In the first lecture of Hillsdale College’s free online Young Jane Austen course (which you can take along with me here), Larry Arnn explains why it’s important to study literature in order to understand the nature of mankind.
History and Literature Explain Aspects of Human Nature
In Jane Austen’s works “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” events unfold through the perspective of young women who learn about the natures of vice and virtue as they study and contemplate the characters of those around them in order to triumph over their own adversities. In both of these works, circumstances reveal aspects of the characters — which indicates Austen herself spent a great deal of time reflecting on what characteristics made men, and women, great or disappointing.
Austen’s characters were complex. Each one was neither completely good or completely bad, but rather a mix of honorable traits as well as dishonorable ones. In “Sense and Sensibility,” Elinor is even-tempered and self possessed, while her sister, Marianne, is more free spirited and able to enjoy greater peaks of joy. With that wider emotional range, however, comes instabilities and a person who is, for better or for worse, a slave to her passions. Ultimately, Marianne must understand this about herself in order to overcome the obstacles in her path.
Virtues like courage and moderation are character traits that reveal themselves when one is faced with great adversity or great pleasure. When one reacts courageously to the circumstances one might face or when behaves moderately in the face of great pleasure, one exercises virtue.
The Work Of Man Is Decision Making
Austen’s character’s reveal that making choices is the mechanism to practicing virtue. Much of her protagonists’ thoughts are centered around the choices one must make in the midst of one’s circumstances and it is at the moment when faced with a decision that a person reveals what thoughts have been swirling around in the mind.
In both “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility,” women are faced with tough choices and the apex of the plot focuses around the decision she must make. Their path through adversity and the choices they make along the way reveals aspects of their characters. When reading these works, one gets to watch these women make difficult choices from the perspective of an outsider. And this perspective is instructive to the inner and outer workings of both well and ill formed characters.
Throughout Austen’s works, the main characters are women who must marry in order to survive. They are faced with multiple proposals — some from men of good character and some from men with deplorable constitutions. When reading the pages of Austen’s aforementioned novels, the reader gets to experience the obstacles the characters are faced with and to intimately understand the inner workings of these young women’s minds. To read and absorb Austen’s works is to understand virtue and vice, as her characters aide the reader in identifying good and bad habits which either redeem or condemn them.