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Jane Austen and the Dangers of Self-Delusion

Central to all of Jane Austen’s novels is a quest for self-knowledge and a preoccupation with self-delusion as a dangerous psychological obstacle which characters must overcome to achieve happiness. Austen shows that self-delusion – stemming from false prejudices based on arbitrary social distinctions (including wealth, income and class) and from an insufficiently nuanced worldview – must be resolved through dialogue and companionate love, which breeds common understanding. Within both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, the respective heroines Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, and Elizabeth Bennet, experience the dangers of self-delusion as it prejudices them against potential suitors, and isolates them from fellow female characters. Marianne and Elinor both delude themselves into defining their personalities in opposition to one another’s, leaving them unable to acknowledge how of measured employment of both “sense” and “sensibility” can prove fruitful. Thus, only through mutual understanding can they begin to reconcile themselves to each other’s differences, and to the rest of the world, achieving a social intelligence (inaccessible to other anti-heroines) wherein one’s societal duties to the community are elevated above the gratification of one’s individual desires. Similarly, Elizabeth is forced to confront her self-deluded and prejudiced views against Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham by engaging in what Alastair McIntyre terms a ‘Christian rather than a Socratic self-knowledge,’ enabling her to understand and guard against her own prejudices. Austen makes clear that male characters such as Darcy can also be susceptible to the dangers of self-delusion, shown in his overly strict adherence to propriety and tradition; it is clear Darcy must learn to understand and embrace individuals who subvert the established order, such as Elizabeth. Through employing formal techniques such as free indirect discourse, Austen directly implicates the reader in an epistemologically precarious position, whereby their own initial prejudices and misapprehensions towards characters are challenged and subverted. As a result, both the characters of the novel and the reader are forced to engage in an edifying process of self-knowledge, as they come to recognise how self-delusion primarily informs their partial and limited view of reality by engaging in a dialogical process of widening their worldview to incorporate the complexities of life and human nature.

Both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice embody self-delusion in their female protagonists through assumptions of objectivity in their imperfect perceptions of the world, which, as Austen demonstrates, leaves them dangerously susceptible to mistakes of judgement towards others. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen embodies yet parodies a popular literary trope of the sentimentalised woman in Marianne, who belongs to a lineage of characters from the “Age of Sensibility,” found in novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Austen alerts the reader to the potentially dangerous effects of Marianne’s extravagant indulgence in her emotions; in ‘abhor[ing] all concealment’ of her emotions and refusing to capitulate to Elinor’s demands of reason, she is rendered powerless ‘without any desire of command over herself’ (S&S, p. 61). This lack of self-exertion and rational care for the self has palpable consequences, exemplified in an illness that leaves her close to ‘self-destruction’ (S&S, p. 245), and in turn causes other characters to suffer around her. In her strict self-identification with her emotions, conceived of as truthful expressions of the self, Marianne can only imagine others  as extensions herself; she imagines everyone has ‘the same opinions and feelings as her own’ (S&S, p. 143), and refuses to accept any moral transgression unless she is ‘sensible of it at the time’ (S&S, p. 52). This radical descent into solipsism means Marianne is unable to find commonality between her sister Elinor, whom she believes ‘cannot have an idea of what [she] suffer[s]’ (S&S, p. 131). Such delusions allow the novel’s anti-hero Willoughby to ‘enter into’ Marianne’s feelings through easily appealing to her naive conception of the perfect suitor by merely feigning to possess ‘taste[s]’ which ‘in every point coincide with [her] own’ (S&S, p. 15), and eventually causing her emotional ruin. Moreover, Elinor is also shown to suffer from a self-deluded adherence to aloof rationality which, when urging her sister to ‘exert [her] self’ (S&S, p. 131), proves to be an inappropriate means by which to sympathise with the embodied causes of Marianne’s suffering. In their repeated emphasis on the superficial differences between each other, the Dashwood sisters cannot engage in dialogue, rendering the possibility of mutual self-knowledge impossible. Similarly, Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth is presented as too easily self-deluded, though an inability to discern the inherently fallible nature of her supposedly objective judgements. Like Marianne, Elizabeth proves herself incapable of considering another’s motives, when they depart from her own self-interested doctrine of acting only in ‘that matter, which will […] constitute [her] happiness.' This is seen most obviously in her incredulous reaction to Charlotte’s ‘impossible’ marriage to Mr. Collins, which Elizabeth deems an ‘unsuitable […] match’ which ‘sacrifice[s] every better feeling’ to mere ‘worldly advantage’ (P&P, p. 85), highlighting Elizabeth’s narrow and prejudiced moral imagination, which fails to account for other’s motivations. Elizabeth’s prized ‘quickness of observation’ (P&P, p. 11) deludes herself into forming impulsive moral judgements of Darcy’s character on dubious grounds; she is persuaded by mere circumstantial evidence: ‘names, facts’ (P&P, p. 59) and convinced of the ‘veracity’ (P&P, p. 58) of Mr. Wickham’s testimony based merely on her subjective perception of the ‘truth’ present in his ‘looks’ (P&P, p. 59). Thus, Elizabeth’s self-delusion leaves her incapable of transcending her viewpoint to accept a more nuanced and universal perspective, founded on sympathy and dialogue, embodied in her sister’s pleas for ‘allowances’ to be made for ‘difference[s] of situation and temper’ (P&P, p. 91).

