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Faith Words in Sense and Sensibility: A Story of Selfishness and Self-Denial

“[H]is whole conduct declares that self-denial is a word hardly understood by him. . . . The whole of his behaviour . . . from the beginning to the end of the affair, has been grounded on selfishness. . . . His own enjoyment, or his own ease, was, in every particular, his ruling principle.”

—Elinor Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility (397–98) 

In 1821, one of Austen’s early reviewers, clergyman Richard Whately, wrote that Jane Austen “has the merit . . . of being evidently a Christian writer:  a merit which is much enhanced . . . by her religion being not at all obtrusive.”  He included Austen’s novels with “a much higher class” of novels that inculcate “practical lessons” “by example instead of precept” (359, 357).  Austen’s friend Mrs. Ann Barrett confirmed this perspective, saying that Jane Austen “had on all the subjects of enduring religious feeling the deepest and strongest convictions” and that Austen believed “that example and not ‘direct preaching’ was all that a novelist could afford properly to exhibit” (qtd. in Le Faye 233).  From a religious perspective, Austen’s Anglican faith and moral values strongly underpin her plots and characters, as Laura Mooneyham White, Irene Collins, William Jarvis, and other authors have shown.  In Sense and Sensibility, Austen highlights Elinor Dashwood as an example, or model, of Christian virtues including self-denial, fortitude, and forbearance.  In fact, Marianne explicitly says Elinor was an “‘example’” to her, and she compares her conduct with Elinor’s (392, 391).

The language Austen uses in Sense and Sensibility gives clues to her religious and moral emphasis.  Selfishness or self-interest (sometimes just called interest) is mentioned thirty times.  Self-denial is only mentioned once but is often implied.  Other religious virtues also appear: self-command or self-control (twelve times); fortitude, the “power of acting or suffering well” (ten times); forbearance, which is “command of temper,” a type of self-control (four times); gratitude or grateful, “a virtue . . . an inward sense and an outward acknowledgment of a benefit received” (thirty-five times); and candour or candid, which at that time meant giving someone the benefit of the doubt and thinking the best of others (six times).1  Other specifically religious vocabulary is also repeated in the novel.  Austen mentions conscience or conscientious sixteen times, atonement or atone seven times, and repentance or penitence seven times. 

Some of Austen’s religious vocabulary is less obvious to modern readers since usages have changed.  Modern secular readers are unlikely to assume the religious implications of these words that Austen’s original readers would have understood.  In this essay we’ll explore how Austen uses the words exert or exertion (thirty-two times!), duty (nineteen times), principle (eleven times), unprincipled (three times), and serious (four times with this meaning) with religious connotations.  All these words could be used in other ways at that time as well as now, but they were commonly used for religious ideas during Austen’s time.  They might be called “faith words,” since they are words with implications of religious faith.  Austen’s extensive use of these words in Sense and Sensibility emphasizes her moral message. 

Morality by example: selfishness and self-denial 

This religious vocabulary is used to support Austen’s theme of selfishness and self-denial.  Austen offers three examples of self-denial for readers to emulate:  Elinor, Edward Ferrars, and Colonel Brandon.  They “exert” themselves to overcome their selfishness and fulfill their moral and religious “duty” to love their neighbors as themselves.  Self-denial is a fundamental principle in the Bible as Christians are called to deny their own selfish desires out of love for God and others.  In Matthew 16:24, Jesus says, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (KJV).  This statement occurs three times in the gospels, which Austen would have read every year, following the Book of Common Prayer

Such self-denial is highlighted by contrast with the selfishness of other characters, from the first to the last chapter of Sense and Sensibility.  Austen specifically calls eight characters “selfish”:  John and Fanny Dashwood, Mrs. Ferrars, Lucy Steele, Lady Middleton, Mr. Palmer, Willoughby, and Marianne, plus Robert Ferrars, whose “self-complacency” after receiving his brother’s inheritance makes him another prime example of selfishness (5, 6, 104, 160, 261, 345, 375, 389, 337).  For Willoughby, “‘self-denial is a word hardly understood’” (397). 

figure 1

Illustration by C. E. Brock
(Click here to see a larger version.)

