The Rewards of Impertinence: Happy and Unhappy Endings in Jane Austen's Novels

By: Elizabeth Bolger '17

Advising Faculty: Jeff Strabone

In this thesis, I use a wide range of period sources—the law governing marriage in the United Kingdom, sermons, and treatises on women’s education—to argue that Jane Austen uses irony and satire to defend “impertinent” women by exposing the villainy of a patriarchal order that attempts to restrain female desire. Her literary strategies of indirection, including irony and satire, have an ethical purpose that is neglected by the many critics who read her works as endorsing conservative values. Her novels function within a traditional narrative framework in order to expose and ultimately undermine the oppressive morals inherent within the patriarchal structure. I revisit two of Austen’s best-known novels—which I read alongside key intertexts explicitly named in the novels—in order to illustrate how Austen’s works refute the gender-deterministic claims that perpetuate the conservative tradition that held women as the property of men.

I argue that James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women is a more important object of satire in Austen’s novels than has been previously recognized. Through my comparative reading of Fordyce’s sermons and Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I argue that Elizabeth Bennet’s marriage to Mr. Darcy is ironic because she enjoys the advantageous marriage that Fordyce recommends, but by a method that Fordyce strictly cautions against. While many critics claim that Elizabeth’s mortification disciplines her for her “impertinent” behavior, I argue that mortification in Austen marks the passage from innocence to experience in the Romantic model of the development of the subject.

I then use Pride and Prejudice and Elizabeth Inchbald’s play Lovers’ Vows to demonstrate how Mansfield Park satirizes the very landed class to which the heroine belongs. While Pride and Prejudice offers an “impertinent” heroine who challenges traditional gender-deterministic claims, Mansfield Park provides a passive protagonist who typifies the conservative notion of an ideal female. After comparing the two novels’ endings, I argue that Fanny Price has an unfortunate fate in Mansfield Park precisely because she follows Fordyce’s advice. Critics have traditionally read the use of Lovers’ Vows in Mansfield Park as evidence that Austen’s political convictions lay somewhere between moderate and conservative on questions of gender and sexuality. This thesis, by applying a comparative and intertextual method of close reading, yields a different conclusion about the play’s meaning in this deeply ironic novel and, thus, about Austen’s true politics: her sympathies for “fallen” and “impertinent” women and her rejection of the patriarchal society that would punish and expel them.

View this honors thesis in its entirety at Digital Commons @ Connecticut College.

Related Fields: English