Jane Austen: Happiness in Stories


Alisdair MacIntyre caused me to read all of Jane Austen’s works. The fact that I just happen to love her work made the reading all that more fun. He must also enjoy her works because he makes a bold claim that she represents the last of the great virtue ethics models as a novelist.

In my mind, she really represents the emergence of the novelist as such.

But MacIntyre doesn’t say much in “After Virtue” that isn’t worth a second look. So, now I really have to wander what he means on a whole slew of different interpretations. What does it mean to say she was writing on virtue? Particularly, what does he mean by this claim about virtue, and what does it mean she’s the last? Was he referring to her works as ways to model the acquisition of virtue or the demonstration of virtue? Could we say she was trying to teach wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice in her writings? Could we say she was influenced by Aristotle? Or Aquinas?

Jane (the namesake for my eldest daughter) writes at a crux in time and is really one of the first novelists. Even if you count earlier fair, it’s often not of the same quality or for the same purpose or with the same content. And honestly, reading the introductions to her works you often get the feeling that the writers of at least some of the intros were by far more infatuated with the infatuation in the story than anything else. I’ve even read one where the idea of the love story itself accounted for too much of the introduction to even make it credible.

The commentary then does not really help us sort out Jane in Alisdair’s mind. It may give us a better placement of Jane within the history of novel writing, but they don’t really offer a better picture of the ideas present in the novels.

More’s the pity. The rich layers of the novels from the titles down to the characters really offers up huge room for playful or serious analysis. Perhaps digging into some of the academic work on Ms. Austen’s work would be more illuminating, but somehow, I don’t think they would really tease out the ideas that Alisdair’s working from.

Given the context within his books, I think the answer to the questions above is an almost unilateral ‘yes’. The exceptions being the questions about Aristotle or Aquinas. Without doing further research, I don’t want to claim such ties, and it seems unlikely that she uses strict delineation of the cardinal virtues by those names. They all make their appearance, but not without context.

But saying all that is only where it starts.

MacIntyre really likes to work with stories. Through out his work he points to Homer using an epic to weave a common thread for Greek society. It’s in Homer that we see what courage is for a Greek or wisdom. Philosophers and playwrights all use these images as part of the common thread. The Aeneid offers the same for Rome. These stories become the foundation for moral inquiry and paint a picture of what it means to have a happy life.

It isn’t just an account of parables. Parables all fit within the context of the larger story that guides us to the happy life.

Jane definitely writes about people acquiring the happy life, and we find her weaving the tales well. Each character develops their own character and their own station through out the novels. We find praise for well thought out sentiment combined with action and cursing or suffering for those who’s action isn’t so thought out.

We also see random chance portioning meted out happiness according to one’s station. Reading Jane along side the ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ of Aristotle provides some serious time for fun analysis.

What MacIntyre says than is a comment on the fact that Jane Austen works to establish a story that can integrate into our self understanding of what it means to have the happy life. She does this more than those writers that follow her. The later I’m unsure of, but I truly think she offers brilliant insights into what makes for a happy life.


About Sean Smith

Husband, Father, Pastor, Swimmer, Writer, Reader, and attempted Adventurer!
This entry was posted in Fiction in Review, Non-Fiction in Review, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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