At the very beginning of Sense and Sensibility, John Dashwood is characterized as “cold hearted, and rather selfish,” while his wife, Fanny, is “a strong caricature of himself;—more narrow-minded and selfish” (5–6).  The comic scene in chapter 2 vividly illustrates their characters.  John has promised to help his stepmother and stepsisters, but Fanny appeals repeatedly to his selfishness until he does nothing for them.  According to Edward Copeland, Austen highlights the religious dimension of this discussion by framing it with biblical allusions.  John Dashwood states, “‘It was my father’s last request to me . . . that I should assist his widow and daughters’” (10).  Copeland says this phrase “echoes numerous and powerful injunctions in both Old and New Testaments of the Bible that the prosperous assist ‘the fatherless and the widow’” (439n3).  One example of many is I Timothy 5:3–4, which requires relatives to care for widows.  At the end of John and Fanny’s discussion, John is no longer ready to substantially assist “the fatherless and the widow.”  Instead, he “resolved, that it would be absolutely unnecessary . . . to do more for the widow and children of his father, than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out” (15).  Copeland calls these words “an allusion to frequent Old and New Testament injunctions to assist one’s neighbour” (441n17).  Matthew 22:39 and other passages in the Bible require people to love their neighbours (all other people) as they love themselves, but John and Fanny plan not to love even their relatives but to selfishly keep all their money for themselves and their child. 

Self-denial and a “faith word”: exertion 

In contrast to John and Fanny’s selfishness in the first two chapters, Austen provides an example of self-denial in the first chapter.  Elinor’s “exertions” to deny herself and not give in to her feelings begin with John and Fanny’s arrival at Norland.  While her mother and sister are indulging their grief, “Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself.  She could consult with her brother, could receive her sister-in-law on her arrival, and treat her with proper attention; and could strive to rouse her mother to similar exertion, and encourage her to similar forbearance” (8, my italics).  Here, and throughout the book, Elinor exerts herself to be polite.  Politeness for Austen is more than just an outward form.  It means treating the other person with attention, kindness, and gratitude, as Elinor does here; in biblical terms, it is loving one’s neighbor as oneself. 

Later, when Lucy tells Elinor about her engagement, Elinor must exert herself again. “[E]xertion was indispensably necessary, and she struggled so resolutely against the oppression of her feelings, that her success was speedy” (154, my italics).  She might have indulged herself by breaking down into tears or shouting at Lucy, but her exertion leads to self-control instead.  Elinor recognizes her feelings but does not allow them to control her reactions. 

Forms of the word exertion appear thirty-two times in the novel, and about half of them relate to Elinor.  For example, she “exerts” herself to get Marianne out of the house, to conceal Lucy’s secret, which she has promised to keep, to give Lucy time with Edward, and to tell Edward about his living; she also tries to persuade Marianne to exert herself (99, 161, 275, 326, 211).  In each case she is practicing self-control to do something she considers to be her religious duty.  Stuart Tave, in Some Words of Jane Austen, says that exertion had religious implications, meaning “the outward and social manifestation of the inward and religious conquest” (113).  Examples of exertion in Johnson’s Dictionary are connected with the soul, morality, and virtue.  Sermon excerpts in Elegant Extracts, a book Jane Austen owned and apparently valued (“Elegant Extracts”), often connect exertion with religious values.2  For example, in a selection included in Elegant Extracts, Hugh Blair, a clergyman mentioned in Mansfield Park (108) and Northanger Abbey (109), says, “Virtue must be formed and supported, not by unfrequent acts, but by daily and repeated exertions” (Knox 80, my italics).  Thus, exertions in this context are toward virtue or moral behavior.  Laura Mooneyham White defines exertion as “struggling to do the right thing out of a sense of religious duty” (60). 

Faith word: duty 

Elinor constantly “exerts” herself to do what is right, to do her “duty.”  For example, when Marianne asks her how she has been able to remain calm and cheerful for four months, knowing the man she loved was engaged to someone else, Elinor responds, “‘By feeling that I was doing my duty.—My promise to Lucy, obliged me to be secret. I owed it to her, therefore, to avoid giving any hint of the truth; and I owed it to my family and friends, not to create in them a solicitude about me, which it could not be in my power to satisfy’” (297, my italics).  Marianne responds with amazement that Elinor could have hidden her feelings for four months, despite truly loving Edward.  Elinor responds, “‘But I did not love only him;—and while the comfort of others was dear to me, I was glad to spare them from knowing how much I felt’” (297). 

