On Pride and Prejudice

The Secret Life of Mary

By Jill Winters

Absence Is the Thing

Let’s start with the understanding that Mrs. Bennet has five daughters–not four–despite the amorphous existence of her third, Mary, throughout most of the book. While Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is not, nor is it intended to be, Mary Bennet’s story, it nevertheless bears questioning as to why it is so much more the story of everyone else.

Throughout the novel I was struck by how infrequent a role Mary plays; distinctly underdeveloped, she drifts in and out of the narrative, inserting bits of rhetoric into the dynamic conversations of other characters, rather than engaging in real dialogue herself. Her appearances are sporadic; her choices are of little consequence. In light of this, Mary’s function in the family is difficult to find. Austen frames her as the Socially Awkward Studious Daughter, but without developing her beyond the barely there, one-note caricature, the rendering never fully gels.

Rather, Mary becomes an enigma. What she lacks in characterization she makes up for in mystique. In fact, the more I read about the active, ever-changing lives of her sisters, the more I had to wonder: what makes them so special?

Or rather: what is Mary missing?

First let’s look at the two eldest, Jane and Elizabeth. Beauty is a constant variable in both of their lives. Austen informs the reader repeatedly that Jane is beautiful–the “most handsome” of Mrs. Bennet’s daughters–and suitor Bingley proclaims with certainty, “she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld!”

Elizabeth is apparently a close  …

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