Adam Smith on Jane Eyre’s Blanche Ingram

theory of moral sentiments charlotte bronte jane eyre

Ceanna Daniels for AdamSmithWorks

Has any woman ever given a fair assessment of a romantic rival? Daniels (and Smith) investigate just how horrible is Blanche Ingram in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre using the help of the impartial spectator. 
This is part 3 of a 3-part series. You can find the others here: Part 1, "The Foundation of Jane Eyre’s Moral Education" and Part 2, "Jane Eyre's Equality of Spirit."

One of  Charlotte Brontë's most memorable characters in Jane Eyre is Blanche Ingram, a rival for Mr. Rochester's affections. During a recent Virtual Reading Group “Liberty, Equality, Jane Eyre, and Adam Smith’s Lectures on Rhetoric,” participants centered part of the conversation around her. In particular, they questioned whether she is an inherently repulsive individual, or whether readers’ dislike for Miss Ingram is an echo of Jane’s own distaste for her. Perhaps Jane does provide unreliable narration where her enemies are concerned — so why not examine Blanche’s character through the lens provided by an impartial spectator instead? Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments may provide a relevant framework for analyzing the differences between Blanche and Jane. In particular, his discussion of propriety in Part One, Section Three, proves useful through its depiction of two characters: the “wise” and “virtuous” individual and the “rich” and “great” individual, who we’ll focus on here.
The “rich” and “great” individuals Smith describes derive their greatness from external, accidental characteristics, like wealth and social standing, rather than internal, inherent virtues. As a result, a person of this sort might alternatively be described as a self-centered socialite — although she commands attention, she does not deserve respect. She is primarily concerned with “very superfluous attention,” to such an extent that “to figure at a ball is [her] greatest triumph” and that she places enormous significance in any “situation which sets [her] most in the view of general sympathy and attention.” Despite the inevitable brevity and fragility of the attention she receives, the socialite orders her life around the acquisition and savoring of these moments of attention. Awareness of her own elevation (while it lasts) causes her to distance herself from the remainder of society, for “the great never look upon their inferiors as their fellow-creatures.” When the beauty or social prominence that brought “the rich and the great” attention passes away, Smith notes that these individuals become fully “incapable of being interested in the occupations of private life,” and finds no enjoyment in life except when speaking about or “employed in some vain project to recover” their faded glory and “former greatness.”
How does the socialite manage to secure, much less maintain, her lofty position among her community? The answer, according to Smith, lies in the curious draw of the wealthy and significant, even to those who know better. Although it seems disagreeable to say “that mere wealth and greatness, abstracted from merit and virtue, [could] deserve our respect,” it nonetheless remains true that “they almost constantly obtain it,” until it begins to seem that natural that they do. As a result, Smith observes that mankind’s “disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition. . . [is] the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments,” causing most of society to prioritize grandeur of person above greatness of character.
As readers of Jane Eyre can attest, Blanche Ingram seems to answer to this description. Eager to secure the full attention of the company, Blanche makes the bold pronouncement that the ideal husband will provide her with “undivided homage,” in recognition of the fact that she will “suffer no competitor near the throne.” Priding herself in her own cleverness and subtility, she toys with less intelligent guests in idle conversation and makes them look foolish in front of the other members of the company. Confident that her own impressions comprise reality, she assumes Rochester to be as infatuated with her as she is with herself. “[R]emarkably self-conscious” of her own social elevation, wearing a “habitual expression” of satirical pride, ever eager to direct the conversation towards self-aggrandizing topics, and— as her “spiteful antipathy” towards young Adèle indicates — cruel towards the fellow-creatures which she has deemed her inferiors, Miss Ingram is the very picture of this foolish socialite. As a result, a Smithian analysis would conclude that these are the characteristics which make her an odious character, not her status as Jane’s romantic rival.
If Blanche matches the foolish rich person, does that make Jane the contrasting virtuous individual in The Theory of Moral Sentiments? Potentially, but not inherently. Jane is hardly a flawless character herself, after all — for much of the novel, she is dangerously passionate, rather murky on the distinction between justice and vengeance, and consumed by a self-admitted idolatrous love for Rochester. Yet because Jane is aware of these flaws, and willing to invest time and emotional resources into growth away from those harmful traits, she has the potential to develop into a steadily more virtuous person and eventually become a character like the exemplar described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. By contrast, Blanche Ingram’s groundless arrogance echoes the character of the self-centered, “great and rich” socialite, and all the while her “self-complacency” indicates that she will never outgrow the role.
Smith contrasts these two characters by observing, “Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behavior, the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer.” Smith is correct to note that wise and virtuous people are generally overlooked by all but “the most studious” — however, authors like Charlotte Brontë are able to use their novels to draw every reader’s attention towards such distinctions, using fiction’s appeal and accessibility to share philosophical lessons like those in The Theory of Moral Sentiments with their own audiences.