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Free Indirect Style and Moral Thought in Jane Austen’s Persuasion

It has long been considered a commonplace in moral philosophy that, in the process of conveying a moral thought, the content of that thought is separable from the manner of its expression; that, for example, the emotional tone of such an expression is not an essential part of the thought expressed.  From this view, the role of literature in expressing moral thought is that the content of any moral thought conveyed in a literary work can be characterized independently of the work’s particular literary features, especially the narrative form of the work.

We challenge this view by reference to Jane Austen’s use of free indirect style in her novel Persuasion.  Austen utilizes this device in order to enable her readers to move from the third-person perspective of the narrator to the mind or point of view of a particular character and to attend to that character’s specific emotional qualities and particular moral sensibility.  While a commonplace in literary readings of Austen, this point has not been sufficiently appreciated by many philosophical readings; the standard literary appreciation of such a device admits that the thoughts that Austen is attempting to convey to her readers cannot be conveyed independently of the distinctive emotional qualities and moral sensibility of the particular characters expressing these thoughts. 

One notable example of a philosopher engaging with Austen’s fiction in a way that partially anticipates the argument we will be advancing is Gilbert Ryle in his article “Jane Austen and the Moralists.”  We say partially anticipates because, although Ryle describes the “moralising” function of Austen’s novels in such a way as to invite contemplation of the necessity of Austen’s literary style to the content of her moral claims, he conspicuously neglects to pursue this thought in any detail:  that is, he neglects to explore exactly how, in terms of her literary practice, Austen communicates the moral insights that he sees her as communicating.  One might think of our undertaking here as an attempt to fill in the blank spaces in Ryle’s picture of Austen as “moralist.”1

Angus Fletcher and Mike Benveniste have recently suggested that free indirect style can be regarded as an “ethical tool” and have taken Jane Austen as proof.  They express the widely-held view that Austen was responsible for a “formal breakthrough” that turned free indirect style “into a staple of English fiction” (6).  In their account of the emergence of free indirect style they credit Austen with a stylistic innovation only imperfectly presaged in the epistolary novels of Samuel Richardson.  This much appears uncontroversial, but the theoretical account of free indirect style that Fletcher and Benveniste proceed to articulate and the particular sense that they give to the concept of an “ethical tool” are premised on a methodological assumption about literary study and its relation to scientific study that would prevent them from appreciating any aspect of literary style as morally engaged in the broader sense that we will be advocating.  Theirs is a narrowly rationalistic account of the ethical, and thus also an unsatisfactory account of the literary. 

The idea that free indirect style can provide epistemic access to or knowledge of other minds Fletcher and Benveniste (following, on their account, Adam Smith) regard as foreclosed by the ever-present and never conclusively evaded danger of the pathetic fallacy, the attribution of distinctively human qualities to objects or ideas.  The fundamentally individuated nature of moral judgments (in this context, judgments related to the sentiments) means that any interpretive effort that appeals to free indirect style as facilitating an experience of empathy is always threatened, compromised in fact, by the possibility of false empathy.  They assume the ultimate opacity of other minds, stating that “the problem of other minds is innate to our biology” (6).  Following their interpretation of Hume, they conclude that “since we have no frame of reference beyond ourselves, we can never be sure that [literary] representations (or any others) are faithful to the world beyond. . . . [O]ur imagination thus opens us to an interpretive error.”  The real ethical contribution of free indirect style, then, is not that it makes possible an experience of empathy but that it combines diegetic narration (the “careful details of a ‘history’”) and dramatic presentation (the felt particulars of individual experience) in such a way that it models the kind of behavior conducive to harmonious social life, behavior expressive of sentiment but restrained by a rationally grounded commitment to propriety.  Free indirect style thus addresses what Fletcher and Benveniste term “an environmental problem,” namely that of “imposing our passions on each other” (8).  It is an ethical tool (they also use, interchangeably, the phrase “social tool”) in as much as it can give form to “behavioural modification” and thereby allow us to “therapeutically manage” a feature of human nature that is regularly a source of conflict.  Fletcher and Benveniste see therapeutic utility as the basis for “a scientific justification for literature.” 

