Charlotte Lucas’s Pragmatism in Pride and Prejudice

By: Ying Ying Yang

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a masterpiece in romance literature, revolves around five unmarried girls of the Bennet house. Traditionally, a mother should teach her daughters on romantic affairs, but as Mrs. Bennet is portrayed as too insensible, Charlotte is the one who constantly advises the Bennet sisters. Charlotte, a sensible and pragmatic woman, develops a code of conduct with an end goal of marriage. However, her overly pragmatism forbids her to act beyond the code and hinders her to behave genuinely. Indeed, the stories of Charlotte and Lizzy prove that pragmatism to be only partially successful.

Charlotte’s pragmatism largely roots in her lack of beauty and fortune. A plain and poor old maid, Charlotte has always viewed marriage as the way to save her from being a burden to her family. One of the most critical moments in the novel is Charlotte’s acceptance to Mr. Collin’s proposal. Charlotte’s practical attitude towards marriage shocks Lizzie, to whom Charlotte must explain herself.

“I see what you are feeling,” replied Charlotte. “You must be surprised, very much surprised—so lately as Mr. Collins was wishing to marry you. But when you have had time to think it over, I hope you will be satisfied with what I have done. I am not romantic, you know; I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins’s character, connection, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair as most people can boast on entering the marriage state (87).

First sympathizing with Lizzie, Charlotte then skillfully switches to defend her choice. She is a persuasive speaker indeed. Instead of defending herself immediately, Charlotte starts out by sympathizing with Lizzie, ensuring her that it is expected to be “surprised.” Then, she merely “hopes” Lizzy would be “satisfied,” and does not force Lizzy to accept her opinion. Charlotte’s consideration and respect for her friend’s opinion is in sharp contrast to Lizzie’s direct and judgmental character. Charlotte, seven years of Lizzy’s senior, is more mature in mind and more skillful in speaking.

Charlotte then skillfully switches to defend her decision of marrying Mr. Collins, a decision based on pragmatism. She argues that, as a twenty seven-year-old maid without beauty or wealth, being able to marry Mr. Collins is already luck. The word “only” is used to emphasize her simple, almost humble wish of a comfortable home so she would not be a burden. Interesting, Charlotte also speaks of Mr. Collins’ “character” positively, which can be strange at first thought because he is portrayed as the most dull and insensible person in the whole novel. However, just like Charlotte is only looking for a safe shelter, she is also only looking for a safe husband. In certain circumstances, Collins’ dullness may be advantages. He would never be engaged in gambling and cheating like Wickham does. Collin’s wealth and temperature do meet Charlotte’s requirement, and thus making him a desirable husband. Charlotte concludes that her chance of “happiness” is as fair as other women, and she is not feigning this happiness. Though conventionally love is associated with felicity in marriage, this view must not be forced on Charlotte. Her definition of happiness, as she points out, is a shelter and a socially equal husband. She is, though Lizzy refuses to believe, genuinely happy.

Though Charlotte considers herself successful, Jane Austen is clearly skeptical on her pragmatism. Austen herself has rejected her only proposal from a Harris Bigg-Wither, who is said to be much like Collins. Clearly, Austen disdains a marriage based on pragmatism solely, and writes Charlotte Lucas on unfavorable terms. Mr. Collins may be a shelter for Charlotte, but he is also Austen’s punishment for her pragmatism. Charlotte herself cannot bear Mr. Collins, and she “encouraged it (Mr. Collins to work in the garden) as much as possible (107)” to avoid spending time with him. Such a marriage, in Austen’s terms, is a failure. The root of this failure is pragmatism. Charlotte’s intelligence and sense forbade her to go beyond her code of conduct. She dares not to pursue a man above or below her rank, because she believes the former would not want her and the latter would lower her reputation. She dares not to confront men like Lizzie does, because she is scared that her judgement and independence is unfavorable to most men. She dares not to love, because she knows her end game should merely be a safe marriage. Charlotte’s sense and pragmatism force her to act ingenuinely to attract a husband. She calculates every step, but through Austen’s design, she ends up with a dull and arrogant priest. Her marriage is success in terms of financial security, but fails in Austen’s term of happiness. Charlotte pragmatism, as Austen suggests, is only partially successful.

