Jane Austen: The Moral Imperative

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According to Edward Austen-Leigh and subsequent critical tradition, Jane Austen urged no system of morality save the inferiority of low to high principles. While she propounds no religious doctrine, the six novels reveal, if not a complete code of behavior, a moral imperative, a direction one should take to come to successful terms with life. First, one must face reality. Catherine Morland, in Northanger Abbey, has to learn that Gothic fantasies are neither the stuff of life nor a reliable guide to it. More importantly, she must perceive the motives and feelings of others. Reality, once understood, must be accepted. The tasks of the present must be accomplished; its pleasures, however limited, must be enjoyed, because to squander time in regret for the past or anticipation of the future is to court misery. Sense and Sensibility extends the definition of this duty to include care for the material and emotional welfare of one's family. By failing to provide for his stepmother and sisters, John Dashwood contrasts unfavorably with Sir John Middleton and Colonel Brandon. The difference between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood is not merely between sense and sensibility, but between care for the feelings of others and selfish absorption in one's own troubles. Elinor's sense largely derives from her wish to spare increase of her suffering by spreading its effects . Marianne must nearly die before she comes to a like commitment to practical compassion. In Pride and Prejudice, confrontation of reality and the claims of family are united in a statement of the need for self-knowledge in order to represent our selves accurately to the world and thereby enhance the family's claim to gentility. Elizabeth and Darcy realize they have created erroneous first impressions and must labor to erase these, while Lydia's elopement renews our awareness that what one does individually affects the whole family's position. Mansfield Park elaborates on this theme by arguing for sound judgment in the rearing of children to behave responsibly according to the dictates of society. Although one's station does influence character, there is a better guide available to all: conscience. Mary Crawford, appealing though she is, lacks moral fibre, while Fanny Price, however diffident, delivers accurate judgments because conscience guides her formation of them. In Emma, this eighteenth-century construct of conscience and rationality called right reason is brought to bear on the question of the obligations the privileged have to those less well-circumstanced. Emma must realize that the caste system exists to preserve order, not to gratify conceit. Mr. Knightley emerges as the ideal upper class gentleman: responsible, wise, compassionate. Persuasion shows Sir Walter Elliot as a moral bankrupt, preening himself on lineage and estate instead of laboring to justify the possession of them. He has wasted his substance and dissipated the force of his character to gratify vanity. His daughter Anne has extracted from a bleak existence whatever joy she could find in being useful to others. Her marriage to Captain Wentworth is less a reward for her past endurance than a happy exception to her uncomplaining acceptance of a barren life. Throughout, she has been supported by a belief that in breaking the original engagement she did right in yielding to the persuasion of her older friend Lady Russell, despite her conviction that the advice itself was wrong. The book thus urges clear-sighted evaluation of the real world and its inhabitants, assumption of responsibility for family and dependents, and obedience to the codes needed for social stability.