In contrast to the simplicity of her style, Jane Austen’s plots are unexpectedly complex. She is not content to simply draw two or three characters in isolation. She prefers a family, with their many friends and acquaintances and she tries within her limited range to make things as difficult as possible.
SETTINGS OF HER NOVELS
Jane Austen’s field of study is man. She is, therefore, more preoccupied with human nature than nature in the nineteenth century usage of the word. The background and the scenery of the provincial town is rich in its beauty and grandeur. But there is no attempt to look into the spirit of this country. Thus although, she has some sense of locality yet she does not paint an English community like the other writers of her time. She rather avoids those very elements of the population in which the local flavour, the breath of the soil is most pronounced. She is further incapable of evoking a scene or a landscape and cannot conjure up the spirit of Bath as Emile Bronte could conjure up the spirit of the Moorlands or Hardy that of Wessex. All this, one may say, would be fatal to her dramatic quality of construction.Order now
In all her novels, we see only a limited range of human society. Most of her characters are the kind of people she knew intimately, the landed gentry, the upper class, the lower edge of the nobility, the lower clergy, the officer corps of the military. Her novels exclude the lower classes-both the industrial masses of the big cities and the agricultural labourers in the countryside. Three or four families in the country village is the very thing to work on. She does not show any of the great agonies or darker side of human experience. There is no hunger, poverty, misery or terrible vices and very little of the spiritual sphere of experience. Nor do we see any political dimension or even discussions regarding major political happenings in any of her novels. Nature too, is rarely described and her characters are usually presented indoors with an occasional expedition or picnic thrown in.
According to Andrew H. Wright, the novels of Jane Austen can be considered on three levels of meaning: first, the purely local-illustrative of country life among the upper middle-classes at the end of eighteenth century in Southern England. Second, they can be taken as broad allegories in which Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and a number of other virtues and defects are set forth in narrative form and commented on in this way. Third is the ironic level whereby the incidents, situations and characters in a novel imply something more than what they seem.
PLOT-CONSTRUCTION IN SENSE AND SENSIBILITY
It is one of Austen’s simplest novels. The story deals with two sisters Elinor -the heroine represents a woman of sense, while Marianne, her foolish foil represents a woman of sensibility. The first volume of the book has a symmetrical pattern and a clear parallel is drawn between the two romances-Edward Ferrars and Elinor, John Willoughby and Marianne. True to Elinor’s cool, sensible nature the relationship between Edward Farrar’s is conducted on the level of the mind, with both displaying hardly an emotion. The theme of sense is thus exemplified through their relationship. On the other hand Willoughby who enters Marianne’s life as a true romantic hero having carried her home when she sprained her ankle, exemplifies the theme of sensibility in his relationship with Marianne. While the moral seems to illustrate the superiority of sense over sensibility there is an ironic twist in the plot whereby Elinor and Marianne virtually interchange their positions
PLOT-CONSTRUCTION IN EMMA
The plot of Emma can be said to have an ‘inward’ and an ‘outward’ movement. The inward deal with Emma’s self-deception- with what she thinks is happening while the outward deals with what actually is happening and this brings to light her mistakes. It is through a series of humiliations and self reproach that Emma finally awakens to self-knowledge. The reader’s enjoyment stems from an awareness that Emma is wrong. From chapter 1 to 15, Emma thinks that Mr. Elton is in love with Harriet only to discover to her horror that Elton loves her.
From chapter 18 to 30, Emma thinks herself to be in love with Frank and Jane Fairfax to be associated with Mr. Dixon. From chapter 31 to 46, Emma is convinced that Harriet and Frank Churchill are interested in one another. Towards the end of the novel, from chapter 46, Emma’s theories about Frank and Harriet are about Jane Faifax and Dixon are destroyed and she has to face the possibility of Mr. Knightley being in love with Harriet. It is only after Knightley’s proposals in the shrubbery that “what is happening” and “what Emma thinks is happening” converge and Emma’s progress from self-delusion to knowledge is complete.
