PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.28, NO.2 (Spring 2008)

Austen’s Assimilation of Lockean Ideals: The Appeal of Pursuing Happiness



Claudia J. Martin


Claudia Martin ( teaches British literature before 1900 at Binghamton University (SUNY) as she completes her doctoral studies examining the use of legal discourse in nineteenth-century British literature.  She received an M.A. from California State University (Hayward) and has been a trial attorney for the past thirty years.


Why do Jane Austen’s novels maintain their appeal to readers who are far removed in time and geography from her world of rural Regency England?  One possible explanation may be found in the fact that she populates her narratives with characters engaged in the relentless pursuit of a happiness that they only achieve after rigorous self-examination, reflection, and decisions that often defy the constraints of class, economics, and gender.  Happiness not only pervades the “very texture” of Austen’s novels (Gross 203), but it is situated as a potential prize for all her protagonists.  Those characters willing to engage in the process are rewarded with a marital partner who shares their values and reciprocates their affection, which is Austen’s definition of true happiness within the context of her novels.  While some lesser form of contentment may come to those who settle for more immediate satisfactions, only those willing to persevere can achieve their happiness.  It is an irresistible, as well as a modern democratic notion, to offer happiness to anyone determined enough to pursue it.


Yet, Austen also imbues her texts with moral components that require a differentiation between genuine happiness and transient pleasures, particularly those delights associated with the kind of self-centered hedonism or dissolute excesses exemplified by Sense and Sensibility’s John Willoughby, Mansfield Park’s Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford, or Pride and Prejudice’s Lydia Bennet and George Wickham.  For a character to achieve true happiness in an Austen novel, he or she must engage in a course of self-evaluation and self-transformation that will facilitate making those choices that will lead to a happiness both long lasting and morally correct.


Conversely, those who view happiness with a lazy cynicism, such as Charlotte Lucas, for whom “‘[h]appiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance,’” receive Austen’s ironic reproof (23).  Thus, when Elizabeth learns of Charlotte’s engagement to Mr. Collins, she wishes her friend “all imaginable happiness,” a phrase suggesting that very little happiness can be imagined as the result of such a union (125).  The low expectations that Charlotte brings to her marriage are sure to be realized because she has refused to participate in the process of pursuing genuine happiness and instead has settled for a more immediate and material comfort.  Austen intimates that, as was the case for Mr. Bennet, who selected a partner for equally superficial reasons, Charlotte’s initial façade of contented tolerance towards her dim husband will inevitably give way to the misery of being unable to respect her partner in life (376).


The pursuit, not the definition, of happiness


For Austen a marriage predicated on love, shared values, and mutual respect is always the reward for those willing to engage in the rigors of personal reform and reflection since it is this process that enables them to recognize and be worthy of the appropriate marriage partner.  Although Austen has been criticized for her unvarying use of the courtship plot with its inevitable ending in marriage,1 within the context of her novels the marital union signifies both the culmination of her protagonists’ efforts at self-reform and the moment when their true happiness commences.  By pre-defining happiness as the marriage of two wholly compatible persons, Austen is able to direct her narratives’ focus on the process of attaining happiness rather than on first determining what will make one happy, a key distinction between her novels and those of her favorite writer of moral prose, Samuel Johnson, whose works she knew from childhood.2 


Although Austen’s notions of morality were certainly influenced by Johnson, it does not follow that her novels are merely enactments of his philosophy.  One distinction between Austen’s and Johnson’s approaches to happiness and how it can be secured is found in his novella Rasselas (1759), where the eponymous protagonist expresses pessimism as to whether happiness can ever be achieved because defining it is so elusive:  “I know not what I want. . . . I should be happy if I had something to persue” (15-16).3  While Johnson recognizes that there is a process for seeking happiness, his Prince Rasselas is stymied from engaging in its pursuit because he cannot answer the threshold question of what will make him happy.  Rasselas is unable to define his own happiness, so he is unable to seek it.


