PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.35, NO.1 (Winter 2014)

To Forgive Is Divine—and Practical, Too

Robert Mai


Robert Mai (email: is a principal in Stakeholder Insights, an opinion research firm in St. Louis.  He teaches courses in managing people at the Brown School at Washington University, and is the author of The Leader as Communicator (AMACOM).  He has earned degrees in English from Columbia and the University of Rochester.


Jane Austen heroines have a special aptitude for shaping a future in which old antagonisms are muted, or buried, and positive relationships are rekindled and nurtured.  That is to say, the real accomplishment of Austen heroines is not just securing a husband but also strengthening the goodwill embodied in those communities where they will live as married couples.  The strategy that accomplishes these positive ends is forgiveness, which is also the subject of some compelling new research emanating from the fields of evolutionary psychology and behavioral economics.


To insure the future, Jane Austen heroines frequently endeavor to reach some kind of reconciliation with their antagonists and those who have mistreated them.  Here’s a case in point. Elizabeth Bennet has just read the letter from Darcy that explains his true relationship with Wickham and exposes the lies that Wickham had so convincingly told her.  She in turn has related the contents of the letter to her sister Jane.  Now, the two of them are mulling over the decision about whether they should publicly reveal Wickham’s real character and misdeeds, or agree to keep the information to themselves―at least for the time being.


They decide on the latter course, and Jane explains her rationale in these words:  “‘To have his errors made public might ruin him for ever.  He is now perhaps sorry for what he has done, and anxious to re-establish a character.  We must not make him desperate’” (227).  At a time when they might be feeling only vindictive towards Wickham, here are the Bennet sisters trying to cut him some slack, intent on not ruining his future, while minimizing the damage already done.


Somewhat later, after Wickham and Lydia, the wayward Bennet sister who has eloped with Wickham, have been conditionally accepted back into their society, Lizzy bumps into Wickham on a walk, as Austen heroines frequently do.  Wickham plays it coy because he doesn’t know how much Lizzy has learned about his real background and his duplicity.  But Lizzy―who knows just about everything―welcomes him and responds to his careful probing with some gentle teasing:  “‘Come, Mr. Wickham, we are brother and sister, you know.  Do not let us quarrel about the past.  In future, I hope we shall be always of one mind’” (329).  In other words, the future of the Bennet family stands a better chance of being well-secured if the principals will forgive, and let the future be more of a guide than the past.


Or consider the remarkable conversation between Elinor Dashwood and the faithless Mr. Willoughby towards the end of Sense and Sensibility.  Willoughby had earlier been discovered to have seduced a young woman and left her with a child.  Then, after romancing Elinor’s sister Marianne, he deserted her too.  Now he has suddenly appeared at the home where Elinor and her sister Marianne are staying, and where Marianne is just beginning to recover from a life-threatening illness precipitated by Willoughby’s reckless behavior.  He has arrived uninvited with an urgent need to speak with Elinor.


Willoughby first wants to confirm that Marianne is indeed out of danger.  But he has another purpose:  to seek some level of forgiveness and to confess his shame and regret for having treated her so badly.  Elinor at first tells him, quite naturally, to go away.  But as he reveals his motives and his state of distress, she gradually feels more sympathy for him.  Towards the end of the meeting, she is moved to say that she thinks somewhat better of him now, and “that she forgave, pitied, wished him well―was even interested in his happiness” (332).  Why is Elinor so generous in her feelings toward this man who has injured her sister and behaved so badly?


Seeking Forgiveness


Evolutionary psychologist Michael McCullough, who has studied the roles of revenge and forgiveness in the context of group fitness for survival, suggests in Beyond Revenge that these two human actions each have their place in securing redress for an injured party.  “If you’re going to be successful in cooperating,” McCullough argues, “you can’t be easy-going all the time or you’ll quickly become everybody’s doormat, and you’ll pay the fitness consequences.”  But, you can’t be vindictive and unforgiving all the time either, McCullough continues.  “You have to be willing to let bygones be bygones with some of the individuals in your social world, because in the long run, organisms that know how to cooperate can fare better than organisms that know only vengeance.  In social dilemmas that pit the short-term gains of selfishness against the long-term gains of cooperating, evolution favors the organisms that can be vengeful when it’s necessary, that can forgive when it’s necessary, and that have the wisdom to know the difference” (87).


McCullough also notes that for people who have been wronged—especially by someone they thought was a good friend—forgiveness is typically conditional upon three received “signals” from those seeking to be forgiven.  The first two signals are offering sincere apologies, and making believable “self-abasing displays and gestures” (162, 168).  The third signal—which typically comes into play only when apologies and self-abasing gestures aren’t enough—is to offer some sort of compensation (171).


