoughts and suggestions throughout the film. If one should look at the scene I mentioned earlier, when the girls and Mrs. Bennet burst through the door, the camera focusses on Mary for a moment longer than the other giggling girls. Her face is passive, almost anxious one could venture, as she looks towards the spurned Mr. Collins, and as he approaches, they are cropped distinctly together, and she smiles at him, her gaze following him out of the room as he goes after her mother.

    I couldn't believe what the camera was suggesting...! Of course, as mentioned in this post, her marrying Collins just made sense in a way. I imagine that she could have been as happy as Charlotte was marrying the man.

    Even though she didn't have that much of personality, it was certainly distinctive in comparison to the other characters, and as she was always looking for attention, I always thought that she would have something more come of her in the end, instead of left happy to be rid of the prettier sisters whom others compared her with. Trying to imagine her speaking with Lady Catherine is interesting as well, since she is so morally grounded - I can imagine them speaking of ethics, morality and the "proper" way of the world while Collins waits for his turn to gush...

    1. I have always imagined a sort of P&PII a sequel if you will, in which Wickham gets sent overseas, leaving Lydia home and pregnant. She gives birth to a boy, and W dies in India in service to his country. Then, Mr. Collins gets killed in a riding accident, leaving Charlott as the beloved widow of the vicar and welll placed in the congregation. She eventually marries a gentleman from that congregation. Thus Lydia's scandal and W's son end up securing the family estate. Then Mary meets and falls in love with a college professor. Mary is ideally suited to him and helps him greatly with his lesson preperation and with his research. Widowed Lydia and Kitty then meet two brothers (or cousins) who are fromm a large family of wealthy shipping owners from Nova Scotia. They are in England to oversee the family's business affairs. The sisters marry them, spend much time travelling and having fun and children. Their time in Nova Scotia provides a change of scene and for Bennett parents to travel and visit. But I always thought Mary needed to marry sommeone who could give her an outlet for her intellect. University professor, perhaps Oxford, seemed ideal.

  11. I must say, Mary Bennet is so different, that for me she is the one sister that is of interest. While she is always in the background, does anybody think that she is perhaps more important than we think on first impression? In chapter 5 of the first volume, it is Mary that says " a very common failing I believe...Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us." I am certainly no expert on Austen, and won't hesitate to say that I have not read everything she has ever written. But, is this speech from Mary not the premise of the whole book? I just think it is interesting that Austen gave Mary this dialogue, rather than Elizabeth, or even Mr Darcy. Yet, no one even acknowledges what she says, and the chapter proceeds to end abruptly. It is as if Elizabeth ignores this and has the rest of the book to learn it for herself.

    Mr Darcy later echos Mary's words somewhat in volume 2 when he says to Elizabeth "We neither of us perform to strangers." Perhaps he is wrong at that point, in that they are still not able to fully understand themselves- they are still performing to eachother, as both are too proud, or indeed vain, to judge the other without prejudice.

  12. I have to say I kind of like Mary the best,sure she isn't as talented or intelligent as Lizzy but she was interesting in her own way. Every character in the book seems to have a big flaw but I always felt bad for Mary. She was awkward but then again I feel that she was overshadowed and there was something more to that character. Maybe I just have a soft spot for Mary because I was as awkward as her when I was younger (and my singing is less than great)

  13. Austen novels were all supposed to be comedy back in the day, exposing the mentality that governed peoples lives. There were unfortante ladies who were left as old maids, and one had to be included in this story which had to fall on the shoulders of Mary.

  14. When looking at Romantic ideals of femininity and masculinity (passion vs reason), Mary sides with reason through and through. I think Austen uses Mary as a foil to the other feminine sisters to emphasize the appeal of Elizabeth as the ideal of future woman. Elizabeth recognizes her own feminine follies (as nurtured in this society), but she also declares that she does her best to subdue those traits with reason in order to be balanced. Mary does not exhibit any balance in her personality; it's very extreme. Whenever she speaks, no one replies to her seriously. She has no voice, and I think Austen does this to Mary to comment that women need not shed all that they are; they need only find balance in order to work beyond societal limitations.

    I do agree that her role could be interpreted many ways, though.

  15. I've always just felt so bad for Mary. I found her being extremely relatable. I could relate to her middle child syndrome, except she seemed to have a severe case of it. I wanted to cry every time I saw her. Jane and Lizzy have each other while Kitty and Lydia have themselves, but Mary has no one. She's so alone that it's sad.

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