A symphony is perhaps the best point of comparison for the novels of Jane Austen. In a well-written symphony, each instrument works together (hence, the word “symphony,” whose roots are in the Greek words for “together” and “sound”) to bring about the effect desired by the composer. The conductor, himself a silent member of the orchestra, guides the members together and brings them through the symphony to its conclusion, a point of reconciliation in any well-written symphony.
Austen’s works are of a quite similar nature. Each character is not an individual, nor even a person, with all the peculiarities and particularities bestowed, for example, by Shakespeare upon his characters. Rather, each of Austen’s characters is an instrument, playing its part and never straying from the music already laid out by the composer. There is no real conflict, only, as in a concerto, apparent conflict which is, under its surface, really collaboration.
Each of the characters-as-instruments follows the written composition and watches carefully for the guidance of the conductor, who is Austen herself. Like a good conductor, Austen remains silent throughout her novels and allows her orchestra to shine, but she is, like a conductor, the ultimate and driving force. And the final destination, again like a good symphony, is a point of reconciliation, a point at which all has blended into such perfect symphony that the only thing left to do is allow the sound and movement to fade away into silence and stillness. Then the applause.
Sense and Sensibility may be the finest example of Austen’s uniquely symphonic approach to the novel. I recommend this book for all readers.