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Pride & Prejudice and Emma: Compare & Contrast


Jane Austen is a woman of her times. She is well known for her piercing social commentary and portraits of courtship and marriage. She also has a deep understanding of family life and the complex interactions between parents and their daughters. Among her best works are the novels Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

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This paper will analyze the nature of the father-daughter relationships found in Jane Austen’s novels Pride and Prejudice and Emma. This task shall be accomplished by analyzing the social and domestic relationships of Mr. Bennet and his five daughters Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, and Mr. Woodhouse with his daughters Emma and Isabella in Emma. This essay aims to reveal the great role a father plays in his daughter’s life, both positive and negative

The Analysis will be in three parts. First it treat with the dynamics of the father-daughter relationship in the home. By analyzing the domestic relationships the characteristics of the fathers and their daughters will be revealed. The Fathers’ attributes will be compared to the common belief that they are expected to be affectionate to their daughters. Their influence upon their daughters attitude on marriage will also be discussed. Finally the impact of the Fathers on their daughters’ social life will be covered. By dealing in these factors it will be seen if Mr. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse were a positive influence on the growth of their daughters.

Pride and Prejudice and Emma portrays two incompetent fathers who have a debilitating effect on their daughters’ future relationships. A bond of love results in thoughtfulness and affinity between the respective father-daughter pairs. However, it will be seen that the daughters suffer considerable dislocation because of the misconduct of their fathers. They are not able to properly adjust and this impacts their later life.

Research question

The deadbeat fathers of Jane Austen: To what extent does inadequate fathering have an effect on their daughters in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Emma?


The main goal of this essay is to analyze the nature of the father-daughter relationships found in Jane Austen’s novels Pride and Prejudice and Emma. This shall be done by analyzing their social and domestic relationships of the characters. Specifically this will refer to Mr.

Bennet and his five daughters Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty and Lydia in Pride and Prejudice, and Mr. Woodhouse with his daughters Emma and Isabella in Emma.

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The first part of the essay will deal with the father-daughter dynamics from a domestic perspective. It is these domestic interactions that will reveal what kind of people the fathers and daughters the characters are and will unveil a deeper understanding of these relationships. The fathers are expected to be affectionate to their daughters and their fathers will likely influence their daughters’ views on marriage. By analyzing the fathers’ involvement in their daughter’s marital future and the consequences of their parenting it is hoped that the importance of the father-daughter relationships and how they affect the daughters’ social life will be unveiled.

Jane Austen is well known for her piercing social commentary and portraits of courtship and marriage. She also has a deep understanding of family life and the complex interactions between parents and their daughters. This essay aims to reveal the great role a father plays in his daughter’s life, both positive and negative.

Domestic father-daughter relationships

Austen is famous for her realistic presentation of father-daughter relationships and her condemnation of its failings (Smith 66). Her point of view can be seen in the two novels in various ways. The fathers in both novels are weak and their failings cause their daughters to suffer considerably. To determine how meaningful and influential the father-daughter relationship is the affections between the fathers and daughters will be examined, along with the influences the fathers have on the daughters’ views on marriage and choices of husbands.

The failings of fatherhood and its consequences

A common theme in Austen’s novels is that fathers are inadequate when it comes to parenting their daughters. Parental neglect is noticeable in the daughters because they are damaged by their fathers’ behaviours. In some cases, the daughter even feels a need to take up the role of the father when the father is unable to fulfill his responsibilities.

Mr. Bennet is the father of five daughters from the ages 15 to 22. Austen writes that Mr. Bennet was always expecting a son, who would rescue the family from economic ruin: When first Mr. Bennet had married, economy was held to be perfectly useless; for, of course, they were to have a son. This son was to join in cutting off the entail, as soon as he should be of age, and the widow and younger children would by that means be provided for. Five daughters successively entered the world, but yet the son was to come. (Pride 280)

Ellwood suggests that because Mr. Bennet had not yet given up hope on having a son, he was a good father to Jane and Elizabeth in their early years. But since no son is born, Mr Bennet despairs and withdraws from the parental role (1). This withdrawal is damaging on all of his daughters, but Bennett points out that “as the first-born, Jane and Elizabeth are by far the best off. In a manner typical of many older children … they have gravitated naturally to the parental roles … achieving early maturity as a result” (134). The ones who suffer the most from their father’s retreat are therefore the youngest daughters Kitty, and Lydia.

