Various societies have different social conventions to which their members are expected to adhere and which guide their daily activities. In this context, these communities have diverse arbitrary norms and rules which govern the behavior of individuals belonging to them. These conventions are inherent in a way that people follow them without necessarily thinking about them. This assertion is depicted in the novels Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe and Pride and Prejudice by Austen. Albeit differently, the two books offer good illustrations of the meaning of social conventions for individual members of the society and the reaction that each member has towards them. The character of Werther as depicted by Goethe offers a good example that no set of rules or norms give a full justification of human existence and the complexity of the universe. On its part, Austen’s novel strives to illustrate how society attempts to deal with issues relating to love, proper behavior and money/wealth, in a world that is characterized with resistance to simple solutions to complicated matters. While Goethe strives to show how people divert from existing social conventions to better their personal interests, Austen seeks to show how individuals struggle to conform to social conventions and more specifically to issues related to gender roles and economic concerns. By examining the main differences and similarities in the two novels as seen in Werther’s and Elizabeth’s reactions to social conventions, this paper seeks to give an insight into how conventions in society shape personal understanding and behavior given diverse situations. In this case, Werther is defiant over the social conventions governing individual freedom and love while Elizabeth is opposed to conventions related to marriage and gender roles.
On the one hand, Werther’s morality and, to a large extent, that of the author can be seen as an expression of deep human impulses and needs. In the novel Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe depicts Werther as a person who relies more on his heart as opposed to his head. In this context, the character’s reflections in relation to ethical matters are founded on practical situations as opposed to abstract principles. Werther can be seen as a primary example of a case study on the indistinctness of moral freedom. More specifically, his feelings and by extension behaviors are uninhibited by normative social codes which are based on social conventions and rationality. On the other hand, Austen depicts Elizabeth as a person who evaluates things from different perspectives, other than dictated by the established social conventions. The author illustrates how social conventions lured girls to pursue worldly things represented by social acceptability and financial means. Different from other characters, Elizabeth is convinced in other things and thinks that marriage should be based on mutual love and respect. For example, Austen notes that unlike Charlotte, Elizabeth “…could not have supposed it possible that when called into action, she would have sacrificed every better feeling to worldly advantage” (p. 96). Here, the author was referring to the different views that the two characters had about marriage. Though not financially stable, Elizabeth refuses to abide by conventional wisdom and rather chooses a standpoint that is based on her own principles.
Werther is a young individual whose actions and behaviors are guided largely by his feelings. Ultimately, the character hopes to become an infinite person by using his feelings to rise above the limitations of social and natural conventions including rationally-driven morality that the society imposes on him. This motivates him to search for justification of his feeling-based approach to issues, by projecting the feelings on aspects of external reality including religion, art, literature, children, nature and love. Despite the fact that Werther is fully aware of social and natural conventions in his society, he ends up rejecting them and shows high level of frustration to the resistance that he garners. The contrasting moral tendencies of the character and other members of the society are best seen in the discussion he had with Lotte, Albert’s girlfriend, about suicide (Goethe). When she rejects Werther, the hypothetical discussion between the two has translated into reality. The main character eventually gets out of control when all channels of expressing his feelings are rejected. In this case, committing suicide can be argued to be a way of finding centrality of his feelings and a way of freeing himself from the demanding social and moral world he had been part of.
Like in the case of Werther, Elizabeth is contrasted to the other characters who followed a rather convectional way of thinking. Her sweetness of manner and archness coupled with her sense and conduct were of superior nature as compared to those of other persons in the novel, especially the heroines. Based on her independence of character, Elizabeth teaches the masculine figure of the importance of knowing himself. For example, while talking about Mr. Bingley with her sister, she notes that, “he is handsome…which a young man ought likewise to be, if he possibly can. His character is thereby complete” (p. 9). Through Elizabeth, Austen draws an insecure line between accepting overt female independence and the convectional view of a subservient domestic woman. The individuality of Elizabeth as depicted in the novel is vital to the understanding of the beliefs that the author held in relation to the position of women in the society. Here, Elizabeth has self-confidence which is largely manifested in her discernment and quick wit. This trait is conducive to her role in the society and the novel itself and it reveals Austen’s love for wit and irony (Olson, 77). The character is capable of disengaging herself from her immediate circumstances and, at times, the reader cannot distinguish her voice from that of the narrator. The tone used by the author serves to give Elizabeth transcendence and autonomy. Her ability to disengage herself from the immediate circumstances gives her the ability to see how existing social conventions are moving to the past, which, in turn, seals her petition to future generations.
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Back to Werther, Goethe seems to have two opinions as to whether the final act allows Werther’s character to achieve the desired moral freedom. On the one hand, the author is unswerving in his sympathetic depiction of his character, with the latter’s final action arguably being successful in giving him moral freedom. On the other hand, the suicide is a failed one as Werther is found with his lungs convulsing only to die twelve hours after committing the suicide act. Here, it looks like the author is arguing that the reader has to accept the approach that the character had for life while, at the same time, making the reader distance himself from it. More specifically, Werther’s efforts of achieving moral freedom are eroded and reject morality that is governed by rationality and enforced by social convection. Despite this, the author refuses to give a clear stance and, in the end, the relationship between suicide and moral freedom is more burred as opposed to being a resolution. The rejection of natural limits by Werther leads to critical issues related to moral freedom and which the author leaves largely unresolved.
As compared to Werther, Elizabeth fails to fit the social stereotypes imposed upon her by the society. On the contrary, she is depicted as a character who views these conventions and stereotypes as questionable through the use of satire and irony. It is worth noting that even Mr. Darcy at one point seems to be captivated by Elizabeth’s disregard for social conventions. She is depicted as a heroine who has been able to maintain decorum and a sense of propriety and, at the same time, a champion of women individuality. She inherits proclivity from her father which allows her to see the ridiculousness and irony in situations, a character so inherent in the author herself. Elizabeth uses this proclivity to achieve some level of autonomy in a society characterized by restrictive social conventions. By laughing at what she thinks to be “[F]ollies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies” (p. 36), the character dismisses social conventions that link femininity with passivity. Her laughter is a clear indication of her independence and refusal to accept the fate that society presented to her.
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In conclusion, both Werther and Elizabeth are depicted as characters who defy existing social conventions and stereotypes. On the one hand, Werther is constantly trying to achieve moral freedom and follows his heart instead of what he has been taught by the society. He refuses to follow the rational morality hereby represented by the social conventions established in his society. The author treats Werther’s feeling-based approach to the natural world with both skepticism and understanding. More precisely, his suicide act seems to have gained him the moral freedom he so much desired yet it cautions the reader about following his predisposition about life. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is constantly trying to use irony and satire to dismiss stereotypes and conventions that other members of the society are so much inclined to follow. Her actions are guided by her own principles as seen in her refusal to marry men who are repulsive to her. Unlike other characters in the novel, Elizabeth is able to overcome the unfortunate but highly accepted conventions of her society.
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