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Jane Austen's Greatness
I recently think I put my finger on what makes Jane Austen so great, and I did it by comparing her to John Steinbeck, in particular, his novel East of Eden.
East of Eden follows the lives two families in living in the Salinas Valley: the Hamiltons and the Trasks. The Hamiltons are based on Steinbeck's own family on his mother's side (in fact, Steinbeck himself appears in a few scenes as a child). The Trasks, however, are purely fictional.
Steinbeck is not quite at the level of the great classic writers, and East of Eden belies this fact, in my opinion, but in a fascinating way. Comparing the scenes that focus on the Trasks to those that focus on the Hamiltons, it's hard to imagine that they take place in the same universe. The events in the Hamiltons' lives, based on the lives of real people, seem highly familiar and realistic. A few scenes really hit home compared to my own life, such as the scene after Sam Hamilton fainted and his family realized he was getting too old for farm life, and they were all passing a bottle of liquor around deciding what to do.
The Trasks, however, live in a world of subtle fantasy. It's not that the events in their lives weren't real things that happen to people (although there were several events more sensational than most families ever have to deal with). No, the subtle fantasy comes from how the events were arranged to provide a cosmic meaning to the whole thing. Real lives have no comic meaning (that we can discern, anyway), they just happen. Real lives don't have foreshadowing, don't follow a three-act structure, and don't use arc words. The Trasks lives had all these things, and so they seemed fictional compared to the Hamiltons.
I want to point out that this something I felt first, then analysed later. It's the sort of thing that seems bit odd and uncanny while reading, but one doesn't identify the discrepancy until reflecting on the story afterward. I'm fairly certain Steinbeck wasn't doing this on purpose (if he had been I suspect he would have done things to make the contrast more apparent, but who knows?), and that's where he belies his not-quite-among-the-greatest writing ability.
Jane Austen, however, achieves this level of complete realism, but with characters that are completely fictional. I realized that I'd had the same reactions to scenes in Emma and Pride and Prejudice as I'd had to scenes of the Hamiltons in East of Eden, and that's when I realized just how life-like Austen's characters and situations are. For instance, I was awed by the familiarity of the scene when Lizzy and Jane had to correct their mother on aspects of English law. Scenes like this show Austen almost casually finding that familiarity of daily life in her fictional characters that Steinbeck could only find the ones he based on real life.
Oftentimes it's hard to see what makes a particular creator great. But then you reflect on the their works a bit, analyse them a bit, compare and constrast them to other works, and suddenly they rise up to reveal their greatness. It always amazes when that happens.
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