The Imagination Goes Visiting: Jane Austen, Judgment, and the Social

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Owing to her focus on the gendered norms of propriety, Jane Austen tends to be identified as a novelist of convention rather than of modernity. In this essay, however, I argue for a more fluid reading of Austen's gender politics as well as the modernity of her work, by examining the understanding of judgment that she articulates in her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811). I place this novel in the context of an extensive discourse of critical judgment, which flows from the Enlightenment to such theorists of the public sphere in the twentieth century as Hannah Arendt and Seyla Benhabib. In keeping with this tradition, Austen identifies judgment to be profoundly intersubjective and, as such, compatible with those social norms that cultivate mutual recognition and dialogue. Unlike political theorists like Arendt, however, who restrict the use of judgment to the public sphere, Austen identifies the domestic sphere to be a crucial venue for exercising this faculty. In Sense and Sensibility the domestic sphere becomes an important part of "the social," understood by Austen as the venue of intersubjective relations in addition to norms and conventions. Her reinscription, in particular, of the drawing room as a conversational space in which intersubjective agreement can be generated opens up a reading of her work as friendly to a central insight of feminist public-sphere theory - the idea that the dualism of public and private spheres withholds value from participation in public spaces that are not recognizably political spaces but that bear on the achievement of progressive political goals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)145-178
Number of pages34
JournalNineteenth-Century Literature
Issue number2
StatePublished - Sep 2004

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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