How Jane Austen Uses Perspective

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.