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Using Sympathetic Imagination to Live Morally: Jane Austen’s Expansion of Adam Smith

Jane Austen and Adam Smith both focus on sympathetic imagination, the process of imagining the feelings of others and the challenges to understanding those who differ from us necessary to making proper moral judgments.  According to Austen and Smith, we use interactions with peers to develop our moral compass:  through feedback from others we develop our internal sense of right and learn to reduce our self-love.  There are two ways that characters experience moral education in Austen’s novels—either through sudden moral insight based on dramatic feedback from someone else or through mutual discussion where the outcome of judgments is not initially clear.  An example of sudden moral insight occurs in Emma at Box Hill when Mr. Knightley scolds Emma for ignoring Miss Bates’s age and poverty in making her thoughtless joke:  “‘Her situation should secure your compassion.  It was badly done, indeed!’” (375).  Several scholars have discussed this scene using Adam Smith’s moral framework, arguing that Mr. Knightley acts like Emma’s moral guardian or “impartial spectator” rather than treating her as an equal (Harbers; Knox-Shaw 204; Larrow; Michie 21–22).  Mr. Knightley’s reproof leaves Emma speechless with feelings of “mortification” (376) and in tears; it is not a good example of mutual moral education.  This essay focuses on scenes of mutual education in Austen’s works.  In these scenes two or more characters debate the feelings of others or themselves and, as moral equals, judge the motives for and consequences of actions in a manner that is conducive to learning (see Fricke 11–12; Medalie 7).  Through such scenes, readers’ sympathetic imagination or engagement with characters can lead to readers’ own moral education.

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Adam Smith by John Kay (1790)

Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is essential to understand Jane Austen’s exploration of sympathy and the making of moral judgments.1  Several scholars have found that Austen’s use of concepts from The Theory of Moral Sentiments suggests a reader’s knowledge of the text.  Kenneth Moler was the first to examine Austen in terms of Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, exploring the discussion of pride and vanity between the Bennets and the Lucases in Pride and Prejudice with specific allusions to Smith’s work (567–69).  Peter Knox-Shaw focuses on the relationship of Smith’s concepts of self-command and sympathy to Sense and Sensibility (139–48), even finding in Robert Ferrars’s purchase of his toothpick case an allusion to The Theory of Moral Sentiments (SS 220; TMS 182).2  Christel Fricke details Austen’s use of Smith’s sixth, substantially revised, edition of 1790 to explore pride, prejudice, and other character traits in Pride and Prejudice (3–8).  I have pointed to strong textual links between Emma and The Theory of Moral Sentiments in their discussions of benevolence, self-command, and how sympathetic imagination of the other’s point of view is essential in love relationships (Larrow).  Elaine Bander uses Smith to discuss sympathy, spectatorship, and the differences between rich and poor in Persuasion (81–89).  Although Cecil Bohanon and Michelle Vachris are undecided whether Austen read Smith (4), their book explores the connections between all the novels and both The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations

In Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, there are striking parallels to Smith’s language.  In his discussion of self-command Smith asks:  “Are you in adversity? . . . [D]o not even shun the company of enemies but give yourself the pleasure of mortifying their malignant joy, by making them feel how little you are affected by your calamity” (154).  Urging Marianne to self-command, Elinor Dashwood advises:  “‘Whoever may have been so detestably your enemy, let them be cheated of their malignant triumph, my dear sister, by seeing how nobly the consciousness of your own innocence . . . supports your spirits’” (189).  Austen’s language here demonstrates a close knowledge of The Theory of Moral Sentiments.  An understanding of the links between Adam Smith’s work and Jane Austen’s novels provides insight into Austen’s moral framework. 

