PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.20, NO.1 (Summer 1999)

Chances Are—The Role of Fortune in Jane Austen’s Novels

Tina Enhoffer


Tina Enhoffer is a student at Villanova University, working toward an undergraduate degree in honors and history.


the role of fortune, or chance, has been examined by the classical scholars of the Greek and Roman worlds, medieval Christian scholars, and Renaissance philosophers.  The varying views of fortune reflect the attitudes and philosophies of the changing eras.  The concept of fortune, or chance, also plays a role in the novels of Jane Austen, and it is interesting to examine which ideal, ancient, medieval, or modern, she most closely follows when she exposes her characters to unpredictable situations.  By manipulating the elements of nature, Austen uses the unpredictability of the weather to illuminate vice and virtue and to achieve pivotal introductions and confrontations.  Weather thus becomes more than a topic of conversation for Austen’s characters; it is the symbol of fortune in their lives.


In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the concept of fortune is closely related to happiness.  Aristotle explains that “minor instances of good and likewise of bad luck do not decisively tip the scales of life. . . . ,” but major good fortune is beneficial because, among other things, it affords “the opportunity for noble and good actions” (25).  On the other hand, misfortune may crush individual happiness.  Aristotle points out, however, that “nobility shines through even in such circumstances, when a man bears many great misfortunes . . . ” (25-26).  Nobility, or virtue, thus allows the individual to escape misery in the face of misfortune because by performing virtuous acts the person attains a measure of happiness.  Yet virtue alone cannot provide the individual with supreme happiness.  Aristotle cites King Priam as an example of an individual who possesses a noble character, but, having been subjected to grave misfortune, is unable to obtain complete happiness (26).  Fortune, then, is an uncontrollable element that wields enough power to keep people from their desired ends.


In Fortune Is a Woman—Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli, Hanna Pitkin explores how the definition of fortune changed from ancient times to the Renaissance.  The Romans, for example, identified Fortuna as a goddess because her fickle unreliability supposedly typified that of a woman.  They recognized the potential conflict between virtue—that is, human strength and capability—and Fortuna.  Virtue was aimed toward discipline, knowledge, emotional temperance, and reflection upon inner values rather than mastery of the goddess.  By withdrawing from worldly matters, the individual did not strive to control fortune but to extricate himself or herself from her whims and awesome power (138-39).


In her discussion of how the concept of fortune evolved during the Middle Ages, Pitkin examines how Christianity transformed fortune’s character.  If for the ancient Romans Fortuna had been fickle, that is, open to appeal, the medieval concept made her unyielding.  Although fortune was still characterized as a woman, Christianity made her an officer of God’s will.  In her new role as the terrifying instrument of divine providence, Fortune was occasionally depicted as a creature with various faces or many arms and legs.  She could no longer oppose virtue, because an individual could not escape from her power.  Fortune taught the acceptance of God’s decrees (139-40).  Fortune was a positive enemy of humanity personified by a terrible monster rather than a fickle goddess.


During the Renaissance the concept of Fortune changed again, and the battle between the individual and fortune resumed.  Virtue’s energy, struggling against capricious fortune, became a common theme of the Renaissance (Pitkin 141-42).  For Niccolo Machiavelli, fortune appeared as a goddess, or a river, or a storm, often in conflict with virtue, always a troublesome force in her relations with human action.  In The Prince, Machiavelli berates the Italian princes for not taking responsibility for the loss of their states: “these princes of ours . . . may not accuse fortune when they have lost . . . ” (97).  He scorns them because in times of good weather they neglected to prepare for the inevitable bad weather, and then when the bad weather set in, they fled.  Advising his readers to remember that “those defenses alone are good, are certain, and are lasting, that depend on you yourself and on your virtue” (97), Machiavelli attacks the princes because they blame fortune, or the unpredictable weather, rather than themselves for the loss of their states (Pitkin 147-48).  Machiavelli will not let fortune, personified as stormy weather, excuse their lack of virtue.


Later in The Prince, Machiavelli compares fortune to a river.  He cautions that even when the weather is quiet and the waters calm, men must still build dikes, so that when the waters rise, damage can be checked.  Fortune, like the river, must be contained.  Writing of Italy, a country without dikes, Machiavelli notes that “if it had been diked with suitable virtue . . . either this flood would not have caused the great variations that it has, or it would not have come here” (99).  It appears to be possible to control the damaging power of fortune, and to attain the supreme happiness that Aristotle discussed, through the skillful application of human virtue (Pitkin 150).