In establishing that literature, in particular the modern literary device of free indirect style, solves a conceptual problem, which they insist on calling an “environmental problem,” Fletcher and Benveniste also suggest that literature serves a particular biological function.  Their account is thus consonant with adaptationist evolutionary accounts of literature but, they suggest, superior to other accounts of that kind in that it maintains that free indirect style is “distinctly literary” (23) and that the problem to which free indirect style is a solution, the problem of other minds, has “its own particular cultural valences” (7).  The cultural genealogy they offer in support of this last claim Fletcher and Benveniste refer to as a “natural history.” 

What is problematic about this argument is not only the assumption that literature stands in need of scientific justification, or that the philosophical categories of enlightenment thinkers can be treated as reliable descriptions of nature, or that conducting a “literary analysis of form” prior to “open[ing] it up to scientific verification” (4) somehow legitimates the attempt to “integrate literary and scientific practice” (6).  What is most problematic for our purposes is the assumption that Austen’s use of free indirect style is of moral significance only where it can be situated within an ethical space that is recognizably a public space, or, even worse, that treating this feature of literary form as ethical means demonstrating its social utility. 

In adopting Ryle’s study of Austen as our primary point of reference we wish not only to highlight how a philosopher’s engagement with literature overlooks a feature of literature that is generally more clearly apprehended by literary critics but also to orient ourselves relative to a moral-philosophical standpoint that does actually surmount many of the rationalistic pitfalls to which a large number of philosophers and literary critics apparently fall victim.  One could say that we see Ryle as erring in his omissions but otherwise as offering an indispensable analysis of some of the moralizing features of Austen’s novels. 

Ryle noticed the way that Austen’s novels present a kind of moral tableau.  In Ryle’s account, each of Austen’s novels (with the exception of Northanger Abbey) has “an abstract ethical theme for its backbone” (293).  These novels manifest a distinctive structure of the kind that, many years later, Noel Carroll would describe as a “virtue wheel.” 

A virtue wheel . . . comprises a studied array of characters who both correspond and contrast with each other along the dimension of a certain virtue or package of virtues—where some of the characters possess the virtue in question, or nearly so, or part of it, while others possess the virtue, but only defectively, or not at all, even to such an extent that their lack of the virtue in question amounts to the vice that corresponds to the virtue.  (12) 

A virtue wheel, then, is like a diagram in prose.  It is a cross section of a particular moral milieu, showing how various people instantiate different degrees of a particular virtue or related set of virtues.  It is a detailed fictional rendering of a moral spectrum.  Once we have identified this kind of structure, this evident arrangement of characters into a moralistic pattern, then we don’t need to scrutinize Persuasion very closely to realize that it is structured in exactly this way, that it exhibits exactly that kind of “moralistic” pattern. 

In “Jane Austen and the Moralists,” Ryle details how each of Austen’s novels produces, in its cast of characters, a picture of a particular virtue in all of its degrees—a virtue wheel, essentially.  Ryle, without using the term, describes the virtue wheel that Austen constructs in Persuasion

Not only Anne Elliot but her father, sisters, friends and acquaintances are described in terms of their kinds and degrees of persuadability and unpersuadability.  Anne had suffered from having dutifully taken the bad advice of the over-cautious Lady Russell.  Her father and sister Elizabeth can be persuaded to live within their means only by the solicitor’s shrewd appeals to quite unworthy considerations.  Her sister Mary is so full of self-pity that she can be prevailed on only by dextrous coaxings.  Louisa Musgrove is too headstrong to listen to advice, so she cracks her skull.  Her sister Henrietta is so over-persuadable that she is a mere weathercock.  (289) 

Ryle recognized that Persuasion maps “persuadability” in its lesser and greater manifestations, highlighting the proper mean between the improper extremes.  So Ryle joins the company of critics who see Austen as characteristically Aristotelian—that is, basically, presenting an ethic structured around the notions of virtue and vice, emphasizing the cultivation of personal excellences and the evasion of both excesses and deficiencies of character as the paradigm of moral conduct.  We have referred to the notion of virtue wheels as a way of avoiding having to articulate in more detail, in Aristotelian terms, what exactly makes Austen Aristotelian.  In broad moral-philosophical terms, the thing to understand is that morality, according to this view, is about Virtue; it is not, at least not essentially, about Reason or Rights or Preferences or God or Love. 