Kitty and Lydia have found that their father is completely closed to any sort of communication with them, and turn to their mother instead. Lydia is badly influenced by her mother’s neurotic and narcissistic behaviour, and she acts out rebellious feelings toward her father, who neglects her because she is like his exasperating wife. Kitty and Lydia become “surplus” children in a family with no competent parental guidance (Bennett 136).

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Mr. Bennet is the less successful father of the two. Burgan writes: “Mr. Bennet’s retreat from familial responsibility – his leaving the field almost exclusively to the exertions of his wife – has meant that the younger three daughters have grown up to be silly and useless girls” (540). Clearly his inability to be a good father to them proves very damaging later on.

Mr. Woodhouse also fails in his role as a good father of the family but for a different reason. Mr. Woodhouse is described as a “child-father”; he is selfish, irresponsible and peevish (Smith 76). He has no authority over Emma and their situation is describes as “ … the power of having rather too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (Emma 37).

Unlike Mr. Bennet, who bemoans his lack of a son, Mr. Woodhouse is not a father simply because he thinks that his daughter is perfect. “Dear Emma bears everything so well”, “Emma never thinks of herself, if she can do good to others” (42, 44). Clearly, Mr. Woodhouse is in awe of his daughter.

The older Mr. Woodhouse loves his daughter and is involved in her life. However, he does not place limits on her because he thinks he can do well enough on her own. By comparison the younger Mr. Bennet cares little for his family because of his desire for a son.

Being older Mr. Woodhouse was more mature. But because of his valetudinarian lifestyle, by the time Emma reached maturity he was in need of her care. This in turn awakened Emma’s nurturing side and she became the one who shelters him (Newman 7).

Mr. Woodhouse’s deficiencies are not as severe in their impact on Emma as it was for the Bennet sisters. Emma is spoiled and very independent, something that is not seen as a great personality flaw, in contrast to Mr. Bennet’s daughters Kitty and Lydia, who endanger their family’s social reputation by behaving inappropriately.

Austen shows the fathers as incompetent and this results in them having unsatisfactory relationships with their daughters. Mr. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse all fail in having an active and authoritative role as parents, and because of this, the daughters are forced to rely on their own wiles. The daughters who are successful in guiding themselves into adulthood prove to be independent and even appear to be guiding their fathers in the art of parenting. The ones who don’t prove a burden on the successful daughters.

Natarajan suggests that the economic weakness of the father causes the daughter to take on his role as head of the family. He says that “some fathers are limited by being younger sons and as fathers of daughters are rendered economically impotent by entail laws. Such fathers are often weak, spineless, fallible”. They give example of this insecurity in Mr. Bennet and his escaping the parental role, and in Mr. Woodhouse’s hypochondria (148).

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An example of this is in Emma, where Emma acts as a matchmaker. This is the result of her having so much freedom that she takes on the normally fatherly role of marriage-arranger (Smith 80). Emma’s strength of character is further emphasized by Mr. Woodhouse’s frequent lament; “What is to be done, my dear Emma? What is to be done?” (Emma 158) suggesting that he can weather no difficulty without Emma reversing their respective roles.

Elizabeth is well aware of her father’s imperfection as a parent, “but respecting his abilities, and grateful for his affectionate treatment of herself, she endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook … (Pride 218). When away at a dinner party, Mary occupies the piano and amuses, probably, only herself by playing and singing, Elizabeth feels that the situation is becoming embarrassing. Even as Mary embarrasses herself Mr. Bennet is unable to do anything instead has to rely on Elizabeth to save his daughter.

The fact that the daughters are forced to take on parental roles magnifies the failures of their respective fathers. But these same failures can also serve as a way for the daughters to mature and renounce the negative sides that their fathers display. This way, they become more independent and self- assured.

The affection between the fathers and daughters

Although the father-daughter relationships in the stories are presented as flawed, there are numerous signs of affection between them. I have looked at two specific kinds of affection: Thoughtfulness, which is a natural affection in a close relationship, and a tangible one in the novels, and affinity, which denotes the feeling of a close connection marked by common interests or similarity in nature or character. Affinity shows the strong bond between the father and daughter.

For Mr. Bennet, he only really shows affection to Elizabeth. They share a strong bond that he does not share with his other daughters. Mr. Bennet’s thoughtfulness toward Elizabeth is apparent when the subject of marriage is raised. He does not want his daughter to end up in an unhappy marriage like him;(Pride 341).

Elizabeth for her part, loves her father despite his weaknesses and when she defends him, she says that “nothing could be urged against my father, who, though with some peculiarities, has abilities which Mr. Darcy himself need not disdain, and respectability which he will probably never reach” (176). Inspite of her love Elizabeth desires that her father act properly for the sake of his family.