In comparison, all of Austen’s protagonists inevitably realize that companionable marriage constitutes their happiness, thereby allowing the narratives to focus on the moral decisions and actions that can effectuate this end.4  As Bruce Stovel explains, Austen makes “pleasure and moral choice happily coincide” since she formulates happiness as a reflection of the internal and external processes that facilitate recognizing and making correct choices (Stovel 64, 74).  Critics such as Gilbert Ryle characterize Austen as “a moralist in a thick sense” because she goes beyond the novelist’s typical portrayal of characters and their society to address theoretical questions about human nature and conduct by constructing a moral universe that her characters must learn to negotiate to achieve happiness (Ryle 168).  In this regard, Austen’s articulation of the moral and behavioral obligations involved in pursuing happiness may be more a reflection of the writings of seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke than of Johnson.


While Johnson’s effects on Austen have been the focus of considerable study, there is less analysis of Locke’s influence although her novels seem to mirror Locke’s approach for pursuing happiness as articulated in Chapters 20 and 21 of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689)According to Locke, each individual has a moral imperative to pursue the utmost pleasure of which he is capable while avoiding the utmost pain or misery (258).  Achieving “real happiness,” which Locke construes as the ultimate pleasure one can desire, requires the forbearance of immediate pleasures in order to make moral choices that bring lasting happiness (261).  Locke, like Austen, is quick to distinguish between temporary or expedient pleasures and real happiness; the latter requires “suspence, deliberation, and scrutiny of each successive desire, whether the satisfaction of it, [and] does not interfere with our true happiness, and mislead us from it” (267).  Similarly, those characters who achieve the happiness of a suitable marital union in Austen’s novels follow a course of consideration, evaluation, and restraint as predicate to their making those morally correct choices that will further their pursuit—a plot that suggests Austen’s familiarity with Locke’s theoretical constructions regarding happiness.


The influence of Johnson on Austen is not disputed.  Austen’s writings also show the effects of Locke, whether directly or through the intermediary of Johnson, who unabashedly borrowed many of Locke’s ideas about language, individual rights, and even happiness.5  By constructing narratives in which characters are constantly engaging in a process of self-examination, self-restraint, and behavior modification as a prerequisite to achieving their happiness, Austen mirrors Locke’s methodology in the “careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness” (Locke 266).  Moreover, this adaptation of the Lockean process for pursuing happiness provides a didactic model for Austen’s readers that may account for the enduring appeal of her novels.


Personal transformation and Locke’s pleasure-pain continuum


In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke creates a paradigm that links the choices made in pursuit of happiness with moral judgments.  Those “ideas” that individuals receive from physical sensation, as well as from thought or reflection determine their choices, which Locke envisions as an evaluative process made along an imaginary continuum of pain and pleasure:  “Happiness and Misery are the names of two extremes, the utmost bounds whereof we know not . . .” (258).  Locke suggests that the choices individuals make move them closer either to achieving happiness, the ultimate expression of good, or to pain and misery, which he links with the moral concept of evil (229).  Further, he emphasizes the need to distinguish between transient pleasures and those that will produce a lasting or “true happiness” (268, 266).  The individual’s right to make choices carries a concomitant burden of making those morally correct choices that will lead to lasting happiness, rather than settling for temporary delights or transient pleasures, which Locke views as a misuse of one’s freedom of choice (259, 266).


Austen’s employment of the Lockean process by which one learns to distinguish transient pleasure from genuine happiness in order to avoid misery seems particularly evident in the development of Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility.  For example, early in the novel Elinor, the voice of moral rectitude, rebukes Marianne for the impropriety of visiting Allenham with Willoughby, observing that “‘the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety’” (68).  Marianne initially defends her conduct to her sister by claiming that she would have known if what she had done was really improper because “‘we always know when we are acting wrong’” (68).  Any certainty that Marianne has in her own moral correctness, however, is soon dismantled and then slowly reformed over the course of the narrative.  Austen’s use of variants of the word “pleasure” in the sisters’ debate about the appropriateness of Marianne’s behavior is suggestive of Locke’s admonition to resist succumbing to transient pleasures.  This caution seems realized when Marianne’s infatuation with Willoughby and her dismissive attitude towards conventional proprieties turn into a near-death illness, her reaction to Willoughby’s repudiation of their relationship.  The temporary delight that Marianne has gained from her imprudent romance with Willoughby causes her extreme emotional and physical pain.


