Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1121

Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

Illustration of PDF document

Download Pride and Prejudice Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The following entry presents criticism of Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. See also, Jane Austen Criticism, Northanger Abbey Criticism, and Mansfield Park Criticism.

One of the world's most popular novels, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice has delighted readers since its publication with the story of the witty Elizabeth Bennet and her relationship with the aristocrat Fitzwilliam Darcy. Similiar to Austen's other works, Pride and Prejudice is a humorous portrayal of the social atmosphere of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, and it is principally concerned with courtship rituals of the English gentry. The novel is much more than a comedic love story, however; through Austen's subtle and ironic style, it addresses economic, political, feminist, sociological, and philosophical themes, inspiring a great deal of diverse critical commentary on the meaning of the work.

Plot and Major Characters

Pride and Prejudice focuses on Elizabeth Bennet, an intelligent young woman with romantic and individualistic ideals, and her relationship with Mr. Darcy, a wealthy gentleman of very high social status. At the outset of the novel, Elizabeth's loud and dim-witted mother, her foolish younger sisters, and her beautiful older sister Jane are very excited because a wealthy gentleman, Mr. Bingley, is moving to their neighborhood. The young women are concerned about finding husbands because if Elizabeth's father, a humorous and ironical man, were to die, the estate would be left to their pompous cousin Mr. Collins. Mr. Bingley soon becomes attached to Jane while Elizabeth grows to dislike his close friend Mr. Darcy, whom the village finds elitist and ill-tempered. Under the influence of his sisters and Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley eventually moves away to London. Mr. Collins, an irritating clergyman, then proposes to his cousin Elizabeth, who refuses him. He marries her friend Charlotte instead, and Elizabeth visits the couple at their estate, where she and Mr. Darcy meet again at the house of his aunt, also Mr. Collin's patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Mr. Darcy proposes to Elizabeth but she refuses him, partly based on her belief that he dissuaded Mr. Bingley from pursuing a relationship with Jane. In a letter to Elizabeth, Mr. Darcy explains his actions regarding Jane and Mr. Bingley, as well as the way in which he has treated his estranged childhood companion, Mr. Wickham. The next time Elizabeth sees Mr. Darcy, at his estate, she is better disposed toward him, but they are interrupted by a scandal involving Elizabeth's sister Lydia, who has eloped with Mr. Wickham. Mr. Bennet and his brother-in-law Mr. Gardiner attempt to resolve the situation, but it is actually Mr. Darcy who resolves the situation by paying Mr. Wickham and convincing him to marry Lydia. Mr. Bingley then returns to his estate in the Bennets' neighborhood and soon becomes engaged to Jane. Afterward, despite Lady Catherine's attempt to prevent the engagement, Elizabeth marries Mr. Darcy.

Major Themes

Austen's novel is principally concerned with the social fabric of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century England, a patriarchal society in which men held the economic and social power. In an often satirical portrait of the men and women attempting to gain a livelihood, Austen subtly and ironically points out faults in the system, raising questions about the values of English society and the power structure of the country. Pride and Prejudice contains many elements of social realism, and it focuses on the merging of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy during the era of the Napoleonic wars and at the beginning of the industrial revolution. The novel is also engaged in an ideological debate that drives its plot and defines the essence of its main character. Interested in the balance between pragmatism, or the necessity of securing a marriage, and idealism, particularly Elizabeth's romanticism and individualism, Austen dramatizes her heroine's struggle to find a place within the conservative social institution of marriage. The precise nature of this balance is not necessarily clear, and despite what seems to be a happy marriage, it may not be entirely possible to reconcile Elizabeth's independence and naturalness with Mr. Darcy's conservatism and conventionality. Nevertheless, the novel seems to work toward an ideological balance and an alteration in the fundamental aspects of these characters that will lead to a reconciliation of the themes that they represent.

Critical Reception

Probably Austen's most widely read novel, Pride and Prejudice, which has been continuously in print since its publication in 1813, has been the subject of volumes of diverse critical reactions. Evaluations of this work have included condemnatory dismissals such as that of Mark Twain, measured praises of Austen's sophistication and wit, and plaudits for the novel as the author's masterpiece. Many early critics focused on the social realism of the novel, commenting on the depth, or lack of depth, of Austen's characters. Criticism of the novel from the nineteenth century through the early twentieth century also tended to regard Austen as a moralist, discussing the value system that Pride and Prejudice establishes. Critics from the 1920s through the 1950s focused on Austen's characteristic themes and stylistic devices, as well as discussing her choice of subject matter and the moral and ideological journey that Elizabeth undertakes throughout the course of the novel. During the 1960s and 1970s, commentators offered contextual criticism that evaluated Pride and Prejudice within the literary and social world in which Austen wrote. It was also during this period that new directions in criticism of the novel began to be explored. Since the late 1960s, for example, critics have approached Austen's novel from a variety of linguistic standpoints, such as Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of dialogism, as well as analyzing the work in terms of postmodern theory and applying new developments in psychology to the text. There has also been increased attention given to the political subtext of the novel, suggesting new ways of interpreting its relationship to the historical context of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the later decades of the twentieth century and into the early years of the twenty-first century, the most prominent trends in criticism of Pride and Prejudice have derived from the perspectives of literary feminism, including analysis of the novel's view of female oppression, its portrayal of the patriarchal society of the time, and its treatment of the possibility, fantasy, and reality of female power. Feminist critics such as Judith Lowder Newton have envisioned the novel as a triumphant fantasy of female autonomy, while Jean Ferguson Carr warns that Austen's exclusion of Mrs. Bennet from the social world reveals a persistent subjugation of women throughout the novel. In addition to strictly feminist readings of Pride and Prejudice, many essays not associated with this school of social and literary thought either incorporate or challenge various feminist claims in relation to Austen's work.

Principal Works

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 64

Sense and Sensibility. 3 vols. (novel) 1811

Pride and Prejudice. 3 vols. (novel) 1813

Mansfield Park. 3 vols. (novel) 1814

Emma. 3 vols. (novel) 1816

Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. 4 vols. (novels) 1818

Lady Susan (novel) 1871

The Watsons (unfinished novel) 1871

Love and Friendship and Other Early Works, Now First Printed from the Original MS (juvenilia) 1922

[Sanditon] Fragments of a Novel (unfinished novel) 1925

Volume the First (juvenilia) 1933

Volume the Third (juvenilia) 1951

Volume the Second (juvenilia) 1963

Joseph Wiesenfarth (essay date 1967)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10286

SOURCE: Wiesenfarth, Joseph. “The Plot of Pride and Prejudice.” In The Errand of Form: An Assay of Jane Austen's Art, pp. 60-85. New York: Fordham University Press, 1967.

[In the following essay, Wiesenfarth defends the aesthetic greatness of Pride and Prejudice, arguing that its plot is a sophisticated method of erecting an ideal value system.]

Pride and Prejudice has long been considered a classic by the general reader,1 but it no longer enjoys that distinction with many professional critics. To the latter, in the post-James and anti-plot era,2 it seems too elegantly dressed in a strait jacket of form. “Exactness of symmetry,” writes Mary Lascelles, “… carries with it one danger. The novelist's subtlety of apprehension may be numbed by this other faculty of his for imposing order on what he apprehends.”3 The question, of course, is whether this is truly the case with Pride and Prejudice. Has the form of the novel been preserved at the expense of the life of the characters it presents? Miss Lascelles herself objects to Darcy's letter: “The manner is right, but not the matter: so much, and such, information would hardly be volunteered by a proud and reserved man—unless under pressure from his author, anxious to get on with the story.”4 But the same proud and reserved man, we remember, rather loudly refused to dance with Elizabeth at Meryton. Did he do that on his own volition or on the author's? The difficulty of answering this question suggests the impossibility of dealing satisfactorily with the problem concerning the letter. A Darcy who could say within earshot of a young lady, “She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men”5—that same Darcy could certainly write a letter to justify himself when falsely accused. But even if one were disposed to admit that Darcy is inconsistent, he could find a view of character in eighteenth-century conduct books that sees such inconsistency as natural. Lady Sarah Pennington writes that “the best men are sometimes inconsistent with themselves … they may have some oddities of behaviour, some peculiarities of temper … blemishes of this kind often shade the brightest character …”6 The kind of question that Darcy's letter raises is open to endless debate. It is too much involved with too many critical presuppositions to be satisfactorily answered. Miss Lascelles is troubled by it; I am not.

A problem raised by Reuben Brower—and later elaborated by Robert Liddell and Marvin Mudrick—can be more advantageously dealt with. The question of esthetic fitness that he introduces into the evaluation of Pride and Prejudice deserves serious consideration. Brower writes that “as all ambiguities are resolved and all irony is dropped, the reader feels the closing in of a structure by its necessary end, the end implied in the crude judgment of Dracy in the first ballroom scene.”7 It is his opinion that after the moment at Lambton, when Elizabeth admits “a real interest” in Darcy's welfare, Pride and Prejudice is “not quite the same sort of book.”8 “Once we have reached the scenes in which the promise of the introduction is fulfilled, the literary design both ironic and dramatic is complete.”9 If one admits Brower's objection to the design of Pride and Prejudice, he has to decide what he can conveniently do with the last fifteen chapters of the novel. If the promise of the introduction is fulfilled at Lambton, these last hundred pages must be considered supererogatory; and with such an excresence marring its form, Pride and Prejudice will have to be considered something less than a classic.

If we turn to the Meryton ball, however, it becomes evident that Brower's analysis of the situation is not exact. The “promise of the introduction” has to do with more than the crude judgment of Darcy at the ball, which Elizabeth rectifies by her sensitive judgment of him at Lambton. The first eligible bachelor introduced into the novel is Charles Bingley. Everything is “Mr. Bingley” until the ball; during and after it, Bingley is as much in the conversation of Hertfordshire as Darcy. The Meryton ball shows Bingley finding Jane “the most beautiful creature I ever beheld” (11) and asking her “to dance a second time” (14). Attention after the ball is as much directed to the friendly relationship between Bingley and Jane as to the fractured one between Darcy and Elizabeth. Then, after Jane is taken ill, she becomes the center of attention. While she recuperates at Netherfield Park, she and Bingley cautiously reveal their affection for each other. And because Jane is there, Elizabeth comes to visit her; this gives Darcy a chance to reconsider his refusal to dance with her at the ball. Mrs. Bennet also appears on the scene, carrying all but the marriage contract to Bingley and Jane. Unless one is ready to do without much that inspires the first twelve chapters of Pride and Prejudice, one has to admit the importance of Jane and Bingley and see them and their relationship as integral to “the promise of the introduction.” In fact, one of the main reasons that Elizabeth gives to Darcy for her refusal to marry him concerns Jane:

“… Had not my own feelings decided against you, had they been indifferent, or had they even been favourable, do you think that any consideration would tempt me to accept the man, who has been the means of ruining, perhaps for ever, the happiness of a most beloved sister?”


Darcy remembers this statement so well that even after Lambton, when he knows that Elizabeth's feelings are favorable toward him, he sees to it that Bingley returns to Netherfield and consequently to Jane. When Elizabeth leaves Darcy at Lambton to attend to Lydia's elopement, the strand of action concerning Bingley and Jane—which was introduced into the novel before that concerning Darcy and herself—remains to be untangled. The dramatic design of Pride and Prejudice under these circumstances can hardly be thought at that point to be complete.

Another fact brings out the incompleteness quite clearly too. Before Darcy can accept Elizabeth, he has to accept her family. He has never yet entered the Bennet house at Longbourn. Also, he has still to realize that indecorum is not the specifying characteristic of the Bennets alone. The wonderful interference of the egregious Lady Catherine de Bourgh in his affairs has yet to make Darcy realize that his aunt's title is nothing more than a cover that keeps the skeleton in the family closet from rattling as loudly as the bumbling Mrs. Bennet. Darcy has yet to see completely through the personal-social equation that has been the cause of much of his hauteur. Lady Catherine has yet to clear his vision once and for all. The dramatic design of Pride and Prejudice is not complete at Lambton.

Nor is the ironic either, simply because the ironic is so completely implicated in the dramatic. Irony in Pride and Prejudice is more totally verbal in the first half of the novel than in the second. But the verbal irony is necessary to the ambiguity that enables Darcy and Elizabeth so completely to misunderstand each other. It would be rather foolish for Jane Austen to preserve such ironic ambiguity when she is trying to solve the problems caused by it. Such verbal irony in no sense controls the design of the novel. What is normative is personal development through perception, understanding, and affection. Irony is the handmaid of such a norm, not its master.

The norm of personal development through perception, understanding, and affection is developed by a symmetry of plot that involves a series of actions which are dramatically ironic. The plot of Pride and Prejudice builds to a statement of problems that arise through verbal ambiguity. Darcy comes to think that Elizabeth loves him whereas she could not care less for him because of the way she feels about his treatment of Jane and of Wickham. It is on these matters that she is brooding when Darcy comes to her at Hunsford. When he proposes to Elizabeth, she refuses him; and Darcy wants to know why he is not accepted. His request for an explanation is soon answered with three specific accusations, but Elizabeth first asks Darcy why he proposed to her at all since it was (as he said) “against your reason, and even against your character” (190). For Darcy to have proposed irrationally to Elizabeth and to have insinuated that marriage to her would injure his character was for him simply to have insulted her. But Elizabeth puts aside the proposal for a moment and taxes Darcy, first, with preventing Bingley from marrying Jane; second, with hindering Wickham from receiving the living which he claimed was his by right. Then she doubles back to include the nature of his proposal in a third charge that indicts his manners, which impress “me with the fullest belief of your arrogance, your conceit, and your selfish disdain of the feelings of others” (193). Then Darcy places an obstacle of his own in the way of their marrying. He reminds Elizabeth of the indecorous and reprehensible conduct of her family. Darcy had hesitated to propose to Elizabeth because of her family, and he now accuses her of being piqued because “your pride [had] been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design” (192). There is no question but that at Hunsford parsonage Darcy and Elizabeth for the first time understand each other completely and unequivocally.

The first thirty-three chapters have inevitably led to this moment of passionate clarity. The conflicts and organization of these chapters make it necessary for Elizabeth to charge Darcy with bad faith and worse manners and for Darcy to indict the manners of Elizabeth's mother and father and younger sisters. The Meryton ball, which organizes much of the action and conversation until the sixth chapter, introduces two main actions into the novel. It is at the ball that the romance between Bingley and Jane begins and that Elizabeth's first unfortunate encounter with Darcy occurs: he finds her tolerable but not tempting. Chapters 7 through 12 are organized around Jane, ill but in love at Netherfield Park. There Darcy becomes attracted to Elizabeth, who does not like him at all. There Mrs. Bennet visits her daughter and shows herself a matchmaker and an enemy of Darcy. The courtship of Collins runs sporadically through Chapters 13 to 26 (I. 13 to II. 3),10 which present Bingley's puzzling retreat to London and Wickham's reports of Darcy's injustice to him. Elizabeth becomes increasingly impatient with Darcy because she believes that he has been unfair to Wickham, whom she likes, and because she believes he has forced Bingley to leave Jane. At the same time, Darcy's attraction to Elizabeth grows stronger. Charlotte's invitation brings Elizabeth to Hunsford—Chapters 26 to 38 (II. 3 to 15)—where she sees Darcy once again, and it is at the Collinses' parsonage that they meet in the fashion described above. Quite clearly, Pride and Prejudice builds to that moment of conflict.

Only when the four problems that have been so carefully developed and then explicitly stated at Hunsford are solved can the novel come to an end. The problems are not all solved by the time Elizabeth leaves Lambton, and the dramatic irony implicit in them is not fully released until after that point in the novel. The dramatic and ironic design of the novel is not complete until Darcy comes to Longbourn and proposes to Elizabeth. By the time he does that, both he and she have matured intellectually and emotionally as individuals and are ready for the personal encounter of marriage. It is a great triumph of form that one finds in the second half of Pride and Prejudice, and it is one of the great delights of reading Pride and Prejudice to see how Jane Austen worked out the design of the novel after Chapter 34 (II. 11) in relation to the four problems presented at Hunsford. One might best begin to demonstrate this position by returning to that letter of Darcy's that Mary Lascelles so much objected to.

Darcy's letter to Elizabeth, which she receives the day following his extraordinary proposal, directs itself in detail to two of the accusations she made against him. Because Elizabeth has called into question Darcy's moral character, he does more than ask her attention to his letter: “I demand it,” he writes, “of your justice” (196).

Darcy's letter explains his role in Bingley's leaving Jane, and it explains his obligations toward Wickham as well. Elizabeth learns that Darcy thought that Jane's “look and manners were open, cheerful and engaging as ever, but without any symptom of peculiar regard” for Bingley (197); she learns that he did not think he was doing Jane a personal injury by separating Bingley from her. Moreover, Bingley was courting the danger of connecting himself with a family that Darcy taxes with a “total want of propriety” (198); Elizabeth had thought that he objected to her family's lack of connections. Darcy next turns to Wickham's conduct toward himself and Georgiana, and he offers Colonel Fitzwilliam, whom Elizabeth has found likable and charming, as a corroborating witness. So she is faced with what might be a satisfactory answer to two of her objections to Darcy, namely, his treatment of Jane and of Wickham.

Elizabeth must now decide whether her opinions of Darcy's conduct or his assertions of what his conduct has been are true. Assembling the evidence and calling memory to witness, she judges that she has been in error. “Proud and repulsive as were his manners,” Mr. Darcy could not be accused of being “unprincipled or unjust,” “irreligious or immoral” (207).

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.—Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried.—“I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly.—Pleased with the preference of one [Wickham], and offended by the neglect of the other [Darcy], on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”


The psychomachy is over.11 Elizabeth has done Darcy the justice he had demanded of her.12

Though Elizabeth exonerates Darcy's conduct in relation to Jane and Bingley and to Wickham, she cannot excuse the manner of his proposal to her. In justice, also, she is forced to recognize in that the performance of a man made ridiculous by vanity. He was vain enough to think that his social consequence made him personally desirable. Just as vanity drove reason away in Elizabeth's case, so too has it acted in Darcy's: he proposed to Elizabeth, one remembers, against his reason. So the problem of Darcy's manners remains, as does that of the Bennets' conduct. Elizabeth and Darcy can find no satisfactory personal relationship until these two problems are solved.

At Pemberley, Elizabeth's objection to Darcy's manners disappears. When the Gardiners ask their niece if she would like to see Pemberley, the narrator relates that Elizabeth “was obliged to assume a disinclination for seeing it” (240). The party nevertheless enters Darcy's park, and Elizabeth's expectation is delightfully thwarted: “She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awakward taste” (245). Elizabeth had expected to find Darcy's house and park pretentious, like its owner; all that she sees, however, bespeaks nature: at Pemberley the only art is a natural art, and it configures a natural beauty unmarred by artificiality. Withindoors Elizabeth finds “less of splendor, and more real elegance” than she had anticipated (246). She meets a housekeeper “much less fine, and more civil, than she had any notion of finding” at Pemberley (246), and from her Elizabeth hears a storybook description of Fitzwilliam Darcy, whom Mrs. Reynolds had seen grow into “the best landlord, and the best master … that ever lived” (249). Elizabeth also recognizes a portrait of Darcy

with such a smile over the face, as she remembered to have sometimes seen, when he looked at her. … [Now] as she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before.


Almost surrealistically the words Elizabeth has heard and the colors and lines she has seen take life in the person of Darcy. He greets her with the warm regard the portrait pictured and shows the Gardiners that attentiveness beyond civility his housekeeper had attributed to him. The Darcy of art comes alive, asks an introduction to the Gardiners, invites Mr. Gardiner to fish in his streams, and asks Elizabeth's permission to introduce Georgiana to her on the following day. Darcy's manners, which were artificial and strained in Hertfordshire and Hunsford, are all naturalness at Pemberley. Elizabeth is literally charmed out of her objections to Darcy's manners by his cordial reception of herself and her aunt and uncle, and we see his acceptance of the Gardiners as proleptic of his final acceptance of the Bennet family.

Indeed, the acceptance of the Bennet family is the only obstacle of the four mentioned at Hunsford parsonage that still stands between Darcy and Elizabeth. Before Elizabeth and the Gardiners leave the Derbyshire region that obstacle becomes more formidable because Lydia elopes with Wickham, and Wickham is hardly Darcy's friend. Now for Darcy to make Elizabeth his wife, he will have to make Wickham his brother. Nevertheless, Darcy goes to London and clandestinely arranges the marriage of Lydia and Wickham, and after he learns from Lady Catherine that Elizabeth refused to promise not to marry him if she were asked, he goes to Longbourn, proposes, and is accepted. His going to Longbourn and his entering the Bennet house for the first time show that he accepts the family in spite of its faults; and sitting down to dinner with Mrs. Bennet at his side, Darcy dramatically destroys the last obstacle to his and Elizabeth's love.

This very brief analysis of the plot of Pride and Prejudice shows a structure that is at once dynamic and ordered. Darcy, who could not propose to Elizabeth in the midst of her family, seeks her out when she is a free agent. He and she meet at Hunsford, but his social consciousness and her annoyance mar the encounter. Happily, however, they are able to speak directly and unambiguously to each other. This significant change in their relationship enables Elizabeth to state her three objections to Darcy (he has ruined Jane's relation to Bingley; he has been unjust to Wickham; he is ill-mannered and no true gentleman) and he to state his objection to her (the members of the Bennet family, save Jane and herself, act indecorously and irresponsibly). The dynamics of their confused and ironic relationship in Hertfordshire are given an orderly perspective at Hunsford. Once the truth is clear, meaningful reflection and action become possible.

This meeting at Hunsford, therefore, is the watershed chapter of Pride and Prejudice. At the parsonage Elizabeth gives Darcy a cataclysmic piece of information:

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.”


The man gently born and gently reared is told that he is not a gentleman, and this changes his life. Elizabeth's accusation hits so true that it tortures Darcy until he becomes “reasonable enough to allow” its justice (368). In Chapter 35 (II. 12) Darcy offers causes for effects when he explains Bingley's presence in London and the reason for Wickham's lies. Then, in Chapter 36 (II. 13), Elizabeth judges the causes and her attitude changes, because she comes for the first time to know herself. From Chapters 1 to 35 (I. 1 to II. 12) the action of Pride and Prejudice is for the most part founded on appearances, and these appearances give the lie to reality: Darcy's manners give the lie to his moral integrity; Jane's composure, to her feelings of love; Bingley's leaving, to his love and candor; the Bennets' ill manners, to the worth of Jane and Elizabeth. To Chapter 36 (II. 13) Pride and Prejudice is burdened with what Elizabeth calls an “incumbrance of mystery” (227), but from that point on the novel proceeds on truth. The truth that is suddenly revealed at the end of the first half of Pride and Prejudice brings personal realization through self-discovery to Darcy and Elizabeth. The second half, largely unencumbered by mystery, allows them to pursue personal realization through love and marriage. After each learns to know himself, they learn about each other, and seek happiness in the context of marriage and community.

But before there can be marriage in Jane Austen, there must be friendship; and before there can be a fitting social context for a particular marriage, there must be a general acceptance of it on a reasonable basis. Pemberley shows Darcy and Elizabeth developing a friendship that has a clearly reasonable and deeply affective foundation. Wickham's eloping with Lydia tests this new relationship of Darcy and Elizabeth and deepens it through empathy. So too does Lady Catherine de Bourgh's huff-and-puff visit to Elizabeth at Longbourn. Darcy's return with Bingley to the Hertfordshire region confirms his and Elizabeth's love and gives it a new impetus with Jane's acceptance of Bingley. And the recognition of the rightness of the Darcy-Elizabeth engagement by Mr. Bennett and Jane and Bingley is a token of its approval by all in society who are reasonable. I want now to look at these incidents and to show how each of them is an elaboration of one of the four problems stated at Hunsford and to suggest how nicely Jane Austen can turn her variations on principal into dramatic harmonies.

Just as the novel proceeds by dramatization and careful modulation to moments of self-discovery, so too does it move with care and rhythm to Darcy's second proposal and Elizabeth's acceptance. Elizabeth does not simply come to Pemberley, realize what she has denied herself, and set about redressing the error by falling in love with Darcy.13 Nor does Darcy simply decide to buy off Elizabeth's objection to him by saving the honor of her sister. By the time Elizabeth comes to Pemberley, both she and Darcy have learned something about each other, and at Pemberley they learn more. Elizabeth first sees a house and park that bespeak the taste of true gentility, then she hears about a true gentleman and sees the portrait of one. At the moment when nature and art have conspired to dispose her to see Darcy in a new way, he appears, and he is a new man. Pemberley turns into dramatic truth the rules for judging a gentleman's worth:

It is only from the less conspicuous scenes of life, the more retired sphere of action, from the artless tenor of domestic conduct, that the real character can, with any certainty, be drawn—these, undisguised, proclaim the man; … the best method, therefore, to avoid the deception in this case is, to lay no stress on outward appearances, which are too often fallacious, but to take the rule of judging from the simple unpolished sentiments of those, whose dependent connexions give them an undeniable certainty—who not only see, but who hourly feel, the good or bad effects of that disposition, to which they are subjected. By this, I mean, that if a man is equally respected, esteemed, and beloved by his tenants, by his dependents and domestics … you may justly conclude, he has that true good nature, that real benevolence, which delights in communicating felicity, and enjoys the satisfaction it diffuses. …14

At Pemberley, Darcy's house and park provide the more retired sphere of action, Mrs. Reynolds provides the testimony of a domestic, and Elizabeth is on hand to judge from something other than first impressions. Therefore, after Darcy takes his leave of Elizabeth at Lambton, the narrator takes occasion to comment on the course of their relationship:

If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth's change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise, if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method, in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill-success might perhaps authorise her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment.


Three months have elapsed since we saw Darcy at Hunsford; nevertheless, Elizabeth has been constantly in view. During this three-month period she has come to understand Darcy's conduct. But by showing such a change in one of her characters, Jane Austen suggests the possibility of the same kind of change in an equally intelligent counterpart. She shows Elizabeth changing, but brings Darcy forward when his change is complete. Elizabeth, whom we have seen doing Darcy the justice he demanded of her, finds that he has done her justice as well. Her visit to Pemberley shows her return to reason to be a reflection of his, for herself as well as for the reader. The reality of the change in both—which resulted from Elizabeth's dealing honestly with his letter and Darcy's dealing honestly with her refusal of him—is now dramatized by Elizabeth's admiration of Darcy's manners, which are impeccable, and by his acceptance of Elizabeth's relatives, who are equally without fault.

Moreover, Jane Austen has not forgotten either Darcy's role in separating Jane and Bingley or Elizabeth's former admiration for Wickham. That mutual love existed between Jane and Bingley we are certain, but Bingley himself was unsure of Jane's affection. Now Darcy can be seen in exactly the same position as Bingley was in then. The Gardiners put the case succinctly: “Of the lady's sensations they remained a little in doubt; but that the gentleman was overflowing with admiration was evident enough” (262). Darcy, who split apart doubting lovers, is now a lover and in doubt about being loved himself. There is more than poetic justice in Darcy's feeling along his pulses the meaning of Elizabeth's strong objection to his interference with Jane and Bingley. Darcy's position moves him from mere understanding to empathy. He feels with Elizabeth her objection to his actions, and those objections in light of his own case now mean a great deal more to him. Darcy's becomes an intelligent heart.

Before Elizabeth leaves the Pemberley region, she too comes to feel the justice of Darcy's strong objections to Wickham, whereas formerly she had understood only their reasonableness. When Lydia elopes with Wickham, Elizabeth and her family are made to experience the same disgrace that threatened Darcy's when Wickham planned to elope with Georgiana. The parallel misfortunes of their sisters suggest the creation of a community of feeling between Darcy and Elizabeth. Experiencing in her own family what Darcy had experienced with Wickham in his, Elizabeth understands Darcy better and soon expresses her affection for him:

She began now to comprehend that he was exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both; by her ease and liveliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved, and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.


But Elizabeth sees quite clearly that, at this time when they are so drawn to each other through understanding and gratitude and empathy, she and Darcy seem more separated than before by Lydia and Wickham's coming together.

Had Lydia's marriage been concluded on the most honourable terms, it was not to be supposed that Mr. Darcy would connect himself with a family, where to every other objection would now be added, an alliance and relationship of the nearest kind with the man whom he so justly scorned.


Fortunately, however, Darcy likens Elizabeth's sister to his own. The parallel between Lydia and Georgiana becomes complete as Darcy settles with Wickham and saves Lydia from “irremediable infamy” (335). And Elizabeth learns of Darcy's second encounter with Wickham the same way she learned of his first—by letter, this time Mrs. Gardiner's, rather than Darcy's.15

Darcy's motivation for his acts of kindness is not inconsistent with his character as it is developed in the novel. His sense of justice is clearly presented to Elizabeth in Chapter 35 (II. 12), and the chapters that treat Elizabeth's visit at Pemberley and Lambton make Darcy's love for her unmistakable. His sense of justice and his love for Elizabeth lead him to rescue Lydia, as he afterwards confesses. His acts seem completely consistent. His return to Netherfield Park is consistent too. He took Bingley from Netherfield by mistake; now he returns him by design. Bingley's return and his subsequent visit to Longbourn are salts to the faint hopes of Mrs. Bennet, who, to secure Jane a husband, rouses herself to the good health of robust impoliteness. She succeeds in spite of herself because the eminent good sense and superlative dispositions of Jane and Bingley outrun her train of contrivance. Bingley proposes, Jane accepts, Mr. Bennet approves. Elizabeth celebrates the “happiest, wisest, most reasonable end” (347). She sees every expectation for Jane and Bingley's happiness

to be rationally founded, because they had for basis the excellent understanding, and super-excellent disposition of Jane, and a general similarity of feeling and taste between her and himself.


These reflections of Elizabeth on the natural and reasonable foundations for the happiness of the new couple are the anti-thesis of Mrs. Bennet's comment to Jane: “I was sure you could not be so beautiful for nothing!” (348). Jane's own reaction terminates in a wish that Elizabeth may enjoy equal happiness, to which the younger sister replies, “Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness” (350). It is interesting to note that Jane's goodness stands here as Elizabeth's model just as her candor did when Elizabeth suffered through her revaluation of Darcy after she read his letter. Jane, who appears so early in the novel and in the important role of beloved sister, has to be attended to before Elizabeth herself can find her place at Darcy's side. Jane represents an ideal that Elizabeth respects and loves so much that her reaction to other people is frequently conditioned by their reaction to Jane. This has been a pattern in Pride and Prejudice. The most serious charge that Elizabeth brought against Darcy was his interference with Jane's happiness. Now that happiness is complete. Darcy not only brought Bingley back but encouraged his proposal as well. It remains for Darcy to marry Elizabeth to lay to rest the last ghost of prejudice that haunts their relationship. But not without the help of his aunt.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh travels to Longbourn to claim a hereditary right to stupidity. Mrs. Bennet's obvious maneuvers are but pallid challenges to the vulgarity of an aunt who arrives with “chaise and four” to secure the marriage of her daughter to her nephew. Lady Catherine comes to Elizabeth in the name of “honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest” (355) to order her not to marry Darcy.

It is highly amusing not only to listen to Lady Catherine argue the reasonableness of her demands but also to hear in turn Elizabeth's logical analysis demonstrate that both the premise under which Lady Catherine made her trip—if Elizabeth refused to marry Darcy, he would marry her daughter—and the arguments used to support that premise are ludicrous. Lady Catherine offends Elizabeth's good sense with rhetorical nonsense:

“I will not be interrupted. Hear me in silence. My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other. They are descended on the maternal side, from the same noble line; and, on the father's, from respectable, honourable, and ancient, though untitled families. Their fortune on both sides is splendid. They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses; and what is to divide them? The upstart pretentions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune. Is this to be endured! But it must not, shall not be. If you were sensible of your own good, you would not wish to quit the sphere, in which you have been brought up.”


There is no mention here of compatibility of mind and disposition, no word about attraction or affection. Lady Catherine, like Mrs. Bennet, does not look upon marriage as a proposition of nature, but as one of stereotyped convention. Both women have daughters to marry: whether there is reason or love in the marriage made is a matter of no importance so long as a marriage takes place. Each recalls to mind a sentence of Dr. Johnson's:

The miseries, indeed, which many ladies suffer under conjugal vexations are to be considered with great pity, because their husbands are often not taken by them as objects of affection, but forced upon them by authority and violence or by persuasion and importunity, equally resistless when urged by those whom they have been accustomed to reverence and obey; and it very seldom appears that those who are thus despotic in the disposal of their children pay any regard to their domestic and personal felicity, or think it so much to be inquired whether they will be happy, as whether they will be rich.16

Marriage is something other than the ludicrous and tragic yoking of unsuitable partners. Those who would marry, Johnson cautions, should be aware that

marriage is the strictest tie of perpetual friendship; that there can be no friendship without confidence, and no confidence without integrity; and that he must expect to be wretched who pays to beauty, riches, or politeness, that regard which only virtue and piety can claim.17

This natural and reasonable basis for marriage, which Johnson delineates to extol, has no place in the system of a Lady Catherine or a Mrs. Bennet, because to them marriage is simply part of a system utterly divorced from nature itself. Lady Catherine does no more than describe the mechanism of the system when she details family, fortune, cradle engagements, connections, and family expectations. She dresses out in the vulgarity of irresponsible obligation what Dr. Johnson described generically as “friendship” based on “virtue and piety.” She is the victim of an error that Johnson elsewhere warned against: a man ought to endeavor “to distinguish nature from custom; or that which is established because it is right from that which is right because it is established.”18 To the reasonable person, to one who respects nature, Lady Catherine—who holds that a thing is right only because it is established—can only be unreasonable, and Elizabeth tells her as much:

“Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude,” replied Elizabeth, “have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either, would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment's concern—and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn.”


Thus beaten on her own terms, Lady Catherine travels to London to report the insolence of Elizabeth to her nephew before she returns to Rosings. But Lady Catherine again fails because Darcy finds her to be the insolent one. His aunt, in fact, makes Mrs. Bennet a bit easier for Darcy to accept as a mother-in-law.

I have dwelt at some length on Lady Catherine's visit to Longbourn because it shows her utter vulgarity and the depersonalizing pattern of life it represents. Lady Catherine shows the danger of money and position supporting a weak mind. Because Mrs. Bennet is fortunately less wealthy, she is also less a threat to the personal order of value. And Darcy realizes this. He also realizes that when he proposed to Elizabeth at Hunsford, there was something of the de Bourgh in him:

He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit.


When Darcy proposes a second time he takes a different tack because he is a different Darcy:

“The recollection of what I then said, of my conduct, my manners, my expressions during the whole of it, is now, and has been many months, inexpressibly painful to me. Your reproof, so well applied, I shall never forget: ‘had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.’ Those were your words. You know not, you can scarcely conceive, how they have tortured me;—though it was some time, I confess, before I was reasonable enough to allow their justice.”


