Category Archives: Jane Austen

Thoughts: Mansfield Park

Mansfield ParkMansfield Park by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.

I plead guilty. I dearly clutch my idealism like an arrogant college student. I revel in the glory of an awakened conscience, a liberated soul unbound by social norms and accepted traditions. I am the human outsider blessed with the unique gift of uncommon knowledge. I pity the poor robotic minds imprisoned by the grind of apathy.

And yet Mansfield Park frankly stunned me. I witnessed in Austen a mind in transition from what Margaret Drabble called wit to wisdom – what I call a dissatisfaction with the blinding pride of dissent, the compromise between personal liberty and tradition, truth and accepted understanding. The novel exposed Austen’s internal struggle during this transformation, trying to understand her place as a evolving, dynamic and brilliant woman in an unchanging traditional society. It does not in any terms make sweeping generalizations condemning any particular social or economic class using flashes of satirical wit which Austen readers cherish so much. We meet a new Austen, bold in her uncertainty and comfortable in her hesitation to so speedily judge. She does not defend anyone nor cast any family into the fire.

In fact, looking back on the novel, I enjoyed the emotional rollercoaster I felt in reaction to attittudes and actions of the characters. I think many writers suffer the scrupulous expectations of readers who yearn for perfect characters, or, if not, for characters who can perfectly reflect an idea. Fanny, like the maturing Austen, wavers in her own convictions and emotions causing the reader to feel sympathy, frustration, happiness and sadness. Which Fanny should the reader endorse? Yet how can the reader endorse any one Fanny when Austen herself could not? Fanny is bare. She has nothing but her reactions and the conviction to form some set of principles without the privilege of a steady upbringing from which to devise them. We want to see her defend an ideal. We want her to represent the oppression of the poor, the pomp and baseless entitlement of the aristocracy, the defense of match-making or lonely enlightenment of the 19th century independent woman. Every time one adjusts to a particular principle, Fanny changes or, as some might argue, gets in her own way – overthinks and indulges in unnatural self-abasement.

Then finally, after the last noteworthy event in the Fanny’s development, Austen’s idea shines through like light through a window which the reader has spent 400 pages cleaning. In razing the aristocracy, she reinvigorates its legitimacy. She inspires a rememberance of its place in the houase of all people, in every class, with respectable character. Now, Austen consciously chooses to distinguish between the social tradition of aristocracy and those who practice it. I had searched for indications of the life Fanny would choose, the social class with which she would align herself, only to find that the life chooses her according to her character. She only needs to see life and her world for their potential with her in them. She needs to learn about herself. Austen decides that the petty foot races of those who dwell on match-making, parties, dresses, frivolous behavior and unending leisure do not solely define the quality of an entire class of aristocratic peoples. Those who lead a life of principle and defend the tradition of dignity, integrity and respectable character can also fall under the aristocratic label. The reader, or the enlightened college student, does not condemn oppressed classes though they may boast of malicious manipulators of weak resolve and baseless character. Perhaps we ought to reserve judgement for the higher economic classes for similar reasons.

In this regard, Fanny always behaves “aristocratically”, according to her character and principles. If the reader decides, like Austen, that “aristocracy” cannot justly endure a one-dimensional stereotyping based on the behavior of ingrate children, they can see how Fanny, before coming to this realization, could not see her own natural belonging as she endeavors to find her place in society. Other circumstances, most noteably love, draw her to a particular group, not class definitions previously exposed to satirical ridicule. She plants her roots in this class not because of economic or social security prospects but because the life, and the man she marries, fit her character. How can we condemn this? Austen resurrects a forgotten aristocratic dignity which values “the sterling good of principle and temper” and “true merit and true love” above the evolved and insecure prioritization of match-making and social strategy. Of course, these qualities do not exclusively reside within massive manners and inherited wealth yet we must concede how even a popularly and idealistically condemned social class can house these qualities as well. Failure in doing so only serves to stunt our search for knowledge and individual liberation and keep us within a self-constructed character cage much like Fanny’s. I pity the person who bars themselves from happiness based on idealistic indignation or self-alienating stereotyping.

