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Jane Austen’s Ode to Duty: Morality and Conscience in Sense and Sensibility

Pardon Oh God! the offences of the past day.  We are conscious of many frailties; we remember with shame & contrition, many evil Thoughts & neglected duties . . .

—Jane Austen’s Second Prayer (Later Manuscripts 574)

 Sense and Sensibility offers a unique opportunity in the writings of Jane Austen to understand something in the way her characters behave that accords with her own faith.  The concept of duty to others is essential to the Christianity that the author held, as the portion of the prayer she wrote, quoted above, affirms.  To disregard these hallowed obligations and offend the deity is to be shamefully weak and necessitates remorse; one is shirking one’s Christian duty.  Sense and Sensibility depicts a range of characters whose thoughts and actions vibrate with the intensity of their obedience to or defiance of these responsibilities to others, epitomized by the word duty.  We can follow John, Fanny, Marianne, and Elinor Dashwood, Lucy Steele, and Edward Ferrars along these passageways as the novel unfolds.  It is instructive to view the novel through the more compact perspective that William Wordsworth provides on this topic in his poem “Ode to Duty,” the insights of which revealingly coincide with those of the novel.

wordsworth britannica

William Wordsworth (1804),
by Henry Edridge.

In “Ode to Duty” Wordsworth defines duty as “a light to guide / A rod to check the erring, and reprove” (3–4).  For him, duty is manifest as “the Voice of God!” (1), telling Christians how to live in accordance with divine law and grace, how to be instructed and corrected along paths of charity, morality, justice, and mercy—a practice that, by habit, following both classical and Christian traditions (Pearce and Asch 164), becomes a means always “to act rightly.”  Whether Jane Austen ever encountered this poem, its sentiments resound throughout Sense and Sensibility and were at the heart of the Anglican Christianity that she and the poet shared (Dabundo, Marriage 1–8).  For Austen, as with Wordsworth, duty, that is, the sacred obligation to adherence to divine law, is manifest in one’s principled commitment toward family, friends, and church, personally and in community with others.  Jack Trotter explains what underpins this mode of action as “propriety,” which enables “genuine human community” (449–50).  By this argument, personal actions safeguard the interrelatedness of the Christian society that Wordsworth and Austen embrace in the morally guided world they seek to foster. 

William Wordsworth’s “Ode to Duty,” Stephen Gill writes, “is no one’s favourite poem,” largely because it is so abstract in language and focus (226).  In Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen makes the abstract concrete. 

First let us examine Wordsworth’s poem to see how it might frame Austen’s novel.  Following a Latin epigraph from the Roman Seneca, in which that speaker expresses his desire to learn how to do good actions (Pearce and Asch 164), the poem opens sharply with an exclamatory invocation:  “Stern Daughter of the Voice of God!”  Gill and Duncan Wu trace this apostrophe back to Paradise Lost, in which Eve interprets the divine dictum not to eat the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of good and evil as the “sole daughter of his voice” that, guided by human reason, humanity must mind (237).  Duty’s august heritage leads the poem’s speaker to declare duty the “check,” the reproof, the liberation from “vain temptations” and even “[f]rom strife and despair,” a “glorious ministry” to humankind (4–8).  The speaker congratulates those who conform to this calling—“Glad hearts,” he denominates them.  Even in youth and as they age, they know internally, from early on and with only occasional tottering, what it is to do and act rightly toward and on behalf of others at home and in communities abroad (9–16).  This is the stance of Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility

In the next few lines the speaker swerves from the abstract to the personal, though still in general terms, without particular specificity of incident.  That is, he talks of himself in relation to his subject. The respite from despair, a personal anxiety mentioned above, might signal this redirection.  In any case, he reports that in the past, “loving freedom,” he chose to serve as his own behavioral monitor:  “Resolved that nothing e’er should press / Upon my present happiness, / I shoved unwelcome tasks away” (25–31).  Such is the devil-may-care attitude of heedless, thoughtless youth:  do only what one wants to be happy in and for oneself, with no thought for how others might be hurt or hindered—behavior akin to that of Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele. But, as the speaker of the poem comes to understand, this approach to life is insufficient, finally, for mature and principled living.  Jonathan Bate reads into the Ode that the poet “is reproving himself for his own youthful errors of pantheism, republicanism and fathering an illegitimate child” (300).  Alan Liu notes that a question is posed and answered by the poem: “How can Man make the world more secure? . . . [H]e—and first of all the poet—must correct himself personally” (444).  Thus, whether the Ode is as revealing as Bate indicates, it does base its argument on individual responsibility for one’s actions, especially those that implicate others. 