Marianne’s misery becomes Austen’s opportunity for demonstrating how genuine efforts at moral self-evaluation and reformation are the measurement of one’s progress on the path toward happiness.  As her health improves, Marianne considers her past conduct in ways that alleviate both her physical and spiritual misery, particularly when she is able to acknowledge that Elinor’s example of forbearance and restraint had been before her all along though she has wrongly ignored it (346).  Once Marianne becomes “‘perfectly able to reflect’” that her behavior had been “‘nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and a want of kindness to others’” (345), she demonstrates the beginnings of her moral reform and signifies her readiness to seek true happiness.  Austen uses Marianne as both a cautionary and a redemptive figure, who experiences the range of Locke’s continuum between pain and pleasure as Marianne’s incorrect choices take her from immediate delights, to the depths of misery, and then gradually through a physical and spiritual recovery to true happiness.


The novel’s final chapters seem almost a summary of moral lessons from Locke’s Essay, particularly when the text wryly informs the reader that Marianne’s “extraordinary fate” is “to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims” (378), demonstrating Marianne’s repudiation of her past declarations and attitudes.  By acknowledging that her conduct ought to have been restrained and reflective like Elinor’s, Marianne is able to recognize that her decisions caused pain to herself and to others and did not further her own happiness (345).


Marianne’s recovery is both literal and figurative.  As her body heals, she also has a moral renewal in which she adopts Locke’s methods to suspend her impulsive desires and to consider options carefully before making choices so that her pleasure increases.  These changes become apparent when Marianne pledges that her future conduct will be “‘checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment’” (347).  It is impossible to imagine the old Marianne, who “abhorred all concealment” and saw no disgrace in unrestrained behavior (53), promising to rein in her conduct by adhering to such a pious and rational course.


Through Marianne, Austen enacts the consequences of imprudent conduct while showing the rewards for making morally correct decisions. Marianne’s reformation enables her to find “her own happiness” with Brandon by becoming the person who is able to console him for his past misery, restore him to cheerfulness, and finally to love him wholeheartedly (379).  The trajectory of Marianne’s transformation from a girl whose initial impulsive and self-centered behavior led to moral error and physical pain, to her moral reform and attainment of happiness, reveals Austen’s use of Lockean polarities of pain and pleasure as markers of an individual’s mastery of the process of reflection, restraint, and resolve that signify progress in pursuing and eventually attaining happiness.


Austen consistently signals a character’s progress towards happiness in terms of pain or pleasure.  For example, in Persuasion Anne Elliot, who hopes to rekindle her relationship with Captain Wentworth, reminds him of their recent seaside holiday by expressing a desire to revisit Lyme despite its association with Louisa Musgrove’s accident:  “‘but when pain is over, the remembrance of it often becomes a pleasure.  One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it, unless it has been all suffering’” (184).  Anne downplays the misery of the incident in order to remind Wentworth “‘that there had been a great deal of enjoyment’” on this outing, expressing her position in accord with Locke’s directive to minimize pain and emphasize pleasure (184).  Austen situates Anne’s hope for future happiness with Wentworth consistent with a rational weighing of pleasant and unpleasant associations. 