Likewise Mr. Woodhouse shows thoughtfulness to both of his daughters. Mr. Woodhouse is very affectionate toward both Emma and Isabella. He is, after all, described as a “most affectionate, indulgent father” (Emma 37). Emma and her father are very thoughtful to one another although it can be argued that Mr. Woodhouse’s thoughtfulness stems from his generally considerate personality. However, he consistently places the wellbeing of his daughters above those of his friends. He constantly manages to express some kind of concern for his daughters: “He was afraid they should have a very bad drive. He was afraid poor Isabella would not like it. And there would be poor Emma in the carriage behind. He did not know what they had best do. They must keep as much together as they could” (148).

Emma is likewise thoughtful when it comes to her father. She is generally concerned for his comfort and tries to please him whenever it is necessary: “She read it to him, just as he liked to have anything read, slowly and distinctly, and two or three times over, with explanations of every part as she proceeded” (Emma 103). She is so tied to her father that when she was engaged to Mr. Knightley she almost broke off the engagement just because Mr. Woodhouse could not bare to be without her.

Emma loves her father dearly, but it is also said that “he was no companion for her. He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful” (38). The are unequal and as result Mr. Woodhouse is of no help to Emma when she is troubled.

Elizabeth Bennet is her father’s daughter. She has in a way supplied the place of wife to him. They share a special sensitivity to each other’s presence and feelings, much like lovers (Smith 83).

The fathers’ influences on the daughters’ views on marriage and choices of husbands

In Austen’s novels, the daughters’ views on marriage are comparatively the same among all of the daughters; the question is not “when will I marry?” but rather “when will I meet someone who I want to marry?”. The daughters see marriage as a union of love, and they are naturally driven by affection. An interesting circumstance is that, in some cases, the daughters’ choices of husbands are related to what kind of fathers they have; in a future husband, the daughters search (maybe unknowingly) for abilities that their fathers lack (Burgan 543).

Elizabeth only wants to marry for love. This is a result of her parent’s unhappy marriage. Her father married her mother “captivated by youth and beauty” (Pride 218), not knowing much about her mother’s character, which soon proved to disagree greatly with his taste. When Elizabeth does fall in love she chose a man who is unlike her father. This is because she is aware of the defects of her parents’ marriage, and knows that her fathers’ withdrawal from the family and the use of wit as a weapon is not what creates a happy marriage (Burgan 543).

By comparison Emma has no desire to marry because she can already get what she wants via her own abilities and independence. ‘Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s’. (108)

Emma does not think she can fall in love and is content to be with her father and his love. Another reason she does not want to marry is that her father is not in favour of it. In fact she is so against marriage that when she tells her father of her engagement she says it as if she were confessing a sin. Instead of moving away she decided to bring Mr. Knightley to live with them. Mr. Knightley is also the opposite of Mr. Woodhouse. He can take care of Emma but also restrain her and guide her into becoming a responsible woman. Burgan points out that Emma must have Mr. Knightley’s guidance because she is frequently deluded about what is going on around her (548). Emma simply chooses a man who has the authority over her that Mr. Woodhouse lacks (Smith 79).

Elizabeth Bennet and Emma have a close relationship with their fathers, and are therefore more affected by them and their situations. Elizabeth knows, and is also told by her father, that a happy marriage is built on love and respect, and preferably on the fact that the man and woman should be equals. Emma’s prudish attitude toward marriage is a result of her close relationship to her father. The fathers seem to approve of any future son-in-laws, as long as the marriage is brought on by love.

Social father-daughter relationships

Having dealt with the domestic aspect of the father-daughter relationship. I will look at how the relationships affect the daughters’ social life. First off, the fathers’ involvement in their daughters’ lives will be examined with focus on their attempt to find suitable husbands for them. followed by the fathers’ and daughters’ views on marriage of convenience, where the fathers’ influences on the daughters are noticeable. Lastly, the consequences for the daughters in the social life, because of the failures of fatherhood, will be looked at.

The fathers’ efforts to make acquaintances to find appropriate husbands for their daughters

In Austen’s time the father was frequently involved in the matchmaking process. Young women depended on the social contacts of the family to find a husband. It was the responsibility of the man of the house to find a prospective husband for their daughters.