One might say that the appeal of virtue ethics lies in its ability to do justice to the psychological complexity of moral agents (as moral agents), that is, to give an account of morality that does not abstract the agent out of all definition, indeed that regards morality not simply as the domain of “agents” but of persons.  For a virtue ethicist, persons, beyond acting in accord (or not) with moral principles, exist in a space populated by moral meanings (because populated by a multitude of people who are—to put a Platonist spin on it—in diverse relationships of correspondence to the Good).  But in that case Ryle’s admittedly awkward label of “persuadability,” which he puts to work on Persuasion as a blunt hermeneutic instrument, would seem to rob the Aristotelian approach of its appeal.  It begins to look like no kind of escape from arid rationalism to adopt the rubric of virtue and vice if that rubric is to be deployed in such a schematic fashion. 

This assessment is somewhat unfair to Ryle, who does note that his distinction between the Aristotelian moralist and the “Calvinist” moralist (upon which his account of Austen as Aristotelian relies) is a distinction drawn “with conscious crudity” (294).  And one has to acknowledge that there are other aspects of Ryle’s account of Austen beyond the identification of an abstract ethical theme in each of the novels.  He supplements the notion of Austen as an ethicist engaged in thematic investigations of discreet ethical concepts with the notion of Austen as the practitioner of a particular literary method, which is at least the beginning of an articulation of Austen’s distinctive literary style as a form of moral discourse. 

For instance, Ryle speaks about Austen’s technique, and, importantly, the technique that is required to read Austen properly, as a “wine-taster’s” technique (288).  The image this phrase conjures might at first be less than convincing, perhaps an image of pretentious posturing rather than earnest study.  Alice Crary explains the claim: 

In speaking of [a “wine-taster’s”] technique, Ryle is claiming that Jane Austen’s novels elicit emotional responses to ways in which different characters exemplify specific personal qualities and that they invite us to compare and contrast those responses—just as we might sample different wines and compare and contrast them in terms of body and bouquet.  And he is claiming, further, that what we can learn from the novels is not separable from the fact that they do these things.  (239) 

At one level this wine-tasting analogy can be regarded as a substitute for the notion of virtue wheels.  It is a way of understanding that we are required, if we are going to engage morally with the text, to notice the contrasts and comparisons between how we respond emotionally to the various characters—though we were not very much aware when considering virtue wheels that how we respond emotionally is important, crucial even, to the visibility of the virtue wheel structure.  It is a significant advance to notice that the eliciting of emotional responses is what allows for the discernment of the Aristotelian picture that Ryle describes.  Emotional response gives content to the concepts of virtue that we can then see as organized in a particular pattern by Austen.  For example, being amused by Sir Walter as a satirical character is inseparable from noticing his vanity.  Essential to the satire here is our rejection of his attitude to life.  To put it crudely, we laugh at him because of a particular kind of moral failing on his part:  a tendency to mistake trifling appearances for real honor, a vice which brings into focus one segment of the virtue wheel that turns throughout the novel as a whole. 

