Chapters 17 and 18 – The Netherfield Ball
Again the whole family are excited at the prospect of the Netherfield Ball,
and this includes Collins, much to the others surprise, but he sees this as a means of securing his ties with Elizabeth, and she finds herself maneuvered into agreeing to dance with Collins for the first two dances.
Elizabeth had hoped that she would initially dance with Wickham at the Ball.
When they arrive, she is further disappointed to see that Wickham is not at
the Ball, and that a miserable night is in store for her.
There is much gossip concerning the potential engagement between Jane and
Bingley, and Mrs. Bennett is at the forefront of this unfounded rumor.
Elizabeth negotiates her two dances with Collins, and then to her surprise
Darcy asks her to dance, and she accepts.
There is tension between the two, and they at first make polite conversation, then Elizabeth raises the subject of Wickham and their dance ends with dissatisfaction and anger.
Again, certain members of the Bennett family manage to embarrass themselves,
and Elizabeth feels humiliated by her mother and her younger sisters who act without restraint.
For a change, it is Mary who is the main embarrassment for she believes she can sing, and is not content to inflict her audience with one song, but with two, much to the amusement of the Bingley sisters, who sense Jane and Elizabeth’s embarrassment, and they finally manage to get Mr. Bennett to call a halt to Mary’s performance.
You cannot underestimate the importance of dancing in this Regency society.
This was hinted at, at the first Ball where the fact that Bingley danced with Jane twice, was viewed as an indication of their further relationship. A woman’s whole future may depend on what happens at one of these Balls. Elizabeth hopes to cement her relationship with Wickham at this Ball, and has earmarked the first dances for him. To her horror, she is forced by common convention and obligation to her family, to accept Collins’ invitation for the first two dances. She hopes to emulate her older sister by securing Wickham, but now it looks as if she might be tied to Collins. This would certainly be the case if she had Jane’s nature, but we know that Elizabeth is different.
What actually happens at the Ball is that Wickham is not there, which she
blames on Darcy, but she ends up dancing with Darcy, again through convention, and her evening which started with such hopes has turned into a disaster.
In the meantime, her older sister’s relationship with Bingley goes from strength to strength. Perhaps Elizabeth is relieved in the end that Wickham was not present to witness the embarrassing behavior of her family.
The reader will note that the plot is becoming more complicated with the
introduction of Wickham and Collins. This is one of the ways by which Austen keeps her readers interested in her work.
The reader suspects that the ‘prejudice’ part of the book’s title can be
allocated to Elizabeth. It has already been established that ‘pride’ belongs to Darcy.
The reader wonders at the true natures of Darcy and Wickham.
All the other characters have been made deliberately plain to the reader by Austen, but these two gentlemen are the more obtuse characters in the novel.
We also note how much more Darcy is involved in this Ball as opposed to the
first, and all his actions center around Elizabeth. He tries hard to improve his behavior towards her, but Elizabeth is blind to this. She is prejudiced against him because she only remembers his initial
reaction to her when he knew nothing about her. She prefers Wickham because he is handsome, and he turned on his charm for her at their first meeting. In their conversations with one another, Wickham
fuelled Elizabeth’s prejudice concerning Darcy.
We return to Austen’s use of irony, and her comment on this Regency society.
She pulls fun at their manners and sense of decorum, and this is exemplified through Collins’ behavior, being a mixture of excessive pride because he has such a well-known patron, and his fawning behavior when he introduces himself to his host, thus breaking one of society’s rules.
Mrs. Bennett behaves absurdly, threatening to undo all her previous
matchmaking, by talking unreservedly about Jane’s prospective marriage to Bingley.
Elizabeth is happy for her sister Jane, for Bingley is clearly a good match,
but she is concerned that Darcy is deceiving him. Ironically, it is Wickham who has been deceiving Elizabeth as will be made plain.
Finally, I give examples of Austen’s humor, wit, irony, and descriptive
writing in the following quotes:-
Elizabeth says of Darcy: “To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to
hate! Do not wish me such an evil.”
Elizabeth says to Darcy: “Never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice.”
Austen says of Mary’s singing: ‘Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for
such a display; her voice was weak and her manner affected. Elizabeth was in agony. The Bingley sisters made signs of derision at each other.’
Mr. Bennett brings Mary’s performance to an end by saying, “That will do
extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”