Personal Growth of Characters in Jane Austen's Novels

In the novels of Jane Austen, there has been a common stigma of the absent parent and the child that is left to develop their own moral character. Primarily in the eighteenth and nineteen century, the family dynamic focused mainly on social class and how they were viewed by the public. This, ultimately, effected the children of the family as they lacked parental guidance and emotional support. In her novels, Jane Austen highlighted this fault by commonly producing heroines that suffer from, what is today known as, abandoned child syndrome, the behavioral or psychological effects proceeding the alienation of one or both parents.

Critics of Austen’s novels have acknowledged the inadequate parent but very rarely look into the negative repercussions that insufficient parenting has on the child. Through the characters of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park and Emma Woodhouse in Emma, this essay will centralize the repetitious theme of child negligence in Austen’s novels and highlight the significance of the psychological effects that follow these heroines into adulthood.

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A highly perceptible theme within the family dynamic in Jane Austen’s novels is the heroine that is left to reveal issues within herself, as well as confront problems within her family. In that, family relationships in Austen’s novels reflect eighteenth century ideologies of social status and prominence within society. She gives a genuine proportion of the magnificence furthermore, respect of her characters by depicting them inside the limits of their regular day to day existences. Through her characters, Austen utilizes the cooperation of family individuals to light up their identities, and determine their character regarding how much they satisfy their familial commitments.

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During the eighteen century, and specifically in Jane Austen’s novels, “an individual must conform to the accepted behavior patterns and norms of society in order to maintain his or her proper place within the group; a person who disregards the rules and conventions of society may lose the acceptance and protection offered by the social unit” (Bennett 3).

Heroines of Austen’s novels often struggle with maintaining a balance between maintaining emotional stability and meeting the societal standards. The requirement of conformity caused an ample amount of contention within eighteenth century family relationships in that there is a constant push-and-pull force between individual desires and parental expectations. Consequently, mental withdrawal becomes the response to conformity because physical withdrawal is not an option.

Through the characters of Fanny Price and Emma Woodhouse, Austen reveals the need for a dynamical change of family configuration. The main concern within the family dynamic becomes maintaining status in society, rather than being the core source of moral training. Adequate parenting becomes scarce within Austen’s novels as they frequently shift their focus from parenting to claiming their importance within society. She illustrates the lopsidedness of family relationships by revealing the commonality of conforming to societal norms, dubitable priorities, and incompetent parenting. By doing this, their children, usually the heroine, struggle to acquire the ability to successfully function in society in terms of socialization. Parents undoubtedly “fail to provide children with sufficient instruction, and the products are unprincipled behavior and lack of mutual trust and affection” (Podis 144). The absence of parental direction and the subsequent interruption of the regular request inside the family involves a noteworthy wellspring of affliction for a large portion of Jane Austen’s courageous women, and the damage which results from the nonappearance of suitable grown-up power and order is a prevailing topic throughout her fictions.

Fanny Price of Mansfield Park is one of Austen’s characters that struggles with gaining a sense of self as she is a victim of child negligence. Raised in Portsmouth, a town known for its low social class, Fanny is the daughter of a drunk sailor that was wounded in the line of duty and a woman who married below her social class. With the birth of a sibling, Fanny is sent to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle, Lady Bertram and Sir Thomas. Due to Lady Bertram’s lack of parental instincts, Mrs. Norris, Fanny’s other aunt, is left to mold the behavioral patterns and moral principles of the Bertram kids and Fanny. The couple has four children, making Fanny the fifth child within the household. Upon Fanny’s arrival to Mansfield Park, her cousins and aunts showed lack of interest that caused feelings of inferiority within Fanny, ultimately leading to the development of Fanny’s character.

