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

how Jane Austen's novels promote virtuous living
Portrait of Jane Austen, via Open University; with detail from the Athenian School of Raphael, 1509-1511, via BBC

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

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

Austen’s use of classical virtues

elizabeth darcy pride prejudice illustration
Illustration of Elizabeth admiring the portrait of Mr. Darcy at Pemberley, from the 1908 edition of Pride and Prejudice by Chatt and Windus, via University of St Andrews

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

Many critics have speculated about the sources of Austen’s approach to virtue, and some have pointed to the similarities she shares with Aristotle, who in his work Nicomachean ethics, laid out a detailed outline of what it takes 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 the philosopher Gilbert Ryle described as “abundant and elastic discriminations”, focusing on excesses and deficiencies, which strayed from what Aristotle defined as the middle or ideal middle ground. For Aristotle, the way to happiness was to find a middle way in behavior.

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Therefore, in Austen’s novels, the characters are drawn away from that environment. They struggle to find their way through life, embedded in complex family and social relationships, trying to find happiness. For some, like Darcy and Elizabeth u Pride and Prejudice, it results in joy; for others, like Lydia and Mr. Wickham, refusing to follow the path of moderation in life ends in hardship.

Some critics detect a Christian aspect to Austen’s view of the virtues. Her father, a clergyman, had a scientific education and probably influenced Jane’s interest in the virtues. As a result, although not explicitly described in the novels, Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity were added to the classical virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage.

Challenges of a virtuous life

mansfield park illustration by jane austen
Frontispiece from the 1833 Bentley edition of Mansfield Park, via raptisrarebooks

In Jane Austen’s novels, the virtuous life is not an easy life. Happiness has its price and it is won by struggle and sacrifice. Virtues are a challenge to anyone seeking happiness. The choice to take the path of virtuous action may follow careful deliberation, as with Elinor u Reason and feelings. It may also arise from a natural inclination acquired by habit, as Fanny Price shows in Mansfield 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 Reason and feelings, unlike her sister Marianne, who allows her emotions to overwhelm her, Elinor remains composed, preserving the vital virtue of prudence in all her interactions with other characters. By contrasting the two sisters, Austen emphasizes the importance of maintaining self-control in society. For Elinor, the virtues of moderation and prudence are important. For Marianne, his lack becomes problematic.

Fanny Price, d Mansfield Park, she is placed in a domestic situation with the Bertram family, which requires her to use her hard-earned inner resources. She becomes what Lewis calls a “spectator of deception.” While the characters who inhabit or pass through the large Bertram family home play out their virtues and faults, Fanny remains steadfast 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 his sister Mary’s attempts to lead her to make rash decisions. Fanny comes out determined and by the end of the novel is ready to marry Edmund.

In these two novels, Austen dramatizes the challenges that inevitably arise once one commits to the pursuit of happiness.

The complexity of the virtuous life for Austen’s characters

Austen Northhanger Abbey feeling sensibility
Ferdinand Pickering’s illustrations for Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, 1833, via Peter Harrington

Aristotle described the path of virtuous life as the path of moderation. And in Jane Austen’s novels we witness the complexity and variety of virtues. There is no simple choice between good and evil in Austen’s work. She shows us different aspects of the inner tendencies of her characters. These are not cardboard characters living in a simple moral universe. Austen portrays her characters with richness and complexity, allowing for subtle comparisons of temperament, desire, and reasoning ability. Small details of excess or deficiency of virtue are examined for narrative effect.

IN Reason and feelings, the difference between Lucy Steele and the Dashwood sisters lies in the contrast between false emotions and the ability to carefully consider moral issues. With Elinor and Marianne, we see the inner complexity of their lives as they struggle for consistency in their ethical judgments.

Darcy, inside Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is portrayed as a snob who despises those he considers inferior. But Elizabeth feels the depth of Darcy’s character and explores them throughout the novel, challenging him whenever necessary. Darcy eventually succumbs to Elizabeth’s pressure. But Austen doesn’t stop there. In fostering the transformation of Darcy, Elizabeth comes to an important self-realization. “I never knew myself,” Elizabeth admits after meeting Darcy in all his complexity.

Austen shows skill in delineating the subtleties of character, even with someone as unflappable as the hero of her most famous novel. Austen does not limit this approach to her hero and heroine. Each of the Bennet sisters is an example of an aspect of pride gone wrong. Jane’s lack of pride becomes indifference to consequences, while Lydia’s insolence leads to an ill-judged marriage.

Throughout her novels, Austen explores the moral complexities that emerge when virtue becomes the 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 behavior was what was done “at the right time, with regard to the right objects, to the right people, with the right motive and in the right way, that which is both middle and best, and that is characteristic of virtue.” In Jane Austen’s novels, this principle dominates the narrative. It is the principle of the moderate middle path, and few characters escape its controlling effect. This principle is based on the necessity of reflection. In Austen’s novels, characters who cannot think or think too much bring disorder into their lives. Even with such a prudent character in her judgments as Elizabeth was Pride and Prejudiceit may take the course of an entire narrative to achieve the right balance of reflection and judgment.

Emma Woodhouse d Emma takes it upon himself to become a matchmaker. She fails to think enough about the consequences of this choice, and it is up to Mr. Knightley to act as a corrective force. He stepped back, observing the results of Emma’s interference. He sees the pain caused by Emma’s meddling in the lives of others. Throughout the novel, George Knightley openly criticizes Emma, ​​ultimately guiding her towards moral improvement. In his eyes, Emma had failed to do the right thing for the right person at the right time. Her scheming came from a lack of practical reasoning, leading to insensitivity to others. Emma deviated from the middle path of careful reasoning. IN Emma, the heroine illustrates the negative effect of a lack of empathy on others. Acceptance of other people’s judgment and personal humility are the only ways in which this vice can be corrected. Mr. Kinghtley becomes the source of that correction.

jane austen wedding scene
Frederick Morgan’s Honeymoon, circa 1900, via Bonhams

For Aristotle, each person seeks a goal, or what Aristotle called a “telos.” In Jane Austen’s novels, this ending is dramatized as the ultimate reward for virtuous deeds, often in the form of marriage. Although 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 marital happiness. Happiness is achieved by a life lived well, meeting the requirements of virtue and in accordance with the principle of moderation. It is also illustrated by the establishment of a renewed social order.

Throughout the narrative, each of Austen’s characters is challenged. They must show the extent to which they possess virtues. Some face the challenge, achieving personal unity with others. Elizabeth and Darcy marry; Emma and Mr. Knightley get married at the end of the novel. In contrast, Henry Crawford and Maria in Mansfield Park reaping the fruits of their sinful choices, the outcasts of Bertram family society. Enter Mr. Elliott and Mrs. Clay Reassurance they also suffer social ostracism after straying from the path of moderation.

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

Jane Austen’s novels promoted the virtuous life through stories that dramatized the challenges of virtuous behavior, its complex nature, and the dangers of veering from the middle path into excessive and deficient behavior. Her large array of characters allowed Austen to use narrative to overcome the limitations of moral instruction set forth in philosophical and religious treatises.

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