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J. Austen’s “Sense & Sensibility”, “Pride and Prejudice”, and “Emma” Essay

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Updated: Sep 5th, 2022

“It is a truth universally acknowledged” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice 5) that Jane Austen is one of the most influential writers of her age. She raised the genre of nineteenth-century Romantic novels to a new level of art (Daiches 743). Dwelling in the world of words and literature, one closed to the ‘fairer sex’ of her time, she earned for herself not just the fame of a good author but one widely read even to this time of the century. She was born in 1775 in the family of a middle-class English parson, George Austen. Indulged in her literary fancies and acumen by her family, particularly by her father, she began writing at an early age, penning few farces and parodies. These literary adventures if not earning her fame nurtured her writing skill rendering it a matured tone in the later years.

The literary career of Jane Austen though not prodigiously long promises profundity in its proclivities. She wrote the novel Pride and Prejudice in bits and pieces in the early 1790s. She published the book in 1813 after Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811 at her own expense, found a ready readership amongst Britons. Emma appeared almost at the terminal point of her career in 1816, as she passed away only a year after that. Simplistic chronological documentation of Jane Austen’s work fails to acquaint the readers with her excellent literary capacity yet it introduces one to the interesting idea that a comparative study of all of these three novels promises to unveil the transformation that her talent to paint ordinary themes extraordinarily and her ingenuity in the portrayal of complex characters underwent.

Immersed in her context, the eighteenth-century English gentry world, Jane Austen reflects ideas and morality widely accepted in her closed society. Her works have been categorized into a perceptible genre of partisan novels, one discernible by its anti-Jacobin stint meant as a shield against the “extensions of the sentimental novel” (Fleishman 284). Desire to protect the British society, as she has known it, from the drudgery of revolutionary and radical ideas of individualism and equality she sets the themes of her novels where a clash of these forces are constantly depicted. All her novels thematically relate a clash between good sense and free will, proprieties of upper class and indecency of low-bred romantic sensibilities and rational proportion, and between English conservatism and French radicalism. Every character of her novel is developed and nurtured to support and depict these clashes to the utmost perfection. The characters are conjoined to illustrate, at best to epitomize contrasting qualities. In the web of events, she throws them together dramatizing the text in the context. The final resolution of the clashes where the rightful conservative forces overpower the radical ideas her novels smiles upon a happy and perfect ending.

Conservative traits in the novels of Jane Austen are rightfully amplified by the moralizing theme that she deftly and often resorts to. The third-person omniscient narration of the novels provides a moral perspective to her texts (Searle 17). The theme of eighteenth-century morality had many faces; it held implications of good Christian ethics depicted by the use of third-person voice for narration (a usage very common to biblical narratives) (Searle 18; Sternberg 34), and along with that came an added attachment of genteel, rational, and polite constitution, marks of a true gentleman or a gentlewoman (Duncan 138). Moralizing on human failures and virtues finds a steady voice in Elinor, one of the chief protagonists of Austen’s initial novel Sense and Sensibility. Her moralizing sense, particularly the eighteenth-century moral notions of social propriety, are depicted in its most high flowing colors when she is informed by her sister Marianne that she has accepted a gift (a horse) from a man (Mr. Willoughby) to whom she was neither married nor engaged. In her third-person narrative diction, Austen writes, “Elinor then ventured to doubt the propriety of her receiving such a present from a man so little, or at least so lately known to her. This was too much.” (Austen 38) Moral censuring once again props its head in the novel when Elinor finds out about the rendezvous the young couples- Marianne and Willoughby- had at the house Mrs. Smith without her knowledge, and probably permission. The details of this rendezvous are not disclosed nevertheless the impertinent remarks it occasions invites another censuring from Elinor who is forced to declare, “that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety.” (Austen 45) Morality in this novel thus condemns improper physical closeness shared by a young man and a woman, not married to each other, and draws a conscientious line between youthful fancy and sensibility and social impropriety.