What is this duty that motivates Elinor to exert herself?  One definition of duty in Johnson’s Dictionary is “Acts or forbearances required by religion or morality,” meaning actions that religion or morality require one to do or to avoid doing.  A Companion to the Altar also helps illuminate the idea of duty.  Jane Austen owned this book and apparently read it often (Collins 72).  It prepares a person to take Communion in church, giving prayers and areas of self-examination so she can recognize and repent of her sins.  One of the prayers asks for God’s deliverance from “self-love,” or selfishness, along with other “evils” (Vickers 43).  Another reads, “Take from me all self-love, and give me perfect love for thee [God] . . . that I may now be more faithful in my Duty” (35).  In other words, self-love, or selfishness, was the opposite of loving God and doing one’s duty. 

We know what Austen was taught about duty as she was growing up.  Her father, the Reverend George Austen, in a much-treasured letter to his son Frank, wrote: 

The first & most important of all considerations to a human Being is Religion, or the belief of a God & our consequent duty to him, our Neighbour, & ourselves—In each of these your Catechism instructs you, & for what is further necessary to be known on this subject in general, & on Christianity in particular I must refer you to that part of the Elegant Extracts where you have Passages from approved Authors sufficient to inform you in every requisite for your belief & practice. (my italics, underlining in original) 

Rev. Austen says that Christians have important duties to God, to other people, and to themselves.  These duties are explained in the church catechism and expanded on in Elegant Extracts

The Catechism is part of the Book of Common Prayer, the handbook of Anglican worship.  Children like Jane Austen memorized the catechism before they were confirmed (so that they could take Communion in church), usually in their teens.  The Catechism is a series of questions and answers on basic church doctrine that define a person’s religious duties, expanding on the Ten Commandments, which the child also memorized.  One question asks: 

What is thy duty towards God? 

My duty towards God, is to believe in him, to fear him, and to love him with all my heart, with all my mind, with all my soul, and with all my strength; to worship him, to give him thanks, to put my whole trust in him, to call upon him, to honour his holy Name and his Word, and to serve him truly all the days of my life. 

The answer explains one’s first type of duty, towards God.  (It is based on the first four of the Ten Commandments.)  Jane Austen apparently did not consider this duty towards God an appropriate focus for novels, although we do see it somewhat in Marianne’s repentance after her illness.  In her novels Austen did, however, show people performing or not performing their duties toward other people, as delineated in the next Catechism question: 

What is thy duty towards thy neighbour? 

My duty towards my Neighbour, is to love him as myself, and to do to all men, as I would they should do unto me:  To love, honour, and succour my father and mother: . . . To hurt no body by word or deed:  To be true and just in all my dealings:  To bear no malice nor hatred in my heart:  To keep . . . my tongue from evil-speaking, lying, and slandering:  To keep my body in temperance, soberness, and chastity:  Not to covet nor desire other men’s goods; but to learn and labour truly to get mine own living, and to do my duty in that state of life, unto which it shall please God to call me. 

Here the Catechism summarizes one’s duty to others as loving other people as you love yourself and treating others as you would like for them to treat you.  (This question expands on the last six of the Ten Commandments.) 

Elinor carefully fulfills these religious duties.  For example, in keeping Lucy’s secret, Elinor is fulfilling her duty to her “neighbour,” treating Lucy as she herself would want to be treated, even if Lucy does not deserve it, and being “true and just in all her dealings.”  Elinor also strives to “hurt no body by word or deed,” as the Catechism states, by staying cheerful so that her unhappiness does not make her family unhappy. 

Austen often calls Elinor’s exertions “self-command.”  When Marianne is concerned about Elinor’s relationship with Edward, she compares her own emotionalism with Elinor’s self-control, saying, “‘Even now her self-command is invariable.  When is she dejected or melancholy?  When does she try to avoid society, or appear restless and dissatisfied in it?’” (47, my italics).  Elinor’s self-command enables her to participate in social interactions politely and considerately.  When Elinor recommends “self-command” to Marianne, Marianne summarily rejects the idea (63). 

