Date of Award
Program or Major
Doctor of Philosophy
Janet E Aikens
Jane Austen is preeminently the novelist of gratitude, and no substantive noun of similar moral content recurs in these texts with the frequency of "gratitude." Gratitude has enormous power in her novels. It is a necessary precursor of love in the formation of bonds between men and women, and no "good" mutual love is possible unless it evolves through the process of gratitude. For successful marriages, gratitude is even more necessary than love. Among the scholars who focus on significant terms in Austen novels, few give more than passing attention to gratitude or to the massive volume of eighteenth-century moralist texts that wrestle with gratitude's role in the discourse of virtue. Internal and external evidence confirm Austen's understanding of this discourse, particularly the texts of the "moral sense" philosopher Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) and of the Anglican bishop Thomas Sherlock (1678-1761).
Those scholars who do discuss gratitude in Austen tend to see it as the acceptance and approval of subordination to authority, necessary to correct humanity's essential depravity and selfishness, a long standing theosophical view in classical and Christianized philosophical discourse, and which shadows the debate between Edmund Burke and William Godwin at the onset of the French Revolution. But Austen distances herself from older theosophical views, as well as from the Burke-Godwin debate itself, and instead uses Hutcheson, who believes in humanity's essential goodness, to transform gratitude into a virtue and guide for achieving happiness in this life, rather than to avoid punishment in the next.
Gratitude is closely linked with benevolence, traditionally an aristocratic virtue, but Hutcheson's biographer, William Robert Scott, argues that Hutcheson "democratizes" the Third Earl of Shaftesbury's elitist philosophy of benevolence. Hutcheson's theories, as well as the "practical Christianity" of Thomas Sherlock's Discourses, seem to support the same goal of human happiness that Austen's novels also endorse as the standard of moral virtue. Driving the moral thrust of her narrative seems to be confidence that, through gratitude, men and women can overcome social and gender structures that stand in the way of happiness.
Sayres, William Gosnell, "The discourse of gratitude in the novels of Jane Austen" (1995). Doctoral Dissertations. 1863.