Pride and Prejudice however dwell into another facet of eighteenth-century morality. In this novel, Austen deals with the attributes of true moral breeding. Polite and “gentlemanly” constitutions were held as the requirements of a person to be socially agreeable and to be regarded as a true gentleman. They were deemed as necessary qualities indispensable in a person, particularly in a man of class and status. This theme recurrently appears in the narrative format of Pride and Prejudice. However, its presence is strongly depicted and felt in the event surrounding the proposal made by Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth at Rosings. In his effusion and agitation, Mr. Darcy expresses his opinion about Elizabeth’s low family connection in an extremely and overtly rude manner. Moreover, the singularly bloated by his high connections seem quite sure of a positive response, as Elizabeth muses, “He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security.” (Austen 148) The illustration of the effect it produced in Elizabeth, portrayed as a true lady in her morals, and education, penned as “roused to resentment by his subsequent language” (Austen 148) brings us face to face, once again, with the moralizing tendency present in all Austen novels. Elizabeth’s resentment is roused by Darcy’s tactlessness and his bloated self-confidence (something Elizabeth assumes to have risen from his pride in his highbred status). Her indignation is further raised when Mr. Darcy admits to having been a party to the scheme of separating Jane (Elizabeth’s elder sister) from Mr. Bingley. Explicating his demeanor as un-gentlemanly Elizabeth refuses his proposal. The very refusal of the proposal and the implicit consternation it radiates in the constitution of both the characters, particularly in this event, acts as a susceptible discourse of eighteenth-century moral standards of a gentleman. It gives us an insight into the mental world of Jane Austen and the involvement of that world with high moral standards, depicted meticulously in her novels.

Morality as a gift coming with social status, particularly with landed estates, is a persistent idea employed by Jane Austen in her novel Emma. Emma is depicted brilliantly by Jane Austen in the very beginning of the book, where she muses, “The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself…” (Austen 1). Such disposition often gives her character a dislikeable turn. She tends to be manipulative and interfering based on the false notions she acquires “…from observing external circumstances that she invariably misinterprets…” (Goodheart 590). These misconstrued observations make her arrange an engagement between Harriet and Mr. Elton and later with Frank Churchill, completely disregarding the feelings of the person concerned and compassion for Robert Martin, a yeoman farmer, who loved Harriet. Apart from that the other failures her character suffers on the scale of eighteenth-century morality has been described as, “…in consideration in her behavior toward the kindly but drearily garrulous Miss Bates at the Box Hill outing, Emma cannot resist agreeing with Miss Bates’s admission that in the game about to be played she is ‘sure to say…dull things,’…” (Goodheart 590). Lack of such superior moral fiber in her mannerism has led many to demarcate Emma as an “errant heroine” (Goodheart 589). “Emma’s moral inadequacies are highlighted to lay the blame on the non-landed new gentry.” (Tobin 250) However, later studies have refuted the preponderance of any such feeling on the part of Austen in depicting a morally deficient heroine like Emma. There can be no doubt that Austen was well aware of the rise of a newly moneyed class into the folds of the gentry, a class to which Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse belonged. However, Austen ascribed the moral deficiency of Emma to “…a sort of competitive atmosphere” which “had become prevalent in the society.” (Minima 63)

Morality as a theme pervades the larger section of the three novels, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, I am analyzing in this essay. The author through the voice of the third person narrator assumes an omniscient stature and authority to pass judgment over the morality of the characters whom the narrator constantly vigils and evaluates. In this capacity, Austen raises an expectation for an inevitable and rightful in the minds of her readers. A teleological engagement dictates the course of all three novels. “The teleological orientation […], can be seen to inform every aspect of ordinary circumstances, the transformation of character, and social strivings…” (Searle 20). The final correcting of all the lackadaisical morality that plagues the course of the novels establishes the fruitfulness of genteel morals, be it behavioral, sexual, or social.

The establishment and breeding of true morality encompass the larger portion of the novels because of the prime necessity of the society-marriage. Thus, marriage being the prime concern and motive of all the characters in her novels, its attainment through courtship forms the prime theme of all three novels. It is around the constant theme of courtship that much of the events, passion, misunderstandings, and reconciliations revolve. The prominence of the theme of courtship in all three novels has often led scholars to categorize them to the genre of novels conforming to the late eighteenth-century conventions of courtship and romance (Hinnant 294; Green 153; Richard Handler 18). The theme of courtship engrossed Austen to such an extent that she began the novels with the prospect or expectation of matrimony and ended it in the successful termination of this prospect. The courtship plot utilized by Austen reveals the complexities surrounding the whole theme. Sense and Sensibility utilize the model of prior commitment prominently (Hinnant 296). Edward Ferrars is shown here engaged to Lucy Steele yet he harbors a liking for Elinor. Edward distances himself from Elinor, whom he likes infinitely, being honor-bound to Lucy. However, once he learns of Lucy’s elopement with his brother he was as he describes himself, “half-stupefied between the wonder, the horror, and the joy, of such a deliverance.” (Austen 245) Thus, he later confesses, “It was a foolish, idle inclination on my side…” (Austen 242). In a philosophical tone, the narrator adds, “He was released without any reproach to himself, from an entanglement which had long formed his misery, from a woman he had long ceased to love…” (Austen 242). Thus, courtship in the case of Edward Ferrars brings out the preference Austen held for propriety. She implicitly praises Edward for the courage he showed in going against his family to marry a girl he did not love just for the sake of honor. The merit of such attachment and adherence to courtship rules is rightfully established by juxtaposing it against the spurious and inglorious courtship offered to Marianne by Willoughby. All decorum of the courtship game is critically analyzed and set down by Austen through the characters of Edward and Willoughby. Austen uses the depiction of the nature of courtship of both the characters as examples to demonstrate to her readers the merit of a sensible and even-headed courtship and warn them against the dangers of a whirlwind romantic courtship. Thus, the author philosophically concludes, “But so it was. Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion […], she found herself…submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village.” (Austen 255) Meritorious courtship thus comes to be designated as one terminating itself into a successful and happy marriage.

