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Recipe for Literary Success: Themes and Archetypes in the Jane Austen Repertoire
A formula writer, yes. But boring? Certainly not!
Before you say to yourself “aw, crap, I hate Jane Austen!” take a deep breath. If you take a closer reading, you’ll find a wealth of personality between the 200-year-old pages of Jane Austen’s novels. 200 years, you say? Well, come on, something must be good for these stories to withstand two world wars and a slew of books like Twilight. After all, we’re still reading and performing Shakespeare! Read on, dear bibliophile.
It's a truth universally acknowledged that a student will come across one of Jane Austen's six famous novels (Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey) or even her Juvenilia (a collection comprised of short stories, a novel she was writing before her death, and letters to her sister Cassandra) at some point in their formal education. Most students (and many professors for that matter) are immediately repulsed by the idea of reading about the mundane daily lives of the Regency landed English, but there is a genius and rather specific method to Austen's madness. Austen was, first and foremost, a formula writer.
Each story begins with a set-up; a theme or subject that will be present and important to the plot.Pride and Prejudice begins much like this hub did, except Jane Austen had more dignity than I and didn’t beg for her audience to keep reading. Ahem:"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Pride and Prejudice (and the rest of her collection, quite frankly) centers on the matching of single, wealthy men to a woman they might marry, a prominent concern during the Regency period. Austen was likely surrounded by the idea that marriage was largely for increasing one's personal wealth and not a love match. At the heart of the story are four unique relationships that work within this theme, but one illustrates it best: Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett.
At the beginning of the book, Darcy is thought by Mrs. Bennett to be the biggest catch in the rather limited pool of local single men (before she has even laid eyes on the moody, broody Keanu Reeves-like landlord and gentleman) because he owns Pemberley, a large estate in Derbyshire, and makes ten thousand pounds a year (a modern equivalent of about one million dollars). This is probably a concern that Austen felt heavy on her own shoulders once she came of marrying age. The man most attractive to a mother of a girl newly introduced to society is a wealthy man with a large estate, but how can a poor girl with no dowry to speak of really attract such a man?
Austen realized that she could legitimize the idea of a poor girl marrying a wealthy man by playing Cupid; if Darcy fell in love with Elizabeth, it wouldn’t matter whether or not she had any inheritance to speak of. Austen herself was not wealthy, in spite of being a hugely accomplished writer, and defends her own situation through her poor heroines.
The figures prominent in Austen’s own life made it seamlessly into her writing through the further development of archetypes, a method used by many successful writers. An archetype refers to the generic version of a personality, which may be modified by the situation or environment of the character. In my amateur inspection of her five most famous novels, I have identified fourteen separate archetypes that Austen employs; the Heroine, the Hero, the Naïve Woman, the Fool, the Rake, the Benefactor, the Scandal, the Good Samaritan, the Confidant, the Un-Relative, the Instigator, the Loving Parent, the Snob, and the Poor Man. Each of these archetypes are made unique by a modifier; whether they are a good or bad person, their physical description, their wealth, their age, and gender. Not every archetype occurs in every book either, but there are all devices through which Austen can articulate a theme.
One archetype present in all five novels is the Rake. Typically, a ‘rake’ is a man known for womanizing and deceiving a well-loved female figure, and the Austen men are no exception. Sense and Sensibility’s John Willoughby is the quintessential Rake. His story begins when he happens upon Marianne Dashwood and her sister Margaret after Marianne has slipped in the rain and twisted her ankle. Like a seemingly gallant hero, he sweeps her up into his arms and carries her all the way home. Willoughby spends the next hundred or so pages of the book (I’m not sure how many pages in actuality) bringing Marianne flowers, reading her poetry, playing duets, and treating her as if he has every intention of marrying her. As the Naïve archetype, Marianne falls victim to his advances, and consequently head over heels in love with him. All of a sudden, his aunt seemingly calls him away on business to London. His rakish nature is revealed to Marianne when she discovers Willoughby at a ball with his new fiancée, after months of thinking he was devoted to her.
Though Willoughby is the most despicable, each of Austen’s Rakes drag innocent women through the proverbial mud, leaving them to pick up the pieces with the Good Samaritan figure. In Marianne’s case, this man is Colonel Brandon, who is incredibly kind and caring, though significantly older.
Austen was able to make manifest things that she herself could not achieve if she simply wrote them into her stories. Famously, Austen never married, though having several potential beaus throughout her life. Alternatively, almost all of her heroines happily marry for love. The Heroine archetype runs rampant in Austen’s work. Each of her heroic woman are unconventionally independent, in spite of the social constraints put on them.
Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is 27 and unmarried when the novel opens, having rejected the love of her life at age 19 at the insistence of her confidant and mother figure, Lady Russell.Though she is accomplished (the Regency buzz word for talent in music, languages, practical arts, and needlework) and pretty, Anne remains the devoted and sensible decision maker for the Elliot family. When the Elliot family files for bankruptcy, it is Anne’s decision that the family must retrench and move to Bath so their estate Kellynch Hall may be rented out. Though society would consider Anne a spinster, she seems to be rather content to be, in essence, the head of her family. This modern, feministic illustration of Persuasion’s heroine is quite out of the ordinary for the way women were really treated by society in Austen’s time.
In order to make Anne’s character believable to her audience however, she must introduce (or reintroduce as it were) a love interest. The love of Anne’s life isn’t just any old Lord in need of a wife, but the very man she rejected at 19, Colonel Frederick Wentworth. This addition of a strong gentleman makes Anne’s position more believable to her male readers, but may have alienated her female readers were it not for a particularly brave scene in which Austen gives Anne a chance to defend her love. When speaking to Captain Harville about the true nature of love, Anne states that women “certainly do not forget you [men] as soon as you forget us. It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.” Through this simple conversation, Austen is able to legitimize the nature of a woman’s feelings, as well as make a statement about the female place in society. Speaking through Anne, Austen makes it clear that she feels the confines of society herself.
You could write a book (and I probably will) on the themes and archetypes present in Austen’s writing; not only is she prolific for a writer of her time, but her stories are a tender admission of her own misgivings, pride, and worries. Even if you don’t wear out your mother’s copy of Mansfield Park, give Jane Austen another shot. There’s so much more between the lines than you’ve ever given her credit for. There’s Jane, winking back.