Anne’s emphasis on the pleasant over the painful has the additional function of reminding Wentworth that his own reflective process began at Lyme when he compared the moral qualities of Anne and Louisa:  “There, he had learnt to distinguish between the steadiness of principle and the obstinacy of self-will, between the darings of heedlessness and the resolution of a collected mind” (242).  Wentworth employs the Lockean process of “suspence, deliberation, and scrutiny” to consider the merits of potential marriage partners, assessing which is more likely to contribute to his happiness.  Anne’s reminder of their stay at Lyme compels Wentworth to realize that he had been a man “‘quite ready to make a foolish match’” (62) since Louisa Musgrove lacks those qualities that he values most in a companion, qualities that Anne, in fact, possesses.  By pausing to scrutinize his own desires when he retreats to his brother’s home, Wentworth is able to lament “the blindness of his own pride, and the blunders of his own calculations” (243).  Austen stages Wentworth’s transformational process so that when he is morally reformed, he is also positioned to pursue Anne, a course of action tantamount to his pursuing happiness.  Thus, the moment he is released from any obligation to Louisa, Wentworth rushes to Bath, where Anne has gone, as he now realizes the morally correct path to achieve his end:  “‘I could at least put myself in the way of happiness’” (243).  Through characters such as Anne and Wentworth, Austen demonstrates how Lockean methodology can be employed to weigh the moral efficacy of choices and foster the redirection of efforts so that misery can be averted and true happiness pursued.  


Parallel transformations and the course of true happiness


The realization of Locke’s assertion that personal transformation effectuated by moral reflection and correct choices must direct one’s path towards happiness seems especially apparent in Pride and Prejudice, where Austen constructs Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s tandem progress toward happiness as a series of individual choices and assessments that show their incremental changes, both internal and external.  Austen compels Elizabeth and Darcy to practice and refine their reasoning skills in order to assure the likelihood of a happy outcome (Emsley 140). 


When Elizabeth receives Mr. Collins’s marriage proposal early in the narrative, it is clear that she will not settle for the transient pleasures of comfort, as Charlotte Lucas soon does.  Although Mr. Collins’s loveless but pragmatic proposal makes it easy for Elizabeth to refuse him because of the lack of mutual affection and her certitude of his stupidity, she couches her rejection in Lockean terms by contending that such a marriage will bring neither party closer to real happiness:  “‘You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so’” (107).  While Elizabeth may not yet realize who will be the source of her happiness, the form of this refusal signifies that she has begun the process of pursuing it.


Elizabeth’s subsequent rejection of Darcy’s marriage proposal appears rational since she believes that Darcy has mistreated Wickham and has intentionally interfered in Jane’s relationship with Bingley:  “‘[D]o you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?’” (190).  Elizabeth’s refusal is articulated in Lockean terms since her acceptance of Darcy would be tantamount to condoning the conduct that caused pain to her friend, her sister, and implicitly to herself, and it would further suggest that she would elect the transient pleasure of financial security.  Instead, Elizabeth is adamant that she will not succumb:  “‘You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it’” (192-93).  This refusal demonstrates how Elizabeth evaluates her options consistent with Locke’s directive to avoid pain and seek pleasure.


The proposal scene, however, is also a turning point for both Elizabeth and Darcy, each of whom seems pained by the encounter.  From this moment forward Austen creates progressive episodes that demonstrate how both Lizzy and Darcy engage in self-examination, reconsideration, and transformation, as they “educate each other and make important changes in character and action” so that they can ready themselves for true happiness together (Stovel 68).  Austen formulates the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy as a dialogue in which their contact with one another compels them to question their respective judgments through deep self-evaluation as well as reconsider their motives and actions until they are able to recognize in each other the ideal partner.  The interactions of Elizabeth and Darcy may be the clearest example of how Austen transforms Locke’s process of internal and external reform from the theoretical to the mimetic, making his process transparent and therefore duplicable.


Although Elizabeth’s rejection is brusque, bordering on the uncivil, Darcy feels compelled to send an explanatory letter to her, which in turn causes her to acknowledge that she could have been mistaken in her judgment of him because she is forced to admit that Jane’s complacency may have masked her sister’s true feelings for Bingley (208-09).  More important, upon learning of Wickham’s past conduct with Darcy’s sister, Elizabeth sees the full error of her judgments—“‘[o]ne has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it’” (225).  Austen calls attention to Elizabeth’s engaging in the transformational process since the narrative notes that Elizabeth is “reconciling herself as well as she could, to a change so sudden and so important . . .” (209).  Indeed, Elizabeth later acknowledges to Darcy that his letter began her reevaluation of him:  “She explained what its effect on her had been, and how gradually all her former prejudices had been removed” (368).


