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One of the most important themes in Jane Austen's writings is society and a woman's place in it. To deliver this theme she uses satire to get her female readers (and her male ones) to see themselves in the comical and small-minded antics of her characters and to relate to that, and think how they can improve in the elements that apply to them - each reader as an individual. For example, are they like fluffy and empty-headed and short-sighted like Mrs Bennet? Or perhaps they are Lydia (impetuous, naive, impulsive and similarly short-sighted? perhaps they are a tad arrogant and full of themselves to the extent that they are thoughtlessly hurtful to others ('badly done Emma, badly done!) For other readers, perhaps a female reader may recognize Mr Wickham as some irresponsible, self-serving youth as someone they know - a male reader may of course recognize himself! With gentle humor Austen gets us to see society in a new way.
Austen was born in a rectory and died, unmarried, at the age of 41. She is buried in Winchester Cathedral, which she probably would have preferred to the Poets’ Corner in Westminster. Austen’s life is easily summarized because we don’t know much about it. We can assume, however, that nothing much happened in her life other than the writing of her novels. Unlike her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft, Austen seems not to have held fierce views on the rights of women. She accepted the world into which she had been born and the status of women within it.
The heroine of her first novel, Nortanger Abbey, Catherine Morland, is just 15, growing from a tomboyish adolescence into womanhood. The plot of Northanger Abbey revolves around the question: Who will Catherine marry, and how will she get to the altar? The theme, however, focuses on a different question: What is it to be grown up? What is it to be morally mature? How does one become the kind of person who can deal with the complicated issues of life? Austen intertwines that question with another question: What, in the process of growing up, is the function of the English novel? Austen believed that the novel could help readers mature; it could serve as a moral instructor, with a similar role as the weekly sermons the author would have heard in church. ion, which is romantic, addicting, light-headed, and corrupting. The point for Austen, though, is how fiction is used and, more importantly, the relationship of the novel to moral maturity and growth.
In another early novel, Sense and Sensibility, Austen pondered, in the characterization of the two Dashwood sisters, which was the road to maturity—sense and rationalism, as embodied in the elder sister, Eleanor, or sensibility and passion, as embodied in the younger sister, Marian? In typically English fashion, the answer lies in the middle road.
In a later novel, Mansfield Park, probably composed around 1810, Austen debates a central issue for her: Should a woman marry for love or for interest, prudently, that is, with an eye toward finances? The ironic opening of Mansfield Park recalls the decisions on this all-important question of three sisters of the Ward family. The novel tells us that there is no magic formula for happiness.This opening sets the stage for the novel proper, the story of Fanny Price, the namesake daughter of Frances, adopted from her impoverished house in Portsmouth to Mansfield Park, a grand estate, where she is never quite accepted. In the course of the novel, Fanny manages to resist pressures and make the right marriage choices. She becomes the mistress of Mansfield Park and a leading figure in society. These are the questions that Jane Austen asks: sense or sensibility, love in a cottage or love in a castle, marriage or independence? Time is an enemy here; a woman has only a few years in which to make these important choices.
In Austen’s last complete novel, Persuasion, the heroine, Anne Elliott, at age 28, has lost her bloom. Will she be able to marry at her age?
In her novels, Austen asks the most important questions in a woman’s life. How does any woman determine the course that her life will take? Such decisions depend on the situation in which the woman finds herself. For Austen, novels, particularly great works of morality such as her own, can help women negotiate these paths.
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