Jane Austen and Why Stories End With Weddings

Jane Austen was born in 1775 and lived only 41 short years. In this time she published four novels and left two to be published after her premature death in 1817.  A seventh lay incomplete and never published.

Each of her novels featured female protagonists in romantic and pastoral settings. Well known for her realism, biting irony and social commentary, Jane Austen is one of the most widely read novelists of the English language.

jane austen

Her plots, though fundamentally comic, highlight the predicament of women in a world in which their social standing and economic security depends largely on men. Giving voice to women’s thoughts and feelings, Austen did so with wit and stunning insight.

George Whatley, reviewed Austen’s work in 1821,  shortly after her death:

We suspect one of Miss Austin’s [sic] great merits in our eyes to be, the insight she gives us into the peculiarities of female characters. … Her heroines are what one knows women must be, though one never can get them to acknowledge it.

becoming jane

Austen’s strength is in her lack of sentimentality. In fact she is noted for critiquing the sentimental novels of the late 18th century and marking a move to realism in the 19th century. She makes fun of:

such novelistic clichés as love at first sight, the primacy of passion over all other emotions and/or duties, the chivalric exploits of the hero, the vulnerable sensitivity of the heroine, the lovers’ proclaimed indifference to financial considerations, and the cruel crudity of parents.

Her portraits of women, and of men, are subtle, insightful, acerbic and cuttingly close to home.  Sir Walter Scott writing in 1816, commended her ability to copy…

…from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader … a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him.

Jane

Nevertheless, every tale ends in a marriage not of sentimental love, nor of economic expediency but of the meeting of true minds and hearts.

Austen-men are known by women the world over to form a constellation of gentlemen who well…. er…..express their feelings.

John Willoughby, Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, Fitzwilliam Darcy, Charles Bingley, Edmund Bertram, George Knightly, Edward Wentworth and the list goes on.

darcy

 

Each of her heroines find love, quite truthfully, and yet, Jane Austen herself never married.

Indeed she is recorded as saying,

The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man that I can really love.

So what is the disconnect for Austen between the narratives of her fictional characters and the marriage and love she saw in the world around her?

marriage jane austen

Julie Szego, in her article published in the Age earlier this year titled, Traditional Marriage: A bourgeois bargain for men, writes:

The American scholar Stephanie Coontz​, author of Marriage, a History, says that while love has existed throughout history, “only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married”. At different times, marriage served to forge ties between monarchs, emperors and tribes (read: finding the right in-laws), to affirm religious belief and to secure the inheritance of legitimate children…..

It wasn’t until the 18th century that marriage became bound up with an ideal of romantic love, and that coincided with the retreat of women into the domestic sphere. And even in our cynical age, the happily-ever-after fantasy sputters on, retailed through a bridal industry that’s light on irony – the virginal white gowns, the glossy photo spreads of rapturous bride and groom, the impossible expectations lurking off camera.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/comment/traditional-marriage-a-bourgeois-bargain-for-men-20150728-gimm90.html#ixzz3nlJfQiIW

Many of social requirements for marriage including economic need, title, land, sexual ownership, legitimacy of children and more have fallen away prompting social commentators to declare the institution obsolete. 

In contrast however, while the social contraints that defined marriage in past generations have reduced, the popularity of marriage as an ideal and in fact intensity of debate surrounding the nature of marriage has only increased.

Considering that Jane Austen’s novels are as popular as ever, and stories enduringly end with the motif of marriage, the significance of the motif to our lives lies in something far deeper than social custom and commentary belies.

wedding JA

Maybe within such a contradiction lies the key to Jane’s hesitation to enter a marriage while writing consistently about it.

Articles such as Szego’s above posit that when marriage must lose much of its bourgeois connotations of heterosexual ownership for it to symbolise in truth, a union based on love.

