Jessie Frank: Imaginative Feminism in Austen

Imaginative Feminism in Austen’s Marriage Conclusions

Jessie Frank

Literary scholarship has conceded repeatedly that it is, in fact, possible to see Jane Austen’s matrimonial conclusions not as reducing her heroines to submissive beings essentially relational to a male other, but rather as a criticism of feminine oppression through her use of realism and irony. Through her use of realism, Austen exposes the limitations imposed on women by society, which included offering marriage as the only feasible option for a comfortable future. In this way, her work functions as more suggestive than explicitly normative, as she intricately depicted these restrictive realities but left their implications open to the reader’s own interpretation. Her lack of authorial direction allows the reader to imagine more radical possibilities for the heroine than Austen can realistically and logically provide within the pages of her novel, which, though fiction, are artifacts of her own social, economic, and cultural realities. By contrasting dysfunctional marriages against egalitarian unions within her novels, Austen paradoxically employs the marriage plot to critique the institution of marriage itself. It is through her crisp and laconic conclusions that she places agency with the reader and invites them into the radical imaginative domain, forcing them to consider alternative realities for the heroine that, because of their potentially progressive nature, are otherwise unavailable or infeasible within the constraints of the novel.

Austen’s novels emerged at a time when the Gothic and sentimental novel types, in which she both indulged and ridiculed, were highly popularized (Simons 467). Typically characterized by their fantastic improbability and unrealistic adventures that involved horror and extravagance, these novels, newly marketed and consumed in masses, were controversial socially and scrutinized academically (Simons 569, Sutherland). Austen, however, was uninterested in following these conventions preceding her, and instead sought to satirize them. “I could not sit seriously down to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life;” Austen wrote in a letter to librarian James Clarke, “and if it were indispensable for me to keep it up and never relax into laughing at myself or other people, I am sure I should be hung before I had finished the first chapter” (“Correspondence”). Her disdain for the outlandish novels of her time and her parodied critique of them is evidenced as early as her Juvenilia, in which she ridicules moralistic, conduct-inspired novels through plot-based narratives. Austen’s work indeed marks a clear shift away from unrealistic, fantastical realms and towards a new narrative that invests in the realistic and rational world as she encountered it. “What she strips away,” Kathryn Sutherland argues,  “is that improbability [of the Gothic novel]—concentrating instead on the lives of people rather like the rest of us – if we accept that the rest of us are, as it were, the middling classes and the gentry” (Sutherland).

This included, as critics have highlighted, capturing the ways in which women were oppressed by the patriarchal societies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is not without reason, then, that the very real emphasis placed on marriage within Austen’s courtship novels, which highlighted the lack of choices available to women, has made her work particularly attractive to feminist critics, many of whom have been unable to reconcile Austen’s novels with feminism because the institution of marriage itself  implies female subordination (Mooneyham White 71). Similarly, Devoney Looser, in her introduction to Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism, underlines that of those who do place Jane Austen within a feminist framework, a great deal of controversy remains.  Despite claims that Austen is not ‘feminist enough’, Looser points out that at the very least, “her texts contain significant commentary on what it means to perform the subject position ‘woman’” (Looser 9). What the unresolved controversy regarding the extent of Austenian feminism does prove, then, is that Austen’s feminism—regardless of its merits—is not easily apparent or overt. Thus, Austen’s novels are interestingly feminist not because they capture within their pages an explicit vision of a liberated femininity; rather they become feminist in that they urge the reader to meditate upon the constraints of reality, which Austen captures in her fiction.

However, to posit Austen and her works—artifacts of nineteenth-century patriarchy—as feminist to any degree is a radical, unrealistic act and can be seen as imaginative in that a feminist agenda floats above patriarchal realities available to women during this time period. In other words, the coexistence of realism and feminism seems unfeasible within the same text, as feminism itself suggests a re-imagination of the status quo, a status quo from which realism does not stray. As a result, when her courtship novels near their conclusions, Jane Austen is left with a paradox.  Lloyd W. Brown articulates this challenge, explaining, “given Jane Austen’s decided preference for the realistic possibilities of fiction, and given opposing standards of some reviewers and readers, the novelist is obviously left with the problem of concluding her story without sacrificing her comic view of reality to the rigid canons of poetic justice” (Brown 1582). In an attempt to uphold realism, Austen’s turn toward the marriage plot allows her to follow the most logical and realistic path for her characters, and, in sparing the reader few details regarding the actual marriage of hero and heroine, maintains the feminist potential of the heroine.