Marianne thinks that Elinor’s self-command means that Elinor’s feelings are not strong.  When Lucy Steele tells Elinor that she and Edward are secretly engaged, however, Elinor has to respond “with an exertion of spirits, which increased with her increase of emotion” (150); the more strongly Elinor feels, the more she has to exert herself in order to practice self-control.  She explains later to Marianne how much she suffered, “‘without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature,’” concluding, 

“The composure of mind with which I have brought myself at present to consider the matter, the consolation that I have been willing to admit, have been the effect of constant and painful exertion;—they did not spring up of themselves;—they did not occur to relieve my spirits at first.—No, Marianne.—Then, if I had not been bound to silence, perhaps nothing could have kept me entirely—not even what I owed to my dearest friends—from openly shewing that I was very unhappy.”  (298–99) 

Austen has placed Elinor in a worst-case scenario.  Elinor cannot share her feelings without breaking her promise to Lucy.  In other circumstances, it would have been right for her to share her feelings with her family, while trying to avoid Marianne’s excesses and not make them miserable.  In these circumstances, however, Elinor says that with “‘constant and painful exertion,’” she kept her religious duties, the duties she “owed” to her friends, putting her family first, loving others as herself, and staying “true and just,” as the Catechism states, even to Lucy. 

Selfish exertion and imagined duty 

Austen, with her consummate skill, also takes these words exertion and duty and uses them ironically to show selfish characters who pretend to do what is right, or even deceive themselves that they are doing what is right.  Their “exertions” do not even require much effort.  For example, Lady Middleton is a woman of “cold hearted selfishness” (261).  When a conversation turns to Charlotte Palmer’s expected confinement, “Lady Middleton could no longer endure such a conversation, and therefore exerted herself to ask Mr. Palmer if there was any news in the paper” (125, my italics).  Her “exertion” consists of one sentence toward establishing her own comfort.  Willoughby’s “exertion” is more difficult but still selfish.  When he meets Marianne at a party in London, he is at first embarrassed, as he should be, but “on catching the eye of the young lady with whom he had been previously talking, he felt the necessity of instant exertion” (201):  answering Marianne coldly and leaving her.  His “exertion” is to continue his selfish path toward money rather than acting honorably and lovingly toward Marianne. 

John and Fanny Dashwood’s “exertions” are also described ironically.  When his stepmother moves to distant Devonshire and her furniture must be sent by water, John Dashwood is “conscientiously vexed” because he cannot perform “the very exertion to which he had limited the performance of his promise to his father” (30, my italics), that of helping his stepmother move.  He tries to numb his conscience with a minimal “exertion” but cannot even do that.  His wife, who refuses to invite Elinor and Marianne to stay with them in London, performs a similar trivial “exertion” when they are about to leave:  “She even proceeded so far as to be concerned to find that Elinor and her sister were so soon to leave town, as she had hoped to see more of them;—an exertion in which her husband, who attended her into the room, and hung enamoured over her accents, seemed to distinguish every thing that was most affectionate and graceful” (340, my italics).  Her “exertions” are false words. 

John Dashwood also misuses the word duty.  As an excuse for not buying a small gift for his sisters, he complains of the expenses of enclosing land and buying property, both of which benefit himself.  He says he felt it his “‘duty’” to buy the land, adding, “‘I could not have answered it to my conscience to let it fall into any other hands’” (256).  This is not the duty of loving God and others, though he may consider it his duty to himself (that is, his imagined duty to increase his fortune).  His conscience should instead be reminding him of his failure in his religious duties to keep his promise to his father and provide for “the widow and the fatherless.” 

Faith word: principle 

While John, Fanny, and Willoughby fail in their religious duties, Elinor tries to fulfill another religious duty.  She attempts to avoid Edward and decrease her attachment to him, in order not to “covet” a man who belongs to another woman.  (Not coveting is part of one’s duty, listed in the Catechism, based on the tenth of the Ten Commandments in the Bible.)  Elinor determines “to act by [Lucy] as every principle of honour and honesty directed, to combat her own affection for Edward and to see him as little as possible” (163, my italics). 

As Tave points out, principle is a word of “religious weight” for Austen (112).  In Pride and Prejudice, for example, Darcy says he was “‘given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit’”:  in other words, he was taught what was right, but he did not apply what he knew (409).  One definition of principle in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is “Tenet on which morality is founded,” with an example quote from Addison’s Cato including “those stubborn principles/ Of faith, of honour.”  Moral and religious principles are foundational beliefs about right and wrong that govern people’s lives. 

These foundational beliefs can be good or bad.  Austen condemns Willoughby’s basic principles—identifying selfishness as his guiding principle—when Elinor sums up his actions for Marianne near the end of the book: 

“The whole of his behaviour,” replied Elinor, “from the beginning to the end of the affair, has been grounded on selfishness.  It was selfishness which first made him sport with your affections; which afterwards, when his own were engaged, made him delay the confession of it, and which finally carried him from Barton.  His own enjoyment, or his own ease, was, in every particular, his ruling principle.” 

