The Structure of Jane Austen's Novels

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      The structure of Jane Austen's novels grows naturally out of the material she chooses to employ therein and perfectly suits her outlook. As an artist she knows what is to be employed but knows still better what is to be avoided. The knowledge about the former may be gathered from her novels, that of the latter from her private correspondence. Once she was asked by the chaplain of the Prince Regent to write a historical romance and her reaction is contained in the following words:

“I could no more write a romance than an epic poem. I could not sit down seriously to write a serious romance under any other motive than to save my life.”

      And another proposal for sketching a successful clergyman in her next novel elicited the following reply from her:

“I can rise to the comic part of the character but not the serious or the tragic.”

      And her perfect consciousness of her metier is evident from the advice she tendered to her niece when the latter was busy writing a novel and had sought her advice:

“Let the Portsmans (characters in the novel) go to Ireland but as you know nothing of the manners there, you would better not go with them.”

      She advises her to “Stick to Bath” where she would be quite at home. And then there are other limitations as well. She cannot write a tragedy nor can she evoke a successful melodramatic scene. Gothic fiction is despised by her and the doctrinaire novel is avoided. Psychological involvements are better described by her than physical appearances and her domain is ever that of comedy. The complacent country-bourgeoise constitutes her “dramatis personae” and their love tangles the fabric of her fiction. One can hardly build anything romantic or epic out of such a limited range. Jane Austen employs this material for writing domestic fiction and the novel of manners. Thus, it may be maintained that her structure grows naturally out of her choice of the material.

      The Theme and its Treatment. The opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice - “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in search of a wife” may be regarded, with more or less variation, as the central theme of all her novels. In this world men are born to inherit great fortunes and women are born to marry them.

      Thus in essentials, her theme is the old one that of love, but this love is neither at first sight not is it fraught, with romantic idealism or storminess. On the other hand, it is highly calculated and is based on a close resemblance and parity of temperaments. Further it eschews all references to passions and sensibilities except if they be for comic
or satirical purposes. Moreover this story of love progresses in a manner as to bring to the fore the actions and reactions and the motives of those who are the active participants. The delicate situations reveal the characters in Jane Austen’s novels.

      Plots are Psychological and Ironic. Thus, the nature of these plots reveals the psychology of the persons. As such the incidents in Jane Austen, as also in Meredith and Hardy later on, are psychological, but they reveal not only the psychology of the active agents but also the ironic side of their behaviour. Hence the situations are psychological as well as ironic. Consider for a moment the oft-quoted scene of Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth. The single episode will suffice to give the readers an idea of the priggishness and servility of this comic sycophant. Such situations are always in multiplicity in all her novels. Conduct exhibits the incongruous traits of characters and the structure lends charm to her characterisation and comedy. Characterisation and structure, conduct and comedy are inextricably associated in her novels.

      Her Plots are Dramatic. The analogy of her novels to the comedy of Manners of the Restoration period may be illustrated by the dramatic quality of her plots. It has been remarked that the conception of the three-volume form in which her novels were first published was founded upon the construction of stage comedy: the three volumes roughly corresponding to the three significant elements in the plot of a comedy—a crescendo, a crisis and a denouement. One of her important novels Pride and Prejudice has often been quoted as an infallible example of this dramatic quality. In perfect resemblance to the construction of a Shakespearean play it has been analysed also into five acts.

      The Structure is Suitable for Comedy. So all her novels are true comedies even in the actual sense of the stage. Her pointed dialogues, the ironic situations, the scenes of scoffing at pretences and of self-delusions as in Emma and the overall assertion of commonsense render these plots dramatically comic. This is the territory of pure comedy which eschews all references to tragedy. A character, in one of her novels (Mansfield Park Ch. X/VIII), refers to it: “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can.” Consequently, she does not dwell much upon melodramatic episodes. The few that we find are not masterly sketched. In writing an occasional melodramatic episode, Jane Austen draws upon popular literary conventions; when she wants to demonstrate active badness in a character, she nearly always falls back upon seduction. Wickham, Pride and Prejudice in this respect, is cut rather mechanically and not very plausibly. But the saving grace of this scene is the fact that Lydia has not been made the usual dismal victim of melodrama. By making her an insensitively pleased little adventuress she has not only emancipated the scene from conventionality but has also imparted to it a rare significance.

      Setting and Background. Jane Austen’s field of study is man. She is, therefore, more preoccupied with human nature than nature; in the nineteenth century usage of the word. The background and the scenery of the provincial town is rich in its beauty and grandeur. But there is no attempt to look into the spirit of this country. Thus although, she has some sense of locality yet she does not paint an English community as Scott painted the Scottish or Maria Edgeworth painted the Irish one; she rather avoids those very elements of the population in which the local flavour, the breath of the soil is most pronounced. She is further incapable of evoking a scene or a landscape and cannot conjure up the spirit of Bath as Emile Bronte could conjure up the spirit of the Moorlands or Hardy that of Wessex. All this, one may say, would be fatal to her dramatic quality of construction.

      Her Dialogues. On the other hand, her dramatic dialogue is one of the great achievements of fictional art. “It has a correctness and formality that were doubtless characteristic of well-bred speech in her age but was also partly her tribute to an artistic ideal. This talk is somewhat better than life-more pointed and articulate, more selective. It reads aloud admirably and it is so pat and well-prepared that many a line would do for the stage.”

      Her Plot-Construction is Static. Thus, from the very first her structural craftsmanship is perfect and there is no development perceptible either in her design or in her outlook. In this respect, at the very outset, her genius like Minerva is bom full-grown. Though in her later novels there is a greater subtlety and profoundity of characterisation with a corresponding loss of her opulence of wit and mastery of the Comic but her idea of construction suffers no change. As such her first novel is as perfect, so far as plot-construction is concerned, as her last. All her plots are characterised by a unity of tone and are compact and well-knit. There are no loose ends anywhere, no event conceived outside the actual plot and nothing usually hampers the progress of the story; many of Scott's and Thackeray’s episodes remain to the end unconnected with the actual and central plan but in Jane Austen, no character or event is idly conceived and each one occupies its due and even significant place in the general design of her comedy.

      The Unity of Tone. Hence, her plots are characterised by a singular unity of tone and she often achieves it by focussing our attention at it from more than one angle. In Pride and Prejudice alone the unity of plot has been achieved from as many as three angles. We can view the novel first, as Elizabeth Bennet sees everything; secondly, by assigning to Elizabeth and Darcy a prominent place into the novel and by centering the higher and nobler comedy around these two figures; and thirdly by making the whole story a study in Pride — pride of place and responsibility in some, pride in the form of social snobbery in others and also either a perverted pride or the lack of pride in the rest. Again in Mansfield Park the unity of tone has been achieved from several angles. This unity is therefore very essential in imparting coherence and shape to her design. Thus, the structure of Jane Austen’s novels is perfect and is ideally suited for the material she wanted to embody and the outlook she wished to present.

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