Darcy is capable of sympathizing with Elizabeth's rejection of his proposal and of her rejection of Lady Catherine's interference in her personal affairs because he himself was once what his aunt still is. Jane Austen again establishes a relation of sympathetic feeling between Darcy and Elizabeth and ironically forces him to realize that the objection he brought against Elizabeth's family at Hunsford applies as forcefully to his own.

The events from Lydia's elopement to Darcy's proposal clearly show that Jane Austen is still working out her novel in relation to the four problems introduced by Darcy's first proposal. Elizabeth accused Darcy of separating Bingley and Jane, of being unjust to Wickham, of acting generally in an ungentlemanly way. Darcy, in turn, indicted her family's lack of sense and decorum. Once stated, the problems are gradually solved. Darcy's letter to Elizabeth exonerates him of his conduct to Jane and Bingley and toward Wickham. At Pemberley Elizabeth sees Darcy's change in manners by his cordial reception of herself and the Gardiners, and his acceptance of her family is hinted at. But Jane Austen does not let go of her problems with these solutions. Each of them must not only be solved by reason but also dissolved in love. Darcy does not merely right the wrongs he was more or less guilty of, but he rights them to fault. Darcy's love of Elizabeth is dramatically revealed by his settling a sum of money on Wickham. The problem of Darcy's doing justice to Wickham is thus reintroduced and irrevocably solved. So, too, his interference in the love of Bingley and Jane is exonerated when he returns Bingley to Longbourn, and Bingley proposes. Lady Catherine's visit to Elizabeth makes Darcy feel how relatively unimportant his objection to the Bennets is, just as Mrs. Bennet's treatment of Darcy, when he visits Longbourn with Bingley, reminds Elizabeth of what there was of justice in Darcy's former objection to her family. At any rate, Darcy's visit shows how resilient to change are the good manners—the gentlemanly conduct—Elizabeth met at Pemberley. Darcy clearly comes to an unimproved Bennet family, but he comes willingly. He comes to pluck a flower among the thorns quite conscious that he is going to be pricked. This is all to his credit and shows that he has come to understand that the slight consequence of Elizabeth's family in no way diminishes her desirability; therefore, he comes to Elizabeth as a man to a woman on the basis of reason and affection. Elizabeth's expression of gratitude for his goodness to Lydia allows Darcy to tell her that “the wish of giving happiness to you” added “force to other inducements which led me on” (366). This conversation almost immediately turns into Darcy's second proposal, which shows him accepting the Bennets and bringing to a happy solution the last of the problems raised at Hunsford. The second half of Pride and Prejudice clearly shows Darcy and Elizabeth, who have already achieved self-knowledge, moving toward marriage on the bases of reason and gratitude, empathy and love.

The rhythm and modulation of the human events that lead Darcy and Elizabeth to the altar suggest that their marriage is an ideal. They achieve that friendship based on confidence and integrity that Johnson extolled in The Rambler, no. 18, as the foundation of true love and happy marriage. It is important in this connection to note how little emphasis is put on the marriage and how much on the courtship. Getting married is not just an end, a standing at the altar; rather, it is a going to the altar. The movement toward marriage in Pride and Prejudice is a ritual of human development. In this novel those who just want to get to the altar, no matter what, are different from those who get there in a distinctly human way. Therefore, the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth compares favorably with that of the Bingleys and of the Gardiners; but it contrasts sharply with the Collinses' marriage, the Wickhams' marriage, and the Bennets' marriage. Their carefully developed love shows Darcy and Elizabeth to be truly human and completely ready to make of their marriage the meaningful union it can be within the limits of the society Jane Austen creates in her novel.

Marriage itself has a social extension in Jane Austen's novels that one must always expect to appear. Marriage is never a matter of personal recognition of individual worth only, important and indispensable as that is. One can presume that the “promise of the introduction” of any Jane Austen novel takes in the assimilation of the couple into a larger context. Jane Austen sees man, “not as a solitary being completed in himself, but only as completed in society.”19 Elizabeth by having her marriage accepted by others sees to it that her personal judgment of Darcy effectively replaces the crude judgments of him that temporarily prevail. As soon as Jane and Mr. Bennet understand that Elizabeth loves Darcy and is marrying him because she loves him, not because he is rich, they rejoice in her engagement. Elizabeth's mother, however, knows nothing about love's relation to respect, reason, and affection. Mrs. Bennet is the poor man's Lady Catherine. Marriage is good because every girl needs a husband to support her; it is the custom. Marriage to a rich man, since it implies indescribable wile, shows the greatest respect for custom.

“Good gracious! Lord bless me! only think! dear me! Mr. Darcy! Who would have thought it! And is it really true? Oh! my sweetest Lizzy! how rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! Jane's is nothing to it—nothing at all. I am so pleased—so happy. Such a charming man!—so handsome! so tall!—Oh, my dear Lizzy! pray apologise for my having disliked him so much before. I hope he will overlook it. Dear, dear Lizzy. A house in town! Every thing that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh, Lord! What will become of me. I shall go distracted.”


One is hard-put to find any one paragraph in all of Jane Austen where so many exclamation marks are used. To Mrs. Bennet, as her speech reveals, Elizabeth's performance of her duty to marry is superior to anything a mother's heart has known. To Mrs. Bennet's thinking, certainly, her daughter has snatched a grace beyond the reach of a mother's art.

At the end of Pride and Prejudice it is clear that Mrs. Bennet is as crass and as stupid as she was at the beginning of the novel. Elizabeth has changed considerably, however. The vain and prejudiced girl has grown into the reasonable and loving woman. It is significant that physical movements correlate with her development. Indeed, Mrs. Bennet's stasis and Elizabeth's dynamism give the novel a total esthetic fitness. It is notable that Mrs. Bennet never leaves Hertfordshire, and for the most part stays in Longbourn. All her world is there. Darcy and Elizabeth first meet in Hertfordshire, where Elizabeth's family alienates Darcy's feelings. At Hunsford, Elizabeth and Darcy meet on more neutral ground. Elizabeth is there as a person to be valued for herself and separated from her family. There Darcy and she come face to face with each others' faults and virtues. Elizabeth is next at Pemberley. At Darcy's Derbyshire estate, she sees him in a new perspective, that of his home. There he is a new man and she a new woman. Lastly, she sees Darcy come to Longbourn, her own home, face her family, and ask her hand. From Hertfordshire, to Hunsford, to Pemberley, to Longbourn: the journey has been for Darcy and Elizabeth as much a journey of the spirit as of the body. The roads of the English countryside have been the way of man between meeting and marriage. By having the principal episodes of Pride and Prejudice occur at significant places, Jane Austen carefully coordinates physical and social events with spiritual experiences. The art of travel in Jane Austen is the art of putting people in the right place at the right time. Fielding and Smollett give way to Jane Austen, who places her people in parks and parsonages and who creates excitement in her novels through the movement of the mind and the affections. Her homo viator is a man on a more spiritual path than the heroes who trod the road in the novels of her dusty and muddy predecessors. Characteristically, then, the total configuration of events in the plot of the novel shows that in Pride and Prejudice the journey from Hertfordshire back to Hertfordshire becomes for Darcy and Elizabeth a movement from pride and prejudice to love.

Now what does it mean to read Pride and Prejudice in this way? It means, I think, that one comes to recognize that the plot of the novel expresses the values of the novel. Pride and Prejudice dramatizes the possibility of an ordered world in which people are frustrated when they cannot see or when they refuse to recognize what is real in the world about them. Conversely, in this ordered world people who see reality and act reasonably in relation to it find fulfillment and happiness.

In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth Bennet makes a mistake that she finally rectifies. She misjudges Darcy because her prejudice against him leads her to misunderstand a series of incidents in which they are both involved. But by refusing to marry Darcy the first time he proposes, she does not irrevocably create a destiny for herself. Rather her destiny is created for her by his letter, by their accidental meeting at Pemberley, by her sister Lydia's elopement, by Lady Catherine's visit, and by Darcy's generosity. The mistake of one day does not press upon Elizabeth for the rest of her life because the world Jane Austen creates is benign to the degree that one is reasonable and virtuous. Therefore, the mistake of one day brings Elizabeth directly in the middle of Pride and Prejudice to a realization of her personal faults, to an understanding of her life, and to an awareness of her character in relation to a reasonable norm according to which men are good or bad. By the time the plot of the novel has reached its midpoint, its heroine is realized as a total and integral human being. After this moment of realization Elizabeth has to be patient and suffer not because of herself, but because of others. The consequences of her first rejection of Darcy are temporary and beneficial. The rejection brings both of them to a realization of their true humanity. Just as the realization overpowers Elizabeth's prejudice, it overpowers Darcy's pride. A series of incidents over which Elizabeth has no control reunites them on the bases of understanding, empathy, gratitude, and love. The novel, then, ends not only with the total individual development of each character but also with his total social development, because personal love is satisfied in marriage and harmonized with society. The most divergent elements come to recognize the reasonableness of the marriage and give it their blessing. Darcy and Elizabeth are assumed into their social order and become exemplars of it in their reasonable and loving marriage. Under these circumstances, therefore, if Pride and Prejudice develops four problems and solves them—as I submit it does—it could have ended no sooner than it did.

As a novel that presents a society that has reason for its ideal for action, and marriage as its symbol for personal and societal fulfillment, Pride and Prejudice has a plot that controls the presentation of these values. It is so constructed that the characters confront situations that force to our attention those human values that are held to be most important. Through a complex series of interwoven incidents Elizabeth and Darcy are shown acting irrationally, coming to an awareness of their defection from reasonable conduct, experiencing events that enable them to empathize with each other, strengthening their friendship, falling in love, and marrying.

[The] marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy resolves not only their personal differences but the conflicts they have represented, with the result that the novel provides a final pleasure unique in Jane Austen's fiction, a sense of complete fulfillment analogous to that which marks the end of some musical compositions.20

If this reading of Pride and Prejudice is valid, a radical reassessment of the significance of plot is needed, for the plot emphasizes an ideal pattern of conduct that shows Jane Austen sounding the classic note:

If the poet can portray something superior to contemporary practice, it is not in the way of anticipating some later, and quite different code of behaviour, but by an insight into what the conduct of his own people at his own time might be, at its best.21

Only in relation to such an ideal does irony—so much emphasized in recent criticism—make sense, because irony demands such an ideal: “Unless there is something about which the author is never ironical,” writes C. S. Lewis, “there can be no true irony in the work. ‘Total irony'—irony about everything—frustrates itself and becomes insipid.”22 Also, only in relation to such an ideal does money find its place in Jane Austen's created world. Therefore the notion that the form of the novel develops through a vocabulary of mercantile metaphor, which Mark Schorer and Dorothy Van Ghent23 have proposed, needs rethinking. The plot clearly suggests the true value of money by subjugating it to personal dignity and love in the relationship of Darcy and Elizabeth, and its false value by dramatizing its first importance in the lives of Lady Catherine, Mrs. Bennet, and Charlotte Lucas, none of whom is admirable. In short, in Pride and Prejudice the incidents and design of the plot expose an ideal of human conduct and fulfillment that Jane Austen treats neither ironically nor cynically. Rather, she disposes the incidents of the plot in such a way that they shape meaning, direct irony, control diction, and present themselves as an esthetic fact. Consequently, Jane Austen makes plot more than an arrangement of incidents in Pride and Prejudice: she makes it a mold of values. And from that mold she strikes a novel of classical delicacy and strength.


  1. “I have called Miss Austen's earliest work, Pride and Prejudice, her masterpiece; and though some of her votaries have preferred to it Emma, or, as did the Prince Regent, Mansfield Park, the suffrage of the general reader has always been strong for Pride and Prejudice,” H. W. Garrod, “Jane Austen: A Depreciation” in Discussions of Jane Austen, ed. William Heath (Boston, 1961), p. 35.

  2. “Trying to recover here, for recognition, the germ of my idea, I see that it must have consisted not at all in any conceit of a ‘plot,’ nefarious name, in any flash, upon the fancy of a set of relations, or in any one of those situations that, by a logic of their own, immediately fall, for the fabulist, into movement, into a march or a rush, a patter of quick steps; but altogether in the sense of a single character, the character and aspect of a particular engaging young woman, to which all the usual elements of a ‘subject,’ certainly of a setting, were to need to be super-added,” The Art of the Novel: Critical Prefaces (New York, 1953), p. 42. James substituted the word “action” for the more nefarious “plot.” For the more than nominal difference between “plot” and “action” as the terms achieve concrete realization in novels, see Joseph Wiesenfarth, “Henry James: Action and the Art of Life,” Four Quarters, XV (1966), 18-26, an article which compares The Portrait of a Lady with Pride and Prejudice.

  3. Jane Austen and Her Art, p. 163.

  4. Ibid., p. 162.

  5. The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman (3rd ed.), Vol. II: Pride and Prejudice (London, 1959), p. 12. All subsequent page references to this text will appear in parentheses following quotations from it.

  6. “An Unfortunate Mother's Advice to Her Absent Daughters,” reprinted in part in Appendix II of Frank W. Bradbrook, Jane Austen and her Successors (Cambridge, 1966), p. 152.

  7. Reuben Brower, The Fields of Light (New York, 1962), p. 179.

  8. Ibid., p. 180.

  9. Ibid.

  10. For sake of convenience I have given the chapter numbers from editions of Pride and Prejudice that are numbered consecutively and in parentheses the volume and chapter numbers of the standard three-volume edition.

  11. I use the word psychomachy to describe, in relation to Elizabeth, a condition of mind and emotions that was well explained by an anonymous critic for the North British Review, LXXII (April 1870), 129-152. “Again, she contemplates virtues, not as fixed quantities, or as definable qualities, but as continual struggles and conquests, as progressive states of mind, advancing by repulsing their contraries, or losing ground by being overcome. Hence again the individual mind can only be represented by her as a battle-field where contending hosts are marshalled, and where victory inclines now to one side and now to another,” quoted in Lionel Trilling, “Introduction,” Emma (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), p. xxii.

  12. The presence here of a value like justice raises a problem. Dorothy Van Ghent has written that the “general directions of reference taken by Jane Austen's language … are clearly materialistic” (The English Novel: Form and Function [New York, 1961], p. 110). When a rich man sees a marriageable daughter, Mrs. Van Ghent writes, there is “no doubt he will buy, that is to say, ‘fall in love'” (p. 102). “Categories” such as “‘trade,’ ‘arithmetic,’ ‘money,’ ‘material possessions’ … indicate that kind of language Jane Austen inherited from her culture and to which she was confined …” (p. 109). Elsewhere, Mrs. Van Ghent affirms that “the moral life … will be equated with delicacy and integrity of feeling” (p. 103). But it is a logical necessity that one either eat his cake or have it: either one or the other, but not both. If Jane Austen's society allowed her a materialistic vocabulary only, then she could not express non-materialistic values like “delicacy and integrity of feeling” because she had no words to do so. Indeed, if “to fall in love” is no more than “to buy,” one wonders how delicacy of feeling and integrity of moral life can be spoken of at all. There is no such dilemma if one discards the theory of “dead metaphor.” Important and characteristic words like “ashamed,” “think,” “feeling,” “prejudiced,” “despicably,” “prided,” “discernment,” “detained,” “generous,” “vanity,” blameable,” “humiliating,” “just,” “humiliation,” “love” (all words taken from the two paragraphs quoted from p. 208) abound in Pride and Prejudice. These words suggest, as C. S. Lewis has written, that the “great abstract nouns of the classical English moralists are unblushingly and uncompromisingly used” by Jane Austen (“A Note on Jane Austen” in Jane Austen: A Collection, p. 28). And with the nouns there are verbs, adjectives, and adverbs to carry serious moral judgments. To remain alive, a theory of dead metaphor has to discount not only the literal meaning of these words and those like them but also the structure of a plot wherein the human development of the characters depends on a literal reading of the diction.

  13. It seems hardly necessary to make such a bland statement of facts; however, Geoffrey Gorer proves that it is. He writes, “Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice, does, it is true, marry young Mr. Darcy, but has anybody, even the author, been convinced that she loved him, or that she entertained any feelings warmer than respect or gratitude? Surely her own remark, that she must date her affection ‘from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’ (ch. 59), represents the psychological truth” (“The Myth in Jane Austen” in Five Approaches to Literary Criticism, ed. Wilbur Scott [New York, 1962], p. 94).

  14. Lady Sarah Pennington in Bradbrook, 151ff.

  15. This episode of Lydia's elopement with Wickham has not been to the liking of many critics. Brower, Mudrick, and Liddell, for instance, feel a drop in Jane Austen's imaginative power, a loss of irony, and a lack of dramatic coordination in it. There is, however, a structural coordination with the plot, as I have shown in my text. Besides, three other points may be made in reference to irony. First, the episode is ironic in its own way: Wickham, who has been angling throughout the novel, makes the poorest catch in Lydia. Also, Elizabeth now reacts to Wickham in a manner for which she once condemned Darcy for reacting to Wickham. Again, the money Darcy once refused Wickham is now given him. Perhaps the irony is more attenuated than, and functionally different from what, it was previously, but irony nevertheless does function in this episode.

    Another point that I cannot admit is that irony is the norm in the novel. An episode does not really have to be ironic to justify its presence in Pride and Prejudice. But Mudrick seems to argue that it does (Irony, pp. 111-115). In this episode, for instance, he maintains that Elizabeth is inconsistent because she does not react ironically to Lydia's elopement. Lydia, he argues, as a simple character is incapable of free choice; therefore, she is not susceptible to Elizabeth's moral indignation. Besides, Elizabeth's conventional moral reaction is atypical of her. But one need accept neither of these premises when evaluating the elopement. Elizabeth reacts in a straightforward manner to the faults of her mother, her sisters, Lady Catherine, Bingley, and occasionally even of Collins (all simple characters in Mudrick's opinion), and this suggests responsibility on their part and consistency on Elizabeth's when she reacts to Lydia. The “fogbank of bourgeois morality” that Mudrick feels conceals Jane Austen seems rather to be an acceptance on her part of a principle that holds fornication to be wrong. The principle may be conventional, but that does not discredit it. Neither Jane Austen nor Elizabeth needs to invoke irony here to discriminate good from bad. “Critics have seen [irony],” writes Donald J. Greene, “… as the mechanism of a refusal to make moral judgments about the world or to become emotionally involved with it. … This seems to me a fundamentally mistaken line of approach to any supremely great artist like Jane Austen” (“Jane Austen and the Peerage” in Jane Austen: A Collection p. 164).

  16. The Rambler, no. 39.

  17. The Rambler, no. 18.

  18. The Rambler, no. 156.

  19. North British Review, LXXII (April 1870), quoted in Trilling, “Introduction,” Emma (Cambridge, Mass., 1957), p. xxii.

  20. A. Walton Litz, Artistic Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 102. In a similar vein, Joseph M. Duffy remarks, “Her vision might almost be reduced to the assertion that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the sublime, the miraculous, and the ever possible human achievement is the love of two people for each other and the proliferation of that love in the family” (“Moral Integrity in Mansfield Park,ELH, XXIII [1956], 82).

  21. T. S. Eliot, “What is a Classic?” reprinted in On Poetry and Poets (New York, 1961), p. 63.

  22. “A Note on Jane Austen” in Jane Austen: A Collection, p. 3. One ought certainly to add to Lewis' remarks those of Alan D. McKillop: “… The social comedy can never be separated from a basic system of moral judgments; the release of free and humorous criticism or irony, as it is now fashionable to call it, is never irresponsible though it may well be lighthearted; as an aspect of the art of the novelist it stands in vital relationship to a plot structure which embodies a social structure.” (Early Masters, p. 96).

  23. For Dorothy Van Ghent, see note 12 above. Schorer first proposed the theory of dead metaphor in an essay “Fiction and the ‘Analogical Matrix'” (Kenyon Review, XI [1949], 541-560), in which he discussed Persuasion. More recently, he affirmed the applicability of his theory to Pride and Prejudice: see “Introduction,” Pride and Prejudice (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), pp. xv-xvi.

Works Cited

Litz, A. Walton. Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.

McKillop, Alan Dugald. The Early Masters of English Fiction. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1956.

Mudrick, Marvin. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952.

Kenneth L. Moler (essay date 1968)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10077

SOURCE: Moler, Kenneth L. “Pride and Prejudice and the Patrician Hero.” In Jane Austen's Art of Allusion, pp. 74-108. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968.

[In the following essay, Moler discusses the relationship between Pride and Prejudice and the novels of Fanny Burney and Samuel Richardson.]

In Pride and Prejudice, it is generally agreed, one encounters a variant of the eighteenth-century “art-nature” contrast when Elizabeth Bennet's forceful and engaging individualism clashes with Darcy's by no means indefensible respect for the social order and his class pride. Most critics agree that Pride and Prejudice does not suffer from the appearance of one-sidedness that makes Sense and Sensibility unattractive. It is obvious that neither Elizabeth nor Darcy embodies the moral norm of the novel. Each is admirable in his way, and each must have his pride and prejudice corrected by self-knowledge and come to a fuller appreciation of the other's temperament and beliefs. Ultimately their conflicting points of view are adjusted, and each achieves a mean between “nature” and “art.” Elizabeth gains some appreciation of Darcy's sound qualities and comes to see the validity of class relationships. Darcy, under Elizabeth's influence, gains in naturalness and learns to respect the innate dignity of the individual.1

This essay is concerned with the relationship between certain elements in Pride and Prejudice and the novels of Richardson, Fanny Burney, and some of their imitators. Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy bears a marked resemblance to what may be called the “patrician hero,” a popular character type in the novels of her day, and it is rewarding to investigate the relationship between Darcy and his love affair with Elizabeth Bennet and the heroes of Richardson's and Burney's novels and their relations with their heroines. Jane Austen's treatment of her patrician hero has a marked relevance to the theme of the reconciliation of opposite values and qualities that plays such an important part in Pride and Prejudice. Moreover, it is possible that the study of Darcy's origins may help to account for some inconsistencies in his character that have troubled a number of Jane Austen's readers. I shall begin by outlining some of the characteristics of the patrician hero.


Authority figures of various sorts play prominent roles in many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels. There is the patriarch or matriarch—Fielding's benevolent Allworthy, Godwin's terrifying Falkland, Dickens' Miss Havisham—whose relationship with a young dependent acts as a sort of metaphor for the relationship between the social order and individual, “natural” man. In the novels of Richardson the relationship—prosperous, or, in the case of Lovelace and Clarissa, mutually destructive—between a young man of rank and fortune and a girl who is naturally good but socially inferior performs a similar function. The chief concern here is with the particular sort of figure that Richardson's Sir Charles Grandison represents.2

Richardson's Lovelace is a lost soul; his Mr. B——— has to be reformed by the virtuous Pamela. In Sir Charles Grandison, however, Richardson depicted a perfect Christian aristocrat. Sir Charles, Richardson would have his readers feel, combines the glamor of a Lovelace with the principles of a Clarissa. He is handsome and accomplished, dresses exquisitely (out of respect for his father's memory!) and has charming manners. He is immensely wealthy, an owner of splendid mansions and manors, and a powerful, important landholder. Yet he is a man of the strictest Christian virtue, a just, benevolent, and superefficient steward of his estates, a protector of the weak and a friend to the poor. In short, as Richardson describes him in the preface to Grandison, Sir Charles is “a man of religion and virtue; of liveliness and spirit; accomplished and agreeable; happy in himself, and a blessing to others.”3

In the concluding note to Grandison, Richardson admits that “it has been observed by some, that, in general [Sir Charles] approaches too near the faultless character which some critics censure as above nature” (7: 327). The reaction Richardson describes is not uncommon among readers of his novel. “Pictures of perfection,” Jane Austen once wrote, “… make me sick and wicked” (Letters, pp. 486-487, March 23, 18174); and most readers are wicked enough to resent a character who demands so much admiration as Sir Charles does. In addition to being dismayed by Sir Charles' incredible glamor and goodness, one tends to be annoyed by the sycophantic deference with which he is treated by nearly every character in his history. Sir Charles' male friends attempt to emulate his virtues—and admit it on every possible occasion. His female acquaintance worship him as “the best of men,” take his word for law, and all too frequently fall in love with him. His admirers—repeatedly, indeed ad nauseam—entrust their most important affairs to him when they are living, and leave their estates to his management when they die. Thus, Sir Charles, at his sister's request, frees her from an unfortunate engagement; later he arranges a suitable marriage for her. He extricates his uncle from the clutches of an unmanageable mistress and, on the uncle's insistence, provides him with a worthy wife. He assists in bringing about a reconciliation between his friend Mr. Beauchamp and Beauchamp's stepmother. He sees to it that the relatives of Mr. Danby—Mr. Danby having left his estate in Sir Charles' hands—are provided with fortunes, employment, and matrimonial partners, and arranges for the distribution of the remainder of Danby's estate in charity. He is entrusted with the negotiation of a “treaty” between the unfortunate Lady Clementina della Poretta and the tyrannical relatives from whom she flees to England. Indeed, it is a rare moment when Sir Charles is not dispensing advice and assistance to half a dozen of his family and friends simultaneously. “Such a man,” the lovelorn Harriet Byron writes shortly after she has come to visit Sir Charles and Miss Grandison, “cannot, ought not to be engrossed by one family. … Let me enumerate some of his present engagements that we know of.”

The Danby family must have some further portion of his time.

The executorship in the disposal of the 3000 £ in charity, in France as well as in England, will take up a good deal more.

My Lord W——— may be said to be under his tutelage, as to the future happiness of his life.

Miss Jervois's affairs, and the care he has for her person, engage much of his attention.

He is his own steward. …

His sister's match with Lord G——— is one of his cares.

He has services to perform for his friend Beauchamp, with his father and mother-in-law, for the facilitating his coming over.

And the Bologna family in its various branches, and more especially Signor Jeronymo's dangerous state of health, and Signora Clementina's disordered mind—O Lucy!—What leisure has this man to be in love!

(vol. 4, letter 5, pp. 49-50)

Among the most fervent of Sir Charles' aficionados is the heroine of Grandison, Miss Byron. Sir Charles is her oracle; she treasures up his every word, and is embarrassingly grateful when he “condescends” to give her advice. She makes no pretensions to equality with her hero. She asks only that he: “‘Teach me, sir, to be good, to be generous, to be forgiving—like you!—Bid me do what you think proper for me to do'” (vol. 6, letter 24, p. 206). Her relationship with him is like that of an adoring younger sister to an older brother, or that of an infatuated pupil with a favorite teacher: he is, to use her own word, her “monitor,” as much as he is her lover. Harriet is in love with Sir Charles long before she knows that he cares for her; and when, after months of heartburning, she learns that he has decided to marry her, she is overwhelmed with joy and gratitude. “My single heart, methinks,” she writes in her last letter to her grandmother,

is not big enough to contain the gratitude which such a lot demands. Let the over-flowings of your pious joy, my dearest grandmamma, join with my thankfulness, in paying part of the immense debt for

Your undeservedly happy Harriet Grandison.

(vol. 8, letter 62, p. 325)

As noted above, all of this deference, added to Richardson's insistence on Sir Charles' perfection, tends to make the reader react unfavorably toward both Sir Charles and his creator. One is inclined, in spite of Richardson's insistence on his humility, to think of Sir Charles as a stuffily superior, rather supercilious character, rather than as the noble and magnanimous hero that Richardson envisioned, and inclined, too, to tax Richardson as well as some of the characters in his novel with an unduly sycophantic attitude toward his highborn hero. That Jane Austen reacted to Grandison in a similar fashion will become apparent later.

All of the three novels that Fanny Burney published before 1813 deal, as Sir Charles Grandison does, with the relationships between exemplary young authority figures who are wealthy or wellborn or both and heroines who are in some respects their social inferiors. Cecilia, however, is the Burneyan novel most frequently cited as a source for Pride and Prejudice, some critics, indeed, feeling that Jane Austen's novel is simply a realistic rewriting of Cecilia. R. Brimley Johnson, for instance, has referred to the “title and plot, the leading characters and most dramatic scenes of Pride and Prejudice” as “frank appropriations” from Cecilia.5

Cecilia is certainly an important source for Pride and Prejudice. In plot and theme it resembles Jane Austen's novel more nearly than any other single work does. It is possible—though by no means certain—that the title of Pride and Prejudice was borrowed from Cecilia.6 It is often suggested that the first proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice was influenced to a large extent by the scenes in Cecilia in which Mortimer Delvile states his objections to a marriage with Cecilia, and there are similarities between the scene in which Mrs. Delvile prevails on Cecilia to give Mortimer up and the scene in which Lady Catherine de Bourgh descends on Elizabeth Bennet. There are, however, a number of significant points of resemblance between Pride and Prejudice and novels other than Cecilia. In some respects the situation of Fanny Burney's Evelina is closer to that of Elizabeth Bennet than Cecilia's is. Both Elizabeth and Evelina are relatively poor in addition to being inferior in rank to their heroes, while Cecilia is rich, and both are surrounded by sets of vulgar relatives who embarrass them in the presence of their lovers. Moreover, some specific scenes in Pride and Prejudice are almost certainly based on similar scenes in Evelina. Some others, on the other hand, would seem to have their originals in Sir Charles Grandison. I believe that in her novel Jane Austen is not rewriting Cecilia, but manipulating a character type and a situation made familiar to her audience in various novels by Richardson and Fanny Burney—and in numerous works by their imitators as well. The relationship between Evelina and Pride and Prejudice has never been fully explored; and since it seems in some respects rewarding to compare Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy to Fanny Burney's Lord Orville, I shall rely primarily on Evelina to illustrate Fanny Burney's treatment of the patrician hero.

While all of Fanny Burney's heroes resemble Richardson's patrician hero somewhat, Lord Orville is Sir Charles Grandison writ small. He is “a picture of perfection,” a paragon among men—at least in the eyes of his heroine and his author. Evelina describes him as “one who seemed formed as a pattern for his fellow creatures, as a model of perfection” (p. 280). He is handsome, wellborn, rich, wise. “His conversation,” Evelina gushes after her first encounter with him, “was sensible and spirited; his air and address were open and noble; his manners gentle, attentive, and infinitely engaging; his person is all elegance, and his countenance, the most animated and expressive I have ever seen” (p. 33).

The relationship between Orville and Evelina is much the same as that between Sir Charles Grandison and Harriet Byron. Evelina adores Orville from their first meeting, and she is fully convinced of her own inferiority. “That he should be so much my superior in every way, quite disconcerted me,” she writes after their first dance together (p. 33). She cringes when she learns that he has referred to her as “a poor weak girl” and is “grateful for his attention” even after she believes that he has insulted her with a dishonorable proposal. Orville, like Sir Charles, is regarded as an oracular “monitor” by his heroine, and Evelina seeks, and is delighted to receive, his counsel. “‘There is no young creature, my Lord, who so greatly wants, or so earnestly wishes for, the advice and assistance of her friends, as I do,’” she says to him on one occasion (p. 331), and Orville quickly becomes a substitute for her absent guardian. It is he who arranges an interview with Mr. Macartney for her at Bristol, who persuades the repentant Sir John Belmont to receive her—and who, later on, magnanimously disposes of half of her fortune to provide for Macartney and the onetime Miss Belmont. Like Harriet Byron, Evelina is overcome with gratitude when her hero finally proposes to her. “To be loved by Lord Orville,” she writes, “to be the honoured choice of his noble heart,—my happiness seemed too infinite to be borne, and I wept, even bitterly I wept, from the excess of joy which overpowered me” (p. 383). And just before her marriage she writes to Mr. Villars: “Oh my dearest Sir, the thankfulness of my heart I must pour forth at our meeting … when my noble-minded, my beloved Lord Orville, presents to you the highly-honoured and thrice-happy Evelina” (p. 438).

The relationship between the heroes and heroines of Cecilia and Camilla is similar to that between Orville and Evelina. In both of the later novels a most exemplary hero stoops to marry, and there is doubt as to whether the heroine will be found worthy of his hand. Both Cecilia and Camilla are “in love and in some doubt of a return” during a considerable part of their histories; both are left in suspense to await the approval of their heroes—and that of their heroes' advisors as well. And the reader reacts to all of Fanny Burney's first three novels in much the same way that he reacts to Richardson's “picture of perfection” Sir Charles Grandison, and his sycophant-heroine, Harriet Byron. One is amused and irritated by the relationship between hero and heroine: he longs for an Evelina who will tell Orville that her conversations with Mr. Macartney are her own affair; a Camilla who will tell Edgar Mandlebert to send Dr. Marchmont packing; a Cecilia who will tell the Delvile family what they really are. Such longings were apparently not felt by many novelists of the day, however, for the Burney-Richardson character type and situation were often imitated in the minor literature of the period. In Thomas Hull's The History of Sir William Harrington, for example (1771), the exemplary Lord C———, nobly born, extremely wealthy, and “as perfect as a human being can be” in person, mind, and character, is obviously modeled on Sir Charles Grandison. And Mr. Charlemont, the hero of a novel by Anna Maria Porter entitled The Lake of Killarney (1804), is “a young Apollo,” “the god of his sex,” and the son of a lord. Rose, a dependent in a family of Charlemont's acquaintance, loves him desperately, but is by no means unaware of his vast superiority to her. At one point in the novel, in an episode that seems to have been inspired by the scene in Cecilia in which Mrs. Delvile warns Cecilia to beware of falling in love with Delvile, Rose is cross-examined by an older woman who is a friend of Charlemont's family. “‘If nothing else were wanting to crush presumptuous hopes on my part,’” Rose replies, “‘… the difference in our rank, our birth, our fortune, would place them beyond all doubt. Mr. Charlemont is … a prize, for which all his equals may contend.’”7 Similar heroes, often similarly difficult of attainment to admiring heroines, are to be found in numerous other works of Jane Austen's day. The patrician hero, clearly, was a character type that Jane Austen's audience could readily identify.

Jane Austen must have been as much amused by the all-conquering heroes and too humble heroines of Richardson and Fanny Burney and their followers as many later readers have been, for in the juvenile sketch entitled “Jack and Alice” she reduces the patrician hero to absurdity with gusto. Charles Adams, in that sketch, is the most exaggerated “picture of perfection” conceivable. He is a young man “of so dazzling a Beauty that none but Eagles could look him in the Face” (Minor Works, p. 138). On one occasion, indeed, when he attends a masquerade disguised as the sun, the reader is told that “the Beams that darted from his Eyes were like those of that glorious Luminary tho' infinitely superior. So strong were they that no one dared venture within half a mile of them” (Minor Works, p. 13).9 (The continual references in “Jack and Alice” to the brilliance of Charles' countenance are probably specific allusions to Sir Charles Grandison: Richardson repeatedly describes Sir Charles in similar language.)10 But the beauties of Charles Adams' person, striking as they are, are nothing to those of his mind. As he tells us himself:

“… I imagine my Manners & Address to be of the most polished kind; there is a certain elegance, a peculiar sweetness in them that I never saw equalled, & cannot describe—Partiality aside, I am certainly more accomplished in every Language, every Science, every Art and every thing than any other person in Europe. My temper is even, my virtues innumerable, my self unparalelled.”

