Jane Austen’s Art of Characterization

Introduction: Jane Austen’s real talent is revealed much through her wonderful capacity for characterization. Like Shakespeare, she presents her characters truthfully and realistically. She is sensitive to every small nuance of manner and behavior and any deviation from the standard. The range of her characters is narrow and she confines herself to the landed gentry in the country-side. Servants, laborers and yeomanry rarely appear and even aristocracy is hardly touched upon. When she deals with aristocracy, she satirizes them such as Lady Catherine in P&P.

Her Characters are never repeated: despite such a narrow range. Not a single character has been repeated in any of her six books. The snobbishness of the Vicar, Mr. Collins in P&P is unlike that of Mr. Elton, the Vicar in Emma. Similarly, there is a great difference between the vulgarity of Mrs. Bennet and that of Mrs. Jennings. Macaulay declares that her characters are commonplace, ‘Yet they are all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings.’
State different psychological habits and emotions of Darcy, Elizabeth, Jane, Mrs. Bennet.
Her characters – individualized yet universal: Jane Austen has so comprehensive and searching a view of human nature that she invests them with a universal character. Her characters are universal types. Thus, when Mr. Darcy says, ‘I have been selfish all my life in practice but not in principle’ he confesses the weakness of high minded dominating males in every age and climate. Wickham represents all pleasant-looking but selfish, unprincipled and hypocritical flirts. Mr. Bennet is a typical cynical father. These qualities of Austen’s characters make them universal and individualized.
Realistic portrayal of her characters: Her characters impress us as real men and women since they are drawn to perfection. They are never idealized. Even her most virtuous characters have faults. Jane Bennet, being a virtuous and sweet-nature girl, never thinks ill of others. This makes her lack proper judgment. Elizabeth, herself is a conventional heroine. She has faults of vanity and prejudice. Her mother, at a such a high level of responsibility as a mother, exhibits vulgarity and indecorous manners. Darcy and Lady Catherine’s manners reflect aristocracy so realistically. The impartiality with which Jane Austen depicts her characters imparts a touch of  realism and volume to them.
Her characters are three-dimensional: Her world of reality is never disturbed for all its romances, elopements and dejection because of the convincing reality of her characters. Her characters are three-dimensional portraying various human traits.  Collins doesn’t commit suicide when her proposal is rejected by Elizabeth, but settles down with Charlotte. Darcy shows his unexpected trait after his proposal is rejected. The psychological and realistic portrayal of her characters is what makes them according to David Ceil, ‘Three-dimensional’. The characters come alive in flesh and blood as it were because of their realistic portrayal. Jane Austen reveals her characters dramatically through their conversations, their actions, and their letters or gradually through a variety of point of view and this adds to their three-dimensional effects.
Characters revealed through conversations: She makes very careful use of conversations. Thus, the dialogue between Elizabeth not only reveals effectively the antagonism between the two of them, but also the intelligence of the both. Collins and Lydia are revealed through their letters. And we learn of Elizabeth Bennet, the most striking of Jane Austen’s heroines through her speech and actions and the remarks of such people as Mr. Darcy, her father and Miss Bingley.  Thus, in the first chapter of P&P the vulgarity and stupidity of Mrs. Bennet and the sarcastic humour of Mr. Bennet have already been revealed in their dialogues. The characters of Austen frequently gossip with one another about other characters. This makes the plot even more gripping, realistic and touching.
Revealed through comparison and contrast: Lady Catharine balances with Mrs. Bennet. Wickham serves a contrast while Bingley a foil to Darcy. Elizabeth with Jane. In P&P, Elizabeth echoes Austen’s own sense of humor and ironic wit and the ability to laugh at whims and inconsistencies, but it is preposterous to assume that Jane Austen herself suffered from such prides and prejudices. The sympathy and partial identification help Jane Austen in delineating the character faithfully.
Elizabeth: Jane Austen said of her heroine, “I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print”. To create a charming heroine is one of the rarest achievements in fiction. Jane Austen’s liking is borne out by the countless other readers who have fallen in love with her for more than a hundred and thirty years. A.C. Bradley wrote, “I am meant to fall in love with her and I do”. Her charm arises to a great extent from her intricacy, her intellectual complexity. She is profound and perceptive with the ability to discern people and situations extraordinarily well. She comprehends the merits and demerits of the Bingleys almost at once; she knows Mr. Collins to be an affected fool and judges Lady Catherine at the first meeting.  She understands her family is conscious of the vulgarity of her mother. She has the ready gift of repartee and a perfect command of epigrammatic expression. She is not intimidated by Lady Catherine to her enquiry whether Darcy had made a proposal to Elizabeth and she answers, “Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible”. Despite all these characteristics, Elizabeth is not an idealized or perfect heroine of a romantic novel. She is prone to errors and mistakes of every day life. However, she learns from her mistakes and tends to correct them. It is true that Elizabeth blinds herself absurdly because of prejudice. Thus, her intelligence, high spirit and courage, wit and readiness, her artistic temperament and her ability to laugh good-humouredly at herself is the specialty of Elizabeth. Indeed, the popularity of the novel rests on the brilliant portrayal of its charming and captivating heroine.
Darcy: to many readers and critics, the great blot on the book is the author’s portrayal of Darcy. To all appearances, there are two Darcys that we meet in P&P, the Darcy in the first half of the play – proud, cold, haughty and unfriendly and the Darcy of the second half – warm, loving and considerate, kind, hospitable and eager to please. These seeming incorrigible aspects of Darcy’s character are taken to be a failure on part of Jane Austen’s art of characterization. Jane Austen was in her early twenties when she wrote P&P, so this failure is as a result of her immaturity. However, critics believe that Darcy is a credible character and has these incorrigible aspects as a result of our misread Darcy’s character along with Elizabeth.  Darcy is proud in the beginning. He acknowledges his own. At Netherfield, he tells Elizabeth, “My opinion once lost is lost forever”. And finally his proposal to Elizabeth at Hunsford parsonage is more eloquent on the subject of pride than of tenderness, but he is sensitive, intelligent and complex. He is not morally blind either and recognizes the vulgarity of ill-manners of the Bingley sisters and is as much embarrassed by Lady Catherine’s behavior as he had been by Mrs. Bennet’s vulgarity.
Jane & Bingley: At first glance, it is Bingley and Jane that capture our attention as the main characters and become the center of attraction for every one. Elizabeth says of Jane, “You are too good. Your sweetness and disinterestedness are really angelic.” Jane is a foil to Elizabeth. She, however, enjoys the admiration of both Elizabeth and Darcy and highlights their pride and prejudice. Similarly, Bingley is only a foil to the more forceful personality of Darcy despite all his cheerfulness. The Jane-Bingley romance also presents a contrast to the turbulent relationship of Darcy and Elizabeth. Their relationship is based upon harmony arising out of a similarity of natures.  Jane and Bingley are both characters, not intricate or complex.
Conclusion: Jane Austen’s major characters are intricate; however, there are some failings. Darcy is real and convincing, but appears only in scenes with Elizabeth. The minor characters are usually flat but they also develop when we meet them. Thus each of these wide range of characters are multi-dimensional with a mix of the good and bad qualities, exhibiting strong individual idiosyncrasies and traits, at the same time typical of universal human nature.  

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