The Prodigal Son and Jane Austen

Today we talked about the Parable of the Prodigal Son in GD class. I asked the class how the father’s estate would be divided between his two sons, and the first answer I heard was the one I was expecting: 50/50. That would be normal in our culture, and I offered that that is indeed what my will provides vis-a-vis my two children. But then I heard someone give the correct answer: 2/3 to the elder, 1/3 to the younger. This is due to the principle of primogeniture, under which the eldest son got a double portion of inheritance (the theory being that he also had a duty to care for the mother if still alive).

I have a theory (which I’ve never committed to writing) that the patriarchal narratives of Genesis reflect a subtle commentary to the effect that the practice of primogeniture worked a certain injustice. That’s because in practice, the covenant never seems to actually flow through the eldest son. Starting with Abraham, we see that Isaac supersedes Ishmael, Jacob supersedes Esau, Joseph supersedes Reuben, Ephraim supersedes Manasseh (and in several of these instances, the supersession was an explicit part of the narrative). And then we see the same thing in the Book of Mormon, where Nephi supersedes Laman.

Someone asked about what happens to daughters in this scheme, and used the example of parents with five daughters and no sons. The opening was too good not to seize, so we spent the next 15 minutes of GD class in a detailed discussion of the works of Jane Austen (especially Pride and Prejudice).

When I introduced this line of discussion, I asked how many Jane Austen fans we had in the class. Lots of hands went up; they were all sisters, none of the brethren. So I (jokingly) said that I was secure enough in my masculinity to acknowledge that I’m a romantic and love Jane Austen!

The plots of several Austen novels revolve around the injustice to women of the then still common practice of entailment of estates. Entailment was an ancient practice flowing from feudal conceptions of property. The idea was to keep large landed estates intact and in the family, rather than breaking them up as would happen if they were freely alienable. So typically the land would go to the eldest son, and to no other child. So younger sons would have to find their way in the world some other way (often in the military or taking orders with the church).

And what about the women? Well, they were expected to marry. And if they didn’t, they were pretty much screwed. (I didn’t use the word “screwed” in class, but I wanted to…) It wasn’t like they could easily get jobs (there were precious few jobs open to women of that social class). If they didn’t marry, they had to hope some compassionate relatives would assist them (as we see in Sense and Sensibility).

Mr. Bennett had a life estate in their land, but since he failed to produce a male heir, upon his death you go back up his line and then down again until you find a male heir. And in this case the presumptive male heir would be a cousin of some sort, Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins is ridiculous and Elizabeth Bennett is way out of his league, and so we moderns cheer when she turns him down, and we think her mother silly to try so hard to push the match. But understanding the legal situation puts matters in a somewhat different light. Mr. Collins was doing an honorable thing by coming and seeking a wife from among Mr. Bennett’s daughters. And Mrs. Bennett knew that when her husband died Mr. Collins would take the estate and its income, and so you can well understand how anxious she would be for one of her daughters to accept the proposal, ridiculous or not. And it puts Elizabeth’s refusal in a different light as well; the chutzpah it took for her to turn down Mr. Collins, knowing full well what was at stake, is striking.

The practice of entailing estates never caught on in this country, as it seemed anti-democratic, to smack of aristocracy and the landed gentry, so it seems like such a foreign practice to us. And laws have changed in England, so that the injustices of entailment no longer exist. But it has been less than a century since the difficult results we see in Austen’s novels would have obtained.

I think the class enjoyed illustrating challenging results from various forms of primogeniture from the writings of Jane. I know that I did.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    Another example I had planned to use was the Tetrarchy of Judea. After Herod the Great died, his kingdom was divided by inheritance among three of his sons: Archelaus, Herod Antipas, and Philip. These men were called Tetrarchs, a Greek word meaning rule by four people. But if there were only three of them, why were they called Tetrachs? Apparently because Archelaus as the oldest got a double portion. The kingdom was divided into four parts, but Archelaus got two of the quarters due to Jewish legal practice. (But we didn’t have time for that illustration.)