Mr. Bennet displays his ineptitude when it was up to Mrs. Bennet to convince him to make acquaintances with their neighbours. Although Mr. Bennet seems reluctant to pay the visit, he all along intended to visit Mr. Bingley (Pride 17). This visit is the only example of an initiative from Mr. Bennet’s part to find a husband for one of his daughters. At one of the monthly assembly balls the daughters are finally introduced to Mr. Bingley, albeit with Mr. Bennet absent. It would appear that Mr. Bennet is willing to do only the most basic tasks of making acquaintances. He is frequently absent from social events. When he does attend a social activity, his own activity consists in watching with silent enjoyment, and complete lack of embarrassment, the faux pas and blunders of his own family (Morris 1). Overall, Mr. Bennet does more harm than good for his daughters in the matchmaking department.

By comparison, Mr. Woodhouse is neither willing nor able to find a husband for Emma. As he does not wish to see her married he discourages efforts to find Emma a husband. In his defense, his poor health also limits his ability to make acquaintances. When he was in better health, Mr. Woodhouse was found of society. He had his own circle of friends. But due to his excesses he has since become unfit to make new acquaintances (Emma 51).

This reluctance has a chilling effect on Emma. She rarely leaves the house and has never been so far as the seaside. She has not even to visited her sister because then she would have to leave her father alone for a night, which is too much for both of them (Le Faye 257, 258). But since Emma is the mistress of his house, she encourages Mr. Woodhouse to engage in new acquaintances as much as she can.

In both cases, their effort to find suitable husbands leaves much to be desired. For their own selfish reasons Mr. Bennet and Mr. Woodhouse fail to perform the important duty of acquainting their daughters with potential husbands.

The fathers’ and daughters’ attitudes toward marriage of convenience

It is safe to say that Austen’s novels treat the subject of marriage; moreover, what creates the dramatic tension is the conflict between marrying for love, or marrying for social or economic advantage, also called marriage of convenience (Harding 40).

A marriage of convenience was of great interest to a family if it was not wealthy or if its estate is entailed, that is, it can only be inherited by a male relative, and all the children are female. This is something that occurs in Pride and Prejudice. Because of this, it was important for the daughters to marry and to marry well.

Mr. Bennet is not a wealthy man but his prodigal attitude left little for his family (Le Faye 181). Mr. Bennet is not in favour of marriage of convenience as shown by his disproval of Elizabeth’s acceptance of Mr. Darcy’s proposal. He thinks that Elizabeth is marrying for his rank and wealth. Even if he will leave then in dire financial straits he still thinks Elizabeth should do better.

Owing to their father’s negligence of financial savings, Elizabeth and Jane will have only ₤1,000 apiece, invested in government 4 per cent stocks, and they will not even receive this sum until after their mother’s death (Le Faye 115). Despite this neither daughter wishes to marry for the advantage of a good name or fortune. By comparison Lydia and Kitty are fully intent on marrying for status. Perhaps due to her poor relationship with her father, Lydia contrives to be the first daughter to get married and takes great pride in this achievement.

The views on marriage of convenience clearly vary. Mr. Bennet is not in favour of marriage of convenience since he knows about unhappy marriages. His daughters do not wish to marry if it is not for love. But Lydia is an exception because she wants the recognition she has never received from her father.

The failures of fatherhood cause consequences for the daughters in the social life

The fathers’ failures can also cause the daughters to fail in acquiring a husband. Lydia Bennet is the first, and foremost, example of a daughter who suffers the consequences of her father’s neglect. Due to Mr. Bennet’s inability to discipline her results in her becoming rebellious to the point that Mr. Bennet gives up on her. The incident that makes Mr. Bennet realise his mistake of neglecting Lydia, and what damages Lydia’s reputation forever, is her elopement with Wickham.

In Austen’s time elopement was a flagrant offence to the patriarchy in general and the most humiliating insult to a patriarch himself” (Park, 210). Mr. Bennet’s failure to assert his patriarchy results in Lydia’s wayward behaviour. Her elopement is a shameful blemish on the Bennets’ reputation. She endangers her sexual chastity, which is a condition for marriage (Bromberg 132), and disgraces her family socially. When Mr. Bennet receives the news about Lydia, he is so chocked that “he could not speak a word for full ten minutes’ ‘ (Pride 265).

Bromberg believes that if the incident did not have had a relatively happy ending, and Lydia had been left seduced and abandoned, the outcome would be a just penalty on the Bennets for their careless parenting (132). Unfortunately, Mr. Bennet’s feelings of inadequacy as a parent following the event withdraw quickly, indicating that he knows his failings but does not care enough to change (Newman 8).

