Narrative Skepticism: Moral Agency and Representations of Consciousness in Fiction

By Linda S. Raphael | Go to book overview

1
Persuasion: A Conflict of Passion and Reason

THE DESIRE FOR AN END TO SENTIMENTAL AND ROMANTIC FICTION among literary critics accounts, at least in part, for the extraordinarily positive reviews of Jane Austen’s posthumously published fiction. Taking as one of its central subjects the tension between passion and reason, Persuasion (1817) pursues one of the themes of romanticism, but with the earmarking of a realist novel. Austen made her affinity with romanticism evident in her deductive method, working from general truths to the specific case; at the same time, her discerning expositions of practical matters and her resistance to the romanticist’s notion that passion is a justification and end are consistent with realism.

Although Austen had not privileged the passions in the way of a sentimental novelist in her previous novels, she had never dealt with them as minutely as in this novel where the inner life of her heroine was given fuller treatment than that of any of her previous heroines. Among Austen’s literary predecessors, Samuel Richardson had pushed the novel furthest in the direction of examining the inner life. Ian Watt makes the case that, in the eighteenth century, two divergent tendencies in novel writing, emanating from Henry Fielding and Richardson, had both been affected by Cartesian dualism, resulting in the acceptance of both internal and external reality by each novelist. Yet, Fielding emphasized the external life and codes of conduct, whereas Richardson used the epistolary form to stress the inner states of his characters.1

Like the women novelists of the 1760s to the 1780s, Austen followed more closely the Richardsonian model (as did Eliot, James, Woolf, and Ishiguro), which included depictions of gentry class and professional middle-class cultures as well as portrayals of her characters’ interior lives. Fanny Burney, for example, has been noted as an influence on Austen; however, Austen moved further from the eighteenth-century sentimental novel than did Burney, who displayed an affinity with the “cult of feeling” tradition. Burney’s first

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