“It is very true.  My happiness never was his object.” 

“At present,” continued Elinor, “he regrets what he has done.  And why does he regret it?—Because he finds it has not answered towards himself.  It has not made him happy.”  (397–98) 

Willoughby’s “ruling principle” is his own pleasure or comfort.  Morning and Evening Prayers in the Book of Common Prayer begin with the congregation reciting a general confession:  “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.”  This is exactly what Willoughby has done.  His “principles” are flawed; he follows the “devices and desires” of his own heart, rather than fulfilling his duties to love God and others. 

Modern readers may more easily recognize that the opposite of principledunprincipled—means a lack of good moral values.  In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet, in reconsidering Darcy, has not “seen any thing that betrayed him to be unprincipled or unjust—any thing that spoke him of irreligious or immoral habits” (230, my italics).  Unprincipled is thus the opposite of religious or moral.  Elinor considers Marianne’s “disengagement” from Willoughby “an escape from the worst and most irremediable of all evils, a connection, for life, with an unprincipled man” (209–10, my italics). 

Edward Ferrars similarly escapes a connection with an unprincipled woman:  Lucy Steele.  Lucy’s principles are all selfish.  Elinor notes that “self-interest alone could induce a woman to keep a man to an engagement, of which she seemed so thoroughly aware that he was weary” (173).  Lucy’s “self-interest,” or selfishness, leads her to prolong the engagement, hoping it will benefit her, without caring about Edward’s happiness.  Once she marries Robert, obtaining the wealth that was her goal, her “selfish sagacity” leads to “respectful humility, assiduous attentions, and endless flatteries” (426) that win over the equally selfish Mrs. Ferrars.  As Austen ironically summarizes in the last chapter of the book: 

The whole of Lucy's behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.  (426, my italics) 

The “sacrifice of . . . conscience” shows that Austen condemns Lucy’s “self-interest” as morally wrong.  (Johnson says that conscience is how “we judge the goodness or wickedness of ourselves.”)  The selfish characters in the book, including Lucy, get what they want:  money.  Their moral faults do lead to some kinds of unhappiness, though: “jealousies and ill-will” between Fanny and Lucy, “frequent domestic disagreements” between Robert and Lucy (428), and “envy” and “regret” for Willoughby (430).  But none is always miserable; the novel ends comically, not tragically. 

In contrast to these selfish or “unprincipled” characters, Elinor is first attracted to Edward by “‘his sense and his goodness . . . , the excellence of his understanding and his principles’” (23, my italics).  Here she clearly connects “principles” with “goodness,” right moral behavior.  Marianne also notices Edward’s good principles, saying, “‘I really believe he has the most delicate conscience in the world; the most scrupulous in performing every engagement however minute, and however it may make against his interest or pleasure.  He is the most fearful of giving pain, of wounding expectation, and the most incapable of being selfish, of any body I ever saw’” (277).  This commendation is truer than Marianne knows.  Edward is unselfish in keeping to his engagement to Lucy even though he does not love her.  He believes Lucy to be “thoroughly attached to himself,” loving him, so he sets aside his own feelings because of hers (415–16).  He has also given his word to marry Lucy, and he keeps his promise until he is “honourably released” by her marriage to Robert (412).  His “good principles” lead him to treat Lucy kindly and honorably, even to his own detriment. 

Edward is not perfect, however.  Like all Austen’s characters, he is a realistic, flawed person.  As Whately says, Austen “does not deal in fiends and angels” (365).  After Edward’s proposal, Elinor scolds him, “harshly as ladies always scold the imprudence which compliments themselves” (416).  Edward confesses that he “‘was wrong in remaining so much in Sussex’” (417), so that he and Elinor fell in love.  This mistake has been bothering his conscience (275).  He explains it as “an ignorance of his own heart, and a mistaken confidence in the force of his engagement” (417).  In other words, he recognizes his fault and confesses it, as the Bible requires (James 5:16).  Elinor, who loves him, easily forgives him.  In fact, it appears that she had already forgiven him, when earlier she explained his conduct to her own satisfaction:  “‘I acquit Edward of all essential misconduct. . . . Nothing has proved him unworthy’” (298–99). 

figure 2

Illustration by C. E. Brock
(Click here to see a larger version.)

