Jane Austen: Reflections and Criticism

Readers often adore authors and idolize them for their ability to create works that change lives. It's a mystery how these ordinary citizens are able to come up with stories so magnificently woven effectively carrying out a message. Upon deep analysis many similarities between an author's life and personality and his/her stories emerge. Writers unconsciously incorporate their experiences and biases into their main characters who embody the author's views in life. This element in which the author incorporates their personal opinions into their stories, is seen in Jane Austen's renowned novels. Though many critics believe Jane Austen uses her novels to draw a picture of the 1800 society, in reality, through her reflective and autobiographical voice and style, she is passively criticizing people in her society through her characters' actions based on her personal experiences and personality.

Jane Austen's upbringing greatly influenced her style of writing, by providing the background information for her stories from which she criticizes her characters. In an attempt to create realistic works of literature, Austen connects her stories with the time period and place in which she lives. Her knowledge of careers comes from her father and brother Henry who were clergy men while her brothers Francis and Charles who were well-bred naval officers (Bush 18). Austen therefore had intimate knowledge of these careers through her male dominated family and was able to weave her stories around her characters and criticize them as well. Austen's closeness with her family members is reflected through her depiction of the male characters in her books. Because family members she was intimate with were in the navy, most of the naval officers, such as Captain Wentworth from Persuasion, are put under a favorable light making them seem as if they are war heroes returning from a battle. Using the war stories from her brothers she also creates people who represent the "not so noble" side of Navy Officers through characters such as Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility and Wickham from Pride and Prejudice. When characters go to the most degrading extent to gain the wealth or some other object they desire, they display their avarice revealing their lack of nobility and a negative, deceitful personality. Such characters with a negative personality are always criticized by her other characters. For example, in Pride and Prejudice, toward the end, Wickham "bore with philosophy the conviction that Elizabeth must now become acquainted with whatever of his ingratitude and falsehood had before been unknown to her; and in spite of everything, was not wholly without hope that Darcy might yet be prevailed on to make his fortune" (Pride and Prejudice 470).Even after all Mr. Darcy has done for him, despite the damage Wickham caused Mr. Darcy, Wickham was still expecting more. He plans on keeping in touch with Elizabeth, not because he learned his lesson and wants to fix his relationship with his new family, but because it would benefit his position in life. Austen uses Wickham as the symbol of all the men and women in society who fake smiles and create stories for others' sympathy and generosity. Austen's experience with her family and the stories they would tell her about war and society affected her way of thinking and outlook of society. Austen's upbringing greatly influenced her views of people, thus, giving her a platform to critique her characters' behaviors.

Austen's own position in the social ladder as a middle class single woman, allowed her to reflect on her characters' positions and criticize their lavish lifestyles. From the beginning, she was exposed to the social elite life and dances and the lifestyle readers see in her characters' lives. Although Jane Austen wasn't swimming in riches, her middle-class family had a respectable reputation with many high-class connections (Bush 18) giving her an insight of their extravagant lifestyles; these lifestyles consisted of finding a reputable suitor and enjoying youth while it lasts. Well aware of the difficulties women faced when it came to property once their father or husband died, Austen connects her middle-class status to that of Sense and Sensibility's Dashwood family's status and property issues. Once Austen's father died, she, her mother, and her sister Catherine had to move around to different relatives' houses before her brother settled a place for them (Bush 28) just like the Dashwood sisters and their mother who had to move out of their own home after Mr. Dashwood's death. Most of Austen's heroines are a little higher or lower on the status level as Austen herself letting her relate to them easily and describe what living in that position was like through personal experience. She uses this knowledge to poke fun of the Middletons and Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility and compares their lives with that of the Dashwoods. Through the narrator and the Dashwood girls as well, Austen derides John Middleton's constant need for entertainment and Mrs. Jennings's constant need for gossip. Mrs. Jennings was "a good humored, merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar… said many witty things on the subject of lovers and husbands; … and pretended to see them blush whether they did or not" (Sense and Sensibility 22). Austen uses her narrator to describe Mrs. Jennings' personality and Marianne's impatience to show how ridiculous some people of society can be. Austen criticizes her characters to highlight the fact that while there are people like the Dashwood women who worry about their financial situation, there are also a large number of high-class citizens who lead a pathetic, idle life in which they do absolutely nothing but have parties and gossip. By describing these families and their daily routines, Austen also mocks the upper-class and their uselessness. Austen's familiarity with the high end of the social ladder enables her to criticize and compare her characters' lives with each other.

