9/9: Jane Austen's Critique of Kant


Lest the message of what might have been is lost on the reader of “Mansfield Park”, Jane Austen steps forward as she opens the novel’s last chapter to give in a form even more terse than the rapid fire narrative of the events of the prior few months the denouement of her story. Far from drawing a moral message of how everything is resolved for better or worse, how people pair off as nature intended, with Fanny getting the Edmund she rightfully deserves, she shows that Fanny gets Edmund because that is all that she deserves, in the sense of a person who she is prepared to deal with and who is prepared to deal with her on the terms of the claustrophobic life of Mansfield Park now doubly enclosed by the moral Methodism which Mary quite properly characterizes as Edmund’s. It is not just that both Edmund and Fanny were quite right in thinking that they could not bear the constant sensations of dealing with the candor and overt feeling of their previously intendeds. It is also that they have each been more true, all along, to their own feelings of self respect which they see mirrored in one another than they have in the interests of the family at all.

To the reader’s surprise, there is no recrimination by the family for the role Fanny played, largely through inaction, in bringing about the scandal in the family. To the contrary, she seems all the more indispensable to Mrs. Bertram, and seems to Sir Thomas Bertram to have been morally correct in her reading of Henry, though she has her own silent misgivings about whether or not she would have not eventually accepted him if he had not been so foolish as to fall again, at least temporarily, for his prior love. Mary was quite right in thinking that a little encouragement by Fanny might well have saved him from following his impulses. Moreover, the family, in its morally diminished state, with Maria dishonored and Julia badly married, turns to Fanny as a reminder of what they themselves once were, an icon of country respectability, which she has become more than they ever were. And so her eventual marriage to Edmund, which had been unthinkable because of her rank, and because she was sisterly to him, becomes thinkable as the emphasis is placed on her as a distant relative who has risen in manners well enough to give substance to the feeling that the family is respectable once again, though she brings nothing else to the marriage.

Mrs. Norris, who had always served as the family Cassandra, reminding them at the very beginning that this is the way things might turn out, finds herself the subject of Sir Thomas’s disapproval, perhaps because she is a reminder of the extent to which the little girl who was taken out of charity to serve as a high level companion to his wife, has become the dominant figure in the family, replaced his own daughters in his favor, which seems particularly unnatural and uncalled for. Mrs. Norris, knowing that her place is no longer welcome, since in the key test of the Rushfords and the Crawfords she had seemed to judge badly, has little choice but to acknowledge her failure and move out, leaving the field not to Fanny who has after all moved far beyond her and replaced Lady Bertram as the leading woman in the family, but to Sally, Fanny’s younger sister, who has now become the main companion to Lady Bertram. That defeat by two sisters must have been too much, though as usual Jane Austen does not describe the emotions that have overcome her at the prospect of Sally, but she does describe the statements Mrs. Norris makes about the inconsiderateness of the family to Maria, and those seem just. Mrs Norris goes off to live with Maria as two ladies alone, which is no great sacrifice to Mrs Norris, who gains a companion and who can live in a style appropriate to someone who has rage against an unjust world, just as Fanny would have lived with William, her brother, if the concatenation of circumstances had not worked out in her favor.

Mrs. Norris is thought badly for her candor in saying what Fanny had thought, which is that her acceptance of Henry Crawford would have averted the family scandal. The family is in no position to consider such possibilities, but in the tradition of Humean morality, feels such sentiments as its position now entitles it to, which is to think well of Fanny. This fact finally secures Fanny's position, since it is no longer a matter of mere sentiment, of charity un-buttressed by self-interest.

Sir Thomas has no good explanation to give for the series of family disasters. He turns to the usual set of banalities that are trotted out by parents and experts whenever children of any social class go bad. He says he was too permissive with daughters who had been flattered by Mrs. Norris, as if she had raised them, but who is now the repository of all blame. Fanny had turned out well because of her adversity. This is so lame as to be comic, since Fanny's mistreatment by Mrs. Norris had not bothered him so much before then that he had put a general stop to it, however benevolent he was in lightening her disapproval of Fanny by granting individual acts of mercy and graciousness. Who would have needed the mercy of this beneficent God if God had not established a cruel world to begin with? The reader is also aware that the benefit of Mrs. Norris’ attentions had driven Fanny even more deeply into herself, made her a more clever version of Mrs. Norris, who knew better than to speak out of turn, and accounted in part for her inability to respond to Mr. Crawford, because she did not feel she could possibly deserve such attentions, given her condition and defects, all of which had been made abundantly clear by Mrs. Norris.

