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“Her sensibility was potent enough!” : theatricality, moral philosophy, and the feminine ideal in Sense and Sensibility Leong, Haymen Gar Kern

Abstract

Much work has been done recently on the way late eighteenth and early nineteenth century British women novelists portray female experience. A considerable portion of this work on Jane Austen emphasizes a link between contemporary books on feminine conduct and the novel’s portrayal of its heroine’s subjectivity as well as the impact of the theatre and ideas about the theatre on her novels’ representations of feminine propriety. Nancy Armstrong argues that conduct literature for women in the eighteenth century became “such a common phenomenon that many different kinds of writers felt compelled to add their wrinkles to the female character” (65). Austen’s conception of the female ideal draws on conduct literature but she combines theatrical elements in her portrayals to introduce elements of social change. Recent studies have demonstrated Austen’s deep and abiding interest in theatrical representation and theatrical sociability. Critics, such as Joseph Litvak, argue that Austen’s novels share certain representational strategies with the theatre and “their very implication in a widespread social network of vigilance and visibility – of looking and of being looked at – renders them inherently, if covertly, theatrical” (x). This essay builds on this research; however, it focuses on another less discussed influence upon Austen’s novels. Specifically, it considers the influence of the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, particularly the writings of David Hume and Adam Smith, on the novel’s use of theatricality to represent the feminine ideal. Focusing on Sense and Sensibility, my argument is that Austen eschews Humean sympathy and uncontrollable passion in favour of Smith’s impartial spectator. Austen’s novel suggests a conservative model of proper feminine conduct that is characterized by perspicuity and a morality defined by Christian principles. Her emphasis on Christian principles, particularly conformity and self-denial stems, I argue, from her Tory Anglican beliefs and conscientious efforts to underscore the importance for females to adhere to tradition and regulate their desires. Supporting a Johnsonian perspective about human nature that private interests and desires must be curtailed, Austen stresses moral behaviour to support the Burkean model of preserving tradition and maintaining the existing hierarchical model of social structure.

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