Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                       Page 132-139

Pride and Prejudice: Conservative or Liberal Novel Or Both? (A Gadamerian Approach) 

Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona 85721

 Several years ago I gave a talk about Jane Austen to a mixed audience of Arizona high school English teachers and my colleagues from the University of Arizona English department.  During the question and answer period that followed I happened to comment that a recent scholar had written that Jane Austen and her family were “Tories of the deepest dye.”  I was rather surprised (I had assumed that everyone knew basically what Jane Austen’s background was) when several members of my audience were quite upset by this fact.  Since I have always been rather conservative myself, Jane Austen’s conservatism had never troubled me.  I certainly had never given much thought to the possible responses an ardently liberal Janeite might have to the personal conservatism of his or her favourite novelist; obviously there were troubled liberals before me at that moment who had to be soothed – a task which I accomplished rather glibly by muttering something about the ability of a great work always to rise above the narrow political and moral views of its own time.  But the problem remained in the back of my mind.  Most of my colleagues at the University of Arizona and my fellow members of JASNA would undoubtedly find Jane Austen herself, no matter how clever and charming, hopelessly reactionary in most of her political, religious, and moral opinions.  Yet many of these same people were every bit as intense as I myself was in their appreciation  of Austen’s novels.  Until I unwittingly had cast it in their faces, Jane Austen’s personal conservatism, and its reflections in what I took to be the basic assumptions of her novels, did not bother them at all.  Just as I had told my audience, her novels seemed to have no trouble in rising above the narrow personal views of their author.  How, I wondered from time to time, did they accomplish this?

      Last year I had this problem set before me more strikingly than I had ever experienced it before, and, by a happy coincidence (unless one believes in what Rosemary Reuther once called a “providence of books”) I also encountered a critical approach that provides a coherent account of how the same work can give rise to both liberal and conservative interpretations without one’s either feeling obliged to argue that one of them is ridiculously off the mark or, on the other hand, claiming that a work of art is like a big Rorschach blot and that any and all subjective reactions to it are equally correct.  

The article that compelled me to confront the question of ideology in literature – and especially in Jane Austen’s novels – was Mollie Sandock’s “Jane Austen and the Political Passions,” which appeared in the 1988 issue of Persuasions.  Professor Sandock brings her reader “ ‘a report from the critical front’ ” (83) about what current criticism has to say about political issues in, or implied by, Jane Austen’s fiction.  When she discusses the work of Marilyn Butler, a major critic who insists that Austen’s novels embody important conservative ideas of the author’s time, Professor Sandock writes:   

When I first read Marilyn Butler’s formidably knowledgeable work, I was worried because it seemed that the novelist I have read and loved for many years was in fact writing in defence of a system of inequality and privilege which I find repellent!  Does Butler’s convincing “political reading” undermine or explode the apparently neutral “moral reading” which had formed the basis of my own writing about Jane Austen?  (86-87)   

Professor Sandock finds the answer to her dilemma in a new (1988) study by Claudia Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Claudia Johnson, Professor Sandock explains, agrees with Butler that Jane Austen’s formative years, both as woman and writer, were in the politically tense 1790s when almost all novels were seen to have political implications, either strengthening the outlook of the libertarian radicals in France and England, or that of the conservative Tories, and therefore Jane Austen simply could not have been politely neutral; she had to have been aware that her presentations of unfaithful wives, stupid mothers, obedient or disobedient daughters, and conscientious or negligent landholders, had a political dimension.  Unlike Marilyn Butler, however, Claudia Johnson by no means sees Jane Austen as a (subconscious) tool of the Establishment.  As summarized by Sandock, Johnson sees Jane Austen as endeavouring in her fiction to “ ‘depolemicize’ political discussion, especially concerning the lives of women, and open up a broad middle ground between the camps” (87).  