Indeed, the symbol as marriage as the union with a lost “other”, culmination of narrative tension indicates there is something far more spiritual and transcendent about it.

jane austen marriage

It seems that the definition of marriage as the fulfilment of personal happiness is where definitions have gone wrong. Fulfilment, happiness, success – all these notions skim the surface of love and so marriage, remaining bourgeois and trite.

The power of literary embodiments of love, and the motif of wedding at the culmination and resolution of the conflict, brings marriage further into a notion of redemption, than of “happiness”.

Naturally the Judeo-Christian understanding of God does not resonate in a post-Christian society. But indeed, ones understanding of the divine will inform ones notion of redemption and of marriage as “sacrament”.

Marriage is an image of the union of God and humanity. Marriage is an earthly representative of return to what was lost, reunion with a lover, a divine wedding party at the end of time.

Song-of-Solomon-1

The Bible – both Hebrew scripture and Greek New Testament are full of such imagery.

Despite the proliferation of polygamy in the Ancient Near East, the Hebrew scriptures consistently depict the chaos, jealousy and strife caused by polygamous marriages. God throughout the Hebrew writings is depicted as long suffering lover whose beloved consistently betrays him to chase other lovers.

In scripture, the image of marriage and the possessiveness of love becomes redemptive. This lover suffers for his beloved.

When powerholders surrender economic and social security to provide ultimate freedom through the giving up of all rights and power in doing so,  bring forth life and flourishing.

This is a motivating love story.

lover

However one defines marriage, the image of a lover, sacrificing their status, power and independence, to bare their soul, and give of themself to sensible and intelligent beloved, is ultimately motivating and profoundly powerful.

The Cave of Shadows

Plato had a theory of existence in which we are prisoners chained in a cave, watching shadows play against the cave wall. We do not experience reality first-hand but in fact, far behind us there is a reality casting the shadows we see.

In this way Plato accounted for how we can see beauty in our minds eye, but upon examination of any person or object in reality, we always see an irregularity or a flaw.

cave of shadows dualism

Plato can be understood because he was a mathematician and thus he dwelt upon seeming transcendantal laws of ideal regularity, beauty and pefection. To him mathematics showed the existence of a realm of perfection distinct from our distilled version of copies. This world, it seems,  is not quite the perfection intended.

cave golden ratio

Plato’s thought has influenced nearly all of western civilisation, including western literature.

For example, narratives to us cast an ideal. In Jane Austen novels, men articulate their feelings with depth and grace. We all know that mortal copies fall far short.

cave men of austen

Dualistic reading of literature means that characters in stories are heroes. We look to them to give examples of being. We are the flawed copies living out an imperfect version of an idealised script.

cave of shadows idealism

Do we live in a cave of shadows ? Is there a supernatural realm of ideals of which we can only partake of a inferior copy?

The Hebrews didn’t think this way. They are not dualists but rather see this world as the realm of good and evil in one. This world is, even with the presence of God, one of chaos in which humankind works together with the divine to bring beauty, order and shalom.

cave hebrew

 

Hebrew literature does not paint for the reader a realm of ideals but instead shows  a murky realm of reality in which heroes behave with both chaotic and noble intent. When we reflect on Hebrew narrative, we must be careful to identify the polygamy, greed, racial xenophobia and misogyny as an ideal cast by the authors. In fact, when read with sensitivity, we see the chaos wrought by the actions of the protagonists rendering them in constant need of being rescued.

cave old testament

Hebrew and Old Testament narrative is a picture of history unfolding in time.  It is a world created with both good and evil – one in which humans were created to work together for shalom, to cultivate the jungle garden and bring peace to the world. The flawed humans fail and fail again, caught in the catch-22 of their own inability to attain perfection. The only solution is an intervention by the divine, out of myth and into history.

Moreover, the ultimate end [telos] of history told through the Hebrew narrative is not an escape from this world into a transcendental wonderland of ideals, but it is instead a bringing to completion of peace into this world. This shalom is not represented as the arrival of a world of perfected forms, but of the presence of God with humanity, “Immanuel”.