Charlotte’s pragmatism is not only shown in her own marriage, but also in the advices she gives to Lizzie. Multiple times, Charlotte tries to impose her rule of conduct on Lizzie. One such occasion is during the dance in Netherland, when Charlotte asks Lizzy to hide her disappointment from Mr. Darcy.

When the dancing recommenced, however, and Darcy approached to claim her hand, Charlotte could not help cautioning her in a whisper, not to be a simpleton, and allow her fancy for Wickham to make her appear unpleasant in the eyes of a man ten times his consequence. Elizabeth made no answer (62).

A keen observer, Charlotte is the first person to notice Darcy’s interest in Lizzy and advice Lizzy, who is currently attracted to Wickham, not to upset the desirable Darcy. The word “fancy” suggests Charlotte’s disproval for Lizzie’s interests in Wickham. It is no surprise that Charlotte, always practical, would consider Wickham a poor choice as a husband. She considers Lizzie’s feeling towards Wickham as a fancy: an immature girl’s unrealistic dream to marry a redcoat.

On the contrary, Darcy is a much more promising partner, and Charlotte asks Lizzy not to “appear” unpleasant in front of him. Lizzy can be angry, but must now show it and upset Darcy. The word “appear” indicates Charlotte’s idea that women must hide their negative feelings in exchange for greater happiness. The most evident example is when Charlotte pretends to agree with her husband that “Lady Catherine is very respectable, sensible women indeed (108)” when the widow is clearly pompous and overbearing. In this case, Charlotte avoids a dispute by appearing to agree with her husband. Charlotte follows the social rule and please men, while Lizzy is the opposite. She “made no answer” to Charlotte’s advice. Trying to anger Darcy instead, Lizzy continues to talk about Wickham during the dance even when “a deep shade of hauteur (63)” spreads over Darcy’s face.

Had Lizzy act according to Charlotte’s pragmatics rule of conduct, she would not have attracted Mr. Darcy.  Charlotte, the strict follower of social rules, does not gain a perfect marriage while Lizzie, the rebel, successfully marries one. Lizzy’s impertinence, as she herself put it, is what attracts Mr. Darcy.

The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them (256).

Several strong words, including “sick” and “disgusted” are used here. In the context of the novel, Mr. Darcy is the one who feels sick and disgusted by the women trying to please him in every way possible: including “speaking, looking, and thinking.” Lizzy “roused,” rebelled against this tradition of pleasing him. Outside of the novel, however, Jane Austen was the one to be “sick” and “disgusted” by women’s subordination in her time. In the ideal world created by Jane Austen, Lizzy’s disregard for convention leads her to ultimate happiness. Yet outside the context of the novel, Charlotte’s advice prevails. Jane Austen herself is the perfect example. Rejecting the proposal of Harris Bigg-Wither, Austen spent her life unmarried- rare for women in that age. Had she concealed her feeling and accept the offer, she would escape the unmarried fate. Though Austen’s brother was kind enough to afford her living, most unmarried women would only be a burden to their brothers and would be ill-treated in the household. Indeed, marriage is the only option for women at that time, and in the age of patriarchy, a woman must learn to please her potential husbands.

Charlotte Lucas, the sensible and pragmatic old maid, is much disdained by Jane Austen, who writes her on very unfavorable terms. In Jane’s Austen ideal world, Lizzy and Darcy’s love based marriage is the kind of marriage to be praised, and Charlotte’s practical marriage is destined to be emotionally unsatisfying. However, even Austen must agree that Charlotte’s decision is successful on some degree: she gains a safe shelter and escapes the fate of being unmarried. Charlotte’s pragmatism, though with many flaws, is partially successful.