Such felicity associated with sensible courtship, one leading to conjugal happiness, recurs as the central theme in Pride and Prejudice also. In this novel, Austen compares the propriety of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley’s courtship with the falsity of Wickham’s courting of Lydia. The same problem plagues the plot of Emma, where courtship is visibly turned into a manipulative game that Emma plays to satisfy her self-presumptuous notions. Courtship acquires a highly flirtatious nature in Emma when Frank Churchill extends such attention to Emma in front of Jane Fairfax to whom he is secretly engaged. It is one of the tropes that Austen uses in all three novels to depict the dangers of such licentious and senseless courtship. Thus, one may conclude from it that “No one writes more subtly about courtship than Jane Austen-cooly, discreetly, but without ever diminishing its dangers.” (Hinnant 304)

Jane Austen in these remarkable literary creations of hers uses the dalliances and courtship instances of her characters to establish the socially accepted modules of courtship and the honor of a lady depending on it. She unwittingly gives her readers a glimpse into the patriarchal world where she was born and reared. The discourse in favor of the modules of that society in her novels, morality and social propriety of courtship, do make sometimes consider her to be a partisan for the society and her novels an attempt to maintain that order. “Some feminist critics have complained about Austen’s complicity with patriarchy in upholding the institution of marriage, especially given the submissive role the woman is supposed to play in the marriage.” (Goodheart 602) Scholars further contend that marriage serves the dictates of patriarchy (Buss and Schmitt 1993; Buss 1998) However preponderance of courtship, romance, and marriages in her novelistic themes has been read as a “conscious or unconscious subversive voicing a woman’s frustration at the rigid and sexist social order which enforces women’s subservience and dependence…” (Morrison 337). Austen’s novels in a decidedly loose and open-ended manner give her readers the pleasure of deciphering meanings at their discretion. Therefore, over the ages her novels, particularly these three novels have been widely discussed and variously interpreted. Her dynamism in the portrayal of characters and deep insight into human nature also has a fair share in influencing the different understanding of her novels. Like a master painter, she illustrates every character of the novels and brings alive before our eyes the world of balls, tea parties, tete-e-tete, and courtship giving an explicit view of the world of nineteenth-century England and holds an implicit reference to the familial world, the domestic boundary that inspired her genre of rationally romantic, domestic dramas.

A master narrator, she is elusive and hard to catch in the narrative game she plays with her readers (Morini 409). Irvine Ehrenpreis who contends, “So the explicitness of the novelist is sometimes only apparent, and at other times is a game played with the audience”, expresses a similar opinion (Ehrenpreis 118). However, analysis of her biography and life history does reveal her presence unassumingly inserted in these novels. Her preliminary novels Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice were written between 1795 to 1799. It was during this very time that Tom Lefroy came to dwell in their neighborhood and the two people soon developed a liking for each other, a fact attested by the letters Jane Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra admitting to falling in love (Jane Austen.org; Nokes 158). However, the ill turn of fate and the dislike of Lefroy’s family of the growing intimacy between them led to sudden and fatal termination of the courtship. Thus, on January 15th, 1796 she wrote to Cassandra, “At length, the day comes on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this it will be over. My tears flow at the melancholy idea.” (Jane Austen Information Page) Jane Austen was very discreet about this affair and the pain and desolation it caused her. Apart from the letters, she wrote to her sister, her confidante, there is no other existing evidence left to prove the attachment she felt for Tom Lefroy. Similar discreetness and presence of sense are demonstrated in the character Elinor of her first novel Sense and Sensibility. These are the very sentiments-patience and forbearance- that Jane Bennett demonstrates in Pride and Prejudice once she learns of the sudden change of sentiment in Mr. Bingley.

