Jane Austen and Why Stories End With Weddings

Jane Austen was born in 1775 and lived only 41 short years. In this time she published four novels and left two to be published after her premature death in 1817.  A seventh lay incomplete and never published.

Each of her novels featured female protagonists in romantic and pastoral settings. Well known for her realism, biting irony and social commentary, Jane Austen is one of the most widely read novelists of the English language.

jane austen

Her plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the predicament of women in a world in which their social standing and economic security depends largely on men. Giving voice to women’s thoughts and feelings, Austen did so with wit and stunning insight.

George Whatley, reviewed Austen’s work in 1821,  shortly after her death:

We suspect one of Miss Austin’s [sic] great merits in our eyes to be, the insight she gives us into the peculiarities of female characters. … Her heroines are what one knows women must be, though one never can get them to acknowledge it.

becoming jane

Austen’s strength is in her lack of sentimentality. In fact she is noted for critiquing the sentimental novels of the late 18th century and marking a move to realism in the 19th century. She makes fun of:

such novelistic clichés as love at first sight, the primacy of passion over all other emotions and/or duties, the chivalric exploits of the hero, the vulnerable sensitivity of the heroine, the lovers’ proclaimed indifference to financial considerations, and the cruel crudity of parents.

Her portraits of women, and of men, are subtle, insightful, acerbic and cuttingly close to home.  Sir Walter Scott writing in 1816, commended her ability to copy…

…from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader … a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.

Jane

Nevertheless, every tale ends in a marriage not of sentimental love, nor of economic expediency but of the meeting of true minds and hearts.

Austen-men are known by women the world over to form a constellation of gentlemen who well…. er…..express their feelings.

John Willoughby, Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Charles Bingley, Edmund Bertram, George Knightly, Edward Wentworth and the list goes on.

darcy

 

Each of her heroines find love, quite truthfully, and yet, Jane Austen herself never married.

Indeed she is recorded as saying,

The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man that I can really love.

So what is the disconnect for Austen between the narratives of her fictional characters and the marriage and love she saw in the world around her?

marriage jane austen

Julie Szego, in her article published in the Age earlier this year titled, Traditional Marriage: A bourgeois bargain for men, writes:

The American scholar Stephanie Coontz​, author of Marriage, a History, says that while love has existed throughout history, “only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married”. At different times, marriage served to forge ties between monarchs, emperors and tribes (read: finding the right in-laws), to affirm religious belief and to secure the inheritance of legitimate children…..

It wasn’t until the 18th century that marriage became bound up with an ideal of romantic love, and that coincided with the retreat of women into the domestic sphere. And even in our cynical age, the happily-ever-after fantasy sputters on, retailed through a bridal industry that’s light on irony – the virginal white gowns, the glossy photo spreads of rapturous bride and groom, the impossible expectations lurking off camera.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/traditional-marriage-a-bourgeois-bargain-for-men-20150728-gimm90.html#ixzz3nlJfQiIW

Many of social requirements for marriage including economic need, title, land, sexual ownership, legitimacy of children and more have fallen away prompting social commentators to declare the institution obsolete. 

In contrast however, while the social contraints that defined marriage in past generations have reduced, the popularity of marriage as an ideal and in fact intensity of debate surrounding the nature of marriage has only increased.

Considering that Jane Austen’s novels are as popular as ever, and stories enduringly end with the motif of marriage, the significance of the motif to our lives lies in something far deeper than social custom and commentary belies.

wedding JA

Maybe within such a contradiction lies the key to Jane’s hesitation to enter a marriage while writing consistently about it.

Articles such as Szego’s above posit that when marriage must lose much of its bourgeois connotations of heterosexual ownership for it to symbolise in truth, a union based on love.

Indeed, the symbol as marriage as the union with a lost “other”, culmination of narrative tension indicates there is something far more spiritual and transcendent about it.

jane austen marriage

It seems that the definition of marriage as the fulfilment of personal happiness is where definitions have gone wrong. Fulfilment, happiness, success – all these notions skim the surface of love and so marriage, remaining bourgeois and trite.

The power of literary embodiments of love, and the motif of wedding at the culmination and resolution of the conflict, brings marriage further into a notion of redemption, than of “happiness”.