By analyzing the plots of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Emma’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’, we observe that Austen’s theme-her subject matter revolves round courtship and marriage in each of her novels. By the time we have reached the end of any of her novels, not only the hero and heroine but most of the other people in the story have succeeded in pairing off in marriage. And it is from the courtship of the hero and heroine that the story derives much of their tension.
PLOT-CONSTRUCTION IN PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
The main plot of Pride and Prejudice presents the story of the misunderstanding, estrangement and union in the lives of two people-Elizabeth and Darcy. The novel begins with the flutter and eager expectation in the Bennet family at the arrival of the young “single man of large fortune”, Mr. Charles Bingley. The sub-plot of the Jane-Bingley relationship attracts greater interest for some time. They meet at a ball, are attracted towards each other and their intimacy grows through dinner-parties, balls, etc. All this while, however, the events of the main plot also gather interest. Darcy and Elizabeth are present at the same ball. Darcy is looked at with great admiration for about half the evening and is soon ‘discovered to be proud’, and when Bingley persuades him to dance with Elizabeth, he says that she is ‘tolerable’ but not handsome enough to tempt him. Elizabeth developed ‘no very cordial feelings towards him’. This prejudice forms in the very first meeting and is intensified by various other factors.
Miss Caroline Bingley’s designs on Darcy and her efforts to reprobate Elizabeth during her stay at Netherfield are so persistent that inspite of his being attracted by Elizabeth’s pair of fine eyes, he realizes that it is dangerous to pay too much attention to Elizabeth and observes a studied reticence. Mrs. Bennet’s silly remarks, Mary’s all too quick consent to sing at a party, Mr. Collin’s sycophancy, Mr. Bennet’s want of propriety and Lydia’s shallowness—infact everything that the Bennet family did is enough to alienate anybody and Darcy’s poor opinion of the whole set urges him to avoid closer connections with Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth meets Wickham, his winning manners grow on her good-will, and the altogether false reports of his victimization by Darcy intensify her prejudice far too much. Later, when she naturally suspects that Darcy plays a prominent part in ruining the prospects of her sister’s marriage with Bingley, she feels an almost irrevocably strong prejudice against him. From chapter 3 to 33, the prejudice grows in better strength and so when Darcy proposes to her, she bluntly rejects him. In reply to his enquiry about why she refused, she lays the charges at his door without any apology.
The first stage in the history of their relationship is convincingly developed. Chapters 35 and 36 mark the climax in this development. Darcy’s letter to her marks the beginning of the second stage. Every event occurring subsequent to this helps to reverse Elizabeth’s conception of him, undo all the knots of prejudice and reveal the sterling qualities that he possesses. Even at the end of the first stage, his repulsive pride completely dominates all his thought and action, but the citadel staggers at the first rude shock Elizabeth gives him. ‘She showed him how insufficient were all his pretentions to please a woman worthy of being pleased’, and even though he was angry at first, he soon realized that the lesson she taught was ‘hard indeed at first but most advantageous’. When they met most unexpectedly at Pemberley, he ‘showed her by every civility in his power that he hoped to obtain her forgiveness and lessen her ill opinion, ‘Darcy’s excessive pride is decreased and Elizabeth becomes proportionately less prejudiced.
Many events in the second stage quicken this cleansing process. Even in the offending remarks about her family there is an admission that Elizabeth could inspire in Darcy a strong feeling of love capable of overcoming his strong scruple of family pride; and her vanity is touched. Darcy’s narration in the letter makes it clear to her that if he found Jane’s behavior ‘without any symptom of peculiar regard for Bingley’, it was a pardonable, even justifiable, error of judgment and the motives were certainly unchallengeable.
The baselessness of her violent charge of ruining Wickham’s career becomes all clear to her. Colonel Fitzwilliam’s report about him is also creditable to Darcy. All these events make her conscious that she had acted despicably and that her certainty about her discernment was most unjustifiable. Her visit to Pemberley brings another surprise. His housekeeper, Mrs. Reynold’s, is genuinely proud of Darcy, who is ‘the best landlord and the best master’, ‘affable to the poor’, ‘an entirely good brother’: and she is sure to know better. Darcy’s unexpected meeting at Pemberley is still more effective: he impresses her aunt and uncle by his excellent manners, and Elizabeth has to admit that her prejudice was ill founded. Finally, Darcy’s most invaluable help in the eprisode of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham sweeps off all her objections. And so when Darcy’s second, and most polite proposal is made, her attitude has changed as much as his.