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Posted by on January 21, 2013 in Jane Austen


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Thoughts: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and PrejudicePride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a student, I regarded William Shakespeare as a played out hack. As I’ve said before, it not so many words, one must remain skeptical of the excessively popular. Yet, as I studied, against what I thought constituted better judgement, I found what I hold as the reason for Shakespeare’s world regard and esteem. Of course, I did not discover anything profound or “new” in his works because everything we read now blooms from the ground he broke. Even then, I do not credit Shakespeare with discovery, even for his time, but rather for noticing with a genius eye and a sharp mind. For seeing. And understanding. Us.

As I finished Pride and Prejudice, I felt the same surge of admiration but this time for little ole Jane Austen. Despite her reputation for humorous jests and satirical lyricism aimed at the quirky institution of English match-making, for me, she illuminated a universal truth about human relationships.

I imagine any artistc craft as a permanent filter. The loftiest of critics and artists may argue for the extraction of that filter between two individual human essences. I regard true artistry as the act of cleaning the filter rather than removing it. Imagine a screen door between Jane Austen and her reader. The door consists of paper, ink, language, construction, etc. These things must remain. Yet Austen knows something, sees something, has noticed something which her visitor has either idly ignored or pompously replaced with a personal construction or belief in order to satisfy their longing for the truth and because of their inability to find it. Austen scrubs her screen door to an astounding transparency. Yet she has also created the representation of what she has noticed by focusing on the holes in the mesh in order to sublimely articulate her findings. Yet during her construction, she must also treat her craft, her work, as a glass filling with water only to ignore it as it overflows. If she continually gazes over at it, to assess her ability to fill it, she may stop and find herself pleased in the amount of water she has poured into it. Or she may cringe at her inability to control its containment. Yet only by allowing the water to overflow, and release her control over this thing she has noticed by the virtue of her genius mind, can she watch it delicately seep through the holes in the mesh and into the life of her reader.

I read Pride and Prejudice as a story of deep psychological insight into the war between human companionship and human institution. In modern times, we might cherish the destruction of institutional marriage and glorify the rebels who live together and make families out of wedlock. I neither promote nor abhor such behavior, but rather enjoy Austen’s trust in the natural transcendence of companionship within the institution rather than having to demolish the institution in order for real, genuine love and companionship to prosper. After all, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy rebelled against socio-economic match-making only to find themselves large beneficiaries of its luxuries. Elizabeth prided herself on her ability to read people’s characters, much to her later dismay, and her inability to naturally and pitifully follow her sister Lydia’s path. She refused to label herself as a woman confined by the mandates of cultural dictation. Mr. Darcy, though a well-intentioned man who seemed to promote others’ misunderstanding of him, simply hated the way his socio-economic position forced him to behave in an unnatural way – lurching after girls like Miss Bingley. He implodes like an introvert at a college frat party while others view his disdain as pomp. After all, a man of his position must wish to lavish himself on the Miss Bingleys of the world. Neither character fit into their culture but, in the end, both found themselves greatly rewarded by that culture without changing themselves for it – but they would change for each other.

Jane Austen noticed how a happy relationship actually flourishes. In modern times, we have expounded on this idea and even tried to add to something so all-encompassing and universal. To Austen, a happy relationship must involve personal growth derived from the influence of another but by the will of themselves. Elizabeth, by her own flawed virtue, inspires Mr. Darcy to change for the better as does Mr. Darcy inspire Elizabeth to take a look at her own flaws and grow into an amazing woman. Pride and Prejudice beautifully and astonishingly follows the evolution of two heroes who would not have grown at all had it not been for each other. The dual nature of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, their separate evolution, seamlessly revolves around the other in a cosmic uniformity.

I must mention my feelings towards a few of the minor characters – my sickening disdain for Lydia Bennet’s immaturity and superficiality, as a representation of an all too common victim of a glorified institution which all young girls long to fulfill (right?); my premature annoyance with Mrs. Bennet who simply wanted to see her daughters safely hidden from a vicious entail law; my whimsical attachment to Mr. Bennet for whom I can only admit my admiration and total respect; and my simple, yet powerful, glee for Jane and my undying promotion of the literary romanticism she represents with her benevolent perspective on all circumstances. Yet all these characters and their relationships to one another compare and contrast in order to sharpen the image of that something which Jane Austen noticed. She cleaned her filter, allowed the water to overflow and soak us. Like those in Shakespeare’s time and place who hadn’t noticed the timeless truths of humanity until he unveiled them, I understand Jane Austen as a woman who saw deep into the muck of socio-economic match-making and found the dungeon in which we imprisoned our humanity and freed it in the form of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy.