Helen Darbishire also sees the poem as asking and answering a question:  “A young man comes to the end of his youth:  the vigour and confidence, which seemed to guide him inevitably in the paths of love and truth, are ebbing away:  how is his moral being to be sustained?  Wordsworth’s answer is the Ode to Duty” (63).  The speaker recognizes the essentiality of “quietness of thought,” “submissiveness,” even “denial and restraint” of his “own wish” and desires in a newly acknowledged freedom that paradoxically comes from embracing discipline (41–46).  In the adherence to something larger, greater than himself, he finally finds himself.  The poem states that this transformation yields “a second Will more wise” than that of youthful self-centeredness (48).  As Pearce and Asch observe, “Will” here is both the individual, rational will and a play on the poet’s first name, thus underscoring how personal this epiphany is (166). 

As it draws to a close, the “Ode to Duty” finds that second will or self.  The poem that opens with “Stern Daughter,” setting forth a legacy born of Paradise Lost, now reimagines that instructor as “Stern Lawgiver” (49):  remade, reimagined, and reborn as a kind of Mosaic legislator, delivering laws of obedience.  Yet, the images initially applied here are double-edged.  On one side, externally, perhaps, duty is “benignant,” bearing God’s grace and mildness, with “Flowers” and “fragrance,” as the speaker declares, “Nor know we any thing so fair / As is the smile upon thy face” (50–54).  But suddenly, the other side of duty, the might of this avatar, awful and awe-inspiring, is proclaimed:  “Thou dost preserve the Stars from wrong” (55).  This double-sidedness is relevant to Elinor Dashwood. 

Abruptly, the speaker now plunges again into himself inwardly and yet publicly in prayer: 

Oh! let my weakness have an end! 
Give unto me, made lowly wise, 
The spirit of self-sacrifice; 
The confidence of reason give; 
And in the light of truth thy Bondman let me live!  (60–64) 

Like Milton’s Eve, the speaker recognizes the necessity of reason, his conscious will, to remain active in the humbled individual who now is guided by the imperatives not of solipsism and selfishness but of responsible engagement with others in charity, justice, and mercy, family, community, and church.  It is a bondage that yields freedom.  He asks for this bondage, knowing that the task will be ever incomplete.  That is to say, his conversion is a process.  Weaknesses for Wordsworth, like the “frailties” to which Austen refers in the prayer that opens this essay, do not evaporate.  One must wage a constant battle to do good and right in the world, to be dutiful to God’s law. 

Accordingly, in “Ode to Duty,” the speaker by his confession earns the privilege to speak again as “impersonal Man,” the objective, abstract moralist and teacher, guide to other selves and souls (Liu 444).  He has not won the war, but he has accepted the gauntlet.  Duty is obeisance to God’s law, and for Anglican Christians like Wordsworth and Austen, the law follows the Biblical strictures laid down in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus identifies the two greatest commandments:  “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22.36–40).  These Biblical imperatives define one’s obligations to God, religious community, neighbors, and family—charity, justice, and mercy, inscribed in morality and conscience.  In other words, they constitute the individual’s moral imperative, his or her hallowed duty.  The poem dives deeply into the unique personality and sensibility of the speaker in order to comprehend the supreme agency of duty. 

Whereas Wordsworth charts youthful disobedience, Sense and Sensibility presents adults knowingly transgressing against duty to others.  Elinor Dashwood is the most conspicuous character associated with duty in the novel, especially with respect to honoring the painful, oppressive secret imposed on her by devious, malicious Lucy Steele (148–55), but others are no less burdened or conscience-stricken by weighty duty.  While John and Fanny Dashwood display nearly complete capitulation to self, and Lucy Steele demonstrates an indifference if not a lack of morality impervious to Christian duty, Marianne Dashwood and Edward Ferrars are perhaps the greatest exemplars of the struggles that the Ode lays out, succumbing and then surpassing their challenges at the end of the novel.  Let’s track them. 

John Dashwood in the very opening of the novel feels the gravity of his father’s deathbed request to him toward his stepmother and his sisters until his wife’s malign persuasion moves him otherwise.  The masterful deployment of free indirect discourse in the second chapter that moves from John Dashwood’s commitment to filial duty—his certainty that “‘The promise . . . was given, and must be performed’”—through Fanny’s arguments that his father was “‘light-headed,’” that the daughters are about to be married off, and, the coup de grâce, that they are only “‘half blood’” relations, wearing away his rudimentary sense of dutifulness to virtual oblivion (10–15).  Loyalty to his sisters and father through family and patriarchal obligation—standing in for the law of God the father—comes to naught.  Later on in the novel, the narrator remarks, “He had just compunction enough for having done nothing for his sisters himself, to be exceedingly anxious that everybody else should do a great deal” (259).  There’s a tinge of conscience here, with a tincture to dull it.  Such is the opposition to the divine duty to God and others that Sense and Sensibility first lays out. 