So Lionel Trilling is correct to say that the ending of “Mansfield Park” does not leave us feeling good, even though it ends with the conventional marriage of erstwhile hero and heroine and their entering into the life they desired. The ending is not satisfying, however, not because our hero and heroine are such smug creatures, but because the novel never lets the reader forget that any number of other possible endings might have taken place, and that this particular ending is not so perfect, for it represents the fact that Fanny and Edmund are limited in their prospects, settled for what was comfortable rather than what might have challenged their souls. This is less upsetting in the case of Edmund, who was never very perceptive, once he got interested in women, and who seems to have the character of a clergyman, which he was gracious enough to accept without complaining, once he had no choice but to become one, just as Fanny has once silently accepted the fact that she would probably never consummate her love for Edmund. It is more unsettling when applied to Fanny, who after all had potential, had made herself into a creature of the gentry class, but could never force herself to brave it into London or polished society.

Fanny had done more than she could have been expected to do. She was a girl who was clever and deferential, who turned her reading and her brain into a way of moving up significantly in social class partly because she had no choice but to succeed or fail, to live up to the correct manners required of her since the day she arrived at Mansfield Park or else risk being shipped back if she should lose favor. She had to make the manners part of herself more than the others did because she was so dependant upon them, and so they took over her being in a particularly remorseless way, which made her constitutionally incapable of taking on the next leap and transforming her personality into one that could have managed the moral life of the London set, though there is no reason to think it any way worse than that of the men in the country set, who simply disappear for long periods to go hunting, drinking and wenching at a distance rather than close to home. It is, moreover, understandable that having partially gained acceptance at Mansfield Park, though by no means secured it, she would not want to take a risk with her new found selfhood to remake herself yet another time. She was too old for that. Jane Austen's protagonist is therefore only heroic to an extent, to the point absolutely required by her condition, and since her condition is so precarious, and has been so for so long, she cannot be expected to drain herself of her remaining psychological resources by daring again to remake herself. That would be foolhardy, even if the reader would like to believe his heroine could go on forever outwitting the world and conquering ever upwards. Trilling finds society oppressive because it isn't pure possibility, but has some resilience of its own, giving under concentrated pressure but not always yielding. Jane Austen, to the contrary, seems to think Fanny's achievement remarkable enough without requiring her to toss it all away to become someone who might not be able to cope with a husband’s philandering.

An even more deflating residue of the novel, however, is its depiction of the nature of moral life as that is successively redefined by the novel. Morality as generalized principle comes to replace a calculus of self interest. The last chapter of the novel suggests that generalized principle is not enough because the world gets turned so topsy turvy that it is not clear whether a generalized principle is a good enough guide to self interest. At the end, it seems that Fanny has been good because she has been Kantian. She has embraced principle for its own sake. She acts correctly regardless of consequence, and proves to impress the rest of the world with her moral rectitude. Morality is her power and her strength.

But this is a very flawed version of Kant. Fanny’s is still what Kant would call a prudential morality in that it is adopted for want of any better way to act. A person acts morally only because whatever calculus one makes may not work out. This level of ignorance makes it incumbent to act morally in the first place because if things go wrong then there is the satisfaction, at least, of having acted properly. This is appropriate in a topsy turvy world, but it is not what Kant meant when he said that moral action should be taken for the love of acting morally not for the sake of being known to oneself, much less to others, as a person who acts morally. Fanny may come to learn to be moral as well as to want to be moral, just as Pascal suggests that practice may lead to belief, but she is not there yet, and it is not at all clear that that would be such a good thing. In a prescient critique based on Methodism of what would become elaborated as Kantian ethics, Jane Austen notes the moral deficiency of this moral stance. It involves an inturning of the self, a loneliness which no communication can breech, for only in the self is it known whether an action was taken for the right reasons. Kant may want to turn humankind into a set of moral monads, each person operating as if they were totally independent in the world, and only fortuitously conjoining their actions, or doing so on the basis of high seriousness, rather than on the basis of the give and take of life, but Austen sees this as a sacrifice which Edmund, but more especially Fanny, makes. Fanny's strongest moral trait is her reticence, her unwillingness to speak what is unbecoming even to herself, and that means that her life is necessarily filled with unvoiced defeats and even tragedies and even successes. She cannot gloat, but neither can she savor; she cannot whine and browbeat, but neither can she express or seek the need for compassion. This removal from human life has made her triumphant, but more largely speaking, it is what she is.

In short, the critique of Kantian morality is that it removes people from people, supplies them with only, perhaps, their own heart to consult, and even that at considerable risk. Kantianism is thence not a triumph of reason but a retreat into the Romanticism that is on the rise in the world: a paean to emotion that comes from the fact that people have become self-enclosed and therefore preoccupied with self rather than because they have been liberated into new kinds of experience. Jane Austen, who lives on the cusp between Classicism and Romanticism, is not unmindful of the kind of liberation Romanticism supplies. After all, her own self is turned to the energies of art and the position of the observer, but she does not contemplate, here at least, the position of the heroic poet who acts, the Byronic figure, but considers instead, how much is given up by looking at the multifaceted self and not at the multifaceted social reality it reflects, for that is to take a self out of the action, out of an engagement with life, and means betraying the self. Fanny's final tragedy has nothing to do with whether she marries Edmund or not. It has to do with the creation of a self other than the Classical one, and the ambiguities that are resident in such a self.