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Posted by on May 30, 2012 in Jane Austen


Thoughts: Sense and Sensibility

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who is Jane Austen if not the quintessential embodiment of literary perfection. Yes, perfection. After beginning my first serious Austen read, I noticed first the consummation of cleanly arranged ideas by way of a surgically accurate articulation. I will admit, like with Shakespeare, one must allow her stylistic rhythms to set the pace, to shape the reader’s understanding according to her own wishes, like a pet on a leash. But what graceful and logically poetic dictation; words which scarcely leave room for the reader to breathe lest they skim over a word matched seamlessly to her desired expression. On a rudimentary level, a word must match the idea, like the cliche of perfectly matched souls wondering unfulfilled until stumbling upon each other. But Austen dictates a higher level of compositional power exemplifying how events and circumstances can perfectly arrange themselves in order to purely express a complex truth.

Like in the story of Pride and Prejudice, Austen directly employs characters, seemingly one-dimensionally, in order to symbolize the play and interaction of particular personality traits. In order to effectively express these ideas through characters, she contrasts her people carefully and potently, like choosing the perfect word. Marianne senselessly embellishes her natural sensibilities while Elinor sensibly exercises a high level of prudence in all her social dealings. Marianne views and respects the world and its inhabitants according to the pretense of her esteemed preferences and convictions. She creates her own standard. Elinor employs a more objective approach, embracing a willingness to alter her standards based on reason and good sense. Yet Elinor falls victim, in my opinion, to the era and its twisted social norms which dictate her sense and conclusions on proper prudence. Therefore, I found myself sympathizing with Marianne because I disdainfully denounce the fiscal dictation which lorded over social culture in this story as well as in other stories of the genre. So I personally thank Austen for her sarcasm and humor regarding those who worry and rejoice according to its rule. And yet, such awful circumstances construct the social world in which Marianne and Elinor must exist and, without the slightest complaint, they resort to the quality of their characters to make the best of their lives.

Other characters perform similar duties for Austen, acting as symbols for other personality traits – the wishful thinker, savior, rebel, ambitious and selfish survivor, proud social superior, etc. Yet the men, Edward and Willoughby, John Dashwood and Colonel Brandon, proved the counterparts to the two sisters. Yet, again, social norms and expectations dictate the quality of their actions. Willoughby indulges his sensibilities as eagerly as Marianne, yet he suffers a different experience than Marianne. Edward does the same, though less boisterously, in regard to Elinor. However, the men and the ladies thrive at the end because of choices either in conjunction with or against proper social “sense”. Willoughby, who chose the socially sensible thing which, in my opinion, renders him just as happy as Edward who chose the socially senseless thing. And the women of their choices, or not of their choices, settled happily under whichever circumstances because of their natures. The play of personalities within the construct of social norms create a kind of evolutionary microcosm of happiness which, for all, depends on the senseless sensibility and sensible prudence of each other.

However, I did feel a great deal of sympathy for Marianne. She compromised her personality, her tendency to indulge in her sensibilities, when no other character would. Only Marianne held within her a capacity for a passionate and disquieting happiness without the confines of sense. Of course, this blessing proffered the curse of diabolical sorrow as the pendulum would swing from one extreme to the other. Yet I hoped that she would find someone capable of partnering with her and, not only suffer her sensibility, but love it and share in it and consequently bring her a happiness beyond that available to the other characters. Alas, Marianne was “born to an extraordinary fate.”

At first, I wondered if Austen meant to express the necessity of balance between sense and sensibility within each person, to deny the one-dimensional exaggerations of her characters. However, it seems that extreme sense and sensibility flaunted by individual people play together like a symphony which ultimately crescendos and softly cadences in the happiness of all. Sense needs sensibility and sensibility needs sense, not within themselves, but as companions to drive circumstances in their respective favor. If sense discarded its partner, sensibility would lose itself in sorrow. And if sensibility abandoned sense, they may never discover true happiness. The sensibility in one may drive another, with sense, into a beautiful happiness without the slightest intention, as if destinies utterly depended on such dualities.

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Posted by on February 17, 2012 in Jane Austen


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