How did Jane Austen’s novels promote a virtuous life?

how jane austen novels promote a virtuous life
Portrait of Jane Austen, via Open University; with Detail of Raphael’s School of Athens, 1509-1511, via BBC

Jane Austen’s novels promote the idea of ​​the virtuous life as an indispensable aspect of individual and societal experience. Her novels are narratives of virtue as a means of moral education. Austen drew on a classical tradition that had enumerated the virtues necessary for a good life and on the Christian intellectual heritage into which she was born. In her novels, moral improvement involves, as the writer and critic CS Lewis has observed, the experience of profound self-awareness, which revealed excesses and deficiencies in personal conduct.

Austen carefully choreographs her characters’ actions, using what Lewis calls a “grammar of conduct.” This narrative grammar shows the reader a character’s success or failure in achieving moral improvement.

Austen’s use of the classical virtues

elizabeth darcy pride prejudice illustration
Illustration of Elizabeth admiring Mr Darcy’s portrait in Pemberley, from the 1908 Chatto and Windus edition of Pride and Prejudice, via University of St Andrews

The Greek philosopher Aristotle defined virtue as that which “will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his job well”. Jane Austen’s novels offer a comprehensive portrait of the variety and complexity of that process. For Austen, a virtue is not the ability to obey rules and fulfill obligations. For her, virtues are found in character, emerging from dispositions and inclinations acquired throughout life. Virtues are character-forming habits that define the choices an individual will make.

Many critics have speculated on the sources of Austen’s approach to virtue, pointing to some similarities she shares with Aristotle, who, in his work The Nicomachean Ethic, outlined a detailed outline of what was needed to achieve happiness. For Aristotle, the pursuit of happiness was both practical, rooted in action and choices, and philosophical, leading to wisdom. Aristotle produced what philosopher Gilbert Ryle described as “copious and elastic distinctions,” focusing on excesses and shortcomings, which deviated from what Aristotle called the mean, or ideal middle ground. For Aristotle, the way to happiness was to find the middle ground in conduct.

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Thus, in Austen’s novels, the characters stray from this middle ground. They struggle to find their way through life, rooted in complex family and social relationships, trying to find happiness. For some, like Darcy and Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, this translates into joy; for others, like Lydia and Mr. Wickham, refusing to follow the path of moderation in life ends in difficulty.

Some critics point to a Christian aspect of Austen’s view of the virtues. Her father, a clergyman, was academically trained and may have influenced Jane’s interest in her virtues. Consequently, though not explicitly depicted in her novels, Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity were added to the classical virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude.

The challenges of the virtuous life

mansfield park jane austen illustration
Title page of the 1833 Bentley edition of Mansfield Park, via raptisrarebooks

In Jane Austen’s novels, the virtuous life is not an easy life. Happiness has a cost and is conquered with struggle and sacrifice. The virtues challenge anyone who seeks happiness. Choosing to pursue a virtuous course of action may follow careful deliberation, as was the case with Elinor Sense and sensitivity. It can also emerge from a natural inclination learned through habit, as Fanny Price demonstrates in Manfield Park. In both cases, the decision to pursue virtue and seek personal happiness creates obstacles that disrupt the lives of the protagonists and those in their immediate social circle.

In the Sense and sensitivityUnlike her sister Marianne, who becomes overwhelmed with emotion, Elinor keeps her head, preserving the vital virtue of prudence in all her interactions with the other characters. By contrasting the two sisters, Austen emphasizes the importance of maintaining self-control in society. For Elinor, the virtues of temperance and prudence are essential. For Marianne, missing her becomes problematic.

Fanny Price, inside Manfield Park, finds herself in a domestic situation with the Bertram family, which requires her to draw on her hard-won internal resources. She becomes what Lewis calls the “spectator of deceptions”. While the characters who inhabit or pass through the large house of the Bertram family act out their virtues and vices, Fanny remains constant in her refusal to be influenced or changed by them.

As the novel progresses we witness Fanny’s moral constancy and determination not to be corrupted by the excesses of those who come to the house. Fanny resists the advances of Henry Crawford and her sister Mary’s attempts to get her to make ill-advised choices. Fanny emerges resolute and, by the end of the novel, she is ready to marry Edmund.

In these two novels, Austen dramatizes the challenges that inevitably arise once someone is committed to the pursuit of happiness.