So, in offering us this analogy, Ryle in effect redeems what could easily be an overly rationalistic approach to bringing moral philosophy to bear on Austen’s fiction.  The concept of virtue wheels does not in itself convey what is most original and profound about the virtue ethicist philosophy as contrasted with its largest rivals in moral theory.  The virtue wheel concept falls short of a full appreciation of the fact that there exist recurrent patterns of human encounter with moral reality (not just easily applicable criteria of moral judgment) and that certain discourses have the ability to illuminate and instantiate such patterns.  Ryle proffers a metaphor of embodied experience that helps to account for what might be called the phenomenological dimension of moral experience, the lived experience of morality.  Talk of virtue wheels—perhaps because the metaphor is an abstractly pictorial or mechanistic one—finds no real purchase there.  Of course, Ryle’s embodied metaphor has an obvious precedent in the notion of “taste” as an aesthetic faculty.  What we find united in Ryle’s piece on Austen, and in subsequent works by virtue ethicists, is the cool rigor of Aristotelian ethical categories and the warm sensibility of what has been called the “turn to affect,” a movement that in certain respects could also be regarded as a retrieval and renovation of the eighteenth-century notion of taste.  Perhaps the simplest way of indexing the philosophical proposition contained within Ryle’s wine-tasting analogy is to say that affect and understanding are intrinsically linked.  (Crary articulates this idea by proposing that the standard conception of rationality is too narrow precisely because it fails to account for the role of affect in moral thought [316–19].) 

That Austen has supplied the occasion for articulating this proposition shows that hers is a creative discourse that both illuminates and instantiates (illuminates by instantiating) the moral life as constituted by affective judgments relating to those intersubjective qualities we call the virtues and the vices.  Where complex acts of moral discernment are concerned, Austen both shows the reader how it is done and leads the reader to do it.  And this showing and leading brings us to the second crucial aspect of the wine-tasting analogy.  At another level, and related to the previous point about emotional response, the analogy is supposed to show that what moral knowledge might be on offer in, say, Persuasion, is not something that could be properly conveyed in a different form.  It is ultimately not susceptible to paraphrase.  You cannot really compare any two particular wines without tasting the wines.  And, likewise, an essential part of understanding the moral narrative Austen tells in Persuasion is reading the book. 

The contribution we see ourselves as making lies in describing one of the fundamental aspects of what reading the book actually comes to in the case of Persuasion, namely being drawn into the perspective of Anne Elliot by Austen’s use of free indirect style.  Ryle’s thought trails off shortly after he arrives at the notion that Austen is basically engaged in imaging an Aristotelian ethic (in other words, constructing a virtue wheel).  He hints at more, then changes course and begins discussing the possibility of Austen having read Shaftsbury.  Crary picks up on the philosophical implications of Ryle’s wine-tasting analogy:  its suggestion of a conception of rationality that recognizes affect as a necessary element in moral reasoning.  She also explores the fact that a competent reading of Austen’s novels will be an enactment of that kind of affect-informed moral reasoning. 

Our claim is that this affect-informed moral reasoning is enacted in the reading of Persuasion (largely) by way of free indirect style’s drawing the reader into Anne Elliot’s perspective.  Further, to understand properly what it means for moral reasoning to be informed by affect is to respond sympathetically and perceptively to a complex rendering of moral life of the kind that Austen presents in Persuasion

Persuasion is particularly apt when it comes to presenting this argument.  One reason is that Ryle is curiously dismissive of the novel, regarding the topic of “persuadability” as uninteresting compared to the other topics Austen chooses to explore in her novels.  Ryle says, “This particular theme-notion of persuadability was, in my opinion, too boring to repay Jane Austen’s selection of it” (289).  Ryle’s maligning of this theme is likely, we think, connected to his failure to notice the role that free indirect style plays in making Austen’s moralism intelligible in Persuasion.  In a sense Ryle focuses on the virtue wheel as a whole at the expense of its most important part:  Anne’s individual narrative of maturity.  Persuasion demonstrates how an individual can grow in a virtue by depicting Anne’s movement from overly persuadable youth to properly persuadable maturity or, to put it better, from a dutiful but still immature girl to a woman with the right firmness of mind.  At the risk of abusing the metaphor, we might put it like this:  it is not only that Anne occupies a central role in the virtue wheel structure; it is also that with the turning of the wheel we see Anne being propelled forward in moral space. 