(Minor Works, p. 25)

The superciliousness and conceit that readers, in spite of Richardson's and Fanny Burney's insistence on their modesty, cannot help attributing to Sir Charles Grandison or Orville or Delvile, becomes the very essence of Charles Adams' being; the kind of praise that Richardson and Fanny Burney heap on their heroes is most liberally bestowed by Charles on himself. And just as Charles himself is a burlesque version of the too perfect Burney-Richardson hero, so he is provided with two heroines who are ten times more inferior, and twenty times more devoted to him, than Evelina and Cecilia and Harriet Byron are to their heroes. Charles is the owner of the “principal estate” in the neighborhood in which the lovely Lucy lives, and Lucy adores him. She is the daughter of a tailor and the niece of an alehouse-keeper, and she is “‘fearful that tho' possessed of Youth, Beauty, Wit & Merit, and tho' the probable Heiress of my Aunts House & business'” Charles may think her “‘deficient in Rank, & in being so, unworthy of his hand'” (Minor Works, p. 21). Screwing up her courage, however, she writes him a “‘very kind letter, offering him with great tenderness my hand & heart,’” but, to her sorrow, receives “‘an angry & peremptory refusal'” from the unapproachable young man (Minor Works, p. 21). Alice Johnson, the titular heroine of the novel, is also infatuated with Charles. Although, like the rest of her family, Alice is “a little addicted to the Bottle & the Dice,” she hopes, after she has inherited a considerable estate, to be found worthy of him. But when Alice's father proposes the match to him, Charles declares:

“… what do you mean by wishing me to marry your Daughter? … Your Daughter Sir, is neither sufficiently beautifull sufficiently amiable, sufficiently witty, nor sufficiently rich for me—. I expect nothing more in my wife than my wife will find in me—Perfection.”

(Minor Works, pp. 25-26)

Fortunately, Alice is able to find consolation in her bottle, and fortunately there is a feminine “picture of perfection”—the outrageously exemplary Lady Williams—in the neighborhood of Pammydiddle for Charles to marry. “Jack and Alice,” however, was not Jane Austen's only attack on the patrician hero. There is a good deal of Charles Adams in her Mr. Darcy.


Darcy's actual circumstances are not an exaggeration of those of the patrician hero, as Charles Adams' are. In fact Jane Austen seems at times to be uncritically borrowing the popular Burney-Richardson character type and situation in Pride and Prejudice—altering them, if at all, only by toning them down a bit. Mr. Darcy is not the “picture of perfection” that Sir Charles Grandison is, but he shares many of the advantages of Sir Charles and Lord Orville, including a “fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien … and ten thousand a year” (p. 10). He has a mind that even Elizabeth Bennet, his severest critic, can respect. “His understanding and temper,” she admits when there seems to be little likelihood of their ever marrying, “though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes … and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit …” (p. 312). Darcy is not as powerful and important as Sir Charles Grandison, but he is the owner of a large estate and a giver, and withholder, of clerical livings. He marries a woman who, like Evelina, is embarrassed by the inferiority of some of her nearest connections, although even Mrs. Bennet can scarcely approach the supreme vulgarity of a Madame Duval.

But Darcy is a Charles Adams in spirit, if not in circumstances.11 It is his exaggerated conception of the importance of his advantages, his supercilious determination “‘to think well of myself, and meanly of others'” who are not so fortunate that causes him at times to sound very much like a caricature of the Burney-Richardson hero. He may not expect to have to address “an angry & peremptory refusal” to a fawning, lovelorn Elizabeth Bennet; but during Elizabeth's visit at Netherfield he is anxious lest, by devoting so much of his conversation to her, he may have been encouraging her to hope for the honor of his hand. On the eve of her departure from Netherfield, the reader is told:

He wisely resolved to be particularly careful that no sign of admiration should now escape him, nothing that could elevate her with the hope of influencing his felicity; sensible that if such an idea had been suggested, his behavior during the last day must have material weight in confirming or crushing it. Steady to his purpose, he scarcely spoke ten words to her through the whole of Saturday, and though they were at one time left by themselves for half an hour, he adhered most conscientiously to his book, and would not even look at her.

(p. 60)

The idea of a proposal which is humiliating to a heroine may come from Cecilia. But the language of Darcy's first proposal to Elizabeth sounds like something that might have come from Charles Adams' lips, rather than the gallant, ardent language of a Delvile.12 During Darcy's proposal, the reader is told: “His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit” (p. 189). And when Elizabeth rebukes him, he declares himself not to be “‘ashamed of the feelings I related. They were natural and just. Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections? To congratulate myself on the hope of relations, whose condition in life is so decidedly beneath my own?’” (p. 192).

On two occasions, Darcy is specifically a caricature of Fanny Burney's Lord Orville. The scene at the Meryton assembly in which Darcy makes his rude remarks about Elizabeth Bennet is a parody of Lord Orville's unfavorable first impression of Evelina.13 In Evelina, shortly after Orville and Evelina have had their first dance together, Miss Mirvan overhears a conversation between Orville and Sir Clement Willoughby. She repeats the conversation to Evelina, much to Evelina's mortification, and the scene is recorded in a letter to Mr. Villars:

… a very gay-looking man [Sir Clement Willoughby, as the reader learns later] stepping hastily up to him, cried, “Why, my Lord, what have you done with your lovely partner?”

“Nothing!” answered Lord Orville, with a smile and a shrug.

“By Jove,” cried the man, “she is the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life!”

Lord Orville, as well he might, laughed, but answered, “Yes; a pretty modest-looking girl.”

“O my Lord!” cried the madman, “she is an angel!”

“A silent one,” returned he.

“Why ay, my Lord, how stands she as to that? She looks all intelligence and expression.”

“A poor weak girl!” answered Lord Orville, shaking his head.

(p. 39)

In Darcy's remarks about Elizabeth at the Meryton assembly, Orville's gentle mockery becomes supercilious rudeness. Mr. Bingley enters into conversation with Darcy on the merits of the various ladies at the assembly, hoping to persuade his friend to dance. Like Sir Clement Willoughby, Bingley praises the heroine: Elizabeth, he declares, is “‘very pretty, and I dare say, very agreeable'”; and he proposes that Darcy ask her to dance. Darcy replies: “‘She is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men'” (p. 12).

A second ballroom scene in Evelina is also parodied in Pride and Prejudice. At one point in Evelina Sir Clement Willoughby, who is determined to punish the heroine for pretending that Lord Orville is to be her partner in a dance for which Sir Clement wished to engage her, conducts her to Lord Orville and presents him with her hand. Evelina writes:

…—he suddenly seized my hand, saying, “think, my Lord, what must be my reluctance to resign this fair hand to your Lordship!”

In the same instant, Lord Orville took it of him; I coloured violently, and made an effort to recover it. “You do me too much honour, Sir,” cried he, (with an air of gallantry, pressing it to his lips before he let it go) “however, I shall be happy to profit by it, if this lady,” (turning to Mrs. Mirvan) “will permit me to seek for her party.”

To compel him thus to dance, I could not endure, and eagerly called out, “By no means,—not for the world!—I must beg—. …

(pp. 51-52)

Orville, with true politeness, attempts to help Evelina recover from her confusion. Darcy, “all politeness,” as Elizabeth ironically describes him, signifies his willingness to oblige Elizabeth Bennet with a dance when Elizabeth is placed in a similarly embarrassing situation at Sir William Lucas' ball.14 Sir William and Darcy are conversing. Elizabeth approaches them and Sir William, “struck with the notion of doing a very gallant thing,” calls out to her:

“My dear Miss Eliza, why are you not dancing?—Mr. Darcy, you must allow me to present this young lady to you as a very desirable partner.—You cannot refuse to dance, I am sure, when so much beauty is before you.” And taking her hand, he would have given it to Mr. Darcy, who, though extremely surprised, was not unwilling to receive it, when she instantly drew back, and said with some discomposure to Sir William,

“Indeed, Sir, I have not the least intention of dancing.—I entreat you not to suppose that I moved this way in order to beg for a partner.”

Mr. Darcy with grave propriety requested to be allowed the honour of her hand; but in vain. Elizabeth was determined; nor did Sir William at all shake her purpose by his attempt at persuasion.

“You excel so much in the dance, Miss Eliza, that it is cruel to deny me the happiness of seeing you; and though this gentleman dislikes the amusement in general, he can have no objection, I am sure, to oblige us for one half hour.”

“Mr. Darcy is all politeness,” said Elizabeth, smiling.

(p. 26)

Mr. Darcy is a complex human being rather than a mere vehicle for satire such as Charles Adams. Nevertheless, I think it is likely that Darcy has somewhere in his ancestry a parody-figure similar to the ones in which Jane Austen's juvenilia abound. Such a theory of Darcy's origins is consistent with generally accepted assumptions about the development of Jane Austen's first three novels from prototypes. It is not unreasonable to assume that Pride and Prejudice, as well as Sense and Sensibility, grew, through a process of revision, from an original containing large amounts of satire of literature to a differently oriented work. Moreover, the theory helps to account for a feature of Pride and Prejudice that has been noted by a number of readers: the inconsistency between the Darcy of the first ballroom scene and the man whom Elizabeth marries at the end of the novel. It is often said that the transition between the conceited and arrogant young man of the book's early chapters and the polite gentleman whom Elizabeth loves and admires is too great and too abrupt to be completely credible.15 Several critics have defended Jane Austen, showing among other things that some of Darcy's conversation can be interpreted in various ways, and that the reader's reactions to him are often conditioned by the fact that he is seen largely through the eyes of the prejudiced Elizabeth.16 But even these theories do not account for all the things in Pride and Prejudice that trouble readers. Darcy's remark about Elizabeth at the Meryton assembly, for instance, remains almost unbelievably boorish, and there is no reason to believe that Elizabeth has misunderstood it.17 His fears lest he should be encouraging Elizabeth to fall in love with him during the visit at Netherfield, the extraordinarily haughty language of his first proposal, and other such things remain stumbling blocks to the reader's acceptance of the later Darcy. The three things just mentioned could have originated in pardoy of the patrician hero, as has been shown. If one postulates an origin in parody for Darcy and assumes that, like many characters in Jane Austen's novels, he was subjected to a refining process, these and perhaps others of the early, exaggerated displays of rudeness and conceit can be accounted for, if not excused, as traces of the original purely parodic figure that Jane Austen was not able to manage with complete success.

Regardless of its origins, Pride and Prejudice, even as it stands, is in many respects a subtly humorous reflection on Richardson and Fanny Burney and their patrician heroes. In addition to Darcy's role as a comically treated Orville or Sir Charles Grandison, Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a reminiscence of Mrs. Delvile in Cecilia or Dr. Marchmont in Camilla, a humorous version of the kindly but mistaken friend who frowns upon the patrician hero's intended bride. And the scene in which she attempts to persuade Elizabeth not to marry Darcy is an exaggeration of what is potentially ridiculous in similar situations in Cecilia—not, as R. Brimley Johnson and others have suggested, a refined imitation. Mrs. Delvile is Mortimer's mother and exercises, according to Cecilia, an almost maternal prerogative upon Cecilia herself. Cecilia is grateful—exaggeratedly, unnecessarily grateful, many readers feel—to Mrs. Delvile for that lady's interest in her and for her kindness in providing her with a home during part of her minority. Mrs. Delvile has as much right as anyone could have to interfere in the love affair between Mortimer and Cecilia. And when she persuades Cecilia not to marry Mortimer, although what she says is prideful and humiliating to Cecilia, her language, at least, is kind and respectful. “‘Acquit me, I beg,’” she says to Cecilia at one point,

“of any intentional insolence, and imagine not that in speaking highly of my own family, I mean to depreciate yours: on the contrary, I know it to be respectable, I know, too, that were it the lowest in the kingdom, the first might envy it that it gave birth to such a daughter.”

And a little later she declares:

“You were just, indeed, the woman he had least chance to resist, you were precisely the character to seize his very soul. To a softness the most fatally alluring, you join a dignity which rescues from their own contempt even the most humble of your admirers. You seem born to have all the world wish your exaltation, and no part of it murmur at your superiority. Were any obstacle but this insuperable one in the way, should nobles, nay should princes offer their daughters to my election, I would reject without murmuring the most magnificent proposals, and take in triumph to my heart my son's nobler choice!”18

Lady Catherine is Darcy's aunt, and she hardly knows Elizabeth. Her attempt to prevent Elizabeth's and Darcy's marriage, her arrogant language and the manner in which she taxes Elizabeth with ingratitude, on the strength of having invited her to Rosings several times in the past, are a parody of the situation in Cecilia. Again, several scholars have remarked that Mr. Collins, with his moralizing and his flattery of his patroness and her family, parodies the didactic and obsequious clergymen found in Richardson's and Fanny Burney's works.19 Darcy's relationship with Mr. Bingley is humorously reminiscent of Sir Charles Grandison and the friends who continually depend on him for advice and assistance. Richardson's supercompetent hero was notable for his propensity to manage the lives and loves of his friends. Darcy, to the reader's and Elizabeth Bennet's amusement, domineers over the spineless Bingley, arranging and rearranging Bingley's love life, and at one point officiously separating him from the amiable and disinterested young woman whom Bingley truly loves. Darcy is provided with a mock Evelina or Harriet Byron in Miss Bingley, who is all too obviously willing to play the role of the patrician hero's female adorer in order to become the mistress of Pemberley. “‘Now be sincere’”; Elizabeth says to Darcy toward the end of the novel, “‘did you admire me for my impertinence? …’”

“The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them … and in your heart, you thoroughly despised the persons who so assiduously courted you.”

(p. 380)

And it is not difficult to see whom she has chiefly in mind. The flattery Evelina and Harriet Byron unconsciously heap upon their heroes, their willingness to take their young men's pronouncements as law, become Miss Bingley's determined and obvious toadeating: when she is not praising Darcy's library or his sister, she is defending his views on the subject of feminine accomplishments or inviting his comments on the company at Sir William Lucas' ball.

Most important, while Miss Bingley is an exaggeration and distortion of qualities in Evelina or Harriet Byron, Elizabeth Bennet plays the role of an anti-Evelina in the novel's satiric pattern.20 Throughout most of the novel she acts in a manner directly contrary to the way in which one would expect a heroine of Richardson's or Fanny Burney's to behave.21 While the would-be Harriet Byron, Miss Bingley, courts Darcy in the traditional manner, Elizabeth makes him the butt of her wit and the prime target of her attacks on snobbery and class consciousness. “‘My behavior to you,’” she says to him toward the end of the novel, “‘was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not'” (p. 380). While he worries lest he should have encouraged her to hope for the honor of his hand, she is regarding him as “only the man who made himself agreeable no where, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with” (p. 23). Instead of being overwhelmed with gratitude when he proposes to her, she prefaces her refusal by saying: “‘… if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot—I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly’” (p. 190). And she goes on to tax him with “arrogance,” “conceit,” and a “selfish disdain for the feelings of others” (p. 193), and to accuse him of being snobbish and overbearing in his interference with Jane and Bingley and of abusing the power he holds over Wickham. Even when she and Darcy are reconciled she laughs, though only to herself, at his casual assumption of the right to arrange and rearrange his friend Bingley's love affairs. When Darcy described the manner in which he sent Bingley back to Jane Bennet with his blessing, “Elizabeth could not help smiling at his easy manner of directing his friend. … [She] longed to observe that Mr. Bingley had been a most delightful friend; so easily guided that his worth was invaluable; but she checked herself” (p. 371). Again, Elizabeth answers Lady Catherine de Bourgh's demand that she renounce Darcy in a manner calculated to warm the hearts of readers irritated by Cecilia Beverly's deference to Mrs. Delvile's pride and prejudice:

“Allow me to say, Lady Catherine, that the arguments with which you have supported this extraordinary application, have been as frivolous as the application was ill-judged. You have widely mistaken my character, if you think I can be worked on by such persuasions as these. How far your nephew might approve of your interference in his affairs, I cannot tell; but you have certainly no right to concern yourself in mine. I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject.”

(p. 357)

“I am … resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me. …

“Neither duty, nor honour, nor gratitude … have any possible claim on me, in the present instance. No principle of either, would be violated by my marriage with Mr. Darcy. And with regard to the resentment of his family, or the indignation of the world, if the former were excited by his marrying me, it would not give me one moment's concern—and the world in general would have too much sense to join in the scorn.”

(p. 358)22

In earlier stages of the novel's growth, probably Lady Catherine, Mr. Bingley, and Miss Bingley were more exaggerated and distorted versions of their prototypes in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century literature than they are at present. Elizabeth Bennet was merely an antitype to the Burney-Richardson sycophantic heroine; Darcy, a caricature of the patrician hero. Later, although she retained an element of ironic imitation, Jane Austen refined her characters, transforming them from mere vehicles for satire into human beings interesting in their own right as well as because of their relationship to their literary prototypes.23 And, as the remainder of this chapter implies, she also changed her attitude toward her patrician hero and her anti-Evelina, and accordingly altered her treatment of Darcy drastically and made Elizabeth, as well as Darcy, a target for her irony. Theories about the development of the novel aside, however, the fact remains that Pride and Prejudice in its final form is not simply, as critics have suggested, an imitation of the work of Jane Austen's fellow novelists. It is, in part at least, an attack on Richardson and Fanny Burney and their patrician heroes.


Jane Austen thoroughly humbles her patrician hero. Darcy is subjected to a series of what Mrs. Bennet would call “set-downs” at the hands of the anti-Evelina, Elizabeth Bennet; and through his love for Elizabeth, and the shock he receives from her behavior, he comes to see himself as he really is and to repent of his pomposity and pride. Toward the end of the novel Darcy is forced to admit to Elizabeth:

“I have been a selfish being all my life, in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit … my parents … allowed, encouraged, almost taught me to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. Such I was, from eight to eight and twenty; and such I might still have been but for you, dearest, loveliest Elizabeth! What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled. I came to you without a doubt of my reception. You shewed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”

(p. 369)

But Darcy's humiliation and attainment of self-knowledge do not constitute the whole story of Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen does not allow her anti-Evelina to rout her patrician hero completely.

In discussing Sense and Sensibility it was noted that an ironic reversal of attitude toward the traditional deluded “sensibility” heroine and her sensible counterpart takes place in that novel. Something a bit similar happens in Pride and Prejudice, in Jane Austen's treatment of Darcy and his relationship to Elizabeth Bennet. Once Darcy has been humbled, Jane Austen turns her irony on Elizabeth. She shows that Elizabeth, in her resentment of Darcy's conscious superiority, has exaggerated his faults and failed to see that there is much in him that is good. Elizabeth proves to have been blind and prejudiced in her views on the relationship between Darcy and Wickham, too willing to accept Wickham's stories because they so nicely confirmed her own feelings about Darcy. When she reads the letter that follows Darcy's first proposal, she is forced to admit that her resentment has led her to be foolish and unjust. After reading the letter,

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.—Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried. … “Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly.—Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

(p. 208)

Again, until Darcy's letter shocks her into self-knowledge, Elizabeth has seen Darcy's interference in the affair between Jane and Bingley only as an instance of coldhearted snobbery on Darcy's part. Reading Darcy's letter, and considering Jane's disposition, Elizabeth is forced to admit that Darcy's view of the affair, his belief that Jane was little more than a complacent pawn in her mother's matrimonial game, is not unjustified. Darcy's interference, Elizabeth must admit, was motivated not merely by snobbery, but by concern for his guileless friend's welfare as well. With her eyes thus opened, Elizabeth comes to see later in the novel that Darcy's position and fortune, and his pride in them, can be forces for good as well as sources of snobbery and authoritarianism. Seeing Pemberley, and hearing his housekeeper's praise of Darcy's conduct as a brother and a landlord, she learns that Darcy's position is a trust and a responsibility, and that his not unjustifiable self-respect leads to a code of conduct worthy of admiration. And in his action in the Lydia-Wickham affair she is provided with an impressive and gratifying instance of his power to do good and his sense of responsibility. At the end of the novel Jane Austen's anti-Evelina is defending her patrician hero. “‘I love him,’” Elizabeth says of Darcy to the astounded Mr. Bennet. “‘Indeed, he has no improper pride'” (p. 376).

As noted earlier, a pattern of “art-nature” symbolism in Pride and Prejudice served to add depth of suggestion, for Jane Austen's early nineteenth-century audience, to the novel's love plot. At the beginning of the story Darcy is the representative of a bias toward “art,” and an excessive class pride, and Elizabeth is the exponent of “nature” and aggressive individualism. In the course of the novel their mental and temperamental propensities are modified somewhat, and their marriage at the conclusion of the story is a union between a reasonable degree of “art” and a desirable degree of “nature.” Jane Austen's treatment of the figure here called the patrician hero serves a similar purpose and follows a similar pattern. One cannot, of course, assume that Jane Austen thought of her Mr. Darcy as an “authority figure,” in today's sense of the term, any more than one can assume that she considered Pride and Prejudice a treatise on the eighteenth-century “art-nature” antithesis. But she did expect the novel-reading audience for which she wrote to respond to her work on the basis of their impressions of the insufferable Sir Charles Grandisons and Lord Orvilles, the sycophantic Evelinas and Harriet Byrons, of noveldom. At the beginning of Pride and Prejudice Darcy is a pompous Burney-Richardson aristocrat, with many of the most disagreeable attributes of his literary progenitors as well as a representative of “art” and excessive class pride; Elizabeth is a determined anti-Evelina as well as a symbol for “nature” and aggressive individualism. The marriage at the end of the story joins a properly humbled patrician hero and an anti-Evelina who has also undergone a partial reformation.

In view of what has just been said, it is interesting to note that, paralleling Elizabeth's attainment of self-knowledge, there is a marked tendency on Jane Austen's part to cease laughing at the works of Richardson and Fanny Burney and even to imitate them rather obviously in the later chapters of Pride and Prejudice. At Pemberley, for instance, Darcy is allowed to behave toward Elizabeth with a marked tact and gallantry that is nonhumorously reminiscent of Sir Charles Grandison or Lord Orville. In the manner of Richardson's and Fanny Burney's heroes he takes over his heroine's affairs, rescuing Elizabeth and her family from imminent disgrace and providing for the erring Lydia.24 Moreover, Jane Austen's audience might well have recognized some decidedly nonsatiric echoes of Sir Charles Grandison in the scenes in which Elizabeth visits Pemberley. Sir Charles, as one might expect, has excellent taste in landscaping. He “pretends not to level hills, or to force and distort nature; but to help it, as he finds it, without letting art be seen in his works, where he can possibly avoid it” (vol. 3, letter 23, p. 246). On his country estate he has a

large and convenient house, … situated in a spacious park; which has several fine avenues leading to it.

On the north side of the park flows a winding stream, that may well be called a river, abounding with trout and other fish; the current quickened by a noble cascade, which tumbles down its foaming waters from a rock, which is continued to some extent, in a ledge of rock-work, rudely disposed.

The park is remarkable for its prospects, lawns, and rich-appearing clumps of trees of large growth.

(vol. 7, letter 6, p. 30)

The Pemberley grounds are kept up with a similar regard for nature and timber, and there is even a similarly managed, artificially swelled trout stream. Pemberley House, the reader is told, was

situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;—and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.

(p. 245)

Was Jane Austen thinking of Harriet Byron's tour of Sir Charles Grandison's property when she described Elizabeth Bennet's visit to Pemberley? Both Elizabeth and Harriet are conducted around magnificent but tastefully appointed houses and both talk to elderly, respectable housekeepers who praise their masters' kindness to servants and tenants. “‘Don't your ladyship see,’” Sir Charles' housekeeper asks Harriet Byron, “‘how all his servants love him as they attend him at table? … Indeed, madam, we all adore him; and have prayed morning, noon, and night, for his coming hither, and settling among us'” (vol. 7, letter 9, p. 52). Darcy's housekeeper laments the fact that he is not at Pemberley “so much as I could wish” (p. 248), and declares that “‘he is the best landlord, and the best master … that ever lived. Not like the wild young men now-a-days, who think of nothing but themselves. There is not one of his tenants or servants but what will give him a good name'” (p. 249). Harriet and Elizabeth are both conducted around noble picture galleries, and both view pictures of their lovers with admiration during their tours.25

As Darcy becomes a modified but genuine Sir Charles Grandison, so does Elizabeth cease to resemble an aggressive anti-Evelina or Harriet Byron. She becomes more and more impressed with her patrician hero, more and more attracted to his many good qualities. Indeed, as she stands in the gallery at Pemberley, there is even a trace of Evelina-like gratitude in her thoughts, and she feels honored by the love of such a man as Darcy:

As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship!—How much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow!—how much of good or evil must be done by him! Every idea that had been brought forward by the housekeeper was favourable to his character, and as she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened its impropriety of expression.

(pp. 250-251)

Pride and Prejudice is a story about two complex, sensitive and often blindly wrongheaded “intricate characters” and their progress toward a better understanding of one another, the world, and themselves. The drama of Elizabeth's and Darcy's conflict and ultimate harmony is played out in the context of a symbolism based on the antithesis between “art” and “nature,” in the comprehensive eighteenth-century sense of those terms. It is also referred at many points to the fiction of Jane Austen's day—particularly to her fellow novelists' handling of the figure called here the patrician hero. It may be that Jane Austen's first response to the patrician hero was purely satiric and that later she refined and complicated her treatment of him; this would help to account for some of the flaws in Darcy's character to which most of her readers object. At any rate, Pride and Prejudice is something more than a much-improved imitation of the novels Jane Austen knew. It is a work in which she tumbles an eighteenth-century authority figure from the pedestal on which Richardson and Fanny Burney had placed him—and, with a gesture typical of both her vision of life and her artistic technique, then stoops to retrieve him from the dust.26


  1. The most detailed study of Pride and Prejudice in terms of the “art-nature” dichotomy is Samuel Kliger's “Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in the Eighteenth-Century Mode,” University of Toronto Quarterly, 16 (1947): 357-370. To note only a few more instances of similar interpretations, Dorothy Van Ghent, in The English Novel, (New York: Reinhart, 1953) p. 100, states that the novel deals with “the difficult and delicate reconciliation of the sensitively developed individual with the terms of his social existence”; and David Daiches, in the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Pride and Prejudice (New York: Random House, 1950), calls the conflict between Elizabeth and Darcy an “adjustment between the claims of personal and social life.”

  2. Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy is sometimes compared to Richardson's patrician “villain-hero,” Mr. B———. E. E. Duncan-Jones, in “Proposals of Marriage in Pamela and Pride and Prejudice,Notes and Queries, 202 (1957): 76, has suggested that the proposal scene in Pride and Prejudice is a reminiscence of Mr. B———'s first honorable proposal to Pamela. More general resemblances in situation and character types between Pamela and Jane Austen's novel are discussed in Henrietta Ten Harmsel's “The Villain-Hero in Pamela and Pride and Prejudice,” in College English, 23 (1961): 104-108, and in the chapter on Pride and Prejudice in Miss Ten Harmsel's A Study in Fictional Conventions. While it may be profitable to compare Pamela and Pride and Prejudice, it seems more rewarding to compare Darcy to heroes modeled on Sir Charles Grandison, for reasons to be made apparent later.

  3. Sir Charles Grandison, in The Novels of Samuel Richardson (London: Chapman & Hall, 1902), 14: x. All references will be to this edition.

  4. Jane Austen's Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 300 (February 4, 1813). All references to Jane Austen's letters will be to this edition.

  5. The quotation is from Johnson's introduction to Sense and Sensibility in The Works of Jane Austen (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1950), p. v. The relationship between Cecilia and Pride and Prejudice is more fully discussed in Johnson's Jane Austen, pp. 124-127, and in his Jane Austen: Her Life, Her Work, Her Family, and Her Critics, (New York: Haskell House, 1974), pp. 137-139.

  6. Cecilia is not necessarily the source for the title of Pride and Prejudice, since the terms “pride” and “prejudice” were frequently used in conjunction in Jane Austen's day. R. W. Chapman's notes to the Oxford edition of Pride and Prejudice and numerous articles in the Times Literary Supplement and Notes and Queries testify to the popularity of the expression. I have myself located versions of the phrase within the Austen family circle, in the sermons of Jane Austen's cousin Edward Cooper. (See my “Pride and Prejudice and Edward Cooper's Sermons,Notes and Queries, 211 [1966]: 182.) And W. H. Welpley, in “Pride and Prejudice,” Notes and Queries, 196 (1951): 93, remarks that the expression is used in Sir Charles Grandison. See also above note 11 to the introduction.

  7. Anna Maria Porter, The Lake of Killarney (London, 1804), vol. 1, chap. 4, p. 219. Jane Austen mentions this novel in a letter of October 24, 1808 (Letters, pp. 58-59).

  8. The Novels of Jane Austen (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), vol. 3: Mansfield Park, p. 459. All subsequent references to Jane Austen's fiction will be to the five volumes of this edition and to the subsequent The Works of Jane Austen (London: Oxford University Press, 1954), vol. 6: Minor Works.

  9. The masquerade at which Charles shines is probably a humorous reminiscence of a similar scene in Cecilia, as I have pointed out in “Fanny Burney's Cecilia and Jane Austen's ‘Jack and Alice,’” English Language Notes, 3 (1965): 40-42.

  10. As E. E. Duncan-Jones points out in “Notes on Jane Austen,” Notes and Queries, 196 (1951): 14-16. Numbers of heroes in the minor fiction of the period, however, among them Lord C——— in The History of Sir William Harrington and Mr. Charlemont in The Lake of Killarney, are similarly described.

  11. Compare the opinion of F. W. Bradbrook (Jane Austen and Her Predecessors, Cambridge University Press, 1966, pp. 96-97) regarding Jane Austen's treatment of the Burney-Richardson hero. Bradbrook feels that Jane Austen “accepts Fanny Burney's conception of the hero” although he does suggest that she “deflates” Darcy somewhat.

  12. Bradbrook (Jane Austen and Her Predecessors, pp. 127-132) compares the first proposal scene to one in Sir Egerton Brydges' Mary de Clifford, and suggests other parallels between Brydges' work and Jane Austen's.

  13. In “A Critical Theory of Jane Austen's Writings,” pt. 1, Scrutiny, 10 (1941): 61-87, Q. D. Leavis recognizes the similarity between the two scenes.

  14. Of course, as Reuben Brower, in The Fields of Light (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), pp. 168-169, points out, the reader sees this scene largely through the eyes of the prejudiced Elizabeth Bennet. Darcy is actually happy to dance with Elizabeth, although his manner of expressing himself is not as gallant as it might be.

  15. See, for example, the comments on Darcy in Mary Lascelles' Jane Austen and Her Art (Clarendon Press, 1939), pp. 22 and 162, and Marvin Mudrick's complaints about the change in Darcy's character in his Irony as Defense and Discovery (Princeton University Press, 1952), pp. 117-119.

  16. See the chapters on Pride and Prejudice in Brower's The Fields of Light (Oxford University Press, 1951), pp. 164-181, and in Howard S. Babb's The Fabric of Dialogue (Ohio State University Press, 1962), pp. 115-118, and Charles J. McCann's “Setting and Character in Pride and Prejudice,Nineteenth Century Fiction, 19 (1964): 65-75.

  17. Compare, however, Philip Drew's “A Significant Incident in Pride and Prejudice,Nineteenth Century Fiction, 13 (1958): 356-368, in which Darcy's asperity toward the opposite sex at the assembly is explained as the result of temporary chagrin engendered by his sister's affair with Wickham.

  18. Fanny Burney, Cecilia (London, 1893), vol. 3, bk. 8, chap. 3, p. 22, and chap. 4, p. 37.

  19. For fuller discussion of this point see Alan D. McKillop, “Critical Realism in Northanger Abbey,” in From Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad: Essays in Honor of James T. Hillhouse, eds. Robert C. Rathburn and Martin Steinmann, Jr. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1958), p. 37; B. C. Southam's “Jane Austen and Clarissa,Notes and Queries, 208 (1963): 191-192; and Henrietta Ten Harmsel's A Study in Fictional Conventions (Mouton, 1964), pp. 83-84. For another aspect of Collins' literary background, see J. M. S. Tompkins' The Popular Novel in England, 1770-1800 (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 1961), p. 132.

  20. Q. D. Leavis (“Critical Theory,” pt. 1) adopts a view of Elizabeth's origins that is somewhat similar to my own, holding that much of Pride and Prejudice was originally a satire on Cecilia and that Elizabeth is an “anti-Cecilia.” She feels, however, that Darcy is simply a refined imitation of Mortimer Delvile, “Delvile with the minimum of inside necessary to make plausible his conduct”—an opinion with which, of course, I disagree; I believe, too, Elizabeth is an antitype to Harriet Byron, Evelina, and a number of other heroines as well as to Cecilia, and not simply a vehicle for satire of one particular novel.

  21. According to Henrietta Ten Harmsel, in the chapter on Pride and Prejudice in her A Study in Fictional Conventions, Elizabeth is an antitype to conventional heroines in some ways other than the ones I am about to mention. She is a forceful, vigorous character, where the conventional heroine is passive. Where the traditional heroine is outstandingly beautiful and accomplished, Elizabeth is only “tolerably” handsome, and far from proficient in the feminine “accomplishments” of the period. The typical heroine of the Burney-Richardson tradition is a moral paragon (it would seem that Fanny Burney's Camilla is a notable exception to this rule), whereas Elizabeth's fallibility is stressed. Miss Ten Harmsel also feels that Elizabeth's originality is emphasized by contrast with Jane Bennet, who is a heroine of the conventional stamp.

  22. Compare Ten Harmsel, A Study in Fictional Conventions, pp. 90-91. Miss Ten Harmsel notes the similarity between Lady Catherine de Bourgh and Mrs. Delvile, but feels that there is a more marked similarity between Lady Catherine's encounter with Elizabeth Bennet and the scene in Pamela where Lady Davers abuses Pamela for having captivated Mr. B—.

  23. Another view of the novel's origins and development is found in B. C. Southam's Jane Austen's Literary Manuscripts (Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 59-62, where it is suggested that Pride and Prejudice was originally a satire, in epistolary form, on the theme of “first impressions” that was so prevalent in the literature of Jane Austen's day.

  24. In the chapter on Pride and Prejudice in Marvin Mudrick's Irony as Defense and Discovery, Darcy's resemblance to conventional heroes in the latter part of the novel is interpreted as one of its failings.

  25. The fact that the episodes in Grandison just mentioned had been imitated in the minor literature of the period strengthens my belief that Jane Austen's borrowings are purposeful. In Thomas Hull's The History of Sir William Harrington, for example, similar scenes occur when Lord C—'s bride reaches her new habitation. See Harrington (London, 1772), vol. 3, letter 52, pp. 1-7. Compare the suggestion of F. W. Bradbrook (Jane Austen and Her Predecessors, pp. 58-59) that the descriptions of Pemberley may have been influenced by passages in William Gilpin's Observations on the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmorland.

  26. Jane Austen, of course, uses the patrician hero elsewhere. Henry Tilney, wiser and wealthier than his heroine, and adored by her almost from the moment they meet, is a more nearly “straight” Burney-Richardson hero. In a later chapter it will be noted that Edmund Bertram, mentor and eventual lover of Fanny Price, receives a treatment somewhat similar to Darcy's.

