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Jane Austen’s novels are renowned for promoting the idea of virtuous living as an essential aspect of individual experience and society as a whole. Through her narratives, Austen emphasizes the importance of virtue as a means of moral education. Drawing on both the classical tradition and her Christian upbringing, Austen explores the virtues necessary for a good life and the process of moral improvement.
Austen’s Use of Classical Virtues
Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, defined virtue as the state of character that enables a person to do their work well and be morally good. Austen’s novels provide a comprehensive portrayal of this process, highlighting the complexity and variety of virtues. For Austen, virtue is not merely the ability to follow rules and fulfill obligations. It is rooted in character and shaped by life experiences, forming habits that define an individual’s choices.
Austen’s approach to virtue has been compared to Aristotle’s philosophy, particularly his emphasis on finding the mean or middle way in conduct. In Austen’s novels, characters often struggle to navigate their way through complex family and social relationships in their pursuit of happiness. Those who deviate from the middle ground, like Lydia and Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, face hardships, while characters like Darcy and Elizabeth find joy by embracing moderation.
While Austen’s novels do not explicitly depict Christian virtues, her father’s influence as a clergyman and her Christian upbringing likely shaped her interest in virtues. Thus, in addition to the classical virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude, Austen’s novels also reflect Christian virtues such as faith, hope, and charity.
The Challenges of the Virtuous Life
In Austen’s novels, the virtuous life is not portrayed as easy or without its challenges. Happiness is attained through struggle and sacrifice, as characters face obstacles in their pursuit of virtue and personal fulfillment. Austen presents the choice to pursue virtue as a deliberate and sometimes difficult process, which disrupts the characters’ lives and their immediate social circles.
For instance, in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor demonstrates the vital virtue of prudence by maintaining self-control and careful deliberation in her interactions with others. Her sister Marianne, on the other hand, allows her emotions to overwhelm her, highlighting the importance of self-control in society. Fanny Price in Mansfield Park also faces domestic challenges that test her moral fortitude. As she observes the deceptions and vices of those around her, Fanny remains constant in her refusal to be influenced or corrupted by them.
Through these narratives, Austen explores the complexities and difficulties that arise when one commits to a life of virtue.
The Complexity of Virtue in Austen’s Characters
Austen’s novels go beyond simple moral choices between good and evil. Her characters are depicted with depth and complexity, enabling subtle comparisons of temperament, desires, and the capacity for deliberation. Austen examines the intricate details of virtue, highlighting the narrative effect of excesses or deficiencies in character.
For example, in Sense and Sensibility, the contrast between Lucy Steele and the Dashwood sisters lies in their ability to deliberate in moral matters. Elinor and Marianne’s inner complexities are revealed as they strive for coherence in their ethical judgments. Even Darcy, the seemingly imperturbable hero of Pride and Prejudice, undergoes a transformation prompted by Elizabeth’s challenges. Austen skillfully delineates the subtleties of character, portraying virtues and vices with nuance and complexity.
Doing the Right Thing in Austen’s World
Austen’s novels revolve around the principle of the moderate middle way, as Aristotle described it. Few characters escape the controlling influence of this principle, which emphasizes the importance of deliberation in personal conduct. Characters who cannot deliberate or reason too much bring disorder into their lives.
In Emma, for instance, the heroine Emma Woodhouse takes it upon herself to play matchmaker without fully considering the consequences of her actions. Mr. Knightley serves as the correcting force, observing the distress caused by Emma’s interference. Throughout the novel, he openly critiques Emma, guiding her towards moral improvement. Mr. Knightley believes that Emma’s scheming stemmed from a deficiency in practical reasoning, leading to insensitivity towards others. By straying from the middle way of careful deliberation, Emma demonstrates the negative impact of a lack of empathy. Acceptance of others’ judgment and personal humility are necessary for correcting this vice.
The Rewards of Virtue
In Austen’s novels, the pursuit of virtue is rewarded with happiness, often symbolized by marriage. While Austen’s works are often labeled as domestic comedies, happiness is not limited to marital bliss. It is achieved through a life lived well, in accordance with the principles of virtue and moderation. Moreover, the establishment of a renewed social order is illustrated as a result of virtuous acts.
Throughout the narratives, Austen’s characters face challenges that test their virtues. Some characters successfully meet these challenges and achieve personal union with another character, as seen in the marriages of Elizabeth and Darcy or Emma and Mr. Knightley. On the other hand, those who make transgressive choices, like Henry Crawford and Maria in Mansfield Park or Mr. Elliot and Mrs. Clay in Persuasion, suffer social banishment.
The virtues gained by Austen’s characters contribute to the strengthening of society. Austen adds a Christian dimension to her narratives by emphasizing charity as a central virtue, which helps bring order to the disorder of polite society. Through virtue, Austen’s characters find happiness and establish a harmonious social order.
In conclusion, Jane Austen’s novels promote virtuous living by exploring the challenges, complexities, and rewards of a life guided by virtue. Her narratives provide a rich and nuanced portrayal of the virtues necessary for a good life, drawing from both the classical tradition and her Christian upbringing. Through her characters’ experiences, Austen highlights the importance of moral education and the pursuit of a virtuous life.