By Claire Stubblefield
A first reading of any of Jane Austen’s novels will often leave the reader with a strong impression of the leading female, along with perhaps a lingering tingle of romance sparked by her hero, dashing or otherwise. Male characters certainly play important roles in Austen’s novels, but they are rarely the sole focus of attention, and frequently are only significant in terms of their relationship to the heroine. This emphasis on the feminine perspective in her novels does not, however, lessen the significance of her male characters in teaching us about Austen’s own perspective on the role of the individual in society, and particularly the character qualities that ought to be valued in a consideration of masculinity. The most essential of these must be the sense of duty to which the masculine character is called; Austen places great emphasis on this quality and within it we find encompassed almost every other facet of masculinity, as it is demonstrated in the novels. Among these are honesty, economic sensibility, judgment, and a sense of domestic tranquility, as well as an eschewal of apathy, authoritarianism, and self-centeredness. Comprising each of Austen’s heroes we find an amalgam of these qualities, although, fully aware of the human propensity to find disagreeable any uprightness of character that casts a shadow upon ourselves, she is careful not to overwhelm us with anyone too perfect. The men of Mansfield Park and Emma are perhaps particularly well suited to represent these qualities, as in both novels we are presented with stark contrasts between the leading male characters.
Mr.. Knightley is perhaps the most exquisite example we encounter in any of Austen’s novels. His straightforward demeanor toward Emma endears him to us because we recognize in it an uprightness of character to which no other character in the novel can lay claim. While Mr. Knightley does have the benefit of age and experience over Emma, we also recognize that these factors alone would not be sufficient to raise him above her in our estimation; it is rather the fact of his commitment to honesty that allows Austen’s narrator to identify so strongly with his perspective and ideals, or at least to acknowledge his great influence on the developing perspective of the character into whose mind we are most often given a glimpse: that of Emma herself. We appreciate Mr. Knightley, then, in his role as mentor and maturing force in Emma’s life – a role that is only made possible by his willingness to speak truth to Emma, even when it means incurring her anger, or perhaps worse, her disregard (Lenta 172). Mr. Knightley’s one lapse lies in his inability to give an honest appraisal of Frank Churchill, but whether we are able to forgive him this offense as it occurs, by the novel’s end we can allow for both the vindication of his opinion and the justification of his motives. Frank Churchill provides us with a stark contrast to the honesty of Mr. Knightley. Perhaps his two most notable functions in the plot are that of inducing Jane Fairfax into a secret engagement, and intentionally perpetuating the false impression of pursuing Emma during his time in Highbury. His capacity to flirt with the boundaries of honesty and deceit requires us to reconsider our first impressions of him. With his track record, Frank’s chances of being restored to our good opinion from the novel’s first mention of him are greatly reduced, and the chances of his being raised to the ranks of those male characters who exhibit well the qualities of masculinity are diminished even further. We find in him an example of how one can successfully avoid the social expectations of masculinity via a tangled web of lies, and the corruption of character that inevitably ensues.
Another of the major requirements of masculinity for Austen is a level of economic sensibility. We are introduced to this concept in Mansfield Park through Sir Thomas’ dedication to maintaining the family’s affairs abroad. Of course consideration of what exactly those affairs entail leads to an ethical discussion of slavery and colonialism, but regardless of the outcome of such a discussion, Sir Thomas’ focus remains clear. In leaving his family behind in order to attend to his property abroad, Sir Thomas exhibits that sense of duty that calls a man to manage well the economic affairs that will determine the living conditions of his family. The behavior of his family in his absence demonstrates that perhaps better supervision could have been sought to serve in his stead. Even so, we perceive that had he known the effect of his absence on the personal development and growth of his children, he might easily have opted still to go, if only for the sake of ensuring their economic well-being, even at the cost of character. Sir Thomas thus garners our respect as a man and as a patriarch, though perhaps not as a father, per se. Returning to Mr. Knightley, we see again a gentleman who is economically sensible and who is praised, if indirectly, for this character quality within the novel. Mr. Knightley is particularly notable for his management of the estate of Donwell Abbey, with regard to his frugality and consequent ability to engage in altruism (Merrett 729). Because of these qualities, Mr. Knightley gains approval yet again in our eyes because we can acknowledge both his responsibility and his benevolent spirit, and we become more inclined to trust his judgments as well.
