Art of Characterisation in Jane Austen Novels

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      Portraiture of Middle-class People. Alexander Pope, the famous poet of the eighteenth century, wrote that ‘the proper study of mankind is man’ and the line may very well be regarded as limiting the scope of Jane Austen’s study. Her primary concern was with man—but man not as a universal being nor as type but as an individual. She proposes to undertake neither the philosophical nor the ethical study of man but the psychological and ironic study of men and women belonging usually to the middle class gentility of those days in an English provincial town. This is a class which is complacent, well-do-do and comfortably off. The members of this class have a sufficient, inherited income and have not to work for a living. Their usual worry is to find suitable matches for their daughters. She, therefore, presents ordinary and common place persons. Above them and below them are the aristocratic and the peasants classes respectively but neither of them is the concern of Jane Austen. She draws primarily from this, class to which she herself belongs, that of clergy men and the country gentlemen.

      Jane Austen’s characters, therefore, are an integral part of her fictional design. Unlike those of Dickens they are never conceived
outside the plot nor does she allow the plot to exist for them. Her art of characterisation, as distinct from that of her plot-construction, is not sialic. Her concept of character has been growing and developing in novel after novel. In her earlier novels wit is dominant over her characterisation. In ‘Pride and Prejudice’ which belongs to the middle period of her career as a novelist, she uses a kind of farce which was common in the fiction of the eighteenth century although side by side there is finer study of characters also—those of Elizabeth, Jane, Darcy being at once higher and nobler from the rest. Her later work shows a tender and graver outlook and a deepening of her study of character.

      A Galaxy of Fine Characters. Yet all her novels, in one way or the other, contribute to the display of her fine study of characters. Taken together these novels present before us a galaxy of fine and illustrious personages. Not even Scott’s or Thackeray’s characters dwell in the mind more securely than John Thorpe, the bragging, babbling under-graduate (Northanger Abbey) and the feather brained, cold-hearted flirt, his sister Isabella, then the Bennet family (Pride and Prejudice) every member of which is a masterpiece, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the arrogant lady patroness, and Mr. Collins her willing toady, then Mrs. Norris, half-sycophant, half-tyrant (Mansfield Park), then the notable chatterer Miss Bates (Emma) and the list could be enlarged infinitely, “for this little world is thickly crowded with these.”

      Her Detachment and Sympathy. Although all her unforgettable characters are the victims of comedy yet they are none the less lovable. She creates each one with a personal responsibility and gives a definite function and purpose to each. Despite her singular quality of detachment, there is at least one female character in each of her novels through whom she has projected herself and her point of view; but this does not prevent her from doing fairness and justice to everyone in this world. Those who are beyond repair as the old people or confirmed villains are left by her as they were at the beginning of the story, but others have their faults purged off due to their association with the comic spirit and these characters often attain a balance and proportion of mind in the end very much like that of their creator.

      Psychological Characterisation. Thus the comic characters are conspicuous in all her novels. The aim of comedy is to correct the follies of mankind. It has naturally to conceive of character with a sense of human frailties. Comedy, otherwise, is likely to miss its point and effect. Looked from this angle her characters, it may be said, are neither “Mr. Good” nor perfect villains. True to her small world of two squares of ivory, she depicts her characters exactly as she must have found them in actual life. They are a little proud or snobbish, priggish or inactive or prejudiced or Gothic-minded; but this does not mean that any single trait monopolises her individuals to the exclusion of all other. As such her characters are not flat like the characters of Dickens. They are conceived in the round, though they may have someone trait more prominent than the rest.

      The Seemingly ‘‘Allegorical” Characters. Thus, there may often arise a temptation to compare her characters with those of Ben Jonson especially when one reads such allegorical titles of her books as Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice, One may consider them to be the embodiments of a single quality of humour of the old classical comedy but this impression is soon wiped out if one reads only the first few pages of any of her novels. The author avoids the effect of allegory by making Elinor who represents sense neither priggish nor unemotional and Marianne who stands for sensibility essentially intelligent and generous. The allegorical title of “Pride and Prejudice” may give one an impression that the two central characters of the novel, Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, will be the embodiments of two abstractions that of pride and of prejudice respectively yet the former lives to cast off the pride if there was any in his character and the latter has been given such a dominant place in the comedy as no character of Ben Jonson ever occupied.

