Habits of gentle selfishness

Literary critic John Sutherland informs me that Pride and Prejudice is to the United States what Emma is to Great Britain: the most widely read novel by Jane Austen. I am undertaking Emma for the first time with my students.

Austen’s psychological and moral acumen impressed itself upon me when I read a description of Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse. In the first chapter of Volume 1, father and daughter alike grieve the departure of Miss Taylor, the governess of Hartfield who has now married.

It was a melancholy change; and Emma could not but sigh over it and wish for impossible things, till her father awoke, and made it necessary to be cheerful. His spirits required support. He was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of every body that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind. Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable; and he was by no means yet reconciled to his own daughter’s marrying nor could ever speak of her but with compassion, though it had been entirely a match of affection, when he was now obliged to part with Miss Taylor too; and from his habits of gentle selfishness and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself, he was very much disposed to think Miss Taylor had done as sad a thing for herself as for them, and would have been a great deal happier if she had spent all the rest of her life at Hartfield. [emphasis mine]

In the second chapter, there is further elaboration on Mr. Woodhouse:

There was no recovering Miss Taylor—nor much likelihood of ceasing to pity her: but a few weeks brought some alleviation to Mr. Woodhouse. The compliments of his neighbours were over; he was no longer teased by being wished joy of so sorrowful an event; and the wedding-cake, which had been a great distress to him, was all eat up. His own stomach could bear nothing rich, and he could never believe other people to be different from himself. What was unwholesome to him, he regarded as unfit for any body; and he had, therefore, earnestly tried to dissuade them from having any wedding-cake at all, and when that proved vain, as earnestly tried to prevent any body’s eating it. [emphasis mine]

While Mr. Woodhouse does not satisfy the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the narrator characterizes him as a soft narcissist, which should cause some unease for the reader. As a postlapsarian creature, I plead guilty to those “habits of gentle selfishness” that turn me inward, failing to “suppose that other people could feel differently from [myself].” What is “unwholesome” to me, I tend to regard as “unfit for any body.”

Narcissism rears its ugly head in subtle ways. Mr. Woodhouse has trouble rejoicing in the matrimonial joy of Miss Taylor because he loathes a disturbance of custom. He also steals the pleasure of eating wedding-cake because his own fragile stomach refuses sweets. Austen tries to disabuse the self-congratulatory reader who imagines himself free of centripetal impulses, which she names “gentle selfishness”—gentle because the habits usually go undetected by others, causing negligible harm. If I halfheartedly pray for the anniversary of a couple in church because I do not share in the covenant of marriage or I pooh-pooh friends who listen to the jazz genre of bebop because it grates on my ears, I am no different than Mr. Woodhouse.

Austen teaches me that soft narcissism develops from thoughtless habit more than conscientious decision, and involves a failure to distinguish the self from external objects. In light of this, it is no wonder why Jesus instructs his followers, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mk. 12:31), since we already love ourselves exorbitantly, and the apostle Paul commands, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). Lord, forgive my gentle selfishness.


3 thoughts on “Habits of gentle selfishness

  1. In light of what you have said, it is interesting to look at how many times “he,” “his,” and “him” are used in this description of Mr. Woodhouse and his customs in chapter three. Austen points to his gentle selfishness by the hammering repetition of this 3rd person pronoun.

    “Mr. Woodhouse was fond of society in HIS own way. HE liked very much to have HIS friends come and see HIM; and from various united causes, from HIS long residence at Hartfield, and HIS good nature, from HIS fortune, HIS house, and HIS daughter, HE could command the visits of HIS own little circle, in a great measure, as HE liked. HE had not much intercourse with any families beyond that circle; HIS horror of late hours, and large dinner-parties, made HIM unfit for any acquaintance but such as would visit HIM on his own terms. Fortunately for HIM, Highbury, including Randalls in the same parish, and Donwell Abbey in the parish adjoining, the seat of Mr. Knightley, comprehended many such. Not unfrequently, through Emma’s persuasion, HE had some of the chosen and the best to dine with HIM: but evening parties were what HE preferred; and, unless HE fancied himself at any time unequal to company, there was scarcely an evening in the week in which Emma could not make up a card-table for HIM.”

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