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The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a “classic of the Enlightenment” (Knox-Shaw 7), published in 1759 and revised substantially in 1790, offers an account of moral judgment based on human nature and our lives in society.  Smith begins The Theory of Moral Sentiments stating that we are both “selfish” and naturally interested in others so that “their happiness” is “necessary” to us (9).  His theory revolves around how we balance the competing demands of self and others.  For Smith, sympathy is “fellow-feeling” (10) with any emotion of another and involves imagining the other person’s situation “with all its minutest incidents; and striv[ing] to render as perfect as possible, that imaginary change of situation” (21) that is essential for sympathy.  When others sympathize with us, they approve of our emotions:  “The man whose sympathy keeps time to my grief, cannot but admit the reasonableness of my sorrow” (16).  We use the same sympathetic process to “judge of any person’s conduct”; if we feel sympathy with the sentiments or “cause which excites” (18) an action, we find the action proper.  Those of us with “amiable virtue” (23) act with “benevolent affections” and feel the emotions of others with “delicacy and tenderness” (25).  Sympathy, however, is challenging:  we do not like to feel others’ painful emotions.  Due to the limits of imagination, most bystanders experience sympathetic emotions less intensely than the person concerned, if at all.  Not everyone is virtuous, with a “sympathetic heart” (24), and many people operate under the rules of “mere propriety” (25) in their social interactions. 

The sympathetic process also is used to reduce the effects of selfishness.  As actors, we are aware of the reaction of bystanders and seek their approval.  We desire others to sympathize with us:  it gives us “healing consolation” (15).  Since we know (from our experiences as spectators and the feedback that we have received before) that spectators cannot feel our emotions as strongly as we do, we lower or “flatten” (22) our emotions, a process Smith calls “self-command” (25).  Looking at our behavior and feelings from outside of ourselves, as an observer would do enables us to reduce our passions “to what the spectator can go along with” (23) and helps counteract our natural self-love.  We approve of our own behavior and emotions when we judge that others would approve of it.  Over time, we abstract an inner sense of right from the feedback of spectators.  Smith calls this abstraction the “impartial spectator,” which he defines as “reason, principle, conscience, the man within” (137).  Not everyone is able to exhibit high levels of self-command and internalize an “impartial spectator”; Smith details ways in which our self-love can override our desire for the approval of others and limit our self-command, often as the result of vanity (115). 

Using Smithian moral concepts as a teenager in 1792 in Catharine, or the Bower through Catharine’s discussion of the plight of two poor women with little choice in the direction of their lives, Austen explores whether peer interaction can produce sympathy and moral understanding for those who are different from us.  Catharine, “Austen’s early experiment with an intelligent, principled, perceptive, point-of-view heroine” (Bander 84), is “a great reader” who is not “totally void of philosophy” (MW 198, 208).3  Catharine lives with her aunt, who conducts herself with “exact propriety” (197) and lacks sympathy for Catharine, restricting her freedom due to fears that she will act inappropriately with men. 

By contrast, Catherine has a “warm” (193) imagination and enjoys “tender and Melancholy recollections” (194) of her close friends the Wynnes, left impoverished after their parents’ death.  Cecilia Wynne’s uncle sent her to marry in India, a choice that she felt “obliged to accept” but that is “repugnant to her feelings” (194); Mary Wynne becomes a companion to other relatives.  Reading their letters, Catharine enters into their sorrow:  “every line proved [Cecilia] to be Unhappy” (194); Mary writes “in depressed Spirits” (195).  Catherine’s cousin Camilla Stanley, who knows the family Mary lives with, is not sympathetic; echoing comments she has heard from others, she calls the Wynnes “‘the luckiest Creatures in the World’” (204).  Catharine challenges her to consider Cecilia’s perspective:  “‘[D]o you call it lucky, for a Girl of Genius & Feeling to be sent . . . to Bengal, to be married there to a Man . . . who may be a Tyrant, or a Fool or both?’” (205).  Catharine sympathetically imagines that Cecilia was mortified on the trip by the judgment of strangers:  “‘to a Girl of any Delicacy, the voyage itself, since the object of it is so universally known, is a punishment’” (205).  Catharine dismisses Camilla’s response—“‘I should think it very good fun if I were as poor’” (205)—instead pointing to the lack of sympathy Mary encounters:  “‘Dependent even for her Cloathes on the bounty of others, who of course do not even pity her, as . . . they consider her as very fortunate’” (205–06).  When Camilla remains unsympathetic, Catharine retreats to her Bower, feeling “her affectionate Anger against the relations of the Wynnes” (207). 

