Why does Jane Austen use italics and what are their significance?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Because "Pride and Prejudice" is a novel of manners, Austen writes about the social mores and manners of English society in the late 18th and early 19th century.  So, the focus is on what the characters say and do. 

A word in italics is given stress.  For instance in Volume II, Chapter IX, Elizabeth rereads her sister Jane's letters, detecting a sadness in them.  Since she has been told that Darcy saved someone from an incovenient marriage, she blames Darcy for the separation of Jane and Bingley.  Soon thereafter, Darcy appears and proposes to her: 

As he said this, she could easily see that he had no doubt of a favourable answer.  He spoke of apprehension and anxiety, but his countenance expressed real security....

Elizabeth refuses him, saying,

It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you.  But I cannot....

In this dialogue the words spoke and feel are stressed.  When the proud Mr. Darby speaks of anxiety, he has none; he is confident that the young woman wishes to marry him. (His feelings are contrary to what he says.) But, when Elizabeth replies, she expresses true feeling.  Thus the stressed words lend a noted meaning to the characters of Darby and Elizabeth respectively.

In other passages the stressed word also seems to be in juxtaposition to something the opposite.  For example in Volume III, Chapter IX, after Lydia has eloped with Wickham, she talks with Elizabeth

 Lizzy, I never gave you an account of my wedding...You were not by....