'The fidelity of promising': Egoism and Obligation in Austen

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Oxford University Press

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The Review of English Studies

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DOI: 10.1093/res/hgab092


This essay reads the promises that permeate Sense and Sensibility (1811) in the context of late eighteenth-century discussions about the nature and value of voluntary obligations, probing Austen’s engagement with ideas advanced by thinkers including David Hume, Adam Smith, William Paley, William Godwin, and Edmund Burke. In doing so, the essay contributes to long-standing debates about Austen’s ethical vision, highlighting her simultaneous commitment to and critique of the individualist ethos structuring modern life. Austen’s approach to promises, the essay argues, is broadly aligned with that of Hume, Smith, and Paley: like these philosophers, Austen suggests that one is bound by a pledge whenever one knowingly raises another’s expectations concerning the existence of an obligation even if one does not intend to be bound. Yet Austen is less optimistic than these thinkers are about men’s willingness to honour their pledges. She uses the resources of fiction—in particular, experiments with third-person narration and point of view—to examine the problems that result from the unequal power relations between men and women as well as the tendency of individuals to conflate desire with expectation. Even as Austen attempts to shore up a sense of individual responsibility in her society, she implicitly acknowledges that, in some cases, breaking a promise may result in more happiness than keeping it would.


The Review of English Studies, Vol. 73, No. 309 (April 2022): 344-360. DOI.