Here is an example, from a crucial moment of decision for Anne.  Once again Lady Russell is trying to persuade Anne, but now of the merits of Mr. Elliot: 

“I own that to be able to regard you as the future mistress of Kellynch, the future Lady Elliot—to look forward and see you occupying your dear mother’s place, succeeding to all her rights, and all her popularity, as well as to all her virtues, would be the highest possible gratification to me.—You are your mother’s self in countenance and disposition; and if I might be allowed to fancy you such as she was, in situation, and name, and home, presiding and blessing in the same spot, and only superior to her in being more highly valued!  My dearest Anne, it would give me more delight than is often felt at my time of life!” 

Anne was obliged to turn away, to rise, to walk to a distant table, and leaning there in pretended employment, try to subdue the feelings this picture excited.  For a few moments her imagination and her heart were bewitched.  The idea of becoming what her mother had been; of having the precious name of “Lady Elliot” first revived in herself; of being restored to Kellynch, calling it her home again, her home for ever, was a charm which she could not immediately resist.  Lady Russell said not another word, willing to leave the matter to its own operation; and believing that, could Mr. Elliot at that moment with propriety have spoken for himself!—She believed, in short, what Anne did not believe.  The same image of Mr. Elliot speaking for himself, brought Anne to composure again.  The charm of Kellynch and of “Lady Elliot” all faded away.  She never could accept him.  (159–60) 

The temptations of the picture that Lady Russell paints are clear, but Anne manages to resist them.  Critical here is the following:  “and believing that, could Mr. Elliot at that moment have spoken for himself!”  This phrase is interesting and important as it seems to do double duty:  while on the surface it might appear that this phrase is part of Lady Russell’s free indirect discourse, the passage immediately following makes clear that that cannot be the case.  The narrator goes on to say, “She [Lady Russell] believed, in short, what Anne did not believe.  The same image of Mr. Elliot speaking for himself, brought Anne to composure.  The charm of Kellynch and of ‘Lady Elliot’ all faded away.  She never could accept him.”  It might be argued that the only section of Anne’s free indirect discourse is the last sentence, “She never could accept him,” and that the previous two sentences merely call forward Anne’s mental image of Mr. Elliot.  That argument, however, does not explain how it comes about that Anne has this image of Mr. Elliot speaking for himself.  So how do we explain this mental image?  Lady Russell has been attempting to persuade Anne of the merits of a marriage to Mr. Elliot, and, leaving off, she says “not another word, willing to leave the matter to its own operation; and believing that, could Mr. Elliot at that moment with propriety have spoken for himself!”  The image of Mr. Elliot speaking for himself is prompted for Anne by Lady Russell; here Anne is imagining what Lady Russell is thinking, that is, of Mr. Elliot speaking for himself.  Thus, what looks like Lady Russell’s free indirect discourse must more importantly be Anne’s.  We must be within Anne’s point of view, imagining what Lady Russell is thinking, to make any sense of how her composure and resolve in the face of Lady Russell’s entreaties comes about. 

To further explain and defend this point, note that the overall trajectory of the larger passage must surely be to mark an important change in Anne, specifically a newfound capacity to resist Lady Russell’s attempt to influence her decisions.  Consider:  we know that Lady Russell had previously convinced Anne to give up the man she loved, Wentworth.  That background is crucial to understanding this passage.  Lady Russell is again attempting to lead Anne’s attentions away from Captain Wentworth—now towards Mr. Elliot—and Anne’s response is all important here; it is plain that we are here considering Anne’s thoughts.  So Anne turns over Lady Russell’s image of Mr. Elliot speaking for himself in her own mind, to very different effect.  Lady Russell thinks Mr. Elliot would be convincing; Anne clearly does not.  That is what brings Anne to composure.  Anne, one might say, responds to Lady Russell’s alluring picture with one drawn from her own experience and understanding; and with Anne (as the narrator immediately spells out) we find the image of Mr. Elliot speaking for himself unconvincing.  Thus Anne, as she is now, is able both to interrogate and to resist Lady Russell’s attempts at persuasion, and in so doing she in fact sees more clearly than Lady Russell, who of course places too much importance on class and pedigree, to the extent that she is unable to detect Mr. Elliot’s true character. 