Austen does not subject her heroines to marriage, then, to promote an anti-feminist version of reality; instead, her decision to marry her heroines reflects the constraints of the novelist herself, as, if she does not wish to undermine her realism, marriage is not just her heroine’s only option, but it is Austen’s only logical authorial possibility, as well. Karen Newman highlights the importance of Austen’s realism in framing her narratives as feminist, as they highlight the limitations for women in Regency England. “If Jane Austen had not written with a deep sense of those limitations, she would have written utopian fantasy, not novels.” Instead, Newman continues, “[Austen’s] heroines live powerfully within the limits imposed by ideology. In doing so, they redefine what we think of as power…” (Newman 705). Brown also agrees that demanding any alternate conclusion would be illogical and undermine the character development so integral to Austen’s novels (Brown 1586). Austen’s use of the marriage plot does, however, depart from convention in that she seems less interested with the marriages of her heroines and heroes themselves than with the progress the marriage plot makes available to her characters’ development.

The First Edition of Austen's Pride and Prejudice. (From Wikimedia Commons)
The First Edition of Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (from Wikimedia Commons)

Many have concluded that Austen’s lack of interest in the marriages of her heroines themselves shifts the readers’ focus to the interiority of the heroine, where they notice Austen’s emphasis on her growth. Laura Mooneyham White suggests that in thinking of marriage not as a historical or cultural phenomenon (that rests upon patriarchy), the reader is instead able to analyze the fictive marriage as symbolizing the heroine’s quest for and achievement of identity (Mooneyham White 76). She echoes structuralist Northrop Frye and psychoanalytic critic Peter Brooks in arguing that Austen’s marriages plots are “games played within the context of the unstable self and are fueled by that energy which desires integration, union and closure” (Mooneyham White 77). Emma Woodhouse, for whom marriage is not an economic or social necessity, fits this prototype particularly well. For her, these critics would argue, marriage is a symbolic inner realization of her miscalculations, exposed to her by Mr. Knightley (Emma 376). This guidance into knowledge by the hero is explained by the ‘lover-mentor’ model of the courtship plot, a model Julie Shaffer identifies as centered on the growth of a the heroine that is contingent upon the hero’s direction. Ultimately, she argues that “because the heroine who relinquishes female power gets her man, ostensibly the prize she has wanted all along, novels that proceed by this convention suggest that what they present as correct female behavior—rewardable female behavior—is that which most clearly upholds male interests, male domination” (Shaffer 55). Pride and Prejudice fits this model as well, as it is only through Darcy’s explanatory letter that Elizabeth is forced to confront her own prejudices and ill-informed judgments; it is Darcy who exposes Elizabeth to her own blindness and he who allows her to know herself (Pride and Prejudice 196). While highlighting her heroines’ growth does give them agency within the confines of her novel, viewing marriage as simply a metaphor ignores the historical and societal realities invoked through marriage.

Austen is certainly making a conscious decision to subvert the lover-mentor prototype if not through making Elizabeth a strong-willed female, then for the fact that Darcy, too, is ‘mentored’ by Elizabeth, who prompts him to re-evaluate himself. In Austen’s progressive version of the lover-mentor convention, marriage is mutually important to both the hero and the heroine: “he told her of feelings which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable” (Pride and Prejudice 346).  Rather than only the heroine relying on her hero, both Darcy and Elizabeth rely on each other for improvement. “A woman who needed to marry needed to marry a friend,” Laura Thomason observes from Austen’s texts. “She could use the limited autonomy created by the period of courtship to present herself as a deserving friend and to define her marriage as mutually advantageous” (Thomason 6). Furthermore, Austen extends their equality to have implications beyond their relationship. Moving the two to Pemberley, where they positively improve Kitty Bennet and Georgiana Darcy, suggests the ability for marriage to exist beyond the domestic realm and have sociopolitical implications as well. Shaffer argues that Pride and Prejudice shows the potential for marriage to inaugurate a perfection of sorts “when the institution involves a husband and wife who are willing to improve each other, be improved by one another, and to extend that mutual improvement to a larger community” (Shaffer 66).