In this early consideration of sympathetic imagination, Austen explores two themes central to her later work:  the challenges of understanding someone else’s point of view, especially when that person has a different economic status from us; and whether we can develop our sympathetic imagination through discussions with others.  Catharine is passionate and explicit about inequity in her sympathy for her friends.  In later works, Austen’s explorations of the lack of choices for women without financial means is presented with more subtlety. 

Austen gives dramatic life to Smith’s concepts, showing the complexity of ascribing motives, feeling sympathy, and judging others who are different, especially those who are dependent or whose financial means are limited.  In Pride and Prejudice and in Emma characters make judgments about the actions of others and urge an increase in sympathy, but, as in life, the final moral judgment is not known for some time and is more nuanced than first imagined.  In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price develops self-command and a conscience, or a sense of an impartial spectator, as the engagement of readers’ sympathetic imagination with Fanny’s struggles helps us to educate ourselves in becoming more moral.  In Austen’s secondary characters, self-regard and privilege can stifle moral development. 

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane and Elizabeth’s discussion of Charlotte Lucas’s decision to marry Mr. Collins explores choices for marriage when women are fortuneless, older, and not attractive.  Charlotte marries for independence from family; she sees marriage as “the only honorable provision for . . . women of small fortune,” and “their pleasantest preservative from want.” She feels fortunate to marry, given her situation “at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome” (122-23).  Elizabeth, younger and more attractive than Charlotte and hence more marriageable, has trouble understanding Charlotte’s choice since she herself has just rejected Mr. Collins.  She is so shocked by Charlotte’s news that she breaks the “bounds of decorum” (124) when told.  Elizabeth speaks to Jane with strong disapprobation of Charlotte:  “‘the woman who marries him, cannot have a proper way of thinking,’” labeling Charlotte’s behavior as “‘selfishness’” (135–36).  Jane, who immediately increases her sympathetic feelings for Charlotte, is more amiable than Elizabeth.  She tells Elizabeth to consider Charlotte’s “‘situation and temper,’” that Charlotte’s family is large, and that the match is financially advantageous.  Jane wishes to believe that Charlotte “‘may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin’” (135).  When Elizabeth visits the married couple, she sees Charlotte’s “contentment” and “enjoyment” of her house, that she “guid[es]” Mr. Collins to better conduct, and that she feigns inattention when “ashamed” (156-57) of his actions.  After seeing Charlotte’s life, Elizabeth becomes more nuanced in her judgment of Charlotte’s marriage; she feels “melancholy to leave her to such society” as Mr. Collins but acknowledges her happiness in “[h]er home and her housekeeping, her parish and her poultry” (216). 

In Emma two connected discussions of Frank Churchill’s failure to visit his father and Mrs. Weston explore questions of dependence and duty versus freedom to act, of making assumptions about unknown motives, and of the disruptive role of emotions in judging soundly.  When discussing Frank’s proposed visit first with Mrs. Weston, Emma sympathizes with her friend’s “anxiety of a first meeting” but is judgmental of Frank who, in her opinion, “‘ought to come’” (121-22).  Mrs. Weston urges Emma to consider his situation and “‘know the ways of the family’” before she “‘decides upon what he can do’” (123).  Mrs. Weston attributes Frank’s absence to Mrs. Churchill’s feeling “‘jealous . . . of his regard for his father’” and “‘cannot bear to imagine any reluctance on his side’” to visit (122).  Anxious that Emma not think poorly of Frank, Mrs. Weston offers the most flattering interpretation of his delay and refuses to resent his absence, an embodiment of Smithian amiable virtue.  Sensitive to the feelings of the important woman in her life, after talking with Mrs. Weston, Emma considers Frank’s perspective more sympathetically. 

When Emma and Mr. Knightley discuss Frank’s letter putting off the visit, Emma assumes the role of Frank’s sympathizer and defender.  Although Frank’s motives are unknown, Mr. Knightley believes they are selfish, saying that Frank feels “‘above his connections’” and that he cares “‘very little for any thing but his own pleasure’” (145).  Emma argues Mrs. Weston’s perspective, that Frank “‘wishes exceedingly to come’” (145), asking Mr. Knightley to understand Frank’s situation of “‘dependence’” and telling him that “‘you have not an idea of what is requisite in situations directly opposite to your own’” (146-47).  I have discussed elsewhere Emma’s unspoken message that Mr. Knightley does not understand her own position of dependence and lack of freedom.  Ashley Harbers sees Mr. Knightley’s lack of sympathy for Frank as a product of his class privilege.