John Dashwood periodically in the rest of the novel has flickers of family devotion.  For instance, it occurs to him that he properly ought to invite his sisters, then visiting Mrs. Jennings in London, to be his guests.  When he broaches the subject to his wife, however, she quickly escapes the possibility of that charitable action by inviting the Steele sisters instead, vaguely suggesting another time for the Dashwood kin to stay.  The narrator’s language conveys how Dashwood morally temporizes:  “his conscience was pacified by the resolution of inviting his sisters another year” (287).  His conscience is the internal though not vigorous monitor of duty, easily and probably habitually assuaged. 

Fanny Dashwood is characterized as possessing “a kind of cold hearted selfishness” (261), though she too is not bereft of the pangs of morality.  The narrator notes that her constant disregard for her husband’s sisters manifests in that stance “when people are determined on a mode of conduct which they know to be wrong” (282). Thus Fanny is credited with the ability to distinguish right from wrong even if she does not act upon that knowledge.  And for a large part in this novel, she is surrounded by like-minded people, including her husband, who constantly reinforce her poor judgments. 

Lucy Steele is at the antipode of duty.  The narrator does not delve deeply into Lucy’s heart, as she does occasionally with John and Fanny, but allows Lucy’s actions to reveal her inner nature.  Hence, Lucy is presented via Elinor’s keen insight recognizing her “shrewd look” and an apprehension of Lucy’s “thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind” (143, 146).  These are words of condemnation.  While Fanny and John might equivocate, Lucy is absolute.  Shrewdness is the mark of the “subtil” serpent in the temptation in the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3.1), and to lack “rectitude” and “integrity of mind” translates to a complete absence of any acknowledgment of a distinction between good and evil.  Lucy is in a way the serpent in this garden.  She certainly poses a test, a temptation, for hapless Edward Ferrars, who willingly enough falls into her clutches, prey and victim. 

Lucy entices both Ferrars brothers, as well as Fanny Dashwood and her mother, with what the narrator terms her “selfish sagacity,” “cunning,” and calculation (426).  The reader only sees the results, not the strategic maneuvers. Edward can merely account for his surrender to Lucy by saying that, when they first met, she “‘appeared everything that was amiable and obliging,’” besides being “‘pretty,’” while he was “‘completely idle,’” shy, and friendless (410–11, emphasis added).  It is a sweet tale, effectively self-justifying, but notice the verb “appeared.”  Lucy is a mistress of deception and ploy.  Edward tries to make Elinor understand that the subsequent engagement, though covert, “‘was not inexcusable’” (411), but Elinor thinks differently.  When she first learns from Lucy of the surreptitious engagement, Elinor condemns his behavior at Norland as “highly blameable” (160).  It is wrong of him to continue their deepening relationship when he is not a free man.  But Elinor is a very forgiving soul. 

Before that point, Edward, suddenly coming to himself to what he has wrought, has a moment of restoration to virtuous, dutiful conduct at his awkward meeting with Lucy and Elinor in Mrs. Jennings’s sitting room.  There he is with the woman he loves and the woman whom he is to marry.  Sometimes no language is the greatest communicator.  The narrator dryly notes, “Poor Edward muttered something, but what it was, nobody knew, not even himself” (276).  Confronted firsthand by the mess he has made, he must acknowledge to himself what his actions have created for himself and for these women.  Later, confessing to Elinor, he admits, “‘I thought it my duty . . . independent of my feelings, to give [Lucy] the option of continuing the engagement or not, when I was renounced by my mother, and stood to all appearance without a friend in the world to assist me’” (416).  Isolated, he now understands the power of duty.  Edward suffers the onus of his clandestine engagement to Lucy Steele, duty-bound to her, “the consciousness of doing right” his only compensation for that sacrifice (306) until circumstances unexpectedly alter.  Just as he had acceded to Lucy’s charms when he was alone, now, again in solitude, he rises to the challenge, and happily this time she chucks him.  Freed of Lucy, freed of his mother, Edward is now free to love and live with Elinor.  Thus is duty a discipline and a freedom. 