Compared to Austen’s other novels, Pride and Prejudice seems particularly devoted to matrimonial commentary, as Austen not only provides narrative closure through her uncharacteristic amount of post-matrimonial details, but also contrasts the unified Elizabeth and Darcy with mostly unsatisfactory marriages (except for that of the Gardiners), which include that of Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins, Lydia and Wickham, and, most obviously, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Austen dedicates a relatively considerable portion of the novel to examining the Bennet marriage, clearly elevating its importance by opening the novel with a caricature of the relationship between the two, in which the narrator illustrates the lack of understanding between the husband and wife, whose “… experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character” (Pride and Prejudice 3). While it is tempting to read Mrs. Bennet’s character as foolish and comical, one cannot ignore that her task of marrying off all five of her daughters is no small one, as marriage offers the best opportunity for economic success for each of them. That Mr. Bennet does not take seriously his wife’s concerns, and that “her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement”, shows his ambivalence toward both his wife and her important project of marrying their daughters (P&P 222). Elizabeth Bennet is not unaware of her parents’ disadvantageous relationship, either: “Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family,” the narrator explains, “she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort” (P&P 222).  It becomes apparent, especially as the narrator informs that the Bennet marriage was pursued by virtue of Mrs. Bennet’s beauty and finesse, that Pride and Prejudice highlights the uselessness—and even harm—of marriages that are not mutually beneficial and do not stimulate mutual improvement. Contrasting the misunderstood, ambivalent nature of the Bennet’s with that of Elizabeth and Darcy articulates Austen’s vision of a life for her heroines that values equality and respect between hero and heroine, and also has sociopolitical potential.

Yet Pride and Prejudice is somewhat an outlier in this regard, as the reader is actually given a glimpse into the lives of Elizabeth and Darcy after the narrative ends in a way that is not typical of Austen’s other novels. The most notoriously scarce ending is that of Northanger Abbey, in which the narrator only shares, “Henry and Catherine were married, the bells rang, and every body smiled” (Northanger Abbey 198). Other than the speculation that their marriage does, as the narrator hints, proceed in “perfect happiness”, the reader is left with no clear image of what the future holds for Catherine and Tilney. Instead, the narrative power shifts in the conclusion from the novel’s narrator (Austen) to that of the reader-narrator, who is left to imagine the continuation of the novel after its binding is closed. That this re-imagining is implied to have a feminist tone is contingent upon the feminist interpretations offered up by Austen’s previously detailed subversion of the marriage plot, which suggests a womanly power within the ideological constraints of English society.

Thus, it is insufficient to simply conclude that Austen’s works are feminist because of the ways in which her heroines mature into women who obtain egalitarian and mutually beneficial marriages. Rather, the feminism of Austen’s conclusions essentially lies in the fact that they lack satisfactory resolutions altogether.  Because of her inclination towards realism, Austen is unable to provide her heroines with a radically feminist conclusion, which would be unrealistic and impossible for a Regency woman. (It is notable, too, that Austen probably would never write an overtly feminist conclusion for her heroines, as she was far too concerned with their profitability to do so.) (Fergus ) Thus, in order to not suffocate the freedom of her heroines, she does not bother to provide narrative details following the final marriage, as any attempt to do so in a realistic way would more or less promote patriarchal ideals.  Katherine M. Rogers explains the power of Romantic female characters who highlight the limitations of their society by refusing passive acceptance of convention as the only possible reality. “Romantic imagination,” she suggests, “…liberates the mind to conceive of something better than what presently exists, to dare to strive for and possibly achieve radical improvement” (Rogers 84).  Given the way Austen’s novels reflect reality, it is impossible for her to articulate “the human longing for something better than the life that is reasonable for us to expect”, a longing that her heroines, who are deeply immersed in their own societies, may not even realize they possess (Rogers 84).

Thus, Austen’s quick conclusions with scant details allow the reader to gain narrative agency and illustrate a version of reality for the heroine that would seem utopian and fantastic if articulated within the novels. In doing so, Austen’s novels have heavy implications for the realities of her readers and can in fact be seen as planting thoughts for social an

From the 2005 film adaption of Pride and Prejudice, directed by Joe Wright (from Wikimedia Commons)

d political change. In “Feminism, Utopianism, and the Role of the Ideal in Political Philosophy”, Drucilla Cornell explains what she describes as the imaginary domain as a critical space whose preservation allows a continual re-imagination of the female self. She argues that, “the impossibility of knowing what is possible is what keeps open social transformations and new realities that cannot yet be thought, because they are inconceivable within the constraints of our current symbolic order” (Cornell 420). That is, Cornell suggests that what is possible cannot be articulated or derived from a current model of reality. In the context of Austen’s conclusions and the ways in which imaginative agency is placed with the reader, Cornell’s insights highlight Austen’s inability to depict a progressive resolution for her heroines, as the worlds in which her characters live do not provide the means to realistically perform such an imagining. The reader, then, must contemplate the ways in which Austen’s portrayal of society’s limitations within her novels might be potentially changed through the reader’s imaginative construction.

