Siblings in Pride and Prejudice
The world of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is filled with the tensions of romance, class distinctions, inheritance, and the faults and foibles of ordinary people. The characters of the novel walk the tightrope of Regency-era life, guided by its ideals of propriety. But although society affects how people act, the family circle has greater influence over them, and those with whom the characters have grown up to great extent guide who they become. In Pride and Prejudice, siblings mutually help or hinder each other in their pursuit of what they individually believe will lead to happiness.
Jane and Elizabeth Bennet have the closest bond in the novel. Together they represent the propriety and virtue that the rest of the family lacks. The sweet, gentle Jane, filled with charity towards all, strives to see only the best in others, sometimes to the point of naiveté. Meanwhile Elizabeth, more perceptive, but also quicker to fixate on a judgement, tries to discover who people really are. The sisters weigh one viewpoint against the other: where Elizabeth criticizes, Jane softens her censure with generosity. Elizabeth warns Jane of Miss Bingely’s false friendship; Jane tries to curb Elizabeth’s prejudice against Mr. Darcy. Because both sisters readily concede when evidence proves the other’s opinion, they are able to arrive at a well-rounded understanding of the people around them.
The younger Bennet sisters, on the other hand, do not have such an ideal relationship. Mary, the middle child, isolates herself from the company of her sisters and devotes herself to reading and study. While she espouses good ideals, her seclusion renders her incapable of rationally putting them into practice, for she has lost connection with the real world. The youngest of the five, Kitty and Lydia, do have a close friendship; unfortunately, they encourage each other in flirtatious, silly behavior, calling down criticism and contempt upon themselves. Because the older sisters have insufficient closeness with or influence upon the younger ones, they cannot impart to them their own sense of virtue and propriety. Thus, Kitty and Lydia flounder along a way that ultimately leads to moral disaster.
The siblings of the suitors of the Bennet girls are also worthy of note. Mr. Bingely’s two sisters exemplify sisterhood at its worst: while they have influence over their brother, they use it only to further their own ends. Miss Bingley especially displays her selfishness when she convinces her brother that Jane does not care for him. Instead, she tries to match him with Georgiana Darcy. She does this not to ensure her brother’s marital felicity, but because she hopes to capture Mr. Darcy’s affections by becoming his sister-in-law. Miss Bingley proves a most dishonest friend to Jane, and she makes a dishonest sister, too.
Georgiana and Mr. Darcy show what the love between brother and sister ought to be. Both truly wish the happiness of the other. Mr. Darcy gallantly performs the duties of an older brother in rescuing her from the intended elopement with Mr. Wickham. That Georgiana is the first to confess their intentions to Mr. Darcy, however, reveals a deep and moving trust between the siblings. For her part, Georgiana whole-heartedly supports her brother as he seeks Elizabeth’s love. She refuses to join Miss Bingley when the latter mocks Elizabeth, for “her brother’s recommendation was enough to ensure her favor.” Georgiana is the best of supportive sisters, and Mr. Darcy the best of protective brothers.
There are few people whom I really love, and still fewer of whom I think well.Elizabeth Bennet
The relations of Jane and Elizabeth and of Georgiana and Mr. Darcy seem idyllic. Yet even here there are imperfections. When Lydia runs away, Elizabeth laments that she has “no brothers to step forward.” They lack the loving, shielding arm of a brother who can defend his sisters. By contrast, Georgiana suffers from a lack of sisters. She loves her brother dearly, yet her affection is mingled with a good deal of admiring fear. She has no feminine bosom to fly and pour out her heart to. The marriages of Elizabeth and Jane, among their many other happy results, serve to resolve these little family deficiencies. In Elizabeth, Mr. Bingley receives a sincere sister; she, a kindly and noble brother. And Georgiana finds a sister, and their attachment becomes “exactly what Darcy had hoped to see.”
The siblings of Pride and Prejudice, by blood or by marriage, reveal the influence immediate family has on who a person becomes. Brothers and sisters can greatly sway one another, to good or ill, if their bond is deep enough. Jane Austen warns us that encouraging each other in vice leads to shame and sorrow. But she also tells us what siblingship ought to be: mutual help and companionship in the pursuit of that happiness that only a virtuous life can bring.
Marie Vyleta is an eighteen-year-old high school senior from Louisville, Kentucky; she enjoys reading, Latin, philosophy, and writing poetry. She plans to study either in literature or philosophy at the undergraduate level.
If you liked this essay, take a look at some of our other pieces here at the Journal, like this author profile of Euripides, this student poem on the beginning of World War One, or our discussion of why we use controversial texts on the CLT. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored.