A Catholic Perspective on the Writings of Jane Austen

In an attempt to diminish virtuous living, society has grown accustomed to oppressive ideals that relinquish personal convictions, natural imperfections, and righteous behavior. It is a modern disordered connection to associate one’s esteem and beauty with superficial secularism. At a time in modern history when inclusivity and individuality is praised, moral standards have lowered to a degree that no longer emphasizes a person’s God-given nature but rather a subjective collectivism of uniformity. There is no doubt that Jane Austen, one of the greatest female writers of English Literature, delved into these social conundrums as her writings portrayed a broken society built upon personal pride, social class struggles, and man’s fallen human nature, an epic battle of virtue versus vice. By examining Austen’s characters, societal implications, and personal struggles, modern readers can find solitude in understanding that the problems plaguing humans are not unique to the modern world, it is only the same battle of moderating one’s fallen human nature 200 years later.

What an ironic riddle in modern society as people are no longer constrained to societal customs, though in the long run, struggle mentally and physically to find their purpose in this world. It is ignorant to assume, as fact, that cultural customs and traditions are no longer relevant and only one’s individual nature should be the driving force of purpose, for such an absurd belief only raises our fallen nature to a level of divinity. This unholy discourse is subject to failure by disregarding one’s imperfections, societal limitations, and tendency towards vice rather than virtue. The acknowledgement of human imperfection, oppressive cultural restraints, and humorous tenor towards such limitations all have a notable place in the works of Jane Austen. In the case of George Wickham, a dashing rascal and militia officer in ‘Pride & Prejudice,’ whose imprudence leads to destruction, we see the embodiment of an innate human desire to seek beauty and virtue. However, he has not developed the necessary self-restraint to overcome the effects of Original Sin. This character stands out quite maliciously from his virtuous counterparts and suffers the loss of any good intentions through his frail human nature and his all-encompassing desire to seek sinful self-satisfaction no matter the repercussions. It is at the loss of Lydia Bennett’s reputation that George Wickham advances his own dastardly deportments with uncontrolled behaviors and contradicts the moral standards of English society. Austen poignantly acknowledges the frailty of human nature and the conniving attempt of characters to deceive and strip the well-being of others by ignoring moral social standards and thereby seeking to acquiesce with personal gratifications. Even though such immoral behavior stands out more obviously during the time of Jane Austen, there is little doubt that few readers sympathize with the character of George Wickham. To be repulsed by such behavior, even in modern society, is a clear underlying desire that humans seek beauty, truth, and goodness. It is through characters like George Wickham and Lydia Bennett that readers admit the detriment of such behavior to the individual person and society in general.

Jane Austen often portrays worldliness through a critical indirect characterization of her characters. It is through these mannerisms and commentary that the intellectual wit of Austen’s writing enlightens her readers to a quick understanding of socioeconomic distinctions and personal imperfections. As Austen openly acknowledges human limitations through social nuances and witty dialogue, it is quite evident that much attention is paid to the development, or lack of personal development, of many characters. There is no doubt that many of Austen’s protagonists poetically transform their exalted level of goodness to a higher degree of virtue. Austen portrays these women by recognizing their flawed human nature and provides them with opportunities to evolve towards greatness. In this progression, the protagonist finds a man worthy of her virtue.

It is important to note that none of Austen’s protagonists are perfect and neither are the men who ultimately win their attention. However, Austen’s pure genius lies in creating characters who naturally grow in virtue as a result of their circumstances. These individuals delve into an examination of moral relativity and the soul’s journey. This personal growth is particularly evident in the female protagonist from Jane Austen’s Emma, as the story introduces, “The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself: these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.” The exposition of Emma’s flaws, though not mortally sinful, does not reveal the wholesome, virtuous qualities one would expect to encounter. The character of Emma does not remain static; through personal growth driven by circumstances and reflection, she transforms into a young woman who views the world with a humble and optimistic outlook on life and love. Maturation of female characters is a highlight of Austen’s writing, for through these women a virtuous flowering develops and exemplifies beauty, truth, and goodness. There is no doubt that the works of Jane Austen remain pivotal pieces of literature even in the modern world. It would be ignorant to assume that such works no longer imbued moral lessons prevalent in the 21st century.

The honorable messages saturated among the pages of Austen’s works provide the reader with a comprehensive microscope into the human temperaments, destructive vices, beauty in terms of societal limitations, and a desire to seek righteousness. It would be amiss to digress from the reality that Austen’s English society, though different in several aspects, is comparable to modern enigmas. Ultimately, human behavior is rather predictable in the sense that vice rears its ugly head through imprudence, extravagance, pride, and prejudice, but the steps towards virtuous living require prudence, selflessness, and humility, which are common gifts obtained by Austen’s protagonists.

The moral lessons taught throughout Austen’s writing include an emphasis on the irony between authority and virtue. Austen makes it clear that the position of authority does not guarantee advancement in virtue. In fact, those who maintain positions of power oftentimes find it difficult to remain virtuous and humble. The ability to influence, whether through goodness or wickedness, in the works of Jane Austen, is achieved through a variety of means. Several characters are born into the position of wealth and title, while others earn status through their actions, prudence, or self-achievements. Yet, it is common for those in authority, whether due to money or position, to misconstrue their power as an all-encompassing achievement intended to dominate across social classes. This assumption that authority and position is a formidable claim to righteousness is obviously present not only during the class-distinctive era of Jane Austen, but also relevant among 21st century secularism. Austen illustrates this irony through obnoxious characters in her books, such as Sir Walter Elliot, from Persuasion, who finds himself in a position of recognition due to his family’s name and estate, but otherwise is devoid of logical reasoning as his actions lead the family into financial misfortune and continues to ignore the ramifications of frivolous waste. The desire to prove one’s self-worth by monetary gains and the belief that dignity is given, rather than earned, by such circumstances is detrimental to any morally upright society. Austen emphasizes the ridiculous nature of such characters by creating a relationship of abhorrence between the selfish nature of one person to the mild temperament of the female protagonist, which in this case is Anne Elliot. This type of strained relationship is also evident among the pages of Pride & Prejudice as Elizabeth Bennet, the protagonist, tolerates the outbursts of Mrs. Bennet who exemplifies this ridiculous self-center nature. The embarrassing behavior of Mrs. Bennet leads those in higher and lower social circles to disregard her opinions. Such prevalent neurotic characters in Austen’s literature have a direct connection between the exploration of fallen human nature and its ability to stray towards vice, rather than virtue, when tempted with worldly goods.

Jane Austen had an uncanny ability to address social and moral complications in her witty narratives. There is no doubt that modern society exhumes similar immoral behaviors, social disconnect, and power struggles as found among the pages of Jane Austen. To disregard these lessons is an act of ignorance, for Austen had a keen interest in human frailties, the implications of social customs, and the desire for her female protagonists to grow in virtue. On a macro-level, modern society is quite contrary to the world of Jane Austen, but to view the behaviors of men on a micro-level, there are more similarities than one would assume. To truly understand the intentions of Jane Austen’s writing is to recognize the potential of man’s fallen nature as it struggles through vice until it develops in goodness towards virtue.

Photo by Paolo Chiabrando on Unsplash

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Danielle Marie Heckenkamp is an author and freelance writer. She contributes to a variety of media publications – discussing faith, family, book reviews, history, politics, and homemaking. Her writings can be found at Crisis Magazine, OnePeterFive, Catholic Mom, Her View From Home, etc.. She is the co-author of an etiquette and manners book published in April 2013. Danielle Heckenkamp has a BA in Political Science and is a wife and mother of six children.

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