Satirical Portraiture of Jane Austen Novel Characters

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      Her Treatment of Clergymen. A study of Jane Austen’s clergymen will give one a fair idea of her treatment of characters particularly the humorous ones. This is a class which is comfortably off and is equated with the country bourgeoise of the eighteenth century. For the young men of the day there were usually two respectable professions-church and army. For entering the former, qualifications as well as family or court influence were necessary. Her clergymen are therefore either amiable; or humorous. As to a suggestion to her that in her next novel she might picture a true clergymen her reply was “I can rise to the comic parts of the character but not the serious and the tragic”. This remark at once sets limits to her art of characterisation. She cannot draw the romantic or the serious nor can she draw unlike Fielding on an epic scale. The odd, the incongruous catches her eye and particularly the potentially comic can never escape her. Moreover to her nothing is too serious or pious to reveal its comic side.

      Psychological Frailities of Comic Characters. She thus, discovers the comic potentialities in a very limited class of people and not beyond. Further, she is too severe and objective to recreate Addisonian humour. Her concern as a writer of comedy is to point out the foibles and eccentricities not of society in general, for that would demand that her characters should be presented as types, but those great little unguarded follies of the individuals which often pass unnoticed but whose eradication is indispensable to constitute that fine culture based on good sense and fine tastes which was the pride and boast of the eighteenth century in England and France.

      Her Fools are Fully Individualised. Thus Jane Austen’s comic characters are fully individualised. They neither represent any class nor are any two characters ever alike. But so are the characters of Dickens individualised that if two characters were only sitting before you, you could never mistake one for the other. But their speech is common and of the average man. In fact, Dickens never sees beyond the physical exterior of his persons. A little exaggeration or diminution of nose or of belly will be sufficient to impart individuality to his humorous characters. This process is reversed in Jane Austen. Physically you can never trace any distinction in her characters. It is only when you hear them speaking that their individuality becomes conspicuous. The individuality of Dicken’s characters lies in how they look that of Jane Austen in how they behave or speak; and yet they are never so simple as those of Dickens.

      Her Characters Compared with those of Thackeray and Meridith. These characters have no ticket-description. Thackeray for instance, finds each of his characters a snob; similarly, Meredith may have discovered egotism in all persons; Jane Austen uses no such yard-stick or formula to measure them nor are they all monopolised by the same trait. Her vision is neither jaundiced nor prejudiced. Hence her comic characters or the fools have the stamp of individuality and credibility in a way in which the characters of Dickens or Thackeray or of Meredith can be called neither individuals nor even credible ones.

      Compared with Jonson’s Humours. The realism of her comic portraits is considerably due to her conceiving them in the round. Her art here has a decided advantage over the humour characters of Ben Jonson’s Comedies. She classifies her character into no broad divisions perhaps because in life such divisions do not exist. She sees her characters in the whole and in their perspective and traces out with superb craftsmanship the complexities of human nature. Consider, for a moment, the conversation between the Bennets.

      Mrs. Bennet is afraid of being turned out of the house as soon as Mr. Bennet were dead; and the reply of the husband “My dear, do not give way to such gloomy thoughts. Let us hope for better things. Let us flatter ourselves that I may be the survivor.”

      Or the fine exposition by Mr. Collins of the reasons for his proposal to Elizabeth Bennet. All these characters with their frailties have been obliquely marked by the comic spirit and passed on for they are not fit for punishment.

      Her Fairness and Sympathy to Each. Her concern to see her characters well balanced and mature in judgement makes her fair to each. She is keen to keep her detachment from those also whom she seems to love much even though it may present them in an unfavourable light. Generally, we find that whom she loves most she spares the least. One cannot deny that she has her favourites in almost all her novels—Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, Emma Woodhouse in the novel by her first name and Anne Elliot in her last. A slight deviation by any of them calls forth the censure. But this does not mean that she conceives her characters only to suffer and shows no personal sympathy to them. In fact, she loves them most whom she criticises most. About Emma Woodhouse she says that “she is a heroine whom no one but myself will like much” and about the heroine of Sense and Sensibility, the truth is that she conceived her, as Fielding had created Joseph Andrews also, in a vein of burlesque, fell in love with her as the story progressed and finally made her as satisfying as Fielding had made Joseph Andrews. Her personal concern for her characters is all the more pronounced because she sees every one of her persons settled somehow and does not leave them a pauper or poor as this class is conspicuously missing in her novels.

      Her Discrimination in Fools. Thus her delicate perception and her fairness combined produce what Whately calls her Shakespearean discrimination not only with regard to other less diverting people but her great comic creations - her fools. She distinguishes them sufficiently that their identity may not be blurred. Mr. Collins cannot be confused with Mr. Elton, nor Lucy Steel with Mrs. Elton, nor the proud Miss Eliot with the proud Mrs. Bertram. In each case her fairness is well-marked. Fanny Price is not made happy even in her parents home and Emma Woodhouse is not without her innumerable failings. This just and consistent fidelity to characters plays a large part in the subtlety of her discrimination in fools and saves them from being the poor victims of a reckless and ruthless comic spirit.

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