2009 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner High School Division
The Four Other Misses Bennet: Reflections of Elizabeth’s Developing Empathy
A positive development in character temperament is at the heart of every novel written by Jane Austen. Austen is distinguished for detailing the personal journeys of dynamic characters, all of whom are able to find happiness and satisfaction after developing their perspectives and temperaments constructively. This generalization is especially true in Pride and Prejudice, a novel that details the differences in nature between two obstinate young people, both of whom must learn to consider perspectives different from their own before being able to understand one another. Austen uses sibling relationships in the Bennet family to draw attention to such dynamic shifts in the ideals of her protagonist, Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth’s shortcomings in empathy and understanding are routinely reflected, accounted for, or emphasized by Austen’s depiction of the Bennet sisters. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, events concerning Jane, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia reflect a changing Elizabeth, who gradually develops a more compassionate and comprehensive point of view. The fluctuating interactions and relationships among the five Bennet sisters serve to underscore Elizabeth Bennet’s positive character development, reaffirming the optimistic viewpoint that pervades each of Austen’s six novels—that a person has the capacity to change his or her natural inclinations for the better.
Austen’s initial portrayal of the Bennet sisters is lighthearted and humorous, suggesting the immaturity of their temperaments. She promptly introduces five very different sisters, all rather close in age, and each possessing her own characteristic personal qualities. Austen takes measures to single out the sparkling Elizabeth Bennet as the protagonist: Elizabeth immediately commands our attention with her “lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous” (Austen 12). Though Elizabeth is the heroine, her youngest sister Lydia provides comedy to the narrative through her absurd obsession with officers and balls; her fancies become the target of many hilariously wry remarks from Mr. Bennet, who deems all his daughters except Elizabeth “silly and ignorant” (6). Though Lydia’s comical outbursts do add liveliness to early dialogue, Austen also intends for readers to feel wary of what will come of the “always unguarded and often uncivil” (110) escapades of Lydia and her accomplice Kitty, the second youngest Bennet sister. Compounding this air of foreboding is Elizabeth’s seemingly indifferent stance towards her sisters’ alarming behavior, a lack of concern that reveals her greatest fault: although clever and observant, she tends to form biased judgments. Because Lydia and Kitty are her sisters, she never censures the impropriety of their manners, and is similarly unresponsive towards the “pedantic air and conceited manner” (23) of Mary, the middle Bennet sister. While Elizabeth is quite aware of Mary’s faults, even reduced to “agonies” by one of Mary’s particularly “affected” attempts at providing musical entertainment (88), she makes no attempt to even gently chide Mary’s clearly contrived countenance and her hypocritical “reflections” on topics such as “vanity and pride” (19).
Yet, though she is overly tolerant of Mary, Kitty, and Lydia, Elizabeth regards Mr. Darcy with a different kind of bias. Apart from their first encounter, when Mr. Darcy deems her “tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” (12), Elizabeth’s growing disdain for the man is completely the result of town gossip and Mr. Wickham’s slander: “I think him very disagreeable […] He is not at all liked in Hertfordshire. Everybody is disgusted with his pride” (68). Elizabeth considers herself a “studier of […] intricate characters” (38), but her constantly prejudiced viewpoints and her lack of empathy, especially for the taciturn Mr. Darcy, are analogous to the insensitivity and passivity she initially shows towards her three younger sisters’ lack of decorum. Austen implies that Elizabeth must develop a more insightful, sensitive perspective in regard to her sisters’ behavior in order to better recognize the true character of her acquaintances.
Austen further highlights Elizabeth’s prejudiced opinions by juxtaposing her impetuous temperament with Jane’s steadfast character. For example, Jane and Elizabeth often debate the validity of the latter’s pointed character appraisals during their many sisterly tête-à-têtes. During one such discussion, they dispute the credibility of Wickham’s allegations towards Mr. Darcy. Jane characteristically hesitates to condemn Darcy: “It is difficult indeed—it is distressing. One does not know what to think,” while Elizabeth staunchly sympathizes with Wickham: “I beg your pardon; one knows exactly what to think” (75). Austen especially indicates Elizabeth’s feeling of strong disdain towards Jane’s trustful temperament: “With your good sense, to be so honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others!” (15). Just as Elizabeth’s rashly formed opinions prevent her from discerning the true characters of Darcy and Wickham, she is also unwilling to recognize the value in Jane’s inclination to gradually ascertain the character of an acquaintance. Jane and Elizabeth are presented as foils to one another in order to illustrate Elizabeth’s shortcomings in insight and understanding of others; Austen suggests that Elizabeth must become more Jane-like and less hastily judgmental before achieving her own personal happiness.
