Where’s the Justice in Austen?

Readers often comment on the fact that in Pride and Prejudice there is no comeuppance or cosmic justice for the “bad” characters. Although Wickham is shackled to Lydia and is forced into a new job, he gets off very easily for someone who has behaved so despicably. Other characters who are deeply flawed end up no worse by the end of the book. Collins will still inherit Longbourn, and he gets a wife who is far better than he deserves. Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine continue on their merry ways, protected by their wealth and status.

Indeed, one of the fun things about Jane Austen Fan Fiction is that we can imagine some kind of justice for these characters in the form of imprisonment, death, or simple humiliation. They are so flawed that their comeuppance can serve as a great source of humor as well as providing the satisfaction of having the wicked punished. I have written such scenes; they are great fun and very emotionally satisfying.

Yet, even when I write them, I am aware that in some ways such scenes are not in keeping with Austen’s original intent. She clearly intends that the bad/flawed characters should not suffer an evil end. It would be easy enough for her to serve up some kind of cosmic justice to them. However, it is enough for her that good characters have loving marriages and find secure places for themselves. This is true in all her novels. Fanny Dashwood gets to live off her ill-gotten gains. Willoughby gets lots of money. Lucy Stone gets the rich guy. There is no justice meted out to Fanny Price’s relatives or Anne Elliott’s.

In some ways it is unsatisfying. Don’t you want someone to take Lady Catherine down a peg? Or tell Collins what a fool he is? But in other ways, it feels exactly right. It certainly makes Austen’s stories more true to life. Haven’t you ever met someone who doesn’t deserve the good fortune they enjoy? We struggle to earn a living while someone who is shallow or downright nasty glides along on inherited wealth—or is just in the right place at the right time. Or you meet a couple where you think, “he/she doesn’t deserve a spouse like that.” Or attended a wedding when you had reservations about the relationship? I believe, one of the reasons we don’t mind the absence of the kind of emotionally satisfying closure you get with other books is because it does feel familiar to us.

They also feel true to us in the way that the flawed characters cause trouble for the “good” ones. Some of her characters do scheme and deceive for the sake of their own ends. But in general, the wrongs they cause are a result of carelessness. Wickham ruins Lydia’s reputation because he’s fleeing creditors and wants some company on the road, not because of some evil master plot. And doesn’t that feel true to life? Haven’t you had a friend who was in a bad relationship with a guy who was just careless of her feelings—without any evil intent? They can cause just as much, if not more, damage as someone who actually intends harm.

Certainly characters like Lady Catherine or Collins or Miss Bingley or even Mrs. Bennet don’t rise to the Lord Voldemort—or even the Snidely Whiplash— level. Their biggest flaws tend to be excessive self-regard and lack of sympathy for others. Again, the wrongs they cause are mostly through carelessness (or in Collins’s case, excessive stupidity). Doesn’t that feel familiar? How often do friends and family cause deep wounds without intending to? You experience the pain while also understanding that it stems from the other person’s own flaws rather than malice. Austen’s characters remind us of people we know, albeit often exaggerated versions.

Ultimately, what sets the “good” characters apart from the “bad” ones is greater self-awareness—which is its own reward. All of Austen’s heroines don’t end up wealthy, although they all have secure homes. But they all benefit from an understanding of themselves, sympathy for those around them, and awareness of their own flaws. In fact, becoming aware of one’s flaws is part of the plot of many of Austen’s books. The reward for that journey of self-exploration is the ability to form a truly loving relationship with another person. And that, Austen demonstrates, is what the flawed characters miss out on.

13 Responses to Where’s the Justice in Austen?

  1. Great Post here. I, though, do have my favorites…in terms of redemption and damnation. I see JA as a social commentator (can we really not oberve her commentary on slavery in the mental anguish of Tom Bertram in Mansfield Park…and is he not a prequel to the Swede in Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness?”) Ms Austen gives us a distasteful Collins and an overbearing Lady Catherine. But, they are so one dimensional and strike me as a device to personify the ultimate tropes: Collins of the toadying churchmen (in an era when Dissenters and many C of E clergy were beginning to truly minister to the poor) scraping for their table leavings like so many starving canines. Lady Catherine displays the arrogance of the landed gentry/aristocracy. And, might we not see her smothering of Anne as another commentary on how JA sees the next generation of aristocrats–neurasthenic and feeble, doomed to fail (which they did with the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846)? So,I favor making Collins and Lady C truly execrable. But Wickham? Might he not, in extremis, find that good-natured boy known to Darcy and Fitzwilliam?