Judith Lowder Newton (essay date February 1978)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7136

SOURCE: Newton, Judith Lowder. “Pride and Prejudice: Power, Fantasy, and Subversion in Jane Austen.” Feminist Studies 4, no. 1 (February 1978): 27-42.

[In the following essay, Newton examines the power dynamic in Pride and Prejudice, arguing that although men dominated Austen's society in economic and social privilege, Elizabeth Bennet represents a fantasy of female autonomy.]

To read Jane Austen's letters—with their steady consciousness of bargains, pence, and shillings—is to be aware of one small but nagging way in which she experienced the restrictions of being an unmarried middle-class woman: she had little money, and she had almost no access to more. In 1813, for example, the year Pride and Prejudice was published, Jane Austen, her mother, and her sister, Cassandra, were dependent for their living on three sources: a small income of Mrs. Austen's, a small legacy of Cassandra's, and the £ 250 provided annually by four of the Austen brothers.1 The sum was enhanced to some degree by the money Jane earned through writing, for in July of that year she reports that “I have now … written myself into £ 250—which only makes me long for more.”2 But the £140 brought by Sense and Sensibility and the £110 by Pride and Prejudice did not go far, and Austen's letters for that year, as for every year, are full of reference to small economies.

To read Jane Austen's letters is also to be aware—to be reminded—of the privilege that belonged to middle-class men. For Austen had five brothers, and they had what she did not: access to work that paid, access to inheritance and preference, and access to the independence, the personal power, that belonged to being prosperous and male. In 1813, for example, all but one brother was rising in a career. James was earning £1100 a year as curate. Henry was partner in a successful banking firm, Frank was captain of a ship in the Baltic, Charles the flag captain of another, and Edward, the only brother without a profession, was living as a country gentleman on one of the two estates he had inherited from the family who adopted him.

The economic difference in the lots of Austen women and Austen men was certainly striking, and yet there is little indication in the letters that this difference was a source of oppression or discomfort to Jane. Her letters, for the most part, make a casual patchwork of details about her own economies and her brothers' expenditures, about her desire for money and their attainment of it, about her dependence in traveling and their liberties with horseback, carriage, and barouche, about the pressure she felt to marry and the freedom they assumed to marry or not to marry as they chose. Here and there, of course, we find some humorous consciousness of inequity, and there is more than one joke about the economic recommendations of marriage. But, for the most part, Jane Austen's attitude toward the economic restrictions of being a woman, and toward the resulting dependence, confinement, and pressure to marry is, in the letters, amused, uncomplaining, without emphasis.

It is only in Austen's fiction that we begin to feel a certain edge, a certain critical emphasis being given to the difference between the economic privilege of middle-class women and that of middle-class men. The first two sentences of Pride and Prejudice, for example, make subtle and ironic point of that distinction and suggest the weight of it in shaping male and female life: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”3 Some single men, it would appear, have independent access to money, but all single women, or “daughters,” must marry for it. Families with daughters, therefore, think a great deal about marriage, while single men with fortunes do not. Families with daughters may try to control men too, to seize them as “property,” but it is really “daughters,” the sentence implies, who are controlled, who are “fixed” by their economic situation. Single men, in contrast, appear at liberty—at liberty to enter a neighborhood, for example, and presumably to leave it. Single men have a distinct mobility and a personal power that daughters do not.

The opening of Pride and Prejudice thus introduces a familiar distinction between the economic restrictions of middle-class women and the economic privilege of middle-class men, but it does so with an emphasis not characteristic of the letters. It also insinuates a causal connection between economic privilege and personal power, a connection which the letters reflect but hardly articulate. Austen's fiction, as is often observed, obviously did provide outlet for critical energies she could not otherwise express. But the effect of those energies is not what one might expect. For while the rest of the novel sustains an awareness of the economic inequality of women and men, it does not sustain a felt awareness of the causal connection between money and power. Indeed, for all its reference to money and money matters, Pride and Prejudice is devoted not to establishing but to denying the force of economics in human life. In the reading of the novel the real force of economics simply melts away.4

Despite the first two sentences of Pride and Prejudice, despite the implication that access to money in some way determines personal power, the difference between men's economic privilege and that of women is not something we are invited to experience as a cause of power and powerlessness in the novel. Men, with all their money and privilege, are not permitted to seem powerful in Pride and Prejudice, but rather bungling and absurd; and women, for all their impotence, are not seen as victims of economic restriction. What the novel finally defines as power has little to do with money, and the most authentically powerful figure in the novel is an unmarried middle-class woman without a fortune—a woman, we may note, who bears striking resemblance to Jane Austen.

Now, readers of Pride and Prejudice have not generally posed questions about the powerlessness and power of women and men. They have not posed these questions, I suspect, for all the usual historical and cultural reasons, but they have also failed to pose them because the author of Pride and Prejudice does not invite us to see what she is doing, because she is, in fact, hiding out. Subverting the force of economic privilege and inverting traditional power relations are not activities many women undertake without misgivings and a desire for cover. And indirection, deviousness, evasion, are traditionally feminine covers, means of disguising aggression against things as they are. Much of the multiple irony, the lack of commitment, the irresponsibility which readers of Pride and Prejudice have marked again and again in its style5 may be attributed, I suggest, to the traditional uneasiness with which Austen, as a woman, expresses discomposure about, and subtly subverts, the traditional lots, the traditional powerlessness and power of women and men.

In Pride and Prejudice, as in Austen's letters, the major difference in the lots of women and men is that men—all men of the upper- and middle-class—have an independent access to money that women do not. It is the unremarked privilege of men in the novel to have work that pays, to rise through preference and education, and to inherit. Women, in contrast, have no access at all to work that pays and are educated for nothing but display. Although women and men both inherit, women inherit a lump sum, a kind of dowry, while men inherit livings. The entail, then, which so obviously benefits Mr. Collins and so obviously restricts the Bennet daughters, is really the epitome of an economic privilege that is granted men in general and of an economic restriction that is imposed on women: for most women, lacking men's access to work and inheritance, economic survival means marriage.

As in the letters, then, the economic difference in the lots of women and men is hard to ignore, but once again there is no overt indication that Austen protested this division of privilege. Indeed, where the economic inequity of women's lot seems most unfair, Austen deflects criticism. Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine, for example, are the only persons in the novel allowed to object to the entail and neither is permitted to engage our sympathies.

But if, by deflecting criticism, Austen appears to accept, indeed to apologize for, the unequal division of money and privilege, she also appears to limit, subtly, and from the outset, what that inequity can mean. Although the Austen of the letters seems well aware of the status and sense of power involved in earning or preserving money, she omits from the novel almost any reference to, and all observation of, activity which has an economic reward. We may hear that men work, but we never see them at their labors, and if the enforced idleness of upper- and middle-class women seems oppressive in this novel, it is not out of contrast with the more productive activities of males.

It is principally in their personal rather than in their working lives that men appear at first to have more autonomy than women, more power to make decisions, to go, and to do as they please. Throughout Pride and Prejudice, for example, men in general have a mobility that women, even women with money, do not, and that mobility must suggest a greater general autonomy. From the first sentence on, men are linked with entering and leaving, women with being “fixed,” and it is not surprising that it is women in the novel who are dull or bored, who feel that the country is “bare of news,” who suffer when it rains, who repine at “the dullness of everything,” who feel “forlorn” (pp. 25, 84, 223, 311).

The patterns of movement in the novel do suggest a dramatic difference in the autonomy of women and men but they are only background, like the fact that men work, and the patterns are neither emphasized nor overthrown. It is in relation to the marriage choice that men's potential autonomy is brought most into conscious focus, and it is in relation to the marriage choice that men's power is most emphatically subverted. Men, as the first two sentences suggest, do not need to marry. They may “want” or desire wives as it turns out, but they do not need to want them as women must want husbands. Men in Pride and Prejudice, therefore, are conscious of having power to choose and they are fond of dwelling on it, of impressing it upon women. Mr. Collins, for example, assumes that there is nothing so central to his proposal as a rehearsal of his “reasons” for marrying and for choosing a Bennet in particular, nothing quite so central as the information that there were “many amiable young women” from whom he might have made his selection (pp. 101, 102). Darcy is scarcely less agreeably aware of his power to choose, and from his first appearance in the novel acts the role of high-class connoisseur, finding Elizabeth “tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me” (p. 9). Like Mr. Collins, moreover, Darcy remains preoccupied with the privilege of choice in the very act of proposing, for his first words are not “I love you” but “in vain have I struggled” (p. 178). Fitzwilliam, Wickham, and Bingley, the other single men in the novel, betray a similar consciousness. Although Fitzwilliam maintains that “younger sons cannot marry where they like,” Elizabeth protests that they often choose to like and to propose to, “women of fortune” (p. 173). And Wickham, ever confident in his power to choose, first chooses Georgiana Darcy, and then in succession, Elizabeth Bennet, Mary King, and Lydia Bennet. Even Bingley, who is persuaded not to choose Jane, is still a conscious chooser at first, alive to arguments against her family and ready to oppose them.

Male privilege, then, and access to money in particular, makes men feel autonomous. It also makes them feel empowered to control others, especially women to whom they make advances. For as givers of economic benefit to women, men expect their advances to be received and even sought for. Mr. Collins dwells warmly upon the “advantages that are in [his] power to offer” Elizabeth and tactfully reminds her that she is bound to accept him, for “It is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made you” (p. 104). Darcy is also pleasantly aware of his power to bestow value, whether it is his desirable attention or his desirable fortune and station. At the first ball, for example, he will not dance with Elizabeth because he is in “no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men” (p. 9). His proposal, moreover, like Mr. Collins' is “not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride” and betrays his confidence in having his own way.

With the exception of Bingley, who is seen as an anomaly, and of Mr. Gardener, who scarcely exists, virtually every man in the novel reacts in the same fashion to his economic privilege and social status as a male. All enjoy a mobility that women do not have. All relish an autonomy that women do not feel. All aspire to a mastery that women cannot grasp. And yet, in spite of their mobility, their sense of autonomy, their desire to master and to control, we do not feel that men are powerful in this novel. Their sense of power and their real pomposity are at base, a setup, a preparation for poetic justice, a license to enjoy the spectacle of men witlessly betraying their legacy of power, of men demonstrating impressive capacities for turning potential control into ineffective action and submission to the power of others.

It is significant, I think, that the only proposals of marriage recorded in the novel are unsuccessful, and that both suitors are so immersed in their sense of power that they blindly offend the woman whose affections they mean to attach and in the process provoke what must be two of the most vigorous rejections in all of literature. It is also significant that Sir Lucas and Mr. Collins, the only two men in the novel who have risen through preference—another benefit of male privilege—enjoy little more than an inflated sense of power and succeed mainly in annoying those whom they propose to influence.

Our sense of male control is also undercut by the comic readiness with which some men submit to the influence of others. Mr. Collins and Sir Lucas manifest such slavish admiration of those who have raised them or of those who stand above them in rank that their own imagined influence is constantly and ironically juxtaposed with images of self-abasement. Collins, moreover, qualifies his potential autonomy by submitting virtually every life decision to the “particular advice and recommendation” of Lady Catherine, and Bingley surrenders Jane because he depends on Darcy's opinion more strongly than on his own (p. 101).

Men are also prone to misusing their autonomy by making bad investments. It is Mr. Bennet's own “imprudence” that must account for his unhappy domestic life and Wickham's failure of resolution that yokes him to Lydia, a woman without fortune (p. 222). Thus access to money, and male privilege in general, do grant men the potential for control of their lives and for control over women, but the men in Pride and Prejudice are essentially set up—to surrender, to misuse, to fail to realize the power that is their cultural legacy.

In obvious contrast to men, women in their economic dependence have far less potential to do as they like. Most women in the novel must marry and since access to money both shapes and is shaped by traditional attitudes toward women and their proper destiny, even women with money feel pressured to get a man. (The rich Miss Bingley pursues Darcy as does Lady Catherine on behalf of the wealthy Anne.) Women, for the most part, do not dwell on their power to choose, do not debate about getting a husband, and seldom give thought to the value of one husband over another. Some young women, like Lydia and Kitty, are so engrossed with male regard in general, that they lose sight of their reason for securing it, which is to marry, and make the attention of men—any men—an end in itself. Indeed the action in almost the entire first volume of the novel consists of very little but women talking or thinking or scheming about men.

Women in Pride and Prejudice, then, do not generally act like choosers, and since they devote a good deal of energy to compulsive scheming and plotting, they obviously do not entertain illusions of easy control. What control women do aspire to is manipulative and indirect and is further diminished by the fact that obsession makes them ineffective and unreflecting. It is important, moreover, to note that all young women in the novel are swept to some degree in the same currents, enforcing our sense of a universal female condition. All the Bennet women spend a good part of one evening conjecturing about Bingley and “determining when they should ask him to dinner” (p. 6). All are pleased with their own or with each others' triumphs. All are bored by the “interval of waiting” for the gentlemen, and the prospect of the Netherfield ball is “extremely agreeable to every female in the family” (pp. 72, 82). Our first introduction to Elizabeth, in fact, finds her trimming a hat.

Women, like men, therefore, appear to be determined almost uniformly by a shared economic and social condition, but just as we are not permitted to feel that men's economic privilege must result in power we are not permitted to feel that women's lack of privilege must result in powerlessness. The first two sentences of the novel may emphasize the idea that women's compulsive husband hunting has an economic base, but we are never allowed to feel that base as a determining force in women's experience. As I have suggested, almost every reference in the novel to economic necessity is relegated to Mrs. Bennet, a woman whose worries we are not allowed to take seriously because they are continually undermined by their link with the comic and the absurd: “Miss Lizzy, if you take it into your head to go on refusing every offer of marriage in this way, you will never get a husband at all—and I am sure I do not know who is to maintain you when your father is dead” (pp. 108-109). This is the kind of financial threat which would be taken seriously in a novel by Charlotte Brontë, but in Pride and Prejudice, the threat, the sting of potential poverty is undercut. There is consciousness of economics to be sure, but that consciousness is raised and then subverted. It is a distinctly odd maneuver on the part of an author sometimes praised for her awareness of social and economic forces, but it serves a purpose in preparing the reader for Elizabeth by defining the nature of Elizabeth's world.

The Charlotte Lucas' episode is especially significant in this light, for at a distance it might suggest that economic forces do indeed have tragic power over “sensible, intelligent” young women (p. 15). But once again this is not what we are actually invited to feel. We are not allowed to dwell on the economic realities of Charlotte's situation because the shifting ironies almost continually direct us elsewhere: we look with irony at Mr. Collins, for example, or at Charlotte's family, or at Charlotte herself. And though we may feel sympathy for Charlotte when she refers to marriage as the “only honorable provision for well-educated women of small fortune,” our sense of her as economic and social victim is not sustained. The narrator, in fact, abandons us to ambivalence, and the Charlotte Lucas' episode on the whole is left to suggest, on the one hand, the perverting force of women's economic lot, and to prevent us, on the other, from feeling that force as a reality in the universe of Elizabeth Bennet.

One effect of undermining the force of economic realities is to make most women, in their helpless fixation on men and marriage, look perverse, or merely silly, and to lay the blame on women themselves, not on their economic and social lot. Another effect, however, is to suggest, rather wishfully, that there is some way out. Men may go about acting more powerful than women; indeed their lot in life may give them the potential for having power, but because a sense of power seems to befuddle critical vision, they are not really powerful at all. Conversely, women may seem powerless as men are not, but because we are finally not to feel that they are victims of social and economic forces, they do not have to be powerless after all. What we have here, it seems, is a novel that recognizes the shaping influence of economics but that denies its force. The novel, in fact, all but levels what in life we know to have been the material base of power and powerlessness and defines real power as something separate from the economic.

Real power in Pride and Prejudice, as is often observed, is to have the intelligence, the wit, and the critical attitudes of Jane Austen; and Elizabeth Bennet, as it is also sometimes observed, is essentially an Austen fantasy, a fantasy of power. But while some critics have noticed that Elizabeth expresses Austen's wit and intelligence in a particularly free and exuberant manner, they have not observed that Elizabeth does more than that. For Elizabeth's world affords her a freedom that Jane Austen's world evidently did not—it affords her scope not only to express critical attitudes, with energy, but to put them into action. Thus Elizabeth not only criticizes women's extreme eagerness to please men, but puts herself at some distance from that eagerness and, in the process, is rather direct in challenging Darcy's traditional assumptions of power as a male.

Elizabeth's world, moreover, allows her the power to change her lot through acting upon it, in that it allows her the power to alter Darcy's behavior. Elizabeth's world, that is, in contrast to the world of Jane Austen, permits her something more than spiritual victories, permits her more than that sense of autonomy that comes with wittily observing the confinements of one's situation, with standing apart from them in spirit and having to bend to them in daily behavior. Elizabeth's world, in short, permits her not only the energetic expression but the forceful use of those critical energies which Austen herself diverted into ironic novels.

That we enjoy those energies as we do, that we feel safe with them, that generations of conventional readers have found Elizabeth charming rather than reckless, owes much to the fact that Austen's version of Elizabeth's universe is one that mitigates the punishing potential of her critical views and challenging behavior. If money, for example, were really a force in the novel, we might find Elizabeth heedless, radical, or at best naïve, for insulting and rejecting a man with £10,000 a year or for condemning her best friend, a plain and portionless twenty-seven-year-old, because she married a man who could at least support her in comfort. In similar fashion, if wealthy young men were less given to bungling the personal power and influence that is their legacy, we might feel uncomfortable or incredulous when Elizabeth takes on Darcy. It is Austen's subversion of economic realities and of male power that permits us to enjoy the rebellious exuberance and energy of Elizabeth because it is principally this subversion which limits, from the outset, the extent to which we feel Elizabeth is in conflict with the forces of her society.

But to allow a nineteenth-century heroine to get away with being critical and challenging—especially about male power and feminine submission—is still to rebel, no matter how charmingly that heroine may be represented, no matter how safe her rebellion is made to appear. When Austen allows Elizabeth to express critical attitudes, to act upon them without penalty, when she endows Elizabeth with the power to alter her lot, Austen is moving against traditional notions of feminine behavior and feminine fate. For by any traditional standards Elizabeth's departures from convention ought to earn her a life of spinsterhood, not a man, a carriage, and £10,000 a year. Elizabeth's universe, moreover, is real enough, the economic and social forces kept close enough to the surface, that we believe in it, that we do not dismiss it as fantasy, and Elizabeth herself is so convincing that we can't dismiss her either. For all its charm and relative safety, Elizabeth's rebellion invites us to take it seriously, and it is for this reason, I assume, that the rebelliousness of Pride and Prejudice, like the rebelliousness of most women's writing, is further qualified.

One major qualification of Elizabeth's resistance to male power, to men's assumption of power, and to women's powerless behavior, is that, like Austen, she accepts the basic division in women and men's economic lots. Men, moreover, have a right to money that women do not. Thus Wickham is “prudent” for pursuing Mary King, but Charlotte is mercenary for marrying Collins. Men also have a right to greater autonomy, to greater power of choice, for Elizabeth never challenges Darcy's right to criticize women or to act the connoisseur. Nor is it entirely clear that she objects to men's general assumption of control over women. Her real aim is to resist intimidation, to deny Darcy the power of controlling her through the expression of critical judgments: “He has a very satirical eye, and if I do not begin by being impertinent myself, I shall soon grow afraid of him” (p. 21). Elizabeth's habitual tactic with Darcy is thus to anticipate and to deflate him in the role of critic and chooser but never to challenge the privilege by which he is either one.

Elizabeth, of course, in defending herself against the power of Darcy's negative judgments, suggests that she is also defending herself against a desire to please Darcy and to enjoy the benefit of his positive attentions. Elizabeth's defense, that is, continually implies an underlying vulnerability to Darcy's good opinion, and this is another qualification of her rebellion. Elizabeth never does challenge the privilege by which Darcy bestows benefit through his regard, never entirely denies the benefit he does bestow, and is never wholly immune to enjoying it. She merely tries to avoid responding to his attention with that show of gratefulness and pleasure that Darcy egotistically expects and that her own feelings indeed prompt in her. At Netherfield, for example, when Darcy asks Elizabeth to dance she is at first “amazed at the dignity to which she had arrived,” but her overriding, defensive purpose is to deny both to herself and to Darcy that the occasion affords her any sense of status or pleasure (p. 86). It is evident, then, that Elizabeth's resistance to Darcy is undermined by a lingering susceptibility to his attentions and by a lingering desire to please. Indeed, the very energy with which Elizabeth defends herself against both pleasing and being pleased argues that she is not only vulnerable to Darcy's power over her feelings but ironically and defensively controlled by it.

Elizabeth's qualified resistance to being controlled by one attractive male is juxtaposed, moreover, with her complete vulnerability to the power of another, for Elizabeth succumbs to pleasing and being flattered by Wickham even before he reveals himself as ally. Indeed, Elizabeth's readiness to believe Wickham is partially explained by the fact that, like all the young women in the novel, she is ready to approve any attractive and charming man who pays her attention, to decide absurdly that his “very countenance may vouch for [his] being amiable” (p. 77). Elizabeth's head is full, not only of what Wickham “had told her” about Darcy, but of Wickham himself, and even after Wickham has thrown her over for Mary King, or Mary King's fortune, she continues to be flattered by “a solicitude, an interest which she felt must ever attach her to him with the most sincere regard” (p. 44).

As it turns out, of course, Elizabeth is not only not autonomous with Darcy and Wickham, she is mistaken and wrong. She is wrong about Darcy's intentions and she is wrong about Wickham's. She is wrong, moreover, for the same reason that she is not self-directing. Despite her intelligence, wit, and critical energies, she cares too much about male regard. As she herself is aware, after reading Darcy's letter, it is her “vanity,” her vulnerability to the good opinion of men, that has blinded her both to Darcy's character and to Wickham's (p. 196).

If there is any force left in Elizabeth's resistance to Darcy's traditional assumptions of power, it is certainly mitigated by our continuing awareness that the rebellion itself works in the interest of tradition. That is, Elizabeth's assertion of autonomy attracts Darcy rather than putting him off. Elizabeth, we are assured, has a “mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her” (p. 48). Heightened aggression on Elizabeth's part is met by heightened feeling on Darcy's, by greater fears of “the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention” (p. 54). Thus we may enjoy Elizabeth's self-assertions, but we are never invited to value them in themselves, as we are invited to value Maggie Tulliver's or Jane Eyre's or Lucy Snowe's. Elizabeth's qualified resistance to Darcy, attractive as relief from the extreme male-centering of most women in the novel, is valued in great measure, nevertheless, because it attracts the attention of a desirable man.

Elizabeth's rebelliousness, then, is quiet, is not intended to alarm. It invites the conventional female reader to identify with unconventional energies, but it commits her to nothing more. It permits the conventional male reader to admire Elizabeth's spirit while finding comfort in the fact that she is wrong, not autonomous after all, and that her whole resistance to male power only secures and gives value to the love of a good man. It is as if Austen could not be indirect or qualified enough in presenting this self-assertive heroine, for we almost never see Elizabeth's rebel energies without feeling the undermining force of one irony or another. It is, in fact, Austen's qualification of Elizabeth's power that accounts for most of the complexities and ironies in the first two-thirds of the novel, and it is these ironies, I suspect, that have permitted the most conventional readers to find Elizabeth charming, and most charming of all when she asserts her independence of Darcy's traditional powers as a male.

Elizabeth, then, as a power fantasy, is in some ways astoundingly modest. The remarkable thing, perhaps, is that her rebelliousness, undercut and qualified as it is, still maintains a quality of force, still strikes us as power. It does so in part because of its juxtaposition with Miss Bingley's ineffective machinations and Jane's well-intentioned passivity, both reminders of what it means to be traditionally feminine. But most importantly, Elizabeth's rebel energies retain a quality of force because, as I have noted, they really act upon her world; they change Darcy, change the way he responds to his economic and social privilege, change something basic to the power relation between him and Elizabeth. Without intending to, Elizabeth renders Darcy more courtly, less liable to impress upon her the power he has to choose and to give her benefits, less liable to assume control of her feelings.

Still, it is not Elizabeth's much qualified self-assertion or even her unintended alteration of Darcy that establishes her as the powerful character she is. The most profound source of what we feel as Elizabeth's power is her ability in the last third of the novel to turn her critical vision upon herself, upon her own unthinking vulnerability to male approval. It is at this point in the novel that Elizabeth establishes what we could call real autonomy. It is at this point in the novel, moreover—the point at which Elizabeth redirects her critical energies from Darcy to herself—that the multiple ironies which have characterized the first two-thirds of the novel are suddenly dropped. It is a less anxiety-provoking business for a woman to assert power against an aspect of herself, against the enemy within, than against the traditional power relations of her culture. And though it is necessary and vital to assert oneself against one's own blindness, in a patriarchal society, it is also a much surer and more lasting form of power than pitting oneself against the traditional privileges of men.

Yet Elizabeth's recognition of her vulnerability to male attention does force her into painful, even humiliating recognitions. It is a hard thing for a woman to have felt herself powerful against the greater power of a man and to discover after all that she had been led astray by her extreme vulnerability to his good opinion. It is humiliating to feel apologetic toward an oppressor—for Darcy has greater potential power than Elizabeth and he has made her feel it. Why, one wants to know, has Austen put her through it? One answer, perhaps, is that Elizabeth's recognition of her “vanity” is a further undercutting of her rebellion against male power. But Elizabeth's confessions may also be seen as a hard lesson in the difficulties of confronting the enemy within, a hard lesson in the fact that the most apparently powerful women may be creatures of their culture too.

Elizabeth's honesty, of course, is also a tribute to her potential for true self-direction, for no other character in the novel achieves her measure of self-knowledge or potential self-rule. The self-knowledge which comes to Darcy comes to him offstage and at the instigation of Elizabeth. Elizabeth alone is her own analyst, and in a novel in which Austen brilliantly arranges for intelligence to mitigate the force of economics and of social position, Elizabeth emerges for the readers as the most powerful because she is the most intelligent and self-directing character in her world.

In reading Darcy's letter, then, Elizabeth gains a measure of real autonomy, in that she gains a measure of freedom from unthinking desire for male regard. But what Elizabeth's freedom finally purchases is an ability to consider, to weigh, to choose which male's regard she really values. Elizabeth's autonomy, that is, frees her to choose Darcy, and Elizabeth's untraditional power is rewarded, not with some different life, but with woman's traditional life, with love and marriage.

Austen's commitment to the economic inequities of women's and of men's lives permits her no other happy ending, but there is, of course, a major difficulty in Elizabeth's reward. For marriage in this novel, as in life, involves a power relation between unequals, and that is hardly a fitting end for a fantasy of power. What we find at the end of Pride and Prejudice, therefore, is a complicated and not entirely successful juggling act in which all the economic and social powers of the traditional husband/hero must be demonstrated at last but demonstrated without diminishing the powers of the heroine. It is not until late in the novel, for example, not until Elizabeth rejects Darcy's proposal, reads Darcy's letter, and establishes herself as the most powerful character in the book, that we are permitted first-hand exposure to Darcy's economic and social significance. It is only at Pemberly, for example, that we are made to feel the reality of Darcy's power to act upon the world: “As a brother, landlord, a master, she considered … how much of pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow” (p. 234). Darcy's social and economic power, moreover, is juxtaposed on this visit with the first signs that he has been altered by Elizabeth's self-assertion: “Never in her life had she seen his manners so little dignified, never had he spoken with such gentleness as in this unexpected meeting” (p. 235).

Darcy's rescue of Lydia is another demonstration of the hero's traditional powers, the powers belonging to money, class, and male privilege, but it is also to be construed as further demonstration that Elizabeth has altered Darcy, that he is not only more courtly to her but more courtly to her family, whom he is now not above serving. Darcy's proposal, moreover, is brought on by still another spirited assertion of Elizabeth's autonomy, her refusal to conciliate Lady Catherine, and even the timing of the proposal scene is set by Elizabeth. The proposal itself, finally, is followed by Darcy's lengthy reminder that it is Elizabeth who has changed him: “You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled” (p. 349).

But it “will never do” for Elizabeth to seem more controlling than Darcy (p. 361). That is not what traditional marriages, what “good” marriages are all about. Darcy must protest, then, that he would have proposed whether Elizabeth had opened the way or not, and Elizabeth, for her part, must betray some consciousness of, and gratefulness for, the traditional economic and social benefits. She must appreciate Pemberly not just for the taste that it exhibits but for its economic grandeur, for the “very large” park and for the “lofty and handsome” rooms (pp. 228, 229). She must acknowledge that to be mistress of Pemberly might be “something” and she must experience “gratitude” to Darcy for loving her (p. 228). And yet, Elizabeth's own power must not be diminished. She is allowed, therefore, to see more than Darcy to the last: “she remembered that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin” (p. 351). We leave her, in fact, in the last paragraph of the novel, surrounded by Pemberly's splendor but seeming to hold her own, astonishing Georgiana with her “lively, sportive manner” and her “open pleasantry” and persuading Darcy against his will to make peace with Lady Catherine (p. 367).

Austen's difficulties with Elizabeth's reward, her attempt to give her marriage but to alter what marriage means, her tinkering with heroine and hero, must account for the fact that most readers of Pride and Prejudice find the end of the novel less satisfactory than the beginning. On the one hand, the charge that Elizabeth, as witty heroine, is now too inclined to moralize and be grateful owes much to the fact that marriage requires her to dwindle by degrees into a wife. On the other hand, the observation that Darcy as hero is less convincing than as villain owes much to the requirements of Austen's fantasy, which are that Elizabeth not dwindle too far, that she maintain her equality with, if not her ascendency over, her husband. Darcy, therefore, although he must demonstrate all the economic and social powers of the traditional hero—which are plenty—may not have everything; he may not have Pemberly, £10,000 a year, rank, looks, intelligence, flexibility, wit, and a convincing reality as well. There is point, though unconscious point, to his stiffness and unreality, for both function at some level to preserve the fantasy of Elizabeth's power.

The end of Pride and Prejudice, nevertheless, witnesses a decline in Elizabeth Bennet, for in Pride and Prejudice as in much of women's fiction, the end, the reward, of woman's apprenticeship to life is marriage, and marriage demands resignation even as it prompts rejoicing, initiates new life while it confirms a flickering suspicion that the best is already over. Given the ambivalent blessing of marriage as a happy ending, it is simply a tribute to Austen's genius that what we take from Pride and Prejudice is not a sense of Elizabeth's untimely decline but a tonic impression of her intelligence, her wit, and her power, and it is an even greater tribute that we believe in her power, that we do not perceive it as fantasy. For Austen's brilliant construction of her heroine's world, her recognition and subtle subversion of economic forces, the mobile intelligence of the heroine herself, the ironies directed at that intelligence, the complexities of Elizabeth's failure in vision and of her recovery, complicate what is at base a wish fulfillment, give it an air of credibility which lends force to the power of the fantasy upon us; as one of my students put it, we need more fantasies like Elizabeth.

It is not, of course, that the fantasy of Elizabeth's power leaves us with any real hope for the majority of women—how many Elizabeths, how many Jane Austens are there? But what Pride and Prejudice does do is to give us a heroine who is at once credible, charming, and the deepest fulfillment of a woman's intelligent desire for autonomy. And that is more than most women's fiction has been able to accomplish. Most women in women's fiction pay a price for autonomy—madness, for example, or death by drowning—but Elizabeth does not. The brilliance, perhaps, and certainly the joy of Pride and Prejudice is that it makes us believe in her.


  1. F. B. Pinion, A Jane Austen Companion (London: The Macmillan Press, Ltd., 1973), p. 15.

  2. Jane Austen to Frank Austen, July 3, 1813, in Jane Austen's Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed., R. W. Chapman (London: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 317.

  3. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1949), p. 1. Subsequent references appear in the text.

  4. Critics like Daiches and Schorer, for example, emphasize Austen's consciousness of economic forces. See David Daiches, “Jane Austen, Karl Marx, and the Aristocratic Dance,” American Scholar 17 (1947-1948): 289. See also Mark Schorer, “Pride Unprejudiced,” Kenyon Review 18 (1956): 83, 85.

  5. Critics like Mudrick and Harding, of course, have written admirably about Austen's general evasiveness as critic of her culture, about her general unwillingness to risk confrontation, but they have not dealt with the particular relation of this evasion to Austen's situation as a woman, nor have they noted the relation between Austen's indirection and the central focus of her critical energies in this novel: the traditional power relations between women and men. See Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968). See also D. W. Harding, “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen” in Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed., Ian Watt, Twentieth Century Views (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963).

A. Walton Litz (essay date 16 December 1979)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2426

SOURCE: Litz, A. Walton. “The Picturesque in Pride and Prejudice.Persuasion, no. 1 (16 December 1979): 13, 15-24.

[In the following essay, Litz discusses Austen's use of landscape in Pride and Prejudice, focusing on how she employs “picturesque moments” to establish meaning and form.]

When I learned that Donald Greene would be talking this evening about possible models for Pemberley, it set me thinking again about the role of landscape—both natural and “improved”—in Jane Austen's fiction. Over the past few years, following the early lead of E. M. Forster, a number of critics have examined Jane Austen's uses of landscape, and have discovered that she was affected far more profoundly than one might have thought—given her essentially classical mind—by the great shifts in taste and feeling that we call Romanticism. In the later novels landscape is used to express “states of feeling,” and in Persuasion especially the intensely physical nature of Anne's life—her loss and recovery of “bloom,” as Jane Austen calls it—is movingly imaged in the rhythms and moods of the changing seasons, which finally bring Anne “a second spring of youth and beauty.”

Tonight, however, I want to build on Donald Greene's remarks by focusing on landscape in Pride and Prejudice. You might call my little talk, in imitation of the title-pages affixed to accounts of late eighteenth-century sketching tours, “Some Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty in Pride and Prejudice, With Particular Attention Given to the Approach to Pemberley House.”

In the Biographical Notice of the Author supplied for Northanger Abbey and Persuasion by Henry Austen, Jane's favorite brother, we learn that she “was a warm and judicious admirer of landscape, both in nature and on canvass. At a very early age she was enamoured of Gilpin on the Picturesque; and she seldom changed her opinions either on books or men.” Among the works of William Gilpin that Jane Austen certainly knew was his Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, Made in the Year 1772, On Several Parts of England; Particularly the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland. It was published in 1786 with aquatint illustrations and was an immediate success, going through four editions by 1808. Vestiges of this book have been located in Pride and Prejudice by many readers; but I would go further and speculate that Gilpin's tour provided the ground-plan for First Impressions, the lost original of Pride and Prejudice written in 1796-97. At the end of Book Two of Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle embark on their tour, Jane Austen comments: “It is not the object of this work to give a description of Derbyshire, nor of any of the remarkable places through which their route thither lay; Oxford, Blenheim, Warwick, Kenilworth, Birmingham, etc. are sufficiently known.” They were sufficiently known to Jane Austen because of Gilpin's book, which describes the area around Haddon Hall and Chatsworth in a late chapter that opens with a “General description of the peak of Derbyshire.” Moreover, the route followed by Elizabeth and the Gardiners, by no means the only approach to the Lake Country, is exactly that followed by Gilpin in his first four chapters. Gilpin's tour culminates in a detailed and ecstatic survey of the Lake country, and we remember that Elizabeth is delighted when a trip to the Lakes is first proposed, and “excessively disappointed” when it has to be curtailed because of Mr. Gardiner's business commitments: “she had set her heart on seeing the Lakes.”

