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The special charm of Jane Austen's characterization lies in the manner in which she develops the individuals that people her books. Even though her characters are mainly country people from the upper class (landed gentry), she turns them into total individuals with strong personalities all their own. Her characters reveal themselves through thoughts, dialog, and action, with Austen giving very few physical descriptions. The characters are placed in various situations, such as dinner parties, balls, neighborly visits, and shopping trips; in each setting, the character develops and reveals more personality. The Christmas Eve party at Randalls, the dinner party at the Coles, the strawberry party at Donwell, the ball at Crown Inn, and the picnic at Box Hill are significant situations which expose the variety and romantic fancy in the heroine Emma, the praiseworthy balance between reason and emotion in George Knightley, the enforced and mysterious "reserve" in Jane Fairfax, the flippant manners violating the rules of right conduct in Frank Church, the pretentiousness of the Eltons, the ceaseless chatter of Miss Bates, the domesticity of John Knightley, the pride of parentage and sociability in Mr. Weston, the meek submissiveness of Isabella, the old-fashioned gallantry of Mr. Woodhouse, the ignorance and sweetness of Harriet Smith, and the maternal affection of Mrs. Weston.
Jane Austen's characters effectively use self-criticism to show they have overcome their follies and to reveal more about themselves. For instance, Emma looks back on her actions and recognizes her errors of judgment. Harriet looks back on her infatuation with Knightley and realizes she never really loved him. Frank reflects on his deceitful flirting with Emma and realizes how he has hurt both Emma and Jane. The characters grow in knowledge and respect as a result of this self-examination and analysis.
Austen is concerned with a code of right social and moral conduct, and most of her characters violate this code in one way or the other. Emma Woodhouse, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax all make significant errors in judgement, but they are dynamic characters who grow from their mistakes. Austen depicts her "type" characters in a completely different and humorous way. They are simple people who never change and who are lightly criticized for their follies and stupidities; they include Mr. Woodhouse, John Knightley, Harriet Smith, Miss Bates, and Mr. Weston. In the case of the Eltons, particularly Mrs. Elton, Jane Austen's criticism of affected manners and vulgar familiarity reaches a satiric level. Only George Knightley, Emma's future husband, is spared criticism by Austen. Throughout the novel, he behaves in a wise and noble way and becomes Austen's voice of reason amidst lots of romantic fancy, self-delusion, and emotionalism.