I've always struggled with writing any kind of over-arching "review" of Pride and Prejudice. It holds pride of place in my library as most re-read, and like any truly great book, I have new thoughts and new perspectives every time I pick it up again. Sometimes, putting those ideas into words feels limiting. However, with my last re-read, I decided to take a closer look at Mary Bennet. These musings take the character more seriously than I think Jane Austen intended, but since an author long-dead doesn't get much say about intent, here it is.
It has been stated by some critics that Mary Bennet is a bit of a cipher, a cardboard cutout inserted to utter pedantic lines used to reinforce the irony of certain situations in P&P. She is the least-known Bennet sister and contributes next to nothing (so they say) to the overall plot, except for a little humor and a part in the disaster of the Netherfield Ball. I don’t think this is entirely incorrect, but at the same time it’s not really fair.
I would like to argue that while not as significant as Jane or Lydia, Mary’s presence as the only plain and bookish sister adds a little needed depth to the Bennet family psychological dynamic. Without Mary, you have two superior sisters, and two flighty, boy-crazy sisters; she is the counterbalance. Though just as “silly” as Lydia and Kitty in Mr. Bennet’s myopic opinion, when you get right down to it, Mary is perhaps the greatest illustration of Mr. Bennet’s failure as a father. As a man who takes pride in his daughter Elizabeth’s intelligence, it is shocking to think that he has passed over the daughter who could most use his strong intellect to shape and guide hers. What would Mary be like if her father had noticed her early desire to distinguish herself from her prettier sisters by her pursuits and taken an interest? It can be assumed that she would be much like Elizabeth, only better informed as she puts more effort into her acquisition of knowledge. As the sister who never leaves home (so we gather at the closing), he would have been investing in a friend and companion for the rest of his life, rather than losing his favorite to marriage. In the grand scheme, I think we are glad he favors Elizabeth, as it is clearly stated that Lizzy is the “least dear” to Mrs. Bennett, but that is another parental failure. I have always assumed it is because Lizzy is so plainly her father’s favorite that Mrs. Bennett cares less for her, out of a sense of jealousy or an inability to understand and appreciate their wit. At the same time, as the least acknowledged of the sisters, it would probably be more accurate to say Mary is actually the least beloved, as her mother never seems to remember she exists. Throughout the entire novel, Mary is never once spoken to by her mother, or even mentioned by name, most likely as she is not as "marriageable" as the other girls and marriage is the primary objective of Mrs. Bennet's existence.
The 2005 film version of P&P with Kiera Knightly had an inaccurate but sympathetic take on Mary. First off, they cast a very pretty girl. Secondly, they added intelligent lines to her dialog; in point of fact, they gave her some of Lizzy’s lines ("what are men to rocks and mountains?"). Thirdly, after her humiliation at the Netherfield Ball, the film gives us a glimpse of Mr. Bennet (also considerably softened) comforting her, which unfortunately never would have happened in the original story. As irritated as I get with films for making such fundamental changes, I have to say I liked this version of Mary, even if the film itself is annoyingly tone-deaf to the original. Though lacking the laser-focus of Austen’s satirical eye, it was nice to see Mary catch a break.