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Austen establishes female “anti-heroines” to serve as moral foils to the heroines of both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Despite sharing similar self-delusions, these characters are differentiated from Austen’s heroines’ by their inability to use emotional and social intelligence to reform their character. Lucy Steele is depicted as the primary foil to Elinor; indeed, both figures employ sense to achieve happiness, yet for differing ends. In ‘oppress[ing…] her feelings’(S&S, p. 98), Elinor’s socially altruistic use of sense protects both herself and her family. Contrastingly, Lucy callously ensures that Elinor is subjected to a ‘distress beyond any thing she had ever felt before’ (S&S, p. 98) through discerning Elinor’s upright moral self-restraint, which will leave her painfully unable to reveal Lucy’s secret engagement of ‘four years’ (S&S, p. 94) with Edward Ferras. Lucy’s self-deluded love is shown to depend merely on income, which the narrator explicitly condemns, in the hope that her ‘unceasing attention to self-interest’ above all else ‘may be held forth’ (S&S, p. 266) as a reprehensible and dangerous means of securing worldly happiness. Elinor’s genuine love for Edward instead forges a connection which transcends self-deluded associations of material wealth with happiness, thereby aligning Elinor’s fate with Austen’s own marital prescriptions for her niece: ‘anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.’ In Pride and Prejudice, Austen posits the anti-heroines of Lydia Bennet and Charlotte Lucas as occupying two moral extremes, which Elizabeth must situate herself between to gain true self-knowledge. Lydia’s ‘self-willed and careless’ (P&P, p. 140) impetuosity, displayed in her ‘high animal spirits’ (P&P, p. 31) and sudden elopement with Wickham, reflects an individualistic search for unrestrained hedonic pleasure. In marrying Wickham (who mirrors her egotistical individualism), Lydia’s deluded behaviour cannot be challenged by a husband with more socially-oriented values; she will, therefore, remain ‘untamed […] noisy, and fearless’ (P&P, p. 204), and refuse to repent even after Darcy offers her a chance of redemption. Charlotte, by contrast, is not a ‘romantic’, and therefore chiefly concerned with a prudent materialistic compromise for happiness, found in a ‘comfortable home’ (P&P, p. 85) and in marriage to the equally superficial Mr. Collins. These marriages cannot be the source of the novel’s Bildungsroman, since both couples are allowed to continue in their self-delusions, without ever truly learning to consider other, more unconventional routes to happiness, which are embodied in the marriage between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, which finds compromise between tradition and progress through a reconciliation of society and the self.

The heroines in Austen’s novels demonstrate the capacity for Christian self-analysis, allowing them to connect an epistemological gulf between themselves and the perspectives of the rest of their world, thereby transcending self-delusion to achieve knowledge of the truth. Following Enit Karafili Steiner’s dialogical (as opposed to dialectical) analysis of Sense and Sensibility, which seeks to disrupt the novel’s seemingly dichotomised preference for “sense” over “sensibility,” she draws attention to the ‘unpredictable transformative potential of the human verbal interaction,’ whereby new forms of understanding can be obtained, rather than the mere establishment of fixed moral maxims. Marianne and Elinor fail to recognise their shared dialogic relationship, which renders them more similar than different; although cautious, Elinor’s ‘feelings were strong,’ and the impulsive Marianne is also ‘sensible and clever’ (S&S, p. 8). They both engage in a courtship which confuses them, and even their potential suitors bear resemblance: ‘Edward seemed a second Willoughby’ (S&S, p. 184). These parallels emphasise to the reader the superficial differences separating the two sisters from each other, and, by evoking the moral sentimentalism of David Hume and Adam Smith, Austen shows that sympathy enables one to depart from their perspective and therefore gain true understanding of others. Just as Elinor recognises compassionate conversation, as opposed to her elevated moralising, as the key vehicle to broaden her sister’s perspective, Marianne, when imagining her sister’s ‘suffering for [her]’ (S&S, p. 186), learns assess herself from an external perspective. Thus, the sisters’ capacity to live in Keats’ ‘negative capability,’ by accepting the ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ found in life, without ‘reaching after fact’ and simple dichotomies, is shown to be the only path to true understanding and mutual love, as evoked by their ‘tenderest caresses’ (S&S, p. 186).


