It is “a truth universally acknowledged” that no one writes quite like Jane Austen. Her mix of wit,levity, and sharp social observation have rightfully earned her a spot on every classics shelf. A major part of her artistic triumph, and in my opinion, the reason her works are just so enjoyable, is her masterful use of perspective.
To simplify a very complex term, perspective is the subjectivity from which a story is told. In Austen’s six completed novels, a sparkling narrative voice describes the internal and external life of a single female protagonist—occasionally and very briefly sliding into other characters’ points of view. For the most part, however, Austen sticks to the subjectivity of a single character, a decision which shapes the entirety of her stories.
Pride, Prejudice, and Narrative Structure
Pride and Prejudice is a story about knowledge—what we know, what we think we know, and how we are all too often mistaken. Elizabeth Bennet spends the novel learning to overcome many of her initial estimations of those around her, and because the story is from her perspective, we go on this journey with her.
Part of how Austen does this is through a sneaky little trick called free indirect discourse. Basically, this means that she inserts Elizabeth’s and other characters’ thoughts and opinions into the voice of a supposedly unbiased third-person narrator. For instance, let’s take a look at the description of Mr. Darcy the first time that we meet him:
“…he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance…” (Austen, 26-27).
So, the narrator seems to make it pretty clear that Mr. Darcy is just the worst. Naturally, we’re inclined to agree with them—they’re the only guide we have. But if we look a little more closely at what the narrator is actually saying, we discover that they’re reporting the public’s general opinion, and only making it seem like unquestionable truth. This ingenious narrative trick leaves us assuming the same things as Elizabeth—meaning that we share her prejudices. Austen therefore forces the reader to reexamine characters along with Elizabeth, as she reevaluates and learns more information. All of this is to say that story is shaped by what characters know—that is the story.
Emma: The Impossibly Likable Heroine
Quite famously, Jane Austen declared that Emma Woodhouse would be “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” It’s not hard to see why she would think that; Emma is manipulative, at times selfish and short-sighted, and wreaks havoc upon Highbury in her many matchmaking plots. But at the same time, Emma is one of Austen’s most enduringly beloved characters.
Emma is told from Emma’s perspective. We have an intensely complex, intriguing, and nuanced psychological portrait of her through Austen’s narrator. Given that the very structure of the story is centered around Emma’s subjectivity, Austen is able to make us sympathize with a character who, otherwise, we probably wouldn’t like very much.
Perhaps even more important, Emma’s perspective is utterly entrancing. She’s witty, charming, clever, and incredibly imaginative. It’s hard for the reader not to fall under her spell, as many other characters in the story do. Yet the reader has a more privileged understanding of her. We see Emma as a complex, very real human being (in my opinion, the most complex and real of any of Austen’s creations). By immersing us in Emma’s perspective, the story becomes as much about psychology as it is about plot. Giving readers the chance to see the world through the eyes of morally gray characters like Emma, Austen changes everything about how we view the story and its heroine.
Sensible and Sensational Heroines
One of the most important decisions a writer can make is choosing which perspective to tell a story from. There aren’t necessarily wrong decisions, but there are better ones.
Though I hesitate to question Ms. Austen, I do wonder if she could have made a better choice in the perspective of her novel Sense and Sensibility. Don’t get me wrong—it’s still a great read. It differs from the rest of the Austen canon in that it technically has two heroines rather than just one—sisters Elinor and Marianne. While both characters undergo similar journeys of romantic drama and self-discovery, the vast majority of the novel is solely from Elinor’s perspective.
There’s nothing wrong with having more than one protagonist, or with having one point-of-view character. The trouble is that Marianne can’t help but steal focus, just from being the character that she is. While Elinor is reserved, wise, and sensible (a perfectly fine character), Marianne is outspoken, imaginative, and romantic (and much more intriguing). Marianne also undergoes the most development and change throughout the novel, making her one of Austen’s most lively and dynamic creations. For all these reasons, I, at least, was left wishing I could have read Sense and Sensibility from Marianne’s perspective instead.
There’s a lesson in all of this: when choosing a perspective for your story, make sure that it’s the one that will most benefit the story itself. This may sound simple, but it’s actually very difficult and may require a lot of trial and error. So don’t be afraid to adjust your initial plans; you never know what creative discovery it could lead you to.
Perspective is Landscape
Perspective is the most basic building block of storytelling. The only thing that you really need to have a story is a storyteller. It affects what the reader knows, how the reader relates to characters, and how the reader understands the reality of the world of the story. Unfortunately, Pemberley and Highbury are not real. But Jane Austen makes us believe they are through the beauty of her writing. The perspective she uses shapes how we view her worlds; it is their very landscape.
Your own perspective, therefore, is just as important as the subjectivity from which a story is told. What makes Austen’s work so unique is that it is entirely her voice—nothing is hesitant, and nothing is held back. Your own writing has every right to be the same—your perspective matters.
About the Author: Kaitlyn Connors is a rising senior at Smith College studying English with an emphasis in creative writing. She is fond of coffee, Shakespeare, light breezes, the sound of crisp page turns, moths, goosebumps, bad drawings of cats, and the general vibe of autumn. She is currently studying abroad at Oxford University. More of her work can be found at www.thesunsetowl.com.