This process continues when Elizabeth first visits Pemberley with the Gardiners and hears the housekeeper praising Darcy as “‘the best landlord, and the best master’” (249), confusing her with the disparity between her own judgment of him and his servant’s account.  As the housekeeper lauds Darcy, Elizabeth is forced to reassess her opinion of him:  “she considered how many people’s happiness were in his guardianship!—How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow!—How much of good or evil must be done by him!” (250-51, emphasis added).  Although Elizabeth does not yet recognize that her own happiness rests with Darcy, the evidence before her requires that she continue her reconsideration of his character.  Austen repeatedly highlights the process of internal changes, as when Elizabeth wonders about Darcy’s charm and ease when showing her and the Gardiners around Pemberley:  “‘Why is he so altered?’” (255).  This question externalizes the evaluative processes that Elizabeth is employing.


Later, when Bingley and Darcy revisit the Bennets, Elizabeth experiences increasing misery in their presence, in part because her feelings for Darcy have materially altered since their re-acquaintance at Pemberley and with the recent intelligence from her aunt regarding his role in remedying Lydia’s illicit situation.  After initially hoping that his assistance in bringing about Lydia’s marriage had been given for her benefit, Elizabeth convinces herself that she should have no expectation of a renewed intimacy with Darcy.  By this time Elizabeth has undergone a substantial moral shift, in which she has re-assessed her own judgments and has come to regret “every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged, every saucy speech she had ever directed towards him” (327).  Elizabeth demonstrates how one learns to exchange the immediate gratification gained from deliberate expressions of wit and making snap judgments of others, for the hope of attaining genuine happiness in the future, or what Claudia Johnson calls an “act of imagination which approximates the remote” (574).  As Elizabeth undergoes her internal and external moral reforms, she demonstrates the stages of transformation necessary in the pursuit of Locke’s “true and solid happiness.”


On the other hand, even before he recognizes Elizabeth as his prospective marriage partner, Darcy shows an increasing attraction to Elizabeth’s “fine eyes” and pretty face, a tease from Austen that this pleasure could be mere physical infatuation (27).  Soon Austen makes clear, however, that it is not a superficial attraction in the Lockean sense.  Like Elizabeth, Darcy acknowledges that her rejection of him impelled him to change his behavior so that he might demonstrate how she had misjudged him:  “‘My object then . . . was to shew you, by every civility in my power, that I was not so mean as to resent the past; and I hoped to obtain your forgiveness, to lessen your ill opinion . . .’” (370).  Indeed, he explains to Elizabeth that he realized his behavior needed to be adjusted because her reproach had been “‘inexpressibly painful’” to him (367).  For Elizabeth and Darcy, the avoidance of further misery from misjudging or being misjudged by the other becomes the impetus for each to reflect, reconsider, and modify his or her behavior in ways that demonstrate the influence of Locke’s process for pursuing genuine happiness.


When both Darcy and Elizabeth acknowledge and articulate happiness in a similar fashion, their values coincide, signifying that they are poised to achieve Locke’s perfect happiness together.  Moreover, by having both her heroes and heroines engage in self-evaluation and transformation as part of their process of pursuing happiness, Austen’s texts reflect an equality that feels appealingly modern, and indeed comports with Locke’s own challenge to patriarchy as he acknowledged that “women, too, might have to be considered ‘individuals’” (Butler 380).