At the same time, Lucy, who has charmed and won what she sought from the Dashwoods and Ferrarses, is judged by the narrator’s icy irony:  “setting aside the jealousies and ill-will continually subsisting between Fanny and Lucy, in which their husbands of course took a part, as well as the frequent domestic disagreements between Robert and Lucy themselves, nothing could exceed the harmony in which they all lived together” (428).  Such chilly “harmony,” more like the ghastly frost of Dante’s lowest circle of hell, is the wages of sin, the abnegation of Christian duty. 

Before turning to Elinor, we must inspect the character of her sister.  When first encountered in Sense and Sensibility, Marianne Dashwood conflates what makes her happy with what is right (69, 80), thereby satisfying an aesthetic value rather than one morally grounded.  She professes to know Willoughby thoroughly because she is falling in love with him.  She must as a result pursue a delicate course.  She knows right from wrong, but she misapplies the lessons when it suits her.  For instance, Marianne refuses to join Lucy in praising Lady Middleton, whereupon the narrator notes that “it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell” (141).  Marianne develops an ethics not of duty but of sensibility, as opposed to Elinor, who seeks to act properly even if it means sometimes shading the truth.  Similarly, Marianne justifies her truly unjustifiable visit to Allenham without a proper chaperone or an invitation from its mistress by declaring, “‘if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure’” (80).  The visit is proper because she wishes it so.  Even her sister-in-law Fanny Dashwood or her brother John can feel the prick of conscience on occasion, but for Marianne at this point in her life, feelings trump morality.  But that position must undergo a revolution. 

Willoughby’s rejection of Marianne leads her to grief, but when she learns from her sister of his relations with Colonel Brandon’s ward, the narrator observes, “She felt the loss of Willoughby’s character yet more heavily than she had felt the loss of his heart” (241).  The news devastates her.  Her entire internal system of justice is shown to be awry.  Elinor’s sharing her private grief over Edward Ferrars’s secret engagement causes an accompanying cataclysm.  Marianne reacts extremely, swinging at first like a pendulum to liken Edward to Willoughby (296), then to self-abasement for her callous treatment of her sister during Elinor’s enforced discretion (299), but Marianne’s rebirth is not complete.  Her humiliation next takes on emotional and physical complements after she ventures into wet grass and wild woods (346).  Like Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park, Marianne is remade a better person as a result of convalescence and a near-fatal illness.  Just as Marianne falls to Willoughby’s false charms from which she must at least partially suffer when he returns her letters, so does she finally and completely emerge from her fallen state after a second recuperation from the more serious physical incapacity. 

Because Marianne is not the true heroine of this novel but only secondary, while she declares that in her illness she has had time to reflect on her behavior and accept her folly, her own selfishness, and atone, that stage is summarized, not shown.  Thus, whereas we peer into Elinor’s heart and mind and soul, everything about Marianne is observed from the external (Dabundo, Austen 146, 184, 188).  Marianne is transformed, as the narrator describes, “submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties . . . [as] a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (429–30).  The reader sees Marianne gladly—we are assured even if we do not witness—accepting that duty means discharging obligations of charity and love to family, community, and church, for the church was at the heart of the English village at this time. 

So what about Elinor Dashwood, who has figured prominently in the dramas of Lucy, Edward, and Marianne?  She is the perspective from which the entire novel takes its shape.  She is thereby its sole heroine and protagonist and the means by which the reader sees Marianne and the other characters in the novel.  She becomes in that way Sense and Sensibility’s moral compass, but she has her own personal and emotional drama that must play out. 

In an important conversation in Sense and Sensibility, when Elinor discloses to her sister that she has known of the concealed engagement, she uses the word “duty” twice.  Marianne asks Elinor in effect how can she have managed to be “‘So calm!—so cheerful!’” under the burden of confidentiality that Lucy has imposed upon her.  Elinor replies simply, “‘By feeling that I was doing my duty.—My promise to Lucy, obliged me to be secret’” (297, emphasis added).  Interestingly, she uses a word from Marianne’s vocabulary, “feeling,” though someone under the duress of rationality, as critics sometimes insist Eleanor is, might have preferred “thinking” or “reasoning.”  Wordsworth and Milton’s Eve, as we have seen, see reason as the expected guide.  But this diction shows how deeply within Elinor’s psyche this obligation extends, even during such an excruciatingly painful time as when she believes that Edward Ferrars is lost to her forever.  She suffers as profoundly over Edward as her emotionally wrought sister does over Willoughby, but Elinor does not expose her inner turmoil. 

