We have been Jane Austen
fans for years—since we each discovered Pride and Prejudice
in high school. Like many readers, we’ve wondered what makes Austen’s stories of village life and courtship so poignant and timeless. Adam Smith
’s Theory of Moral Sentiments
delivered a revelation: the lens of “the impartial spectator” is one reason they engage us so deeply.
Dr. Joy Buchanan's Speaking of Smith
, "Taylor Swift's Anti-Hero as a Smithian Anthem
," led us to this connection. Buchanan introduced Smith’s “impartial spectator” this way:
The impartial spectator is a key concept in Smith’s theory of moral behavior. According to Smith, individuals are able to judge their own actions by imagining how they would appear to an impartial observer. This imaginary figure serves as a guide for moral behavior, helping individuals to understand how their actions affect others and to conform to societal expectations.
The quote brought to mind Austen’s Emma
and the Box Hill scene, where Emma is unkind to the older Miss Bates. The characters are picnicking in the English countryside when a young man proposes a game to enliven the group’s conversation. He asks each person to say either one very clever thing, two moderately clever things, or “three things very dull indeed.” Miss Bates, soft-spoken but loquacious, responds first, saying with self-deprecating good nature that she will choose the third option, as she is “’sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth.’”
Emma replies, “’Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty… you will be limited as to number—only three at once.’”
We wince as the quip escapes Emma’s mouth.
Adam Smith predicted we would.
Though Smith died before Austen’s novels were published, his Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS) anticipates the reason her books affect us. As Smith says, we take on the feelings we imagine others feel:
[T]he emotions of the bystander always correspond to what, by bringing the case home to himself, he imagines should be the sentiments of the sufferer. (TMS I.1.I.4)
This can be as true when we read fiction as when we observe others in real life. Reading makes us “impartial spectators.” From outside the story, we observe its plot and characters. Smith acknowledges this too, saying we experience the joy and distress our literary heroes feel. (TMS I.1.I.4)
We also experience the joys and distresses they don’t feel, but that we would feel if we were in their situation. We are embarrassed for them, as Smith puts it:
We blush for the impudence and rudeness of another, … because we cannot help feeling with what confusion we ourselves should be covered, had we behaved in so absurd a manner. (TMS I.1.I.10)
Austen was a genius at drawing us into the “impartial spectator” role. Her dialogue and narration bring us fully into scenes and allow us to feel a character’s plights and emotions. She designs ordinary situations that enable us to spy on the slights, spars, and reactions of her characters. As we read her novels—and thereby practice “impartially spectating”—we broaden our experience, think deeply about values and motivations, and consider consequences, all from a safe distance.
Interestingly, Austen also uses the “impartial spectator” device within her stories. Was this a conscious decision? It’s impossible to know, though she was likely familiar with Smith’s ideas. Sometimes one of her characters is literally an “impartial spectator” to another. The picnic scene in Emma exemplifies this, too. Here’s how the story plays out after Emma’s hurtful quip to Miss Bates.
First, Mr. Knightley chides Emma:
“How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?”
Then, Emma tries to “laugh it off”:
“Nay, how could I have helped saying what I did? – Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.”
But Knightley is sure Miss Bates understood. He tells Emma how embarrassed Miss Bates was. Austen has cast Mr. Knightley in the role of impartial spectator. When Emma sees her remarks through his eyes, she owns her mistake.
Smith and Austen knew that our own view of our actions might differ from an outside observer’s. If these views were the same, there would be no need for an “impartial spectator” to guide us. Both writers also knew that we could learn to be our own “impartial spectator.” As Emma progresses, our main character begins to understand this. She grows more aware of how her actions have been perceived and moves closer to Smithian prudence. This is true in several Austen novels: a heroine’s character arc often follows her progress toward self-realization and virtue. Elizabeth Bennett realizes her prejudice; Marianne Dashwood realizes her impulsivity.
Austen leaves us room to wonder what Emma Woodhouse thought or felt right after her comment, before Mr. Knightley’s reprimand. Did Emma really need Mr. Knightley to point out her error? Did she suspect she had done wrong, but downplay her comment out of pride? Did she have “perfect knowledge” but not “self-command,” to use Smith’s terms (TMS VI.iii.1)?
Whatever the answers, we grasp how an “impartial spectator” awakened Emma to the benefits of being kinder. Reflecting on that helps explain why we love stories: they let us practice being “impartial spectators” in all sorts of situations. That nudges us toward a truth we hope society may universally acknowledge: best behavior comes from considering not only our own perspectives, but also those of others.