Tom Lefroy was forced to discontinue his courtship due to economic pressure (Jane Austen.org). At the time he met Jane Austen he was studying law and was dependant on his resources on family members. The Austen family was also not in the position to support a match between the two (Jane Austen.org). Ultimately, Lefroy was forced to move from Steventon and his family planned his match with a girl of some wealth and consequence. This left a deep impact on the mind and soul of Jane Austen. Despite her discretion, Jane spoke volubly of this injustice through the narrator of all three novels. In Sense and Sensibility, Mr. Willoughby is portrayed in a singularly unscrupulous light for wanting to marry for wealth. Mr. Wickham is also treated like a villain in Pride and Prejudice for nurturing such immoral desires. In Emma, Mr. Elton becomes Jane Austen’s tool to condemn such a conceited act. Thus, the reality of her life was sufficiently transfused into her by the portrayal of characters that rendered them remarkably well.

The Austinian novel met real life when Harris Bigg-Wither entered her life. It was in December 1802 that Jane received a proposal from this childhood friend of her family. Pressed by her family and for want of social and economic security, she accepted it. However, the consciousness that there existed no real affection between them did not leave her and she declined the proposal the next day. She later told one of her nieces not to marry anyone without the presence of real affection (Jane Austen.org). This piece of advice became the prime moving force of all her novels where her heroines “did not marry for money or power, but love.” (Jane Austen.org) Thus, we find Marianne, Elinor, Jane, Elizabeth, and Emma who marry for affection end up in a happy and fulfilling conjugality. Whereas, Lydia Bennett who marries Wickham out of misunderstood and unreciprocated affection end in a failed and disastrous wedded life. The plot of the three novels assumes the proportion of a pseudo-autobiography portraying Jane Austen’s passions, pains, losses, and courtships through the various and interesting characters she paints and injects in them.

Austen’s mastery over words and her play with the narrative enables her to express her discreet life to the readers. She skillfully hides her emotions and various events of her life in the novels she penned. As her biographies claim, she had a great love for Steventon the place she was born in, and spent most of her early life (Jane Austen Information Page). She was exceedingly disappointed when she had to leave the place when her family moved to Bath. The pain she felt at the loss of her dear old dwelling, probably unexpressed in her physical self, found a voice in Marianne and her laments when she had to leave Norland (Austen 17). Elizabeth expresses similar sentiments regarding her home and this forces, Mr. Darcy, to observe that she cannot have so strong an attachment with Longbourne forever (Austen 140). Love of one’s hearth is amply illustrated in Emma too where Emma refers to the importance of a house of ones own, about Miss Taylor (Austen 3)

The death of Jane Austen’s father forced the two sisters to move in with their brother Frank along with their mother. Soon Frank settled them in Chawton Cottage on a nearby property (Jane Austen Information Page). Jane Austen’s literary skills proliferated immensely during her stay in this cottage and her work progressed in great strides. It is here that she completes writing Sense and Sensibility and it eventually is published in 1811. The uprooting of Jane from her dear old home, which she had come to love as her only dwelling and her re-settlement in a new cottage she eventually falls in love with reminds us to a certain extent of Marianne, heroine of the very novel she completes and publishes during her stay at the Chawton Cottage. Probably this Chawton Cottage figures as Barton Cottage in the novel she finished sitting in this new hearth of hers. Along with events, space and dwellings left a deep impact on the writings of Jane Austen who masterfully included them in her novels as tokens of herself, the third person judgemental narrator, within her texts.

The journey we began with Jane Austen with her Sense and Sensibility, leading to Pride and Prejudice, terminating in Emma now stands at the altar of judgment. Writing a conclusion to a critical essay could have been an easy task had it not been about Jane Austen. However, I can modestly try to sum up the analyzed facts to generate a clear idea about her and her three great novels. The three novels center on the theme of courtship, marriage, and above all Victorian morality. In all three novels, she singularly revolves all events and the ups-and-downs in the lives of the characters around these themes. However, one does notice and often interprets anti-patriarchal sentiments in these novels and they cast quite a contrary shade on the professed theme of the novels. Such interpretations are afforded and sustained by the open-ended nature of these novels. Austen deliberately leaves small openings in them, whether intentionally or otherwise that is hard to ascertain, to allure her readers into her world and encouraging them to see and read things contrary to her professed intention into the novels. She succeeds in her task by her mastery over the narrative style she puts to use. This renders her characters- even the ludicrously pompous Mr. Collins, scheming Lucy Steele, and the ‘valetudinarian’ Mr. Woodhouse- a dynamic and interesting stature. They became celebrated literary creations of the Victorian Romantic authoress on the one hand, and on the other, their presence in the literary world helped the later generations to learn more about the authoress, whose discreet nature and author’s disposition ensnared her to leave her life well documented in the pages of her plain, simple, romantic novels, in a domestic setting. Virginia Wolf once noted, “at every fresh reading you feel anew that you never understood anything like the widening sum of its delights.” (Southam 266) Indeed, at every reading, the novel emerges in a new light to different readers, and growing along with the text the narrator (Jane Austen) continues to spellbound us with her master narrative style from within the text.

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