Persuasions #6, 1984 Pages 48-53
THE MYSTERY OF THE SELF IN PERSUASION
Department of English, University of Arizona, Tucson, Ariz. 85721
After observing that the “intense, highly organized pressures of a close-knit society” make privacy for the characters in Persuasion a “precarious luxury,”1 D. W. Harding comments: “Although these are the conditions of all that happens, Jane Austen’s focus of interest is the survival and development of the private individual within [this society].”2 What I will discuss here is the concept of individual identity that is implied by Jane Austen’s depictions of her characters’ struggles for “survival and development.”
Jane Austen’s work provides an especially fertile ground for exploring ideas related to personal identity. The dates of the author’s life fall directly into the period when, as John O. Lyons claims in The Invention of the Self, the traditional conceptions of identity began to give way to modern ones: “Under the sails of philosophy, religion, politics, and the arts the self was invented shortly after the middle of the eighteenth century.”3 Before this, while a person might consider himself as significantly more or less powerful, talented, intelligent, or fortunate than his peers, he did not consider himself to be essentially different from them.4 Fulfillment came not through a fevered search for a unique destiny, but through one’s traditional roles as a member of a family and a community. However, a short time before Jane Austen was born, the rapid transition began from this traditional, secure sense of self to our modern doubts as to the nature of the self – if indeed there is such a thing as the self in the first place.
What one finds in Persuasion concerning the nature of the self is a mixture of traditional and modern ideas, which is, of course, what one would expect to find in a work written in a period of transition. I believe that Persuasion fuses these traditional and modern elements into a conception of the self that manages to be complex, problematic, and hopeful, all at the same time. Thus when we go to Persuasion to explore the question of the self, we need not go merely as intellectual versions of Mrs. Elton of Emma, who “explored” to Box Hill in search only of superficial entertainment; in addition to intellectual amusement, we might possibly secure some genuine direction out of our “identity crisis,” and thus, perhaps, out of the twentieth-century wasteland.
The modern elements of Jane Austen’s conception of the self consist primarily of a belief in universal contingency – a conviction, fostered by the growth of science and empirical philosophy, that events can more plausibly be ascribed to chance or natural process than to any kind of higher plan – and an awareness of the essential mystery of the human personality. In all of her novels Jane Austen makes clear that her characters are the products of natural processes and specific circumstances; they are not generated out of ideal forms in the works of philosophers or moralists, or even, as the narrator insists on the first page of Jane Austen’s earliest major novel, Northanger Abbey, of her fellow novelists.
In Persuasion heredity has clearly played an important role in forming the heroine and her two sisters (as Jane Austen read widely, and her father was a teacher as well as a rector, she almost certainly would have been aware of the “nature vs. nurture” – heredity vs. environment – debate that was carried on throughout the eighteenth century5). Anne’s intelligence is obviously inherited from her mother, as is her physical beauty, so different from her father’s and Elizabeth’s. In the case of Elizabeth, the inheritance is simply reversed, with the genetic arrows pointing (rather accusingly) at Sir Walter. Of course it can be argued that Anne behaves more like her mother than her father because Anne was close to Lady Elliot until the latter died when Anne was fourteen.6 This raises a question that has no clear answer: why wasn’t Elizabeth, the older sister, similarly close to and similarly influenced by her mother? The contingencies of heredity and environment are at work here, both of them obviously, but, paradoxically, neither of them clearly. If one wishes to simplify and insist that Anne’s sensitivity to others had to be learned because a character trait like sensitivity cannot be inherited, one must remember that later in the novel the narrator unambiguously tells us that Mrs. Smith’s cheerfulness in adverse circumstances is “from Nature alone” (p. 154). The narrator also states that the intuitive insight into the characters of others which Anne possesses and Lady Russell does not, is a “natural penetration” which no amount of experience can impart to one (p. 249). At different moments, then, one feels confident that he can trace the workings of heredity, or of circumstances, upon a particular character. But in the world of Persuasion, as in our actual world, that confidence never lasts long. Of course, the reader of Persuasion can easily conclude that nature and nurture are both important, and that where he can understand or influence either he should direct his actions or his advice responsibly. But there are no other easy lessons in the novel. Insights into Jane Austen’s characters soon lead to the awareness (and this is the second major factor in Austen’s treatment of the self that can be called “modern”) that human personality is essentially a mystery.