But more than a ground-plan is visible in the revised novel. Some of Elizabeth's more obscure remarks have their explanations in Gilpin. When she decides to risk a visit to Pemberley, Elizabeth muses: “But surely … I may enter his county with impunity, and rob it of a few petrified spars without his perceiving me.” The “spars” have puzzled commentators, but Gilpin has a paragraph on “that curious, variegated mineral … supposed to be a petrifaction … known in London by the name of the Derbyshire Drop.” According to the OED this is one of the first literary references to “Derbyshire spar” (flourspar), which could be held before a candle to reveal picturesque patterns.

There are many other details from Gilpin embedded in the revised novel, but the real interest in Jane Austen's relationship to Gilpin lies, of course, in a different world from “petrified spars.” The picturesque tells us something important about her development as an artist, and about Elizabeth's changing sensibility in the novel, which reflects the changes in Jane Austen's own sensibility between 1797 and 1811-12. I think Jane Austen was so strongly attracted to Gilpin in her youth because his work appealed to her warm, pre-Romantic feelings about nature and her love of the comic, which is founded on her unshakeable good sense. The “picturesque moment,” as Martin Price has so aptly named it, was a brief phase in English taste when the new sense of landscape already apparent in poets such as Jane Austen's favorite, William Cowper, was systematized in the language of sketching and painting. Jane Austen's early attitude toward the picturesque is neatly embodied in a passage which I think we all feel must be a substantial survivor from First Impressions. Elizabeth has just heard that the tour with the Gardiners may reach “perhaps to the Lakes.”

‘My dear, dear aunt,’ she rapturously cried, ‘what delight! what felicity! You give me fresh life and vigour. Adieu to disappointment and spleen. What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! what hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travellers, without being able to give one accurate idea of any thing. We will know where we have gone—we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers, shall not be jumbled together in our imaginations; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we begin quarrelling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travellers.’

The language here is that of the late Juvenilia, and the attitude toward the picturesque—enthusiastic participation tempered by a sense of the absurdities in the vocabulary of “transport”—is very much the attitude of the young Jane Austen.

Jane Austen's keen, almost professional grasp of the techniques and jargon of the picturesque is reflected also in that marvelous passage in Northanger Abbey where Henry Tilney, who views the country with an eye “accustomed to drawing,” lectures so brilliantly on “foregrounds, distances, and second distances—side-screens and perspectives—lights and shades” that Catherine is ready to reject the whole city of Bath as “unworthy to make part of a landscape.” Although the young Jane Austen was deeply attracted to the picturesque, which organized her emotional responses to Nature and gave her a language for seeing, she was endlessly delighted by its pedantic absurdities, especially those of William Gilpin. In the section on Henry the 8th in her juvenile “History of England.” Jane Austen comments: “nothing can be said in his vindication, but that his abolishing Religious Houses and leaving them to the ruinous depredations of time has been of infinite use to the landscape of England in general, which probably was a principal motive for his doing it.” Here she is spoofing a paragraph in the introduction to Gilpin's Observations, where he exults over the number of ruined and therefore picturesque abbeys in England, which naturally make England superior to the continent: “Where popery prevails, the abbey is still entire and inhabited; and of course less adapted to landscape.” But we must not think of Gilpin as an easy target for Jane Austen's satire. He can on occasion sound like Mr. Collins, yet at other times he resembles the ironic Mr. Bennet—or Elizabeth herself. The following passage on Scaleby-castle must have delighted the youthful author of “The History of England” and First Impressions.

What share of picturesque genius Cromwell might have, I know not. Certain however it is, that no man, since Henry the eighth, has contributed more to adorn this country with picturesque ruins. The difference between these two masters lay chiefly in the style of ruins, in which they composed. Henry adorned his landscapes with the ruins of abbeys; Cromwell, with those of castles. I have seen many pieces by this master, executed in a very grand style; but seldom a finer monument of his masterly hand than this.

The delicate balance between affection and humor in Jane Austen's early attitude toward the picturesque is revealed in another scene in Pride and Prejudice which I suspect was carried over intact from First Impressions. When Darcy asks Elizabeth to join him in a walk with Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley, who has just been abusing Elizabeth's family, Elizabeth replies with a laugh:

“No, no; stay where you are. You are charmingly group'd, and appear to uncommon advantage. The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth. Good bye.”

She then ran gaily off …

As several critics have noted, the “subtext” here is Gilpin's appendix on his prints, where he explains in technical jargon that there are problems in “forming two into a group,” while “four introduce a new difficulty in grouping.” But with three you “are almost sure of a good group.” Elizabeth shows herself to be a good student of Gilpin, like her creator; but the cause for her gay laugh is the little joke she shares with those of us who have read Gilpin, since what Gilpin is actually talking about is “the doctrine of grouping larger cattle.

I think we all feel that the peculiar charm of Pride and Prejudice lies in the easy blending of youthful energy and humor, so evident in this scene, with a mature moral vision. In the years between First Impressions and the radical revisions that produced Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen had grown from adolescence to middle-age, from expectations of marriage to almost certain spinsterhood. She had witnessed death and family tragedy, and had come to understand the pressures that drive Charlotte Lucas into a humiliating marriage with the grotesque Mr. Collins. She had, in short, learned the lessons of Mansfield Park, the first complete product of her mature years. What gives Pride and Prejudice its special quality, and makes so many readers think of Mozart, is the innocence and playfulness of the original novel, which shine through and soften the harder outlines of adult experience.

But the picturesque in Pride and Prejudice is more than a vestige of First Impressions: the way Jane Austen accommodates it to her mature vision becomes part of the novel's meaning and form. By the time she “lop't and crop't” Pride and Prejudice around 1811-12, the picturesque of William Gilpin was going out of fashion, replaced by the more sublime intimations of high Romanticism. It had also received a heavy blow in William Combe's Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1809-12), which Jane Austen may have read while reworking Pride and Prejudice. Combe's satire and the wonderful Rowlandson illustrations exposed all the absurdities that had so delighted the young Jane Austen. A way of seeing could not long survive that preferred ruins to sound buildings, bandits to solid citizens, blasted oaks to “great-rooted blossomers.” A world of painterly effects and aesthetic surfaces leaves too many of our deepest needs unsatisfied. Soon a new term evolved, reflecting a more profound involvement in landscape: the “moral picturesque.” Hawthorn used it to describe one of his stories in Mosses from an Old Manse, and Henry James picked up the phrase in his study of Hawthorne. Ruskin in Modern Painters carefully distinguished between the nobler (or moral) picturesque and the surface-picturesque, which he felt was a kind of irresponsible, witty play separated from the world of social responsibility.

I would contend that Elizabeth Bennet's education in Pride and Prejudice involves a movement from the “surface-picturesque” to the “moral picturesque.” Her early prejudiced behavior is marked by a witty arrangement of people and ideas, a playing with emotional effects for aesthetic ends. She misunderstands Darcy's inner nature because she is so delighted with surfaces, and enjoys seeing the world in artistic terms. She journeys to Derbyshire and the peak expecting to find Gilpin's picturesque delights, but finds instead a house and grounds that embody what can only be called moral values. It has often been remarked that the description of Pemberley which opens Book Three is covertly a description of Darcy: the landscape foreshadows the startling discoveries of the next few pages. Like Donwell Abbey in Emma, which embodies Knightley's frank personality—“It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was”—Pemberley speaks of its owner's personality.

Elizabeth's mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;—and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.

The difference between this landscape, filtered through the consciousness of Elizabeth Bennet, and the surface-picturesque of Gilpin tells us how far Elizabeth and her creator have come in their journeys toward maturity. The “picturesque moment” of Jane Austen's youth has not been discarded; rather, it has been absorbed into a more complex and responsible view of life and art. As I have said before, Pride and Prejudice is so seductive because it allows us to feel that Elizabeth and Darcy are “right” for each other both morally and aesthetically: their marriage satisfies our desire to believe that what is “right” socially and ethically can also be stylish and beautiful. That belief may be an illusion, and Jane Austen could not rest with it, moving in her later fictions toward the calm, slow beauty of disciplined suffering. But it is an illusion so powerfully sustained within the created world of Pride and Prejudice that the novel has remained uniquely satisfying for over one hundred and fifty years, and has brought us together tonight.

Gary Kelly (essay date June 1984)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8060

SOURCE: Kelly, Gary. “The Art of Reading in Pride and Prejudice.English Studies in Canada 10, no. 2 (June 1984): 156-71.

[In the following essay, Kelly explores the role of reading in Pride and Prejudice, drawing a parallel between Elizabeth's inclination to read her world like a book and the reader's epistemological approach to the novel.]

It is by now well established that Pride and Prejudice is about perception and judgement as acts of the whole mind, with important ethical consequences in domestic and social life.1 The story deals with characters who are, in varying degrees, good or bad observers and judges of themselves and the world around them, and the plot shows how some of these characters, and especially the heroine, can learn to be better observers and judges by learning to avoid the enemies of good judgement, namely prejudice, ignorance, and habit or convention. Luckily (for this is a providential given in Austen's plot),2 the heroine also has the courage, the curiosity, and the right combination of circumstances to be able to express her improved competence as an observer and judge to others; therefore, she wins the appropriate reward, a marriage of true minds. What has not been much commented on, I think, is the central place that reading has, in Pride and Prejudice as in all of Austen's novels, in the plot of improved observation and judgement, and as a paradigm for those activities. Before examining Austen's use of reading in Pride and Prejudice, however, it will be useful to consider in detail the epistemological model which is dramatized in her novels.

Essentially, this model involves the process of forming hypotheses, more or less shapely and more or less accurate, which give meaning and thus value for an individual mind to the facts of observation, indeed, which give to facts themselves their very status. Here are some of the words of perception and hypothesis to be found in Pride and Prejudice, many of which could be cited with reference “passim”: suppose, surmise, conjecture, believe, credit, impute, account for, fancy, hope, doubt, see, observe, read, determine, judge, reason, know, and their nominal and adjectival variants; sensible, attentive/inattentive, ignorant, partial, prepossessed, blind, deceived, persuaded, decided, convinced, struck (forcibly), surprised, amazed, shocked; apparent, possible, probable, likely, unaccountable, plain, evident, certain, known/unknown; impression, observation, opinion, explanation, attention/inattention, penetration, conviction, reflection, presumption, sensibility/insensibility, prejudice. The key terms, however, the ones which occur again and again in Austen's novels, are “observation” (which is best when it is “attentive”), “reflection,” and “judgement.” Inattentive and unreflecting observers—and the novel is full of them, although Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet, Lydia Bennet, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh spring most immediately to mind—cannot of course arrive at true judgements because, “blinded” by prejudice or conventional attitudes, they will simply not be able to see things “as they are.” “Partial,” ignorant, or merely idle, they will only see what their bad habits of mind allow them to see, and so they are disastrously or comically (usually the latter) cut off from “reality”; they are isolated in a private world which is in fact a fantasy, and lacking self-knowledge as well, they are not even aware of the delusion. The true mind, however, is precisely the one which is subject to chastening, which wants to see clearly and reflect carefully, so that it can judge correctly and thereby enter the community of civilized intercourse.3

These ideas, and this model of the mind's advance from ignorance and error to knowledge, are themselves conventional enough in eighteenth-century epistemology,4 but before we see how they are developed and dramatized in Pride and Prejudice three additional points must be made. First, Austen and her characters assume that there is an objective natural and social reality, and that it can be known with certainty.5 Of course, these were by no means universal assumptions in eighteenth-century epistemology. However, secondly, there are certain individual predispositions of nature, certain “tempers” of mind, which seem to distinguish one individual from another absolutely and unalterably. Clearly there is a conflict between this assumption and the first, a conflict which is masked by the comic form and ironic mode of Austen's novels, and—the third point—by the fact that Austen uses such a varied vocabulary to describe judgements made by characters in her novels; in fact she usually prefers to refer to such judgements in some of the terms mentioned above, as “surmises,” “opinions,” “suppositions,” “beliefs,” “conjectures,” “constructions,” or (at best) “convictions”—in other words, as hypotheses which “acount for” one's observations.6 For to “account for” something is to pretend to understand it, and understanding is the necessary precondition for evaluation. One cannot judge what one does not understand, and so understanding must precede judgement, even though understanding is for judgement. Idle curiosity, manifested in such activities as gossip and being a busybody, is always a vice in Austen's novels, and the desire to know and understand should always serve the higher end of judgement, of discrimination, of the drawing of distinctions between one thing and another.

It is this relationship between meaning and value which is the basis of any kind of valid individual or social culture in Austen's fictional worlds. That is why reflection is such an important activity, such an important index of moral improveability, such a dominant element in the plot as well as the story material of an Austen novel. And so her novels show characters trying, frequently with a comic but serious lack of success, to understand the world around them, and understanding or sound judgement, like “taste” and like “manners,” has to be cultivated. That is why one of the most important words—or rather values—in Austen's novels is “elegance,” and why the word is applied to mind as well as manners. Indeed, her novels seem designed to show that one can hardly have elegance of manners without elegance of mind. And elegance for Austen is clearly the product of cultivation; the ability to judge correctly, to discriminate, to exercise proper taste is an art that is learned through practice. It is in this sense that Austen's novels are “novels of education.” One observes, reflects, judges; one repeats the process; one becomes civilized, that is, one becomes fit to live in and with society.

Thus, true to the culture of her class, the Anglican gentry,7 Jane Austen shows that observation and judgement are not ends in themselves, but they are for conduct, for the leading of one's life in a civil community. One wants a cultivated mind because one wants to behave properly, not just with propriety, but appropriately. One wants to be able to understand the conventions of the community so that one can critically respond to them, that is, so that one can, as an authentic moral individual, choose how one is to inhabit the society (like the estate) which one has inherited.8 One wants to observe and judge well so that one can act well. That, I think, is the importance of reading books in Austen's novels. Not only is the ability to discriminate among books correlated with a character's ability to discriminate among people, from Northanger Abbey through to Sanditon, but reading books is implicitly a kind of practice in reading the world, and is therefore a preparation for conduct in society. Cultivation of mind alone produces a pedant such as Mary Bennet, or perhaps a mere cynical spectator such as her father. Cultivation of manners alone, however, produces a rake such as Willoughby, Wickham, or Henry Crawford, or a coquette such as Lydia Bennet or Mary Crawford, or a busybody such as Mrs. Elton or Emma Woodhouse, or snobs such as Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her toady, Mr. Collins. On the other hand, to observe and judge well and still be prevented from acting on one's penetration and judgement (just as, in a lesser way, to read well and have to remain silent, like Fanny Price) is to experience a kind of anguish in the deliberately reduced scale of emotions Austen deals with, and this is in fact what happens to all of her heroines in all or parts of her novels. Consequently, the novels are about love and marriage. For what could be a clearer demonstration of and a more acute problem for one's ability to base conduct on judgement, than the choice of a partner in marriage: marriage which is at once the formalization in the eyes of God and the world of one's personal emotional and intellectual commitment to one's judgement, and a continuation of those formalities and conventions which constitute human society and human civilization—but which must be as it were re-invented by each individual in order for those conventions to continue to have moral meaning.

Observation, reflection, judgement, action: the Arminian (or rather Pelagian) and Anglican insistence on moral freedom of action, both faith and works, on both true belief and appropriate action in the world in the light of that belief. If only that were all; but the truth is that man is in a fallen condition, flawed. And there is the paradox of the human mind: desiring true judgement, yet constantly exposed to error, through prejudice, ignorance, and idleness; wishing to see, yet constantly suffering defects of vision. It is a painful process. That is why so many Austen characters give up, or never set out, settling for convention, for received ideas, habits of thought, expression, conduct. But, on the other hand, that is also why the Austen heroines, like Elizabeth Bennet, are armed with both “curiosity” and “courage.” For only by divine grace operating through a comic universe can we hope, through time and chance and the exercise of our free will, to have our errors corrected happily.

Elizabeth Bennet is of course described (humorously but significantly) as a “philosopher” because she does reflect strenuously (though of course she is somewhat too proud of her reflectiveness); and in terms of what I have just been saying, all of Austen's heroines are philosophers because they are all serious, and at times comically earnest, in their commitment to the process of creating meaning and value out of observation by the construction of hypotheses, of “surmises,” “suppositions,” “conjectures,” or “convictions.” The seriousness of their involvement in this process is due to personal character or “temper” (Austen's word) no doubt; but it is also due to circumstances: the heroine's hypothesizing concerns nothing less than her personal happiness, which involves self-approbation, but also a form of social recognition or approbation of her mental and (therefore) moral superiority: marriage to the right person, a person who for Austen is always himself a good observer and judge of others (that is how he comes to choose the heroine). Elizabeth's “curiosity” is her desire to know the truth and thus to have true judgement; her “courage” is her readiness to accept pain and embarrassment in order to get at the truth, her willingness to admit her errors, to re-examine what she has misperceived, and then to act on her revised judgement. Her curiosity and her courage make Elizabeth educable and “improveable.” In this willingness to create meaning and value, and thus the proper grounds of conduct for herself, not only by constructing but also by tearing down and reconstructing her hypotheses until she has arrived at true judgement, perhaps Elizabeth is, rather than a philosopher, a critic. One is reminded that one of Austen's favourite moralists defined the task of criticism in The Rambler (92) as “to improve opinion into knowledge,” and that is precisely what Elizabeth Bennet attempts and, however painfully for herself, is willing to do throughout Pride and Prejudice. It is just that the consequences of Elizabeth Bennet's perceptions and judgements are, for her, of rather more practical consequence than they are for most professional critics. Indeed, for Elizabeth Bennet, as for Marianne and Elinor Dashwood, for Fanny Price, Emma Woodhouse, and Anne Elliott, the real practical importance of criticism (including self-criticism) is precisely in the “practice” that follows criticism, the conduct in domestic and social life which is based on perception and judgement. They must go beyond criticism to action.

However, to describe Elizabeth Bennet as a critic according to Samuel Johnson's definition is to recall to mind that one of Austen's most important and most frequently used techniques for dramatizing the process of observation and judgement is the act of reading itself. Of course in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility, novels still bound to the aims of literary parody,9 there are young women who persist in forming the wrong hypotheses about the world around them because they have read the wrong books too uncritically. In Pride and Prejudice, however, the importance of correct reading is presented more immediately and dramatically by showing the heroine reading, misreading, and rereading a particular written text, a letter.10 These readings may be dramatized as a kind of filtered interior monologue, filtered, that is, through the omniscient narrator's voice, and in this case the monologue is actually an interior dialogue or debate; or the readings may be dramatized in actual dialogue between two different readers, with two different readings, and thus the improvement of opinion into knowledge may take a form closely resembling a debate between two critics. In Pride and Prejudice, for example, the problem of forming correct hypotheses is shown in the early part of the novel in a series of dialogues between Elizabeth and her sister Jane as they read together the letters of others. In the complex cognitive task of improving opinion into knowledge Austen is very much aware of the problem of point of view or perspective, the apparently unresolvable differences in the personal outlook of different individuals (even though, as noted earlier, Austen does suggest very strongly in her novels her belief that there is a true, “objective” point of view from which the world may be known correctly). In Pride and Prejudice, then, this additional problem of relativism is presented clearly in the dialogues on letters between Elizabeth and Jane, for what is immediately obvious is the way the “temper” of each colours her own reading.

The first instance of such critical reading by Jane and Elizabeth is in their discussion of Miss Bingley's letter to Jane, informing her of the sudden removal of the Netherfield party to London.11 Jane reads the letter silently to herself, but Elizabeth reads its probable contents in the changes in Jane's countenance as she reads, and as soon as the sisters are alone they engage in an earnest debate over what the contents might mean. In this debate, the temperamentally optimistic Jane tends to take a pessimistic interpretation of Bingley's sudden removal, while Elizabeth the sceptic tries out of love and kindness to devise a hypothesis which will allow her sister to hope. Jane quotes certain key passages in the letter which seem to support her own hypothesis, and the discussion moves from the letter to the conduct of the Bingleys, as observed and as interpreted by Jane and Elizabeth. The process which Jane and Elizabeth go through in this chapter, from surprise at the letter's contents, through supposition as to its “real” or “hidden” meaning, to decision on the most likely or comfortable explanation, is repeated several times in Pride and Prejudice—in fact it is one of the novel's basic narrative figures. But more than the basic figure is developed here: for the reading of the letter is also an occasion for developing the different but sympathetic characters of Jane and Elizabeth so that the reader of the novel is instructed in how to predict their responses, in how to read them, and thus the novel, more accurately. What this does is to enable the reader to perceive more accurately the situation of dramatic irony which is the primary perspective Austen wishes us to adopt: reading with the characters, but, like the narrator herself, reading better—reading more fully, more justly, and more quickly. What the reader should notice here, then, is the essential irony of the passage: Elizabeth, the most thoughtful and rational of the Bennet girls, uses the procedures of weighing and interpreting evidence (almost in a legal sense: “The case is this …” she tells Jane)12 in order to come up with a hypothesis which will “answer every wish” of her more realistic sister's heart, a hypothesis which will perform for Jane what Jane usually does for Elizabeth, and put the best construction on the actions and characters of others. Reason and argument are being used here, we perceive, to serve fancy and desire. But then we know that where Jane is concerned Elizabeth cannot be impartial; and this prejudice, which seems laudable in itself because the narrator prevents us from seeing Jane in any other way than Elizabeth does, creates others, more dangerous for Elizabeth.

The irony is made apparent three chapters later, at the beginning of Volume II (Chapter 24 in editions with continuously numbered chapters), when a second letter from Miss Bingley seems to show that, in the first instance, Jane was right, Elizabeth wrong. This time, Jane's feelings are more deeply touched, and so a day or two passes before the sisters can debate the matter. Jane's fortitude, and her concern for others before herself, rouse Elizabeth's love for her, and this in turn leads her into a somewhat superficial cynicism towards others. There follows a short debate in which Jane clearly reveals her willingness to believe the best of people, against Elizabeth's strong resistance. Elizabeth's reasons we agree with, Jane's benevolence we admire, but after this preliminary Jane turns the debate closer home, and the dialogue is thick with suppositions, until one is found which will hurt Jane the least. We end up sharing Elizabeth's point of view on the Bingley situation, and on Jane, and therefore, ironically, we end up agreeing with Jane that it is sometimes better to be mistaken than to be right. The passage is studded with the vocabulary of hypothesizing mentioned earlier,13 and nothing in the novel so far could more clearly demonstrate the essential difference of “temper” (the word Austen uses) between the two sisters, the difference of temper which leads them to form different hypotheses to explain the same facts. The reader of the novel, of course, is kept in the dark about Bingley until eleven chapters later when Elizabeth and the reader learn for certain and at the same time that, ironically, Jane's hypothesis was, if not correct, at least better. And, more ironical still, this revelation comes about at the same time as a revelation of much greater consequence to Elizabeth herself, one which is the novel's decisive test of her abilities as a reader and critic, of her ability to observe, reflect, reason and judge.14

The occasion is of course her reading and re-reading of the letter Darcy gives her following his disastrous proposal of marriage at Hunsford Parsonage, the home of Elizabeth's friend Charlotte Lucas and of Elizabeth's first suitor, Mr. Collins. And since Elizabeth's debate with Jane over the propriety and wisdom of this marriage of Charlotte's, she has also been prejudiced against Darcy by the revelations of her second would-be suitor, Wickham, as to Darcy's character for pride, and of Col. Fitzwilliam as to Darcy's hand in the Bingley affair. Darcy's letter contains explanations of his actions on precisely these two accounts, but Elizabeth has already made up her own mind, and so she opens the letter “with no expectation of pleasure, but with the strongest curiosity” (174), curiosity which will lead to self-correction. But first, it is important to note that not only Elizabeth's abilities as a reader are tested; ours are also brought into play: Elizabeth opens the letter, but we are allowed to read it first, before we are told how Elizabeth reads it. This allows us to form our own “first impressions” (the novel's original title) of Darcy's arguments and explanations; and in the case of both we are liable to be as influenced by the vigorous, one might say manly style, as by any new information the letter contains. Having read the letter, as novel readers anxious for “intelligence,” feeling for the letter's reader in the novel, but not as she will feel, we are then curious to compare our reading to hers.

Darcy's letter takes up the last part of Volume II, Chapter 12, which is nothing less than the complete shattering of Elizabeth's previous hypotheses about Darcy, Wickham, and the Bingley affair. Elizabeth's mind has, typically, already been prepared for a revolution in her point of view by the shock of Darcy's proposal, which has left her mind in a “tumult,” a kind of epistemological anarchy which results in the suspension of the mind's usual cognitive powers (i.e., in a kind of blindness), and which is the opposite of the “tranquillity” which accompanies certainty. Nevertheless, Elizabeth begins to read “with a strong prejudice against every thing he might say” (181), a prejudice based on her own hypothesis about the Bingley business and Darcy's motives therein, about Wickham's character and Darcy's treatment of that charming young man, about Darcy's character in general. Thus forearmed, she can only read the first half of the letter, concerning Bingley and Jane, one way:

She read, with an eagerness which hardly left her power of comprehension, and from impatience of knowing what the next sentence might bring, was incapable of attending to the sense of the one before her eyes. His belief of her sister's insensibility, she instantly resolved to be false, and his account of the real, the worst objections to the match, made her too angry to have any wish of doing him justice. He expressed no regret for what he had done which satisfied her; his style was not penitent, but haughty. It was all pride and insolence.


In whatever affects Jane, she cannot be disinterested, and she knows in advance how to feel.

But when this subject was succeeded by his account of Mr. Wickham, when she read with somewhat clearer attention, a relation of events, which, if true, must overthrow every cherished opinion of his worth, and which bore so alarming an affinity to his history of himself, her feelings were yet more acutely painful and more difficult of definition. Astonishment, apprehension, and even horror, oppressed her. She wished to discredit it entirely, repeatedly exclaiming, “This must be false! This cannot be! This must be the grossest falsehood!”—and when she had gone through the whole letter, though scarcely knowing any thing of the last page or two, put it hastily away, protesting that she would not regard it, that she would never look in it again.

In this perturbed state of mind, with thoughts that could rest on nothing, she walked on; but it would not do; in half a minute the letter was unfolded again, and collecting herself as well as she could, she again began the mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham, and commanded herself so far as to examine the meaning of every sentence.


And so she “read, and re-read with the closest attention” (182), but is faced only with two opposing hypotheses which can make sense of the whole business: either Darcy or Wickham is lying. She tries to draw memory to her aid, wishing to believe in Wickham, not Darcy, trying to remember some circumstance besides Wickham's “countenance, voice, and manner” to confirm her judgement of him. “But no such recollection befriended her” (183). Instead, her memory, that most important faculty in the reading process, seems to condemn Wickham. There is for example Wickham's original disclosure of his connection with Darcy:

Many of his expressions were still fresh in her memory. She was now struck with the impropriety of such communications to a stranger, and wondered it had escaped her before. She saw the indelicacy of putting himself forward as he had done, and the inconsistency of his professions with his conduct.


She sees, that is, for the first time, what she could not see before, because her eyes were blinded by her prejudice against Darcy and by the visible, sensible charms of Wickham's countenance, voice, and manner, which she had simply misread as establishing “him at once in the possession of every virtue” (183).

What is interesting here is that what Elizabeth did not see, we probably did not either, and like her, we should have. We are at this moment at one with Elizabeth, and so prepared to exclaim with her, of Wickham, “How differently did every thing now appear in which he was concerned!” It is at moments such as this especially, and in this particular example, that Austen slips into “free indirect discourse,”15 that peculiar fusion of author's and character's point of view which was to become such an important technique for novelists in F. R. Leavis's “great tradition.” Then, from condemning Wickham, Elizabeth must, by sheer force of logic, turn to the “justification” (184) of Darcy, and the meaning of this part of Darcy's letter is now clear to her: she has read both Darcy and Wickham wrongly. The consequence is immediate: it is a self-revelation:

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself.—Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think, without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried.—“I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly.—Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”


The shock of re-cognition drives her back on her self, that is, on the suppositions on which she has grounded her reading, and on her own competence as a reader. Then, having changed her reading of one part of the letter, and the “reality” it refers to, can she ignore the other part? Courage (her other major attribute besides curiosity) must now come to her aid.16 And so “she read [the other part of the letter] again. Widely different was the effect of a second perusal.—How could she deny that credit to his assertions, in one instance, which she had been obliged to give in the other?” One by one she accepts the justness of Darcy's readings—of the likelihood of Jane, whose “temper” Elizabeth knows to be mild, manifesting for certain in her conduct a truly deep attachment for Bingley; of her family's essential vulgarity and foolishness even in public. Here the logic of alliteration reinforces Elizabeth's acceptance of Darcy's use of “terms of such mortifying, yet merited reproach” against her family (and we notice later how the novel itself seems to accept Darcy's criticism of Elizabeth's family, for just two chapters further on Lydia, the embodiment of all the worst weaknesses of the Bennets, advances into the foreground of the story).

It is in every way an active reading and re-reading of Darcy's letter by Elizabeth, an activity neatly underlined by the fact that Elizabeth is physically active as she reads, walking up and down the lane outside Rosings. And so, too, the reading turns into a period of reflection, with Elizabeth “wandering along the lane for two hours, giving way to every variety of thought; re-considering events, determining probabilities, and reconciling herself as well as she could, to a change so sudden and so important” in her understanding of her immediate world. The “fatigue” which eventually forces her “home” to Hunsford Parsonage is, we feel, as much due to her exercise of mind as to her exercise of body (though, once again, the correlation of physical and mental states was learned by Austen from the conventions of sentimental fiction). From anger and prejudice against Darcy, Elizabeth has passed through confusion, to acceptance, to shame, to reflection, to fatigue of mind and body. Such is the effect on the whole person of such a rite of passage.17 But now, having arrived at a complete understanding and acceptance of Darcy's point of view, can she do any more but love him? The attentive reader, familiar with the conventions Jane Austen is here recreating, must now suppose so.18

Elizabeth's acknowledgement that, “Till this moment, I never knew myself,” is a turning point in the novel because Elizabeth learns to re-read not just Darcy's letter, or all that the letter refers to, or the writer of the letter himself; Elizabeth also learns to re-read herself. But the setting up of this turning point also involves the reader in the process of revision. The persuasiveness and force of Darcy's epistolary style is experienced by the novel-reader before it is experienced by the reader in the novel,19 and so we learn to re-read what has already passed in the novel before Elizabeth does, because we cannot simultaneously read what the heroine is reading and read her too. It is a question of the ordering of the material of the story, and this is a question of artistic choice, of narrative strategy. The result, in this case, is that we come to read of Elizabeth's revisions already somewhat chastened by our own reading of Darcy's letter, and so we are both sympathetic to Elizabeth and prepared to judge her as she judges herself. It is a peculiar combination of sympathy and detachment, and so the narrative strategy is matched precisely by Austen's use of “free indirect discourse”: we read as the heroine reads, but we also read the heroine. We find that we are like her in fallibility as a reader; we learn, as she learns, to revise our hypotheses about the other characters, as well as about the heroine herself. But the management of the narration, by first the use of narrative voice and second the distribution of the story material, guides our reading. And so the chapter is a turning point for us as well. Henceforth we embark on a new exercise in hypothesizing: how will Elizabeth and Darcy now get together?

I said just now that the attentive reader will suppose, from Elizabeth's acceptance of Darcy's point of view, that she has nothing left to do but love him, and of this we are given hints in the very next chapter. Elizabeth continues to re-read and reflect on Darcy's letter, “studying” it until she has got it “by heart” (189). If Darcy as she now knows him to be is his letter (the letter replaces the person),20 he has already won her mind and therefore her heart, though of course it is ironical that his writing, not his face-to-face proposal, should gain Elizabeth for him. Elizabeth has to have a text so that she can reflect on it, and take it to heart. The rest, the novel makes plain, is up to time and chance, for this is after all a comic world. When Elizabeth next sees Darcy, it will be but another image, a portrait, but one she can by then read right, and soon after she is surprised by the man himself, almost magically transformed,21 in his physical absence from the novel, into the image of the letter. For, after the turning point of Volume II, Chapter 13, character has been revealed, and so character gives way to plot.

The drama of perception becomes increasingly comic as Elizabeth persists in one aspect of her original hypothesis, that Darcy is proud; but as, in incident after incident, Darcy shows that he does still love Elizabeth, her persistent belief that he must be too proud to propose again becomes, to us readers, an increasingly obvious comic error. Even before Darcy's first proposal other characters—Jane, Miss Bingley, Charlotte Lucas—had correctly read love in his behaviour towards Elizabeth, and the reader of the novel is willing to follow their surmise. After Darcy's failed proposal, Elizabeth's persistent shying from the possibility of a second proposal makes us more likely to entertain the possibility she will not; and we are encouraged to do so by our knowledge that Elizabeth does love Darcy, by the serious obstacle thrown in their way by the Lydia-Wickham affair, and by the recognizable comic tone.

All these are evident signs to the attentive and, in terms of the language of fiction, cultured reader to conjecture with growing confidence that Elizabeth will marry Darcy. Thanks not only to the superior knowledge conferred on us by the narrator, but also to our skill and attentiveness as readers in identifying the plot-signs of romantic comedy, we know pretty well how to read the second half of Pride and Prejudice. Only in the first part, up to Volume II, Chapter 13, are our skill and attentiveness tested, as Elizabeth's are tested. After that point we readers have little more to learn about reading Elizabeth, though Elizabeth still does. This is why Darcy is made by Jane Austen to propose the first time at Hunsford Parsonage, the home of Elizabeth's erstwhile bosom friend Charlotte Lucas Collins. As she leaves Hunsford, and the first part of the novel closes, Elizabeth reflects, “Poor Charlotte!—it was melancholy to leave her to such society [as that of her husband and Lady Catherine de Bourgh]!—But she had chosen it with her eyes open” (192). Surely the reader recognizes the irony here: Charlotte choosing a fool with her eyes open; Elizabeth rejecting a prince of a man out of blind prejudice. The plot of the three suitors—Collins, Wickham, Darcy—has in one way for Elizabeth come full circle. Henceforth, the novel shifts into a different mode, a shift symbolized by a certain kind of removal: it is the last we see of Elizabeth and Darcy meeting, as they have always met before, as the visitors in the houses of others. From now on their game of reading one another will be a home and home series; and for the reader, too, from now on the game can be played with an increasing sense of being at home with the conventions of romantic comedy.22

The clearest sign that this is so is that the narrator becomes positively playful about the conventions of novel-writing in the second half of Pride and Prejudice. There are direct and indirect references to conventions which are being rejected: the refusal to describe the scenery on Elizabeth's tour (213); Mary's novelish moralizing on Lydia's elopement (255); Collins's ditto (261-62); and “public opinion's” preference for novelishly disastrous fates for Lydia (273). There are obvious signs of structural symmetry: Lydia gets married; Jane gets engaged; the third time completes the conventional folk and popular literary pattern of three, and it can only be Elizabeth, and there is no one for her to marry but Darcy. There is use of repetition to tip us off to the joke, as time after time Elizabeth expects Darcy to be proud and aloof. There is also the increasingly evident shift in use of free indirect discourse, as the narrator cools sympathy for Elizabeth into a more ironic and detached rendering of her thoughts and feelings; and we sense the increasingly imminent closure in the gradual withdrawal of the narrative voice from sympathetic commitment to philosophic, if amused, spectating (I mean narrating) of Elizabeth's progress towards matrimony. Finally, after Darcy and Elizabeth have become engaged, there is their own comment on their complicated love-plot as though it were the plot of a novel (339).

