Introverts in Jane Austen’s Novels

I am pleased to present this guest post by Ariella Brown. Ariella told me this essay exploring extroverts and introverts in Jane Austen’s novels was influenced by Susan Cain and her recent book on introverts: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Ariella also posted this article with the title Jane Austen’s heroines: from extroverted Emma to introverted Fanny on her blog Uncommon Content. Welcome, Ariella!

Jane Austen, University of Texas at Austin library
Jane Austen

If I were to rank Jane Austen’s heroines on a scale of most extroverted to most introverted, Emma Woodhouse would be at one end and Fanny Price on the other. Elizabeth Bennett would be pretty close to Emma, and Anne Elliot would be second to Fanny on the introvert end. There are errors that result from both extremes, though Jane Austen seems to stack the deck in favor of introverted heroines.

Extroversion leads the heroine to err with nearly disastrous consequences in Emma. Emma is not to occupy herself in solitary pursuits like reading. There are a few references to her constantly writing up reading lists but never getting through the books on them. She craves company and influence over others. So when her governess leaves to marry, she feels compelled to find a new companion in the person of Harriet Smith. Then she sets out to remake the character and even history of her friend, giving her unrealistic expectations. Mr. Knightly castigates Emma for her attempt to redirect Harriet’s life, and Emma concedes at the end that he was right. Emma likely sees the ugly side of extroversion for herself in the patronizing way Mrs. Elton directs Jane Fairfax.

In Pride and Prejudice, the exchange in which Miss Bingley attempts to label Elizabeth by claiming that all that interest her is reading is very telling. While Elizabeth is a reader, she doesn’t want to be thought of as a boring bluestocking, a role which may be more readily embraced by an introverted character. Elizabeth is nothing if not vivacious, though the person closest to her is her sister Jane who is her opposite in some way. While Jane is sweet and innocent, in the sense that she fails to suspect others of any motives less pure than her own, Elizabeth is witty – sometimes bitingly so – and she is quick to judge others in a negative light. Elizabeth is the one who concedes her error. But her friend, Charlotte Lucas, who proves most perceptive, suggests that Jane’s shyness was what made it possible for Mr. Bingley to doubt her genuine affection for him.

Mansfield Park’s heroine, Fanny Price, manages to win her heart’s desire though, even though she is careful to keep her feelings for her cousin to herself. Her introversion is not presented as a sign of weakness but of strength. She is certain of what is correct and will not budge from her refusal to participate in the theatricals even when everyone else gives up on any scruples of morals or modesty. Fanny is the only one of Austen’s heroines who is presented as being perfect in the sense that she has nothing to improve on in the course of the novel as the extroverted heroines do.

What happens when an introverted heroine lacks that kind of confidence in her moral sense is presented in Persuasion. Like most introverts, Anne Elliot is a good listener, who provides calming comfort to the more highly-strung members of her family. But she comes to realize that too much listening to others is what caused her own loss of happiness when she allowed her friend (a woman who cast herself in the role of Emma) to persuade her to reject Frederick Wentworth. As the novel ends happily, she does get a second chance, but she does first recognize the error of her former ways. While she is more right about others than extroverted characters prove, she has to learn to assert her own point of view. Ultimately she does, and gains the perfection and perfect happiness allotted to Fanny Price.

Questions for you, dear blog reader

Have you read Jane Austen? Does Ariella’s piece entice you to read some Austen, if you haven’t already? Do you identify with any of Austen’s characters? Do you have any favorites?

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10 thoughts on “Introverts in Jane Austen’s Novels

  • I have read all of Jane Austen’s novels and she is one of my favourite authors. Elizabeth Bennet is my favourite Austen female character but I am not sure I identify with her, even if I like her wit and strong personality.

    • When you read books like hers at different stages of your life, you learn something new with each reading. Thanks for the notes on the rebel girl, Michelle.

  • One more aspect of the introvert/extrovert equation in Austen’s novels that occurred to me is that she does have some opposite pairings. Extroverted Emma marries introverted Mr. Knightly. Elizabeth marries Darcy who is clearly an introvert. His friend, Mr.Bingley is an extrovert. But opposite pairings do not assure happiness, as the introverted Mr. Bennett is not really suited to his extroverted wife.

    One of the striking things about the 3 books on introversion I read (reviewed in is that all 3 writers are self-proclaimed introverted women happily married to extroverted men. While conflicts can arise from clashes in tendencies, the writers also feel that it is beneficial to have a counterbalance in the marriage.

  • I have read all of her books, and like the varied personalities of the characters in her books. Each character displays their own strengths through their extrovert/introvert mode. Introverts can be powerful in their own right, and the opposite can hold true for extroverts.

  • I love Jane Austen, and this makes me want to reread her books. Very interesting to think of the characters in terms of their introversion or extroversion. I don’t necessarily think of Elizabeth as a pure extrovert or Darcy as a pure introvert. Doesn’t Elizabeth resemble her introvert father more than her extrovert mother?

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