Is Elizabeth Bennet a reliable narrator?

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An interesting question is whether Austen structures Elizabeth's character so that she represents a reliable character or an unreliable character. While the terminology for unreliability in literature was first coined by Wayne Booth in 1961, unreliability in literary characters and narrators has been existent since Roman times.

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An interesting question is whether Austen structures Elizabeth's character so that she represents a reliable character or an unreliable character. While the terminology for unreliability in literature was first coined by Wayne Booth in 1961, unreliability in literary characters and narrators has been existent since Roman times.

Are there any instances in which Elizabeth's understanding and thus her statements and thoughts have proven unreliable? We know that her understanding of Darcy and Wickham are proven unreliable. When new light is shed on their situations—in the Rosings letter and at Pemberley—Darcy is vindicated and proven honorable, though proud, while Wickham is proven villainous, vengeful and greedy. Are there other instances of faulty understanding and unreliability?

Instances of Elizabeth's Unreliability

  • Her misunderstanding of Charlotte's stated views on love and marriage.
  • Her reaction to Charlotte's engagement to Collins.
  • Her misunderstanding of Charlotte's tolerance of Lady Catherine.
  • Her misunderstanding of Charlotte's tolerance of and gratitude toward Collins.
  • Her thoughts about Charlotte upon ending her visit to Hunsford Parsonage.
  • Her initial approval of and affection for Wickham.
  • Her immediate disapprobation of Darcy.
  • Her failure to see her father, mother and younger sisters the way others correctly see them as, in order, being neglectful, proud, and uncontrolled.

Instances of Elizabeth's Reliability

  • Her comments to Jane about Jane's character flaw: Jane thinks no ill of anyone.
  • Her accurate understanding of Aunt and Uncle Gardner.
  • Her dislike of the Bingley sisters.
  • The sincere, genuine and unaffected nature of her character as illustrated by walking to Netherfield and keeping Jane company.
  • The sincere and genuine expression of her opinions: she is not duplicitous, though she is civil.
  • Her resistance to inappropriate influence such as her resistance to Lady Catherine's pressures about her piano playing.

Narrator's Role in Establishing Elizabeth's Unreliability

How does the narrator develop Elizabeth as an unreliable character while building a depth of sympathy and affection for her?

The use of irony: irony pokes fun at characters' folly and at inconsistency in situations.

The use of indirect dialogue through which the narrator extensively reveals a wealth of Elizabeth's thoughts, musings, inner debates and feelings.

The development of Elizabeth as an avid and astute observer of others and of human foibles (though she misunderstands and misinterprets what she observes).

The development of Elizabeth as confident and kindhearted. She does not take insults to heart, but rather she laughs at them and, as with Darcy and the Bingley sisters, keeps them at arm's length.

The conclusion of this examination of Elizabeth's reliability as a character is that Austen uses the ironic and intrusive (close in proximity and active in commenting) narrator to establish Elizabeth as an observant yet unreliable character because of her prejudicial and prideful misunderstandings and misinterpretations. We know about these through indirect dialogue, which allows ironic narratorial comment to shed the light of understanding on individual instances even though Elizabeth doesn't see it.

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