However, none of these signs will be evident—or even signs—unless the reader is competent and willing to read them: the novel does not force a reading on us—no novel does—and we will be in the same position as Elizabeth is vis-à-vis Darcy in both parts of the novel unless we are able to recognize the conventions as well as the resistance that must be made to them, unless, that is, we recognize both the necessity and the danger of conventions, the necessity of habits of perception and their ability to blind us to the world as it is.23 And so Austen's novels are about courtship and marriage as both social conventions and exercises for the individual in “reading” and “re-reading” others. Similarly, the novels engage the reader in an exercise in both using and resisting the conventions of the language of fiction. Our satisfaction with the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy, for example, is partly in recognizing its function as a closure of the form, and this is a highly conventional satisfaction in terms of the genre of fictional romantic comedy to which Pride and Prejudice belongs.

Part of the satisfaction is also in recognizing Austen's particular use of the convention in her own oeuvre, the way a true marriage concludes a series of three (sometimes fewer), in which the others in the series are less satisfactory and satisfying versions. But there is for us also the realization that this marriage is inspired in the sense that the mere form of the social convention has been recreated by being filled with meaning and value for the particular individuals involved. And parallel to this satisfaction is a recognition of the way the literary convention has been recreated, by being filled with meaning and value.24 A knowledge of the convention must go with an ability to recognize the ways the convention has been re-invented. Without the former knowledge, we will not have the latter: we will be as uncivilized as Lydia Bennet and all of her party in the novel. Without the latter we will be mere formalists, like Mr. Collins, and all of his ilk in the novel, mistaking convention alone for meaning and value. And so the novel offers us, as it offers Elizabeth Bennet, occasions for mis-reading, and then occasions for re-reading. All we need is curiosity and courage, or confidence in the providential design of the world we are, temporarily, inhabiting.

To summarize, then, the points I have tried to establish are these: that “reading” people and oneself is a problem in Pride and Prejudice for both the heroine and the reader; that Austen uses the reading of actual written texts in order to dramatize Elizabeth's problems in “reading” her social world; that there is a particular crisis of reading for Elizabeth and for the reader in Volume II, Chapter 13; and that thereafter the problem of reading remains, though it is partially resolved for the heroine, whereas it becomes, for the reader of the novel, increasingly a game played with the novelist, in which the reader is called upon to recognize both the conventions of the genre and the author's play with those conventions, and the author's own particular use of conventions.25

The conclusion I draw is that Austen's heroine “reads” herself and her world in terms of her knowledge of the norms and conventions of the languages of feeling and of social conduct in her world, just as the reader reads the novel in terms of the norms and conventions of a particular genre and the author's own oeuvre. Pride and Prejudice is not a modernist novel in which fictional conventions themselves become the subject of fiction; but it is, nevertheless, a novel in which the cultivated art of mediating between convention and originality, habit and freshness of perception, is an issue in both subject and form; and if the process of cultivating this art is demonstrated within the novel by, among other things, the heroine's difficulties in interpreting written texts, the process is actually imposed on the reader by the ways the novel as a whole plays on and plays off the conventions of fiction itself. To read Pride and Prejudice well is to learn how read better; that is why we go on re-reading it.26


  1. See, for example, Susan Morgan, In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen's Fiction (1980), where Austen's interest in perception is seen as similar to that of the Romantic poets; I argue here that Austen inherits, and alters, eighteenth-century models of perception and eighteenth-century fictional techniques (especially in the literature of Sensibility) for dramatizing perception and judgement. Moreover, Morgan does not treat the act of reading itself as a paradigm for the process of perception and judgement. On the whole, I feel that Morgan neglects moral judgement in favour of the act of perception, in order to bring Austen closer to the Romantic poets, and thus farther from her late eighteenth-century predecessors and the eighteenth-century moralists. Alistair Duckworth has also noted “the relativistic (or better, perspectivistic) aspects involved in knowing another person” as an important theme in Pride and Prejudice; The Improvement of the Estate (1971), p. 121.

  2. See Joel Weinsheimer's remarks on chance in “Chance and the Hierarchy of Marriages in Pride and Prejudice,ELH, 39 (1972), 404-19.

  3. Cf. again Morgan, who argues that Austen treats perception and judgement as provisional; I feel she overstates the case for this, and neglects the relationship of perception and judgement to action, which I discuss below.

  4. Cf. again Morgan, who sees Austen rejecting eighteenth-century epistemology. See also Gilbert Ryle's essay, “Jane Austen and the Moralists” (in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. B. C. Sontham, 1968). No one has really followed up on the suggestions in Ryle's essay.

  5. Cf. Stuart Tave's argument in “Jane Austen and one of her contemporaries” (Jane Austen. Bicentenary Essays, ed. John Halperin, 1975) that Austen presents a version of Wordsworth's theme of the marriage of mind and world in the act of perception.

  6. As noted above, Morgan argues that Austen presents perception as irreducibly provisional, and the point I make here would seem to support her argument; but I argue that the “provisional” terms Austen tends to use are “directed” towards assumptions of some discoverable certainty. I would adduce those critics who point out the presence of the narrative voice as a model consciousness which does have direct access to certainty, and which thus “places” and orients the provisional certainties (“surmises,” etc.) in the minds of her heroines. Referring to Tave's argument (see n. 5) and considering the differences between Wordsworth and Austen, I would again adduce the role of the narrator and call on M. Bakhtin's distinction between the “dialogical” nature of prose fiction and the “monological” nature of personal lyric poetry.

  7. On Jane Austen and the gentry see Samuel Kliger's “Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in the Eighteenth-Century Mode” (University of Toronto Quarterly, 16, 1947), Marilyn Butler's Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries (1981) and the sensible remarks in the Introduction to David Monaghan's Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision (1980).

  8. See ch. 3 of Alistair Duckworth's The Improvement of the Estate.

  9. See A. Walton Litz's (as usual) discriminating remarks on the differences between Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, in Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development (1965), pp. 97ff.

  10. Elizabeth is also, of course, a discriminating reader of books; my point is that it is her reading of letters which is a decisive paradigm, and decisive in the plot of perception and judgement.

  11. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ed. Frank W. Bradbrook and James Kinsley (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), I, Ch. 21. Subsequent citations in parentheses.

  12. Reuben Brower has noted the “odd, rather legalistic process” by which Elizabeth weighs the meaning of letters; “Light and Bright and Sparkling: Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice” from his The Fields of Light (1951).

  13. Some of the words in this passage which have to do with hypothesizing are: credit, doubted, reflection, opinion, unaccountable, believe, persuade, convinced, thinking, fancy, deceives, have no idea of, imagine, attributing, take it in the best light; see pp. 119-23 in the edition by James Kinsley and Frank Bradbrook.

  14. Howard Babb's fine discussion of the use of dialogue in Austen's novels (Jane Austen's Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue, 1972) could, I feel, be usefully supplemented by attention to the way that the dialogues are so often exercises in refining hypotheses down to irreducible differences of “temper,” as I have suggested above. One could also consider the incident described below, Elizabeth's reading of Darcy's letter, as a significant kind of dialogue, in terms of Babb's sensitive analysis of the conversations between Elizabeth and Darcy in the rest of the novel.

  15. See the discussion of this topic by Norman Page in The Language of Jane Austen (1972).

  16. Elizabeth declares her courage to Darcy just before he proposes; see p. 155.

  17. Cf. Morgan, who sees Pride and Prejudice as a novel of crisis rather than of rite of passage.

  18. Several critics have written on Austen's use of convention, notably Frank Bradbrook and Kenneth Moler; Marilyn Butler (Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, 1975) has also written on this topic; I feel there is still much more to be said on the subject, and, as my argument here suggests, especially on Austen's use of convention to cultivate and educate the reader's competence as a reader of fiction, and thus of the world the reader inhabits.

  19. Note the discussion of letter-writing earlier in the novel, in ch. 10. Letter-writing is a parallel and correspondent theme to reading, and the two themes join in vol. II, ch. 13.

  20. In his essay on Mansfield Park Lionel Trilling notes that Darcy exhibits “a formal rhetoric, traditional and rigorous” (The Opposing Self, 1955, p. 222); while just in its intent, this remark seems to me to diminish the richness of significance of Darcy's style (in his letter, at least), and to over-simplify the effect of Darcy's style in the universe of styles which is the novel as a whole.

  21. Thus reinforcing the fact that a transformation has occurred in Elizabeth's perceptions, and giving this transformation a power, almost “magical” (the fairy-tale elements do lurk in Austen's novels), to transform the world—at least to transform Darcy. Cf. Marvin Mudrick's view of Darcy's character as simply inconsistent in the two halves of the novel (Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery, 1952, pp. 117-19).

  22. Kenneth Moler, for example, argues that Pride and Prejudice “is in many respects a subtly humorous reflection on Richardson and Fanny Burney and their patrician heroes” (Jane Austen's Art of Allusion, 1968, pp. 94-95). I find Moler neglects to answer the question, What is such “reflection” for? Is it merely to “correct” Richardson and Burney? Or is it to instruct the reader? I am arguing of course that it is the latter (though it may do so by means of the former). Also Moler neglects the issue of Austen's ability to rely on and play off her readers' knowledge of and habituation to the generic properties of romantic-comic fiction; thus his study is too narrow.

  23. Reuben Brower, in one of the more widely read essays in New Criticism's celebration of irony as form (“Light and Bright and Sparkling: Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice”), sees a diminution of irony and thus of density and originality, and an increase of conventionality, in the last third of the novel. I am arguing that this “conventionality” is purposeful, meant to be noticed, far from unironic, and part of Austen's larger strategy in the novel as a whole.

  24. The process is described by Hans-Georg Gadamer: “Every age has to understand a transmitted text in its own way, for the text is part of the whole of the tradition in which the age takes an objective interest and in which it seeks to understand itself” (Truth and Method, transl., 1975, p. 263). If one takes “text” as “institution,” and “age” as “individual,” one has a statement of Austen's interest in marriage, speech, reading, property, fictional conventions, etc., etc. I am not, of course, citing Gadamer in order to claim Austen as a hermeneutist.

  25. Cf. Litz's attributing unity in the novel as a whole to “the indirect presence of Jane Austen's sensibility” and “the direct presence of Elizabeth Bennet as a commanding center of our interest,” while noting the shift from “scenic” construction in the first half of the novel into “the less dramatic narrative” of the second (op. cit., p. 111). I have argued for exercise in reading as an important if not the unifying principle. Cf. also Robert Garis's denial of unity in Pride and Prejudice, in “Learning Experience and Change,” in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. B. C. Southam (1968).

  26. An earlier version of this paper was read to the 1979 meeting of the Association of Canadian University Teachers of English.

Dvora Zelicovici (essay date December 1985)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4732

SOURCE: Zelicovici, Dvora. “Reversal in Pride and Prejudice.Studies in the Humanities 12, no. 2 (December 1985): 106-14.

[In the following essay, Zelicovici concentrates on the third volume of Pride and Prejudice, contending that it is vital in developing Mr. Darcy's and Elizabeth's reversals of conviction.]

The third volume of Pride and Prejudice has frequently been regarded as not merely different from but also inferior to the previous two volumes. Marvin Mudrick sees it “diminish suddenly in intensity and orginality,”1 and Reuben A. Brower argues that the perfect harmony achieved between the ironic dialogue and the movement toward the climactic scenes ceases when Elizabeth arrives at a new view of Darcy. Brower writes, “once we have reached the scenes in which the promise of the introduction is fulfilled, the literary design both ironic and dramatic is complete. Thereafter Pride and Prejudice is not quite the same sort of book.”2 Such a view derives from a misconception of the book's literary design and its overall thematic and dramatic structure.3 The misconception also leads to adverse aesthetic judgments of Volume III. If Austen had intended to compose a novel, in which, as Tony Tanner puts it, “the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a lady changes her mind,”4 then the literary design would have been complete by the middle of the Pemberley section. By then, these two events have occurred, and a happy reconciliation is clearly in the offing. Instead of a proposal, Chapter IV of the third volume brings Jane's letters informing Elizabeth of Lydia's elopement. The happy end is delayed for a third of the novel, not through a need on Austen's part to conform to the fashionable demand for a triple-decker novel, but because in Austen's literary design, a rapprochement between Elizabeth and Darcy would have been premature and facile. The novel has been so structured that by the end a reversal has taken place.

Such a reversal is an integral part of most of Austen's novels, but does not always take the same form. The kind discernible in Pride and Prejudice, and also in Emma, occurs when a crucial event (or series of events) in the first part of the novel is virtually repeated in the last part, with the significant difference that the reactions, emotions, or attitudes of the protagonists are the opposite of what they were previously. The reversal also entails punishment for serious error, involves suffering, and yet allows for a happy resolution.

In Pride and Prejudice the reversal is so systematic and pronounced that it can be regarded as the major shaping principle of the novel. The novel falls into two perfect halves.5 The first traces the chain of errors and misunderstandings that drives Elizabeth and Darcy apart and extends up to Elizabeth's first reading of Darcy's letter of explanation (Vol.II.,chap.xiii). Elizabeth's second reading (of the same letter) is the turning point, and is followed by a reversal for the characters. It has two phases: first a period of “re-cognition”6 and then a painful ordeal. In Austen's books error always results from wrong reasoning. Austen is not, however, a pessimistic Christian, as Marian Butler would have it,7 for her protagonists are capable of learning: they are not incorrigible. They learn to employ reason rightly and gain a clear sight and unimpaired judgment. With the possible exception of Mansfield Park8 Austen's works are definitely rationalistic. But she is a Christian rationalist.9 That is why acknowledgement of error is insufficient without suitable penance, and why that penance characterizes the protagonist's ordeals. The ordeal is a suffering, a testing, a way of paying and earning happiness once the lovers have been properly chastened. This process is not normally viewed as comedy, and is certainly not the “pure” comedy of the first two volumes. Perhaps this explains why the third volume jars on certain readers who sense it is different. They feel let down and, as a consequence, disparage this volume and label it melodrama. It is not. But to get a better appreciation of this volume we must see it as an indispensable part of the novel's reversal structure.

The Darcy that Elizabeth meets at Pemberley, in the first chapter of the third volume, has already completed the re-cognition phase, and is, consequently, capable of making a fresh start with Elizabeth. For the first time in the novel our hero, no longer automatically assuming he enjoys Elizabeth's esteem, is anxiously bent on courting her and on winning her approval. The great courtesy, warm hospitality, and attentions showered on Elizabeth and the Gardiners are clear evidence that Darcy has taken to heart Elizabeth's strictures regarding his presumptuous, ungentleman-like behaviour. But what is not always sufficiently heeded is the nature and extent of the change Darcy must still undergo, the need for which has sharply manifested itself in his attitude to Elizabeth. Though he started to fall in love with her after their second or third encounter, all his efforts were directed to conquering that love, which, as Elizabeth trenchantly remarked, he regarded as an unworthy passion, “against … [his] will, against … [his] reasons, even against … [his] character.”10 Stronger proof, therefore, has to be given that Darcy is indeed a changed man with a very different apprehension of the world and a different set of values. In Austen's scheme, the Lydia-Wickham elopement provides the ideal opportunity for this proof and at the same time exacts a full retribution for all Darcy's former sins of pride. The Pemberley section is thus not an end so much as a beginning, allowing Darcy to put right the errors of the past, a singular demonstration of the reversibility of error in the world of comedy.

The reversal in Elizabeth's case, though similar to Darcy's, possesses subtle differences. The first phase of re-cognition, for instance, is not over by the time Elizabeth comes to Pemberley, for even after Darcy's letter of explanation removes the substance of her ill-opinion, she is still not favourably disposed towards him.11 She has not forgiven him the insolence of his address; moreover, chagrin at her own conduct and her family's as well prevents her from ever wishing to see him again. For a better appreciation of him, Elizabeth must see Pemberley, hear the housekeeper and discover a new Darcy.12 Elizabeth is Austen's only heroine actually seen falling in love with a man she has long known and cared nothing for. Were such a radical emotional change to occur only in a brief coda, it would be as unconvincing as Marianna's change toward Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. Austen's finer artistic sense in this later novel dictated that an entire second phase be devoted to this interesting development. Love is to be quickened by suffering. Elizabeth must therefore be submitted to an ordeal, but unlike Darcy's active testing, hers is a passive trial. This is just since Darcy's actions drove them apart in the first half, while Elizabeth's emotional and mental responses and not her actions spoilt her relationship with Darcy. For the sin of a willed dislike she must be punished, and suffering instructs her into the true nature of her feelings.

This then is the rationale for a third volume and for the elopement which does double duty by serving as the device for both the hero and heroine's ordeals. Volume III, chapter iv begins the ordeals for both protagonists. Elizabeth's suffering begins when Darcy's is eased. His suffering began when he believed his intolerable pride had lost him Elizabeth and his hope is only kindled during the meetings at Pemberley and strengthened by his opportunity to serve her. She, on the other hand, can only suffer on his account when it is her turn to be placed in a situation where she believes he is lost to her. Her disclosure to him of the news of the elopement will, she fears, have this result. Yet her willingness to tell him of such a shameful family matter is a measure both of her confidence in him and of the new intimacy that has sprung up between them. The same proneness to mutual misunderstanding that characterized the entire relationship is manifested here too, but the causes have changed. Elizabeth observes Darcy standing, rapt in thought, meditating the best course to reclaim Lydia, and misinterprets his silence:

Her power was sinking; everything must sink under such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of deepest disgrace. She could neither wonder nor condemn, but the belief of his self-conquest brought nothing consolatory to her bosom, afforded no paliation to her distress. It was on the contrary, exactly calculated to make her understand her own wishes; and never had she so honestly felt that she could love him, as now, when all love must be vain.


It is a brilliantly graphic stroke in the ironic pattern that Darcy's silence should, as at Hunsford,13 be a pregnant source of misunderstanding. He, as usual, says too little, but whereas before his silence sprang from insensitive complacency and concern with family consequence, now it springs solely from consideration for Elizabeth's distress. A delicacy of obtruding himself on her thoughts at this painful juncture, and too great a humility to imagine himself of sufficient importance to her, testify not only to self-forgetfulness but also to the distance he has come since he proposed to her.

An equally significant change is observable in Elizabeth. Instead of her former indifference14 now she is concerned above all else about his feelings for her. An exchange of sensibilities has occurred: ironically, when Darcy ceases to be bothered about the degradation of such a family alliance, she is not only positive he must be entertaining such considerations, but admits the justice of such claims and thinks much less of her own as a person.

Chapter four contains echoes of previous encounters between Elizabeth and Darcy, and Elizabeth is even shown “throwing a retrospective glance over their whole relationship.” She reflects on how “full of contradictions and varieties” it has been, as she sighs “at the perverseness of those feelings which would now have promoted its continuance, and would formerly have rejoiced in its termination” (p.190).

Her ordeal imposes penance for the past feelings, and it is only after the most recent set of contradictions and varieties has satisfactorily resolved itself, that the design of the novel is complete. And this can only happen after the Lydia-Wickham elopement has been taken care of. Once we perceive how neatly that elopement fulfils the various functions of reversal we may stop complaining about its being a threadbare, hand-me-down literary device15 and laud instead the economy and resourcefulness of Austen's art. The elopement is more than a demonstration of the hero's impeccability. It subtly tests out and confirms Darcy's realization of the sovereignty of individual human worth. It is not, as Wiesenfarth argues, that the problem posed in the first part of the novel and resolved in the last third is Darcy's acceptance of the Bennet family.16 The question is not one of acceptance but of Darcy's discovering that love of the right lady knows no impediments. He who prevented the marriage of one sister on the grounds of its imprudence for Bingley, now brings about the marriage of another sister which must add disgrace to an alliance with his own family. And if this were not enough, he who was successful in frustrating Wickham's marrying Georgina for her share of the Darcy fortune (as well as out of spite at Darcy's refusal of his outrageous suit for the living), now has to undergo the humiliation of seeking out, pleading with, and bribing Wickham to become his brother-in-law. This is indeed a nemesis of reversal!

The Lydia-Wickham elopement, moreover, closes the gap between the previously diverse outlooks of the protagonists, for as we have already seen it leads to an equally drastic shift in Elizabeth's views regarding the relative importance of family and the individual. Elizabeth's acute embarrassment at her family's exhibition of itself at the Netherfield ball had, as Mary Lascelles has observed, every appearance of its being the first time she had been so sensitive,17 and the reason is clearly Elizabeth's perception of the scene through Darcy's eyes. Yet at Hunsford she had allowed herself to forget the Bennets' total want of propriety, and it was only after her second reading of Darcy's letter that she understood that Jane's disappointment had been “the work of her nearest relations” (p.144). Understanding then how materially Jane's credit and her own must suffer from their family's conduct, she had attempted to dissuade her father from permitting Lydia's trip to Brighton. But even at this stage she did not yet grasp the true nature of the dangers inherent in Lydia's impropriety. Elizabeth was still primarily concerned with ill-breeding, with breaches of decorum, with relatives for whom she had to blush, that is, with society's opinion. Thus at Pemberley, Elizabeth could revel in the good breeding of the Gardiners and “glory in every expression, every sentence of her uncle which marked his intelligence, his taste, or his good manners” (p.174).

But it takes Lydia's elopement to reveal to Elizabeth the full impropriety of her family's behaviour, and realize the causes which have made such an elopement, if not inevitable, at least a likely consequence of her family's life-style. Only then does she recognize all the implications of her family's irresponsible attitudes.18 Her strictures regarding her father, coming from a daughter so attached to Mr. Bennet as Elizabeth, are harsh indeed. As she explains to the Gardiners, Wickham need not have feared her father's intervention: “[Wickham] might imagine from his indolence and the little attention he has ever seemed to give his family, that he would do as little, and think as little, about it, as any father could do in such a matter” (p.193). She now perceives that Lydia's never having been taught to “think on serious subjects, but allowed to dispose of her time in the most idle and frivolous manner and to adopt any opinions that came in her way” (p.193), is a failure in upbringing. For Elizabeth, as for her author, the elopement is thus not merely a matter for conventional moral condemnation,19 but is to be seen within a framework of cause and effect. Frivolity and idleness are conducive to lack of principle and to reprehensible behaviour.

Austen not only exploits the device of an elopement as a vehicle for the structural and thematic elements of reversal, but has also treated it in a far more imaginative and rich manner than has usually been appreciated. The focus is never on the external action—elopement, chase, hasty wedding—but always on Elizabeth: her first learning about the elopement, her fears, conjectures and conclusions, her reactions to the various letters containing information about the events transpiring, her anxieties and regrets, and her response to the newlyweds. The essential action takes place, as it does in all the mature Austen novels “in the intimate and subtle chambers of her heroine's mind.”20 And what censorious critics may have failed to notice is that Volume III, even more insistently than the previous volumes, is presented almost throughout from Elizabeth's point of view. Everything is filtered through her consciousness. The main narrative technique is not dialogue but free indirect speech, and what should be stressed is the marvelously convincing rendering of the heroine's consciousness as she lives through this most severe crisis of her life.

The sensitive reader has a vivid sense of the way in which Elizabeth's growing apprehension of the moral and social implications of her sister's conduct is made all the more painful by her belief that it must sever her forever from Darcy. She reflects that “had she known nothing of Darcy, she could have borne the dread of Lydia's infamy somewhat better. It would have spared her, she thought, one sleepless night out of two” (p.205). Elizabeth is not yielding here or in other passages temporarily to a kind of hopeless “moralizing on Lydia's disgrace,” nor is the term “infamy” evidence of the author's “inability to assimilate extra-marital sex to her unifying irony” (p.119). Elizabeth's moral judgments are not irrelevant, but as an involved and suffering person, she responds to and reflects on her family's conduct in a new and more mature manner. Her awareness of the price she is paying colors almost every thought and feeling. Instead of a happy marriage which could “teach the admiring multitude what connubial felicity really was” (p.214), she has to live with the bleak prospect of life without Darcy, a prospect all the more dismal now that her own view of her family is so depressing. Furthermore, it is a time of regrets, of reflection on the might-have-beens and should-have-beens resulting from her own folly.

No sooner, for example, does Elizabeth learn that Lydia is to marry Wickham than she regrets having disclosed the truth to Darcy. Second thoughts tell her it can make little difference as Darcy must shrink from any such family connection, and the thoughts which follow these illuminate the nemesis which is now overtaking her.

She was humbled, she was grieved; she repented though she hardly knew of what. She became jealous of his esteem, when she could no longer hope to be benefited by it. She wanted to hear of him, when there seemed the least chance of gaining intelligence. She was convinced that she could have been happy with him; when it was no longer likely they should meet.


She is convinced Darcy must be feeling triumph not because she attributes to him less than noble thoughts, but because she now quarrels with herself. She has been living with the memory of “the petulance and acrimony in her manner of rejecting him and all the unjust accusations that accompanied her rejection” (p.181), and it continues to be a source of constant vexation, as we see from her later apology to Darcy for “having abused … [him] so abominably to … [his] face” (p.253). But this is not all. What Elizabeth is also repenting, even if she is not as yet fully conscious of it, is her previously fostered dislike and wilful misconstructions. Some such thoughts clearly plague her, for these are her laments when she receives her aunt's letter informing her of Darcy's role in bringing about Lydia's marriage: “Oh how heartily did she grieve over every ungracious sensation she had ever encouraged, every saucy speech she had directed towards him” (p.224). And as she puts it later to Darcy, she has realized that she never “spoke to … [him] without rather wishing to give … [him] pain than not” (p.262). The censorious Elizabeth, previously so unfair to Darcy, is now no kinder to herself, and regrets having been the playful, satirical girl enjoying herself at Darcy's expense.

The reversal in Elizabeth's situation, is re-inforced by the structual device of a second letter received, perused, and re-perused. The first letter (the one she received from Darcy at the end of the first half of the novel) was opened with the certainty that it could offer no excuse for Darcy's base conduct, but the second is torn open with the anticipation of an account of an “exertion of goodness too great to be probable” (p.242). As marked a contrast exists in her response after perusal of each letter. Even after several readings of the first Elizabeth could only begrudgingly allow him “capable of some amiable feeling” (p.141). Now on rereading, even her aunt's warm recommendations do not appear to her to do him sufficient justice for she credits him with the greatest disinterested goodness.

Insufficient attention to the narrative perspective gives rise to the notion that there is a deterioration in the quality of writing in these chapters. There has been no suspension of the “author's characteristic response of comic irony” (p.112), nor is there any sign that she “must truncate, flatten, falsify, and disapprove” (p.101). The visit of the newly-weds to Longbourn, singled out in particular for criticsm by Mudrick, is a perfect instance of the danger of confusing Austen with Elizabeth. The visit is a further turning of the screw for our heroine. The sight of the young couple and her mother conducting themselves without the slightest trace of embarrassment makes Elizabeth run out of the room. For those responsible for her unhappiness blandly to ignore the wrong they have done is unendurable. A reader should surely appreciate the naturalness of such feelings of indignation and resentment. It would hardly be credible for a person in Elizabeth's situation to have the equanimity and capacity for a distanced, objective, ironic stance. It is more psychologically convincing that she over-reacts. But it is not Austen who has suspended her irony. Austen is, for the most part silent as Mudrick himself remarks (p.112), and while the author holds virtually the same moral position towards Lydia's conduct as Elizabeth, it is Austen who remarks: “Lydia was Lydia still, untamed, unabashed, wild and fearless” (p.216). It is Austen who is making precisely the point that Mudrick labours—that Lydia is merely “behaving true to character, and that the irony lies in her powerlessness to change, in the incongruity between her conviction of vitality and lack of choice” (pp.111-12). Elizabeth's efforts to shame Lydia are, of course, fruitless, and they are ill-tempered. Mudrick is correct, she should have known better, but it is a perceptive and accurate depiction of Elizabeth that she does try. She is acting in character, for she has shown herself, when provoked, perfectly capable of resentment, acrimony, and sarcasm.

While every person acts in character, our perception of them has undergone a substantial change. Our response, for instance, to Mrs. Bennet's lamentations and subsequent raptures is very different form the ear we turned, so much earlier in the novel, to her complaints about the entail, her nerves, and Elizabeth's refusal of Mr. Collins. She is no longer an object of fun, of broad satire, as Brower would have it.21 We are no longer amused. Every word she now utters grates as we understand the serious implications not of a mean intelligence but of a moral vacuity, a complete incomprehension of all questions of right and wrong. She is not, for example, the least troubled that her brother may have pledged himself to assist Mr. Wickham with money:

Well … it is all very right; who should do it but her own uncle? If he had not a family of his own, I and my children must have had all his money you know … Well! I am so happy. In a short time, I shall have a daughter married. Mrs. Wickham! how well it sounds, and she was only sixteen last June.

We have been made painfully conscious of what it must be like for a sensitive individual to live at Longbourn, and to be “ambushed by an imbecility,”22 but it is an awareness that we gain primarily in this last part of the novel.

On the other hand, while identifying with Elizabeth and sharing her changed apprehension, we are by no means limited to seeing, feeling, and reacting only as she does. We are in the privileged position of enjoying the author's perspective, which is not, as Brower asserts, that of a world which is suddenly simpler than the rest of the novel “where outright judgments of good and bad or happy and unhappy are in place.”23 It is a perspective which allows for a much more complex comprehension and discrimination than Brower notices or than Mudrick appears to require when he insists on the value of the aloof vision of the ironist. This perspective enables the reader to perceive that Elizabeth is not the playful, satirical, lively girl of the previous volumes, and it is perfectly right psychologically, thematically, and structurally that she should not be. Only after her ordeal comes to an end do her captivating wit and liveliness reemerge.

If the novel is the art of preparations, as Henry James affirmed, then Pride and Prejudice is an instance of such art. The holding off of the rapproachement of the two lovers till they have given every proof of being completely ready for each other is an integral part of Austen's design and a perennial source of satisfaction for the novel's constant readers.

The build-up to a second proposal scene, paralleling the climax of the first half of the novel but its ironic antithesis, completes the counter-movement of reversal in the second half. Elizabeth's reaction to the insolent and presumptuous interference, not of Mr. Darcy in her sister's affairs, but of his aunt in her own, paves the way to the opposite conclusion; Darcy's needing his aunt's report to summon up enough courage to speak to Elizabeth is a telling touch of irony that highlights not only his great diffidence but also his better understanding of Elizabeth. The scene of two hesitant lovers fearful that their dearest wishes may not be fulfilled replaces the earlier one where an unwarranted confidence in themselves and in their knowledge of the other had transformed a proposal into a direct and nasty collision. This summation of the chastening process has been subtly effected by a third volume without which, I submit, the novel would have been inestimably the poorer.


  1. Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1968), p. 119.

  2. Reuben A. Brower, “Light and Bright Sparkling: Irony and Fiction in Pride and Prejudice,” reprinted in The Fields of Light: An Experiment in Reading (New York: Oxford Press, 1968), p. 180.

  3. Cf. J. Wiesenfarth, F.S.C., The Errand of Form (New York: Fordham Univ. Press, 1967), p. 61 and A. Walton Litz, Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1965), pp. 110-111.

  4. Tony Tanner, Introd., Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 7.

  5. Cf. E. Halliday, “Narrative Perspective in Pride and Prejudice,Nineteenth Century Fiction, 15 (1961), 68.

  6. Tony Tanner, p. 26.

  7. Marian Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 212.

  8. Mansfield Park is perhaps the exception because three important, central characters, Henry and Mary Crawford and Maria Bertram, prove incorrigible. They show themselves to be incapable of learning even when given ample opportunity. Yet they are none of them unintelligent. Austen would thus appear to be entertaining very grave doubts in this novel as to the possibility of re-educating the vision when wrong reasoning springs from deeply ingrained false values. See my article “The Inefficacy of Lovers' Vows,” ELH, 50 (1983), 531-540.

  9. Butler is correct that Austen is no rationalist as Maria Edgeworth in Belinda for Austen is sceptical about intelligence in a way Edgeworth is not. See also Alistair M. Duckworth for the view that Austen's novels are informed by the traditions of Christian rationalism. In “Prospects and Retrospects,” in Jane Austen Today, ed. Joel Weinsheimer (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1975), p. 21.

  10. All quotations from the novel are from the Norton Critical Edition, ed. D. J. Gray (New York: Norton, 1966), p. 132.

  11. See Vol.II., Chap. xiv.

  12. The significance of Pemberley for Elizabeth's understanding of Darcy has been variously discussed. See Dorothy van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (New York: Harper & Row), pp. 107-8, Litz, p. 111, and Wiesenfarth, p. 67.

  13. Pride and Prejudice, p. 126.

  14. Pride and Prejudice, p. 125.

  15. The critic who comes down most severely on Austen for resorting to literary “grooves prepared … by hundreds of novels of sentiment and sensibility” is Mudrick, p. 120.

  16. Wiesenfarth, p. 162. Samuel Kliger, on the other hand, would have it that this section shows Elizabeth learning to take class into account. In fact, Elizabeth from the outset takes class into account, but it is never a matter of major importance to her and her attitude does not alter. This section shows Elizabeth changing her view, not about the class her family belongs to, but about her family's impropriety. See Samuel Kliger “Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in the Eighteenth Century Mode” in University of Toronto Quarterly, 16 (1945-6), 57-371.

  17. Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and her Art (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1963), p. 162.

  18. Butler, pp. 209-210. Yet while I agree with her that Elizabeth is in some respects like her father, and that we may attribute to his upbringing the fostering of her satirical disposition and consequent complacency, I see no evidence of Elizabeth's ever being in the least culpable of “irresponsible detachment” (p. 209).

  19. See Mudrick, p. 120.

  20. E. Halliday, p. 68.

  21. Brower, p. 75.

  22. Van Ghent, p. 111.

  23. Brower, p. 75.

Anne Waldron Neumann (essay date fall 1986)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15378

SOURCE: Neumann, Anne Waldron. “Characterization and Comment in Pride and Prejudice: Free Indirect Discourse and ‘Double-voiced’ Verbs of Speaking, Thinking, and Feeling.” Style 20, no. 3 (fall 1986): 364-94.

