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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Jane Austen's heroines: from extroverted Emma to introverted Fanny

If I were to rank Jane Austen’s heroines on a scale of most extroverted to most introverted, Emma Woodhouse would be at one end and Fanny Price on the other. Elizabeth Bennett would be pretty close to Emma, and Anne Elliot would be second to Fanny on the introvert end.  There are errors that result from both extremes, though Jane Austen seems to stack the deck in favor of introverted heroines.

Extroversion leads the heroine to err with nearly disastrous consequences in Emma. Emma is not to occupy herself in solitary pursuits like reading. There are a few references to her constantly writing up reading lists but never getting through the books on them.  She craves company and influence over others. So when her governess leaves to marry, she feels compelled to find a new companion in the person of Harriet Smith. Then she sets out to remake the character and even history of her friend, giving her unrealistic expectations.   Mr. Knightly castigates Emma for her attempt to redirect Harriet’s life, and  Emma concedes at the end that he was right. Emma likely sees the ugly side of extroversion for herself in the patronizing way Mrs. Elton directs Jane Fairfax.  

In Pride and Prejudice, the exchange in which Miss Bingley attempts to label Elizabeth by claiming that all that interest her is reading is very telling. While Elizabeth is a reader, she doesn’t want to be thought of as a boring bluestocking, a role which may be more readily embraced by an introverted character.   Elizabeth is nothing if not vivacious, though the person closest to her is her sister Jane who is her opposite in some way.  Jane is sweet and innocent, in the sense that she fails to suspect others of any motives less pure than her own. In contrast, Elizabeth is witty – sometimes bitingly so – and quick to judge others in a negative light.  Elizabeth is the one who concedes her error. But her friend, Charlotte Lucas, who proves most perceptive, suggests that Jane’s shyness was what made it possible for Mr. Bingley to doubt her genuine affection for him.

Mansfield Park’s heroine, Fanny Price, manages to win her heart’s desire though, even though she is careful to keep her feelings for her cousin to herself. Her introversion is not presented as a sign of weakness but of strength. She is certain of what is correct and will not budge from her refusal to participate in the theatricals even when everyone else gives up on any scruples of morals or modesty.  Fanny is the only one of Austen’s heroines who is presented as being perfect in the sense that she has nothing to improve on in the course of the novel as the extroverted heroines do.

What happens when an introverted heroine lacks that kind of confidence in her moral sense is presented in Persuasion. Like most introverts, Anne Elliot is a good listener, who provides calming comfort to the more highly-strung members of her family. But she comes to realize that too much listening to others is what caused her own loss of happiness when she allowed her friend (a woman who cast herself in the role of Emma) to persuade her to reject Frederick Wentworth.  As the novel ends happily, she does get a second chance, but she does first recognize the error of her former ways. While she is more right about others than extroverted characters prove, she has to learn to assert her own point of view. Ultimately she does, and gains the perfection and perfect happiness allotted to Fanny Price.


1 comment:

  1. As a lover of Austen and a confirmed introvert, your post has given me insight into my own leanings towards Austen: "Jane Austen seems to stack the deck in favor of introverted heroines."