Pride and Prejudice Chapter 2 - 5: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
This lesson covers the early chapters of 'Pride and Prejudice'. The great event of this segment of the novel is a social dance at Meryton. One chapter is devoted to the dance, and several to discussions of it, through which more is learned about the book's principal characters.

In Which a Ball is a Big Deal

Jane Austen
portrait

Understanding the social significance of dances in Regency England is a big help in reading Pride and Prejudice. For members of the gentry (or middle class), balls were key events in anyone's social calendar. They could be formal or informal, small or large, held in private homes or in public assembly rooms. Such events provided an opportunity for families to socialize, to meet new people, and, crucially, for young men and women of marriageable age to flirt in a socially sanctioned way.

As the pursuit of marriage forms one of the key topics of Pride and Prejudice, dances of all kinds understandably loom large in the novel. Chapters 3-5 are devoted to a public dance in the town of Meryton, and to discussions of it. Through the way people behave at the ball, and how they talk about it afterward, Jane Austen reveals more about the personalities of some of the book's central characters.

New in the Neighborhood

The arrival of Mr. Bingley in the neighborhood sends ripples of excitement - and talk - through the early chapters of Pride and Prejudice. Representatives of all the local families go to visit him, in order to formally open their social acquaintance. In Chapter 2, we learn that Mr. Bennet was among the first of Mr. Bingley's visitors. As he and his wife have no fewer than five daughters, dependent on eventual marriage for their livelihood, this is a great event in Mrs. Bennet's eyes. Chapter 2 sees her husband teasing her, as usual, making references to Mr. Bingley without revealing that he has been to visit him.

Through family conversation, we meet (some of) the Bennet sisters, and get a sense of everyday life in the Bennet household. Austen makes use of everyday details in characterization. Lizzy is practical, reminding her irritable mother that they'll be sure to meet Mr. Bingley at the public dance in two weeks' time, whether or not their family has been introduced to him beforehand. Mary is serious-minded, but not very clever. Her father, in asking her opinion, says 'you are a young lady of deep reflection, I know, and read great books, and make extracts.' But despite all her copying out of inspirational quotes, Mary is incapable of making a sensible reply on the spot. Of the two younger sisters, in their mid-teens, Kitty is self-conscious, while Lydia is confident to a fault. Mr. and Mrs. Bennet tease and bicker in what is clearly a long-standing pattern.

The patterns of local life are seen more fully at the much-anticipated ball. Here, Austen mocks both the snobbishness of the wealthy Bingley sisters and the pettiness of Meryton society. What sets this ball apart from others is, of course, the presence of Mr. Bingley. Anticipatory gossip reports 'that Mr. Bingley was to bring twelve ladies and seven gentlemen with him to the assembly. The girls grieved over such a number of ladies; but were comforted the day before the ball by hearing, that instead of twelve, he had brought only six... And when the party entered the assembly room, it consisted of only five altogether.'

She is tolerable...
standing about in a stupid manner

At the ball itself, Jane is much admired by Mr. Bingley (they dance two dances together) and Mr. Darcy delivers one of the most famous insults in literature. Bingley notices that his friend's participation in the evening is limited to wandering morosely around the room, and encourages him to dance with Lizzy, rather than 'standing about in this stupid manner.' Darcy's reply is: 'She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me.' Ouch! Lizzy is understandably miffed, but characteristically laughs over the incident among her friends.

Character and Conversation

The conclusion of the third chapter, and Chapters 4-5, are devoted to gossip about the ball, in which Austen's sly observations are often tongue-in-cheek. Mrs. Bennet can barely be restrained by her husband from recounting every detail of the dance. She is also indignant on Lizzy's behalf, making the sniffy remark that Mr. Darcy 'walked here, and he walked there, fancying himself so very great!' She's not wrong.

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