[In the following essay, Neumann studies the speech and thought of Pride and Prejudice, calling attention to Austen's use of “double-voiced verbs,” or verbs that “conflate narration with reported discourse.”]


Since so much of an Austen novel is apparently “shown” or dramatized rather than “told” or narrated, it becomes of particular interest not just to trace how Austen reports the speech and thought of her characters but also to consider when and how judgments on the characters' consciousnesses are implied as well as stated. The following study uses Pride and Prejudice to illustrate one aspect of how Austen creates consciousnesses for her characters by rendering and describing their speech and thought in what Mikhail Bakhtin, in his “Discourse Typology in Prose,” calls “double-voiced utterances”—that is, sentences which combine a character's reported voice with the narrator's reporting voice, sentences in which the narrator can both render, and comment on, the utterance reported (181). This study offers an improved taxonomy of reported discourse, applicable to other English novelists, and, in applying this taxonomy to Austen, it suggests a reading of her fiction.

Bakhtin's philosophy of language justifies close study of reported discourse because this study allows us to see how consciousnesses are formed and influenced: “What we have in the forms of reported speech,” Bakhtin asserts, “is precisely an objective document” of the active, evaluative reception by one mind of the discourse of another (Marxism 117).1 Austen's characters choose from the same modes of quotation and comment as are available to her narrator. Seeing what her characters remember and quote from what Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey calls “social and literary intercourse” (NA 197), we learn how they assimilate that discourse and why they quote it—to satirize, moralize, or romanticize. How language expresses but also shapes judgment in Austen's view suggests how she believes consciousnesses are informed and—ideally—improved by social and literary discourse.

The assurance with which Austen's explicit narratorial comment employs Johnsonian abstract nouns for moral qualities is readily remarked. Much of Austen's characterization and comment is also implied by her telling choice of verbs of speaking and verbs of thinking or feeling, however. These verbs of communication, and of articulated and sometimes nonarticulated consciousness, are worth studying whenever they occur in Austen's narratives, but it is also significant where they occur—whether they originate in the actual discourse of a character, whether they form the narrator's introduction to quoted speech or thought, or whether they may seem to belong to narrator's and character's discourse simultaneously.

The special topic of the following study is such “double-voiced” verbs as these last, which conflate narration with reported discourse to combine concision with liveliness but sometimes also to confuse—intentionally—a character's subjective speech with the narrator's objective account of that character's thoughts or feelings. Ann Banfield claims that a “common assumption” of the “dual voice” view of indirectly reported discourse (which she attempts to refute) is that the inquit or parenthetical—the “he said” or “she thought” that may accompany and identify sentences of reported discourse—is the paradigmatic example of the narrator's contribution to a double-voiced utterance (189). I claim more for the “dual voice” position. I argue below that sometimes—in the “double-voiced” case—the inquit is itself an instance of double-voicedness.2

Since sentences with double-voiced verbs constitute, I suggest, a variation on free indirect discourse, identifying such verbs allows us better to recognize free indirect discourse in Austen's novels. And, because free indirect discourse interweaves what could be a character's words into the narrator's discourse, but without explicitly attributing those words to the character in question, on the correct identification of free indirect discourse depends both who sees and who speaks in a given passage, the factors determining point of view in fiction. I shall suggest that Austen uses double-voiced verbs to distinguish characters whose point of view the narrator cooperates in reporting but also to identify characters who are left to speak their thoughts and feelings for themselves. That is, by means of this single device, Austen's narrator can not only share with her heroines the responsibility for articulating their reflections at the level of thought but can also satirize lesser characters who attribute thoughts and feelings to themselves in their speech—who moralize or romanticize, for example—without the narrator's cooperation and endorsement.


In a recent reconsideration of free indirect discourse, Michael Peled Ginsburg notes that discussions of this narrative mode typically begin by presenting and refuting “definitions of FID offered by critics in the past” (133). Since, in analyzing verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling in Pride and Prejudice, I also discuss what I identify as a variant of free indirect discourse, I too shall begin by briefly describing my model of how free indirect discourse reports speech and thought in Austen's novels.

Austen usually enlivens the description of instances of speech or thought by including words we feel might well partly render them. Free indirect discourse, I suggest, is that mode of indirectly reported speech or thought which quotes what we feel could be at least some of the words of a character's actual utterance or thought but which offers those words interwoven with the narrator's language (though not syntactically subordinated to it) without explicitly attributing them to the character in question (an interweaving that may necessitate certain grammatical transpositions described below). Ginsburg contests “the view that FID is simply the representation of the speech or thought of the characters. Even when the bivocality of the utterance in FID is acknowledged, its ambiguity is usually dismissed” (139). I define free indirect discourse as any sentence (or clause) containing words which (with the necessary grammatical transpositions) could plausibly be attributed to a character by the reader but which are not explicitly attributed to that character by the narrator. (For consistency, I define a sentence or clause without explicit attribution as free indirect discourse even when neighboring sentences contain the inquit which would imply that attribution.) Free indirect discourse in fiction is not necessarily the narrator quoting a character, according to my definition (indeed, in a novel, we could seldom “know” this for certain). It need only read as though it could be quotation. My suggested definition thus welcomes ambiguity but also allows that not every instance of free indirect discourse is equally ambiguous.3

The usual sort of example can demonstrate typical differences between free direct and indirect speech or thought and tagged direct and indirect speech or thought:

(Tagged) direct speech: He asked, “Shall I come here to see you tomorrow?”

Free direct speech: Shall I come here to see you tomorrow?

(Tagged) indirect speech: He asked if he should go there to see her the next day.

Free indirect speech: Should he come here to see her tomorrow?

(Tagged) direct thought: He asked himself, “Shall I come here to see her tomorrow?”

Free direct thought: Shall I come here to see her tomorrow?

(Tagged) indirect thought: He asked himself if he should go there to see her the next day.

Free indirect thought: Should he come here to see her tomorrow?

“Tagged” (to mean “attributed”—quotation with a tag or inquit) is part of Seymour Chatman's terminology in “The Structure of Narrative Transmission” (230): “direct tagged speech,” “direct free thought,” “indirect free speech,” “indirect tagged thought,” and so on.4 I retain the more familiar word order, omit tagged when possible, and use the general term discourse to refer to both “speech” and “thought.” (Thus free indirect discourse, for example, includes free indirect speech and free indirect thought.)

By convention, direct discourse, tagged or free, preserves every word of the actual utterance reported—“actual,” in the case of fiction. Tagged indirect discourse often (but not always) preserves some of them. Free indirect discourse, I suggest, in practice usually includes some of what could be, in Graham Hough's words, “the actual mode of expression, the ipsissima verba of a fictional character” (205)—with, perhaps, certain grammatical transpositions. If free indirect discourse did not preserve potential ipsissima verba, it would be the narrator's single-voiced utterance rather than quotation.5 But determining which words may be quoted in a sentence interpreted as free indirect discourse is no harder than in a sentence of tagged indirect discourse, which may summarize or reorder or paraphrase or merely describe an utterance, as well as select from and in part quote it directly (compare Pascal 26). Again, if a sentence or clause can, in my opinion, plausibly be read as containing indirect quotation without attribution, I identify it as free indirect discourse. Readers may question the plausibility and reject the identification in specific instances. The category of free indirect discourse thus defined remains available, however, whether or not readers agree on particular instances of it.

Direct discourse does not assimilate and subordinate the reported clause to the reporting or attributing clause, if any—the “he said” or “she thought” or, as in the above example, “he asked.” And, except for any reporting clause, this mode of reported discourse is single-voiced, a character's rather than the narrator's voice. In tagged or free indirect discourse, in contrast, one voice quotes and frames another, typically shifting any verbs or first- and second-person pronouns in what may be quotation to the narrative past and to the third person, as in the above examples.6

Tagged direct and indirect discourse explicitly identify the character who authored the utterance by means of the inquit (and tagged direct discourse also identifies exactly which words are quoted by means of quotation marks). Free indirect discourse, on the other hand, omits the inquit which announces quotation.7 Because free indirect discourse lacks attribution, how do we recognize it as possibly reported discourse? That is, how does a novelist foreground the subjective language and viewpoint of a particular character against the usually more objective narratorial background? Or how does one character signal quotation of another character without being explicit? Like any form of irony—and free indirect discourse is often ironic—free indirect discourse must announce itself by some implicit means. We must be able to recognize that such sentences could be read as unattributed quotation of a character by the narrator, or of one character by another. At least, the undecidability of whether to interpret free indirect discourse as quotation should be recognizable.

The example displays the most explicit possible indicators of free indirect discourse. First, free indirect discourse usually preserves (as tagged indirect discourse typically does not) any deictic indicators of the here and now of the speaker's spatial and temporal perspective.8 Second, tagged indirect discourse embeds a character's utterance as a subordinate clause—with subordinate-clause word order—in the narrator's utterance. But free indirect discourse—when it quotes a whole sentence—preserves (as does direct discourse) the word order and sentence form of the original utterance, most noticeably exclamations and questions (Pascal 9). Note, however, that when neither deictic indicators nor verbs and pronouns occur in a reported utterance—when, for example, only a fragment of a character's speech or thought is interwoven without attribution in, say, the narrator's language—we may not find any linguistically definable markers of quoted discourse. Paradoxically, in such a case, all quoted words would be unshifted from the character's “actual” words: we might equally well be reading free direct discourse.9

The most important markers of free indirect discourse are the most difficult to specify: we recognize content and often also diction and syntax particularly appropriate to a character, or particularly inappropriate to the narrator. Such discrepancies are especially apparent in Austen's satiric (rather than sympathetic) free indirect discourse (usually rendering speech in Austen's novels rather than thought) where the reporting and the reported voices seem to clash rather than cooperate.10 Foregrounding what deviates in a character's speech from the narrator's normative background, satiric free indirect discourse in Austen's novels balances between morality and satire, between instruction and delight.

The study of reported speech and thought in fiction may necessitate reconstructing, or hypothesizing, what was “actually” uttered from what is reported. The fabula, as originally conceived by Russian Formalist critics like Boris Tomashevsky, is primarily a reconstruction by the reader of the events of a fiction in their “actual chronological and causal order” (Tomashevsky 67), in contrast to the order in which they may be recounted by the narrator in the sjužet. More generally, “the story [or fabula] is ‘the action itself,’ the plot [or sjužet], ‘how the reader learns of the action,’” according to Tomashevsky (67n).11 Thus the fabula can include reconstructions by the reader of the utterances of a fiction as they “actually” occurred—to whatever extent such reconstruction is possible—without the omissions, grammatical transpositions, or paraphrases with which utterances may be reported by the narrator in the sjužet. Double-voiced utterances are sentences in the sjužet. Interwoven in double-voiced utterances, however, are words “uttered” in the fabula. We may imagine that the narrator creates the sjužet (including the report of the characters' discourse) while Wayne Booth's “implied author” creates both fabula (including the imagined “actual” discourse of the characters) and narrator. This distinction, however artificial, is useful for talking about choices authors make in reporting discourse because it permits us to speak as though other choices were possible. “Narrator” and “implied author” are entities readers abstract from fictional texts; their abstract and necessarily artificial nature does not disqualify them—nor fabula and sjužet—from use by critics. This study freely hypothesizes what readers, if they paused to do so, could infer was said or thought in the fabula from what is written in the sjužet.

This reconstruction is particularly problematic—intentionally so—in the case of free indirect discourse, of course. As Austen wrote her sister after reading the page proofs of Pride and Prejudice, “a ‘said he,’ or a ‘said she,’ would sometimes make the dialogue more immediately clear,” perhaps referring to her practice of omitting the inquit in free indirect discourse. “[B]ut,” she continued, paraphrasing Marmion,

I do not write for such dull elves
As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.

(Letters 297-98)

To read a sentence as free indirect discourse, we must indeed use our ingenuity. We must infer who is quoted and which words of the sentence are quotation. And we are left to guess whether those words in the sjužet were uttered at the corresponding moment in the fabula, and even whether those words were spoken or thought. Nevertheless, we can often, if unconsciously, postulate answers to these questions. Clearly, more of who and which and when and how are defined by the context in some sentences of free indirect discourse. The first examples of free indirect discourse I shall cite from Pride and Prejudice are of this most “definite” type. And my very first example is—perhaps surprisingly—free indirect quotation by a character rather than by the narrator.

Mr. Bennet is one of those characters in Pride and Prejudice who is as capable of satire, including ironic quotation, as Austen's narrator. Mr. Bennet “would not give up Mr. Collins's correspondence for any consideration,” for example, because its absurdities are so invaluable to quote and laugh at (364). When Mr. Bennet tells Elizabeth that the conclusion of a letter from Mr. Collins “is only about his dear Charlotte's situation, and his expectation of a young olive-branch” (364), we know Mr. Bennet is mimicking Mr. Collins. That is, the direct speech in which his remark to Elizabeth is reported contains Mr. Bennet's free indirect discourse: in describing Mr. Collins's letter, Mr. Bennet also quotes him. “Dear Charlotte” must be quoted from Mr. Collins's latest letter: Mr. Collins's bride was his “amiable Charlotte” in an earlier letter (128), and Mr. Bennet would not normally address her by her first name. The “young olive-branch,” who will succeed Mr. Collins as heir to Mr. Bennet's entailed estate, is of course not described in these words in Mr. Collins's latest letter. But “olive-branch” quotes Mr. Collins's first letter to Mr. Bennet, transcribed earlier by the narrator, in which (Mr. Bennet evidently recalls) Mr. Collins offered himself as a matrimonial “olive branch” to make “every possible amends” to one of Mr. Bennet's daughters for inheriting Longbourn (63).12

Like Mr. Bennet, Austen's narrator too is skilled at the kind of free indirect discourse that makes words a character has previously said a vehicle for satire.13 After Mr. Darcy's marriage to Elizabeth, the narrator tells us, Lady Catherine “condescended to wait on them at Pemberley, in spite of that pollution which its woods had received” (388). This sentence is a triple-voiced utterance, genuinely polyphonic rather than merely dialogic. “Pollution” is not the narrator's opinion, of course; it quotes Lady Catherine “condescending” to visit Elizabeth to express in person her objections to a match between Elizabeth and her nephew: “Heaven and earth!—of what are you thinking? Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” (357). “Condescend,” in an amusing interweaving of points of view, is the verb Mr. Collins uses again and again to describe Lady Catherine. For example, in another of his letters to Mr. Bennet, Mr. Collins writes:

“After mentioning the likelihood of [a marriage between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy] to her ladyship last night, she immediately, with her usual condescension, expressed what she felt on the occasion; when it became apparent, that … she would never give her consent to what she termed so disgraceful a match.”

(363, and compare an earlier letter, 297)14

By Lady Catherine's “usual condescension,” Mr. Collins—a sycophantic toady—thinks he means something like “graciousness” or “affability to one's inferiors”; we understand by it that Lady Catherine is displaying her usual abusive frankness and patronizing officiousness. Mr. Collins intends “condescension” in a positive sense; the narrator co-opts Mr. Collins's word to suggest its pejorative connotations.

Our first two examples of free indirect discourse quote words or phrases we have previously seen used by the characters in question—Mr. Collins's “olive branch,” Lady Catherine's “pollution.” We can answer whose words, which words, and when and how they were uttered (whether in speech or in thought) because we received all this information the first time the words were quoted. This is one extreme of free indirect discourse, which I call “definite” to reflect our certainty that it quotes “actual” utterances.15

If the contrast between the narrator's and a character's idiom and viewpoint is marked enough, however, we can readily identify what may be quotation without first having “heard” it, so to speak, from the character's own lips. We recognize mimicry without having experienced precisely what is mimicked. The devices by which Austen's narrator signals quotation of this type can be quite explicit. Sometimes we “know” by some means that there was an utterance by a particular character in the fabula, and a sentence at the appropriate point in the sjužet strikes us as translating back into the sort of thing that character would typically say in that situation. I call this kind of free indirect discourse, much the most common kind, “almost definite” free indirect discourse. My final introductory examples are of this not completely but very highly defined variety: that is, we have little doubt who uttered which words when and how (an “indefinite” type of free indirect discourse is discussed below). I do not imply that “almost definite” free indirect discourse is always immediately recognizable as possible quotation (though this is often the case) but merely that an argument for reading it as quotation can be very strongly made. The following examples suggest that, even when highly defined, free indirect discourse still retains a quality of distance and ambiguity.

In Pride and Prejudice, free indirect discourse is used very deftly to render conventional politeness, sometimes underlining how characters fail to say everything we suppose them to think and especially amusing when the characters speaking are at some level conscious of their own indirectness, when we see them attempting by indirections to find directions out. Free indirect discourse, which typically hovers between direct and indirect discourse in its linguistic characteristics, and adds a dimension of indirectness all its own by not being attributed, is a particularly appropriate medium to convey such coyness. We get an example of this kind of social fencing when Mrs. Bennet, “amid very complaisant smiles and general encouragement,” cautions Mr. Collins against fixing his hopes of finding a mistress for his humble abode in Jane:

—“As to her younger daughters, she could not take upon her to say—she could not positively answer—but she did not know of any prepossession;—her eldest daughter, she must just mention—she felt it incumbent on her to hint, was likely to be very soon engaged.”


The quotation marks in this passage—Austen did not know that free indirect discourse is supposed to omit them—ensure that we are reading Mrs. Bennet's “actual” reply to Mr. Collins (with the usual grammatical transformations): “As to my younger daughters, I cannot take upon me to say—I cannot positively answer,” and so on. The syntax—coy hesitations and repetitions quickening toward her evident note of triumph at the end—reproduces Mrs. Bennet's imitation of elegant delicacy as she sets a trap for a second suitor without upsetting the snare in which she hopes an earlier suitor is about to become engaged.

Something the plot demonstrates Mrs. Bennet does well, after all, is to secure husbands for her daughters whether or not the gentlemen are “in want of a wife” (3). One of the novel's vindications of Mrs. Bennet is a scene in which Mr. Bingley, freed to resume his courtship of Jane by Mr. Darcy's tacit approval—and by Mr. Darcy's temporary absence—cooperates with Mrs. Bennet in her maneuvers to invite him to dinner. Mr. Bingley's complicity is also conveyed in almost definite free indirect discourse (but this time without quotation marks):

Mr. Bingley called again, and alone. His friend had left him that morning for London, but was to return home in ten days' time. He sat with them above an hour, and was in remarkably good spirits. Mrs. Bennet invited him to dine with them; but, with many expressions of concern, he confessed himself engaged elsewhere.

“Next time you call,” said she, “I hope we shall be more lucky.”

He should be particularly happy at any time, &c. &c.; and if she would give him leave, would take an early opportunity of waiting on them.

“Can you come to-morrow?”

Yes, he had no engagement at all for to-morrow; and her invitation was accepted with alacrity.


In this passage (the second sentence of which, incidentally, is also free indirect discourse), Mrs. Bennet understands that Mr. Bingley is near the point and that strategy no longer requires indirection; her share of the dialogue is in direct discourse. It is Mr. Bingley—still viewing with “half-laughing alarm” (340) Mr. Darcy's “concurrence” in his wooing (346)—who contrives with Mrs. Bennet for an invitation in that combination of directness and conscious indirection so deftly rendered—in the third paragraph of the passage quoted and in the first clause of its final sentence—in free indirect discourse.16

In both these last examples of free indirect discourse, whole sentences (or clauses) of the narrator's report coincide with whole sentences of the character's presumed utterance (except for the “&c. &c.” summarizing Mr. Bingley's polite formulae). In our first two examples only a few words attributable to a character were interwoven in the narratorial background. The free indirect discourse which highlights selected words or phrases, and which usually reports speech in Austen's novels, is nearly always satiric because the contrast between the fragments of quoted language and the narratorial background (in particular, the rest of the words in the sentence)—and thus the implied discrepancy between narrator's and character's points of view—is especially marked. What we might call the free indirect discourse of whole sentences, on the other hand, often intersects with sympathetic rather than satiric free indirect discourse. Elizabeth's thought is typically reported in the free indirect discourse of whole sentences, frequently in language indistinguishable from the narrator's idiom, so that any “functional contrast” between narrator's and heroine's viewpoint is minimized.17 But, in comic situations, whole sentences of a character's idiom stand out against the implied norm of the larger narratorial background. The free indirect discourse of whole sentences can be used to report speech satirically with little danger that readers will long confuse such sentences with narration.18


The verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling which introduce and identify sentences of tagged direct or indirect discourse originate with the narrator. But characters may also employ such verbs in their speech or thought (in Mrs. Bennet's speech to Mr. Collins quoted above, for example, “say,” “answer,” “know,” “mention,” “felt,” and “hint”). Some verbs of speaking that seem to belong equally well to narrator or character occur near the end of Pride and Prejudice. Here, after Jane and Mr. Bingley are finally engaged, what earlier seemed Mrs. Bennet's “schemes” and “invention” and “ill-judged officiousness” (345-46) have become, in Jane's words, “affectionate solicitude” (347). Now Austen demonstrates that even her favorite heroine—and even her stateliest hero—are not above similar happy contrivances, despite Mr. Darcy's earlier assertion that, especially in courtship, “‘Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable'” (40). Here Mr. Darcy, after he has proposed to Elizabeth for the second time and been accepted, cooperates in free indirect discourse—like Mr. Bingley—with Mrs. Bennet's newest scheme. To leave Jane and Mr. Bingley alone together, Mrs. Bennet suggests Elizabeth and Kitty show Darcy Oakham Mount because “‘It is a nice long walk, and Mr. Darcy has never seen the view.’” Elizabeth, who has not yet told her mother of her engagement, can “hardly help laughing at so convenient a proposal” (374) and “silently consent[s]” (375):

Kitty owned that she had rather stay at home. Darcy professed a great curiosity to see the view from the Mount.


The self-consciousness of Mr. Darcy “profess[ing] a great curiosity to see the view” is heightened by a device which, once we remark it, we see constantly recurring in Austen's novels. I have suggested that Mr. Darcy's reply is free indirect speech although it may initially appear to be tagged. For instance, one could argue that Mr. Darcy's reply might have looked like this, rendered in tagged direct speech: “I have a great curiosity to see the view,” Darcy professed. A rendering in tagged indirect speech might then have looked like this: Darcy professed that he had a great curiosity to see the view. Or, since indirect discourse can summarize any part of the reported clause as well as omit “that”: Darcy professed a great curiosity to see the view. This is exactly the wording of the novel. Since to profess can mean to make a pretense of, we might infer that Mr. Darcy's duplicity is being announced by the narrator's choice of inquit. But to profess is also to declare publicly, and we might suppose that what Mr. Darcy “actually” said (in some fabula we may hypothesize behind Austen's sjužet) was, intending to profess in the sense of avowal: “I profess—or, I profess that I have—a great curiosity to see the view.” The wording in the novel would then be free indirect discourse, but there is in fact no way to tell for certain whether we have before us an example of free or tagged indirect speech. (Similarly, in the fabula we hypothesize behind Austen's sjužet, perhaps Kitty owned, “I had rather stay at home.” But Kitty may equally well have said, “I own that I had rather stay at home.”) Mr. Darcy's “profess” seems deliberately chosen to tease us into wondering how far his “anxious circumspection” (347) has bent in taking advantage of Mrs. Bennet's scheme for leaving Jane and Mr. Bingley alone together to contrive some privacy for Elizabeth and himself.

Such a verb as Mr. Darcy's “profess” or Kitty's “own,” which might either be part of the narrator's inquit introducing tagged indirect discourse (that is, it originates with the narrator, in the sjužet) but which could equally well render part of the character's “actual” discourse (that is, it originates with a character, in the fabula), I call a “double-voiced verb of speaking.” And I call the mode of discourse that results from using such verbs, though it may seem equidistant between tagged and free indirect discourse, “free indirect discourse with double-voiced verbs of speaking.”

I classify sentences with double-voiced verbs as free rather than tagged because the double-voiced verb leaves it ambiguous whether narrator or character is responsible for the sentence. We cannot tell, that is, whether the above example is the narrator's summary of Mr. Darcy's statement, with all the objective endorsement—or perhaps the satiric coloration—this may imply, or whether it constitutes Mr. Darcy's own words, which, we presume, are neither so objective nor so satiric. Although a strong argument can often be made for reading sentences of free indirect discourse with double-voiced verbs as character's utterance, such an interpretation is not always immediate. Moreover, I shall suggest in a moment, with an example of Mr. Collins's discourse, that double-voiced verbs occur with differing degrees of probability of belonging to character or narrator: some double-voiced verbs are almost certainly the character's but just possibly the narrator's, some seem evenly balanced between the two possibilities, and some seem far more likely to belong to narrator than character. Thus the sentences such verbs introduce hover variously between narrator's and character's account, which justifies calling them “free” although they contain what looks like an inquit. Although a double-voiced verb is a kind of attribution, it only associates a sentence with a particular character but does not tell us whether to attribute it to him or her. Such ambiguity typifies free indirect discourse. Classifying these sentences as variations on free indirect discourse means that a simpler initial definition of free indirect discourse suffices.

Having once identified this device in Austen's novels, we see not only how often she uses it but also how much more “dramatized” her narratives become by the frequent possibility that what looks like narration, that is, an inquit, could instead be reported discourse. Again, such a phrase need not positively be reported discourse, according to my definition; indeed we can never “know” whether a double-voiced verb comes from character and fabula or narrator and sjužet. It need only sound as though it could be quotation.19 By conflating inquit with possible reported discourse, double-voiced verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling combine concision with liveliness. They also increase the flexibility of Austen's narratives by making transitions between passages of dialogue and narration—that is, between scene and summary—smoother because more gradual.

Because double-voiced verbs are sometimes verbs of thinking or feeling rather than verbs of speaking, sentences which first looked like the narrator's indirect report of a character's thoughts or feelings can seem on closer inspection to be free indirect discourse. (Double-voiced verbs must be either verbs of speaking, thinking, or feeling since they must be readable as the verb in an inquit.) An example of a double-voiced verb of feeling occurs in an exchange between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy during the walk on which Mr. Darcy proposes a second time and is accepted:

“What could [have] become of Mr. Bingley and Jane!” was a wonder which introduced the discussion of their affairs. Mr. Darcy was delighted with their engagement; his friend had given him the earliest information of it.

“I must ask whether you were surprised?” said Elizabeth.

(370; Austen's emphasis)20

The exclamation which begins this passage is another example of free indirect discourse with quotation marks. Although it is not explicitly attributed to her, it must render Elizabeth's speech (Mr. Darcy would have wondered about “Bingley and Miss Bennet”). We understand that what Elizabeth said was, “What can have become … ?” The second sentence could begin as tagged indirect thought, the narrator relating how Mr. Darcy feels about Bingley's engagement and thus implying what Mr. Darcy contributes to the ensuing “discussion.” But it is more likely a free indirect report of Mr. Darcy's actual speech. That is, what resembles internal focalization on Mr. Darcy is more probably externally focalized,21 the narrator's report of a speech in which Mr. Darcy partly anticipates Elizabeth's next question by reaffirming his direction of Mr. Bingley's affairs: “I am delighted with their engagement; my friend gave me the earliest information of it.” Here a double-voiced verb phrase—“was delighted”—smooths a transition, from narration (“the discussion of their affairs”) to dialogue. Note, however, that the opening exchanges of this dialogue have apparently already been rendered in free indirect discourse, demonstrating how flexibly Austen uses this narrative mode. I should again emphasize that double-voiced verbs of thinking or feeling can introduce sentences that resemble tagged indirect thought but may render speech—if the character in question is speaking of his or her thoughts or feelings.

The formality of language in Austen's day as compared with our own multiplies the opportunities for free indirect discourse with double-voiced verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling because conventional politeness affords a rich choice of potentially double-voiced verbs. In the following passage, for example, the Miss Bennets make an acquaintance:

Mr. Denny addressed them directly, and entreated permission to introduce his friend, Mr. Wickham, who had returned with him the day before from town, and he was happy to say had accepted a commission in their corps. This was exactly as it should be; for the young man wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming.


The opening sentence of this passage, if we omit “addressed them directly,” is free indirect discourse with double-voiced verbs of speaking and feeling (“entreated” and “was happy to say”). It may well reproduce Mr. Denny's ipsissima verba, subject only to the usual transformational rules. Certainly the words of the sentence would be characteristic of Mr. Denny, and his “direct” “address” is reported by them. We cannot be completely certain that what Mr. Denny “really” said was, “I entreat permission to introduce my friend … who … I am happy to say has …,” but this is still an instance of what I called “almost definite” free indirect discourse.

The last sentence of the passage quoted above may also be free indirect discourse, however, or at least narration highly colored by a perspective foreign to the narrator's (and therefore constituting the narrator's ironic comment on that foreign perspective): it represents what the younger Bennet sisters might say to themselves privately, or perhaps do say to each other later—though not, presumably, what even Lydia would be bold enough actually to say to Mr. Wickham's face. That is, though the language and the sentiments are certainly characteristic of Kitty and Lydia, we cannot know whether the sentence renders an actual utterance of theirs or only reports the sort of thing they would say or think. Therefore, I call this narrative mode “indefinite” free indirect discourse because, although we can correctly identify the character to associate it with in the sjužet where it appears, its status as discourse in the fabula is uncertain. We can be almost entirely confident Kitty and Lydia have not exposed themselves by actually speaking this sentence, at least not in this scene. But neither can we be entirely certain that they think it.22

Indefinite free indirect discourse, which often hovers between speech and thought in this way, resembles in its ambiguity, but in another sense reverses, free indirect discourse with double-voiced verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling. Indefinite free indirect discourse possibly quotes a character but may really be the responsibility of the narrator, while a typical example of free indirect discourse with double-voiced verbs looks like the narrator's tagged indirect report of a character's speech or thought but is more probably the character's own account of him- or herself.

The free indirect discourse reporting Mr. Denny's speech introducing Wickham is, however, perfectly straightforward: sympathetic rather than satiric. Interpreting this sentence as free indirect discourse (that is, reading its double-voiced verbs as belonging to Mr. Denny) does not clash with interpreting it as tagged indirect discourse (that is, reading the double-voiced verbs as the narrator's). Mr. Denny's politeness, his “entreat[ing] permission” to perform an action and his being “happy” to be able to say something, we accept as plausible language for a character of Austen's day and Mr. Denny's rank. If he strikes a modern reader as wordy and overly formal, there are characters in Pride and Prejudice who are genuinely pompous and verbose—verbose, that is, according to the novel's norms. As with many of the narrative devices in Pride and Prejudice, double-voiced verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling are worth special scrutiny in their satiric mode, where they suggest the origins and workings of both Austen's satire and her didacticism. If formality is a rich source of double-voiced verbs, and wordy formality even richer, we can predict that Mr. Collins's discourse will prove a gold mine of examples.

Mr. Collins's discourse is so larded with verbs of speaking and, especially, thinking, and the verbs selected are so characteristic of his diction rather than the narrator's, that we cannot, however, long mistake his free indirect discourse for tagged indirect speech or thought. The device of double-voiced verbs emphasizes an aspect of his personal style. Here is a brief sample of Mr. Collins's wordy formality when meeting Mrs. Philips:

She received him with her very best politeness, which he returned with as much more, apologizing for his intrusion, without any previous acquaintance with her, which he could not help flattering himself however might be justified by his relationship to the young ladies who introduced him to her notice. Mrs. Philips was quite awed by such an excess of good breeding.


The verbs of speaking and thinking associated with Mr. Collins in this passage could translate directly, we feel, into his actual discourse: “I apologize, Madame, for my intrusion, without any previous acquaintance with you, which I cannot help flattering myself, however, may be justified by. …” Because The verbs of speaking and thinking associated with Mr. Collins in this passage could translate directly, we feel, into his actual discourse: “I apologize, Madame, for my intrusion, without any previous acquaintance with you, which I cannot help flattering myself, however, may be justified by. …” Because “apologizing for his intrusion” could be tagged rather than free indirect speech, “apologizing” is indeed a double-voiced verb of speaking. But “flattering himself” is double-voiced only on first inspection. It is just barely possible that a sentence beginning “Mr. Collins could not help flattering himself that …” should be read as tagged indirect thought. But I have just suggested that a sentence which looks like Mr. Darcy's thought more probably renders his speech. We may begin to suspect that internal focalization through characters other than the heroine—even the hero—is rarer in Austen's novels than “first impressions” suggest since it so often conflates in this way with reported speech. Moreover, everything we know about Mr. Collins and his usual ecstasies of humility suggests that “flattering himself” is transformed from his actual speech (“actual” in the fabula we postulate). Indeed, Mr. Collins “flatter[s] himself” every time he opens his mouth. Even when he is “apologizing for his intrusion,” or humbly attributing his flattering reception to his relationship with someone else (here the Bennet sisters, usually Lady Catherine de Bourgh, occasionally the Divinity), he gratifies his vanity by drawing attention to his humility.

Mr. Collins's wordiness consistently draws attention to himself, in fact. Another example of his attention-getting speech, demonstrating that verbs can be double-voiced in varying degrees, occurs as Mr. Collins escorts his cousins home from a second visit to Mrs. Philips:

Mr. Collins, in describing the civility of Mr. and Mrs. Philips, protesting that he did not in the least regard his losses at whist, enumerating all the dishes at supper, and repeatedly fearing that he crouded [sic] his cousins, had more to say than he could well manage before the carriage stopped at Longbourn House.


An amusing implication of this passage is that Mr. Collins sees praising and apologizing and entertaining his cousins as duties to “manage.” But which of the four gerunds describing his duties in this passage might belong to both narrator and character, thus deserving to be called “double-voiced”? “Describing” is clearly not double-voiced at all; it can belong only to the narrator and not to Mr. Collins's discourse. The phrase it introduces is therefore tagged indirect speech, and very indirect at that (note, though, that Mr. Collins needlessly describes something flattering to himself to those who were there to observe it). “Protesting,” on the other hand, might be double-voiced, that is, part of Mr. Collins's discourse (“I protest, my dear Miss Bennet, that I do not in the least regard …”). Though the verb may seem more likely to belong to narrator than character, this phrase is possibly free indirect discourse (Mr. Collins protests too much, however). “Enumerating” is another single-voiced verb: the phrase it introduces is the narrator reporting through the medium of tagged indirect speech that Mr. Collins talked about food (again a perfectly unnecessary “enumeration,” given his audience, but food is another of his obsessions). “Fearing,” finally, is unmistakably part of Mr. Collins's actual discourse (therefore he “repeatedly” fears). “Fearing” is thus near the other end of the double-voiced spectrum, belonging entirely to the character and not at all (or only as her joke) to the narrator.

