Monday, August 29, 2011

Why I Read Jane Austen (and you should too)

For a long time I operated under the rather misguided assumption that Jane Austen novels have little in them of interest to men. As I began to read philosophers like Henry Veatch and Alasdair MacIntyre endorse Austen’s work and describe it as a literary embodiment of a kind of virtue ethics, I began wondering whether I had her all wrong. Last fall I was trying to find some fiction to read and happened upon an inexpensive collection of Austen’s novels on Amazon. Soon I discovered that the stereotype of Austen I had was not only wrong, but grossly wrong.

What, exactly, is it, that makes Austen’s novels so great? It is not—contrary to the ravings of the sort of people who generated my previous stereotype (and whose behavior in doing so, ironically, is of a sort of which Austen herself would not precisely be fond, except, perhaps, insofar as such behavior brought to mind the pleasure of creating some of her less praiseworthy characters*)—the plots driven by romantic intrigue. Don’t get me wrong, Austen’s plots are quite an achievement. I have to be prepared to read one of her novels, because I know that once I begin I will scarcely be able to put it down until I finish it. But this is not the key to Austen’s greatness. Nor is the key to her greatness her moral judgment. While I am inclined, like the philosophers who pointed me her way, to approve in many respects of the vision of virtue that seems to be embodied in Austen’s work, that is not what makes her work so captivating.

What is ultimately so wonderful about Austen is just how complex, interesting, and often surprising her characters are. It is not so much the complex series of actions Austen has them take that is so interesting, nor is it the judgments Austen makes about her characters that are so profound. What makes Austen’s novels so engaging and powerful it is the fact that she creates characters that often puzzle us and leave us unsure how to judge them until the end (and yet when they make the decisions they do in the end, we find ourselves thinking their unexpected choices less than surprising after all, and think our final judgment of them to have been the one that should have been obvious to us all along). This takes skill not only in writing fictional characters, but an eye for the features of the character of real people. Just as painting or drawing well requires one to have an eye for color and lines in the world around him, writing such characters requires one to have an eye for people, an ability to recognize both the features of people's character that make them predictable and the quirks, idiosyncracies, and sometimes the hidden motives that occasionally make people defy our expectations. It is this vision for people that sets Austen’s work apart.

So if you haven't already, I encourage you to read some Jane Austen. I'm no literary critic and my ravings about her merits don't do justice to them, but I hope that if you've been avoiding Austen for the wrong reasons, that this might wake you up to the possibility that Austen is worth your time. But consider yourself warned: once you get a few chapters in, it will be remarkably difficult to put down.

*Needless to say (but I will say it) many Jane Austen fans I know do not deserve this description.

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