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11/20/2012 06:20 pm ET Updated Jan 20, 2013

Jane Austen Weekly: The Burden of Gratitude

My class has just finished discussing Mansfield Park, and we are about to start Emma. With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, the combination is fortuitous. Among other things, both novels depict the pain of gratitude.

Perhaps "pain" is not the word you associate with gratitude. But I don't much like feeling grateful. It gives me an aching sense of guilt and fear.

Let me elaborate, before I return to Austen.

I grew up in the 1960s and '70s. With an immigrant grandmother and Depression-era parents still reeling from the news of the Holocaust, I knew damn well that I was lucky to be born where and when I was. I also knew this luck was arbitrary -- that it had nothing to do with my deserts. To this day I benefit from random privileges, beginning with a loving family, a financially secure childhood, and an excellent education, all of which led to professional and personal opportunities.

Am I thankful for this? Wholeheartedly. But I feel guilty about having socioeconomic advantages while other people suffer. And I fear that enjoying these and other gifts will make losing them more painful. For ultimately, something will be lost. People I love are bound to die.

On this Thanksgiving, the burden of gratitude is particularly acute. I am grateful that my neighborhood on Manhattan's Upper West Side was spared the trauma of Hurricane Sandy. I am grateful that I don't live in any of the countless regions of the world -- including parts of Manhattan -- where violence is unavoidable. I am grateful that my loving family will have too much food on Thursday. While somewhere someone starves, we'll eventually throw leftovers out. It is very hard for me to detach my gratitude from inequality.

So far, I've focused on the abstract source of benefits -- call it the universe, or God, or the coincidence of history. When I feel grateful for good fortune, I don't have a specific person in mind. But gratitude is, of course, also required between people. Here too, inequality looms large.

Consider the word's basic meaning. Gratitude is what you are supposed to feel when someone gives you something that you cannot yourself provide. Gratitude is a recipient's repayment for that which cannot be repaid in kind. Such exchanges can be positive and even wonderful. The recipient gets his or her needs met. The giver gets the benefit of feeling generous.

But gratitude can be coercive; it can be abused. And this is precisely what Austen brilliantly explores in Mansfield Park and Emma. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is required to feel grateful for her "transplantation" to Mansfield Park. Emma is a privileged heroine who expects gratitude from her inferiors. In both cases, the sentiment proves treacherous.

As the great Austen scholar Claudia L. Johnson writes, Mansfield Park "explores the sinister aspects of benevolence and the burden of gratitude it places on the recipient." Even before Fanny first reaches the estate, Mrs. Norris informs her of her "wonderful good fortune, and the extraordinary degree of gratitude and good behavior which it ought to produce." In fact, Fanny is mocked by her female cousins, given a fireless attic room near the servants, and required to undertake chores, including "standing and stooping in a hot sun" to cut roses (a likely reference to Sir Thomas's slave plantation).For all this, Fanny is supposed to feel grateful. If she resists her inferiority, she is demeaned and accused. When she won't perform in the theatricals, Mrs. Norris calls her a "very obstinate, ungrateful girl... very ungrateful indeed, considering who and what she is." When Fanny won't marry the man her uncle chooses, he asks how her heart can "acquit [her] of ingratitude." Instead of recognizing this injustice, Fanny abuses herself in the same terms. "I must be a brute indeed, if I can be really ungrateful!" she masochistically thinks.

Emma, who is "handsome, clever, and rich," imposes the necessity for gratitude on others. She befriends Harriet Smith because the girl presents "such a delightful inferiority." Harriet is so deferential, "so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style" that Emma feels she has secured her friend's dependence. Then Mr. Martin offers Harriet his hand. Marriage is always important in Austen's novels but it is especially so for Harriet who needs an antidote to her illegitimacy. Nevertheless, Emma persuades Harriet to reject Mr. Martin; and, after raising the "gratitude of her vanity," talks Harriet into loving Mr. Elton, who ultimately breaks her heart. "I only want to keep Harriet to myself," Emma tells Mr. Knightley. But he knows that in manipulating Harriet's gratitude, Emma has "been no friend to" her.

Austen is not always critical of gratitude. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth sees Darcy's magnificent estate at Pemberley and hears him praised as "the best landlord, and the best master... that ever lived."When she subsequently looks at his portrait, she thinks of his "regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before." There is no disentangling Elizabeth's sentiment from the power of Darcy's property. Nor does Austen seem to doubt the appropriateness of such gratitude.

For me it remains a problem. I am not proud of this. I recognize that there are spiritual benefits of gratitude. I would like to feel purely thankful on Thanksgiving. I really would.

So dear readers, whoever you are, I am asking for a favor. Please offer me your advice or thoughts on gratitude. All you need to do is post them in the comments section below this essay. Try to enlighten me.

For that, I would be grateful!

Susan Celia Greenfield is a Public Voices Fellow with the Op-Ed Project

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