What does Jane Austen say about the role of fortune?  One possible definition for fortune during the Renaissance was “storm,” and it is by a manipulation of the weather that Austen often injects fortune into her writings.  The weather becomes more than a topic of conversation to “fill up an awkward silence” (Myer 418).  Plans are made and altered due to the weather, and the reactions of Austen’s characters in such circumstances are interesting to examine.  Virtuous characters allow their superior sense to rule their actions, while others exhibit amazing deficiencies of fortitude.


Mrs. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice attempts to use the probability of rain to her own advantage.  When Jane is invited to Netherfield, Mrs. Bennet explains that she must travel by horseback, “‘because it seems likely to rain; and then you must stay all night’” (30).  This scheme sets up a series of consequences, for when Jane catches a cold from being caught out in the rain and is obliged to stay at Netherfield for a few days, Elizabeth moves to Netherfield to care for her sister.  Elizabeth’s close proximity fosters the feelings Mr. Darcy has begun to have for her.  Their forced confinement together, due indirectly to fortune, leads Darcy to realize that “she attracted him more than he liked” (59).  Later in the novel, Darcy commends Elizabeth for her sisterly virtue while Jane was ill and admits he admires her liveliness of mind.  Austen manipulates the weather to place the couple in a situation that exhibits Elizabeth’s virtues and leads to an increase in Darcy’s affection.


In Sense and Sensibility, two days of steady rain prompt Marianne Dashwood’s impetuous walk on a partially sunny, showery day.  She is caught in a downpour, sprains her foot, and is rescued by Mr. Willoughby.  This meeting, arranged by fortune, sets up most of the subsequent action of the novel.  Later in the story, during the stay of the Miss Dashwoods at Cleveland, it is Marianne’s restless spirit that, once again, leads her out into damp weather.  After several days of heavy rain she ventures out, but she cannot keep to the dry walks of the grounds and strays to “where . . . the grass was the longest and wettest” (306).  Her resulting violent illness brings Willoughby back into the story and allows him to explain his behavior.  Mr. Palmer is entirely incorrect when he remarks, “‘Dulness is as much produced within doors as without, by rain’” (111).  The weather introduces Mr. Willoughby to the novel and allows him a final audience.


The unusual mildness of the season provides an outlet for fortune to exercise her force in  Mansfield Park.  Because the weather is unusually pleasant for late autumn, Fanny Price and Mary Crawford are able to walk together in Mrs. Grant’s shrubbery, and it is here that they meet Edmund Bertram.  The ensuing conversation about money and careers provides another opportunity for Edmund’s and Fanny’s virtue to be asserted and for Mary’s materialism to be displayed.  While Mary cannot see the value of Edmund’s preference for clergy life and for a moderate income, both Edmund and Fanny can understand the value of his choice.  This impromptu meeting contrasts the steadfastness and selflessness of both Fanny and Edmund and the selfishness of Mary.


The unexpected arrival of Sir Thomas prompts Henry Crawford to express his thoughts regarding fortune and the weather.  Henry echoes Machiavelli’s sentiments regarding fortune, for he desires “‘the government of the winds’” (225) and wishes for the power to have dictated when Sir Thomas would have arrived home.  Henry wants to conquer fortune in order to achieve his own ends.  While Machiavelli would have praised Henry’s desire for control over fortune, Fanny, Austen’s heroine, is appalled by his selfishness.  Henry’s dastardly character endorses the modern view of fortune, while Fanny and Edmund fit the classical mold.


Fortune appears to work against Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.  During Catherine’s journey to Bath with the Allens, no “tempests befriended them . . . to introduce them to the hero” (19).  The morning that Catherine is engaged to walk with the Tilneys, rain interrupts her plans.  Instead of spending the morning with Henry Tilney, she allows herself to be persuaded to ride with John Thorpe.  After she has joined John, she notices the Tilneys on the pavement, but is prevented from joining them.  Catherine, however, faces her bad fortune admirably.  When she suspects that Henry has been hurt by her behavior, she explains her regret in ringing, artless, heartfelt terms.  Catherine’s virtue in the face of unfortunate circumstances wins the heart of the hero.