In her new environment, Mrs. Norris constantly reminds Fanny of her social class, implying that Fanny is not as good as everyone in the household and reiterating that Fanny will always be “the lowest and last” with the family structure (Austen 234). Though Sir Thomas acknowledges the treatment of his niece, he continues to allow Mrs. Norris to authorize the refinement between the cousins and she guarantees him that she will make sure that there is no perplexity among the cousins. Already shy and fragile, this constant reminder is detrimental to Fanny’s confidence and self-esteem. Mrs. Norris is transparently malignant in her treatment of Fanny, and by her precedent, she urges Maria and Julia to treat their cousin with stooping impoliteness. She consigns Fanny to the status of a worker, debilitating her with minor errands and pointless tasks. She effectively contends against anything which could add to Fanny’s joy. Along with Mrs. Norris’s lack of moral awareness, she “had no affection for Fanny, and no wish of procuring her pleasure at any time” (Austen 104). In that, Fanny’s pursuit for a stable home, maternal love and acceptance caused her a great deal of emotional and psychological distress.

To make matters worse, Fanny is constantly ridiculed for her ill-equipped feelings of loneliness. Though she was surrounded by many people on a daily basis, she desperately wanted to be back in Portsmouth, where she felt sufficiency. Those around her focused majorly on her social class, not realizing that “her feelings were very acute, and too little understood to be properly attended too,” but she was suffering internally and “nobody put themselves out of their way to secure her comfort” (Austen 15). Being that Fanny is no longer in poverty and now living a wealthier life, Mrs. Norris anticipates that Fanny will comprehend the open door that has been offered to her.

All things considered, Fanny is relied upon to disregard her life in Portsmouth and live cheerfully at Mansfield. Since Fanny keeps on yearning for her family and home, they think her discourteous. It is quite obvious that “Fanny’s inferior status is what distinguishes her from the rest of her family [and] while Fanny’s position makes her a stranger who does not share the same lifestyle, she is nonetheless invited to feast at Mansfield and suffers for it” (Dimakis-Toliopoulous 91). Though she did not ask to be placed in her situation, Fanny suffers the consequences of jealousy and greed that possess Mrs. Norris in that she is jealous of Lady Bertram’s status within the community and as the maternal leader of the Bertram household, Mrs. Norris asserts her authority over Fanny in any way possible to prove her worth.

Both Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris lack emotional availability that is needed when raising children. The inability to emotionally provide is due to social standards and hierarchy within the family dynamic. In her novels, “Austen recognizes that monstrous motherhood deviates from social expectation, but it is not deviant from reality—and the gap between ideal and real always remains. Austen is too much of a realist to ignore maternal misbehavior, but she cannot condone it or justify it or make it disappear. Instead, Austen documents maternal misbehavior and the ways that it becomes (and is perceived as) monstrosity” (Francus, JASNA).

The representation of mothers in Austen’s novels are a reflection of the family dynamic during the eighteenth century. By highlighting the characteristics of Lady Bertram and Mrs. Norris, in comparison to Fanny, it is clear to see that neither character is sufficient for motherhood. Within the Bertram household, patterns of detachment and obliviousness of children or intense focus on the child can be found, especially with Lady Bertram’s lack of attention to Fanny and Mrs. Norris’s constant nagging at Fanny. Noticing this type of behavior within guardians is imperative when looking into abusive environments.

As a result of her environment, Fanny Price struggles with the psychological effects of child negligence and lack of maternal love. After being forced to leave Portsmouth by her mother at an early age and moving in with her monstrous aunts, “Fanny is bundled off in what is imagined as a sort of philanthropy crossed with a need for free and biddable domestic help, and it is decreed to be in her best interests,” but not only did she experience psychological abuse in Mansfield Park, she also experienced feelings of neglect in Portsmouth (Souter 209). When returning home to Portsmouth, with hopes of her parents fulling her sense of inferiority cause by Mrs. Norris, Fanny still encounters accidental neglect from her parents. Her father had become inattentive towards the family and his drinking habits increased drastically.

