Don't Follow Your Heart: Anti-Revolutionary Lessons from Pride and Prejudice

Nov 15, 2012

Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth about Darcy...

Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth about Darcy, on the title page of the first illustrated edition. This is the other of the first two illustrations of the novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s easy to forget when reading a Jane Austen novel that she wrote during a time of great revolutionary upheaval:  the loss of the British colonies in America, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s attempt to take over the world, and the deliberate assault on the institutions of the Church, the Government, and the Family.  The world had gone mad. And yet Jane Austen utters not a word in her novels about those unsettling times, at least not directly. Jean Jacques Rousseau fittingly referred to as both the Father of the French Revolution and the Father of Romanticism, rejected both Christian epistemology and Rationalism when he argued that emotion is the highest form of truth. To feel is to know. Unfettered passion is truth. Want to know what’s right? What does your heart tell you? From Rousseau’s mouth to the ears and arms of romantics and revolutionaries, passion and emotion as standards of truth unleashed chaos and violence unto the world. While revolutionaries picked up swords, Jane Austen picked up her pen. She stood as a bulwark against the revolutionary chaos of her time. And you thought she wrote love stories. In the story of Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett, Austen does give readers one of the greatest love stories of all time.  But it’s not just any love story; it’s an anti-romantic love story.  Opposed to Rousseau and revolutionary/romantic thinking, Austen sends the message: Don’t Follow Your Heart. The first successful engagement in Pride and Prejudice is between Mr. Collins and Charlotte Lucas. It is a purely practical, almost mercenary, arrangement. Elizabeth Bennett is disappointed and disgusted by the match, as is the reader.  We agree with Elizabeth that affection, compatibility, feelings matter. And Elizabeth’s feelings are leading her to the very agreeable and handsome Mr. Wickham. One would expect the plot to unfold as follows: Wickham sweeps Elizabeth off her feet. They get married and live happily ever after, contrasted with the miserable Collinses. Unfeeling marriage is condemned and following your heart leads to joy. Maybe if Shelley or Wordsworth or Byron wrote this novel. Instead Austen warns Elizabeth—and all of us—when Mrs. Gardiner cautions Elizabeth against making an imprudent match with Wickham: “you must not let your fancy run away with you. You have sense, and we all expect you to use it.” There it is, in the middle of one of the greatest love stories ever written: Don’t follow your heart! Elizabeth learns just how wise is the advice of Mrs. Gardiner, but her sister Lydia does not.  And here we see the true genius of Austen. The entire seduction of Lydia happens offstage. The reader doesn’t get caught up in the passion and the romance. Instead it unfolds through the perspective of Elizabeth. At the moment when Elizabeth hopes that there may be a future for herself and Darcy, she receives Jane’s letter. All of Lydia’s foolishness and selfishness is evident as we mourn with Elizabeth. Unlike Lydia, caught up in her own feelings, readers immediately recognize how her actions affect everyone around her. She has brought shame and disgrace on not just herself but her entire family and has likely destroyed any chance for a good marriage for her sisters. Lydia has ruined not just herself, but her entire family. She and Wickham followed their hearts, and predictably that choice leads to their own misery. But the genius of Austen is that their own suffering is somehow secondary; it's an afterthought. The real tragedy to the reader is the pain afflicted on Elizabeth and her family. When people follow their hearts, they think only of themselves and neglect their duty to love their neighbor. Duty, loving your neighbor, considering the consequences of your action beyond just your own pleasure… these are the themes that drive Pride and Prejudice. Darcy is a good man because he doesn’t follow his heart. He refuses to feed his vanity by flirting with Elizabeth when he has no intention of marrying her. Wickham, in contrast, enjoys the pleasure of flirting, and even seducing, without any consideration of the consequence. Mercenary marriage brings no joy but neither does running away with your fancy. Good marriages have affection and compatibility but also require a husband committed to his duty and, as Mr. Bennett tells Elizabeth in his last speech, a wife who respects her husband. Love and affection rooted in duty and respect. How very anti-revolutionary. Jane Austen’s message is just as timely today as it was two hundred years ago. How do we respond to a world gone mad? Have a good marriage, be a good neighbor, invest in your community, take your responsibilities seriously. Don’t follow your heart. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. On these hangs the only hope to restore sanity to our world.    
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Angelina Stanford

Angelina Stanford

Angelina Stanford has an MA in English literature from the University of Louisiana, graduating Phi Kappa Phi, and has taught in various Christian classical classrooms for over 20 years.  She is currently teaching the Great Books online to high school students at the Harvey Center for Family Learning and recently joined the online faculty of the Circe Academy.  She’s also the co-star of the popular Circe podcast “Close Reads.”  She has a particular interest in myths, fairy tales, and understanding literature through the study of mythological archetypes and biblical typologies—as well as a mild obsession with the influence of Celtic fairy stories and Celtic Christianity on the development of British literature.  She also has a more than mild obsession with Wendell Berry.​​

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Can't speak for Angelina, but are you sure that's a disagreement?

Great analysis!

Charlotte's marriage is not ideal, and it's true that there really isn't respect or affection involved, but I still admire Charlotte as having enough dignity and duty to make up for the lack. Last time I read it, I thought we really were not supposed to feel as sorry for her as Elizabeth does, but rather respect her grip on reality and determination to make the best of her situation. Charlotte certainly does not want our pity, so I don't think we should give it to her.

I agree. I couldn't make every point that I wanted to in a short blog post. I was mainly trying to point out that the initial plot setup looks romantic but goes a different way. Elizabeth herself, I think, feels differently about Chsrlotte's choice after visiting her.

Oh, good. I've not yet discussed this with anyone who isn't shocked that I think Charlotte made a less-than-ideal but legitimate good choice and is to be admired for behaving well and fulfilling her duties (a good foil for Lydia). :)

Great extension on this beautiful commentary. Charlotte IS Lydia's foil, making as you said, "a legitimate good choice" for her and her family.


A beautiful analysis! Thank-you!

Boy oh boy do I disagree. Austen is the English language's reigning ironist. To read her novels straight and lump them in with the hortatory prose of, say, Burke and Lord Chesterton is to turn her project completely on its head.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." I hope you can hear Austen's tongue planted firmly in her cheek there.

Excellent thoughts, Angelina! It is a very good analysis of Austen and one of the reasons why I like her books so much.

Enlightening, Angelina! That book is a treasure box.

I love the way you wrap this up.

Reminds me of this, from Wendell Berry:

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

As we face the necessity of responding to a world that has seemingly gone mad, your advice (and his) seems sound.