The above view of Jane Austen’s purpose is certainly a moderate one.  Professor Sandock, however, obviously takes great pleasure in Johnson’s clearly radical interpretation of Sense and Sensibility  

To Johnson, Sense and Sensibility is not the admonition to submit to an external order that Butler sees; it is instead an exposé of the way “those sacred and supposedly benevolizing institutions of order – property, marriage, and family – actually enforce avarice, shiftlessness, and oppressive mediocrity” (49).  Johnson claims that this novel, which so many have read as “a dramatized conduct book…” is of all Austen’s novels the one “most attuned to progressive social criticism.”  (49)  (Sandock 88)  

When I procured a copy of Claudia Johnson’s book for myself, I found (not at all to my surprise) that Mollie Sandock’s summary had been perfectly accurate.  Professor Johnson clearly states that Jane Austen was no ranting radical – she wished her readers to examine and to question the institutions of their society, not to destroy them (24).  At the same time, however, Johnson frankly states that her own perspective is that of a modern feminist (xx) and the interpretations of the novels which follow certainly show us in great detail how an awareness of the stupidity and unfairness of a patriarchal, capitalist society permeates every aspect of Jane Austen’s fiction.  Surprisingly, Claudia Johnson sees Pride and Prejudice, the novel which is usually praised for its free spirit, as Jane Austen’s most conservative work.  Even here, however, Johnson argues that the conservatism of the novel is by no means a blind endorsement of tradition; it is rather “an imaginative experiment with conservative myths, and not a statement of faith in them as they had already stood in anti-Jacobean fiction” (75).  Further, Johnson goes on, Jane Austen creates her conservative myths in a way that makes them also “the vehicles of incisive social criticism” (75).  

After reading Mollie Sandock’s article and Claudia Johnson’s book, I reached the clear realization that here were two intelligent, sensitive, well-informed readers of Jane Austen who simply thought about Austen’s fiction and, no doubt – since they are both teachers of literature, as I am – presented her works in class in a very different manner than I did.  This, of course, is a common situation with the work of any great author.  We who teach and who write criticism are used to presenting different interpretations of the same work, and then with a combination of humility and arrogance that would do credit to Mr. Collins, explaining why our particular interpretation is really the one with the most merit to it, though of course if our reader or student for some inadequate reason or other wishes to favour another view, we will graciously condescend to grant him permission to think whatever he wishes.  

But this attitude was as superficial and sloppy as my answer to those distressed liberals in my audience about great works automatically soaring above the limitations of their creators.  How can Claudia Johnson present Jane Austen’s works as basically liberal – for example: “Pride and Prejudice is a passionate novel which vindicates personal happiness as a liberal moral category” (77) – while I argue that these same works are basically conservative, that Christianity and natural moral law permeate all of Austen’s fiction, without one of us being dreadfully wrong?  

About this time the “providence of books” provided me with a good working answer to this problem.  For years I had been teaching some of Plato’s dialogues in the University’s humanities course; one of my colleagues, Anne Kerwin, who had her doctorate in philosophy, recommended that I read The idea of the Good in Platonic-Aristotelian Philosophy by Hans-Georg Gadamer, an important German hermeneuticist.  This book helped me a great deal, and in discussing some of its main ideas with another colleague, Suresh Raval, the author of a fine book on literary theory, the latter advised me further to read Gadamer’s main work, Truth and Method.  This I proceeded to do with great enthusiasm, but not with great rapidity, I should add, since Truth and Method is a long, dense work.  But my perseverance was rewarded; Gadamer provided me with an approach to Jane Austen (and to literature in general) which allows for contradictory responses to the same material without sinking into subjective morasses or following the nihilistic, reductionist theories which characterize much current literary criticism.  

To Gadamer, a work of art has the nature of a very complex game.  We play games, of course, for recreation – they are not “real,” in the sense that driving to work or fighting an illness is real.  But games do have their own kinds of realities, which generate involvement – sometimes intense involvement – in the players.  Someone who participates lackadaisically, with little interest in the quality of his own play or in the outcome of the game, is a spoilsport: “Play fulfills its purpose only if the player loses himself in his play” (92).  

