Why Are Jane Austen’s Characters so Alive?
Quick-witted and sharp-tongued Lizzie Bennet sticks in your mind. So does her gentle older sister Jane; dark and reserved Mr. Darcy; as well as many other Austen protagonists. Her minor characters might be even more memorable—no one forgets Mr. Collins.
At least as impressive is her ability to handle so many characters. In Chapter 7 of Pride and Prejudice, eleven significant characters are on stage: all seven Bennets, Mr. Bingley, his sister Catherine, Mr. Darcy, and Charlotte Lucas. The chapter is less than 2,000 words long – the length of a longish blog post. Look through your favorite books and you won’t find many scenes with so many characters. And yet every one of those characters is vivid? How?
Austen manages her enormous cast, and characterizes them colorfully, with two techniques:
- She drives a fast-moving plot forward through significant action by her characters. Austen’s chapters are short, each one contains multiple twists—and a person causes every one of those twists. Almost nothing happens to characters in an Austen novel; characters’ choices, good and bad, advance the plot. Every action has consequences.
- Even the smallest action characterizes the person who performs it. A silly character in Austen, for example, will not just say silly things. Sooner or later she will do something silly that makes everyone else scramble to catch up.
Important Choices Everywhere
In Chapter Seven the story opens on Lydia and Kitty, the youngest Bennet sisters, who make daily visits to the local village to search out gossip about local officers. As they hear more, they lose interest in their previous obsession, the newly-arrived Mr. Bingley and his interest in Jane:
“They could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr. Bingley’s large fortune, the mention of which gave animation to their mother, was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign.”(Read it all)
The girls return home, their father declares them “two of the silliest girls in the country,” and their parents bicker over whether the girls are airheaded or merely young. They are interrupted when a letter arrives from Mr. Bingley’s sister Caroline, inviting Jane to visit Netherfield, and Mrs. Bennet concocts a plot. She notices that the weather looks foul and they expect rain, so Jane should take the family’s covered carriage to Netherfield—but instead, Mrs. Bennet insists that she ride. If it rains, Mrs. Bennet reasons, Jane will be “forced” to stay overnight and have more time to spend with Mr. Bingley. Lizzie, Jane, and Mr. Bennet all object that her plan is crazy, but she insists on having her way and “attend[s Jane] to the door with many cheerful prognostics of a bad day.”
The rain, however, doesn’t wait for Jane to reach Netherfield, but opens up while she is on her way. Jane gets soaked, catches a cold, and writes to tell Elizabeth that she is staying overnight at Netherfield. As a result, Lizzie walks three miles to Netherfield to visit Jane. Her mother complains that Elizabeth will get muddy and make a bad impression on the Bingleys. But Lizzie says that she’s only going to support Jane and it won’t matter how she looks. In fact, Mr. Bingley’s sisters do judge Lizzie for coming all that way on foot and looking muddy. But Mr. Bingley acts the perfect host, and the Bingleys invite Elizabeth to stay with them until Jane recovers.
Austen dramatizes all this—along with her characteristic commentary, brimming with sarcasm, psychological insight, and wit—in fewer than 2,000 words.
This chapter—like every chapter—is packed thick with decisions. Every few paragraphs, a character makes a choice that sets the action in a new direction…even if it is just Mr. Bennet making a sarcastic comment that upsets his wife. Because he makes that comment, she is on fire to advance her daughters’ marital prospects when Caroline Bingley’s letter arrives.
You Know Them By Their Actions
In an Austen novel, even the smallest actions express a character’s personality. Mrs. Bennet’s plan to ensure that Jane stay’s overnight is…well…very Mrs. Bennet. It’s silly, bold, ridiculous, rude, and entirely successful at throwing her daughter in the path of a rich young man. Her plot embodies everything we know about her…but it goes farther than we’ve seen her go up until this point. Meanwhile, Mr. Bennet can see that the plan is tawdry and silly. But instead of stopping it, he would rather be snarky.
When Jane gets sick and Lizzie insists on visiting, her decision is…well…very Lizzie: kind, compassionate, decisive, headstrong, indifferent to what anyone thinks. She does not care that she will arrive covered in mud or that Mr. Bingley’s rich sisters will judge her.
Austen even uses something as simple as the youngest sisters’ decision to visit town to characterize them. We learn that Kitty and Lydia frequently walk down to Meryton to visit the milliner (where they buy new clothes) and to listen to the town gossip, because they are easily bored. Jane and Lizzie are able to entertain themselves at home, or wherever they happen to be, through conversation and observation.
Even more impressively, Austen accomplishes the vividness of her characters without many of the tools that later writers use. Think about what is not in Austen’s writing. There is little sensory description: a woman might be called “handsome,” but we rarely learn what she looks like. We don’t know much about the layout of Lizzie’s boudoir or the Bennet family library. Because Austen is so sparing in physical description, she does not have access to the symbolic resonances that later writers will give to places and objects. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s green light or John Steinbeck’s turtle on the roadside require more sensory detail than Austen ever uses. And while Austen’s psychological insight is the equal of anyone’s, she uses her insight sparingly. Pride and Prejudice offers no long passages that dive into a character’s consciousness in the manner of George Eliot, Dostoevsky, or many later writers.
Austen shows us many characters’ thoughts, but she quickly resolves those thoughts into action. In many writers’ hands, such density of action would lead to thin characters and a plot-driven story. But Austen achieves psychologically profound and memorable characters because those characters’ actions always express their inner natures. Actions—large and small, but always tightly woven into the plot—are the way that we come to know Austen’s characters.