Monday, December 27, 2010

Conclusion: After Austen

Conclusion: After Austen

In the conclusion of her book, Sarah Emsley asks the questions, "What happens to the virtues after Austen? There is certainly an Austen-inspired tradition of the country-house novel and/or the novel of manners, but is there a tradition of novels after Austen that represents the classical and theological virtues as a coherent, positive, and flexible tradition of ethical thought and behavior?" Emsley suggests that the writers who come the closest are George Eliot, Henry James, and Edith Wharton.

George Eliot and the Duty to Sympathize

Emsley points out that Eliot sees, like Austen, "the dangers of life lived according to an inflexible moral code", but, unlike Austen, believes the "route to virtue is found through sympathy with the feelings of others." Emsley cites examples from several of Eliot's works showing that for Eliot, "sympathy is not just the first of the virtues, but also the end of the virtues. Sympathy is not necessarily the path through to the other virtues, including justice and faith. It appears an all-encompassing virtue that is related to love, but even more closely related to tolerance...In Eliot's life, faith had already disappeared, and moral duty alone remained."

Ethical Deliberation in Henry James

Looking at several of James's novels, we see "His characters analyze, agonize, and make excruciatingly careful discriminations about ethics," writes Emsley, "but they rarely act, and they have little confidence that thinking about ethics will lead to positive ends, let alone to happiness and fulfillment...Morality has become hazy, and the process of deliberation, judgment, and action that is so essential for Austen's characters no longer seem possible...By the time of James's later novels, virtue seems not just a mysterious desert, but an unfathomable sea." For James the focus is not on practicing the virtues, but the analysis of ethical deliberation. Deliberation, not over doing what is right, but over what will make one comfortable. The focus is on values, not virtues, and values can be negotiated. Emsley states, "for James the main virtue becomes knowledge...Like many writers influenced by nineteenth-century skepticism, both James and Eliot found it difficult to imagine faith and hope as active parts of the moral life."

Edith Wharton and the Value of the Authentic Self

Emsley believes that "Wharton's novels, like those of James and Eliot, lack some form of hope. Hope does not require happy endings, but it does require faith in something positive." Where Austen's characters worked to balance the virtues, Wharton's characters work to balance authenticity and sincerity of the self. Using Wharton's novels as examples, Emsley shows that for "Wharton's hero and heroine the ruling virtue is love...she focuses on sincerity and love as common values."

Austen's Achievement

Emsley convincingly argues that these writers, Eliot, James, and Wharton, focus on a single virtue, whether it be sympathy, knowledge, or sincerity, rather that the range of the virtues as Austen did. Austen does not limit herself as these other writers do, and is unique, as MacIntyre points out, in her "extensive understanding and demonstration of how these virtues can be lived as well as analyzed philosophically." Throughout her book, Emsley emphasized "the development of virtue as a process of learning to handle the tensions among the virtues in a flexible way, while still adhering to absolute standards of ethical behavior. The source of those absolute principles is Austen's own Christian faith, which firmly underlies her work and the world of her novels."

In Emsley's opinion, Pride and Prejudice is Austen's "most compelling treatment of the practice of the virtues...Both Elizabeth and Darcy are subject to a reexamination of their own minds before they can understand each other...That [they] together come to understand justice through the educative power of love is central to the brilliance of this novel." Emsley describes Jane Austen as "the most recent effective, imaginative, and great writer who engages in her novels with the tensions and balances among the classical and theological virtues."
These thoughts are taken from the Conclusion: After Austen of Sarah Baxter Emsley's book, Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues.

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