      Her Characters are Round and Complex. The gift of keen observation coupled with her intuitive understanding of the salient features of a character helps her in realising the characters in the concrete. Her characters are psychologically true for they are seen, unlike those of Dickens or of Scott, not from ‘without’ but from ‘within’. From their physical exterior they can hardly be distinguished unless they begin to speak. They express themselves fully in their speech and sometimes disclose unconsciously the latent faults of their upbringing. Thus, all her characters are ‘three dimensional’ or ‘round’ characters as opposed to the ‘two-dimensional’ or ‘flat’ characters and each of her characters is closely interwoven with the fabric of the novel. In consequence these characters are living and life-like. Her clarity of imaginative vision and the fidelity to facts make her characters real. We know Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse not only as living but also as thoroughly as we know the characters of Shakespeare. She perfectly understands the minds of those whom she animates as if those minds were transparent. She seizes them in their depth although at first we do not get this impression. The secret complexities of self-love, the varieties and forms of vanity and the shades of selfishness are all presented with such profuseness and intensity of method that the author’s personal reaction is reduced to a minimum.

      Her Female Characters are Better Drawn. These complexities of thoughts and motives are better studied in the case of her female than her male characters. One of the several requirements of a comedy of manners is the need of witty and vigilant women. Though her world shows us a wealth of character-studies yet these characters are not all equally good, those of women being at once more searching and life-like than those of men. The truth is not far to seek; her female characters share to a great extent the balanced outlook and the feminine point of view of their creator. The spinster must naturally experience some difficulty in reaching to the point of view of her rival sex. Her female characters are, therefore, better drawn than her male characters.

      Her Dramatic Method of Characterization. Further Jane Austen’s method of characterization is not that of the omniscient writer but that of a dramatist. She does not force the character upon the plot and creates no dialogues to suit the character. On the contrary, the character is the result of the movement and conflict of the events and is revealed through dialogues. The situations are mostly psychological and reveal the characters. Her detachment and fairness make her method of character-study definitely dramatic. While depicting her people she rarely introduces herself as Fielding had done and Meredith was to do, and though she may project her point of view through some character yet she takes care to make it sufficiently detached and impersonal. She allows the character to develop itself as a result of events and circumstances in a dramatic style.

      Complex Characters. Thus, her dramatic method as well as her love for complex characters achieves the effect of realism. She loves intricacy because she knows that people in life cannot be measured either by a formula or a yardstick. Like George Eliot, she loves intricacy but unlike her she does not show the reverse side of a character and never suggests the “Soul of goodness in things evil.” Consequently, Lady Catherine de Bourgh or Lydia or Emma or any other character has no reverse side. Her field is confined to presenting characters with complete fidelity rather than to suggesting moral problems and their implications.

      They are Seen in their Perspective. But this does not in any way limit the scope of her art of characterization. What she loses in depth she gains in width. If she does not suggest the reverse side of a character she definitely looks at a character in the whole and in a wider perspective. The lives of living people can never be transcribed on the pages of a book, howsoever voluminous that book might be. There is a life which is not and which cannot be embodied in a novel; for the frontiers of the former are immensely wider and far extended than those of the latter; and also because the novel is always an inferior instrument than its end, which is life itself. The people in Jane Austen are always suggesting the actualities of life which are not of direct consequence to the story. Elizabeth Bennet is only the heroine of the story if we look at her from the conventional structural angle but in her life she has many roles to play—her role as an affectionate sister or a respectable neighbour or a responsible member of her family are no less important to her when we look at her beyond the need of the story. This perspective suggests life itself and realism which gives her characterization a very important place in the art of story-writing as a means of presenting life.

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