The complexity of a life of virtue for Austen’s characters

austen northhanger abbey sense of sensibility
Ferdinand Pickering’s illustrations for Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, 1833, via Peter Harrington

Aristotle described the path of the virtuous life as one of moderation. In Jane Austen’s novels, we also witness the complexity and variety of virtues. There are no simple choices between good and evil in Austen’s work. She shows us the different aspects of the internal inclinations of her characters. These are not cardboard characters inhabiting a simplistic moral universe. Austen depicts her characters with richness and complexity, allowing for subtle comparisons of temperament, desire, and capacity for deliberation. The fine details of the excess or lack of virtue are examined for narrative effect.

In the Sense and sensitivity, the difference between Lucy Steele and the Dashwood sisters lies in the contrast between feigned false emotion and the capacity for careful deliberation in moral matters. With Elinor and Marianne, we see the inner complexity of their lives as they struggle for consistency in their ethical judgements.

Darcy, inside Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is portrayed as a snob who looks down on those he considers inferior. But Elizabeth senses the depth of Darcy’s character and explores it throughout the novel, challenging him whenever necessary. Darcy eventually succumbs to pressure from Elizabeth. But Austen doesn’t stop there. Furthering Darcy’s transformation, Elizabeth comes to important self-knowledge. “I’ve never known myself,” she admits Elizabeth after meeting Darcy in all his complexity.

Austen shows skill at drawing out the subtleties of character, even with someone as unflappable as the hero of her most famous novel. Austen does not limit this approach to his hero and heroine. Each of the Bennet sisters exemplifies an aspect of pride gone wrong. Jane’s lack of pride turns into indifference to consequences, while Lydia’s conceit leads to an ill-advised marriage.

Throughout her novels, Austen explores the moral complexity that emerges once virtue becomes a driving force in her characters’ lives.

Doing the right thing in Austen’s world

emma jane austen first edition
Title page of the first edition of Emma, ​​1816, via St Andrews University

For Aristotle, what was right in personal conduct was whatever was done “at the right time, with reference to the right objects, to the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what is both intermediate and best , and this is characteristic of virtue”. In Jane Austen’s novels, this principle dominates the narrative. It is the principle of the moderate middle ground, and few characters escape its controlling effect. Underlying this principle is the necessity of deliberation. In Austen’s novels, characters who cannot deliberate, or reason too much, bring disorder into their lives. Even with a character as cautious in her judgments as Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudiceit may take the course of the entire narrative to strike the right balance between deliberation and judgment.

Emma Woodhouse A Emma she takes it upon herself to become a matchmaker. She fails to deliberate sufficiently about the consequences of this choice, and it falls to Mr. Knightley to act as a corrective force. She takes a step back, observing the results of Emma’s interference. He can see the anguish caused by Emma’s interference in other people’s lives. Throughout the novel, George Knightley openly criticizes Emma, ​​eventually guiding her moral betterment. In his eyes, Emma failed to do what was right for the right person at the right time. Her intrigues arose from a lack of practical reasoning, leading to an insensitivity to others. Emma has strayed from the middle ground of careful reasoning. In the Emma, the heroine illustrates the negative impact on others of a lack of empathy. Accepting the judgment of others and personal humility are the only ways to correct this vice. Mr. Kinghtley becomes the source of that correction.

jane austen wedding scene
Frederick Morgan’s Honeymoon Trip, c.1900, via Bonhams

For Aristotle, every person seeks a goal, or what Aristotle called “telos”. In Jane Austen’s novels, this end is dramatized as the ultimate reward for virtuous deeds, often in the form of marriage. While the novels have been described as domestic comedies, and marriage ultimately plays a central role in their conclusions, the happiness achieved by Austen’s characters is not limited to wedded bliss. Happiness is achieved in a life lived well, responding to the demands of virtue and according to the principle of moderation. It is also illustrated by the establishment of a renewed social order.

Throughout the narratives, each of Austen’s characters is tested. They must show to what extent they possess virtues. Some take up the challenge, achieving personal union with another. Elizabeth and Darcy marry; Emma and Mr. Knightley marry at the end of the novel. Conversely, Henry Crawford and Maria in Manfield Park reap the benefits of their transgressive choices, outcasts of the Bertram family society. Mr Elliott and Mrs Clay inside Persuasion they also suffer social exile after deviating from the path of moderation.

The virtues acquired by Austen’s characters strengthen society. In this sense she adds a Christian dimension to her narratives of her. Charity, the central virtue of Austen’s Christian faith, becomes the means by which the disorder of good society is banished, to be replaced by an order essential to the future lives of her characters.

Jane Austen’s novels promoted a virtuous life through stories that dramatized the challenges of being virtuous, its complex nature, and the dangers of straying from the middle ground into excess and underconduct. Her wide range of characters allowed Austen to use fiction to push the boundaries of the moral instruction provided in philosophical and religious treatises.

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