Sunday, July 11, 2010


Sense and Sensibility Book 3, Chapter 10 (Chapter 46 in some editions)

Atonement is a difficult issue. Ian McEwan wrote a novel called Atonement and there is not the faintest trace of anything that could legitimately called atonement anywhere in it. The movie based on it is even worse. McEwan's "atonement" is a sort of narrative atonement in which events conspire to even things out but the actual people responsible for the various sins never do anything but live through the events.

More common is a kind of psychological atonement in which the person does no atoning but we forgive because it is better for us to forgive than to keep on seeking justice for wrongs committed against us. I was reading a book by Martin Seligman (whom I otherwise admire) in which he cited the example of a guy who forgave the man who'd murdered his grandmother. The odd thing was that the murderer did nothing to warrant this.

In order for psychological atonement to work, we have to erase the sin by explaining it away. "It's okay Alex, you were under a lot of stress." Or, Alex was insecure, or was a victim of racial discrimination all her life, or was abused as a child, or was nothing at all but we don't know what her life might have been like so we forgive her because how are we to know what she has suffered.

And then there is the "Christian" reading that holds us responsible to simply forgive all wrongs against us as a condition of being forgiven.

But what of the debts that are to be forgiven. Don't they have to exist in order to be forgiven? Don't they have to be acknowleged?

In this Chapter, Austen gives us her take on some of these issues. Marianne is getting ready to forgive Willoughby. She is also getting ready to atone for suffering her own excesses have caused in others.

Austen starts with Marianne's attitude towards Willoughby and I think that is interesting. The line that has to be in the back of our heads as we read this chapter has to be "And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors." But what is Willoughby's debt? Here is how it plays out:
"As for regret," said Marianne, "I have done with that, as far as he is concerned. I do not mean to talk to you of what my feelings have been for him, but what they are now . At present, if I could be satisfied on one point -- if I could be allowed to think that he was not always acting a part, not alwaysvery wicked as my fears have sometimes fancied him, since the story of that unfortunate girl" -- deceiving me; -- but above all, if I could be assured that he never was so
   She stopt. Elinor joyfully treasured her words as she answered --

   "If you could be assured of that, you think you should be easy."

   "Yes. My peace of mind is doubly involved in it; -- for not only is it horrible to suspect a person, who has been what he has been to me , of such designs, -- but what must it make me appear to myself? What in a situation like mine, but a most shamefully unguarded affection could expose me to -- "

   "How then," asked her sister, "would you account for his behaviour?"

   "I would suppose him, -- Oh! how gladly would I suppose him, only fickle -- very, very fickle." 
There are a couple of things here that ought to shock us a little. The first is how little Austen and her characters (and, presumably, her first readers) care to see Willoughby do the honourable thing and marry Brandon's ward Eliza*.  Given Willoughby's standing he cannot be made to do the right thing as Wickham will be made to do in Pride and Prejudice. Austen, astoundingly, expects us to simply accept that this is how the world is.

The second thing that ought to shock us is how Austen expects people to not only bear up under the consequences but to embrace them. Lots of people have noted that Marianne's marriage is not  the equal of Elinor's. Austen herself acknowledges this through Elinor's dissent in the previous chapter when her mother suggests that Brandon will make Marianne as happy as she can be. There is an assumption here that Marianne has ruined her chance to be as happy as she can be.

And there we might stop a second and contemplate just how different Austen's morality is from most modern reality. The reason that Ian McEwan and Martin Seligman and your typical Christian spout such empty-headed notions of atonement is because they do not see, as Austen does see, that sin and forgiveness is only part of morality. Virtue is the rest of the story. Marianne may forgive and atone but she can never be Elinor's equal.

Last words, for now, to Marianne. As you read these, note the religious assumptions that have to have always been in Austen's mind as she understood her own story (and all her other novels as well by the way):
"I am not wishing him too much good," said Marianne at last with a sigh, "when I wish his secret reflections may be no more unpleasant than my own. He will suffer enough in them."

   "Do you compare your conduct with his?"

   "No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours."

   "Our situations have borne little resemblance."

   "They have borne more than our conduct. Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your judgment must censure. My illness has made me think -- It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my own behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died, it would have been self-destruction. I did not know my danger till the danger was removed; but with such feelings as these reflections gave me, I wonder at my recovery, -- wonder that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once. ...
Marianne is preparing herself for a life of atonement not for a single act that will make everything go back to normal.

*No, I do not think it is an accident that she has the same name as the heroine of Pride and Prejudice.


  1. I think you raise some troubling questions here. Can atonement and corresponding forgiveness exist without the other? Maybe only when we talk about God. If you break down the word "atonement" you get "at-one-ment," or being "at one again" with the person (or God)who has been wronged. I guess how this is accomplished depends on the circumstances. Is atonement the same as accountability, I don't think necessarily. As Christians we might be compelled to forgive, but does that render moot accountability for the wrong, I don't think so. And then there's the issue of Redemption. In the Catholic tradition a simple "bless me Father for I have sinned" followed by "ego te absolvo" is all you need to be "at one again" with God.

  2. Most of the credit goes to Jane Austen here (she is no Catholic though).

    The other ingredients in the Catholic tradition are penitence and genuine desire to sin no more, which are two sides of the same coin if we think about it. The thing about them is that they are hard to measure. It's much easier to establish that I really did say the Our Father and the three Hail Marys that the priest asked me to than to establish that I meant it.

    And Jane Austen would say, were she here, what does really meant it mean here? Does it mean just that I really felt sorry deep inside? She would say that is not enough. She would insist that a lifetime of training in learning how to feel and behave is necessary. That no one has to be perfect but that you should be getting better each time.

    I'd only add that the element we always forget is the final judgment. Presumably the day comes when we run out of options. God may be slow to condemn but his anger will not be put off forever.

  3. "She would insist that a lifetime of training in learning how to feel and behave is necessary. That no one has to be perfect but that you should be getting better each time."

    Well, that applies to everyone, nobody is perfect. And I understand this is Austen and not you.

    I was also struck by what you wrote about psychological atonement. I think we do that for a number of reasons, not least is that we're told constantly that forgiving someone will benefit us, the wronged person, more than the person being forgiven. My pastor does at least one sermon a month on that theme. He also hastens to add that one cannot forgive others until one has forgiven oneself. I agree with both points that he makes, but I also think that we psychologize not in an attempt to erase the sin but to explain or understand it, thereby making it easier for us to forgive it. I think that trying to put oneself in another's shoes--empathy--is sorely lacking in today's world. This issue is addressed in Wm. Paul Young's "The Shack" but I don't want to elaborate any further so as not to spoil it in case you decide to read it.

  4. I think Austen's point is deeper than mine. It's more than a matter of nobody being perfect. Jane Austen has an understanding of virtue that is so profound that I have to be humble in the face of it. I think Austen is the most profound moral thinker of the last few hundred years by quite a margin. I think we have more to learn from her than from any moral or theological work published in the last two centuries.

    Beyond that I will not say anymore for now. Amongst other things, I'm not sure I know enough to say any more than I have.