Marianne is not impressed by Elinor’s praise of Edward’s principles, but her later failure to distinguish Willoughby’s poor principles leads to heartbreak.  In the end, however, she marries Colonel Brandon, a man, like Edward, imperfect, but of “good principles” (419).  Mrs. Dashwood admires Brandon’s fixed “‘character and principles,’” praising his “‘gentleness’” and “‘genuine attention to other people’” (383).  Colonel Brandon acts selflessly, at least in some ways.  He obviously feels pain whenever he is with Marianne, especially when she avoids him.  He has no real hope of attaching her:  “‘I could have no chance of succeeding’” (197).  And yet he stays close to her family, serving them however he can.  With much “exertion,” he tells Elinor about Eliza, even though the story is painful and embarrassing to him (234), to benefit Marianne and help her heal from Willoughby’s rejection.  This “exertion” also benefits Colonel Brandon himself, since he is rewarded by Marianne’s “increase of good-will towards himself” (246). 

Marianne, selfish or self-denying? 

What about Marianne?  Does she exert herself to do her religious duty as Elinor does, or is she selfish?  For most of the book, she is selfish.  She is not irreligious or unprincipled, but, like Darcy, she does not act according to the principles she knows.  After her father dies, there are many duties to be performed, but instead she and her mother seek “increase of wretchedness” and resolve “against ever admitting consolation” (8).  Later, after Willoughby leaves Barton, Marianne gives way to “violent sorrow,” which she feeds and encourages “as a duty” (90), making her family unhappy as well.  Her idea of duty is selfishly letting her emotions control her, rather than loving others by controlling herself.  She judges based on feelings, not on religious principles as Elinor does, as is clear when Elinor challenges her visit to Allenham, and she responds:  “‘we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure’” (80); her pleasure in the visit convinces her that it was a morally acceptable action. 

After Willoughby rejects her, choosing his own financial security over her happiness, Marianne again gives way to her feelings.  This response makes Elinor miserable, even as she still undertakes all the “duties” of politeness to their hostess and others.  Elinor adjures Marianne to work at controlling herself:  “‘Exert yourself, . . . if you would not kill yourself and all who love you’” (211).  Marianne thinks such exertion impossible.  Unaware of Elinor’s suffering, she cries, “‘Oh! how easy for those who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion!’” (211) 

Later, Marianne begins to understand how miserable Elinor has been, crying, “‘Is this my gratitude!’” (299).  Gratitude is another religious duty, one that leads Marianne to exert herself to at least be discreet and not betray bitterness (300).  Elinor has set an example for Marianne by exerting herself to treat others kindly and not make them miserable with her own pain.  Marianne, however, 

felt all the force of that comparison; but not as her sister had hoped, to urge her to exertion now; she felt it with all the pain of continual self-reproach, regretted most bitterly that she had never exerted herself before; but it brought only the torture of penitence, without the hope of amendment. Her mind was so much weakened that she still fancied present exertion impossible, and therefore it only dispirited her more.  (306˗07, my italics)  

figure 3

Illustration by C. E. Brock
(Click here to see a larger version.)

Marianne is sorry:  feeling penitence, a word with religious connotations of repenting before God, asking forgiveness, and choosing to change.  But she is only at the beginning of this process.  She still does not think she can exert herself.  She continues to allow her feelings to control her, until, as Elinor has prophesied (211), Marianne nearly kills herself.  She says afterward that if she had died, it would have been “‘self-destruction,’” suicide (considered a major sin), caused by her own “‘want of fortitude,’” her lack of another religious virtue.  She also recognizes her failures toward God, saying she is eager “‘to live, to have time for atonement to [her] God’” (391).  Atonement means expiation, paying for a wrong done, as, in Christian theology, Jesus atoned for people’s sins on the cross.  Marianne recognizes that she has sinned against God.  She has failed in her religious duty to love and obey him, and she wants time to make her relationship with God better. 

Marianne confesses that she has also failed in her religious duty to love other people, her “neighbours” as the Bible calls them, as she loves herself.  She finally repents of her “‘fretful selfishness’” and chooses to exert herself to act differently:  “‘Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged.  Every body seemed injured by me’” (391–92, my italics).  She lists Mrs. Jennings and others whom she wronged by being “‘insolent and unjust,’” not loving them as herself.  Marianne also confesses her selfishness in not being polite or expressing gratitude toward their hosts.  Towards her mother and sister, she selfishly failed to be “‘considerate of . . . [their] comfort’” or take any part in their responsibilities to others.  She acknowledges that she turned “‘away from every exertion of duty or friendship’” and selfishly focused on her own sorrow, leaving those she loved “‘to be miserable’” for her sake (392). 

