I saw “Pride and Prejudice” with my girlfriend yesterday. It was the 2005 movie adaptation, which we’d seen once before. We’ve also seen the 1995 BBC miniseries and the 2008 fanfiction-y meta-series “Lost in Austen”. So we were already quite familiar with the storyline and I could take a more distanced, analytical view of the whole thing.
I kept thinking of Mr. Collins, the awkward, sycophantic clergyman who proposes to Elizabeth in one particularly uncomfortable scene. I remembered that I didn’t quite understand his character the first time I saw the BBC series years ago. Why does everyone hate him so much? I mean, he isn’t a very appealing guy, but the degree to which the other characters are repulsed by him seemed just a little bit too much and it didn’t make sense to me.
I couldn’t help feeling sympathetic towards him because of this, especially considered how differently Mr. Darcy is portrayed: although he’s grumpy, wooden and somewhat rude (especially in the movie, less so in the miniseries but that’s because Colin Firth is congenitally unable to project unlikability) we in the audience (and Elizabeth) are drawn to him.
Darcy’s sins and flaws (at least in the first half) aren’t really lesser than Mr. Collins’s, they’re just different. There is something odd and somewhat unfair about how differently you’re obviously supposed to feel about the two. The degree to which others are drawn to vs. repulsed by them is completely disproportional to the difference in how well or badly they behave.
Based on observable behavior, Darcy doesn’t deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt to the degree that he is and Collins doesn’t deserve to be the pariah that he is. Collins isn’t a great man but he isn’t a particularly bad one either, morally speaking. Yes, he’s haughty and oblivious to others but he certainly tries to be friendly and polite, which is more than you can say about Darcy. Collins is incompetent, not malicious.
I think the difference between Mr. Collins and Mr. Darcy illustrate something about social status and it’s not the same as and not a direct consequence of moral virtue (virtue here in the sense of behaving nicely and not behaving badly). Social status and moral virtue is, if not orthogonal, at least independent properties, and methinks we’re a bit uncomfortable with this.
There is some just-world-fallacy-ing going on that makes us want to believe that people become admired/popular/appealing by being virtuous (being nice and not mean) and that unappealing people are so because they are morally bad. Instead social status is determined by a whole host of factors (looks, wealth, power, sociability, skills, etc.), many of them irrelevant to moral virtue. Some study [citation actually needed because I can’t find it] I read suggest we tend to find good-looking people nicer even if they aren’t.
In a sense the unfortunate Mr. Collins is an archetype, representing the quintessential Nice Guy™ who makes the mistake of believing that being meek and unthreatening (and therefore above lots of people on the virtue scale by not doing anything mean) will make him socially (and romantically) appealing, or at least more appealing than mean people.
I suspect this common mistake wouldn’t be quite so common if we were less squeamish and more open about the fact that things don’t work that way; social status, popularity and appeal isn’t something you can reliably “earn” by being keeping a good nice-vs-mean ratio. But we aren’t open with it because it goes against our sense of right and wrong; we feel you should be rewarded for doing good, punished for doing bad and other reasons for rewarding and punishing people are immoral.
We’re okay with treating people differently as long as it’s based on what we consider to be moral qualities, while we feel guilty about treating people differently based on things like how they look or how much money they make. We pretend to ourselves and others that we don’t do that — leading to the unfortunate consequence of interpreting unappealing people’s behaviour in more unflattering ways because it reinforces our idea that we’re totally justified in avoiding them.
It’d be better if we admit that we’re not saints and we can’t be expected to be. We’d have fewer misunderstandings.
UPDATE: I’ve recently started watching Arrested Development (late to the party, I know) and was struck with how Dr. Tobias Fünke is Mr. Collins transported to early 21st century California.
 A good way to define social status is to what degree someone evokes “approach” or “avoid” responses in other people.
 I want this word brought back.
 This may be a “self-fulfilling prejudice”: people judged unappealing might act rude and mean as a defense mechanism because it’s nicer to be disliked for something under your own control. I’ve come across cases that seem to be like this.
 There is a huge problem with seeing other people’s attention and affection as a punishment or reward, but I suspect we kind of can’t help but think of it that way when we look at things from a certain angle.
 Of course, there is another side to the argument. There always is. The movie The Invention of Lying makes a good point: if we can’t lie to each other and ourselves we may instead work to justify our negative feelings explicitly and reject unappealing people rudely without remorse. It’s a pickle.