Flattery in Pride and Prejudice
Since its composition in 1797, Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice has
enjoyed two centuries of literary esteem not because of its witty dialogue
or its tantalizing plot, but because of its universal themes that allow
modern readers to identify with early Victorian life. Although the novel
focuses on the etiquette of courtship, related social rituals are also
prevalent throughout the story. William Collins, a rector in Pride and
Prejudice, uses excessive flattery to persuade people to look upon him
favorably. He even lavishly praises himself to enhance his self-esteem.
While the sycophant's peculiar behavior is comical at first glance, its
emphasis in the story portends a greater social meaning that is
illuminated upon evaluation of his flattery with relevance to the plot. In
Pride and Prejudice, Austin suggests through Collins' mannerisms that one
flatters others to enlist their future support and one flatters oneself to
ensure individual prosperity. Pertaining to others, Austin endows Collins
with a motive of personal gain and later removes that objective,
establishing a strong correlation between flattery and selfish advantage.
As the legal heir to the Bennet family's estate once its patriarch dies,
Collins offers unwarranted praise along with his hand in marriage to one
of the daughters. Apart from flattering the family to marry one of its
girls, his profuse compliments also extend to his wealthy benefactress and
also, of course, to himself. However, Collins' compliments toward the
family end after he fails to marry one of the girls, although his esteem
toward his benefactress and himself never diminishes. One may conclude
that the only reason he ceases to flatter the family is because his kind
words won't win him a place in the household; thus Austin insinuates that
the only motive for his flattery is selfish gain.
Of the three distinct directions Collins aims his flattery, the most
complex to explicate is arguably that praise he directs toward himself. In
a letter to the Bennet family, he writes "I flatter myself that my present
overtures of good-will are highly commendable...[and you will not] reject
the offered olive branch" (67). In this introduction to Collins, he
asserts his benevolence as nothing short of remarkable and immediately
springs from that notion to presume it bears influence over others. His
self-assuring antics appear in an argument later when he remarks "...I
consider myself more fitted by education and habitual study to decide on
what is right than a young lady like yourself" (106-107). Collins'
self-directed flattery empowers him with decisive confidence that allows
him to win logical...