Jane Austen, sisterhood, sisters, female relationships, eighteenth-century literature, morality, femininity, social order
Writing at a moment of ideological crisis between individualism and hierarchical society, Jane Austen asserts a definition of moral behavior and female identity that mediates the two value systems. I argue that Austen most effectively articulates her belief in women's moral autonomy and social responsibility in her novels through her portrayal of sisterhood. Austen reshapes the stereotype of sisters and female friendships as dangerous found in her domestic novel predecessors. While recognizing women's social vulnerability, which endangers female friendship and turns it into a site of competition, Austen urges the morality of selflessly embracing sisterhood anyway. An Austen heroine must overcome sisterly rivalry if she is to achieve the moral strength Austen demands of her. As Mansfield Park (1814) and Pride and Prejudice (1813) demonstrate, such rivalry reveals the flawed morality of both individualism and patrilineal society. I further argue that in these novels sisterhood articulates the internally motivated selflessness Austen makes her moral standard. Sisterhood not only indicates female morality for Austen, it also enables this character. Rejecting Rousseau's proposal of men shaping malleable female minds, Austen pronounces sisters to be the best moral guides. In Northanger Abbey (1818), Austen shows the failure of the man to educate our heroine and the success of his sister. In Sense and Sensibility (1811), Austen pinpoints the source of sisterly education's success in its feminine context of nurture, affection, intimacy, and subtlety. With this portrait of sisterhood, Austen adheres to the moral authority inherent in Burkean philosophy while advocating individual responsibility, not external regulation, to choose selfless behavior. Austen further promotes gender equality by expressing women's moral autonomy, while supporting gender distinctions that privilege femininity. By offering such powerful, complex sister relationships, Austen transforms eighteenth-century literary thought about women, sisters, and morality.
Master of Arts (M.A.)
College of Arts and Humanities
Length of Campus-only Access
Masters Thesis (Open Access)
Curtis, Katherine, "Sisterhood Articulates A New Definition Of Moral Female Identity: Jane Austen's Adaptation Of The Eighteenth-century Tradition" (2010). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 4357.