What accounts for Fanny's rise in the world from a poor relation to the new daughter in the family who will soon be courted by a highly eligible bachelor, and whom Sir Thomas has come to treat as his own daughter, and whom he likes and respects more than his own daughters? The suspense of the novel is that Fanny seems sooner or later to be headed for a fall, either through circumstances, which would make it unfortunate, through the venality of others, which would make it melodramatic, or through her own character, which would make it tragic.

All of these possibilities are available. Fanny is both headstrong and remote, and so could miss an opportunity available to her, or blurt out the well merited grievances she has piled up against the family, and suffer the consequences of being ungrateful to those who think there is no end to the gratitude she should feel towards them. She might not be able to withstand the onslaughts of Mrs. Norris, who would do anything to turn something Fanny does against her, whether it were deserved or not; or Lady Bertram, who is so suggestible and weak that someone could turn her against Fanny, or might manage to do so herself if for some reason she took it in her head that Fanny had been insufficiently attentive; or the sisters, who have no great use for Fanny if she should become of sufficient importance to be noticed by them as something other than a dependant.  

External events rather than family intrigue could also lead to Fanny's downfall. A turn in the family's fortunes, or a rearrangement of the family so that Lady Bertram would have to, let us say, take on Mrs. Norris as a permanent lady in waiting, or the need to pack off Fanny to serve that role for one of the sisters, would also lead to a reduction of Fanny from her recently elevated position to her "permanent" rank as a poor dependant. In any of those circumstances, Fanny might be turned against herself, reinterpreted herself as ungrateful, and so no longer secure in her insecure position.

None of these disasters come to pass even though the reader has been waiting patiently and deliciously for Jane Austen to invent a particularly clever and unexpected way for Fanny to fall, the novel serving as a kind of mystery story which provides clues but not the conclusion not to who done it but to how Fanny was done in. So the reader begins halfway through the novel to reread it for the reasons Fanny leads such a charmed life.

Fanny works her way into the good graces of the family because, first of all, they are not so grand as they make out. Sir Thomas had married considerably beneath him, for sentiment rather than good sense. He has a wife who needs constant attendance and is not much good for anything. But for her brief conquest, she might well have fared no better than her sister in Portsmouth who also married for love, but to less advantage. The work of Mr. Bertram’s' life seems to be to try to raise the sights of his wife and her relatives, to reach below him and provide civility to his inferior relatives, perhaps because that is the best such a soft hearted gentleman can be expected to do. In that case, Fanny appeals to him as another case to work on, and of considerably better capacity than the other materials he has tried to form, and so not so out of keeping with the rest of his life, either what he is doing now, or what he chose to do years before-- though it is to his credit that he does not harbor bitterness about past decisions.

Fanny is herself up to the task of being remade because she is more master of language than anyone else at Mansfield Park. She says things in the way they should be said or does not say them at all. She is not given to the gaffes of the rest, and so it is no wonder that Mary Crawford picks her out for friendship as one who can be talked to as a sister. Fanny is tongue-tied when she is called upon by Henry to say something to him, because nothing that she could say would tie together her feelings and her situation, but no one else in the family could have spoken with such candor to Mary, telling her that her brother was not to be trusted because he was a flirt, declaring her real motives in a morally appropriate manner, and so earn from Mary a laugh and a remark that acknowledge the truth of what she has said.

For this and other reasons, Mary takes Fanny to be the sort of person who could indeed rise up not only to the social class of the minor country gentry, but to the stature of the more worldly London families, who have their connections in the Admiralty and the other institutions that control English life, which is all the more reason why Mary is confused that Fanny would not take the opportunity to marry her brother, but seems instead to prefer the morality of country respectability, to which she and her brother have condescended with a liberality at once real and affected, as was the case with many Eighteenth Century city people who have nostalgia for what they see as an antiquated and disappearing but charming manner of life. Such a life is attractive to the Crawfords because it is a non-threatening alternative to their own insecure positions as the Fanny like relatives of a more distinguished family patron. They do not know that Fanny is shocked rather than sympathetic to their own view of the servility imposed upon distant relatives by the heads of families. They do not know that she is self-limiting and that therefore her failure to move up in society as far as she might could be considered tragic, our third possibility for explaining her fate, when it is, instead, settling for what she wants, and so not tragic at all, Jane Austen, among her other accomplishments in this novel, supplying an answer to the idea, which will become everywhere obvious in the Nineteenth and the Twentieth Century, that you are only satisfied if you go as high as you can. Jane Austen turns that wisdom on its head by declaring that people go only as far as they want to, and there are no end of sociological studies which justify the idea by showing that people do not go so much from the bottom to the top of the social ladder as move up one or two rungs in the course of their lives. Jane Austen explains why.