Jane Austen and the Character–Situation Debate
This chapter takes up the debate concerning whether a person is the possessor of an abiding character across time and circumstance or is a perennially changeable individual where the circumstances of a situation determine a person’s thought and action. Jane Austen’s Emma is explored in connection with this debate, descending into fine details to cast light on the issue. Where hostile critics have attributed Emma’s moral infractions to evident character defects, her enthusiasts have tended to ignore the question of why she behaves inappropriately. This chapter shows that the distinct perspectives that emerge from the current character–situation debate in fact enable us to re-examine Austen’s intricate delineation of her heroine’s conduct. Rather than being fundamentally interested in generic virtues or vices, this is a novel that invites us to identify the variety of different factors—cognitive, motivational, dispositional, and situation-specific—which together contribute to the understanding of character.
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