The best example in Persuasion of the degree to which the self both can and cannot be understood is furnished by the transformation of Louisa Musgrove that is brought about by her accident on the Cobb. Louisa’s fall soon results in her engagement to Captain Benwick, a rather dreamy, intellectual young man whom the energetic and spectacularly unthoughtful Louisa almost certainly would not have seen as attractive before her accident. When Anne Elliot first learns about the engagement, the news astounds her. However, when she contemplates the proximity and mutual dependence of Louisa and Benwick after the accident, and remembers Benwick’s affectionate nature and his need to love “somebody,” Anne decides that “there was nothing in the engagement to excite lasting wonder” (p. 167):
Louisa had fine naval fervour to begin with, and they would soon grow more alike. He would gain cheerfulness, and she would learn to be an enthusiast for Scott and Lord Byron; nay, that was probably learnt already; of course they had fallen in love over poetry. The idea of Louisa Musgrove turned into a person of literary taste, and sentimental reflection, was amusing, but she had no doubt of its being so. The day at Lyme, the fall from the Cobb, might influence her health, her nerves, her courage, her character to the end of her life, as thoroughly as it appeared to have influenced her fate. (p. 167)
Anne’s calm, clear charting of the Musgrove-Benwick romance is intelligent (what else could we expect from Anne?), and, in general, true. But only in general. There is no reason for Anne herself to spend more time examining the matter; at that moment she realizes that the way is open for a possible reunion with Captain Wentworth, and she is overcome by feelings “which she was ashamed to investigate. They were too much like joy, senseless joy” (pp. 167-168). But we, silent, pedantic observers gazing past Anne into the text, see that there are aspects of Louisa’s transformation that remain puzzling. Of course, we can travel a bit further along the logical path that Anne has marked out and, with our modern consciousness heightened by feminism, argue that since Louisa has no doubt been conditioned to act as men want her to act, her change isn’t difficult to comprehend: Benwick wishes her to be “a person of literary taste and sentimental reflection,” so that is what she will be. And this is probably true – but again, does it account for everything?
To return to Anne’s list (while there are no quotation marks around the passage, there is no doubt that it reflects Anne’s consciousness): the things about Louisa that have been altered include “her health, her nerves, her character to the end of her life … [as well as] her fate.” Note the words which qualify this description. The accident “might” have changed her basic character “as thoroughly as it appeared to have influenced her fate” (italics are mine). As we have seen, most of the change can be accounted for. But the qualifying words show that some mystery remains. To what extent has Louisa actually turned into a different person? How deep is the transformation? How permanent is it? How much of it is conscious? How much of it is subconscious, brought about either by previous attitudinal conditioning or by actual physical changes in her nervous system? Neither Anne nor the reader is ever to know. Of course, this is largely because Persuasion is about Anne Elliot, and understanding Louisa Musgrove is not of central importance to the story. But great writers can always accomplish more than one thing at a time. Not pursuing the matter of Louisa’s transformation not only keeps the narrative focused – it also touches the edge of the reader’s consciousness (as it has the heroine’s consciousness) with a reminder that the self, in both its functions and its very existence, is basically a mystery.
The point that it is impossible to comprehend completely the personalities and actions of others is, of course, not original with Jane Austen. Montaigne, Hume, Richardson, Fielding and Sterne are some of the major writers who expressed their awareness that all any individual knows comes to him through his own limited senses. Thus we do not grasp the realities of the outer world, including the lives of other’s; we merely glimpse them (this point is obviously related to one discussed earlier, that the life of each person is the result of unique, contingent circumstances). Each of these authors also held that it is as impossible for a person to achieve complete understanding of his own self as it is of the outer world. And so does Jane Austen.
Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth possess a strong awareness of self that is beyond the other characters. Yet even these two distort reality when they contemplate their own motives and their own lives. Anne is vulnerable to momentary fits of sentimental delusion, as when the narrator ridicules her silent vow to remain eternally true to Wentworth: “Prettier musings of high-wrought love and eternal constancy, could never have passed along the streets of Bath, than Anne was sporting with from Camden-place to Westgate-buildings. It was almost enough to spread purification and perfume all the way” (p. 192). Earlier the narrator hints that Anne’s recollections of the young Wentworth are also sentimentalized: “No one had ever come within the Kellynch circle, who could bear a comparison with Frederick Wentworth, as he stood in her memory” (p. 28) [Italics are mine].
