Jane Austen and Ethical Life VII (last part)

In Austen’s world those who fail to show charity to their fellows beyond minimal gestures and appearances are failures moral agents. Fitzwilliam Darcy is worthy of a  marriage that combines attraction with moral development when he makes considerable efforts to anonymously assist the Bennett family in bribing George Wickham into marrying Lydia Bennett after their elopement. This requires not just financial sacrifice but a considerable sacrifice of Darcy’s time and energy along with his much prized dignity. Hşis marriage to Elizabeth Bennett is only possible when he is ready to show charity in sociability with those inferior to him or status or irritating in personal qualities. We know that Anne Elliott is worthy of a marriage of love and moral richness with Captain Wentworth, because of the efforts she makes of behalf of Mrs Smith with sacrifice of time, energy and dignity. Wentworth’s assistance in the same case also shows his readiness. Austen heroes endure  situations which show a capacity to learn and grown during marriage. Despite Darcy’s many admirable qualities as a meritorious member of the aristocracy, he still needs Elizabeth Bennett to humble him before and after marriage to exist as a truly ethical individual in the community. The plots of Sense and Sentiment, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion are all stimulated by stories of failures to act to support relatives beyond the bare demands of the law and most unavoidable customary restraints. Obedience to law and custom is never enough, there must always be a genuine work to support those who need support, and most particularly where family members are involved.

There is not much of the kind of turn towards matters of theology and the immortal soul in Austen, which can be found in Kierkegaard. The difference is not so great though still real, when we are suitably conscious of how far Kierkegaard approaches these matters through our attitudes towards community, love, and family. It is important here to think about how Austen’s characters encounter death, emptiness and despair, the issues Kierkegaard thinks drive us towards God. Marianne Dashwood nearly dies and experiences weeks in bed debilitated. There is an element of descent into hell in Darcy’s search for George Wickham in the less desirable parts of London. Fanny Price experiences something hell like in the descent of Mansfield Park into a form of pandemonium in Mansfield Park, as she also does when insisting to Thomas Bertram that she will not marry Henry Crawford and is sent back to Portsmouth. Catherine Morland experiences deep fears in Northanger Abbey which are absurd but no less real to her. As has already been mentioned, the military and naval characters are innately close to death whether through the constant possibility of war or the dangers of the sea.

Austen’s ideal characters are ideal communities look a lot like they would for Kierkegaard, if we exclude overt religiosity. This is a significant difference, but for Kierkegaard Christianity shows itself when we treat others as our neighbour, when our erotic love and friendship relations take that as the guiding point for their own ethical richness. While it would never be appropriate to see Austen as writing novels that exemplify Kierkegaard’s ethics, there is a great deal that can be appreciated about the ethical world of her novels if Kierkegaard’s writing is brought into play.

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