Jane Austen’s talents as a social satirist and as an anthropologist of manners place her comfortably on the large scale canvas of the 18th British novel; yet, her skills as a miniaturist, as a portraitist of small, individual transactions, hint at the paradox at the heart of her genius. Austen takes the carnivalesque, more unwieldy impulses of the genre, containing a multitude of intersecting characters, of varying moral fiber, their intentions at cross-purposes, while still providing exquisitely drawn individual scenes, one after another, probably hundreds of them.
The popular belief is that short story writers write the most economically, using Flaubert’s principle of the mot juste, while novelists spill out extravagant, wasteful prose, using up whole paragraphs to the short story writer’s sentence. But Austen, while not exactly thrifty in her use of language, manages to compress entire worlds within a single memorable scene. She is a dramatist of the highest order, wielding not just phenomenally incisive dialogue, but setting up brilliantly imagined encounters amongst unexpected parties. Her genius can be found by looking at her scene by scene, in examining her creation of one bravura moment after another.
These are only a few of her by-now iconic scenes in her masterpiece Pride and Prejudice:
–The opening: Mrs. Bennett’s discovery of Bingley’s arrival in town and her demanding that her husband go pay them a visit, only to learn her husband already has
–Elizabeth Bennett’s unexpected arrival in the Bingley estate to check in on her sick sister Jane, her dress full of mud
–Obsequious cousin Mr. Collins’ initial visit and wondrously awkward dinner with the Bennett family
–Charlotte Lucas’ protestations to Elizabeth that she is not like her friend, and therefore willing to marry for money
–Elizabeth overhearing Darcy tell Bingley that there is no one at the ball pretty enough to tempt him
And that is just in the first few sections of the novel. Practically every scene in the novel brims with significance and meaning. There are no throwaway scenes in Austen. Just because her works are 400-page plus (as opposed to a ten page short story), it doesn’t mean that you only run into a great scene every dozen pages, and that the rest is filler. No, pretty much every single scene could be, say, neatly staged, acted out in real time, and it would keep the viewer’s attention (which is partly why film adaptations of her works are so successful).
But what makes each of her scenes so iconic? Partly, it is the philosophical complexity and the depth of vision in each of them. In Pride and Prejudice, for instance, much is made of Elizabeth’s impromptu sojourn into Darcy’s estate, Pemberley. In a lesser writer’s hands, the sequence would merely move the plot forward: Elizabeth goes to the estate of the man she loves, thinking that he is not there, but he makes a surprise appearance, allowing the two to reconnect.
Austen takes this potentially obligatory scene and turns it into a fascinating meditation of loss and the merciless aftermath of a wrong choice. At Pemberley, looking at the beautiful surroundings associated with its owner Darcy, Elizabeth finally understands the consequences of her disastrous earlier rejection. Pemberley’s gorgeously manicured lawns, its kindly but competent servants, and the tastefully chosen statues and art pieces on display all speak to the life that she, unwittingly, gave up. In a novel deeply preoccupied with class, and the privileges associated with it, Elizabeth comes to realize that material objects can serve as the physical manifestation of a person’s inner values–good judgment, discipline, and self-respect–his character. Austen brilliantly renders Elizabeth’s realization by setting a process usually connected with psychology and interiority against the vastness of the physical world.
Austen may seem like an unlikely source for a novel set in Korea in the 1960s, but it was one of my key inspirations. The tone of my novel is not Austen-like at all; mine is no comedy of manners. But the secret desperation of Austen’s heroines greatly influenced me; the high stakes in marriage, and how it may either lead to great happiness, or potentially disaster. Spirited, lively, and willful, Austen’s heroines lead emotionally dangerous lives; it helps, too, that Austen places them in one brilliant scene after another.