"Charity Itself": Virtue, Happiness, and Christian Love in Pride and Prejudice
Despite the historical evidence that Jane Austen was a devout Anglican, many readers have nonetheless contended that her Christian faith does not truly inform her fiction. Even those who do identify Christian themes in her works tend to argue that her early three novels, of which Pride and Prejudice is one, have a lightness of theme and tone that Austen abandoned in favor of more serious and explicitly religious subjects for her final three novels. While critics have described Christian elements in Pride and Prejudiceâ such as the importance of repentance, humility, and forgivenessâ none have yet made a prolonged study of the way these Christian ideas pervade, not simply punctuate, the narrative. In my dissertation, I argue that Pride and Prejudice is a fully Christian work because Austenâ s moral concerns in the novel are fundamentally, if not explicitly, Christian. The novel is governed from beginning to end by several essential Christian virtues, the chief of which is charity, the queen of the theological virtues. In their different ways, both Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy must improve in Christian charity as a preparation for romantic love: she must learn to judge with charity, and he must learn to consider othersâ needs ahead of his own. Charity is also key to Austenâ s understanding of the happy ending which rewards her characters; she suggests that her characters can hope to achieve real happiness in proportion to their ability to love others unselfishly. Indeed, her idea that happiness consists in generous love is a reflection of her belief that the Christianâ s ultimate happiness and reward is loving communion with God and the saints in heaven. Following charity, humility is also central to the novelâ s Christian vision. Austen shows that this quintessentially Christian virtue must inform justice: only through the humble recognition of their own faults are the hero and heroine able to treat each other justly. Their humility also prepares them for gratitude and forgiveness, attitudes which are themselves the precursors to love.