Emma contains many references to fortune, and the weather affects the characters to a startling degree.  At the start of the novel, Emma explains that she has endeavored to bring about a match between the Westons ever since she and Miss Taylor had been caught in a light “‘mizzle,’” and Mr. Weston had “‘darted away . . . and borrowed two umbrellas for us’” (12).  Later in the story, a heavy snowfall interrupts the Westons’ Christmas party, and Mr. Woodhouse’s anxiety about the weather spurs the company to an early departure.  In the subsequent confusion, a mixup with the carriages leads to Emma’s confinement with Mr. Elton and his declaration of love.  Fortune, represented by the snow, sets up this confrontation necessary for both parties to correct their false assumptions.  The weather then becomes more considerate toward the characters, confining everyone to their homes for a few days to recover from the unsettling disclosures.  Harriet Smith must also encounter interference by the weather.  When she takes shelter at Ford’s during a sudden shower, Harriet encounters Robert Martin.  It seems that Fortune takes a hand in trying to reunite this couple despite Emma’s interference.


Although Emma finds that Frank Churchill is “less of the spoiled child of fortune” than she expected (203), he does seem to enjoy extraordinary luck, both in the way he manages to maintain his secret engagement with Jane Fairfax, and in the way his aunt dies, freeing him to marry the woman he loves.  His luck fails only once, when he unfortunately drops a comment about Mr. Perry’s carriage, and an impending rain shower leads to that admission.  When Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Knightley take their walk earlier than usual because the weather threatens rain, they meet the party of the Westons, Frank, Miss Bates, and Jane.  The likelihood of rain brings these parties together, and Frank commits his “blunder.”  It is lucky for Frank that Mr. Knightley is the only one of the group who guesses that there is something between Frank and Jane.  Frank maintains his charade, going so far as to treat Jane terribly during the word games at Hartfield.  If his character had been virtuous, he would have taken advantage of his luck to perform good or noble deeds.


Jane Fairfax also falls victim to the weather—and to Mrs. Elton.  After she learns that Jane has gone to the post office in the rain, Mrs. Elton insists that she desist.  The rain has been no friend to Jane, for she must now convince Mrs. Elton to allow her to continue her errands.  Jane prevails on this point and survives the circumstances the rain shower has imposed upon her.  Mr. Elton states, “‘One is so . . . guarded from the weather, that . . . [w]eather becomes absolutely of no consequence’” (115).  The idiocy of this statement is easily discernable by an examination of any one of Austen’s novels.


Louisa Musgrove’s accident in Persuasion is caused not only by her high spirits, but also by a strong wind on the high part of the new Cobb.  While the other ladies of the party pass carefully down the steep flight of stairs, Louisa wishes to be jumped down; she slips and sustains a concussion.  Fortune makes her presence felt in this novel also, as she sends a strong wind to Lyme.  Anne Elliot’s cool, capable manner displayed after the accident radiates her virtue and attracts Captain Wentworth to her.


Austen uses fortune—that is, the unpredictability of weather—to exhibit the virtues of Elizabeth, Fanny and Edmund, Catherine, and Anne, characters who subsequently win the hearts of her readers and other characters.  For Aristotle, virtue was its own reward because it brought the individual happiness, but for Austen, the reward of virtue seems to be love.  In Austen’s world, Henry Crawford, like Machiavelli, desires in vain to govern the winds.  Fortune is not controllable in Austen’s novels, but it does not destroy the happiness of her virtuous characters as it did King Priam’s.  In Sense and Sensibility, Austen shows that fortune is an inescapable force of life that must be encountered rather than evaded, as the Romans believed.  Marianne’s activities are ill-advised, but her joy for life is not harshly condemned by the author.  Austen’s characters must deal with the dictates of fortune in a manner that reflects their personalities.  Fortune is not the monster of the medieval world sentencing individuals to God’s will, but a force that can bring about love and excitement.  Personified by the weather, Fortune acts as a catalyst to the romance and liveliness present in all of Austen’s novels.



Works Cited


Aristotle.  Nicomachean Ethics.  Trans. Martin Oswald.  Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962.

Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince.  Trans. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr.  Chicago: UCP, 1985.

Myer, Michael.  “Talking of the Weather: A Note on Manners in Jane Austen.”  Notes and Queries 241 (1966): 418.

Pitkin, Hanna.  Fortune Is a Woman—Gender and Politics in the Thought of Niccolo Machiavelli.  Los Angeles: UCP, 1984.


Back to Persuasions On-Line Table of Contents

Return to Home Page