The persistent popularity of narratives in which fictional characters pursue happiness to the altar may lie, however, in Patricia Meyer Spacks’s suggestion that Austen enables readers to “play out their own fantasies” and “reflect on their own lives as human beings” (16, 18).  Austen’s characters make mistakes, misjudge, and are often miserable.  Those characters able to acknowledge their errors and learn to make those choices that effectively change the courses of their lives eventually find their happiness, which Locke considers the natural end for every human being (Flage 251).  While not every one of Austen’s readers would view marriage as the definition of happiness, through the methodology for critical self-evaluation and careful reflection her novels provide, each reader is able to imagine how he or she might seek happiness.  In this way, Austen’s use of Locke suggests that anyone willing to engage in the process of self-evaluation and transformation can achieve his or her own happiness.





1.  As Pamela Regis notes, both Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Wayne Booth have attacked Austen’s predilection for the courtship narrative, with its ending in marriage, claiming that the form stifles female characters’ ambitions and morally misleads readers (Regis 63).


2.  Austen certainly read Johnson’s Rasselas; her personal copy of volume two survives intact with her name written in a juvenile hand on the title page (Le Faye 57).  Moreover, her brother Henry in his “Biographical Notice” prefacing Northanger Abbey identified Johnson as his sister’s “favourite moral writer . . . in prose” (7).


3.  In Rasselas the eponymous Prince of Abissinia and his sister Nekayah escape from their protected existence in the Happy Valley and travel the world querying those they meet about what choices in life will bring happiness, until they realize that they cannot adequately define happiness and therefore cannot achieve it.


4.  In her essay on courtship in Persuasion, Pamela Regis discusses Austen’s privileging of the companionate marriage—defined as a marriage entered for mutual comfort, support, and love—as opposed to the dynastic marriage made for wealth, title, or power (Regis 63).


5.  By 1764 when Johnson began work on his Dictionary, Locke’s ideas had become so commonplace that Johnson’s entries and other writings frequently echo Lockean sentiments and phraseology (Hedrick 422).  Locke is referenced 1,674 times in the first volume of Johnson’s Dictionary for such key words as “good,” “evil,” “joy,” “freewill,” “liberty,” “choice,” and “happiness”—definitions taken almost verbatim from chapters 20 and 21 of Locke’s Essay (C. Johnson 564-65, 568).




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

_____.  Jane Austen’s Letters Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1997.

Butler, Melissa.  “Early Liberal Roots of Feminism: John Locke and the Attack on Patriarchy.”  The Selected Political Writings of John LockeEd. Paul E. Sigmund.  New York: Norton, 2005.  379-85.

Emsley, Sarah.  Jane Austen’s Philosophy of Virtues.  New York: Palgrave, 2005.

Flage, Daniel E.  “Locke and Natural Law.”  John Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding in Focus Ed. Gary Fuller, Robert Stecker, and John P. Wright.  New York: Routledge, 2000.  249-70.

Gross, Gloria Sybil.  “In a Fast Coach with a Pretty Woman: Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson.”  The Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Journal 12 (2001): 199-253.

Hedrick, Elizabeth.  “Locke’s Theory of Language and Johnson’s Dictionary.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies 20 (1987): 422-44.

Johnson, Claudia L.  “Samuel Johnson’s Moral Psychology and Locke’s ‘Of Power.’”  Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 24 (1984): 563-82.

Johnson, Samuel.  Rasselas and Other TalesEd. Gwin J. Kolb.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

Le Faye, Deirdre.  Jane Austen: A Family Record2nd edCambridge: CUP, 2004.

Locke, John.  An Essay Concerning Human Understanding Ed. Peter H. Nidditch.  Oxford: OUP, 1975.

Regis, Pamela.  “‘Her Happiness was from Within: Courtship and the Interior World in Persuasion.”  Persuasions 26 (2004): 62-72.

Ryle, Gilbert.  “Jane Austen and the Moralists.”  English Literature and British Philosophy Ed. and Intro. S. P. Rosenbaum.  Chicago: UCP, 1971.  168-84.

Spacks, Patricia Meyer.  “Emma’s Happiness.”  Association of Departments of English Bulletin 84 (1986): 16-18.

Stovel, Bruce.  “Jane Austen and the Pleasure-Principle.”  Persuasions 23 (2001): 63-77.

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