Moral Judgment in Jane Austen’s Novels

June 9, 2021 Updated: July 8, 2021


English Novelist Jane Austen (1775–1817) has so far narrowly escaped cancelation by the judges of political correctness. Since the 1990s, censorious academics, including celebrated post-colonial critic Edward Said, have debated Austen’s social attitudes, often examining a few inconclusive details (particularly one scene from her novel “Mansfield Park” about a protagonist’s visit to Antigua) in an attempt to tease out her stance on such hot-button issues as slavery and colonialism. Austen’s self-conscious adoption of a restricted literary canvas—“3 or 4 families in a country village,” as she defined it to a niece—has largely protected her from the pitiless judgments of holier-than-thou critics.

But although she refrained from weighing in on the large social questions of her day such as the French Revolution, the emancipation of women, and the plight of the working class, Austen’s concern with the moral lives of her characters offers a rich and nuanced terrain for contemporary reflection. One might go so far as to say that Austen’s implied moral philosophy, with its emphasis on politeness, modesty, self-restraint, fortitude, and self-knowledge, constitutes a powerful indictment of the self-indulgence and moral grandstanding of our own age.

Austen lived at a time when it was not unfashionable to make moral judgments about personal behavior or to believe in absolute values. The primary demand of Austen’s society was that each person should conform to strictures of social class and gender norms. Members of genteel society were to show respect for their superiors and to act with charity towards the poor. Strict standards of decency and honor were expected of both men and women.

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Books are displayed at the home of the celebrated late British author Jane Austen, in Chawton, England, on July 18, 2017. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Believing in absolutes does not make moral judgment or right conduct a simple matter, however, and Austen’s novels are full of scenes in which characters struggle to judge correctly and to act with justice. In “Sense and Sensibility” (1811), for example, the heroine Elinor Dashwood isn’t sure how to judge the conduct of her impulsive and Romantic younger sister Marianne, who may or may not be secretly engaged to the man she loves. Elinor’s tenderness toward her sister and desire to show trust come into conflict with her concern over Marianne’s potential impropriety. Elinor’s mother insists that it would be hurtful to intrude on Marianne’s privacy; but in the implied judgment of the narrator, Mrs. Dashwood fails in her duty to guide a heedless daughter.

“Sense and Sensibility” is centrally concerned with sensibility as a philosophy of life—and it is on this point that the analysis takes on an urgent modern relevance. Sensibility was, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, a philosophical and aesthetic term denoting sincerity and spontaneous feeling, the prioritizing of emotion and authenticity above all other considerations. Marianne can feign nothing, not even out of politeness or deference: She cannot hide her disgust at anything disagreeable or banal. In love, she shows the whole world her ecstatic feeling. In sorrow, she cannot hold back tears in the interest of social ease—or even to spare her beloved mother’s feelings. In consequence, she upsets everyone around her. Ultimately, her indulgence in excesses of feeling leads to a near-fatal illness when, already weakened by days of fasting, sleeplessness, and frenzied crying, she walks out in the rain, poetically brooding over her beloved’s betrayal.

Marianne is at once an exuberantly attractive and, as readers come to realize, a tiresome and dangerously undisciplined character, one who has deceived herself into believing that self indulgence and emotional displays are signs of moral superiority. She defends herself from Elinor’s prudent criticism on one occasion by declaring that, while on an outing alone with the man she loves, visiting his aunt’s estate, she would have known if she had been doing wrong because she would have felt the wrong. Moreover, she has the temerity to judge Elinor’s supposed lack of feeling by the fact that Elinor maintains a cheerful composure even when her spirits are low.

Through the character of Marianne, then, Austen implicitly comments on what she believes a dangerously flawed approach to life, the celebration of unreasoning feeling as a guide to action. For Austen, judgment must be governed by principle, religious authority, and reason—not by impulse or desire.

Scrupulous self-judgment is also a major theme in Austen’s novels: Without the ability to know oneself, one will be unable to know right. Much of “Pride and Prejudice” (1813) revolves around Elizabeth Bennet’s errors of perception regarding two potential suitors: Mr. Darcy she judges to be cold and heartless while she finds Mr. Wickham trustworthy and decent. In both cases, she is gravely mistaken, and much of the interest of the plot rests on the unfolding of her mistakes and her revisions of opinion.

After reading Darcy’s letter defending himself against her unfounded accusations, Elizabeth experiences a moment of searing self-revelation. “How humiliating is this discovery!” she exclaims, “Yet how just a humiliation!” Having for many years prided herself on her sharp discernment, she now realizes that her perception of the two men was almost purely the result of her own unacknowledged vanity; she had been pleased by Wickham’s flattery and offended by Darcy’s neglect. “Till this moment I never knew myself,” she admits, determining to cast off the bad habits of a lifetime—her self-love, willfulness, and temper—in order to exercise greater self-awareness. Unsparing self-judgment marks the beginning of moral transformation.

Austen’s novels are all romantic comedies in which the heroines are ultimately rewarded with marriages to good men and at least some degree of economic security. But the novels make clear, sometimes through authorial intervention, that the happy endings are narrative fabrications. In less fortunate circumstances—in a different novelistic universe—Austen’s marvelous young women might well have been destined for loneliness, misfortune, and poverty. Following the Classical and Christian moralists, Austen believed that happiness was not a transitory feeling or even a life circumstance, but the practice of ethical living guided by reason and virtue. Her narratives consistently celebrate the self-restraint and self-judgment that make it possible to live well amidst adversity.

Janice Fiamengo is a professor of English at the University of Ottawa. Her latest book is “Sons of Feminism: Men Have Their Say.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Janice Fiamengo
Janice Fiamengo
Janice Fiamengo is retired professor of English at the University of Ottawa. Her latest book is “Sons of Feminism: Men Have Their Say.”