Lacking the Smithian capacity to fully understand the situation of others—especially of Frank Churchill—Mr. Knightley here fails to imagine their feelings.  Mr. Knightley thinks that he sympathizes with his friends’ feelings:  imagining Mr. Weston’s “‘hurt’” (146) and worrying that Mrs. Weston feels slighted by Frank’s inattention because she is not of “‘consequence’” (149) in the world.  In their partiality, however, Mr. and Mrs. Weston make liberal allowances for Frank and will not allow themselves to feel hurt.  Mr. Knightley thus judges Frank’s conduct with strong disapprobation, which would pain Mrs. Weston if she knew, exclaiming that Frank’s “‘letters disgust me’” (149).  Though Mr. Knightley believes he judges impartially, unacknowledged emotions bias him against Frank.  Emma is puzzled “why [Mr. Knightley] should be angry” at Frank and “unjust to the merit of another” (150-51).  The level of anger and disapprobation that Mr. Knightley expresses is disproportionate to the situation:  his emotion clouds his judgment.  An impartial spectator would not approve of this lack of self-command.  From a Smithian perspective, Mr. Knightley ought to reflect what it must be like for Emma to be on the receiving end of his anger and temper his emotional display. 

After Frank’s engagement to Jane Fairfax is revealed, the motives for his avoidance of visiting become clearer.  At that point, after Mr. Knightley proposes to Emma, he admits that he was “jealous” (432) of Frank.  When the now-engaged Emma and Mr. Knightley read in Frank’s letter that he delayed visiting Highbury until Jane was there, Emma acknowledges that Mr. Knightley was “‘perfectly right’” about Frank’s not visiting sooner, and Mr. Knightley admits he was “‘not quite impartial in my judgment’” (445).  When not ruled by jealousy, Mr. Knightley is more amiable, acknowledging that Frank is “‘really attached’” (448) to Jane.  In these discussions of Frank’s conduct, Austen shows the importance of good understanding and command of one’s emotions in order to judge others fairly, increasing efforts to be sympathetic to others, especially those lacking privileges like freedom, and realizing that motives may differ from appearances. 

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Adam Smith declares that imaginative works can help us to learn how to be amiable (143).  As “attentive spectators” to theater or novels, we sympathetically feel the emotions of the characters:  “Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes [or heroines] of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as sincere as our grief for their distress” (10).  Several scholars have argued from a Smithian perspective that the sympathetic process can be applied to works of literature and that through reading we learn to discern the proper sympathy for characters to make the correct moral decisions (e.g., Grenier 895–99; Medalie 12).  Jack Weinstein discusses how in literature we have access to all the “necessary context” of any situation to which Smith wants us to attend, in order to learn about lives different from our own in race, class, or gender.  Weinstein notes, from a historical perspective, that learning about the lives of slaves from novels and autobiographies played a role in the abolition of slavery (95).  In analyzing the relationship between poor women and rich women in several Austen novels, Elsie Michie holds that the readers can become more conscious of economic realities, “able to counter [in Smith’s words] the ‘disposition to admire, and almost worship the rich and powerful, and to despise, or, at least, neglect persons of poor and mean condition’” (20).  Karen Valihora explores how moving back and forth between the first-person thoughts of characters and the third-person perspective of the narrator allows readers, especially on re-reading, to discern the moral point of view (20–28), “to imagine perfection, and so to see departures from it” (28).  For David Medalie, Austen’s fiction offers readers a path to “self-knowledge” (13) through all the features enumerated above:  extensive knowledge of the context of others’ lives, access to their thoughts and feelings, contrast between excessive focus on self and a moral view, and the narrator’s judgments of characters’ actions (12–13). 

In Mansfield Park our sympathy for Fanny Price and the context of her life shows us the challenges that women—especially poor women—face, and we see how Fanny’s ability to develop her own moral point of view is contrasted with the many ways in which other characters in Mansfield Park are unable to get beyond their self-love. 

