Jane Austen and the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride and Vanity

Illustration by CE Brock, Persuasion (1894)Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation. He had been remarkably handsome in his youth; and, at fifty-four, was still a very fine man. Few women could think more of their personal appearance than he did; nor could the valet of any new made lord be more delighted with the place he held in society. The Narrator on Sir Walter Elliot, Persuasion, Chapter 1 

As a clergyman’s daughter Jane Austen would have been well aware of the significance of the seven deadly sins, those cardinal vices identified by the Catholic church in the 6th- century and later adopted by other Christian religions as the most offensive and serious of sins against god and humanity.  Listed as luxuria (extravagance, later lust), gula (gluttony), avaritia (greed), acedia (sloth), ira (wrath), invidia (envy), and superbia (pride), they were all egregious offenses that would qualify the sinner to at least one foot in hell unless they confessed and were penitent. This collection, though not identified in the Bible, was in the eyes of the church the foundation of moral corruption and considered mortal sins, a most serious offense threatening eternal damnation. Pretty serious stuff.   

Throughout Jane Austen’s novels, her characters exhibit a wide range of qualities from integrity to dissipation and vice making them very realistic, and not unlike people of our own acquaintance or popular renown. One could say that the struggle against the seven deadly sins is the driving force in her plots and one of the main reasons why people connect with them so readily. Her most popular characters Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice are prime examples of two of the deadly sins, the offence of pride and wrath. Though Austen does not condemn them for it (as the church might), their vices are the whole axis of the story.  

Today we shall look at the sin of pride, also known as vanity which was one of Jane Austen’s most popular choices of the seven deadly sins in her novels. Vanity appears 85 times and pride 111 times. Here are a few choice quotations: 

Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief. Emma 

With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body’s destiny. Emma 

Their vanity was in such good order that they seemed to be quite free from it, and gave themselves no airs; while the praises attending such behaviour, secured and brought round by their aunt, served to strengthen them in believing they had no faults. Mansfield Park 

Henry Crawford, ruined by early independence and bad domestic example, indulged in the freaks of a cold-blooded vanity a little too long. Mansfield Park 

Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead. Northanger Abbey 

From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. Northanger Abbey 

In vanity, therefore, she gained but little; her chief profit was in wonder. Northanger Abbey 

It was a struggle between propriety and vanity; but vanity got the better, and then Elizabeth was happy again. Persuasion 

“That is very true,” replied Elizabeth, “and I could easily forgive his pride, if he had not mortified mine.” Pride and Prejudice 

Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonimously. Pride and Prejudice 

“Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us.” Pride and Prejudice 

“Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed.” Pride and Prejudice 

If his own vanity, however, did not mislead him, he was the cause, his pride and caprice were the cause. Pride and Prejudice 

The world had made him extravagant and vain — extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish. Sense and Sensibility 

Vanity while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance, or at least its offspring, necessity, had required to be sacrificed. Sense and Sensibility 

Of all of Austen’s characters guilty of vanity, Sir Walter Elliot in Persuasion is definitely the leading offender. Austen leaves us in no doubt of his priorities in life toward his appearance and how it impacted his family. Mrs. Allen in Northanger Abbey arrives at a distant second being excessively fond of her clothing and constantly commenting on the inferiority of others choice of fabrics and garments. Who would dare dispute that Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice has the most pride since an entire novel stems from it. Mrs. Fanny Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility in my mind is second in offence of pride after Mr. Darcy. She is so arrogant and prideful that she basically evicts her mother-in-law Mrs. Dashwood out of her home after the death of her father-in-law and talks her own husband out of giving them a decent living –  all for her vanity. There are others who come to mind: Miss Elizabeth Elliot in Persuasion who is definitely her father’s daughter, Mrs. Elton in Emma who is arrogance and puffery personified, Miss Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park who thinks herself above the truth, and that tactfully bereft General Tilney in Northanger Abbey who ejects poor Catherine Morland out of his house when he learns that she is not as flush as he thought. The list goes on and on with different degrees of offence, but in the end, we can rest assured that Austen does not treat these offenders lightly, passing her judgment according to propriety and her Christian principles.

Which characters do you find prideful and vain, and do you think that Austen portrayed them correctly?

4 thoughts on “Jane Austen and the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride and Vanity

  1. Mrs Fanny Dashwood is by far the most selfish woman I have read! But she also appears to me to be rather greedy too.

    I think Sir Walter Elliot is incredibly vain and he’s definitely a one dimensional character shaped solely around his vanity.

    I don’t mind pride if it’s warranted…Mr Darcy seemed to deserve to be rather prideful because he had the integrity to back it up.

    Thanks for the interesting post!!

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  2. I would vote for Lydia Bennet as the character who seems to pack all seven vices into one petite frame–she is certainly extravagent and lustful, gluttonous (the dinner at the Inn that E. and J. pay for springs to mind, greedy (dozens of beaus and all the pretty dresses), slothful, wrathful (in the form of temper tantrums), envious of everyone, and supremely proud of herself for catching Wickham.

    John Thorpe comes in second in terms of displaying all seven in one character.

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  3. I’m trying to decide if Isabella Thorpe is vain. If “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us,” I think she qualifies. But other very vain characters (especially Sir Walter Elliot) seem so unaware of this vice, while Isabella strikes me as hyper-conscious about her self-image and how others perceive her. Then again, Sir Walter Elliot was much less confident among the higher ranks at Bath.

    Thanks for a great post!

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  4. I’m not sure whether we should accept distiction between pride and vanity as Austen’s own thoughts.

    I agree that Sir Walter is the most vain, but I would choose Lady Catherine as the winner in pride. And I see Elisabeth’s pride as equal to Darcy’s. Similarly, Emma’s.

    I don’t think Fanny Dashwood’s actions are dictated by pride or vanity- but greed. Her mother is both vain and prideful.

    Vain are also all “rakes”- Willoughby, Frank, Henry and Mary.

    Bingley’s sisters are albo both prideful and vain.

    Generally, I think that Austen thinks that vanity is worse flaw that pride. Vanity in her books is characterstic of bad characters, whereas pride can also be a flaw of her heroes.

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