Austen had a very distinct and lively personality in her youth which she implemented into her animated characters and used it as a tool to criticize them and indirectly criticized herself. Elizabeth Bennet from Pride and Prejudice can be recognized as the character most like the author who created her; "Elizabeth Bennet's judgment of persons and situations is, apart from her one signal lapse, virtually identical with the author's and it guides our reactions…" (Bush 137). Besides Elizabeth's poor judgment of people which is based on their appearances and first impressions, she is the exact replica of the adolescent Austen. Elizabeth is criticized by Mr. Darcy and Ms. Bingley for her unconventional views and mannerisms which indicate an independent feminist mentality which is what Austen personally believed. Elizabeth is not afraid to speak her mind and stands up to her beliefs when arguing with anyone instead of submitting to the other person as expected of an 1800 woman. Using a dry sarcastic tone, Austen mocks herself by pointing out these character traits in Elizabeth that people of the 1800s found radical. In Austen's early years, she was a "lively girl, very fond of dancing, deeply interested in dress, and full of the same naïve interest in the other sex with which Catherine Morland started on her Bath travels" (M.A.W 3). Her notable traits are evenly dispersed to all her heroines. Austen was a caring aunt who spoiled her nieces and nephews with her love just as Emma from Emma does with her nephews and nieces. For example, before her death Austen wrote all her assets off to her sister and nieces and nephews while Emma almost refused to marry at all for her father's sake. Both of the ladies are very protective of their families and their families' lives greatly influence their lives. Austen criticizes the effect family has over Emma and the hindrances it poses to Emma's happiness even though Austen herself was always preoccupied with her siblings' families. Overall, Austen's own personality comes alive through her beloved characters even though she criticizes their flaws and mocks her younger self at times.

As Austen grew older, her personality, along with her writing style also matured leading to changes in her stories and more sound judgment of her characters. As she aged she became more like Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) and Anne Eliot (Persuasion) though she claims that Anne is too good for her (Bush 22). Though she became wiser, she was still wary of emotional display much like Elinor. Austen ran away from her problems by turning them into a joke. Critics think that "Austen's recoil from serious matters was a marked characteristic" (Brooke 5). She would much rather crack jokes than discuss painful feelings (Brooke 5). She criticizes Elinor and Anne for keeping their true feelings hidden and struggling within themselves even though, through the narrator's commending words, Austen displays the trait as a noble quality to keep their sorrows from affecting others. Even though Marianne is the one who is bashed for her purely emotion based actions, Austen also criticizes her sister, Elinor, who constricts her emotions to think and act rationally. When Austen was exposed to hard times she was forced to behave like Elinor. So, by criticizing Elinor's controlled emotions, through Marianne's words, Austen is reflecting on the times when acting like Elinor only made her run away from her issues instead of facing them. The dark days of Austen's past showed her the new side of life which she put into her writing making it more mature instead of making it sound like a little girl's fantasy written by a silly teenager. During this period she became a better writer and thinker. She returned to her old works and revised them. She took out mentions of natural and illegitimate children because she now had a better understanding of the sensitivity lying behind it. She realized that illegitimate children were created through improper relationships which affected the children's lives greatly. Their parents' deeds impacted their reputation in society and Austen realized that these issues aren't rumors one can giggle about; they are sensitive issues. Under this light, her nephew Henry Austen saw her as a quiet, graceful being whose features "produced an unrivalled expression of that cheerfulness, sensibility, and benevolence which were her real characteristics" (Bush 21). Though Austen judges her characters in a wiser sense, some biases are still present. Nevertheless, without those biases and flaws, Austen wouldn't be able to criticize her characters. However, in the end she makes sure the reader knows that the character learned their lesson like in Emma's case. The reader knows that Emma regrets making fun of Mrs. Bates at Box Hill. All in all, as Austen became wiser and older, her judgment of character, which can be seen through the narrators of her stories, became more reliable.

