In Pride and Prejudice, how are Elizabeth's utterances analyzed according to Brown and Levinson's politeness theory? 

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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Since Elizabeth makes many utterances, let's pick one specific one to think about, that being her rejection of Collins' marriage proposal. First, let's summarize politeness theory.

Brown and Levinson's sociolinguistic politeness theory is built upon the concept of positive and negative face and the politeness alternatives some languages, like English, have linguistically for saving face though various strategies in politeness situations, like making a request, a criticism, or an apology. These are called committing "face threatening acts" or FTAs. The two categorical options for FTAs are to commit an FTA on record or off record. On record can be done with positive or negative face redress. The former builds up unity thus diminishing the FTA, while the latter minimizes things like disrespect, intrusion and inconvenience through honoring and acknowledging.

It was absolutely necessary to interrupt [Mr. Collins] now.

"You are too hasty, sir," [Elizabeth] cried. "You forget that I have made no answer. Let me do it without further loss of time. Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals, but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them."

In this quote, Elizabeth has risked an impolite interruption thus committing a face threatening act. She begins speaking with two FTAs by criticizing him about his haste, then about his forgetfulness. These are instances where Collins' positive face is threatened as criticism along with such as complaints and disagreements threaten positive face. After an "off record" warning, she hastily moves on to an "on record" FTA with negative face redress that pays attention to and accommodates Collins' negative face "wants."  

FTAs may be made "on record" of "off record" or avoided entirely with silence. On record, the FTA is expressed directly in one form or another, while off record, the FTA is approached indirectly with the pretense that no face is threatened (e.g., "What are you doing Saturday night?" instead of "Will you have dinner with me Saturday night?"). "Negative face wants" means that the commiter is acknowledging a need for deference, as opposed to common ground equality, and redresses (makes up for) the ways in which that deference want will be threatened.

To briefly summarize, in this utterance, Elizabeth braves committing the FTAs of interruption and criticism against Collins' positive face, then indirectly off record warns his negative face before directly on record expressing herself. She follows it up with another FTA by verbalizing her deference to redress his negative face wants that minimize her intrusion and dissolve an appearance of disrespect.

QUOTATION: Elizabeth, Pride and Prejudice:
It was absolutely necessary to interrupt [disagreement/interruption: positive face FTA] him now.

"You are too hasty, sir," [on record criticism pos. face FTA] she cried. "You forget that I have made no answer. [on record criticism pos. face FTA] Let me do it without further loss of time. [off record (indirect) warning/request negative face FTA] {Accept my thanks for the compliment you are paying me. I am very sensible of the honour of your proposals,} [two on record disagreement/rejection pos. face FTAs] but it is impossible for me to do otherwise than to decline them." [final on record disagreement/rejection pos. face FTA]

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