Jane Austen World Literature Analysis
In a letter written to her nephew several months before her death, Austen referred to her writing as “the little bit (two Inches wide) of Ivory on which I work with so fine a Brush,” a description of her work that conveys its essence with remarkable precision. Austen is not a writer whose books are characterized by sweeping dramatic action unfolding against a vivid historical backdrop; nor are her novels treatises on social ills or controversial contemporary issues. Austen wrote instead about the world she knew—a world of country villages, of polite middle-class society, of family life, of love and courtship—and her books offer a portrait of life as it was lived by a small segment of English society at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries.
Yet so great is her talent and her insight into the complexities of human nature that the seeming simplicity of her books belies the universality of their perceptions. In turning her writer’s gaze on the world around her, Austen reveals deeper truths that apply to the world at large. Her portraits of social interaction, while specific to a particular and very carefully delineated place and time, are nevertheless the result of timeless human characteristics. If one looks beneath the details of social manners and mores that abound in Austen’s novels, what emerges is their author’s clear-eyed grasp of the intricacies of human behavior.
What is also readily apparent is that human behavior was a source of great amusement to Austen. Her novels are gentle satires, written with delicate irony and incisive wit. The famous opening lines of Pride and Prejudice capture her style at its best: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Courtship and marriage are the subject of all six of Austen’s completed novels, and she treats the topic with a skillful balance of humor and seriousness. The elaborate social ritual of courtship and the amount of time and energy expended on it by the parties involved provide Austen with an ideal target for her satirical portraits. Dances, carriage rides, and country walks are the settings for the romances that unfold in her books, and the individual’s infinite capacity for misconceptions and self-delusions provide the books’ dramatic structure. Her heroes and heroines misjudge each other, misunderstand each other, and mistake charm for substance and reserve for lack of feeling with a determination that seems likely to undermine their chances for happiness—until at last they find their way through the emotional mazes they have built for themselves and emerge with the proper mate.
Yet while Austen is happy to amuse her readers with her characters’ foibles and missteps, she brings an underlying empathy to her creations as well. Her heroines are never figures of fun—that role is left to the stories’ supporting characters—but are instead intelligent, sensitive, amiable young women who are eminently likable despite the flaws they may exhibit. It is human nature in all its complexity that fascinates Austen, and she is capable of providing her novels with interesting, well-developed central characters who are believable precisely because they are flawed. Her amusement is not scorn but rather a tolerant awareness of the qualities, both good and bad, that constitute the human character. It is this awareness that lends Austen’s work its relevance and contributes to her stature in the hierarchy of English literature.
Also central to the high critical regard in which she is held is Austen’s extraordinarily eloquent and graceful literary style. Austen’s use of language is as sure and as precise as her character development; indeed, the two are inseparable. Whether she is depicting the selfish, greedy Mrs. John Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, who says of a proposed yearly allowance for her widowed mother-in-law, “people always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them,” or characterizing Edmund Bertram’s pursuit of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park with the observation, “She was of course only too good for him; but as nobody minds having what is too good for them, he was very steadily earnest in the pursuit of the blessing,” Austen sketches her characters and relates their stories with the elegance and wit that are the unmistakable hallmarks of her style.
Austen’s work offers ample proof that, in the hands of a gifted writer, stories of ordinary lives filled with everyday events can transcend their outward simplicity and capture the intricacies of human nature. Austen’s ironic portraits of the world she knew are both a revealing look at her own time and a perceptive examination of the workings of the human heart and mind.
Sense and Sensibility
First published: 1811
Type of work: Novel
Two sisters, very different in nature, face obstacles as they find love.
Sense and Sensibility is a novel that is best understood within the context of the era in which it was written. Austen lived in that period of English history when eighteenth century rationalism was giving way to the increasing popularity of nineteenth century romanticism, as typified by William Wordsworth and the Romantic poets. The open embrace and deliberate cultivation of sensibility—deep feelings and passionate emotions—were perhaps a natural reaction to the admiration of reserve and practicality that had typified the preceding decades.
Austen’s novel, her first published work, offers a portrait of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who embody the two qualities set forth in the title. Elinor, the elder of the two, is intelligent, loving, and wise enough to see the potential folly in failing to temper emotion with good sense. Marianne, although sharing many of these qualities, lacks her sister’s wisdom; she is, as Austen describes her, “everything but prudent.”
Marianne’s insistence on giving her emotions free rein leads her into an unhappy romance with the fortune-hunting Willoughby when she mistakes his false expressions of sentiment for love. Although Marianne’s own excessive displays of emotion spring from genuine feeling, they blind her to the realization that less fervently expressed emotions may also be heartfelt and true. Waiting patiently throughout the book is the quiet, steadfast Colonel Brandon, a man of deep but reserved feelings who loves Marianne and whose true worth she comes to recognize only after she is forced by her failed romance with Willoughby to reassess her views.
Elinor remains her sister’s mainstay throughout her unhappy first love, assisting her toward maturity with patience and tenderness. She, too, is ín love, with her selfish sister-in-law’s brother, Edward Ferrars. Both are restrained in their expressions of their feelings, Elinor out of modesty and a sense of propriety and Edward because he is secretly and unhappily engaged to another woman favored by his snobbish...
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