Austen and Paradox

The Paradoxical Stance of
Jane Austen (1775-1817)
by Don L. F. Nilsen
and Alleen Pace Nilsen
Jane Austen
as drawn by her sister, Cassandra
Austen’s Satirical Targets
• Jane Austen’s novels tend to be about two
• Marriage
• And
• Money
Austen: A Female Writer
in a Male Dominated Society
• Robert Polhemus feels that Austen’s sense of
the ridiculous, her sense of irony, and her
sense of humor were her reactions to a male
dominated, parochial moral order.
• Polhemus said that Austen had a kind of
“feminine lawlessness.”
Austen as a Feminist
• The problem with Jane Austen is that both
liberal and conservative critics claim that she
supports their point of view.
• In truth, Austen’s style is paradoxical.
• Kate Fullbrook observes that “She speaks
precisely in the voice of the culture she
Irony and Disguise
• Regina Barreca says that Austen’s novels are
written in disguise:
• “To read her works without taking the
disguise into account is to misread refusal as
inability, irony as sentiment, consider
contempt as pleasant affection, and women’s
comedy for men’s.”
Austen’s Little Men
• Barreca continues, “Austen’s men are of little
consequence apart from how they function in
the lives of the female characters.”
• “The only important things about men are
their marital status, income, rank, and looks.”
• “Men, in Jane Austen, are at their best when
they are out of the room.”
Sense and Sensibility (1811)
• Sense and Sensibility
exposes the silliness of
the sentimental and
Gothic novels that were
so popular during
Austen’s day.
• It is a Comedy of
Manners that uses the
device of reductio ad
absurdum very
Sensibility vs. Sense
• Marianne Dashwood is guided by feeling or
• Marianne’s sister, Elinor Dashwood, is guided
by reason and sense.
• Marianne’s ardor and passion are contrasted
with Elinor’s coolness of judgment.
Elinor, the Detective
• In the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule
Poirot, Miss Marpole, and Columbo, Elinor is a
detective who examines all of the empirical
• Elinor uses evesdropping and spying to discover
the true character of Edward Ferrars.
• Elinor is interested in Edward Ferrars, and she
believes that this will help her in gaining his
Pride and Prejudice (1813)
• This novel begins with one of the
best opening lines in all of
literature, as Mrs. Bennett says:
• “It is a truth universally
acknowledged, that a single man
in possession of a good fortune,
must be in want of a wife.”
• Later in the novel, Austen further
characterizes Mrs. Bennett: “She
was a woman of mean
understanding, little information
and uncertain temper.”
Mrs. Bennett
• “When she was discontinent she fancied
herself nervous.”
• “The business of her life was to get her
daughters married; its solace was visiting and
In Comedies there is an Unjust Law
• Northrup Frye says that one of the features of
“Comedy” is that there tends to be an “unjust
law” that is somehow thwarted in the comedy.
• In Pride and Prejudice the unjust law is that
inheritance must go from male to male, and
since the Bennets have only daughters, their
estate is to go to William Collins, a distant male
William Collins and His Assumption
• Since William Collins is to inherit the Bennet
estate, he assumes that he will also inherit his
choice of the Bennet girls as his wife.
• Both William Collins and Mrs. Bennet are targets
of Austen’s satire.
• Austen contrasts the long-winded pomposity of
Mr. Collins with the hysterical protests of Mrs.
Mr. Bennet
• In contrast, Mr. Bennet’s laconic cynicism can be seen in
the following dialogue:
• “Come here, child,” cried her father as she appeared. “I
have sent for you on an affair of importance. I understand
that Mr. Collins has made you an offer of marriage. Is it
• Elizabeth replied that it was. “Very well—and this offer of
marriage you have refused?”
• I have, sir.”
• “Very well. We now come to the point. Your mother
insists upon your accepting it,. Is it not so, Mrs.
• “Yes, or I will never see her again.”
• “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth.
From this day you must be a stranger to one of your
• Your mother will never see you again if you do not
marry Mr. Collins.
• And I will never see you again if you do.”
Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy
• Elizabeth is sharp witted and a bit uncontrolled or wild. She
disagrees with Mr. Darcy when he says that there are certain
things not to be laughed at.
• Mr. Darcy is so proud a man that even at the moment of declaring
his love to Elizabeth, he doesn’t allow humility or modesty into his
speech. He is proud and arrogant in not understanding why
Elizabeth has rejected his proposal.
• Thus, Darcy is accusing Elizabeth of being uncivil, while he himself
is acting like a pompous ass.
• But Darrel Mansell thinks that even in Elizabeth, there is
something bordering on conceit and impertinance.
Emma (1816)
• If marriage is so important to
Jane Austen, then why did
Austen never marry?
• Robert Polhemus suggests that
Austen did marry, as she tells us,
“Emma, the striving, kinetic,
lucky, ironic, ridiculous
subjective comic heroine weds
• Just as Queen Elizabeth, the
Virgin Queen, became wedded
to England, Jane Austen became
wedded to her characters.
Emma as Comedy of Humors
• The “humours” characters see everything in the extreme of their
ruling passion:
• Mr. Weston, the sanguine, can scarcely think ill of anyone.
• The hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse, likes his germs and gruel.
• Mrs. John Knightly can not understand anything not related to the
welfare of her children.
• Mrs. Elton can’t look beyond the Maple Grove and the barouchelandau.
Harriet Smith
• Harriet Smith was a very pretty girl, and her
beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma
particularly admired.
• She was short, plump and fair, with a fine
bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features,
and a look of great sweetness.
• Since Emma herself is tall and elegant, and has
hazel eyes, Harriet provides a perfect foil for
Emma’s charms.
The Three Threads of Emma
• Bruce Stovel believes that there are three threads being
developed in Emma:
• First is the hidden love that Emma and Mr. Knightley have
for each other.
• Second is the counterpoint of the secret love and secret
engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.
• And third is the use of other characters in the novel to
compare and contrast with the various aspects of Emma
Northanger Abbey (1818)
• Northanger Abby targets the
sentimentalism that was so
much part of a girl’s education
during Austen’s time.
• It also targets the Gothic Novel in
general, and Ann Radcliffe’s The
Romance of the Forest (1791) in
• In Northanger Abbey, Catherine
Morland discovers a laundry bill
that confirms her dire suspicions
that General Tilney is somehow
involved with his wife’s death.
• Austen’s parodic and mocking tone can be seen in the following
• “Catherine had reached the age of seventeen without having seen
one amiable youth who could call forth her sensibility.
• There was not one lord in the neighbourhood; no—not even a
baronet…not one young man whose origin was unknown.
• Her father had no ward, and the squire of the parish no children.
• Catherine reasons, “When a young lady is to be a heroine, the
perverseness of forty surrounding families cannot prevent her.
Something must and will happen to throw a hero in her way.”
• At midnight, Catherine explores Northanger Abbey, and
finds a manuscript which she takes to be a cryptic record
of secret crimes committed and suffered in the Abbey,
• But on closer examination, this manuscript turns out to be
an inventory of linen needing to be washed.
• Northanger Abbey is in fact a Gothic Novel.
• But at the same time it is also a parody of a Gothic novel.
The Gothic novel genre is always over the top and
exaggerated. But Northanger Abbey is even more over the
top than are other Gothic novels.
• And therein lies the irony and the paradox of Jane Austen’s
Jane Austen’s Birthday:
Hamilton Library in Chandler, AZ
Jane Austen and Paradox”
Jane Austen and Paradox:

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