Reading The Great Chain of Being

In the back of my copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817), the study questions do more than draw interest to the text, they draw attention to the social landscape of the day. One question asks, “Does Jane Austen ridicule a particular set of people with her wit?” The question is alarming because it situates judgment on the authoress herself, painting her with a bit of conceit.

In our modern age, creative writers are urged to “show” their stories scene after scene, which is a means to allow readers to arrive at their own conclusions concerning subtext. In Austen’s day, marked rules and distinctions between showing and telling did not exist, where it was for our lady genius in her free form prose to stumble upon what literary theorists know as “free indirect discourse,” a form of literary expression that in essence allows readers to know what a character is thinking.

The result of this form bleeds into our initiating question, that people stand be ridiculed as Austen’s story unfolds. We know what people are thinking about others because Austen spells it out. But we can’t judge her for how she sounds in her writing, because the question is as much a historical inquiry as it is a textual study. Austen’s thoughts are a reflection of an English paradigm stretching centuries into the past, in which her psyche functions at the mercy of that very paradigm.

Just before the long eighteenth century, the vestiges of Feudalism lingered with great tenacity. Feudal social structures are likened unto the Great Chain of Being, that unbreakable hierarchy in which all creatures large and small fit in at some level. And I mean UNBREAKABLE! God himself sits at the very top of this hierarchy, and from this point comes the monarchy and nobility, followed by the peerage and on down into the peasant classes and so forth. Wherever a person was born within this Great Chain of Being, society at the time recognized the position as permanent. In 1563 The Statute of Apprentices embodied this concept, “for it assumed the moral obligation of all men to work, the existence of divinely ordered social distinctions, and the need for the state to define and control all occupations in terms of their utility to society” (Source). A peasant couldn’t dream of becoming a baron and a baron wouldn’t think of becoming king unless certain rare conditions were to arise. This understanding of the structure was embedded so deeply that to imagine life otherwise was incomprehensible.

The Great Chain of Being

The Great Chain of Being can be understood even better when we observe the moment in time when it suffered the rudiments of disruption. London trade exploded into the open during the early 1700s, and a new class of people came into being that had people scratching their heads. A person could develop a business based on the sale of goods and become successful. Social mobility had arrived. The middle-class had been created, destabilizing that Great Chain of Being.

Yet the social consciousness created by the Great Chain of Being did not dissipate so easily. Social mobilization was like a shock wave of which its effects took time to deal with. In Austen’s work the aftershocks of this disruption pop up throughout her text like Freudian slips, yet they are to the contemporary reader, a part of fleshing out this glacial force of change.

For example, Sir Walter has strong opinions about social mobility via time served at sea:

— “Yes; it [The English Navy] is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of” (Austen 19).

Obscure birth? His use of the word “undue” comes off as harsh even for the day, and the element of social mobility disrupting the Great Chain of Being is well-defined in the insistence that it could never be “dreamt of.” As modern readers we might ask: Why shouldn’t someone of obscure birth be allowed the chance to come into their own?

The Great Chain of Being is subject to dismantling by Captain Wentworth’s intention to succeed, so as to raise his station in life. This longing is pivotal to the plot in that he had lost his romantic chance with Anne because of his lower level in the social hierarchy:

— “But he was confident that he should soon be rich: full of life and ardour, he knew that he should soon have a ship, and soon be on a station that would lead to everything he wanted” (26).

Personalities and character defects are no match for status when we consider the power Miss Carteret has over her peers in light of her natural place in the Great Chain of Being:

— “Miss Carteret, with still less to say, was so plain and so awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden Place but for her birth” (143).

Birthright has been cemented deeply in the social consciousness so that it is like pulling teeth trying to remove it from the authoress’s mind.

— “But Mary did not give into it very graciously, whether from not considering Captain Benwick entitled by birth and situation to be in love with an Elliot” (124-25).

Even when specific examples fall to the wayside and subtle everyday language is applied do we find the gradation functioning within Austen’s psyche, found in her application of the word “superiority” (emphasis mine).

— “…save as we all are by some comfortable feeling of superiority from wishing for the possibility of exchange, she would not have given up her own more elegant and cultivated mind for all their enjoyments” (40).

Even inanimate objects are assigned a measure of station in the Great Chain of Being:

— “Their house was undoubtedly the best in Camden Place; their drawing-rooms had many decided advantages over all the others which they had either seen or heard of, and the superiority was not less in the style of the fitting-up, or the taste of the furniture” (131).

In the modern age we don’t go around commenting about the life-cards a person has been dealt, not in the ridiculing sense we hope. In movies sometimes we will find politicians insisting to their children who will marry who, as they revel in the glee of their lack of poverty. And so far as we know, those who’ve been divined to claim standing within that fabled “one percent” probably have thoughts and they make comments about who is who in this world, and where they stand in relation to them. As for the potential of Austen’s work to sound as though she is ridiculing others, at the very least, and from her perspective, her work serves to suggest to the reading public at the time, and in our modern era, that a person does not necessarily have to remain in the situation into which they were born. As Captain Wentworth’s ambitions suggest: How much are you willing to work for a better life?

Serfs locked into the Great Chain of Being by their overlord.

___________________________________________

Austen, Jane. Persuasion. 1817. Barnes & Noble, Inc, 2003.

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6 thoughts on “Reading The Great Chain of Being

  1. Fascinating use of “Chain of Being”, a new concept to me. I find that Jane Austen speaks openly about class, and these days such discussions are more likely to be about ethnicity, culture and religion, which have taken precedence over class. In her day, society separated the classes, but it even more rigidly separated people by ethnicity, culture and religion so that those weren’t even issues to Jane Austen. Today, as ever more blending takes place, the writer who can approach those topics with humor is an immense salvation because we need a framework like Austen’s that allows us to discuss the blending without offending.

    • Wonderful reply Brenda, and so true. The show Star Trek takes place hundreds of years from now, and boasts a “world” federation. It would be amazing to think that between now and then we got there through not only literary means, but humorously through literary means!

      Thank you for your thought-provoking words…

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