  2. Some people actually get annoyed when the bad guy doesn’t get his comeuppance in P&P variations. In one of mine, Wickham escapes to the Americas after doing some pretty nasty things, and there were comments to the effect that they wished he had paid for his crimes. But it made sense the way the story played out that he got away. In the end, there’s usually enough ambiguity that a reader can imagine all sorts of nasty ends or the villains if they so choose!

  3. Thanks for such a thoughtful and insightful post, Victoria. Can’t think of anything else I could add to that really, except from what I noticed in Mansfield Park when I listened to it on audio at the end of last year. Lorraine has said it all really on that front, too. The fates of Maria Rushworth and Mrs. Norris (I really don’t like that woman!) are probably the nearest we get to any sort of comeuppance from Jane Austen herself.

  4. Ditto, nothing else to add. 🙂 That’s why I love JAFF with all delicious set-downs, delivered to Lady Cat, Collins or Caroline. And Wickham getting his just deserts as well. At least all her heroines got their HEA, unlike in real life.

  5. Thank you for this post. I agree that Austen’s books are like real life. The complexity of her characters, as well as the complexity of the outcomes, show her superior skill. Perhaps the least liked character in the Austen canon is the mean-spirited Aunt Norris, who makes Fanny’s life a misery. More than in any other book, the narrator of “Mansfield Park” explains the negative consequences of actions: “It ended in Mrs. Norris’s resolving to quit Mansfield and devote herself to her unfortunate Maria, and in an establishment being formed for them in another country, remote and private, where, shut up together with little society, on one side no affection, on the other no judgment, it may be reasonably supposed that their tempers became their mutual punishment.” And of Henry Crawford, who behaved like a cad, we read, “we may fairly consider a man of sense, like Henry Crawford, to be providing for himself no small portion of vexation and regret: vexation that must rise sometimes to self–reproach, and regret to wretchedness, in having so requited hospitality, so injured family peace, so forfeited his best, most estimable, and endeared acquaintance, and so lost the woman whom he had rationally as well as passionately loved.”

    • Hi Lorraine, Those are good points. The “bad” characters are punished in a way– they don’t enjoy the happiness of the good characters.

  6. I think Jane Austen recognized that we are imperfect humans; some more so than others. No, she didn’t include any comeuppances, but as you mentioned, we get to do that. 🙂 Thank you for a little more insight into one of our favorite authors.

    • Hi Gianna, Yes, Austen is very good at recognizing and forgiving our imperfections. And I think that’s one of the reasons we love her. 🙂

  7. Great post. I agree with everything you said and particularly love that in fan fiction we can give characters the unrealistic but deeply satisfying comeuppance that they deserve.

  8. Hi Victoria 🙂 I agree with you. I think Jane Austen was writing true to life, and I agree that part of the legacy of enjoyment she left for us is getting to mete out punishment to her more disagreeable characters. I also think it’s fun to make them happy, or change who they are, but I know not everyone appreciates that.

    I would say she did punish them, in a way. Maybe it’s just my views coloring the work, but I feel like the good characters get to be truly happy and the bad ones go through life with some happiness, but not the real sort. Maybe her ‘villains’ aren’t even capable of being happy because, as you said, they don’t have the self-awareness to achieve happiness.

    Mostly, I like to think Jane Austen was a big proponent of empathy. She rewards those who have it or discover it. Sometimes, she gives those who don’t have it rocky journeys so they may learn empathy and reform. I think we, as readers, like that best.

    • Hi Summer, Good for you for pointing out the importance of empathy in Austen! That’s a good point. I agree that she does see the good characters as being rewarded for the virtue while the bad ones aren’t. It isn’t punishment/justice in the traditional sense, but I like it better for that.

Your thoughts are precious!