Why are there 5 Bennet Sisters?

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Let’s be honest: one of the fun parts of being widely read is editing novels in our heads. “Author A really failed to define this character properly,” “Author B really didn’t need this section where the character stays at yet another Inn (I’m looking at you Henry Fielding).” Personally, I like to take this critical editor’s eye to older novels, where editors operated differently then they do now. Victorians were clearly working in a bit of a different literary landscape, particularly when they were writing serials (Dickens, Gaskill, let’s be honest: did you need every one of those chapters?)

Having read “Pride and Prejudice” about 4 times in the last month (yes I’m obsessed, but what a wonderful obsession), I couldn’t help but poke at a few of the looser ends. Since we’re talking about Jane Austen, I had to start with the basic assumption that she is much smarter than me, so all of my questions must have an answer somewhere in the book.

The most striking “flaw’ in Pride and Prejudice is an overabundance of characters. A chunk of the characters, including Maria Lucas, Mr and Mrs Hurst, and Kitty, have no affect on the plot whatsoever. Take the Hursts: what purpose do the Hursts actually serve? They have absolutely no narrative function. They don’t do anything, which is why adaptations often leave them out. What they have is thematic significance, as an example of one of the many ways marriage can and does go wrong.

Another and larger question was: why are there 5 Bennett sisters? Kitty doesn’t actually do anything but cry over Lydia leaving and conceal information about her impending elopement. Neither of these things are actually necessary. And although each of the other sisters has a clearly defined character, Kitty is always just a parasite to Lydia.

That was where I realized I was onto something. Having 5 sisters of similar ages and identical situations in life should have been hard for a writer to juggle. But each of the characters comes out completely and utterly different, until mixing them up would be impossible. Each sister, coming from the same background of prosperous but neglectful parents, is left utterly to the development of their own character. They are in a perfect position for their selves to flourish.

Jane is kind and compassionate, always ready to see the best in others. Eliza is sensible and observing, comedic and judgemental. Mary is foolish and studious.Lydia is silly and small-minded.  Kitty…what is Kitty?

Kitty is a follower. She is, as I mentioned before, a parasite. Her oldest sisters were close, probably from a very young age. Mary doesn’t like anyone. Kitty thus had absolutely no one to turn to to exercise her instinct for flattery, enabling, and copying except for her younger sister Lydia. In a family where the parents paid attention to their children, Kitty would have been able to latch onto a governess or someone else. But Kitty is vulnerable in a way that no one else is.

She still serves no plot function. But in terms of psychology and human nature, the odd sort of hole that Kitty’s lack of independent characterization leaves in the novel makes sense.

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