In Austen’s treatment of Fanny Price, we see an extended exploration of what it means to be a woman without power engaged in the struggle to become a moral person capable of independent choices when choice is limited.  Fanny’s circumstances, coming from an impoverished family to stay with her much wealthier relations, the Bertrams, reflects Smith’s discussion of how “the poor man” is “overlooked” by “mankind.”  His observation that others have “scarce any fellow-feeling with the misery and distress which he suffers” (51) matches the treatment that Fanny receives from most of the Bertrams.  When ten-year-old Fanny arrives at Mansfield Park, her feelings on interacting with others and experiencing their judgments evoke strong reader sympathy:  she is “disheartened,” “awed,” “overcome,” “mortified,” “abashed,” “wondered at,” and “sneered at” (14).  Edmund, the only person at Mansfield to take much interest in her or try to understand her point of view, offers sympathy.  He is “true to her interests, and considerate of her feelings” (21).  He provides moral as well as intellectual education:  “he recommended the books which charmed her leisure hours, he encouraged her taste, and corrected her judgment; he made reading useful by talking to her of what she read, and heightened its attraction by judicious praise” (22).  The contrast between Edmund’s support and the treatment she receives from everyone else increases our sympathy for Fanny and makes us feel her loss when Edmund neglects her during his infatuation with Mary Crawford. 

Over the course of the novel, we see Fanny grow in self-command over her emotions as her feelings of love for Edmund and jealousy of Mary Crawford increasingly press into her consciousness.  Self-command is a virtue that Smith associates with men:  “the manhood of self-command” (152) develops best in those men who have experienced “hardships, dangers, injuries, [and] misfortunes” (153).  In her review of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century conduct literature, Rosa Slegers concludes:  “Women are expected to be passive, quietly cheerful, weak, innocent, soft and simple but in order to keep up these appearances they must be active, smart, strong and savvy”; they must develop “great self-command” in order to navigate the complexity of what they feel and how they must appear to others (55).  Though Fanny presents herself in a way that fits the model of what women are expected to be, internally she experiences a range of thoughts, feelings, and longings that are not “innocent, soft and simple” and that she must control.  She thinks her love of Edmund is “insanity” due to her social position, and she struggles to both conceal her real feelings and feel that love less:  “It was her intention, as she felt it was her duty, to try to overcome all that was excessive, all that bordered on selfishness in her affection for Edmund” (264).  The narrator approves of Fanny’s “good resolutions on the side of self-government” but wryly comments on her “mixture of reason and weakness” (265) as she cherishes Edmund’s note.  We repeatedly see Fanny’s jealousy of Mary Crawford and her attempts to reduce those feelings.  Her thoughts about her forbidden love for Edmund show that she judges her own behavior against a standard of duty and seeks to minimize selfishness.  Fanny exemplifies what Smith says of those “wise and just” persons “bred in the great school of self-command” (146–47), who not only hide their feelings but actually feel them less.  For example, when she is in Portsmouth and receives Mary’s letter equivocating over her relationship with Edmund, Fanny is in a “restless, anxious state” for several days, but over time “her own exertions” help her to achieve “composure” (418).  At the end of Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas acknowledges that Fanny and the other Price children have had “the advantages of early hardship and discipline, and the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure” (473).  Both Austen and Smith connect struggle and hardship with moral development, but Austen believes both men and women can grow through struggle. 

Fanny develops self-command through imagining an impartial spectator viewing her emotions and actions, and, over time, she has internalized this impartial spectator to develop her own sense of what is right so that she is able to withstand the disapproval of others (as when she refuses Henry Crawford).  Initially, Fanny defers to Edmund’s judgment, as when she is fifteen and discusses with Edmund the possibility that she will live with Mrs. Norris.  Fanny tells Edmund how unhappy she is, but “Edmund appeals to the way things ought to be in a way that disregards and discounts reality” (Valihora 285), mistakenly believing that Mrs. Norris wants to take care of Fanny.  Fanny submits to Edmund’s judgment:  “‘I cannot see things as you do, but I ought to believe you to be right rather than myself’” (27).  At fifteen, Fanny sees Edmund as always right, even when her feelings clearly tell her the truth of the situation. 