Her mother, very similarly, “had neither leisure nor affection to bestow on Fanny,” adding to Fanny’s anxiety of wanting to be wanted (Austen 391). After arriving back to Portsmouth, Fanny realizes that Portsmouth is no longer home to her and longs to return back to Mansfield Park. In doing that, upon her arrival back to Mansfield Park, Fanny hopes to prove herself to her unsatisfied and disinterested Aunt Bertram, so that she may receive the maternal love that she has always longed for. Fanny’s willingness to prove herself to her aunt is a typical reaction of “children who imagine themselves to have been deprived of maternal love because of their own unworthiness” (Moore 576). When Fanny realizes that she will not receive the same love and attention as her cousins, she mentally withdraws herself from her environment. Though Lady Bertram never directly abused Fanny, physically or verbally, her detachment contributed to Fanny’s feeling of inferiority and reluctance to social gatherings.

Likewise to Lady Bertram’s obliviousness and detachment from her children’s moral growth, Mr. Woodhouse of Emma leave his daughter, Emma Woodhouse, to acquire her own sense of moral character. Her father “lacks the necessary insight to assess Emma’s behavior accurately or to govern her behavior properly” (Bennett 61). Mr. Woodhouse is very much full of himself and neglects Emma’s emotional needs after the passing of her mother, who was essentially the perfect maternal figure. Even after Emma’s mother passed away, Mr. Woodhouse hired Miss Taylor to help raise his daughters, but in that Miss Taylor and Emma formed a mutual friendship instead of providing maternal love in which Emma needed.

In doing that, Emma is forced to mold herself into what she perceives as a parental figure, one that is obeyed and gives commands. She takes over the obligations that her father was oblivious to, and take the initiative to education herself and her sisters. But, what Emma fails to realize is that “she does not have the abilities to serve as a sound parental figure for others,” because she herself has never been a parent and has formed a false misconception of the responsibilities of a parental figure (Podis 150). In her attempt to take on a role that she is not qualified for, Emma becomes the epitome of the neglected child who is left to decide their own destiny and ultimately chooses the path that causes the most destruction.

Unlike the other heroines of Jane Austen’s novels, Emma comes from a family of wealth. This explains her strong willingness to take matters into her own hands. With her high social status, it came much easier to her to give orders and misuse her powers. The problem in this is that she has no one around to set boundaries of what she can and cannot do. Mr. Woodhouse “never doubts the superiority and rightness of Emma’s conduct, and consequently, she is not inclined to be self-critical or to examine her own motives too closely” (Bennett 62). Along with her eagerness to control and dominate those around her, Emma asserts herself the position of match-maker with hopes of fulling her emotional needs through others. In that,

“Emma, while yet unable to admit her own emotional needs, is fascinated by others who can act out similar needs, and keeps individuals around her. Yet her feelings toward them are ambivalent: she derives vicarious pleasure though identification with them, but is at the same time resentful that they can act with impunity in a fashion that is impossible for her” (Moore 578).

With her use of manipulation to get the response that she wants out of others, especially her father, she is unable to recognize the faults in her actions, which are ultimately disturbing the peace within those around her. But in Emma’s defense, “[i]t is natural, that those who are placed nearly in the same circumstances, should feel alike, and sympathize with one another; but children feel only for the present; they have few ideas of the future; and consequently all that they can desire, either for themselves, or for their companions, is what will immediately please” (Edgeworth 239). In that, the absence of adequate parenting in Emma’s life, she sought to connect with others around her with hopes of find the emotional connection and support that she has longed for. Unconsciously, she looked to connect with others that she believed could relate to her emotional needs and social status.

As a result of emotional negligence, Emma displays extraordinary willingness to others in that she attempts to over-emphasize her importance and usefulness to others. By taking on the role of an adult before she has had the opportunity to grown within herself, Emma suffered from a great deal of personal neglect in terms of neglecting her responsibilities of education. In the attempt to prove herself, she loses herself and her neglects her opportunities of self-growth. In the end, Emma “gains awareness of the seriousness inherent in parenthood and the importance of instilling in family members a solid moral education” (Podis 150). One positive aspect that comes from parental negligence in Emma is the development of mental independence from those that held authority in the household. Unlike Fanny Price, Emma was able to freely act on her own without worries of acceptance from her father. Through this, Emma was able to learn things that were not taught by her father, which helped in expanding family commonalities.

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Personal Growth of Characters in Jane Austen's Novels. (2022, Jan 20). Retrieved from

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