Yet, regardless of the virtues of Jane Bennet, Elizabeth Bennet’s witty criticisms and hasty judgments certainly do establish a more engaging character than Jane’s “pliancy of temper” does, as discussed by Austen scholar Emily Auerbach: “We may have encountered sweet, angelic, beautiful, modest Jane Bennets before in literature, but no one like Elizabeth” (Auerbach 146). Elizabeth is more exciting than Jane partly due to her charmingly temperamental antagonism towards certain characters, but such inclinations also contribute to the formation of her prejudiced perspectives. For this reason, Austen depicts Jane as providing a constant voice of reason to Elizabeth’s cursory condemnations. For instance, when Elizabeth exclaims petulantly of Charlotte Lucas that “the woman who marries [Mr. Collins] cannot have a proper way of thinking,” Jane tries to temper Elizabeth’s abrupt criticism, declaring her “language too strong in speaking of both” (Austen 117). These exchanges between the two eldest Bennet sisters testify to the vast lopsidedness of Elizabeth’s opinions, a disposition also evident in her blind tolerance of the youngest three Bennets’ ill breeding.
In a similar fashion, Austen juxtaposes Elizabeth’s negative first impression of Mr. Darcy with Jane’s more neutral impression of him to emphasize Elizabeth’s lack of empathy and the consequences that will result from this shortcoming. For instance, Elizabeth’s perception of Mr. Darcy is immediately prejudiced after their initial awkward acquaintance. However, Darcy’s supposed hubris and Elizabeth’s belief in his having an overbearing personality are almost completely imagined on her part; no further occurrences between them support her suppositions. Unlike Elizabeth, who is self-righteously swept up in her idea of Mr. Darcy’s unpleasant character, Jane is willing to give both Darcy and Wickham the benefit of the doubt, citing lack of evidence: “It is, in short, impossible for us to conjecture the causes or circumstances which may have alienated them, without actual blame on either side” (74). How right her neutrality will eventually seem! Elizabeth later regrets deeply “that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” towards Mr. Darcy: “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! […] who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameless distrust!” (176). This sentiment, admitted shortly after the reception of Mr. Darcy’s letter from Rosings, demonstrates Elizabeth suddenly perceiving the value of what she once considered her sister’s contemptible quality of “generous candour.” Through the influence of Jane, her best friend and complete antithesis, Elizabeth begins to realize that she can correct her prejudicial tendencies by contemplating their disparity from Jane’s “generous” tendencies.
Thus, Elizabeth first realizes and reflects upon the prejudice of her earlier judgments after discovering her vast misconceptions of Mr. Darcy’s character while staying in Kent; as a result she becomes increasingly engaged in attempting to improve the unbecoming behavior of her sisters, a development that points to major growth in her personal perspectives and empathetic abilities. In fact, Mr. Darcy’s confessional letter from Rosings can be pinpointed as the stimulus for Elizabeth’s changed attitude. In the fateful letter, one might imagine Mr. Darcy addressing Elizabeth somberly, but truthfully thus: “The situation of your mother’s family […] was nothing in comparison to the total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed […] by your three younger sisters” (168). With blunt language, Darcy not only relates a factually supported and startlingly unpleasant history of Wickham, but also points out the often uncivil and ill-bred manners of Elizabeth’s sisters. The truth of Wickham’s background humbles Elizabeth and causes her to acknowledge her hastily formed and biased opinions, but Mr. Darcy’s negative comments on the Bennet family cause Elizabeth to feel “depressed beyond anything she had ever known before” (177). Furthermore, “the justice of the charge struck her too forcibly for denial, and the circumstances to which he particularly alluded […] could not have made a more strong impression on his mind than on hers” (177). Mr. Darcy’s appraisals of Elizabeth’s sisters have the greatest impact in bringing about her change in attitude, both in her judgment of acceptable manners and her lack of concern with the impropriety of her sisters. Austen’s assertion of this cause-and-effect relationship shows the deficiencies of the Bennet family unit, especially in Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet’s discipline of their three daughters, and in Elizabeth’s negligence in guiding the behavior of her sisters.