After seeing how Edmund discounts flaws in Mary Crawford, however, Fanny begins to make her own judgments, although she is still hesitant to share these judgments with others.  When Edmund seeks Fanny’s moral approval for his decision to act in the play, he bases his argument on a consideration of Mary’s feelings:  “‘I thought you would have entered more into Miss Crawford’s feelings.’”  Fanny never tells Edmund that she approves of his choice but does try to offer “warmth” (155) about Mary’s relief that Edmund will act.  Believing that Edmund is “deceiving himself” and being manipulated by Mary (“[s]he had seen her influence in every speech” [156]), Fanny’s disapprobation is strong:  “Her heart and her judgment were equally against Edmund’s decision” (159).  She tries hard to control her feelings of “jealousy and agitation” (159):  “reflection brought better feelings” (160) as she considers her role in the group dynamics.  Fanny shows more sureness about her judgments against Edmund’s choice to act and uses self-command to diminish her feelings when she judges that they should be reduced. 

The complete emergence of Fanny’s independent conscience and impartial spectator occurs when she tells both Sir Thomas and Edmund that she does not want to marry Henry Crawford, invoking, to quote Henry Tilney, a woman’s “‘power of refusal’” (NA 77).  She tells Sir Thomas, “‘I cannot like him, Sir, well enough to marry him’” (315).  Sir Thomas uses many strategies to try to get her to change her mind, bringing up her duty to her family, her lack of deference to his opinion, Mr. Crawford’s fortune, and all he has done for William, reminding her of her dependence.  Fanny feels crushed by his bad opinion of her, in which she seems “[s]elf-willed, obstinate, selfish, and ungrateful” (319).  On reflection, however, Fanny has confidence in her decision:  “she trusted . . . that she had done right, that her judgment had not misled her” (324).  She has become wise in a Smithian sense:  her “self-approbation stands in need of no confirmation from the approbation of other [people]” (Smith 117).  Fanny increasingly reveals her feelings.  At Edmund’s urging that she let Mr. Crawford win her affections, she passionately cries, “‘Oh! Never, never, never; he never will succeed with me’” (347).  She tells Edmund about Mr. Crawford’s behaving “‘improperly and unfeelingly’” (349) during the play and brings up her social position relative to Mr. Crawford:  “‘In my situation, it would have been the extreme of vanity to be forming expectations on Mr. Crawford’” (353).  When she suggests that Mary Crawford consider “‘the possibility of a man’s not being . . . loved by some one of her sex’” (353), she also wants Edmund to consider that.  Despite considerable pressure, Fanny holds firm to her right to say “no” to Mr. Crawford, and the sympathetic reader is happy that she stands up for herself at last. 

As readers, we see the contrast between Edmund’s and Fanny’s moral principles and ability to feel for others and other characters’ moral weakness, often due to the corrupting influence of money and privilege.  When Julia and Maria compete for the affections of Henry Crawford, the narrator says that they “had not affection or principle enough to make them merciful or just, to give them honour or compassion” (163).  Julia can practice “politeness” but lacks “that higher species of self-command, that just consideration of others, that knowledge of her own heart, that principle of right” (91), a superb summary of Smith’s definition.  Maria’s moral development has been stunted by Mrs. Norris’s flattery, an example of Smith’s contention that “indulgent and partial spectators” corrupt “the propriety of our moral sentiments” (154).  As he toys with the feelings of the Bertram sisters, Henry Crawford is described as “thoughtless and selfish from prosperity and bad example” (115), an account that aligns with Smith’s discussion of those raised in immoral environments, who become accustomed to “impropriety” and “regard it as . . . the way of the world” (201).  Henry’s “cold-blooded vanity” (467) is his ultimate undoing as he tries to subdue Maria.  Mary Crawford never shows sympathy toward Edmund or tries to understand his perspective on why he wants to be a clergyman; she pushes her agenda of ambition and pursuit of riches and ends up alone.  Mrs. Norris has none of the virtues that Smith promotes—not justice, benevolence, or prudence (Bohanon and Vachris 58–62).  Sir Thomas’s feeling that she is “an hourly evil” (465) summarizes her character. 

