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...
(The entire section is 2,898 words.)