Likewise, Mr. Woodhouse’s lack of parental authority allows Emma to be strong-headed. Emma is allowed to act as she pleases, without guidance she becomes selfish and self-centered. This makes Emma act thoughtlessly, and sometimes even cruel (Jones 206). For example, during a conversation Emma implies, in front of everyone, that Miss Bates is unable to say nothing but dull things whenever she opens her mouth. Such impolite comments were thoroughly frowned upon in Austen’s society (Harding 177). Incidents like this indicate Emma’s lack of upbringing, the blame for which falls squarely on Mr. Woodhouse’s shoulders.

Social disgrace is not the only result of a father’s failures, it can also result in the daughter failing to find a suitable husband. It is because of the youngest daughters’ behaviours, that Mr. Darcy persuades Mr. Bingley to end the acquaintance with the Bennet family. Mr. Bennet’s lack of attention to his daughters’ upbringing also well neigh scarred off their prospective husbands.

Mary Bennet’s inability to marry is the fault of her father. She lacks the social skills and charm of her sisters and thus has no hope of having any suitors (Ellewood 3). This is highlighted in their dealings with Mr. Collins. A near perfect match for Mary, Mr. Collins was even calling upon the family in search of a wife. Had Mr. Bennet been even marginally active in his efforts he could have easily prevailed upon Mr. Collins to consider Mary for a wife. Unfortunately Mr. Bennet is lackluster as usual and the opportunity was not taken.


The purpose of this essay has been to study the nature of the father-daughter relationships in Pride and Prejudice and Emma. The study has been performed by analyzing the relationships from a domestic and a social point of view. By firstly looking at the fathers as parents, the affection between the fathers and daughters, and the daughters’ views on marriage and how they are influenced by their fathers, I have been able to show the different kinds of father-daughter relationships in the novels. Secondly, by examining the social part of the relationships, focusing on the fathers’ efforts to find husbands for their daughters, the attitudes toward marriage of convenience, and the failures of fatherhood in a social context, it is evident that the relationship between the fathers and daughters are of considerable importance for the daughters, but also for the fathers.

Austen portrays two incompetent fathers who doom their daughters’ future relationships. There are feelings of thoughtfulness and affinity between them. However, this thoughtfulness ends short of motivating the fathers to find suitable husbands for their daughters. Emma and Elizabeth both develop well enough on their own despite their fathers’ shortcomings. However some such as Lydia misshapen because of the same neglect. It is clear that the father- daughter relationships in Austen’s novels contain both negative and positive aspects.

Works Consulted

Primary sources

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. London: Collins, 1952.

—. Emma. 1815. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966.

—. Persuasion. 1818. New York: Random House, 2001.

Secondary sources

Beer, Patricia. Reader, I Married Him: A Study of the Women Characters of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot. London: Macmillan, 1974.

Bennett, Paula. “Family Plots: Pride and Prejudice as a Novel about Parenting.” Folsom 134-139.

Bromberg, Pamela S. “The Marriage Plot.” Folsom 125-133.

Burgan, Mary A. “Mr Bennet and the Failures of Fatherhood in Jane Austen’s Novels.” JEGP: Journal of English and Germanic Philology 74.4 (1975): 536-552.

Ellwood, Gracia Fay. “How Not to Father: Mr. Bennet and Mary.” Persuasions On-Line 22.1 (2001) 5 pp.

Folsom, Marcia McClintock, ed. Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1993.

Harding, D.W. Regulated Hatred and Other Essays on Jane Austen. London: Athlone, 1998.

Johnson, Claudia L. Jane Austen : Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Jones, Kathleen Anne. Jane Austen’s Fictional Parents. Diss. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1984. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1984.

Le Faye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. London: Frances Lincoln, 2002.

Morris, Ivor. “Elizabeth and Mr. Bennet.Persuasions On-Line 25.1 (2004) 13 pp. Web.

Natarajan, Nalini. “Reluctant Janeites: Daughterly Value in Jane Austen and Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s Swami.” Park and Rajan 141-162.

Newman, Annie. “Family Dynamics in Jane Austen’s Novels.” The Republic of Pemberley 2005 14 pp. Web.

Park, You-me. “Father’s daughters: Critical Realism Examines Patriarchy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Park Wansô’s A Faltering Afternoon.” Park and Rajan 205-217.

Park, You-me, and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan eds. The Postcolonial Jane Austen. London: Routledge, 2000.

Smith, Sandra Jo. Father-Daughter Relationships in Fiction and Society (1790-1890). Diss. Vanderbilt University, 1989. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1994.

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