Narrative Skepticism: Moral Agency and Representations of Consciousness in Fiction

By Linda S. Raphael | Go to book overview

Conclusion

One’s attitude toward marriage is a fact—the most characteristic
part doubtless of one’s attitude toward life…. If I were to marry
I should be guilty in my own eyes of inconsistency—I should
pretend to think quite a little better of life than I really do.

—Henry James Letters 2:314

IF HENRY JAMES WERE CORRECT IN HIS ASSERTION ABOUT MARRIAGE,

and I think that he was, then the changes in attitudes toward marriage in the novels I have considered ought to suggest a change in attitudes toward life. At least changing expectations of life are also “played out” or “interpreted” through changing expectations toward marriage.1 To believe in a “happy-ever-after” ending, one must at least believe in the possibility of such sure contentment— not necessarily that it is ever accomplished, but that it is possible. This is not to say that Jane Austen, in ending her novels with the prospect of a happy marriage, was a Pollyanna—to the contrary, her wonderful wit, evinced in her novels as well as her letters, tells one otherwise. As I noted in my analysis of Persuasion, Austen did not hold out the prospect of the degree of satisfaction with life that her heroines achieve to many characters in her fiction. More importantly, she did not write about these fine marriages, but ended her novels with the engagement. The next three novelists in the study— Eliot, James, and Woolf—all regard themselves in some way as continuing the English novel, which owes a great deal to the influence of Jane Austen. They all, as one has seen, take a different position on the issue of marriage. This is, of course, consistent with the argument of this study, that as writers delve further into the psychological aspects of character, they represent moral agency in a more skeptical manner. It is related as well to the increasing complexity of modern life, represented by the novels in this study.

One matter about which all the novels are skeptical is the appropriateness of the roles men and women play in a patriarchal world. In Persuasion, Austen questions the roles women play, more em-

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