The public humiliation accompanying Maria’s elopement with Henry Crawford and subsequent divorce, with the loss of multiple relationships as a result, produces hardship and self-reflection, leading to moral growth for Sir Thomas and Tom.  Sir Thomas shows more sympathy and affection for his family after he returns from Antigua, but his choices in favor of wealth against moral principle in promoting matches for Maria, Edmund, and Fanny exemplify Smith’s contention that “the disposition to admire . . . the rich” causes “the corruption of our moral sentiments” (61).  Sir Thomas learns through suffering and moral reflection on his family’s disgrace to value “the sterling good of principle and temper” and reject “ambitious and mercenary connections” (471).  Tom Bertram, who will inherit Sir Thomas’s title and property, initially pursues a life of pleasure leading to debt; he fits Smith’s description of “the young nobleman” who with “his air, his manner, his deportment” shows “his sense of his own superiority” instead of developing his “virtues” (53–54).  During his illness, however, Tom “suffered . . . and learnt to think” (462), blames himself for Maria’s disgrace, and as a result begins to live for others. 

For Adam Smith, “[s]ociety flourishes and is happy” when the community is governed by sympathy—or love, friendship, and esteem (85), qualities present in the characters around Mansfield Park at the end of the story.  Smith and Austen both agree that virtue depends on understanding the feelings of those different from us and seeing events from their perspectives and, crucially, that reading can promote that understanding.  Through reading and re-reading the novel, sympathizing with the feelings of Fanny and Edmund, following Fanny’s struggles for self-command and her ultimate belief in her own moral voice despite her position of social powerlessness, and seeing the faults of the characters who do not change, readers learn the important moral lessons of Mansfield Park.



1I am not claiming that Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments is the only source for Jane Austen’s moral viewpoint.  Peter Knox-Shaw and Karen Valihora explore the influence of other Enlightenment thinkers.  Sarah Emsley discusses Austen’s use of the Christian and the classical virtues. 

2Michael Caines, in a review of Jane Austen and the Enlightenment, asserts that Peter Knox-Shaw never states whether Jane Austen read The Theory of Moral Sentiments and asks:  “How is it exactly that the teenage Austen comes to make a remark about custom and happiness in her copy of Goldsmith’s History that so perfectly agrees with Adam Smith’s two principles of governance in The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (4)?  Knox-Shaw responded in a letter to the TLS:  “Though I make no claim that Jane Austen knew Smith’s treatise at this stage, there is a fair chance, in fact, that she did” (15). 

3The narrator’s assessment comes when Catharine has a toothache and continues:  “She considered that there were Misfortunes of much greater magnitude than the loss of a Ball, experienced every day by some part of Mortality” (208).  This judgment sounds like The Theory of Moral Sentiments:  “Conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, . . . calls to us . . . that we are but one of the multitude. . . . It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves” (137).

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.
  • Bander, Elaine.  “‘Cheerful Beyond Her Expectation’: Mrs. Smith, Adam Smith, and Austen.”  Persuasions 40 (2018): 76–92.
  • Bohanon, Cecil E., and Michelle Albert Vachris.  Pride and Profit: The Intersection of Jane Austen and Adam Smith.  Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2015.
  • Caines, Michael.  “Political Persuasions.”  Times Literary Supplement 4 Mar. 2005: 3–5.
  • Emsley, Sarah.  Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
  • Fricke, Christel.  “The Challenges of Pride and Prejudice: Adam Smith and Jane Austen on Moral Education.”  Revue International de Philosophe 269 (2014): 1–21.
  • Grenier, Rae.  “The Art of Knowing Your Own Nothingness.”  ELH 77 (2010): 893–914.
  • Harbers, Ashley.  “The Sympathetic Impulse: Duty and Morality in Emma and North and South.”  Persuasions On-Line 38.1 (2017).
  • Knox-Shaw, Peter.  “Austen’s Reading.”  Times Literary Supplement 18 Mar. 2005: 15.
  • ______.  Jane Austen and the Enlightenment.  Cambridge: CUP, 2004.
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