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Character & Characterization: Austen Heroines

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I know, you’re all gagging at how bad the pun is in the title of this post. I just couldn’t resist it! I love Jane Austen and have been debating about what kinds of posts I could do related to her work. Then I realized that the reason I love her so much is because of the characters she created. Yes, she is witty and full of social commentary, but it is her characters that keep us coming back to her work. So, this post is the first in a three-part series on Austen characters: heroines, heroes, and villains. 

I think many people think of the heroes of Austen’s work, Mr. Darcy in particular, before thinking of her heroines. But, for me at least, it is the heroines who continue to draw me back in. As I have gotten older, changed and matured, my favorite Austen work has changed too. The women in Austen’s work are varied and complex, their characters deepen with additional readings. That said, there are some things Austen heroines have in common.

All of Austen’s heroines are, at their core, basically good people. Emma Woodhouse cares deeply for her friends and family; Elinor Dashwood has the good judgement and moral fortitude to help look after her family; Elizabeth Bennett is clever and high spirited, but also fiercely loyal to her sisters. All Austen heroines have an element of moral respectability. None of them are greedy social climbers, nor are they purely pleasure-seeking and lazy. Above all else, they care deeply for their friends and families. This love and devotion goes a long way towards soothing over any of their faults. 

Despite being essentially good, Austen’s heroines aren’t perfect. Elizabeth Bennett is too prideful in her ability to discern the character of others and it leads her to a prejudiced opinion of Mr. Darcy. Elinor has too much sense and practicality to the point of not being able to express how she feels to the man she loves, while Marianne takes the opposite tack, feeling too much to the point of not listening to reason. Of Emma, Austen has to say: "The real evils indeed of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself..." Austen’s heroines make mistakes, they are imperfect, but that is what makes them feel so real.  

Unlike many of the villains or antagonists in Austen’s work, Austen’s heroines are able to recognize their own faults and change for the better. Emma comes to understand how her maneuvering has hurt the people she cares about and that she has belittled and scorned those who needed her compassion. Marianne learns a harsh lesson about letting her emotions dictate her actions; she is forced to mature and acknowledge how her impetuousness nearly destroyed her.  Elizabeth, after reading Darcy's letter, realizes that "Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd." This acknowledgement of their faults brings about a moment of realization and change in these characters.

Throughout the course of each novel, each heroine's faults are put in the spotlight and cause real harm either to themselves or people they care about. It is this point of pain that brings about the change in their characters. This character growth forces them to grow and mature. 

So much of what keeps me coming  back to Austen is that, despite the difference in language and customs, these women feel real, like they could be friends of mine. There are the dramatic ones like Marianne, or the social butterflies, like Emma. They are women navigating life's ups and downs, growing and maturing as we all do. Their stories of family, friendship, and romance are deeply universal and a large part of why Austen's work has stood the test of time.

As much as I love Austen's heroines, they do not exist in isolation. This series of posts will continue on with Austen heroes and villains. After all, what is a series on Austen's characters without mentioning Mr. Darcy?


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