Willoughby convincingly sends the first two signals for seeking forgiveness.  Shortly after his arrival, he makes this earnest overture:  “‘I mean to offer some kind of explanation, some kind of apology, for the past; to open my whole heart to you, and by convincing you, that though I have been always a blockhead, I have not been always a rascal, to obtain something like forgiveness from Ma—from your sister.’”  This outburst and others ultimately move Elinor “and in spite of herself made her think him sincere” (319).  “‘You have proved yourself, on the whole,’” she adds, “‘less faulty than I had believed you.  You have proved your heart less wicked, much less wicked’” (329-30).  Willoughby does seem truly repentant and sorry for the pain he knows he has inflicted on Marianne, as well as for his subsequent realization that future happiness might have been better secured with Marianne than with his new wife and her income.


As for self-abasement, Willoughby delivers an extended rant of self-criticism mixed with self-pity.  On his treatment of Marianne, he admits to “‘meanness, selfishness, cruelty’” (320), the behavior of “‘a fine hardened villain’” (326), and to being “‘a cunning fool, providing with great circumspection for a possible opportunity of making myself contemptible and wretched for ever’” (321).  Compensation, McCullough’s third signal, is neither feasible here nor—more important—really necessary, since the first two gestures, apology and self-abasement, seem to have been quite effective.  As a summary assessment, Willoughby self-pityingly acknowledges that “‘I have, by raising myself to affluence, lost everything that could make it a blessing’” (321).


After Willoughby has departed, Elinor Dashwood “remained too much oppressed by a croud of ideas, widely differing in themselves” (333).  This emotional confusion is brought about by her growing sympathy for his current state and by her sense that each of his misdeeds “had led him likewise to punishment” (331).  From regarding him earlier only with “abhorrence,” she now acknowledges that Willoughby, “in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them” (333).  As she listens to Willoughby, she moves closer and closer toward a qualified acceptance of his apology, as well as compassion for his feelings of guilt and remorse.  By the end of the novel, Elinor and Marianne, now both married, have created some distance from him, so that in the future (the long term dimension), all parties can follow their separate paths and not be so burdened by memories that recall only hurtful experience.


In the case of the forgiveness granted to the opportunistic Mr. Wickham by the Darcy/Bennet alliance, the affair is more negotiated.  That forgiveness is granted after Wickham agrees to compensate the Bennet family by marrying the wayward Lydia Bennet—and that after Darcy arranges a kind of pay-off to Wickham.  In fact, in Pride and Prejudice there are several acts of forgiveness that make it possible for Elizabeth and Darcy, as well as Jane and Bingley, to come together and for the Bennet family to emerge repaired and restored from injuries to its honor and livelihood.  Lizzy’s peace-making gesture toward Wickham, described earlier, is one example.  Another is Darcy’s quest for forgiveness from Elizabeth, which has a reciprocal dimension as Elizabeth in turn offers apologies for some of her more critical attacks on Darcy.  Both Lizzy and Darcy deliver speeches of apology and self-abasement.  And for Lizzie, we might even say that becoming the mistress of Pemberley is a kind of (quite generous) compensation.


In fact, forgiveness as a strategy for strengthening family and community ties takes no better form than the exchanges between Darcy and Elizabeth as they recount their past, and often awkward, behavior toward one another.  Darcy has more to be forgiven for, and he shows great self-awareness in both his apologies and his self-abasement:  “‘The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me’” (367).


But Elizabeth too asks for forgiveness as she acknowledges her over-heated remarks—“‘abusing you so abominably to your face’” (367).  She also admits that her earlier taunting of Darcy stemmed from a desire “‘to be so uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to him, without any reason’” (225).  The conclusion she reaches in judging herself is that one “‘may be continually abusive without saying anything just’” (226).  Fittingly, she expresses her gratitude for Darcy’s ability “to forgive all the petulance and acrimony of her manner in rejecting him, and all the unjust accusations accompanying her rejection” (265).


Punishment and forgiveness


To set this description of seeking and granting forgiveness in counterpoint, Jane Austen offers us in Pride and Prejudice the wonderfully censorious communication from Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet regarding the Wickham-Lydia Bennet affair.  Self-righteous and unforgiving, and thinking himself a proxy for a vindictive Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Collins is heavy-handed in the extreme.  “‘The death of your daughter would have been a blessing in comparison of this,’” he allows in a letter to Mr. Bennet.  His rather histrionic advice to the family is to “‘throw off your unworthy child from your affection for ever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence’” (296-97).