After she reflects upon her poor judgments and blind prejudices, Elizabeth assumes an almost guardian-like role in the interest of her younger sisters’ well-being, truly demonstrating her maturation into a more concerned, empathetic character. For instance, upon returning home, Elizabeth is keenly receptive to every ill-bred aspect of her younger sisters’ countenance. Whereas the “vain, ignorant, idle, and absolutely uncontrolled” conduct of Lydia and Kitty had before received concern only from Mr. Bennet, primarily in the form of sarcastic, somewhat insulting comments, Elizabeth begins to take it upon herself to urge Mr. Bennet to restrain the wild behavior of Lydia, who is soon to visit Brighton:
If you […] will not take the trouble of checking her exuberant spirits, and of teaching her that her present pursuits are not to be the business of her life […] her character will be fixed […] and from the ignorance and emptiness of her mind, [she will] wholly be unable to ward off any portion of that contempt which her rage for admiration will excite. (195)
Although Lydia still leaves for Brighton, Elizabeth continues to fix her attentions on reforming Kitty, hoping that she “might in time regain her natural degree of sense, since the disturbers of her brain were removed” (200). This changed Elizabeth, who feels genuine concern for Lydia and the Bennet family reputation, is a vast departure from the earlier Elizabeth, who showed an indifferent tolerance towards her youngest sisters’ improper behavior.
Therefore, when Lydia elopes with Wickham, disgracing her family, the new Elizabeth is devastated; her reaction to Lydia’s folly further points to the evolution of her ideas and inclinations. The most prominent aspect of Elizabeth’s response is her utter wretchedness; for the first time, readers observe a discomposed Elizabeth deeply affected by grief and humiliation: “she burst into tears as she alluded to it, and for a few minutes could not speak another word” (231). Her profound chagrin demonstrates a truly fervent consideration for her sister, a sentiment that had never surfaced prior to the incident of the elopement. Additionally, she expresses true indignation towards Wickham - “My eyes were opened to his real character” (232) - and rejects her former inclination to judge character based on first impressions:
The regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison to what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged […] she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method, in her partiality for Wickham, and […] its ill-success might authorize her to seek [another] less interesting mode of attachment (233)
As Elizabeth ponders the ineffectiveness of her premature judgments, readers discern that Lydia’s indiscretions are instrumental in prompting Elizabeth’s subsequent realization of her affection for Mr. Darcy, especially after she assumes that he has lost regard for her because of Lydia’s elopement: “Elizabeth, who was by this time tolerably well acquainted with her own feelings, was perfectly aware that, had she known nothing of Darcy, she could have borne the dread of Lydia’s infamy somewhat better. It would have spared her, she thought, one sleepless night out of two” (250). Thus, “Lydia’s infamy” causes Elizabeth to again reflect upon the imprudence of her early assumptions of Darcy’s character, the character of Wickham, and possibly even other unsuspecting acquaintances who unknowingly gave her a poor first impression. The event of Lydia’s elopement certainly demonstrates, with emphasis, Elizabeth’s completed development of a more empathetic perspective.
Of the final chapters in Pride and Prejudice, detractors often grieve that Jane Austen concludes her novels too joyously, frequently with blissful reunions and happy engagements. However, upon closer inspection, Elizabeth’s happy engagement to Darcy seems natural in the context of Austen’s deft correlation of the Bennet sisters’ characters with Elizabeth’s growing sense of empathy, insight, and understanding, as well as her diminishing tendency to hold prejudices. Yet, unlike Elizabeth, Jane, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia are portrayed as generally static characters at the end of the novel; Austen does not describe in detail any remarkable changes the sisters undergo from their original dispositions. Jane retains her “affectionate heart” (324), “Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless” (264), Mary “could still moralize over every morning visit” (324), and so forth. Austen’s one-dimensional presentation of Elizabeth’s sisters serves two purposes. Primarily, it focuses the reader’s attention on the personal journey of one of Austen’s most vivacious, memorable protagonists. Secondly, it allows Austen to suggest the possibility that Elizabeth’s sisters also have the capacity to change their negative inclinations. Kitty is briefly heralded as “less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid” after being looked after by her eldest sisters, and Mary “was obliged to mix more with the world”, offering hope that she might yet learn to reform her pretentious airs (324).
Overall, Austen’s short expressions of optimism for Elizabeth’s sisters only serve to augment the underlying theme that is related primarily by Elizabeth’s own personal changes. In Pride and Prejudice, the heroine’s ultimate realization of her prejudiced opinions and biased perspectives is largely brought about by her intimacy with Jane, the audacity of Lydia, and other interactions with her four sisters. Indeed, Elizabeth’s acquisition of greater empathy and understanding of others underlines Austen’s prevailing philosophy that, with the proper stimulus, a person’s countenance and perspective can evolve, often allowing him or her to achieve personal happiness on a very joyous, triumphant level.
Auerbach, Emily. Searching for Jane Austen. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1961.