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In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth’s self-realisation of her own prejudice comes halfway through the novel, enabling Austen to show a fallible heroine both suffering from her self-delusions, yet also able to gain substantial social and moral development through Darcy. Elizabeth’s inclination to favour Willoughby’s biased account of Darcy forces her to resist facts that challenge her presumptions; she reads the latter’s letter ‘with a strong prejudice against every thing he might say’ (P&P, p. 134), and rejects any claims against her established knowledge: ‘This must be false! It cannot be!’ (P&P, p. 135). Eventually, however, Darcy’s undeniable veracity forces Elizabeth to simultaneously reappraise both his character and her own methods of discernment, by stepping outside her subjective preferences, which render her ‘blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd’ (P&P, p. 137). Elizabeth recognises her self-deluded reliance on ‘prepossession and ignorance,’ as moral failings which ‘drive reason away,’ thereby achieving the Socratic dictum of self-knowledge: ‘till this moment I never knew myself’ (P&P, p. 137). As shown in her process of realisation, Elizabeth’s moral epiphany leads to an embrace of Christian social duty: ‘she was humbled, she was grieved; she repented’ (P&P, p. 202). Elizabeth’s spiritual development is thus placed alongside Austen’s own prayers, which urged her to ‘think humbly of ourselves’ and to ‘consider our fellow creatures with kindness,’ emphasising a need to embark on a difficult yet essential process whereby the considerations of others are placed above the narrow needs of the self. As Alastair Duckworth has suggested, Elizabeth’s visit to Pemberley is crucial in her development of new ways of seeing. In viewing the grounds of Pemberley from a multitude of perspectives, she discovers the fallibility of her perceptions, yet, ‘providing that the individual is both retrospective and circumspect’ in their overall judgement, Elizabeth can learn to approximate a nuanced view of the ‘whole scene’ (P&P, p. 159). In Pride and Prejudice’s world of duplicitousness and falsities, Pemberley (and by extension, Mr. Darcy) embodies that which is ‘good and true in life.’ The self-evident virtue of Pemberley and Darcy ‘resists the perversions of the individual viewpoint,’ and, as a result, whatever viewpoint Elizabeth takes, ‘there were beauties to be seen’ (P&P, p. 159). In learning the limitations of her former method of discerning the world, Elizabeth modifies her superficial prejudices to embrace a deeper understanding of Darcy’s true nature, meaning she can now appreciate his status as an essential aspect of her moral and spiritual development: ‘to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!’ (P&P, p. 159).


Despite highlighting the self-delusions of her female heroines and anti-heroines, Austen also makes it clear that her male protagonists are susceptible to similar failures of judgement, which must too be rectified through dialogue and a contemplation of different perspectives. In both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, Austen presents self-deluded figures in Mr. Bennet and John Willoughby, who both prioritise self-indulgence above social duty, which dangerously impacts those around them. In ‘retir[ing]’ (P&P, p. 224) from his paternal responsibilities towards his daughters, the reputation of the Bennet family is tarnished through a ‘continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum’ (P&P, p. 155), which Mr. Bennet could have been prevented through cultivating a doctrine of social duty and emotional intelligence in his daughters. Willoughby also lacks proper foresight in his reckless actions, driving Marianne almost to ‘self-destruction’ (S&S, p. 245); thus, in living chiefly ‘to enjoy himself’ (S&S, p. 268), he sacrifices the possibility of being ‘at once […] happy and rich’ with Marianne. Austen, by contrast, presents Mr. Darcy in a similar vein to her heroines since he possesses the emotional intelligence necessary to correct his moral flaws. Darcy’s self-delusion stems from a commitment to traditionally English moral norms and ‘good principles’ (P&P, p. 241), which leaves him excessively proud in the face of those who do not meet his standards of decorum. While critics such as Marilyn Butler maintain Austen’s ‘Anti-Jacobin’ stance in her assertion of traditional English values of self-control as an antidote the radicalism of eighteenth-century France, it is clear that Darcy must learn to relax his innately conservative tendency to preserve, in order to find commonality with Elizabeth’s otherness. Elizabeth’s playful irony represents a ‘danger[ous]’ (P&P, p. 35) threat to his rigid system of moralising, causing Darcy to become ‘bewitched’ (P&P, p. 35) by her speech. The use of ‘bewitched’ is doubly significant; it signifies Elizabeth’s subversive power over him, and also signifies Darcy’s newfound ability to see himself as the subject of other’s perceptions, specifically that of Sir William, who likewise identifies Elizabeth’s ‘bewitching converse’ (P&P, p. 63). By engaging with and learning from a figure he once imagined himself as superior to given the ‘inferiority of her connections’ (P&P, p. 35),  Darcy learns to change his perception of Elizabeth by ‘acknowledg[ing] her figure to be light and pleasing’ (P&P, p. 16), and recognising a beauty which transcends solipsistic self-delusion, in the same way Elizabeth comes to appreciate the inherent beauty embodied in Pemberley.