Such lapses by Anne are few and minor (Anne Elliot, after all, was described by her creator as a heroine who is “almost too good for me”7). But the same cannot be said for Frederick Wentworth’s indulgences in self-delusion. Wentworth never comes close to understanding the extent to which his illusion of being favoured by destiny (unlike “Poor Harville,” whose health and career were shattered by the war) contributes to his confident charm – for he is a hero in his own eyes as well as in the eyes of Anne Elliot and the reader. Even at the end of the novel, when he again understands the value of Anne and admits to having to learn to “brook being happier than I deserve” (p. 247), he fails to comprehend the heights of his presumption. When the spectacular luck which had permitted him and his battered ship to conquer the French and then to escape a fatal storm by no more than six hours (p. 66) finally seems to run out by “half a second” on the Cobb (p. 109) when he lets Louisa fall, the shock of his miscalculation brings about only a partial awakening. Wentworth can now understand the noble unselfishness of Anne’s behaviour and the immature foolishness of his own. This much his ego permits him to recognize (which in terms of a real human being would be a good deal), but no more. Ironically, as Louisa’s fall also clears Wentworth’s way to Anne, the incident no doubt registers in his subconscious as merely another proof that he is one of fortune’s favourites! Wentworth, then, sees deeper than the other characters (with the exception of the heroine, of course) into his own nature, but he never achieves the wise humility before the mysteries of the self and its destiny which Anne demonstrates in Bath when she remarks to Captain Harville (they are arguing about which sex loves deeper and longer) that “We never can expect to prove any thing upon such a point. It is a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof. We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle … ” (p. 234). Anne might be willing to carry on a theoretical discussion of sexual identity, but she realizes that beyond her common sense and beyond her sensitive insights, there is ultimately a mystery.
While the sense of contingency and mystery that underlies the treatment of personal identity in Persuasion could be called “modern,” Jane Austen is by no means a modern “wasteland” author. She wants her reader to be aware of the mysteries and uncertainties that surround him, not overwhelmed by them. There are important aspects of her attitude towards the self which are quite traditional, and which work in a fascinating way both to limit and to enhance the novel’s modern insights.8
Most important, the ideal of personal fulfillment in Persuasion is traditional. If the way to complete understanding of the self is obscure, the way to fulfillment is clear: one must live by the spirit of creative love as a rational, responsible, humane member of society. Whether one calls this judeo-Christian morality, or right reason, or Christian natural law is not important. It is Jane Austen’s version of mainstream Western ethics and its functions in Persuasion through and beyond the social codes of the heroine’s society. High intelligence goes for nothing, as the examples of William Elliot and of Captain Wentworth at his worst prove, if the character is not guided by the moral spirit which I have just defined.
Thus in Persuasion a modern sense of the fundamental mystery of identity functions together with a traditional confidence about how that identity is fulfilled. At first this might appear to be an improbable claim. How can one be confident in dealing with mystery? Further, as many contemporary writers remind us, there is a good chance that this mystery is only a flimsy camouflage over something far worse, an abyss. By Jane Austen’s time David Hume had already raised the possibility that there is no such thing as a meaningful personal identity; his search for a “self” revealed no “soul” or “essence” – only a “bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity and are in a perpetual flux and movement.”9
I believe that the answer to the question of how, in Persuasion, an awareness of contingency and mystery can co-exist with a confidence that life is purposeful, is as follows: the best kind of traditional mind, one such as Jane Austen’s, is capable of creating a middle ground where the subjective and the objective (those two poles which transfix, divide and direct our modern minds) are fused. The text of Persuasion forces the reader to experience its incidents with a unified or total response which includes not only reason and emotion (Susan Morgan correctly points out that Jane Austen combines these in all her works),10 but also all one’s memories, observations, encounters, reading – in short, one’s total experience. A purely subjective or objective examination of any human problem (choosing a mate, for example) involving purpose or values can produce only hopelessly inconclusive data based on either blind emotion or a computer-type list of contradictory facts. Either direction, subjective or objective, leads to meaninglessness. The unified response, however, makes it possible for one to decide questions of purpose or value meaningfully (though, of course, not with scientific accuracy).
In Persuasion, the reader encounters the beauty, the contingency, and the mystery of nature in the famous description of the cliffs at Lyme Regis (pp. 95-96). This description might point towards blind process and the abyss. But the beauty and mystery of the scene might also indicate an underlying meaning. Both possibilities communicate themselves to the reader. Similarly, the character of Anne Elliot generates a sense of unity of being, of self. This can largely be explained through descriptions of heredity and conditioning, but it cannot be entirely explained away through those means. The sense of Anne’s unity of being remains; mystery remains. The reader, his total response elicited by the text, recognizes his choice. Perhaps the presence which he thinks of as Anne’s “self” has no meaningful existence. Perhaps it does. Each person must peer into the shadowy middle ground of Persuasion’s textual world and the world of his own consciousness, and decide for himself.