  2. You wanted an example of a man with five daughters and no sons, and you didn’t use the daughters of Zelophehad? Shame, shame. =)

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    To me Zelophehad’s Daughters is some sort of a blog…

  4. Kevin,
    If you were the GD teacher in my ward, I’d show up for the second hour of the block every Sunday!

  5. Fun post Kevin.
    And you’re right, there’s a definite theme there. I’ve got some ideas about it’s role in the Book of Mormon. As for the Bible, see Greenspahn, When Brothers Dwell Together: The Preeminence of Younger Siblings in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    Ooo, thanks for the cite, Ben. I figured someone had to have noticed that recurring pattern before.

  7. Though Austen’s considered a “romantic,” her books are as much about–if not more about–women navigating this type of financial world of landed estates and inheritance, where they are more liabilities than actors, than it is about love per se. It’s a pity so many guys are scared off thinking it’s “chick lit,” because she’s really such a great prose stylist.

  8. Mark B. says:

    I must confess that one of the biggest mistakes I made in high school was to read through Pride and Prejudice when required, and pronouncing it “dumb.”

    But I got over that, and am secure enough in my masculinity to suggest, Kevin, that Mrs. Bennet would really insist that you spell Mr. Bennet’s name correctly.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    DLewis, great observation.

    Thanks for the correction, Mark B., that’s what I get for typing it off the cuff like that and not actually checking…

  10. I was fooled. In jr. high and high school I thought Austen was sappy romance, which made the girls swoon. Only later did I realize that she was being highly critical of all the stuff my peers seemed to love about the books. Oddly enough, none of my teachers ever seemed to mention that the books were about injustice rather than romance.

  11. Nice analysis, and one more nail in the coffin for the questionable theology of Grant Von Harrison, author of Drawing upon the Powers of Heaven, that always bugged me. He went to great lengths about how he had to revise his treatment of his sons, and give a greater deference to the oldest son, which just always rubbed me the wrong way. I had noticed that the OT seemed to make an issue of younger sons receiving the birthright through various means, sometimes bordering on deceitful, but never really connected it as a theme or pattern. Thanks for one more foundational topic of how the gospel is about empowering the powerless in temporal ways.

  12. S.P. Bailey says:

    Generally the key “love” scenes in Austen do not involve a man and woman gazing into each other’s eyes, but a woman coming over a hill in a carriage and getting her first glimpse of a man’s estate.

  13. I have a vague memory of a lesson that drew on this theme (younger brother’s usurping older brother’s birthright) and they made a connection also of Lucifer and Jehovah, implying that Lucifer was the eldest son but lost out on his “birthright” to Jehovah. I have no idea if there is a doctrinal basis to this, but the lesson never actually drew a point about why this might be a pattern or what it could mean. I’ll feel free to interpret it as a critique of classism, oligarchy, and inheritance in general :)

  14. Ah Kevin, you know my wife is going to be jealous when I forward this on to her. The thought that Austen would be discussed in Gospel Doctrine would so overwhelm her aversion for the class that she couldn’t possibly resist. And as both an eldest son and the father of all girls, I can relate all too well to Mr Bennet’s plight/joy (and I’m referring to far more than just the question of inheritance). Since it was you who once famously declared to me after the birth of #4, “Apparently you have no Y chromosomes.” :)

    Your insight is fascinating on this question since we’ve had many discussions around the dinner table about why Jacob’s mother helped him trick Esau and why the youngest of 12 was selected when he had 11 older brothers among whom at least one must have been righteous.

    However, I will admit that my enjoyment of Austen actually exploded after I discovered Pamela Aiden’s Fitzwilliam Darcy trilogy which provided a deeper voice to Mr Darcy in a way that truly spoke to me. I’ve since gone on to re-read all of Austen’s novels and will jokingly roll my eyes when the fan in our house asks to watch one of the films again.

  15. Julianna says:

    Kevin – you just made Sunday School interesting to me. I really miss you classes. Could you be persuaded to move into our ward?

  16. This was so fun!!! Thank you!