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Critics have long understood the didactic qualities of Austen’s novels, which seek to subtly alert the reader of self-delusions they share with her characters through techniques of indirect narration, employed for the purposes of moral edification. Austen’s use of free indirect discourse within Sense and Sensibility allows the reader to inhabit the character Elinor, who, despite externally appearing to possess an unreasonable desire for decorum, is shown to be a psychologically fascinating character, forcing the reader to recognise human nature as infinitely more complicated than an external and superficial assessment can afford. By inhabiting the mind of Elinor, the reader is subjected to the temptations of passionate characters, such as Willoughby, whose ‘influence over her mind’ is affected ‘by circumstances that ought not in reason to have weight’ (S&S, p. 236, emphasis mine), forcing even a highly rational reader to acknowledge the limitations of Elinor’s dispassionate reason in the face of such morally persuasive figures. Similarly, in Pride and Prejudice, both the reader and Elizabeth come to learn their own prejudices through the recognition of a misplaced ‘pride’ in their ‘discernment,’ culminating in a ‘humiliation’ (P&P, p. 137), which humbles both heroine and reader, and allows for true moral growth. As Mary Poovey has analysed, indirect narration is employed in Sense and Sensibility to ‘bend the imaginative engagement’ of the reader in the ‘service of moral education’ by distancing the reader from the emotional effects of an overly romanticised plot. Indeed, Marianne’s first generically sentimentalised rescue by Willoughby is mediated through an impersonal narrator: ‘the gentlemen offered his services’ (S&S, p. 33), and many of Marianne’s effusions of grief are limited to epistolary form. Therefore, the reader is denied the ability to engage in such excesses of sensibility (which could divert them from a submission to Christian social duty), and therefore learn to view Marianne’s self-indulgent emotions disparagingly. With the critical faculty of the reader thus enhanced, Austen refuses to offer clear moral judgements on her character’s fates; notably, in the ending of Sense and Sensibility, both the heroines (Elinor and Marianne) and anti-heroine (Lucy Steele) succeed in their worldly ambitions, albeit pursuing clearly different ends. The reader themselves are left to discern whether true happiness is to be found either in companionate love, or self-interested marriage for material wealth. Such techniques show Austen as a dynamic author who, as Virginia Woolf identifies, ‘expands the reader’s mind,’ by ‘stimulat[ing] us to supply what is not there,’ namely the ‘deeper emotion[s]’ obscured by shallow prejudices.

To conclude, Austen clearly presents self-delusion as a common failing in her characters, caused by a naive commitment to an imperfect worldview, which dangerously blinds them to the true nature of others. Such failures to obtain commonality leaves characters socially isolated and incapable of cooperating fruitfully with others. This results in a failure to fulfil one’s social duties, a significant commitment which Austen viewed as central to the maintenance of a well-functioning society. Through interrogating their own processes of judgement, and engaging in dialogues which validate the perspectives of others, Austen’s heroes and heroines in Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are forced to transform their narrow-minded outlook by allowing for the particular circumstance and situation of others, which serves as an antidote to their natural propensity to judge rather than to understand. This process of interrogation extends to the reader too, as they learn to detect their the ways in which their own judgement has been unreasonably affected by hasty prejudice. Crucially, both novels serve as a didactic attempt to force the reader out of their dubiously held assumptions in order to incorporate a more nuanced and sympathetic worldview, founded on Christian values of mutual kindness and love.



Primary Reading

Austen, Jane, Pride and Prejudice, ed. Donald Gray (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001)

Austen, Jane, Sense and Sensibility, ed. Claudia L. Johnson (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002)

Secondary Reading

Butler, Marilyn, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987)

­Irvine, Robert P. Jane Austen (London; New York: Routledge, 2005)

Knox-Shaw, Peter, Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

MacIntyre, Alasdair, After Virtue (Notre Dame; Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007)

Southam, B.C., ed., Jane Austen: Sense and sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park: A Casebook (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1976)

Steiner, Enit Karafili, Jane Austen’s Civilized Women: Morality, Gender and the Civilizing Process (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012)

Thompson, James, Between Self and World: the Novels of Jane Austen (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988)

—— Jane Austen and Modernization: Sociological Readings (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Watt, Ian, ed., Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1963)

Wright, Andrew, Jane Austen’s Novels: A Study in Structure (London: Chatto & Windus, 1961)

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