When one participates in a game, one becomes a part of the self-enclosed world created by that game.  Thus a game – and a work of art – has a completeness that is very rarely found in the chaos of actual life.  And this completeness involves the realization of a form, or a structure, which reveals the inner meaning of the various parts, or aspects of the game, to the participant: “The being of all play is always realisation, sheer fulfillment, energeia which has its telos within itself.  The world of the work of art, in which play expresses itself fully in the unity of its course, is in fact a wholly transformed world.  By means of it everyone recognises that that is how things are” (101-02).  

A work of art then, communicates a form or structure, and when one participates in its world, one finds that form meaningful – through it “everyone recognizes that that is how things are.”  How is it then, in the beautiful, complex game called Pride and Prejudice that Claudia Johnson and I both think we see how things are but those things are very different in nature?  

Gadamer makes quite clear his belief that while each individual’s reactions to the work might he different, if one truly participates in the work it will always be the latter, not the subjective consciousness, which dominates:   

We started from the position that the work of art is play, i.e., that its actual being cannot be detached from its representation [the acting of a play or the reading of a novel] and that in the representation the unity and identity of a structure emerge.  To be dependent on self-representation is part of its nature.  This means that however much it may be changed and distorted in the representation, it still remains itself.  This constitutes the validity of every representation, that it contains a relation to the structure itself and submits itself to the criterion of its correctness.   (109, italics are mine)   

    In other words, any representation of a work, or any interpretation of it, both partakes of the nature of the work itself and also necessarily changes and distorts it.  Even so, the work itself always remains at the centre of things, its presence always available to help others judge each representation.  Marilyn Butler, Claudia Johnson, Mollie Sandock and I are all deeply involved in “playing” the game of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  We are all, so to speak, on the same field, playing by the same basic set of rules.  But just as the players of a physical game bring their own various abilities, backgrounds, and styles of play to that game – Goolagong, Evert, Austin, Schreiber, and Navratilova, all play tennis and play it extremely well, but each has her own distinctive approach and style – so each of Jane Austen’s readers brings his or her own background, her own point of view, and her own interpretive skills to Pride and Prejudice.

    All of us – Butler, Johnson, Sandock, and I – give ourselves fully to the game, because understanding a work means involvement in that work.  Thus we become part of the world of Pride and Prejudice, experiencing its people, its places, and its events.  When we then discuss some aspects of Jane Austen’s fictional world, we all do our best to add to other readers’ appreciations of the game-world of Pride and Prejudice.  Hopefully, the next time one of our readers plays it, the next time that reader creates a representation of it in his own mind, he will enjoy it even more than he has previously.

I realize that for university people and their publishers, interpretation is a big (a more honest word than “great”) and serious business.  But Gadamer helps me keep my priorities straight.  The “Austen Industry,” which is the name that the recent deluge of articles and books about Jane Austen has acquired, is light years away in importance from the actual works of the author with whom they are concerned.  If the reader experiences Pride and Prejudice in a manner which includes an awareness of (1) traditional natural moral law and (2) a complex religious consciousness which permits one to experience the battle of keeping the spirit alive in a contingent, materialistic modern world, then I am happy.  If, on the other hand, a reader experiences Pride and Prejudice in a manner which emphasizes an appreciation of how difficult it is for an honest, intelligent, sensitive female to fulfill herself in a society dominated by irresponsible, arrogant males, then Claudia Johnson is happy.  But the important thing is not the contentment level of Professor Johnson or myself.  The important thing is that readers continue to play the game of Pride and Prejudice, and play it as well as they can, and enjoy it as completely as they can.  

