Self-Knowledge and Sincerity in Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park

Mackenzie Gilmore


At the end of Mansfield Park, Edmund Bertram—an aspiring clergyman and a man of religious faith—states that “the most valuable knowledge…[is] the knowledge of ourselves and of our duty” (473). Theorists Kenneth L. Moler and Lionel Trilling both argue that the search for self-knowledge—particularly in the evolving social landscape of Austen’s time—is a theme through which Austen’s novels can be understood. Moreover, Austen’s theme of self-knowledge is connected to her Christian beliefs, revolving around a morality reminiscent of the Bible verse, “how blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” (Psalm 32:2) This is particularly the case in Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park, where the heroines—as is typical of the bildungsroman—develop towards greater self-knowledge. This self-knowledge is aided by the mentor-mentee relationship between the heroines (Catherine, Fanny, and Elizabeth) and their respective love interests: Henry, Edmund, and Mr. Darcy (who either enact or symbolically represent the Christian values). Inherently associated with self-knowledge is the Christian value of sincerity both with oneself and with others; Lionel Trilling, in Sincerity and Authenticity, provides a historical and semantic interrogation of the eponymous traits, grounding them in the context of Austen’s novels. Catherine, Fanny, and Elizabeth are all sincere characters, and a reoccurring motif in Austen’s novels is to reward characters that make sacrifices in the present for the sake of sincerity. In both Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park, sincerity is the crux of a successful romance and is foregrounded in moments of rejected marriage proposals. While Austen’s heroines pursue self-knowledge in a distinctly Christian, sincere fashion, they are contrasted by various foil characters in the novels who, to their own ultimate detriment, disavow sincerity and whose self-knowledge is impeded by their reliance on materialist, class-based superficiality (reinforcing the moralism present in Austen’s novels).

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