Discernment functions in these two novels as a major marker of both character and masculinity. Due in part to the commitment to honesty discussed above, Mr. Knightley is arguably the best equipped in the capacity of judging the character of others, though of course even he struggles to maintain his judgment, as his affection for Emma causes him to judge Frank Churchill unfairly. This flaw, however, is presented to us as perhaps Mr. Knightley’s only flaw. His only extreme expressions of emotion are those directed at Emma; his only obstacle in the pursuit of correct discernment thus lies on that same front. It is because we can be so sure that he does indeed have this one failing that we can allow ourselves to perceive the rightness of his judgments in practically every other instance. Even in the case of Harriet Smith, which threatens our good opinion of Mr. Knightley with echoes of elitism, serves in the end to confirm our confidence in his judgment. He correctly identifies the character qualities in Robert Martin that make him a desirable partner for Harriet, and once he has the opportunity of becoming better acquainted with her, he judges Harriet accurately as well. His ability to discern both character and right behavior sets Mr. Knightley apart from the other men of Highbury, highlighting the importance of this trait in the framework of masculinity. Back at Mansfield Park, we find Edmund, who is also presented as a great discerner of both character and right behavior. Of course he, too, has his flaws, and we find ourselves waiting anxiously throughout the book for him to finally realize how mistaken he has been about the character of Mary Crawford. However, it is again this one element that hinders him from correct judgment in most cases; his attachment to Mary Crawford blinds him to the flaws in her brother, distracts him from his normal attentions to the much more worthy Fanny, and causes him to backpedal in his decision not to allow or participate in the theatrical endeavors instigated by his elder brother. Apart from his attachment to Mary, Edmund’s judgment has, on the whole, served well as the moral compass of the family; although Fanny proves herself the more constant through the course of the novel, the preceding years of emotional deprivation have rendered her too timid to assert any of her opinions about the family’s behavior, and on any account, most of them have been guided by Edmund in the first place. His capacity for correct judgment again sets him apart from his male counterparts and emphasizes the masculinity of this quality.
Perhaps less obvious, but just as present in the novels, is the importance of domestic tranquility in the attainment of masculinity, as Douglas discusses in her exploration of Austen’s use of the enclave (Douglas 152). Edmund is notable for his lack of ambition in the social hierarchy. His aim is to become a clergyman, an aim with which Mary Crawford cannot seem to find contentment. In this goal he shows a concern for the wellbeing of others on the one hand, and on the other, a capacity to be satisfied with a rural life, away from the society of the city. This attribute is presented to us as something extremely desirable in the character of a gentleman, and even more so is the ability to live a life of domesticity well – something many of Austen’s male figures do not achieve, but something we believe to be within Edmund’s reach. Sir Thomas presents an interesting contradiction when studied in a similar light. While he claims to enjoy nothing more than his life at home with his family, and admittedly we are given little reason to doubt these words in themselves, we are struck by Sir Thomas’s inability to know even the most obvious details of his children’s characters, in particular those characteristics of Maria, Julia, and Tom which will cause him the most pain upon his extended absence from home. In this way he fails to achieve that kind of domestic tranquility that Austen seems to claim as desirable and as the particular responsibility of each inhabitant, male or female. In Highbury we are presented with the contrast of Mr. Knightley, who proves himself fully capable and desirous of living a tranquil, domestic life. His constant presence at Hartfield and his attendance to Mr. Woodhouse’s needs, as well as his offer to take up residence there upon his marriage to Emma to avoid depriving her father of his own sense of domestic tranquility, demonstrate both his desire for such a domestic life and his judicious nature.
Obviously, not all of Austen’s heroes shine as brightly as judicious Mr. Knightley or kind-hearted Edmund. The negative qualities of apathy, authoritarianism, and self-centeredness are offered up in the novel as qualities that should be avoided in the proper execution of masculinity. We find both apathy and authoritarianism in the character of Sir Thomas Bertram, whose inattentiveness to the development of his children has already been described. Beyond this kind of apathy, however, we also sense the oppressive nature of the kind of authoritarian structure in place in a family like the Bertrams, in which Sir Thomas, as patriarch, is too disconnected from his dependents to understand or relate well to them. Austen puts forth through this disconnect the idea that power ought to be allocated as a reward for merit (Lenta 175). The example of Edmund stands in stark contrast to his father, showing the way in which a more capable man would handle the same family. On the stand for self-centeredness, we find Frank Churchill, whose entire escapade with Jane Fairfax serves as testimony for his inability to look beyond his own desires, even in the case of the one he loves. In this way he is almost linked in our minds with the likes of Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility, whose infatuation or even love for Marianne was still not enough to induce him to suffer hardship or want. In both Churchill and Willoughby we see represented clearly the “Lord Chesterfield idea of the ‘gentleman’ – one for whom manner and general agreeableness are of first importance” (Waldron 152). Avoiding the triple sins of apathy, authoritarianism, and self-centeredness, then, are key to achieving masculinity for Austen.
Within the pages of Austen’s novels, we find this assertion: that the role of the man is to do his duty. Whether that encompasses a striving for honesty, a commitment to economic sensibility, a refining of one’s judgment, a true desire to manage well one’s own home and family, or only an aversion to those traits that corrupt a man’s character, Austen’s treatment of masculinity gives us a clear picture of both her high standards and her high hopes. What we find so appealing about Austen’s literature is the way it reflects reality. In the worlds she creates we perceive a mirror onto our own society, whether or not we find ourselves in the gentry, or its 21st century American equivalent. Looking into it we are led to deeper contemplation of ourselves, our roles within society, and the degree to which we are performing those roles effectively. What has changed about the way in which her work is applied since its publication, however, is the perception of the differences between the genders – or the lack thereof. As members of a society in which men and women frequently perform similar roles, often roles that are a complete reversal of the expectations of the early 19th century, we find ourselves in a particularly engaging relationship with the ideals developed in Austen’s work concerning desirable qualities of both genders. Thus, in a consideration of Austen’s view of masculinity, the female reader and her male counterpart are both able to find for themselves a guideline. The man’s duty of Austen’s world is no longer his alone; he shares it, now, with each woman who would seek to move beyond the restraints of both a patriarchal society, and a mediocre standard of virtue.
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