Jane Austen, philosophical psychologist

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Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.

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32 Responses

  1. Avatar Katherine
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    says:

    Thank you for this.  I find Austen to be an excellent, entertaining and insightful writer, and the “virtue ethics” perspective gives me a new way to look at her books.  I’m with you on preferring older novels to the “modern” ones; pretty much all my favourite books are from at least half a century ago (Lord of the Rings, Jane Eyre, Austen’s books, Dracula, Frankenstein…).  People seem to have been more careful wordsmiths in the past; the same goes for the style of political debates, which seems to degenerate with each passing century.

    One thing which struck me from the post you were discussing was this:

    In a modern literary novel, the plot is driven forward by the characters, and this is how it should be because it is the characters-as-persons with whom the reader is actually concerned. The reader is provided with direct access to internal events in the minds of the characters and can understand the plot as unfolding naturally from these. Not so in Austen. Her focus is on how her characters react to events, not on their capacity to cause them, and the happy endings, like the intermediate trials and tribulations, are always dei ex machinis.

    The latter note isn’t exactly true – Darcy and Elizabeth find happiness as a result of their own responses to Lady Catherine, for example, even if she is the catalyst.  But in a lot of ways it’s true that her characters are reactive rather than active, and that seems to fit with the situation of women in early-19th-century Britain: they didn’t have a lot of scope for action, and their opportunities to shape events would often have been limited to how they responded to others.Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Katherine
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      says:

      Yes, I totally agree. Plenty of Austen characters initiate actions, and plenty of modern characters react to circumstances.

      I also disagree with the author of the post that characters being more or less determinative of their own fates necessarily makes for a better novel.Report

  2. Avatar Tod Kelly
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    says:

    Rose – two things.  First, great post, and I agree with your point about ethics/psychology.

    Second, I have to ask… Is it just me, or is Austen kind of a mirror image of Norman Mailer?  By which I mean, I know a lot of women who appreciate that Mailer can write, but I don’t know any women that actually read him – the only Mailer fans I know are all men.  Is Austen the same with sex reversed?  If so, why is that do you think?  Way off topic, to be sure, but since we’re discussing both Austen and psychology…Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Tod Kelly
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      says:

      Tod, totally great questions! Although I have to admit I haven’t read Normal Mailer is, like, a zillion years – because he’s so unappealingly *masculine*.

      I think with Austen it might be different. It’s worth noting that her introduction into the literary canon partially came at the hands of men. Sir Walter Scott touted her in her lifetime, and R.W. Chapman devoted a scholarly attention to her work. To this day, I do know plenty of male Austen fans (although certainly more female).

      I also think, for whatever reason (love to hear anyone’s thoughts on this), males have a lot more trouble getting into books and movies with female protagonists than females do with male protagonists (with movies, it’s a bit easier, because you can just make the female protagonist a hottie). I think men who can get over that resistance enjoy Austen in a way that women rarely enjoy Mailer. Austen does not focus only on female virtues and I don’t think she’s particularly focused on revealing What Women Want. I think she almost never depicts male characters alone because she has no direct experience of them, and above all wants to be as accurate as possible. Her work is about females, but is not particularly feminine.Report

      • Off the top of my head, I know that Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently been writing a lot about his pleasure in discovering Austen.Report

      • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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        says:

        I’d say that these days, for a lot of dudes, you have to really want to specifically read Austen if you are going to do it, because it’s almost impossible not to satisfy your hankering for these tales through general contact with the popular media.  My experience may be atypical, but I’ve found that spending much time at all with college educated women assures a person a pretty good chance of becoming familiar with a number of these stories through various screen adaptations.  And, again, my experience may be exceptional, but I’ve found that men don’t have to be dragged kicking and screaming into watching them – they’re very entertaining.  But then afterwards, a person has to have leftover appetite for them to decide to devote further time, including significant portions of scarce lesure reading time, to them.  Generally, I think men’s appetites are whetted after viewing the screen versions. I find the same dynamic at play with Harry Potter – given the quality of the films, I am more than satisfied with their being the totality of my window into the non-Muggle world.  Obviously, the rewards to going on to reading Austen as opposed to just seeing pale imitations done on screen is not comparable to the relatively tiny rewards of going on to reading Rowling.  Nevertheless, after seeing the adaptations, if one hasn’t read the novels, noe is faced with the choice of whether to invest still more time in Austen’s world, or to move on to authors into whose works the only way is through their own written word. This is obviously not an aesthetic argument for the merits of whatever other authors those might turn out to be over Austen’s, but merely an observation about the value (or in any case, effect) of substitute goods in maximizing utility in the context of resource scarcity.Report

        • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Michael Drew
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          says:

          Ah, this is painful for me, as I’m sure you might predict I would say. I do love me some Austen adaptations, but her genius lies in language and the very subtle ways people deceive themselves and manipulate others. And a good chunk of her humor is always lost. Virginia Woolf once called her something like the artist most difficult to catch in the act of being great. Too true – she’s so subtle.

          That said, who doesn’t love Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle? And that’s how I get my husband to experience Austen.Report

          • Avatar dhex in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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            says:

            my wife’s forcing me to watch the five hour miniseries version of pride and prejudice (or sense and sensibility? it was some bbc thing.) basically shut off the very small chance i would consider reading austen.Report

          • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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            says:

            I’ve read small parts of the novels, and I definitely agree with you about the language.  They’re on my “Read Them Because They’re Good For You (And You’ll Actually Probably Enjoy Them Anyway!)” list; it’s just that, again, lots of other books are too, and those tend to be ones where the screen options are a lot more limited (your Moby Dicks and Anna Kareninas, etc.).Report

      • Avatar KenB in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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        says:

        First I think one has to distinguish what type of reader is being discussed.  If we’re focusing on the average reader, someone who consumes mostly genre fiction and bestsellers, then yes, Austen’s romance-novelish plots are much more likely to be read by the demographic that likes to read romance novels.  If we’re talking about sophisticated readers (basically, those who read for more than just the plot), then I suspect the gender disparity declines rapidly (but probably doesn’t disappear entirely).  My impressions are based on a wide and representative data set of about 10 people, so you know they’re reliable.Report

    • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to Tod Kelly
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      says:

      Jane Austen has a particular place in my heart in terms of writers. Only Patrick O’Brian occupies as exalted a place in my pantheon of writers in the particular beauty of their turn of phrase. Which is hardly surprising, perhaps, since O’Brian was clearly influenced by Austen in many ways,Report

      • Avatar sonmi451 in reply to Nob Akimoto
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        says:

        The Aubrey-Maturin books? I love those. Although I will admit to reading them in the beginning for a shallow reason – I saw Master and Commander and was really, umm, let’s use the word ‘struck’ by Bettany’s Maturin and wanted to find out what else happened to him.Report

        • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to sonmi451
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          says:

          I was struck similarly 🙂Report

        • Nob Akimoto Nob Akimoto in reply to sonmi451
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          says:

          Those books are my canon. I read them religiously. In fact, I know whole passages by heart. And yet somehow, each time I read them I’m continually struck by new insights, or witticisms that make me laugh at loud…

          And I loved the casting for the movie…though I’m more inclined to say it’s the supporting cast that was great. Killick, Davis, Bonden, Pullings, Mowett…were all fantastic.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Tod Kelly
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      says:

      My enduring image of this was Jane Eyre, a piece we had to read for high school. My teacher asked us to rate how good of a book it was…

      The boys rated it as poor(2) or awful(1), with maybe two guys saying it was fair(3).

      I think I came down on fair(3), but a supermajority of the girls were calling it good(4) or excellent(5).

      This may have had something to do with it being high school, required reading — but I don’t think people loathed many books other than that one (and, actually, Old Man and the Sea — my personal “nothing is happening!” book.) This may actually have something to do with gendering of the novel — but I think it has more to do with “lovey dovey” being perceived as boring. I remember fewer people complaining about Wuthering Heights (which the non-advanced kids had to read) — and definitely not romeo and juliet.