If her conclusions do suggest such a progressive potential for the female subject, why, then, are modern adaptations and artifacts arguably even more romanticized than Austen’s novels, presenting heroines that seem even more submissive and oppressed than those who exist within Austen’s original pages? Ashley Tauchert, in her introduction to Romancing Jane Austen, argues that the popularity of the Romance genre suggests a desire to still believe in the “happy ending” Austen employs.  Perhaps this is true, and the market capitalizes on this craving most common among women, realizing, “in spite of having plentiful critical tools with which to demystify this illusory object of an outmoded romantic desire…we still seem to want our Mr. Darcy” (Tauchert 23). Thus, the closure of modern adaptations is satisfying for audiences immersed in the popularization of Jane Austen as a representation of ‘true love’. In this way, Tauchert argues that emphasizing the marriage conclusion utilizes Austen’s “neo-conservative dream of being somehow rescued from ‘real’ contradictions structuring women’s lives under capitalism” to meet the needs of an audience who longs to believe in this fantasy (Tauchert 24).

If this is true, it seems that the causal relationship between modern audiences and the mediums of Austen adaptations is somewhat unclear; perhaps one cannot be confident that the market is purely catering towards consumers’ desires, and instead might consider that consumers are only able to desire that which is available to them. Shaffer argues, “The literary convention of course does not itself create the ideology which views women thus; in codifying it, however, it disseminates and thereby continues the naturalization of a view of women which requires that they remain in positions of dependency on and subordination to men” (Shaffer 55). Given that Austen’s conclusions can be interpreted as feminist through their lack of disclosure, and that consumers seem to be inclined towards the satisfaction of romance, perhaps we must ask whether the lack of imaginative space within modern adaptations limits the readers ability to propose versions of reality that depart from those in which they exist, thus limiting the potential for the kind of social transformation Austen’s work invites.

Jessie Frank (Class of 2017) is pursuing majors in both Political Science and English and a minor in Peace and Justice Studies. She values her work as a tutor at Xavier’s Writing Center and her involvement with the Center for Faith and Justice, where she furthers a passion for social justice. In her free time, she can be found reading and writing poetry, dancing, and listening to music. “Imaginative Feminism in Austen’s Marriage Conclusions” was sponsored by Dr. Jodi Wyett, Associate Professor of English. 

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. ” Correspondence with Mr. Clarke”. 1 April 1816. Letters of Jane Austen — Brabourne Edition. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 May 2016.

Austen, Jane, and George Justice. Emma: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. Print.

Austen, Jane. Northanger Abbey. Ed. Marilyn Gaull. New York: Pearson Education, 2005. Print.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Everyman’s Library, 1991. Print.

Brown, Lloyd W. “The Comic Conclusion in Jane Austen’s Novels”. PMLA 84.6 (1969): 1582–1587. Web.

Cornell, Drucilla. “Feminism, Utopianism, and the Role of the Ideal in Political Philosophy.” Feminist Theory. Eds. Ann E. Cudd and Robin O. Andreasen. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. 414-421. Print.

Fergus, Jan. “The Professional Woman Writer.” The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen. Eds. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge: The Cambridge University Press, 2010. 1-20. Print.  

Looser, Devoney. “Introduction. “Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism. Ed. Devoney Looser. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 1-19. Print

Mooneyham White, Laura “Jane Austen and the Marriage Plot: Questions of Persistance.”Jane  Austen and Discourses of Feminism. Ed. Devoney Looser. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. 71-86. Print

Newman, Karen. “Can This Marriage Be Saved: Jane Austen Makes Sense of an Ending”. ELH 50.4 (1983): 693–710. Web.

Rogers, Katharine M. “The Novels of Charlotte Smith.” Re-Visioning Romanticism. Eds. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner. Philadelphia: Unviersity of Pennsylvania Press, 1994. 72-88. Print.

Schaffer, Julie. “Not Subordinate: Empowering Women in the Marriage-plot— the Novels of Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Jane Austen”. Criticism 34.1 (1992): 51–73. Web.

Simons, Judy. “Jane Austen and Popular Culture”. A Companion to Jane Austen. Ed. Claudia L. Johnson and Clara Tuite. City: Wiley-Blackwell, YR. 467-477. Print.

Sutherland, Kathryn. “Jane Austen: The Novel and Social Realism.” British Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

Tauchert, Ashley. Romancing Jane Austen: Narrative, Realism, and the Possibility of a Happy Ending. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hants: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Print.

Thomason, Laura E. The Matrimonial Trap: Eighteenth-century Women Writers Redefine Marriage. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2014. Print.

back to the Digital Edition Table of Contents