As to which view of Jane Austen’s novel is more helpful – mine or Claudia Johnson’s – both Gadamer and common sense tell me that it is neither cowardly nor falsely humble to reply that the reader must be his own judge.  I honestly believe that both Johnson’s and my interpretations are “on the field” – that they were both generated by what we experienced in Pride and Prejudice, as well as what has come from our personal approaches to life and literature.  For the game of art, specifically of Pride and Prejudice, is far more complex than any physical sport.  One’s experience of a Jane Austen novel fuses with one’s experience of life, of the world in general. One’s total response to Pride and Prejudice, in other words, fuses with one’s total response to life.  So it is up to each reader – who, of course, has his own complex total response to the novel and to life – what parts of our various representations, have enough value to make them parts of his own next game.  

Am I then claiming that all criticism of Jane Austen is good, and it is simply a matter of each reader’s deciding which parts of the critical feast it would be most delightful for him personally to consume?  Not really.  Just as the creators themselves, the authors of our literary games differ greatly in their abilities and in the quality of the games they produce (if you doubt this, read a novel of Jane West or Hannah More, or a typical Harlequin romance, and then turn again to Jane Austen), so interpreters vary greatly in their interpretive skills.  Some Austen scholarship is banal.  For example, should we feel obliged to read still another lengthy demonstration that Jane Austen’s works should not be dismissed as frivolous romantic comedies?  Other critics might be so subjective or schematized in their reading that the reader might well decide that they are “off the field,” and not really worth bothering with.  Still others might make decent arguments for their interpretations, but as their views are too far distant from the reader’s own total response to a Jane Austen text, he simply decides to leave them to benefit others who can come closer to the ways in which those particular critics react to Austen.  For example, two or three years ago I read an excellent essay which marshalled evidence from the six novels to show that Jane Austen is a wasteland novelist, a master of black irony who does not feel that true communication between human beings is possible.  The arguments were excellent; opposing evidence was considered and refuted.  I simply was not convinced. The description of Emma sounded to me more like Morgan’s Passing, Anne Tyler’s darkest novel.  I am not claiming that the writer’s arguments lack all validity.  I simply feel that most of his points do not enrich my own readings of Jane Austen’s novels.  

I would like to state here once again, that although the artistic playing field of Pride and Prejudice is quite a  large one, it is not infinite.  No exact boundaries can be drawn, but from time to time it is possible to say that a particular reading is out of bounds.  Stanley Fish would object here, no doubt.  Or rather, he would argue that interpretations of the complex patterns of a work of literature can be limited only by a consensus of a reading community, and that such a consensus can change radically as history progresses and societies alter.  Thus Fish can even envisage a society where the character of Mr. Collins is viewed heroically; such a reading   

would begin with the uncovering of new evidence (a letter, a lost manuscript, a contemporary response) and proceed to the conclusion that Austen’s intentions have been misconstrued by generations of literary critics.  She was not in fact satirizing the narrow and circumscribed life of a country gentry; rather, she was celebrating that life and its tireless elaboration of a social fabric, complete with values, rituals, and self-perpetuating goals (marriage, the preservation of great houses, and so on).  (347-48)   

    Of course, as I cannot see into the future, there is no way that I can say that a moron-admiring community such as the one Professor Fish envisions could not possibly come about.  But while the text of Pride and Prejudice is ambiguous, say, on the degree and the kind of blame which should be attached to Charlotte Lucas’s desperate act of marrying Collins, that same text quite clearly labels Collins a weak, contemptible fool.  Although any fanatically determined reader can twist any text into a desired shape, it would simply take too much effort on the part of a reader or a community of readers to see Collins in a radically different, positive light.  It is certainly possible, then, that there will come to exist a community of readers eager to honour fools, but such a community, I believe, would find it too difficult to rescue a fool such as Collins from his literary context, which unambiguously brands him as a fool.  Such a community would produce a generous number of its own writers to satisfy its appetite for dim-witted, foolish heroes.  Such a community would not read Jane Austen.  

