There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
~ Emily Dickinson

Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. ~ Helen Keller

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Pride and Prejudice and the Beauty of Justice

Growing up, I heard the word "judging" used frequently -- often pejoratively by those telling others in the church to stop worrying about other people's dress, adornment, and behavior. My mother would earnestly rejoin that while we cannot judge the heart, we must judge between right and wrong. What often got left out of these discussions was the necessity of careful judgment in pursuing justice. In Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues Sarah Emsley explores the role of judgment in treating others with justice.

Like Sense and Sensibility, Emsley views P&P as exploring the vital question of "how to be truthful and civil simultaneously" (83). However, the latter novel's dramatic plot combines Elizabeth's livelier personality  to heighten the tensions of the virtues, and to present what Emsley considers the best of Austen's "living arguments".

As "light, bright, and sparkling" as P&P is, it is a controversial novel. Feminist critics have devalued Austen's marriage plots as humiliations to the heroines and "complicit in bourgeois ideology" (85), while a host of male critics have been more appreciative. Nevertheless, every Janeite has at some point encountered the complaint that a novel set around the Napeolonic wars contains no politics. Emsley points to Aristotle's teaching that the question "How shall our life together be ordered?" is the "central issue of politics" (84). In this light, Austen is highly political in a way that trascends her time and touches the politics of our own. Ultimately, Emsley believes critics are a little too ready to take Austen's word on the "light, bright and sparkling" question, and fail to realize that this is actually "the most serious of Austen's novels..." (84). This view is reinforced by Plato's theory that the genius of tragedy is the same genius as that of comedy.

Emsley's explores righteous anger that seeks to "set things right"(89) and both enables, and springs from, the Christian love and joy displayed in the novels. Again, danger lies on both sides of the mean of good temper. Emsley contrasts Lady Catherine and Mr Collins as opposites -- he overreaches the mean with his obsequiousness, she with her cantankerous impertinence. Personally, I would argue that both are manifestations of their extreme selfishness, directed into seemingly opposite channels by their widely different social positions. An example of those who keep to the mean -- exercising judgment in their anger and civility -- are the Gardeners. They are willing to believe good of Mr Darcy quite readily, but are justly angry with Lydia when she arrives at their home, unrepentant and still-thoughtless.

Especially perspicacious is Emsley's explication of beneficial prejudice (perhaps comparable to proper pride) which leads Elizabeth to reject Mr Collins, while Jane, "apt to like people", might conceivably have accepted him. Elizabeth does not, after all, become so changed by her "just humiliation" as to become unjudgmental like Jane. Rather, Elizabeth and Darcy's early judgments are condemned because both both "judge others before they judge themselves" (95). Correct judgment involves looking closely at situations, judging one's self before judging others, and judging one's self more strictly. This process of correct judgment is an art, and therefore "harder to achieve than the correct execution of technical skill" (97). Emsley effectively demonstrates that "good judgment does not by any means come easily to Elizabeth" following her moment of discovery, but she does become less hasty in her pronouncements as the novel progresses (101).

We few, we happy few, we Janeites are especially fortunate in being able to enjoy Austen's balanced perspective on judgment. Characters in her novels who judge hastily and without humility are educated through their mistakes, but judgment remains vital to the heroines who navigate deceptions and pitfalls to achieve happy endings. Judgment is also the prerequisite to appreciating Austen's finely tuned sense of irony, which relies on the difference between what ought to be and what is. Lastly, judgment is vital to Austen's equally subtle sense of morality. Emsley concludes that critics Maskell and Robinson "are right that Jane Austen goes further than Socrates does in his suggestion that 'The unreasoned life.. is not worth living'; for Austen, 'a life without judgment... would not be a human life at all'" (105).


  1. Wow, this sounds like a really awesome chapter! While I disagree that P&P is her deepest novel (that's always going to be Emma, for me), I do agree that it is very deep.

    Emsley's analysis of speaking truth civilly sounds like the balance of speaking the truth in love, and loving one's neighbor as oneself. Definitely something Jane Austen was always exploring - with her caustic but often stunningly insightful comments about her neighbors in her letters, matched with the self-awareness of her characters and prayers.

    The look at anger as a driving force in Pride and Prejudice is great - nicely tying in with D. W. Harding's essay on Regulated Hatred, but not as unpleasantly cynical and downspirited as that seminal essay.

    Glad to see that more strictly catagorized virtues can get a title analysis :)

    I think (as a massive Jane Bennet fan) that Jane actually comes to an understanding that judgment must be rendered as well - as her final condemnation of Caroline Bingley shows. However, she remains much more willing to act in charity than Elizabeth, who still, I think, probably has some way to go in her journey. As, of course, does Darcy.

    Great closing quote!

    1. I have to confess I really do want to read "Regulated Hatred" though I can't seem to get it in public libraries (probably can when I go to uni). Emsley does mention it in talking about righteous indignation, so I doubt I'd agree with it fully; but as you say, it's seminal, so I'm still interested.

      Hmm, "speaking the truth in love" -- such a wonderful principle, but everyone has a different view on how it's applied. I like the words of a writer in my denomination that we should only rebuke others if we are willing to die for them. However, since love isn't (just) a feeling, how do we know if we have that kind of love? I guess it just comes back to Austen's beloved self-examination.

      Oh, yes, Elizabeth and Darcy definitely both have a way to go; Elizabeth will probably always be more sharp than Jane, but the emphasis is that she learns to judge herself first. You should write something on Jane's growth of judgment, it would be interesting. :)

    2. It's definitely worth checking out. I think there's absolutely truth in it - I just don't think that the general tenor of Austen's novels is to promote hatred, which seems like Harding's conclusion.

      That's a good premise - I think a good way to tell if you're really ready to treat others as neighbors is if you are as willing to encourage them and build them up as you are to rebuke them. If not, I usually find that my heart is wrong.

      Hmm. Good thought. Perhaps, as I ramp back into Austen with the new Emma webseries, I might do that. :) So many fandoms, so much distraction!