A Feminist-Narratological View of Jane Austen
Jane Austen's Persuasion ( 1818) is a novel constructed around what was, for its time, a radically unusual narrative premise: the love affair that should have culminated in a marriage to end a conventional romance has gone awry, and the heroine of the piece must begin again, eight and a half years later, on her quest for narrative closure. As Nancy Miller pointed out some time ago, the feminocentric text of Austen's period--the novel with a female protagonist--could reach closure in one of two ways: the heroine can get married, or she can die. Either resolution depends on a change of status for the heroine's body: it can cease being virginal or it can cease to live. For some feminist critics, Austen's apparent willingness to remain locked into this binary conception of the possibilities for heroines has been a problem. 1 Focusing on the heroine's body, however, I read Persuasion as a story of oppositions being called into question, as well as a story of lost love regained. Feminist readers in the 1990s may wish, like Anne Elliot, to reclaim an old attachment.
What happens when a feminist resists the powerful temptation to think of Jane Austen's heroines as persons and scrutinizes them as functions of texts instead? Feminist narratology, which is the study of narrative structures and strategies in the context of cultural constructions of gender, provides a method for reclaiming Jane Austen as a feminist novelist. It gives us the analytical tools to distinguish her "story" (what happens in a text) from her "discourse" (how the story is rendered in language). In Austen, the interplay between story, in which the independent heroine must, as some critics have it, "swindle into a wife," and discourse, through