Naturally the Judeo-Christian understanding of God does not resonate in a post-Christian society. But indeed, ones understanding of the divine will inform ones notion of redemption and of marriage as “sacrament”.

Marriage is an image of the union of God and humanity. Marriage is an earthly representative of return to what was lost, reunion with a lover, a divine wedding party at the end of time.

Song-of-Solomon-1

The Bible – both Hebrew scripture and Greek New Testament are full of such imagery.

Despite the proliferation of polygamy in the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew scriptures consistently depict the chaos, jealousy and strife caused by polygamous marriages. God throughout the Hebrew writings is depicted as long suffering lover whose beloved consistently betrays him to chase other lovers.

In scripture, the image of marriage and the possessiveness of love becomes redemptive. This lover suffers for his beloved.

When powerholders surrender economic and social security to provide ultimate freedom through the giving up of all rights and power in doing so,  bring forth life and flourishing.

This is a motivating love story.

lover

However one defines marriage, the image of a lover, sacrificing their status, power and independence, to bare their soul, and give of themself to sensible and intelligent beloved, is ultimately motivating and profoundly powerful.

The Importance of not being Earnest

“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Oscar Wilde was famous for his wit, and satire.  One of the most famous playwrights of the 19th C he specialised in pointing out duplicitous behaviour, vanity and vice. While on the surface he produced witty comedies,  underneath he critiqued society forcing the audience to soften harsh social codes.

“Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.” ― Oscar Wilde, An Ideal Husband

picture of dorian grey

 

Wilde managed to change the behaviour and attitudes of his and subsequent generations by pointing out harsh moral codes such as gender roles, attitudes to illegitimacy, and sexual and religious mores. Wilde also presented his own flamboyant passion aestheticism in the face of Victorian asceticism. How can one man’s literary endavours be so powerful upon society?

“Paradoxically though it may seem, it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” ― Oscar Wilde

How can this be so ? How can art and narrative be so instructive ? This power of story is what I would like to explore. In this case the genre of satire. The following definition begins to analyse the power of satire:

Satire is a genre , in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement. Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society. Satire ranges in “degrees of biting” from the hot end to kidding and lesser evils. Teasing however is  limited to a  shallow parody of appearance or nature, drawing empathy towards the individual it is directed towards. Satire instead goes against the power and its oppressors, it is subversive in nature with moral dimension drawing judgement against its targets.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satire

importance of being earnest

Narrative shows, as though through dream, the words and actions of another. The protagonist invariably represents the self – their foibles, our human faults, their vices, our human ills.  Such imagery allows the audience to see and to judge with objectivity. The audience can address the “log in one’s own eye”, with the same clarity with which we “remove the speck from our neighbours eye.” The protagonist can bear the weight of judgement, like a scape-goat, effectively allowing behaviour change without deep self-mortification.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” ― Oscar Wilde

The power of satire is what it implies – “the satiric norm”. This is the ideal against which the faults and failings of society, characters and scenes are held. The Satiric norm is the ideal behaviour from which the character has fallen and to which the audience must aspire.  The satiric norm allows the narrative to be instructive, pushing the audience to both hope for a better world and aspire to change themselves.

talawa waiting godot

Satire differs greatly from the literary genre of absurdism, characteristic of some literature in the 20th century, particularly around or post-world wars. Absurdism is characterised by nihilism, or a disbelief in any over arching meaning to life despite the earnest search on behalf of humanity. Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” is a perfect example of absurdism. While sharing characteristics of satire, absurdism has no “norm” against which characters are held and so consequently no hope for a better world or change. The very search for meaning is absurd and thus vice and folly swim adrift alongside love and loyalty.

“Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin. If the cave-man had known how to laugh, History would have been different.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

To me the advent of absurdism signals the end of satire, the end of the ability to laugh at oneself, the end of our ability to hope for a better world or to challenge ourselves to change. The melancholy of absurdism, advented by existentialism, places meaning within the self, and not defined from any external realm of justice or truth.  The significance of “not” being too earnest, of retaining the ability to poke fun and to criticise ourselves and society, means we retain a belief in a better world, one where humans have a standard of behaviour and being conducive to human flourishing.

Art must keep us laughing.

“Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.” ― Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan