Family relationships in the novels of Jane Austen
Jane Austen's concept of the ideal family unit reflects the process of social reform that took place during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The wave of change was led by writers who believed that the quality of family life was crucial to the quality of life generally--to the happiness of the individual, to the well-being and proper raising of children, and to the successful functioning of society as a whole. The socio-political theories of John Locke produced widespread changes in the prevailing attitudes toward children and the role of parents in their upbringing, while Daniel Defoe, among others, advocated fundamental changes in the nature of the marriage relationship. These new beliefs contributed to the decline of the patriarchal family structure and gave rise to "affective individualism" and the "companionate marriage." This shift in the power structure of the family affected both parent-child and husband-wife relationships, resulting in a more balanced and equitable distribution of power and autonomy within the family unit. Jane Austen's novels portray the period of transition between the two value systems, and her viewpoint corresponds to the enlightened opinions of the social reformers. Without exception, the process through which her heroines and their future husbands choose one another, the kind of marriages they will have, and the way they will function as parents follow the ideals set forth in the writings of Defoe and Locke.Chapter One discusses the eighteenth century foundation of Jane Austen's view, with particular reference to the impact of the social reform movement on her concept of the family. Her perception of character development and the influence of parents on their children also reflects the rise of science and Newton's discovery of universal laws of cause and effect.Chapter Two focusses on parent-child relationships in the novels. Very few members of the parent generation achieve a satisfactory balance between adult supervision and personal freedom for their children, and the lack of competent parental guidance is a major source of adversity for both her protagonists and her antagonists.Chapter Three analyzes the marriage relationships. Much of the conflict in Jane Austen's novels revolves around the eighteenth century debate over parental wishes versus personal choice and over money and social status versus affection as the basis for marriage. She shares Defoe's belief in the importance of love and respect as the foundation for marriage, and she shows the negative impact of poor marriage choices on the habits and dispositions of husband and wife. The most far-reaching consequence of an unhappy marriage is the failure of husband and wife to perform their functions as father and mother adequately.Chapter Four examines the relationships between sisters and brothers. In Jane Austen's view, a person's family circle is as incomplete without siblings as it is without parents. One of the functions of marriage for the heroine is to insure the continuing closeness between her and her favorite siblings or to give her sisters and brothers if she doesn't have any. The quality of an individual's relationships with his or her siblings is an accurate indication of the quality of his or her character.Chapter Five discusses the new family unit and the reorganized social group created by the heroine's marriage. The family has the companionate structure, while the community reflects the rise of the professional class brought about by the Industrial Revolution.
- English