Faith word: serious 

Marianne goes through the stages of true Christian repentance, according to the Book of Common Prayer (Cox, “Marianne Dashwood’s Repentance”).  True repentance requires not only recognizing sins and being sorry, but also choosing to change.  Marianne changes almost immediately.  She says goodbye to Mrs. Jennings with gratitude, “respect and kind wishes,” because she is sorry for her “past inattention” (386).  During the journey home, Marianne shows “an apparent composure of mind,” which Elinor believes is the result of “serious reflection” (387).  According to Tave, serious in Austen often means religious, and serious reflection generally means prayer (112, 114).  Austen implies that Marianne has been examining her behavior before God, likely asking him to help her change. 

When they enter Barton Cottage, Elinor believes that Marianne’s mind has been “awakened to reasonable exertion” (387, my italics), as Marianne firmly chooses to accept all that reminds her of Willoughby and still speak cheerfully.  If she sighs, she gives also “the atonement of a smile” (388, my italics)—once again, religious vocabulary.  She plans long walks to sites with religious names:  Barton-Cross, the Abbeyland, the Priory (White 118).  She also plans a “‘course of serious study’” (388), which, as Laura Mooneyham White points out, means religious study, reading sermons and devotional works (61).  Austen herself enjoyed such reading. 

Marianne thus turns from her selfishness and begins to exert herself to fulfill her religious duties to love others—“‘my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. . . . I shall now live solely for my family.’” In other words, she will live for other people, not herself.  She adds that she will only mix in society to show that she can “‘practise the civilities, the lesser duties of life, with gentleness, and forbearance’” (393, my italics).  In a sermon included in Elegant Extracts, Hugh Blair emphasizes the importance of “gentleness” in the “smaller offices of life,” which he says are more important than “great events” (Knox 79–80).  Blair contrasts this gentleness with “the selfish, the sensual, and the vain, who are most subject to the impotence of passion” (82).  In other words, those like Marianne, who allow their feelings to control them, are focused on themselves.  He says the person who exerts herself to be gentle promotes “the happiness of others” (80).  Marianne is determining to put other people before herself in small, everyday interactions. 

Marianne promises that her remembrance of Willoughby will “‘be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment’” (393).  She believes that her faith in God (“‘religion’”) will help her change her life.  According to Blair, true “gentleness of heart flow[s] from the love of God, and the love of man” (Knox 82).  And Marianne does change.  She even finds “joy” (another word with religious connotations) in Elinor’s engagement, despite her own regrets (411).  Marianne becomes a woman who can marry Colonel Brandon and selflessly find “her own happiness in forming his” (430).  She enters on “new duties” as “the patroness of a village,” with many opportunities to do good for others (429–30).  Elinor, of course, also enters on new duties in her parish as a clergyman’s wife.  As Blair says, “the love of God and the love of man” will help them both control their emotions and care for others. 

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In this novel, Jane Austen uses examples to offer moral messages.  Selfish characters show readers what to avoid.  Elinor, though, provides a positive example by exerting herself to do her religious duty to love her neighbor as herself, recognizing her feelings but controlling their expression.  Marianne also provides a positive example as she examines herself, repents of her selfishness, and determines to apply the religious principles she knows.  Austen shows Marianne’s journey from selfishness to self-denial, finding “joy” in fulfilling her religious duty to love others as much as herself.


1The quotations are from Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, the definitive English dictionary of the time, written by one of Austen’s favorite authors, her “dear Dr Johnson” (8–9 February 1807).  The Knights’ library at Godmersham Park included two two-volume copies, a first edition from 1755 and an 1810 edition, so Austen had access to this dictionary (Barnum).  For candour, see Hugh Blair’s essay and Brenda Cox’s “Jane Austen Faith Word: On Candour and Jane Bennet.” 

2The first volume of Elegant Extracts reprints selected “Passages in Prose” that were intended to present “the purest principles of virtue and religion” (iii).  The first section, “Moral and Religious,” includes passages from sermons and other works giving moral advice.

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