To summarize: the conception of the self in Persuasion permits the reader to retain his everyday, common-sense confidence in the existence and nature of the self while insisting that at the edge of his consciousness there should be an awareness that this knowledge has its limits; beyond those limits there is mystery. The presence of mystery is accompanied by an awareness of the abyss, but in Persuasion (unlike Waiting for Godot) the abyss represents only one possibility. The total response which the text evokes in the reader contains another possibility, that mystery veils not emptiness, but meaning. But if the reader is left to himself to reflect upon ultimate fulfillment, he is never encouraged to waste his energy in deciding which direction he should be traveling while he contemplates his final destiny. Traditional natural law morality – living up to one’s everyday responsibilities in the spirit of love and duty – is marked out as the only path which a person can rationally follow (a side benefit of this traditional insistence that fulfillment is found through everyday social roles is that there is no need to seek one’s true identity in national, historical, or racial archetypes; these approaches have proven fruitful for modern writers,11 but they have been rather costly to the rest of the human race).
I am certain that the reader has noticed that I have used phrases such as “on the edge of consciousness” several times. It almost as certainly has occurred to him that the problem of the self is not the central concern of Persuasion. It is this very lack of emphasis on the self that I wish to examine in my conclusion.
Part of the traditional wisdom of Persuasion is that self-centredness (“Pride,” to give it its traditional name) is dangerous. Anne Elliot, for example, is by no means a social robot; she has quite enough awareness to use her own unified response to her environment to distinguish the genuine moral values of her society from the false ones. However, her basically unselfconscious nature, her habitual desire to serve others rather than to dwell on her own loneliness and the unfairness with which she – a person of superior abilities – is treated by others, keeps her fully human (though, of course, not completely happy); the icy shell of egotism never has the opportunity to form around her self and suffocate it. Self-awareness is a paradoxical quality. If its intensity increases past a certain point it will destroy the very qualities – such as sensitivity and the ability to love – that nourish it.
This rejection of over-awareness of the self demonstrates how thorough is the fusion of traditional and modern elements in Persuasion. Humility, the habitual effacement of the ego which traditional Christianity praises, not only prevents the self from stifling its own best qualities – it also prevents the self from destroying its very apprehension of itself. As basic identity is almost infinitely complex and ultimately mysterious, an attempt to scrutinize it too closely will cause it (as Hume and modern writers such as Robbe-Grillet and Becket12 point out) to dissolve into a maze of perceptions.
Much has been written about Jane Austen and
decorum. I believe that Persuasion
teaches us proper behaviour in our relationship to our own selves,
and to those of others. The fact that the problem of the self, which
is a central concern to us, is a peripheral matter in Persuasion,
is a part of the lesson. One must never lose contact with the self,
but, on the other hand, one must not embarrass it with too much
attention; one must keep one’s proper distance.
1 D. W. Harding, “Introduction,” Persuasion, by Jane Austen (New York: Penguin Books, 1965), pp. 14-15.
2 Harding, p. 15.
3 The Invention of the Self: The Hinge of Consciousness in the Eighteenth Century (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), p. 16.
4 Lyons, p. 32.
5 F. Musgrove, “Two Educational Controversies in Eighteenth-Century England. Nature and Nurture; Private and Public Education,” Paedagogica Historica, 1 (1962), 81-94.
6 Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, Vol. V of The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), pp. 406. All further references to Persuasion are from this edition and will be included in the text.
7 Jane Austen’s Letters to her sister Cassandra and others, ed, R. W. Chapman, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 487.
8 Alistair Duckworth writes that part of the task of the future criticism of Jane Austen’s work will be to “find ways of reconciling the necessity of ‘diacritical’ analysis of her novels with a sense of the embodied presence in her texts of … received moral standards,” in “Prospects and Retrospects,” Jane Austen Today, ed. Joel Weinsheimer (Athens, Ga.: University of Georgia Press, 1975), p. 11. This essay attempts to take the direction indicated by Professor Duckworth.
9 Lyons, p. 22.
10 In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen’s Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 172.
11 Robert Langbaum, “The Mysteries of Identity: A Theme in Modern Literature,” American Scholar, 34 (Autumn, 1965), 585-86.
12 Langbaum, pp. 585-86.