Critical Essays Style in Sense and Sensibility


Though Austen's style was highly individual, it is based on her close study of the eighteenth-century writers, whose simplicity, accuracy, and precision she admired and imitated. Austen picked up the technique, popularized by Fielding, of the omniscient narrator. But her particular style is more objective. While she definitely has an ironic point of view, she allows her characters freedom within this, for her implications are subtle, and in many cases reserved. A good example of this is shown in the development of the character of Mrs. Jennings. When we first meet her, we are told what to think of her: "Mrs. Jennings was a widow, with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world." But for the rest of the novel the author leaves us alone, and we discover by viewing Mrs. Jennings' actions that despite her obvious faults, she is really quite an amiable character. This lack of intrusion adds a sense of reality to the characters, for they are allowed to develop before our eyes. Character is vividly conveyed through direct speech. Charlotte Palmer's foolishness, Robert Ferrars' complacence and vanity, Mrs. Jennings' blunt good humor and common sense, and Anne Steele's vulgarity and lack of education are revealed in the way they express themselves.

Despite the constant satire, there is a sense of psychological immediacy which increases the verisimilitude. Austen uses the consciousness of Elinor as the means through which to narrate her story. As Elinor is rarely treated ironically, her feelings and observations have a seriousness which transcends the ironic. Colonel Brandon, too, is hardly treated comically, and even Marianne, although often seen ironically, is finally taken seriously.

Contrast is used with line effect. Elinor's sense is contrasted with her sister's sensibility. Edward's loyalty to Lucy contrasts with Willoughby's betrayal of Marianne. Mrs. Jennings' good humor is in strong contrast to Mrs. Ferrars' sourness.

Every page of the novel reflects Austen's own quiet temperament, her good sense, and her humor. Though she can be satirical or ironic on either a small or a grand scale, she is never malicious, and her humor never exceeds the bounds of good taste and credibility.

It has been said that in Austen's novels "nothing ever happens." That is because she recognized her own limitations and kept within them. "What should I do with your strong, vigorous sketches, full of variety and glow?" she asked her nephew, a writer. "How could I possibly join them on to the little bits (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush as produces little effect after much labor?"

In her own style, she is superb. The events of her story may not be startling, but she makes ordinary happenings as interesting, and sometimes as dramatic, as the most exciting adventure story or romance. Much of the perfection of her style comes from the infinite care and patience with which she polishes her work.

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