Jane Austen's established view of love and marriage influences her criticism of characters in her stories. Despite the fact that all of her novels are love stories, Jane Austen, surprisingly, was a single maiden all of her life. Austen had four suitors, all who were rejected. She had a firm belief of marrying for love and for love only. She emphasizes this point in every single one of her works. Emma elucidates Austen's view on marriage as she tells Harriet, "without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine" (Emma 822). Austen criticizes all her characters who marry because they need to marry or have to for reasons other than for love. An example would include Elizabeth's criticism of Charlotte Lucas "who accepted him solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment" (Pride and Prejudice 310). Austen, through Elizabeth, expresses her disgust of Charlotte's "stupidity" for marrying Mr. Collins for support and money because Charlotte no longer wants to be a burden to her parents. Her criticism of Charlotte was much milder than her criticism of vindictive, selfish characters such as Lucy Steele from Persuasion and men like Mr. Elton from Emma who devise stealthy plans for wealth and a better position in society through a marriage tie with a respectable wealthy family. Such characters are almost always never forgiven in her novels. Even though it is not explicitly shown the narrator looks upon them as abominable outcasts using unfavorable words such as "deceive" and "malice". Jane Austen makes full use of her characters who embody her opinions on love to express herself and criticize anyone who is willing to marry for reasons other than for love.

Though her views clashed with the norms of the 1800 society, Austen, through her novels and characters was able to defy the social norms regarding marriage and class and live the life she's always dreamt of. Though Austen loved once, her lover, Tom Lefroy's family separated them due to class differences. Unfortunately, Austen's hope of being with her loved one even if it meant defying society, was crushed when she received news that he had died. Austen tried to be stubborn and talk of her feelings to him lightly and carelessly. She hid the depth of her love for him so his death wouldn't affect her as much. She denied these feelings of love to make her conscience feel better about his loss. But like Anne from Persuasion, she couldn't forget him no matter how many years passed by. Though she criticizes Anne for being in denial about her feelings for Wentworth, Austen is really criticizing herself and reflecting on her choices regarding all the marriage proposals she received and the feelings she had for her suitors. When Mrs. Lefroy, Tom Lefroy's mother, mentioned her son's name years after his death, Jane's "own pride forbade any further inquiries" (Bush 26) just like Captain Wentworth when his pride came in between the renewal of his love for Anne. Austen accepted one marriage proposal after her first love affair; however, as soon as she realized she was not truly in love with the man, she refused him the next day. Being a fatherless girl with no support, it was considered wise to marry. However, Jane stayed true to her belief of marrying for love only, and never married. This reflection can be seen in the Dashwood girls from Sense and Sensibility as well. Even though Elinor knew that Edward may not inherit his share of his parent's wealth, she is still willing to marry him and live with the little amount they have. Here, Elinor who is from a middle-class fatherless family is united with Edward, the eldest son of a rich family. Austen makes sure that a union of two distinct classes occurs giving her a heap of chances to critically evaluate her characters' personalities based on their decisions. An example of this criticism would be how Emma in Emma, forbids Harriet from accepting Martin, a farmer's, proposal because he is all the way on the low-end of the social ladder. This reveals Emma's true side in which she is opposed to the intermarriage between two social classes. In Pride and Prejudice, both Jane and Elizabeth end up marrying men above their social standard and for love despite the hitches presented to them in the form of the cruel suggestions of Ms. Bingley and the authority of Lady Catherine. In some aspects, Jane Austen is also cynical when it comes to reflection on her own life as she mocks herself by having Emma talk about poor old maids. Emma says to Harriet that "it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman with a very narrow income must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid!" (Emma 822). An old maiden with no assets to back her up is looked down on in society according Austen. Her contempt for her situation in life is brought out through pessimistic remarks from her characters. All in all, though Austen could not live a happy life with the man she loved, she lived the life she dreamt of through her love stories in which she criticizes her characters who sometimes make the same mistakes she made in her life.