But that is enough consideration of the criticism of extremes.  Let us return to the consideration of criticism characterized by moderation, knowledge, and sensitivity – the kind of criticism, in other words, produced by Professors Fish, Butler, Johnson, Sandock, and myself.  We each of us enter the playing field of Pride and Prejudice with different backgrounds, different shortcomings, different skills.  We each of us experience Jane Austen’s world with different visions, just as we do our everyday worlds.  Thus I see a great writer with a traditional moral and religious foundation who is quite capable of incorporating great areas of the modern landscape into her narrative representations of “reality,” and whose moral and religious beliefs are profound enough and flexible enough to accommodate those areas.  Professor Butler encounters a superb artist who has a reactionary vision concealed behind her artistry; Professors Johnson and Sandock respond to a sensitive female artist whose work demands that we clearly recognize the gross injustices and warped sexual attitudes that characterized the author’s patriarchal society and which still thrive in our society.  

Again, I contend that all four of us are “on the field.”  None of us has a magic formula which is going to give readers the “true” Pride and Prejudice.  Exhaustive historical research will not alter this fact.  As Gadamer insists, it is the nature of a work of art, as it is of a game or a recurring religious festival, to change with each period and with each representation – and yet to remain itself (110).  To increase our historical knowledge of Jane Austen’s period and to attempt to read her works with the eyes of a contemporary is a worthy and a profitable goal (as Butler and Johnson and others have proven), as long as the value of such a goal is not exaggerated.  But now that our own time has produced a kind of political hypersensitivity in many readers of novels which resembles the ways in which readers in the 1790s responded to fiction, can a critic really claim that all responses to Jane Austen’s fiction between 1811 and the last two decades were unsatisfactory?  This means that no one ever interpreted Jane Austen’s works satisfactorily until the present, since Austen’s novels were not published in the 1790s!  This surely would he a godlike claim for a modern critic to impose upon his readers.  

And such a claim would not stand.  As Gadamer insists, we are radically finite.  We are and must always remain the products of our own period.  Seriously to attempt to duplicate the consciousness of a past time is futile.  Instead we experience a work from the past; we enter on its “field”; we ponder the ways in which we share its vision and the ways in which we differ from it.  We permit the work to challenge us – to cause us to re-examine the values we take for granted, and the values we have let die.  As a part of this process, the accumulated insights which the years between ourselves and the work have generated – the results of historical change and of the interpretive efforts of many individuals – are valuable tools in our efforts to enter the world of a work of art and to benefit and grow from the encounter.  There really is no possibility that we can rid ourselves of the added, altered perspectives which the years between the original publication of Pride and Prejudice and our own time have produced in us – nor should we want to rid ourselves of them (429-30).  Jane Austen’s novel taps into some of the most important and complex areas of our lives (for example, personal relationships, the family, the individual vs. society, the relationship of literature and life).  Thus Pride and Prejudice is fully capable of legitimately providing us with valuable new interpretations which can result both from historical research and from more recent insights which the intervening period and our own time have produced for us.  And this process will continue; generations of readers following us will make “discoveries” which the limitations of our own period prevent us from achieving.  Death must end our involvement with Jane Austen’s texts.  But the texts themselves will continue to be available in new ways for those who follow us:   

It is true that the historical “worlds” that succeed one another in the course of history are different from one another and from the world of today; but it is always, in whatever tradition we consider it, a human, i.e., a linguistically constituted world that presents itself to us.  Every such world, as linguistically constituted, is always open, of itself, to every possible insight and hence for every expansion of its own world-picture, and accordingly available to others.  (405, italics are mine)   


Fish, Stanley E.   “What Makes an Interpretation Acceptable?” in Is There a Text in This Class?  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1980. 

Gadamer, Hans-Georg.  Truth and Method.  New York:  The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1988 (first published in English by Sheed and Ward, 1975; originally published as Wahrheit und Methode, 1960).   

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Sandock, Mollie.  “Jane Austen and the Political Passions,” Persuasions 10 (1988):  83-89   


“She wanted to compose her own feelings
    and to make herself agreeable to all.”  (PP)

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