Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Brief Critical Examination of the Novels of Jane Austen

A Dual Thesis in the Novel
The main theme of this novel is the danger of sensibility in temperament, and the advantage of sense. This double theme of Sense and Sensibility involves two heroines and a double plot. Marianne and Elinor Dashwood must each be shown pursuing her private fate according to her individual outlook and belief. The fate in each case is an unhappy love-story, but this provides us with parallel plots which are demonstrations of the dual thesis.

The Contrast between Sense and Sensibility as Represented by Elinor and Marianne Respectively
Charater and theme are firmly presented in the opening chapters. "Marianne's abilities", we are told, "were in many respects quite equal to Elinor's. She was sensible and clever, but eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent." Elinor, on the other hand, possessed a strength of understanding and a coolness of judgment. She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong but she knew how to govern them. At the death of her father she shows her control over her feelings while her mother and sister give themselves up to an "excess of sensibility".
The Relationship between Edward and Elinor
The theme of sense begins with the relationship between Edward Ferrers and Elinor which Marianne finds so odd because neither of them shows much emotion. Elinor's caution and Edward's reserve are opposed to Marianne's impetuousity and Willoughby's outspokenness. Willoughby enters the novel in the guise of the true romantic hero, having carried Marianne home when she sprained her ankle, and having all the energy, enthusiasm, and sensibility she could desire.
The Two Romantic Stories
The two plots are now carefully interwoven. Marianne's romance appears to flourish with all possible unconventionality until Willoughby leaves, and she is in anguish. Elinor's romance does not progress. She learns that Edward is secretly engaged to Lucy Steele, and she is forced to listen to Lucy Steele's confidence. The move to London, which brings about the final break with Willoughby, the revelation of his true character, and Marianne's intense sorrow, is followed by the insults which Elinor receives from Edward's mother, and by the success of Lucy with that lady. The final outcome follows Marianne's illness and near-death, and Lucy's elopement with Edward's brother.
The Different Reactions of the Two Sisters
We are involved, therefore, in alternate testing of each sister on the grounds of her love. Marianne's reaction is always the wild, irrational one, while Elinor's is the controlled, sensible one. While Marianne is so debilitated by grief that she easily catches a putrid fever, Elinor is able to pass on to Edward the kindness of Colonel Brandon in presenting him with a small living, and she can go so far as to leave Lucy and Edward alone together.
An Ironic Twist to the Plot
Sense is justified, while sensibility is shown as a weakness. And there is an ironic twist to these two plots. Romantic Marianne suffers no doubt, but she comes eventually to a prosaic marriage with Colonel Brandon, while Elinor, the sensible Cinderella is involved in all the trappings of the romantic plot—losing her lover, forced to listen to confidences from Lucy, despised by his mother, and eventually united with him but living much more modestly than Marianne and Colonel Brandon.
Three Mothers Distinguished from One Another
Mrs. Dashwood's sensibility and concern for her daughters' happiness is contrasted with Mrs. Jennings' common sense. Whereas Mrs. Dashwood rejects the idea of deliberately making matches and ensnaring young men, Mrs. Jennings is always match-making, and has the satisfaction of having married off two not very promising daughters successfully. Mrs. Ferrars as a mother is selfish, designing, and cold-hearted but approaches burlesque in her habit of disinheriting her sons. This seems to link her with the wicked parents and guardians in the contemporary novel.
Not a Great Success
This novel is not one of Jane Austen's great successes. The didactic theme splits plot and characterization, leaving us with no entirely sympathetic heroine. The tone is sombre; and even the comic characters are more grating than comic.
Before completing Sense and Sensibility, Miss Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice in 1796-97, entitling it originally "First Impressions". This book is her accepted masterpiece. It tells how a young lady, whose thoughtful and demurely critical disposition reflects her creator's, is affronted by the haughtiness of a patronizing gentleman, who subsequently falls in love with her. Incidents occur which deepen her prejudice and intensify his pride. He proposes marriage to her, but rides the high horse so stubbornly that a fall is inevitable. With her refusal of a condescending offer of his hand begins the delicate process of disillusionment and revelation of true character, by which the clouds of misunderstanding are eventually dispelled. Darcy's haughtiness is humbled, and the lovers are gradually led to mutual knowledge, respect, and affection. The clever, unbalanced, sarcastic father, Mr. Bennet, and his silly wife, the absurd clerical toady Mr. Collins, and the magnificent snob Lady Catherine de Bourgh, with a large number of lesser personages, furnish out the story with delicious comedy.