Jane Austen makes full use of her authoritative heterodiegetic narrators and free indirect discourse, a literary device, to give a full description of all her characters and criticize them, in order to expose her disapproval and guide the reader. Free indirect discourse is the mix of elements from 1st person point of view and 3rd person omniscient point of view, also known as heterodiegetic point of view, to narrate a story. These techniques allow her to "give the reader intimate access to a characters' thoughts without totally surrendering control of the discourse to that characters' and, at the same time, control and direct the reader's affective and interpretive responses to the unfolding story" (qtd in Gemmil 4). In doing this, Austen stifles a reader's ability to develop his/her own conclusions about the story and characters. Narrators are naturally trusted by the readers and it is a privilege to narrate and give the proper judgments on the plot (qtd in Morini 412). Because the narrators are omniscient and 'all-knowing' heterodiegetic narrators, readers expect them to give evaluative comments that are weighty helping with the interpretation of the novels. Austen uses the authoritative writing style and 3rd person point of view to direct the readers in the way she wants them to think while providing the character's opinions and thoughts to get an insight of why the character may be doing something a certain way. These narrators "speak from outside the consciousness of their characters, whereas on other occasions they claim knowledge of thoughts, feelings, and past actions" (Morini 417). Besides being part of the story sometimes, these narrators also reflect on the characters "offer[ing] strong evaluations of people and actions, mostly on the "good-bad" and "importance" axis" (Morini 418). For example, in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor is constantly pointing out Willoughby's flaws to her sister by saying that he, "In hastily forming and giving his opinion of other people, in sacrificing general politeness to the enjoyment of undivided attention where his heart is engaged, and in slighting too easily the forms of worldly propriety, he displayed a want of caution which Elinor could not approve..." (Sense and Sensibility 43). Austen comes alive through her characters to personally criticize her other characters. When Elinor, who is known to be a practical and polite young woman, brusquely comments on Willoughby's personality, the readers are taken aback at this sudden change in behavior. When characters behave in opposition to the already established persona that Austen has created for them, the reader is exposed to Austen's words thus highlighting her autobiographical voice. Here, the characters and the narrators become "indistinguishable" (Morini 423). Austen uses this technique of narrated monologue, in which she speaks on behalf of the character and expresses what they may be feeling or thinking (Creese 22). For instance, in Emma, Emma "did not think, "it was a wretched business, indeed" but rather, "This is a wretched business indeed!" (Creese 22). By turning what would be a 1st person point of view element into the terms of 3rd person point of view, Austen "use[s] it to signal approval of Emma's thoughts" (Creese 22) or give consent to Emma's actions and thoughts thus criticizing her when she fails to act the right way. This technique is a very risky tool to use as it often confuses the reader. The very "individual quality of Austen's narrators clashes with the omniscience they also claim at certain stages; if at times they seem to be looking at the action from above, on other occasions they descend upon the earth and betray their position" (Morini 421). One second the narrator is outside of the scene, in the next, they seem to be in the scene (Morini 421). By using free indirect discourse, Austen is allowed to speak without going out of the boundaries of the narrator's role and criticize her characters' defects. Austen uses elements of 1st person point of view to help the reader form a connection with the character and understand the character's actions. She then uses 3rd person point of view to bring the reader outside of the story and see the errors in society. This way, the reader develops an understanding of the characters and is able to connect it to real life. Austen uses these techniques to show the readers the faults of society without explicitly saying it. By combining her characters and narrators at some points and bringing her narrators out of the story at other points, Austen emphasizes the faults within her characters indirectly criticizing society.

Austen used her novels as a way to reflect on her own ideas of life and spread her views to others to point out the major flaws in human character. She uses various writing techniques such as the 3rd person point of view narrators and an authoritative writing style to convey to readers how she perceived the right and wrong side of her characters. Austen makes full use of third person omniscient narrators and molds them in a way which allows her to be reflective and critical at the same time. Consciously or subconsciously, she uses her life experiences and thoughts to write her stories; she implemented her views, biases and even her own personality into her creations. On a comic note, Virginia Wolf says that it seems as if Austen's "characters were born merely to give Jane Austen the supreme delight of slicing their heads off" (qtd in Swisher 23) by criticizing their every flaw. Overall, Jane Austen's personal life significantly influenced her reflective and autobiographical voice in which she criticizes her own works and characters.

14 Jane Austen: Reflections and Criticism