The first minor eprisode is the Jane-Bingley relationship. It can be treated as an independent event, but Jane Austen has woven it well with the main theme. Jane and Elizabeth are sisters who share each other’s secrets, hopes and fears and it is the simplest connection. But on the strength of Darcy’s regard, Bingley has the firmest reliance, and of his judgment the highest opinion, and so when Darcy suspected that Jane did not love Bingley as fervently as Bingley loved her, and found that her family had all vulgar manners and shallow tastes, he ‘readily engaged in the office of pointing out to him the certain evils of such a choice’. This was one of the very important reasons of Elizabeth’s strong prejudice, and thus it is connected with the main theme.
The Wickham-Lydia eprisode and the Collins-Charolette relationship is equally well connected with it. While Elizabeth has developed a prejudice against Darcy, she is strongly attracted towards Wickham— and it is very long before she knows what his real character is. One of the two strong charges she levels against Darcy is the ruining of Wickham’s prospects. Darcy reveals the truth to her later, but because of her silence on this point, she cannot stop her sister’s elopement and the slander on her family. It is this catastrophe, however, that brings Darcy closest to her because it is his love for her that he finds out the fugitives and makes a successful effort to bring about a marriage between Lydia and Wickham, neglecting the thought of the loss to him. Mr. Collins proposes to her, and later marries her best friend Charolette. All the threads are thus connected.
Wickham and Charolette also serve as a comment on Elizabeth and Darcy. “The Darcy-Elizabeth couple is flanked on one side by the unexceptionable Bingley and Jane, it is flanked on the other by Charolette and Wickham”. The last two have the cleverness of the two main characters, but they are time-servers. The structure is therefore, most cleverly unifying.
The precision, simplicity and symmetry of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ evoke instinctive appreciation. So well it is constructed that the action proceeds logically from exposition, complication and climax to the denouncement and finally the resolution. The sub-plots are also thematically unified. The theme of love and marriage is exemplified through the plot and the sub-plots. Jane Austen uses the dramatic narrative mode and irony so effectively to build her complex plot that it would not be amiss to say that she “is the most perfect dramatist who never wrote a play”. Furthermore, all Jane Austen plots are characterized by a unity of tone and are compact and well- knit. There are no loose ands anywhere, no event conceived outside the actual plot and nothing usually hampers the progress of the story.
JANE AUSTEN’S COMEDY OF MANNERS IN PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
“The wisest and the best of men-nay, the wisest and best of their actions – may he rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.
“Certainly”, he replied Elizabeth-“there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule that is wiser or good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.”
This brief dialogue between Darcy and Elizabeth throws distinct light upon Jane Austen’s purpose and programme in her novels. For once it be supposed that Miss Bennet’s point of view is but a projection of her creator’s. Her intention in these novels is to present a comedy of manners – to present the follies and vices of men and to expose them to general ridicule by employing the devices of comedy, parody, burlesque, irony, wit, satire, each one of them as is suitable for the occasion and need.
THE UNITY OF TONE
Hence, her plots are characterized by a singular unity of tone and she often achieves it by focusing our attention at it from more than one angle. In Pride and Prejudice alone the unity of plot has been achieved from as many as three angles. We can view the novel first, as Elizabeth Bennet sees everything; secondly, by assigning to Elizabeth and Darcy a prominent place into the novel and by centering the higher and nobler comedy around these two figures; and thirdly by making the whole story a study in Pride— pride of place and responsibility in some, pride in the form of social snobbery in others and also either a perverted pride or the lack of pride in the rest. However, the unity is therefore very essential in imparting coherence and shape to her design. Thus, the structure of Jane Austen’s novel is perfect and is ideally suited for the material she wanted to embody and the outlook she wished to present.