There is a sacred fabric, woven of duty, that binds the community together.  As Elinor explains to her sister, “‘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).  If she had betrayed the confidence, others would have been saddened on her account, but to no avail.  She understands her connection, her obligation, her duty to Lucy and to her family and community.  Setting aside her own hurt or else absolving Edward, she affirms, conceivably more out of wistfulness than conviction, “‘I acquit Edward of all essential misconduct.  I wish him very happy; and I am . . . sure of his always doing his duty’” (298)—by which she means fidelity to his marital vows.  Here, again, though surely torn and grieving, she sides with duty to triumph over personal inclination, for Edward and for herself. 

Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars operate according to the same lodestar.  Though the reader sees him as fallen, to begin with, they are finally well matched.  Trotter notes,

Both Elinor and Edward remain true to their promises [both to Lucy Steele] because to break them would be morally repugnant. . . . [P]romises cannot be broken for the sake of merely personal advantage.  Whether the recipient of the promise is ‘worthy’ or ‘unworthy’ is not at issue.  Every broken promise has, sooner or later, wider social consequences, dissolving in some measure those bonds of trust that make genuine human community possible.  (449–50). 

In no way can Lucy Steele be considered worthy of the commitments made to her, first, by Edward in contracting a foolish, socially unacceptable engagement, and then, second, in engaging Elinor’s confidence concerning that engagement.  But that is not the point.  As Trotter argues, humanity’s “disposition to choose the good must be inculcated by habit and assisted by reason, as well as, of course, by prayer, participation in the sacraments, the Commandments, and . . . Holy Scripture” (451–52).  These would be the bedrock for Edward, who realizes his vocation for the priesthood in the course of the novel, and for Elinor, who realizes hers as a priest’s partner.  In enacting their duties to the church, just as Marianne must as village doyenne, this Ferrars couple becomes a type of Wordsworthian exemplar, modeling moral living for their families, friends, community, and church.  The Brandons and Ferrarses, then, dwell as neighbors, and Elinor and Marianne “live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands” (431) as the novel closes, in absolute opposition to the ironical use of “harmony” that describes the Dashwood/Ferrars settlement in London. 

Duty in the paradigm behind the works of Wordsworth and Austen can be seen as the human center of moral obligation from which radiates what one owes to family, friends, community, and church, where all is concentrated and united in worship and faith before and with God.  To continue with another analogy, duty operates on a kind of spectrum, from its negation as seen in Lucy Steele; to the wobbling and failures of John and Fanny Dashwood, who know but choose not to act properly; to Marianne Dashwood and Edward Ferrars, who know but err and reform; to Elinor Dashwood.  She is the “glad heart” whom Wordsworth singles out for ever knowing what duty is.  Wordsworth describes duty as both feminine and righteous, which is an apt description of Elinor, daughter of the Dashwoods, daughter as duty in Wordsworthian parlance.  Thus does the morality of heeding one’s conscience, of following one’s duty to undertake what is right, acting in accord with one’s Christian morality, play out throughout the course of this novel and drive its affairs to the close, amplifying the personal and exemplary pilgrimage presented by William Wordsworth.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005–2008.
  • Bate, Jonathan.  Radical Wordsworth: The Poet Who Changed the World.  New Haven: Yale UP, 2020.
  • The Bible.  Authorized King James Version with Apocrypha.  Oxford: OUP, 1997.
  • Dabundo, Laura.  Jane Austen: A Companion.  McFarland Companions to Nineteenth-Century Literature.  Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2021.
  • _____.  The Marriage of Faith: Christianity in Jane Austen and William Wordsworth.  Macon, GA: Mercer UP, 2012.
  • Darbishire, Helen.  The Poet Wordsworth.  Oxford: OUP, 1962.
  • Gill, Stephen.  William Wordsworth: A Life.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.
  • Gill, Stephen, and Duncan Wu, eds.  William Wordsworth: Selected Poetry.  Oxford: OUP, 1997.
  • Liu, Alan.  Wordsworth: The Sense of History.  Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 1989.
  • Pearce, Joseph, and Robert Asch.  The Romantic Poets: Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge.  San Franciso: Ignatius, 2014.
  • Trotter, Jack.  “Marianne’s Folly and the Rule of Propriety in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.”  Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility.  Ed. Eleanor Bourg Nicholson.  San Francisco: Ignatius, 2014.  449–61.
  • Wordsworth, William.  “Ode to Duty.”  William Wordsworth, Selected Poetry.  Ed. Stephen Gill and Duncan Wu.  Oxford: OUP, 1997.  138–40.
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