Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Beta-hatred: the Jane Austen Version

I finished reading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice to my daughters recently. I had not read it since high school, and I was impressed with how faithful its 2005 movie version had been. But I was also struck by something that had escaped my notice on its first reading, something that is directly relevant to the observation that still marks my primary claim to internet fame.

To recap: Elizabeth Bennett, the novel's protagonist, receives a proposal of marriage from her cousin, Mr. Collins. It is difficult to fully describe the metaphysical level of absurdity achieved by Mr. Collins, although the movie captured it pretty well: his obsequious devotion to his wealthy patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh; the unflattering way in which he compares everyone else to her; the extent to which he is convinced that his association with Lady Catherine elevates his own status; his endless promotion of the most trivial aspects of himself; and his utter insensitivity to the affect that his manner has on those around him. He is, in short, a beta, and an oblivious beta at that. He doesn't intend anyone ill, and in contrast to Mr. Darcy, Mr. Collins does nobody any injury other than inflict his none-too-likable presence on those around him.

But Elizabeth is a romantic, naturally, and summarily declines the proposal. But rejecting Mr. Collins, it turns out, is insufficient vindication of her low opinion of him. Let's review her reaction when she is told by her best friend, Charlotte Lucas, that Charlotte herself has accepted Mr. Collins's offer of marriage.

From Chapter 22:

"Engaged to Mr. Collins! my dear Charlotte -- impossible!"

The steady countenance which Miss Lucas had commanded in telling her story gave way to a momentary confusion here on receiving so direct a reproach; though, as it was no more than she expected, she soon regained her composure, and calmly replied --

"Why should you be surprised, my dear Eliza? Do you think it incredible that Mr. Collins should be able to procure any woman's good opinion because he was not so happy as to succeed with you?"

Charlotte's accusation here goes unrebutted, and indeed, this was exactly Elizabeth's expectation: because she did not want Mr. Collins, nobody else ought to want him either. Mr. Collins was a bad person who deserved to find all romantic options closed to him.

However, for reasons of her own, Charlotte has evaluated the trade-offs, and decides that Mr. Collins's proposal is acceptable. And for this crime, Elizabeth, in fact if not in form, withdraws her friendship. From Chapter 23:

Between Elizabeth and Charlotte there was a restraint which kept them mutually silent on the subject; and Elizabeth felt persuaded that no real confidence could ever subsist between them again.

Elizabeth elaborates on her feelings towards Charlotte in a conversation with her sister Jane. From Chapter 24:

"The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense. I have met with two instances lately: one I will not mention; the other is Charlotte's marriage. It is unaccountable! in every view it is unaccountable!"

"My dear Lizzy [replies Jane], do not give way to such feelings as these. They will ruin your happiness. You do not make allowance enough for difference of situation and temper. Consider Mr. Collins's respectability, and Charlotte's prudent, steady character. Remember that she is one of a large family; that as to fortune, it is a most eligible match; and be ready to believe, for everybody's sake, that she may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin."

"To oblige you I would try to believe almost anything [continues Elizabeth], but no one else could be benefited by such a belief as this; for were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him, I should only think worse of her understanding than I now do of her heart. My dear Jane, Mr. Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man: you know he is, as well as I do; and you must feel, as well as I do, that the woman who marries him cannot have a proper way of thinking. You shall not defend her, though it is Charlotte Lucas. You shall not, for the sake of one individual, change the meaning of principle and integrity, nor endeavour to persuade yourself or me that selfishness is prudence, and insensibility of danger security for happiness."

Even if we take Elizabeth's assessment of Mr. Collins's character as gospel truth, notice the chain of logic: Mr. Collins is inadequate; therefore, no worthwhile woman would accept him; therefore, any woman that does accept him is unworthy of continued friendship. From Chapter 26:

The [Collins'] wedding took place; the bride and bridegroom set off for Kent from the church door, and everybody had as much to say, or to hear, on the subject as usual. Elizabeth soon heard from her friend, and their correspondence was as regular and frequent as it had ever been: that it should be equally unreserved was impossible. Elizabeth could never address her without feeling that all the comfort of intimacy was over, and though determined not to slacken as a correspondent, it was for the sake of what had been rather than what was. Charlotte's first letters were received with a good deal of eagerness; there could not but be curiosity to know how she would speak of her new home, how she would like Lady Catherine, and how happy she would dare pronounce herself to be, though, when the letters were read, Elizabeth felt that Charlotte expressed herself on every point exactly as she might have foreseen. She wrote cheerfully, seemed surrounded with comforts, and mentioned nothing which she could not praise. The house, furniture, neighbourhood, and roads were all to her taste, and Lady Catherine's behavior was most friendly and obliging. It was Mr. Collins's picture of Husford and Rosings rationally softened; and Elizabeth perceived that she must wait for her own visit there to know the rest.

Let me put it bluntly: Elizabeth's conduct here is repugnant. She expects -- nay, she is eager -- that Charlotte will be unhappy, and the desire of savoring the details of this unhappiness is her motivation for continuing their correspondence. But Charlotte is not unhappy, at least not on balance, and Elizabeth can't bring herself to admit this possibility.

So what does this have to do with anything?

Φ's breakout blog post was an extended reflection on beta-hatred. Not just the cumulative affect of female preferences, but a nigh eliminationist stridency: betas morally deserve to suffer all the loneliness, ostracism, and despair that women can inflict. In that essay, I sought to explain this stridency as a function of the cognitive dissonance embedded within modern liberalism: a no-sparrow-shall-fall embrace of the welfare state, coexisting with a social darwinian sexual anarchy.

But reading Pride and Prejudice again made me wonder. It appears that beta-hatred has much deeper roots than either liberalism or the welfare state, and may exceed my diagnostic powers.


bobvis said...

I can't say much more other than great post.

Thursday said...

Well, Mr. Collins isn't really a nice guy beta, he is an apallingly grotesque man. And it is pretty plain from the book that Charlotte is marrying him entirely for economic and social reasons and has no interest or affection for him as a person. Charlotte's decision is understandable, but not entirely undeserving of disapproval.

Burke said...

Thursday: Certainly Mr. Collins is not, nor intended to be, a sympathetic figure. But nor is he a Bad-Beta™ that abuses or manipulates women to satisfy some innner demon.

I realize that in the modern era, on the cusp of which Austen wrote, we elevate the importance of feelings in a marriage over social and economic considerations. I don't object to this, but I believe the trade-off iself to be morally neutral. Even if we stipulate that Charlotte marries Mr. Collins strictly for mercenary reasons, the primary moral consideration (in my view) is whether the couple take the marriage vows in good faith.

Unknown said...

Interesting post. I read Pride and Prejudice just once, 6 or 7 years ago, and have never seen a movie version, so I don't remember the details, but I have tried to discuss it with Christian single women and have been struck by how different their impression of it was from mine. I remember not having much sympathy for Elizabeth or Mr. Darcy, yet women, IIRC, think that they're both great people who deserve the best.

I've also been struck, as the scales have fallen from my eyes recently, by how this alpha/beta stuff applies within the church as well as outside of it. Your background sounds similar to mine: I was raised to think that "nice guys" like me were the hot commodity within the church and this belief persisted into my early 30's despite abundant evidence to the contrary. It's amazing how dismissive, even contemptuous, "good" Christian girls can be toward the provider-beta types we were always told they were supposed to like.