An Examination of the Validity of
Christian Attitudes to Life
This is the most serious and also the most controversial of Jane Austen's novels. The seriousness of tone here is deliberate. Ordination (meaning admission to the ministry of the Church) is a serious subject and it, together with the discussions of the profession of a clergyman, adds to the seriousness of the novel. Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram argue over Edmund's ordination. She is reluctant to come to terms with the idea of him as a clergyman, but it is what Fanny Price, the heroine, most approves of. Considering the clergymen who appear elsewhere in Jane Austen's novels, the seriousness here is unusual. Besides, it is not only ordination but the whole question of Christian attitudes to life which Jane Austen takes up in this novel. In fact, the theme of the novel may be described as an examination of the validity of Christian attitudes to life. From this emanate the many discussions of Christian concern in the novel, such as the duties of the clergy and the importance of family prayers.
The Adoption of Fanny Price by the Bertram Family
Benevolence, charity, and good deeds are the beginnings of this novel which centres round the adoption of nine-year old Fanny Price. The conditions of the two sisters, Lady Bertram and Mrs. Price, are early established, one rich and the other poor; and out of the desire to help Mrs. Price comes the suggestion of the third sister, Mrs. Norris, that one of the Price children should be adopted. Sir Thomas Bertam hesitates on the ground that the adopted child might contaminate his own family, but he is urged not to be frightened by such trifles. Thus, Fancy Price is introduced into Mansfield Park, where the Bertram family lives.
The Character of Fanny
Fanny is completely misunderstood in her new home. The members of the Bertram family do not understand the predicament of the new arrival. Fanny is treated simply as a curiosity because of her silence or her ignorance; she is a means for the young Bertram girls to show off their superior attainments and an object for Mrs. Norris's scolding on her need to be grateful. Only her cousin Edmund perceives and understands her unhappiness, and helps her to get over it. Fanny is retiring by nature but she is also naturally good. She learns much from Edmund who forms her taste; but she learns also from her position the Christian virtues of humility and self-denial.
The Chief Weakness of the Book
The book thus centres round Fanny, though she is not the centre of the action at least in the first part, her social position being insignificant, her character timid, and her constitution sickly. At first, therefore, she is merely static and observant, while the others take up the action around her. In the second part she is forced into prominence. To many readers the character of the heroine in this book is the book's chief fault. Fanny has no energy, no brilliance, no wit. She is like Elinor Dashwood in being always right in her actions and judgments, but she lacks Elinor's decisiveness and occasional irony. Besides, while Elinor had sympathy for others, could see the best in them, and was candid, Fanny seems to have no sympathy, can only condemn and then be proved right.
The Skilful Portrayal of the Crawfords
Jane Austen's portrayal of the Crawfords is very skilful. Obviously, she intended from the outset to condemn them, but she has made them attractive because she knew that such people were attractive. At first, we are certainly impressed by their good looks, their wit, their vitality, and their good nature. It is only afterwards that we perceive their faults.
The Unpleasant Character of Mrs. Norris
Mrs. Norris is perhaps Jane Austen's most unpleasant character. She is strongly linked with the Christian theme, being the widow of a clergyman and pretending to be charitable, self-denying, frugal, and principled. In fact, she is a hypocrite in this, being a miser, completely uncharitable, and a flatterer. There is nothing humorous about her faults, and we cannot laugh at her as we can at, say, Lady Catherine de Bourgh (in Pride and Prejudice).
Lady Bertram's Selfishness
Lady Bertram is more comic than Mrs. Norris. In the moral scheme, she represents selfishness, and she is again a foil to Fanny.