      Then again, this teacher was kinda infamous for choosing “what she liked” rather than “what would appeal to teenagers…”Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Kimmi
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        says:

        Jane Austen is a terrible read for teenagers. All they see are people going to dances and wanting to get married. Subtle irony, virtue development, and micro social interactions are not what teens are best at. Jane Eyre could work kind of better, especially for a certain kind of dramatic type. Or Dickens!Report

        • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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          says:

          yeah, I remember the English Comedies being a bit better… the same sorts of irony and micro social interactions — just faster paced, and more focused on the interactions (as a play perforce must be!)Report

  3. Avatar karl
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    says:

    Haven’t read Austen… yet; haven’t read much 19C British fiction at all, for that matter.  But the the few 18C novels I remember deal with characters (Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa, Tom Jones) who can be seen as victims coping with adverse circumstances (with success based on their virtues) rather than building their fates from scratch.  Don’t know, of course, if this was a going theme.

    And for what it’s worth, my mother was a huge Mailer fan.Report

  4. Avatar Murali
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    says:

    Rose, do philosophers take any post enlightenment novelists seriously as philosophers? The reason I’m asking is that few novels are going to present actual arguments in favour of their position and post enlightenment, fairly explicit aguments seem to be necessary on order to be taken seriously as a philosopher. (The standard is much more lax when evaluatin ancient philosophers from anitquity.)Report

    • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Murali
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      says:

      I teach philosophy through literature sometimes, which is often difficult for the reasons you mention. Iris Murdoch was of course also a real philosopher, and I think she comes closest to an acceptable philosopher. In The Bell, for example, we have characters making the cases for deontology and virtue respectively, and the novel as a whole sets out to demonstrate her version of virtue. In aesthetics, Borges’ Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote is taken as a starting off point for contextualism. Michael Frayn in a few of his works. Dostoevsky, sometimes.

      I think that fiction is usually not the best place to make your philosophical arguments. Virtue ethics is, however, particularly amenable to it. Character traits plus situations – bingo!

      But, contra the author of the other post, I don’t at all wonder why she isn’t accepted as a philosopher. I dont think it’s because she’s a woman. Her arguments are implicit, not explicit. She doesn’t consider counterarguments, etc. But what she has done is create works of philosophical value and presented important philosophical ideas. Her books assume the truth of virtue ethics (usually -there’s a bit of deontology thrown in sometimes). And the explore it at legnth and in a variety of situation and with remarkable subtlety. One could easily turn her thoughts into a paper, one far more sophisticated than the vast majority of novels, even the philosophical ones.Report

    • Avatar Chris in reply to Murali
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      says:

      There is Sartre, of course, and in come circles, Bataille. I suspect that the Bataille circles are slightly different from the ones Rose runs in (which is not a dig at either Rose or the Bataille folks). And Camus of course, because even if he’s not considered much of a philosopher, his essay on Sisyphus is something everyone reads.Report

      • Avatar Rose Woodhouse in reply to Chris
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        says:

        Yes, I forgot about the existentialists! And that is because we run in different crowds :). They wouldn’t meet the standards for a philosophical paper in anglophone analytic department. But I do wonder if we could take some inspiration from the existentialists. I think we could stand to loosen a bit what we are willing to take seriously as philosophy (short of existentialism!), especially if someone is willing to “translate” it.

        Rebecca Goldstein is a current philosopher and novelist, but I haven’t read her stuff. I don’t know if she actually presents arguments narratively.Report

        • Avatar Chris in reply to Rose Woodhouse
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          says:

          I haven’t read Goldstein either, but I do know that her novels are very philosophical. The couple people I know who’ve read them didn’t like them, but that’s a pretty small sample size.

          You know, my first encounter with existentialism was as an undergrad, in a course titled “Existentialist Literature.” It was actually a very fun course.Report

  5. Avatar Rick
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    says:

    My 24 year old son and 21 year old daughter have read the Austen books.  I asked my son one time why he enjoys these books and I was surprised by his answer.  ” People had more common sense back in those days”.Report

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