Not a man to easily forgive is Mr. Collins.  His draconian recommendation for punishment does not hold much promise for reconciliation.  Nor does it look to the future with much hope, as he argues that this transgression “‘in one daughter, will be injurious to the fortunes of all the others, for who . . . will connect themselves with such a family’” (297).  The irony here is that Collins, as the local vicar, would logically be the one to display some Christian charity, bringing a sinner back into the fold.  But that’s not his agenda.  His idea of social harmony is to line up with whatever his patron Lady Catherine thinks is right and proper.


Mr. Collins’s harsh attack on the Bennet family is countered somewhat later with the delicious retort by Mr. Bennet, who knows now that he has little to worry about from Lady Catherine and Collins, with Darcy having a vested interest in the affairs of the Bennets.  Collins’s letter condemning Lydia therefore elicits a tongue-in-cheek reply from Mr. Bennet, who counsels him “‘to stand by the nephew [Mr. Darcy].  He has more to give’” (383).  Indeed, Darcy not only has more to give but, compared to his aunt, Lady Catherine, he is more disposed to offer forgiveness.  Darcy thus follows the lead of his bride when, “exposed to all the parading and obsequious civility” of Mr. Collins, he is nonetheless able to bear it now “with admirable calmness” (384).


Indeed, at the close of Pride and Prejudice, as in the other novels, we see similar gestures of tolerance and reconciliation working to restore the ties that will hold their small societies together.  Evolutionary psychologist McCullough offers up the idea of “‘the forgiving society’—a society in which forgiveness flourishes and revenge is ever more infrequent” (180).  In this concept, the tendency to forgive is an adaptive strategy that in the long run benefits the social group that practices it.  “Forgiveness pays,” asserts neuroscientist Joshua Greene, who cites computer simulations showing that people who “are a bit forgiving do better than individuals who hold grudges indefinitely” (34).  Even chimps do it, suggesting that “our capacity for forgiveness, which tempers our negative reactive emotions, has deep biological origins . . .” (34).  In Jane Austen’s fiction, the heroines and heroes focus quite deliberately on patching things up where they can and on renewing relationships that have been damaged.  And it all goes to their advantage.


Above all, they display a degree of sympathy for those who slip, perhaps because they themselves are all too aware of their own propensity to do things they later regret.  The elder Bennet sisters, as well as the Dashwood girls, Emma, and Anne Elliot all have this capacity to sympathize with at least some of the misbehaving characters who have made life difficult for them.  Psychologist Steven Pinker, writing about the decline of revenge and violence in the world in The Better Angels of Our Nature, notes that forgiveness is, in any event, more likely to be practiced among friends and acquaintances.  “Anything that creates a communal relationship, then, should also create sympathy” (585).


In Jane Austen’s fictional world, it is families in particular that suffer the injuries of betrayal and predation, but who can also feel sympathy enough to forgive.  These families are all able to close ranks after damage has been done by the various adventurers and predators who are also family members, or at least prospective family members.  Pinker adds that “We may not like them, but we’re stuck with them, so we had better learn to live with them” (541).


As couples, Elizabeth and Darcy, Anne and Wentworth, Elinor and Edward, Emma and Knightley are all, at the end of their novels, working to restore the various relationships that may have been compromised but that are still worth restoring.  Lady Catherine, despite some continued nastiness, is led to a reconciliation of sorts when she consents to visiting Pemberley with its new tenant.  Wickham, while never invited to be a house guest, is helped out in his career.  In Persuasion, Lady Russell is at least provisionally embraced by Wentworth:  “‘There are hopes for her being forgiven in time,’” he concedes (488).


In the same spirit, Willoughby is forgiven by Marianne as well as by Elinor, and, in Emma, Frank Churchill’s game playing with Emma and others is in the end acknowledged as a kind of character weakness, hopefully to be kept in check by the stronger character of Jane Fairfax.  In the same way Emma’s wrong-headed but well-meant matchmaking schemes will presumably be tempered through her marriage to Mr. Knightley.


Psychologist McCullough draws this conclusion:  “that humans may have evolved to be almost promiscuously forgiving of their neighbors and good friends.”  In Jane Austen’s fiction, “forgiveness”—in McCullough’s words—“isn’t something that evolved to smooth over our relations with just anybody.  Instead, it exists in large measure to help us preserve a relatively small number of geographically close neighbors or a small clique of trusted associates” (106).  Forgiveness in Jane Austen is deliberately used to preserve the reputation and the well-being of families, neighbors and friends.  And in Austen’s fiction, people will live happily ever after in part because they tie up as many loose ends as they can through reconciliation and forgiveness.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Greene, Joshua.  Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.  New York: Penguin, 2013.

McCullough, Michael.  Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008.

Pinker, Steven.  The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  New York: Viking, 2011.


Back to Persuasions On-Line Table of Contents

Return to Home Page