Morality Play Pattern in Pride and Prejudice

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Morality Play Pattern in Pride and Prejudice

By | March 2013
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Austen is particularly unusual among virtue ethicists past and present in according amiability so much importance, even though it is so obviously central to most people's lives working, if not living, in close confinement with others with whom one must and should get along. Austen presents these virtues as not merely a necessary accommodation to difficult circumstances, but as superior to the invidious vanity and pride of the rich and titled, which she often mocks. So, in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet rejects Darcy's haughty condescension out of hand; the happy ending must wait until Darcy comes to see beyond her lowly connections and unaristocratic manners and fully recognise her true (bourgeois) virtue. That is a moral happy ending even more than it is a romantic one. Like any good virtue ethicist, Austen proceeds by giving illustrative examples. This is why her characters are moral rather than psychological constructs. Austen's purpose is not to explore their inner lives, but to expose particular moral pathologies to the attention of the reader. Don't act like this: Don't cut off your relatives without a penny after promising your father you would look after them and justify it with self-serving casuistic rationalisations (as John Dashwood does in Sense and Sensibility). Don't be like this: Morally incontinent like Mrs Bennet; or struck through with a single huge flaw, like Mr Bennet's selfish wish to live a private life while being the head of a family (Pride and Prejudice). But as well as excoriating such obvious though conventional moral failings of human nature, Austen attends carefully, and with a fine brush, to illustrating the fine detail, and fine-tuning, that true virtue requires. To show us what true amiability should be, she shows us what it isn't quite. Fanny Price, the heroine of Mansfield Park, is so excessively amiable as to put her own dignity and interests at risk, so self-effacing that her true love almost doesn't notice her (until...
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