The Contrast between Fanny and the Bertram Sisters
The two Bertram girls are intended as further contrasts to Fanny, both being selfish, conceited, spoilt, and used to having their own way. It is their nature and education which are tested at first by temptation and proved inadequate, while Fanny's nature and education, which are tested afterwards, are proved sound.
Fanny, the Only Character in the Novel to Prove Right
There is no other character, apart from the heroine, in this novel representing right judgment and feeling. Sir Thomas is regarded as such a person by the other characters, but he is proved wrong. Edmund has many virtues and is able at first to guide Fanny, but he also yields to temptation. And so we are left with a heroine who is also the representative of right, as was Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility and as Anne Elliot is to be in Persuasion.
IV. "EMMA" (1815)
The Characters in the Story
Miss Emma Woodhouse, from whom the book takes its name, is the daughter of a gentleman of wealth and consequence residing at his seat in the immediate neighbourhood of a country village called Highbury. The father, a good-natured, silly invalid, abandons the management of his household to Emma, he himself being only occupied by his summer and winter walk, his physician, his gruel and his whist table. His house is visited by various persons from the village of Highbury. There is the smiling and courteous vicar who nurses the ambitious hope of obtaining Emma's hand in marriage. There is Mrs. Bates, the wife of a former rector, past everything except tea and whist; there is her daughter, Miss Bates, a good-natured, vulgar, and foolish old maid; there are Mr. Weston, a gentleman of a frank disposition and moderate fortune, and his wife, an amiable and accomplished person who had been previously Emma's governess and who is still devotedly attached to Emma. Among all these persons, Emma walks forth, superior to all her companions in wit, beauty, fortune, and accomplishments. Her father and the Westons dote upon her, while all the others admire and almost worship her.
Emma, the Match-Maker
The object of most young ladies is, or least is usually supposed to be, to find a suitable life-partner or husband. But Emma Woodhouse, preferring the welfare of other girls to her own private interest, unselfishly sets about finding matches for her friends without thinking of matrimony on her own account. We are informed that she had been eminently successful in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Weston; and when the novel begins she is exerting her influence in favour of Miss Harriet Smith, a boarding-school girl without family or fortune, very good-humoured, very pretty, very silly, and what suits Emma Woodhouse's purpose best of all, very much inclined to get married.
Emma's Failure to Bring About a Marital Union between Harriet and Mr. Elton
In these matrimonial efforts, Emma is frequently interrupted not only by the advice of her father who is particularly opposed to anybody's committing the rash act of getting married, but also by the warnings and rebukes of Mr. Knightley, the elder brother of her sister's husband. Mr. Knightley is a sensible country gentleman of thirty-five, who has known Emma from her cradle and who is the only person venturing to find fault with her. However, in spite of Mr. Knightley's disapproval and warnings, Emma forms a plan to bring about the marriage of Harriet Smith with the vicar, Mr. Elton. Emma fully succeeds in diverting the simple-minded Harriet's thoughts from an honest farmer, Mr. Martin, who had made a proposal of marriage to Harriet, so that Harriet begins to entertain a hope of marrying the vicar. But the vicar, Mr. Elton, misunderstands the nature of the encouragement held out to him by Emma, and begins to think that Emma herself is greatly in love with him. This at length leads him to make a presumptuous declaration of his love to Emma who, of course, rejects his offer of marriage. Mr. Elton thereupon looks for a wife elsewhere, and ultimately marries a dashing young woman who is not only rich but presumptuous and ill-mannered.
The Entanglements
While Emma is thus vainly engaged in making matrimonial plans for others, her friends are making similar plans for her. The man chosen by them for Emma is a son of Mr. Weston by a former marriage, who bears the name of his rich uncle and is to inherit that uncle's fortune. The young man's name is Mr. Frank Churchill. This young man, however, had already settled his affections on Miss Jane Fairfax, a young lady of reduced fortune. But as the relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax was not known to anybody, Emma has some thoughts of being herself in love with Mr. Churchill when he first appears on the scene. However, Emma soon recovers from this feeling, and makes up her mind to unite him with her friend Harriet Smith. Harriet has, in the meantime, fallen desperately in love with Mr. Knightley; and, as the people of the village suppose Frank Churchill and Emma to have become attached to each other, there are cross-purposes enough to bring about much friction and heart-burning. The various entanglements bring about a series of mistakes, embarrassing situations, and dialogues at dances and parties, in which the author shows her peculiar powers of humour and knowledge of human life.
