The range of Jane Austen’s characters is rather narrow. She selects her characters from among the landed gentry in the countryside. Sir Walter Scott very accurately describes this range:
Jane Austen confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society … and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard.
She omits the servants and the labourers. They appear wherever they are needed but they are usually not heard. Aristocracy also is hardly touched and if taken, it is only to satirize. Lady Catherine in “Pride and Prejudice” is arrogant, pretentious, stupid and vulgar. Austen finds herself at home only with the country gentry and their usual domestic interests.
In spite of such a limited range, Austen never repeats her characters. Lord David Cecil says:
In her six books, she ever repeats a single character … There is all the difference in the world between the vulgarity of Mrs. Bennet and the vulgarity of Mrs. Jennings.
Though these characters are so highly individualized, yet they have a touch of universality. Thus Marianne becomes the representative of all romantic lovers while Wickham represents all pleasant-looking but selfish and unprincipled flirts.
Austen usually presents her characters dramatically through their conversation, actions and letters. Darcy and Wickham, Lydia and Caroline are much revealed through their actions, while Collins and Lydia are revealed through their letters. A direct comment is sometimes added. The mean understanding of Mrs. Bennet and the sarcastic humour of Mr. Bennet have already been revealed in their dialogues before the direct comment of the novelist. Similarly before she tells us about Mr. Collins, we have already become aware from his letter that he is not a sensible man.
Though Jane Austen does not conceive her characters in pairs yet her characters are revealed through comparison and contrast with others. Lady Catherine and Mrs. Bennet balance each other in their vulgarity and match-making drills. Wickham serves a contrast to Darcy while Bingley is a foil to him. Elizabeth’s is compared and contrasted with Jane and Caroline Bingley.
Austen builds character through piling an infinite succession of minute details about them. In “Pride and Prejudice”, the Elizabeth-Darcy relationship is traced through minute details, details which look trivial and insignificant in the first instance but whose significance is realized only after reading the novel. Sir Walter Scott makes a fine comment:
The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters … reminds us something of the merit of the Flemish school of painting.
Austen is a great realist in art. Her characters are creatures of flesh and blood, pulsating with vitality. She studies her characters kindly but objectively. Regarding their appearance, she treats them quite generally, fixing them with a few bold strokes. She is constant in providing details about their outlook, attitude, manner and accomplishments. Lord Cecil says:
Her lucid knife-edged mind was always at work penetrating beneath such impressions to disown their cause, discover the principles … that go to make up his individuality.
Austen’s characters are neither embodiment of virtue nor pure villains but real human beings both pleasant and disgusting. Elizabeth is perceptive but her perception is sullied by her initial prejudices. In contrast Wickham has so much charm that it is rather difficult to detest him. Austen often mingles knavishness with folly making villainous characters a source of rich comedy.
Jane Austen’s minor figures are flat. They do not grow and are fully developed when we first meet them. As the action progresses our first impressions of them get confirmed. Mrs. Bennet seems to be stupefied and vulgar right from the first scene. Her appearance at the Netherfield Park or her reaction to Lydia’s elopement confirms her stupidity and vulgarity. This is true of almost all of her minor figures.
But her major characters are ever changing, ever growing. Usually self-deceived in initial stages, they are capable of understanding, growth and maturity. They are complex, dynamic and intricate. Her heroines, blinded by ego, vanity or over-confidence, commit gross errors and suffer bitter reverses. But by virtue of their insight they are gradually disillusioned and, thus, grow.
Minor or major all characters created by Jane Austen may be described as round inasmuch as they are all three-dimensional. E. M. Forster brings out this point quite admirably:
All her characters are round or capable of rotundity … They have all their proper places and fill other several stations with great credit … All of them are organically related to their environment and to each other.
Dull characters are made interesting. An eminent critic, describing Jane as a prose Shakespeare remarks:
What, in other hands, would be flat, insipid … becomes at her bidding, a sprightly versatile, never-flagging chapter of realities.
Thus touched by the magic wand of Jane Austen’s art, even the fool and bore of real life became amusing figures. The pompous stupidity of Mrs. Collins and the absurdity and vulgarity of Mrs. Bennet should in real life, prove as irritating to us as to Elizabeth and Darcy. But even these characters become such a rich source of mirth and entertainment.
Still there are a few characters that do not look enough life-like or relevant. Mary Bennet fails to impress, nor is she even vital to the story. Jane Fairfax in “Emma” is shadowy. Margaret is “Sense and Sensibility” never comes to life. But these minor failures do not detract much from her reputation as one of the greatest delineators of characters.