Of course, some contemporary moral philosophers who interpret Austen as a moral thinker broadly within the Aristotelian virtue ethics frame might accept this correction.  However, the role of Austen’s literary style, and specifically her use of free indirect style, has wider implications than this correction suggests for how we are to understand moral thought.  In particular, to come via this device to occupy the perspective—the worldview, if you wish—of Anne Elliot is not merely to be granted a more detailed insight into the particulars of the situations she finds herself in.  Of course that is part of what is achieved here, but beyond that—and philosophers, because of their own methodological assumptions, miss this point—we gain access though this technique to a particular personal moral vision. 

A central assumption for moral philosophers of very different stripes—Kantians, Utilitarians, and even many (though importantly not all) Virtue Ethicists—is that moral thought involves a reflection on an array of independent, objective facts.  The result of such reflection is then to map these independent facts onto specific moral concepts and principles and, ultimately, whole theoretical frameworks of moral thought and judgment.  But this assumption, we contend, is not neutral, but rather a particular normative conception of what moral thought is, a conception that we wish to question. 

The account of moral thought summarized above presents one picture of what moral thought is like.  But there are other ways of characterizing moral thought, other pictures if you will, that call the above conception of moral thought into question.  Consider here what Iris Murdoch has said on this account.  Starting from the conception or picture of moral thought summarized above, Murdoch says, 

This picture seems plausible if we take as the centre of “the moral” the situation of a man making a definite choice (such as whether to join a political party) and defending it by reasons containing reference to facts.  It seems less plausible when we attend to the notion of “moral being” as self-reflection or complex attitudes to life which are continuously displayed and elaborated in overt and inward style but are not separable temporally into situations.  Here moral differences look less like differences of choice given the same facts and more like differences of vision.  In other words, a moral concept seems less like a movable ring laid down to cover a certain area of fact, and more like a total difference of Gestalt.  We differ not only because we select different objects out of the same world but because we see different worlds.  (40–41) 

It is hard to overstate the challenge Murdoch here presents to the standard analytic philosophical view of moral thought.  According to such a view, when we enter into Anne Elliot’s thoughts and reflections—thoughts about Lady Russell’s recommendation of Mr. Elliot, her continuing feelings for Wentworth, and her reflections on her previous decision to take Lady Russell’s advice—we occupy vicariously a particular moral world, not, that is, the moral world of a girl of a certain landed class in England in 1815 but the moral world of a particular person with a very particular moral sensibility.  Thus, the suggestion is, moral thought and judgment are in a certain respect essentially personal.  To enter Anne’s consciousness is to attend to the unique history and developing moral sensibility that constitute her particular moral outlook, her moral world.  In reflecting on the way in which Anne’s path to moral maturity is essentially and particularly her own, we need not then conclude that any other eighteen-year-old girl in her place should have deferred to Lady Russell as she did.  The most we can say is that for her, as she confides to Wentworth at the end of the novel, conscience demanded this submission.  Here then are the contours of a particular moral life, as the narrator says early on, “forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older—the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning” (30).



1For a different treatment of Austen’s Aristotelian inheritance, see Sarah Emsley, who focuses on moral action and in particular on the tensions in Austen’s fiction among the Aristotelian virtues.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  Persuasion.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  Oxford: OUP, 1933.
  • Carroll, Noel.  “The Wheel of Virtue.”  Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 60.1 (2002): 3–26.
  • Crary, Alice.  “Does the Study of Literature Belong Within Moral Philosophy?”  Philosophical Investigations 23.4 (2000): 315–50.
  • Emsley, Sarah.  Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
  • Fletcher, Angus, and Mike Benveniste.  “A Scientific Justification for Literature: Jane Austen’s Free Indirect Style as Ethical Tool.”  Journal of Narrative Theory 43.1 (2013):  1–26.
  • Murdoch, Iris.  “Vision and Choice in Morality.”  Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society supp. 30 (1956): 32–58.
  • Ryle, Gilbert.  “Jane Austen and the Moralists.”  Collected Papers: Critical Essays.  New York: Routledge, 2009.  286–301.
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