The Solution to the Entanglements
The solution to the entanglements is found to be quite simple. Frank Churchill's aunt dies; his uncle, no longer under her baneful influence, gives his consent to Frank Churchill's marriage with Jane Fairfax. Mr. Knightley and Emma are led by this unexpected development to discover that they have been in love with each other all along. Mr. Woodhouse's objections to the marriage of his daughter are overcome by his fears of a burglary in his house, and the feeling of safety which he hopes to derive from having a son-in-law living under the same roof as he himself. The affections of Harriet Smith are transferred to her former suitor, the honest farmer, Mr. Martin, who had found a favourable opportunity of renewing his attentions to her.
A Happy Ending
Emma suffers and repents. After Mr. Knightley's scoldings she does penance with Miss Bates. She tries to do penance with Jane Fairfax and is rejected. She finds her protegee, Harriet, to be her rival in love. She lays herself open to be the dupe of others. Her sufferings are so great, her plight eventually so humiliating that we must sympathize with her. And since it is a world of comedy, she is united with Mr. Knightley, while Harriet marries her first lover, Robert Martin.
The Story of a Rather Ordinary Girl
Northanger Abbey is the story of Catherine, a rather ordinary girl, good-hearted and rather simple, who spends some weeks in Bath with a middle-aged couple who are friends of her family, and makes various friends and acquaintances there, including a girl with whom at first she becomes very friendly, and who becomes engaged to her brother. But later this girl is found to be an unscrupulous careerist who breaks off the engagement when something better comes in sight. Catherine also meets, in Bath, Henry Tilney and his sister. The former is a rich and intellectually superior young man who is attracted by the heroine's simple good-heartedness; the latter becomes the heroine's good friend. The heroine (Catherine) falls in love with Henry, whose father invites her to the family home, under the impression that she is a wealthy heiress who would be a good match for his son. The home is an old Abbey, and the heroine expects to find there the atmosphere and even some of the adventures which she had learned from Mrs. Radcliffe's novels to associate with old Abbeys. She misconstrues some very ordinary circumstances as part of a Radcliffian situation and is temporarily humiliated. Henry's father, discovering that she is not an heiress after all, rudely terminates her visit, but in the end he is brought round, and the hero and heroine finally marry.
Conceived As a Burlesque
Northanger Abbey began as a burlesque of the contemporary novel of horror and of sentiment, and much of the story still depends on this. The major purpose of the novel seems to be to show the author's own development from a concern with literature to a concern with life. Catherine Morland, the heroine, has first to learn to distinguish between literature and life, and then has to learn the difficulties of ordinary life.
A Double Theme
As a satire on the Gothic horror-novel, Northanger Abbey contains all the ingredients of this kind except the hero and the heroine who are deliberately normalized, partly for the purpose of heightening the ridicule. Like all parodies, the book exhibits two sets of values; one is satirized, the other is shown to be truer. The Gothic world is shown to be one of fancy, while the world as apprehended by good sense is "real". But the book goes somewhat beyond these limits – it goes beyond to explore the limitations of good sense itself. The author shows that, though we must reject the Gothic world as inadequate and false, we cannot altogether apprehend the real world by good sense alone. In other words, good sense is limited too.
Catherine, Purged of Her Gothic Illusions
It is in the second part of the book that Jane Austen traces Catherine's Gothic adventures at Northanger Abbey to which Catherine has been invited. Having expected "long damp passages, narrow cells, and a ruined chapel, some aweful memorials of an injured and ill-fated nun", she finds lodges of a modern appearance, smooth, level roads of fine gravel, without obstacle, alarm, or solemnity of any kind. In her bedroom she finds a mysterious chest, but it contains a cotton counterpane. Another chest, which frightens her out of a full night's sleep, is found to contain an inventory of linen. She steals to the room where Mrs. Tilney died, expecting to see evidence that the lady is still alive and cruelly imprisoned—but finds instead a neat, well-lighted, rusty bedroom. Henry Tilney finally convinces her that his mother had died quite normally of a bilious fever. And so at last Catherine is purged of her Gothic illusions.
Catherine's Realization of the Limitations of Good Sense
But, side by side with her awakening from the Gothic dream, is her much more important emergence as a human being of good sense, and the gradual realization of the limitations of even that quality. It is chiefly through her relationship with Isabella and with John Thorpe that she is thus educated.
Over-Persuasion, One of the Two Themes
According to Andrew H. Wright, the theme of the novel is two- fold; first, "over-Persuasion", and second, the conflict between prudence and love. Says he: "The theme of Persuasion is over- Persuasion. The stuff of the book is made of Anne Elliot's ill-adised refusal of Frederick Wentworth when, as a girl of nineteen, she was persuaded that he was unacceptable as a husband. And what happens is that Anne almost loses him for ever; it is a set of very fortunate (and fortuitous) circumstances—the renting of Kellynch to his sister's husband, his own remarkable success in the navy, the fall of Miss Musgrove at Lyme—that finally brings them together again. A tart, pompous, and superficial early reviewer laments the moral of the book, "that young people should always marry according to their inclinations and upon their own judgment." Almost no one today can be satisfied to read Jane Austen's novels so superficially.
The Conflict between Prudence and Love
"Although over-Persuasion is, in one aspect, the theme of Persuasion, the story is also one of the conflict between parental authority (prudence) on the one hand, and the sanguine hopes for love, on the other. Which is right? Which should be obeyed? At first glance, it would seem that the book underscores the value of yielding to the importunities of love. Anne has—before the happy ending—more than one bitter comment of self- reproach because she attended too well to the advice of her elders; only a series of coincidences makes possible her reunion with Frederick Wentworth. Yet we find her saying, near the end: "I was right in submitting to Lady Russell". Prudence and love are thus in conflict, as indeed they are in Pride and Prejudice, when Charlotte makes her purely prudential match with William Collins. Here, as in Pride and Prejudice, both qualities seem to be desirable; both are defended with warm sympathy by Jane Austen; but neither can be achieved without some sacrifice of the other. Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth do come together happily at the end of Persuasion, but only after almost a decade of being apart.
A Sad Love Story with a Happy Ending
Andrew H. Wright goes on to say that Persuasion is a sad love story with a happy ending. It exposes the conflict between two schemes of values; those of prudence and those of love. Anne Elliot represents both these schemes of values, and the result is a contradiction which causes seven or eight years of unhappiness to her. Her reconciliation with Captain Wentworth results not from any resolution of the conflict, but from a series of coincidences which make the union between the two possible after all. Even at the end of the book, Anne does not give up her values of prudence, not even when she is happily engaged to be married to Captain Wentworth.
The Dramatic and the Spiritual Unity of the Novel
"Persuasion is its author's greatest formal achievement. For in it Jane Austen gives her story not only a dramatic but also a spiritual unity. Its subject is love, the constant love, renounced from an unwise prudence, that Anne Elliot feels for Wentworth. Every episode in the story—the rash happy marriages of the Crofts, the love, enduring through hardship, of the Harvilles, the inconstancy of Benwick-and Louisa Musgrove—all these, by contrast or similarity, illustrate Anne's situation: now in the major key, now in the minor, now simply, now with variations, they repeat the main theme of the symphony. Even the tender autumnal weather, in which most of the action takes place, echoes and symbolizes the prevailing mood of the story. Such singleness of structure gives Persuasion an emotional concentration unattainable by any other means. Yet the structure is not emphasized in such a way as to destroy the illusion of everyday reality. The reader never feels that Benwick and the rest of them are put in to play their part in the harmony, but just because they happen to be features of the bit of actual life Jane Austen has chosen to describe. By a supreme feat of dexterity she has managed to compose a symphony on the theme of love, which is also a realistic story of ordinary human beings."

People who read this post also read :


Post a Comment

Please leave your comments!