“Fearing,” however, is typical of Mr. Collins “repeatedly” drawing attention to himself and to how humble he is; that the main clause of his presumed utterance has himself and his mental condition for its topic (“I fear that …”) rather than his cousins' physical condition (“… that I crowd my cousins”) testifies to his self-absorption. To “fear” something is not to exert oneself to avoid it. In particular, though we cannot “know” that Mr. Collins's actual utterance (in the fabula) was “I fear that I crowd my cousins,” an utterance which fails to address his cousins—and the problem—directly, nonetheless, we presume (because free indirect discourse preserves questions) that his original utterance was not a question (“Am I crowding my cousins?” or perhaps, repeatedly, “Am I crowding you?”). A question would have implied a promise to rectify the situation, given an affirmative reply. Mr. Collins's free indirect discourse implies at most a wish to rectify the situation. Mr. Collins is all humility in the wish he expresses, all self-absorption in his actual behavior.

A brief recapitulation may be helpful here. The subject of double-voiced verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling has led us to begin considering how much of Austen's characterization and comment is conveyed by her telling choice of verbs and verbals of speaking, thinking, and feeling, whether such verbs occur in the actual discourse of a character, whether they form the narrator's tag introducing direct or indirect discourse, or whether they are the double-voiced verbs we have been examining in passages of free indirect discourse. I suggested above that absence of attribution is the essential feature of free indirect discourse: that is, we must look for markers other than inquits to be sure we are not reading the narrator's language and viewpoint. It is tempting to speculate that double-voiced verbs are frequent in Austen's novels, that is, that they apparently emerge as a literary device at about the time that free indirect discourse emerges into prominence (especially the free indirect discourse reporting whole sentences), because they continue to supply, though in a more dramatized form, the inquits that free indirect discourse omits.

Free indirect discourse with double-voiced verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling has a special dimension of ambiguity and satire, however. This mode of discourse may first resemble the narrator's objective account of a character but may equally appear to be the character's subjective account of himself. The sentence of Mr. Collins's presumptive discourse that we have been examining (“I fear that I crowd my cousins”) is as typical of Austen's method of commenting by means of verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling as it is of Mr. Collins's style. Mr. Collins's discourse is full of such apparently superfluous introductory tags (“I fear that”), which subordinate the ostensible matter of his sentences to his own state of mind and whose verbs are then available to become double-voiced. To convince ourselves how easy it would be to turn Mr. Collins's speech into this sort of free indirect discourse, a narrative mode which might almost have been invented with him in mind, we need only look at an example of his speech which the novel renders in tagged direct discourse. In the following passage—both the first part in free indirect speech (embedded in indirect thought describing Elizabeth's “surprise”)23 and the second part in direct speech—the verbs and verbals by which Mr. Collins refers to his own speech and thought are underlined:

[Elizabeth] was rather surprised to find that [Mr. Collins] entertained no scruple whatever on that head [accepting Mr. Bingley's invitation to the Netherfield ball], and was very far from dreading a rebuke either from the Archbishop, or Lady Catherine de Bourgh, by venturing to dance.

“I am by no means of opinion, I assure you,” said he, “that a ball of this kind, given by a young man of character, to respectable people, can have any evil tendency; and I am so far from objecting to dancing myself, that I shall hope to be honoured with the hands of all my fair cousins in the course of the evening, and I take this opportunity of soliciting yours, Miss Elizabeth, for the two first dances especially,—a preference which I trust my cousin Jane will attribute to the right cause, and not to any disrespect for her.”


As in our previous example, where we inferred what Mr. Collins “actually” said from the rendering of his speech in free indirect discourse, in the latter part of this passage too, where we see his speech directly, we find a profusion of superfluous verb phrases purporting to express his precise state of mind. Of the eight clauses of his speech rendered in direct discourse, we note that “I” is the subject of six, including every one of the independent clauses. Other nouns and pronouns are consequently relegated to relatively subordinate syntactic roles: Mr. Collins's “fair cousins” are introduced by the synecdochal “hands,” for example, and “my cousin Jane,” who is actually the subject of her own dependent clause, appears to be the object of Mr. Collins's interpolated “I trust” and must give precedence to his “preference.” We note also Mr. Collins's pedantic penchant for specifying to his listeners what he takes to be the exact degree to which he holds each of his opinions: “by no means of opinion” and “so far from objecting,” for example, and, from the first part of his reply to Elizabeth rendered in free indirect discourse, “no scruple whatever on that head” (with its reminder of sermon-making) and “very far from dreading.” Though such phrases promise information, they convey very little, other than Mr. Collins's endless self-absorption and the suspicion that he entertains no genuine self-examination on any head.

Let us examine one more example of Mr. Collins's direct discourse, again noting the many excuses Mr. Collins finds for referring to himself, but this time taking the liberty of editing his speech to see by one more means how much of his discourse is apparently superfluous:

“If I,” said Mr. Collins, “were so fortunate as to be able to sing [If I were able to sing], I should have great pleasure, I am sure, in obliging the company with an air [I should oblige the company with an air]; for I consider music as [for music is] a very innocent diversion, and perfectly compatible with the profession of a clergyman.—I do not mean however to assert that we can be justified in devoting too much of our time to music [We cannot, however, devote too much of our time to music], for there are certainly other things to be attended to. The rector of a parish has much to do.”


Since Mr. Collins begins this speech speculating aloud about his hypothetical (“If …”) state of mind (“… I”), a subject which can have little interest for his audience, his entire speech seems superfluous. We may begin to suspect that the purpose of Mr. Collins's discourse is very frequently to pronounce his own opinion, even when he is not asked for it, even when, as here, he was only one among “Others of the party … applied to” to entertain the company at the Netherfield ball (101). Mr. Collins's long and inappropriate homily on music and clerical duties becomes, ironically, his contribution to the entertainment of the assembled party—or at least to that of the satirical Mr. Bennet.

In Mr. Collins's readiness to volunteer his opinion, we see an imitation of Lady Catherine de Bourgh which may be the sincerest form of his flattery for his noble patroness. Not only does he always defer to Lady Catherine's opinions, but, as a snob who himself fills a position of authority, he lays down the law as much as she does, she from the eminence of her social and economic position, he from his clerical one. Mr. Collins's opinions are that clergymen may dance and sing, we have seen, and also that they must marry. Lady Catherine is Mr. Collins's authority on all these questions, especially the last: “Twice has she condescended to give me her opinion (unasked too!) on this subject” (105). Like his patroness, Mr. Collins not only delights to give his opinion—“unasked too!”—he also, we have seen, habitually announces that he is giving an opinion: “I am by no means of opinion, I assure you …”; “I consider …”; “I do not mean however to assert. …” The effect is to draw attention to the pronouncement rather than to what his opinion is or how it was arrived at. The phrases Mr. Collins uses convey the illusion of someone who weighs his thoughts and arrives at judgments. Perhaps his studies at “one of the universities” (70) have taught him to adopt this tone. But the verbs of speaking and thinking associated with Mr. Collins all originate in his discourse and not with the narrator. Reported discourse always renders Mr. Collins's speech, never his thought. That is, Mr. Collins evidently renders his own thought (such as it is) in his speech, and we quickly learn to question the reliability of his report.

With Mr. Collins, free indirect discourse with double-voiced verbs of thinking consistently masquerades as thought but almost certainly renders speech. However we hypothesize a reader's probable response to such sentences—whether, for example, readers first interpret them as tagged indirect thought and only later as free indirect speech—in whatever order these two interpretations arise, and whatever probability we assign to each, the important points are, first, that the ambiguity remains undecidable, and, second, that the two interpretations clash satirically. In studying the consciousnesses created and the comments made on them in Austen's novels, we must also ask who renders each consciousness. In contrast to Mr. Collins's reporting his own consciousness, the narrator devotes many passages to sharing with Elizabeth the rendition of her thought—blending tagged indirect thought with the free indirect thought of whole sentences, often with double-voiced verbs—and we interpret such passages as sympathetic rather than satiric. The narrator honors Elizabeth, we feel, both by helping to report her thought and by trusting Elizabeth to articulate her own thought in the form of thought.

The verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling used to render Elizabeth's thought suggest active engagement in ongoing reflection, not, as with Mr. Collins, empty talk about thought that never occurred. Mr. Collins's obsession with his own opinions makes him a burlesque, because extreme, version of the efforts at self-knowledge we admire in Elizabeth. Though he has no genuine opinions of his own, his compulsion to express his borrowed opinions suggests a self-absorption and opinionatedness—suggests pride and prejudice, in short, rather than judgment and true self-awareness—which make Mr. Collins also Elizabeth's extreme opposite in the novel, a burlesque because a false version of the corrected judgment Elizabeth comes to represent.


I have described in some detail in the case of Mr. Collins how Austen makes comic use of verbs of consciousness to characterize, both verbs from the character's own discourse and verbs chosen by Austen's narrator to report that discourse. To confirm that this kind of implied comment is frequently and deftly employed by Austen, we can briefly examine her treatment of several of the novel's other characters to see what we can learn about the quality of their thought from the verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling associated with them, and from whether those verbs are double-voiced.

We remember that only Mary, of all the Bennet sisters, “might have been prevailed upon to accept” a proposal from Mr. Collins (124). Although she believes he should be “encouraged to read and improve himself by such an example as hers,” she nonetheless appreciates his ponderous worth: “there was a solidity in his reflections which often struck her” (124). Her unexpected interest in the prospect of a ball at Netherfield resembles Mr. Collins's unexpected willingness to dance:

[E]ven Mary could assure her family that she had no disinclination for it.

“… I think it no sacrifice to join occasionally in evening engagements. Society has claims on us all; and I profess myself one of those who consider intervals of recreation and amusement as desirable for everybody.”


Like Mr. Collins, Mary “can assure” and “has no disinclination for” (double-voiced verb phrases), “thinks,” “professes herself,” and “considers.” Cohn's two categories of quotation (see Note 9)—quoting satirically and quoting sympathetically—find their extremes in Mr. Bennet as contrasted with Mary and Mr. Collins. Mr. Bennet quotes the novel's other characters satirically. Mary, though we never learn from precisely which “great books” she laboriously “makes extracts” (7), cites her reading approvingly, as Mr. Collins echoes Lady Catherine, in order to moralize. If Mr. Bennet represents delight without instruction—two elements Austen's novels aim to combine—Mary and Mr. Collins represent instruction without delight. Mary's “observations of threadbare morality” (60) provide another burlesque—that is, an extreme (since unmediated by delight) and therefore a false version—of what Hough calls Austen's “language of judgement” (218).24

The verbs associated with Mary's mother, on the other hand, suggest an absence rather than a parody of judgment. Double-voiced verbs of feeling rather than thought are prominent in the report of her discourse. Incapable of rational reflection, Mrs. Bennet indulges in imaginings and fears:

Mrs. Bennet was quite disconcerted. She could not imagine what business [Mr. Bingley] could have in town so soon after his arrival in Hertfordshire; and she began to fear that he might be always flying about from one place to another, and never settled at Netherfield as he ought to be. Lady Lucas quieted her fears a little by starting the idea of his being gone to London only to get a large party for the ball.


Mrs. Bennet's fears are noisy ones, “quieted” by Lady Lucas. The second sentence of this passage, in other words, is not tagged indirect thought but free indirect speech, with double-voiced verbs of feeling and of not-quite-thinking (“fear” and “imagine”). Like Mr. Collins, whose speech implies—unreliably—that he thinks, Mrs. Bennet wrongly attributes to herself genuine hopes and fears. That she is “disconcerted” (perhaps another double-voiced verb) by Mr. Bingley's sudden departure and cannot “imagine” any rational explanation for such odd behavior recalls Stuart Tave's dictum that “Characters in Jane Austen who find things odd are usually simple-minded types” (44). Mrs. Bennet is apparently such a simple-minded character, who speaks—and “imagines” and “fears”—rather than thinks.

Mrs. Bennet's discourse, like Lady Bertram's letters recounting her son Tom's illness in Mansfield Park, is a “medley of trusts, hopes, and fears, all following and producing each other at hap-hazard … a sort of playing at being frightened” (MP 427), a stylistic description whose verbals suggest Austen was fully conscious of using verbs of thinking and feeling in discourse to define character and establish moral worth. As Mr. Collins burlesques Elizabeth's thoughtfulness, Mrs. Bennet's verbs are a moral shorthand contrasting her burlesque and self-attributed romantic susceptibility with Jane's genuine sensibility, and with Jane's steadfast efforts to regulate it.25 However, though Mrs. Bennet lacks Elizabeth's judgment as well as Jane's sensibility, she sometimes has common sense: there is something odd about Mr. Bingley's second and apparently permanent departure from Netherfield, and Mrs. Bennet's comfortable prediction “that Mr. Bingley must be down again in the summer” and her faith in romance and in Jane's good looks are vindicated when Mr. Bingley returns to Netherfield in September.

Examining the verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling associated with Mrs. Bennet, we see that, like Mr. Collins with his ostensible “thought,” it is Mrs. Bennet, not the narrator, who reports her “feelings.” Nevertheless, Mrs. Bennet is not the character in Pride and Prejudice lowest on the scale of true self-awareness. If, in our analysis of verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling, Mrs. Bennet represents lack of judgment, her youngest daughter Lydia suggests a nearly total absence of thought. What characterizes Lydia is “high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence” (45; emphasis added), a “restless ecstacy” (230) and a “clamorous happiness” (235) that burlesque Elizabeth's sprightliness. And what typifies the narrator's depiction of Lydia is the extreme of external focalization: only her physical behavior and her speech are reported, usually in direct discourse, so, appropriately, double-voiced verbs cannot occur. The verbs that characterize Lydia have in any case nothing to do with judgment or sensibility; they are “talking” and, especially, “laughing”:

Lydia, in a voice rather louder than any other person's, was enumerating the various pleasures of the morning to any body who would hear her.

“Oh, Mary,” said she, “I wish you had gone with us, for we had such fun! … And then when we came away it was such fun! … I was ready to die of laughter. And then we were so merry all the way home! we talked and laughed so loud, that any body might have heard us ten miles off!”


We might be surprised to stumble upon a sustained internally focalized view of Lydia in the course of the novel, but in fact there is just one. In the following passage, Lydia's anticipation of a visit to Brighton is described by the narrator, but still without double-voiced verbs of thinking or feeling because Lydia never articulates her own inner life:

In Lydia's imagination, a visit to Brighton comprised every possibility of earthly happiness. She saw with the creative eye of fancy, the streets of that gay bathing place covered with officers. She saw herself the object of attention, to tens and to scores of them at present unknown. She saw all the glories of the camp; its tents stretched forth in beauteous uniformity of lines, crowded with the young and the gay, and dazzling with scarlet; and to complete the view, she saw herself seated beneath a tent, tenderly flirting with at least six officers at once.


Such are the verbs defining Lydia's inner life: “She saw. … She saw. … She saw … ; and … she saw. …” What Lydia sees are large numbers of indistinguishable objects: a network of streets, tens and scores of officers, lines of tents, crowds of the young and gay in dazzling scarlet—all grouped in constellations radiating outwards from herself. “[B]eauteous uniformity” reminds us that Wickham “wanted only regimentals to make him completely charming” in Kitty's and Lydia's eyes (72). The attraction of uniforms suggests that—like men who when young are “captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give” (236; Colonel Forster and, alas, Mr. Bennet are two examples in the novel)—young women who chase officers are attracted only by what they see and are unlikely to discriminate. Indeed, “never to be without partners” is all Lydia has “yet learnt to care for at a ball” (12), and Wickham is “by no means the only partner who could satisfy” her (87)—for dancing or for marriage.

Lydia's heedlessness, in thought and feeling, contrasts with Elizabeth's growing discrimination. While Lydia is daydreaming of breaking hearts in Brighton, Elizabeth has learned to judge the merits of Mr. Darcy and Lydia's worldly “angel” (291). To appreciate fully the paucity of verbs with which Lydia's inner life is rendered, we can contrast a passage two short paragraphs after Lydia's fantasy of Brighton, in which Elizabeth anticipates meeting Wickham for the last time before his regiment is transferred:

Having been frequently in company with him since her return [from Hunsford], agitation was pretty well over; the agitations of former partiality entirely so. She had even learnt to detect, in the very gentleness which had first delighted her, an affectation and a sameness to disgust and weary. In his present behaviour to herself, moreover, she had a fresh source of displeasure, for the inclination he soon testified of renewing those attentions which had marked the early part of their acquaintance, could only serve, after what had since passed, to provoke her. She lost all concern for him in finding herself thus selected as the object of such idle and frivolous gallantry; and while she steadily repressed it, could not but feel the reproof contained in his believing, that however long, and for whatever cause, his attentions had been withdrawn, her vanity would be gratified and her preference secured at any time by their renewal.


Contrasting with Lydia's vanity and undiscriminating flirtatiousness two paragraphs earlier is Elizabeth's realization that permitting Wickham's gallantry has deserved “reproof.” Instead of passively daydreaming of attention, here—“in finding herself thus selected as the object of” it—Elizabeth “steadily represse[s] it.” Without analyzing this passage in detail, we can note its rich variety of sentence structures, reflecting a discrimination that can recall gentleness which formerly delighted but now seems “an affectation and sameness” and gallantry which used to gratify but now appears “idle and frivolous.” To make the contrast with Lydia as clear as possible, however, one need only note the many verbs of thinking and feeling either stated or implied in this passage and how many of them connote mental activity rather than passivity: Elizabeth is no longer agitated, no longer partial; she has learned to detect; she is no longer delighted; she is disgusted and wearied and has a fresh source of displeasure; Wickham's behavior testifies to her, and she had earlier marked it; now she is provoked; she loses all concern; she finds herself selected; she steadily represses; she cannot but feel the reproof; she infers what Wickham believes; her vanity is no longer gratified, and her preference not secured. We sense that narrator and character share responsibility for this passage, even though—in fact especially because—it is primarily tagged rather than free indirect discourse and its verbs are primarily single-voiced: the narrator compliments Elizabeth by choosing this rich variety of verbs and sentence structures to report her thought processes.

In an earlier, even more instructive passage, a transition is made to dialogue from Elizabeth's thoughts (rendered by the narrator in a very typical alteration between free and tagged indirect thought):

It was generally evident whenever [Jane and Mr. Bingley] met, that he did admire her; and to her [Elizabeth] it was equally evident that Jane was yielding to the preference which she had begun to entertain for him from the first, and was in a way to be very much in love; but [Elizabeth] considered with pleasure that it was not likely to be discovered by the world in general, since Jane united with great strength of feeling, a composure of temper and a uniform cheerfulness of manner, which would guard her from the suspicions of the impertinent. She mentioned this to her friend Miss Lucas.

“It may perhaps be pleasant,” replied Charlotte, “to be able to impose on the public in such a case; but it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded.”


The substance of what Elizabeth “mention[s] … to her friend” is clear to us here because it has already been rendered in the form of Elizabeth's thoughts. But the economy of this transition from summary to scene is worth remarking. Moshe Ron notes that we do not infer that a single act or event is referred to when an instance of “knowing” is recounted in a narrative, though we do hypothesize such a single event for “perceiving” or “becoming known” (Ron 24). The above passage appears to open with a summary of knowledge Elizabeth has gained during several weeks of observing “the world in general” observing Mr. Bingley and Jane: “It was generally evident whenever they met, that. …” The second clause (“to her it was equally evident that …”) may contain a double-voiced verb of thinking (“to me it is evident that …”) and might thus be free indirect discourse (as might even the first clause): this is what a highly articulate character like Elizabeth could well say to herself in some single moment of thinking about Mr. Bingley and Jane. By the middle of the passage, we feel even surer that a specific moment of Elizabeth knowing that she knows is being evoked: although “She considered with pleasure” could describe repeated action (“Whenever she considered it, she felt pleasure”), it more probably describes a single though unspecified moment of reflection. Heroines often pause for such moments of reflection in Austen's novels.

Note, however, that the moment in which Elizabeth communicates those reflections to her friend, though clearly a single moment, is no more specified in time and place than our hypothetical moment of reflection. What interests Austen, in other words, is what Elizabeth thinks and says about Jane's prudence and what Charlotte replies about policy, not whether they think and say these things while walking in the shrubbery after drinking tea, nor whether Charlotte is blonde and Elizabeth brunette. Whatever is not thought or speech is excised from Austen's narrative here. Thus, the moment of thought and the moment of speech are given the same ontological status in this passage—as perhaps thought and speech have nearly the same status for Austen in general. The transition also suggests that thought and speech are nearly equivalent to her heroines. Preoccupied with her thoughts, Elizabeth takes an early opportunity—no further specification of that moment is necessary—to speak them to her friend.

The transition further implies that Elizabeth will articulate her thoughts accurately in speaking them to Charlotte. It guarantees this by its assumption that to articulate Elizabeth's spoken words is unnecessary since the words she thought are already known. The highly articulated rendition of Elizabeth's consciousness—for which Elizabeth and the narrator share responsibility—can stand for Elizabeth's later account of her own thought to Charlotte, an utterance which is described but not otherwise rendered by “She mentioned this to her friend.” Elizabeth's thought is already—at the level of thought—so highly articulated that Elizabeth is able to give the same articulate account of it to Charlotte as she gives to herself and as the narrator gives to us.

We are guaranteed not only that Elizabeth accurately articulates her own thoughts, however: we are also guaranteed that the narrator reports them accurately and sympathetically rather than satirically. We are guaranteed, in other words, that the blend of tagged and free indirect discourse, with double-voiced verbs, in which Elizabeth's thought is reported renders not merely the substance of her thought plus occasional snatches of language floating to the surface of her mind but also reflects how verbal Elizabeth's consciousness is. Chatman (“Narrative Transmission” 238) and Cohn (Transparent Minds 11) suggest that reported thought can seldom seem as mimetic as reported speech since it must often articulate what was originally unarticulated. Austen avoids this problem in the case of her heroines by the kind of thought she assigns them. She clearly views articulated consciousness as the highest form of thought, and she intends the above passage to render Elizabeth's thought as belonging to that highest kind.

At one point in Pride and Prejudice, Austen's narrator divides the circle of characters at Longbourn into “such as did think” and “such as did not” (348). With the above passages describing Elizabeth's thought before us, and with Lydia fresh in our minds as another extreme contrast to Elizabeth, we have a good idea of the range of consciousnesses Austen creates and how she comments on them by means of verbs of speaking, thinking, and feeling. We have also discovered, by close attention to double-voiced verbs, which consciousnesses are articulate and self-aware enough so that narrator and character share responsibility for rendering the character's thought as thought, or whether a character renders, in speaking, his or her own thoughts or feelings without the narrator's cooperation and endorsement.26


  1. For evidence that the product of the Bakhtin circle published as V. N. Volosinov's Marxism and the Philosophy of Language was written substantially by M. M. Bakhtin, see Wehrle ix-xii. Bakhtin's “double-voiced utterances” and my own “double-voiced verbs” are convenient locutions in the context in which I shall use them but are not intended to exclude the possibility of multi-voicedness nor to ignore Bakhtin's interest in polyphony in the novel.

  2. Since the following essay adheres to the double-voiced (and sometimes multi-voiced) interpretation of sentences of indirectly reported discourse, it opposes Banfield's “1 EXPRESSION/1 SELF” theory. Banfield insists that all expressive or evaluative elements in a sentence must originate with a single speaker or “SELF”—implying that narrators or characters cannot quote evaluative language and convey their own evaluation in the same sentence. I mention below other points of disagreement with Banfield. Banfield does, however, note that discourse parentheticals (roughly what I call inquits) can form part of represented speech or thought (what I call free indirect discourse) (Banfield 84). In this case, they might contain what I call double-voiced verbs. But Banfield's theory prevents her from reading such parentheticals as belonging potentially to both narrator and character.

  3. Ginsburg rightly contends that free indirect discourse is not in general unambiguously attributable to a character. But sometimes, I suggest, free indirect discourse is intended to be read as filling the place of a character's utterance. Ginsburg calls for criticism showing how the “ambiguity and undecidability of FID” raise problems which are “central thematic preoccupations of the text” (146). I argue elsewhere (Neumann 63-78) that the absence of explicit attribution in free indirect discourse is particularly appropriate to a novel like Austen's, one of whose themes is gossip and prejudice. And I discuss below how the undecidability of free indirect discourse calls into question the articulateness and self-awareness of some of Austen's characters.

  4. Chatman's terminology implies not only that reported discourse in its free and attributed forms differs only in the absence or presence of a tag, but also what direct as well as indirect discourse occurs free of attribution (Chatman cites examples of the former from Ulysses). He also emphasizes, in his “Structure of Narrative Transmission,” that “discourse features” may “combine in various ways” and that these features should be the subject of study rather than “homogeneous and fixed” categories: “Variety … is thus accounted for in terms of various mixtures of independent features, not by an endless proliferation of categories or a Procrustean reduction of instances into normative types” (233-34). This freedom of features to recombine, independent of rigid categories, is also noted in their criticism of Banfield's theory of reported discourse by Dillon and Kirchoff 432.

    We nevertheless do well, as Chatman recognizes, to analyze the modes of reported discourse into which discourse features frequently coalesce because those modes derive their effect from the constellation of their features, not from the sum of the effects of their features individually. Positing which elements of the set of frequently cohering linguistic features generally identified as free indirect discourse are most characteristic of it, we can describe a paradigm case of free indirect discourse without expecting all sentences close to the paradigm to match it in every feature. Our inability to delimit a concept unambiguously does not mean we cannot usefully employ that concept and identify all but borderline instances of it. If we are aware how borderline cases compare and contrast with the paradigm, and how any ambiguity in them may function thematically, it matters little whether we identify them as instances of the type or not.

  5. Such a sentence might, if its content were attributable to a particular character rather than the narrator, be what Hough calls “coloured narrative”: not quoted discourse but narration colored by the point of view of a particular character, which coalesces into free indirect discourse, according to Hough, when it contains ipsissima verba (204-05). That is, in this “colored narration,” as I shall call it, it is a character who “sees”—whose point of view is reported—but the narrator who “speaks”—in whose voice that viewpoint is narrated. In passages of pure narration, the narrator both “sees” and “speaks,” and in directly quoted discourse, the character both “sees” and “speaks.” In free and tagged indirect discourse, on the other hand (the double-voiced modes), character and narrator “see” and “speak”—in concert or disharmony—in the same sentence. In Joyce's Voices, Hugh Kenner's “Uncle Charles principle”—after Stephen Dedalus's Uncle Charles whose actions are narrated in language he might choose if not language he actually uses (17-21)—designates passages in which the narrator's viewpoint is couched in an idiom borrowed from a character. It can thus cover the remaining case, in which the narrator “sees” while a character may be said to “speak.”

    Though in theory distinct, these narrative modes may in practice be indistinguishable. Who sees is not independent of who speaks. In separating style and point of view, we use “point of view” in a narrow sense: determined by content, not by the form in which the content is expressed. But point of view in a wider sense must comprise both what is seen and how it is spoken. In passages with separate sources of voice and viewpoint, the voice may import its own viewpoint and superimpose it on the content representing the first viewpoint. A clash between these two points of view can give rise to a third, authorial viewpoint which (as is usually the case in Joyce, for example) satirizes both the others.

  6. By free indirect discourse I usually mean unattributed quotation of a character by a third-person narrator. On free indirect quotation of one character by another, however, see page 369 and note 13. And on free indirect discourse in first-person narration, see Stanzel (218-24). In untagged self-quotation, second-person pronouns—but not first-person pronouns—are shifted to the third person. In untagged quotation of another speaker by a first-person narrator or by a character, second- or third-person pronouns that refer to the quoting speaker are shifted to the first person.

  7. As an instance of how discourse features recombine in practice, Austen sometimes uses quotation marks in sentences with every other feature of free indirect discourse: shifted tenses, third-person pronouns, and no inquit. See pages 371 and 375.

  8. For many critics, including Pascal (9) and Fowler (102), here-and-now deixis typifies free indirect discourse. But critics disagree whether the absence of an embedding and attributing phrase is essential. Pascal argues that “‘free’ as it was originally used by [Charles] Bally, namely to indicate freedom from conjunctions [for example “that,” as in “He said that …”] and from introductory verb,” does not distinguish the device “in all circumstances and languages” (31). Fowler offers a typical example of free indirect discourse omitting the inquit (102), but a second example in a footnote retains it (102n). Dillon and Kirchoff note that

    Banfield deviates slightly from standard usage by classing stretches subordinate to a verb of saying or consciousness as FIS if the stretches bear the other marks of FIS. Usually FIS is restricted to non-embedded sentences (as for example in Jesperson, Ullmann, Fillmore, and Bronzwaer).


    Thus as Chatman and most others now use the appellation “free,” it means “free of attribution,” “untagged” by an inquit. This seems to me the most useful sense. In particular, only when we define free indirect discourse as indirectly quoted discourse minus any inquit, can we readily recognize that some apparent inquits could equally be quoted discourse rather than narration.

  9. “Present-tense” deixis is only one of several means—albeit the most visible—by which free indirect discourse foregrounds quotation so readers can recognize it without other attribution. Thus “free indirect discourse” seems an appropriate name because the “directness” of here-and-now deixis is not an essential feature. On the other hand, because free indirect discourse does apparently retain any here-and-now deixis occurring in the quoted material and also independent-clause word order—and thus seems to lie between direct discourse and indirect discourse on the scale of most direct or mimetic to least—this narrative mode might better be called “free semi-direct discourse.” Matejka and Titunik translate Bakhtin's term for free indirect discourse as “quasi-direct discourse” (Bakhtin, “Discourse Typology” 141 ff.). Leo Spitzer proposed “halbdirekte Rede” (qtd. in Pascal 30). I suggest elsewhere, however, a taxonomy of indirect discourse according to the degree to which the “actual” words of the utterance reported seem either rendered exactly, or merely described, or both (Neumann 124-74). This taxonomy includes not only a variety of tagged indirect discourse which quotes or renders some of the “actual” utterance but also what I call a “highly rendered” variety which preserves much much of a speaker's “actual” or characteristic idiom, even, sometimes, here-and-now deixis. Thus, free indirect discourse could be viewed as a free version of highly rendered indirect discourse: at least, there exists a variety of indirect discourse which, with its inquit deleted, would resemble free indirect discourse. So Chatman seems justified that free and tagged indirect discourse differ theoretically only in the presence of a tag.

  10. “Neutral” might be better than “sympathetic,” which is not meant to imply the narrator's endorsement but simply that the two voices do not clash. Cohn identifies as the “two divergent directions open to the narrated monologue” (Cohn's name for free indirect thought) the “lyric” and the “ironic,” “depending on which imitative tendency prevails,” either “fusion with the subject” or “distance from the subject, a mock identification that leads to caricature” (“Narrated Monologue” 111). McHale notes “a failure among stylisticians to push the analysis of irony and empathy in FID beyond merely naming these functions without specifying how FID actually gives rise to and sustains irony and empathy” (“Free Indirect Discourse” 275). I suggest one way free indirect discourse can be a vehicle for both irony and empathy when I show how the single device of the double-voiced verb—which mirrors how free indirect discourse itself functions—may or may not confuse the narrator's tagged indirect report of thought with whole-sentence free indirect speech, enabling the narrator either to share with the heroine in articulating her thought at the level of thought, or to satirize other characters who attribute thoughts and feelings to themselves in their speech without the narrator's cooperation and endorsement.

  11. More recent close equivalents to fabula and sjužet include story and discourse (Chatman, Story and Discourse 19-20) and diegesis and narrative (Genette 25-27). Since this study uses the words discourse and narrative so frequently in other contexts, I retain the Russian Formalist terminology. Genette also employs a third term, narrating, to describe the producing narrative action and to answer the question “who speaks?,” and his focalization describes whose point of view orients the narrative perspective, or “who sees?” (Genette 27 and 186ff.). In Mieke Bal's extension of Genette's theory, the narrator presents the words that form the text while the focalizor presents the content of those words. Since “narrating” and “focalization” thus often resolve into questions of reported discourse, and since this study deals explicitly with reported discourse, these terms are also omitted here.

  12. A sentence beginning “The rest of his letter is only about …” might, one could argue, be Mr. Bennet's tagged rather than free indirect quotation because Mr. Bennet attributes what follows to Mr. Collins, the referent of “his.” But this sentence has no inquit in the narrow sense, and it quotes without acknowledgment Mr. Collins's first letter, as well as describes his most recent one. So a case can be made that this sentence is indeed free. But should we perhaps view “olive-branch” as an example of Chatman's free direct discourse? Since Mr. Bennet not only mentions but also uses Mr. Collins's earlier locution, “olive-branch” would be assimilated to the grammar of Mr. Bennet's discourse were such assimilation necessary (as Mr. Collins's “my dear Charlotte's situation” has become Mr. Bennet's “his dear Charlotte's situation”). We may therefore conclude that this sentence is closest to free indirect discourse, or we may decide that in practice such distinctions are not only frequently impossible but also unnecessary.

  13. The free indirect discourse that re-quotes language previously quoted directly is very common in Richardson, Burney, and Edgeworth, and therefore presumably recurs in other eighteenth-century fiction. Italics often identify this re-quoted material (as today italics distinguish “foreign” locutions). That is, when a character in an eighteenth-century novel quotes another character's previous remarks, italics function like modern quotation marks within quotation marks to identify quoted discourse for the novel's readers—though not, of course, for the novel's other characters who cannot “see” this attribution. We imagine they hear it however: this kind of quotation is typically satiric, and the italics suggest the vocal intonation by which the quoter identifies and distances the quoted material.

    Since satiric quotation is marked as quotation by the intonation of satire, it need not be explicitly attributed in order to be recognizable, suggesting that free indirect discourse—though not always satiric—may have originated in satire. And that characters in these novels quote without attribution in conversation—including the conversations recounted in the letters of Richardson's novels (that is to say, in imitations of communication within imitations of communication)—fully as much as narrators do in narration, strongly suggests that free indirect discourse may also have originated in everyday speech. This contradicts Banfield's central thesis that free indirect discourse is purely literary or written and cannot occur in communication or imitations of communication (239). Moreover, the convention of italics gives us a visible model of how the subjective and evaluative expressions of one character can be interwoven with the subjective and evaluative expressions of another, which supports a “dual-voice” theory as opposed to Banfield's “1 EXPRESSION/1 SELF” model of reported discourse. What Banfield sees as “problematic in the dual voice claim” is that the “second voice of the dual voice position is always the narrator's, never another character's” (188-89). But we do frequently find characters quoting other characters in free indirect speech (see Stanzel 222 for an example from (Clarissa). The way eighteenth-century characters quote without attribution suggests how we ought to read unattributed quotation by eighteenth-century narrators, and how we ought to read free indirect discourse in Austen and later novelists after the convention of italics has begun to disappear. (For an example in Pride and Prejudice retaining the italics of earlier novels, see PP 27 and 46, and Neumann 16-18.)

  14. Readers can check DeRose's and McGuire's Austen Concordance for more examples of Lady Catherine's “condescension” in Mr. Collins's eyes (and see page 380 above) as well as to confirm that the only instances of “polluted” and “pollution” in Austen's novels are the two passages cited from Pride and Prejudice, making this latter instance of free indirect discourse even more certain to be quotation than the former.

  15. As McHale remarks, context often has such a “disambiguating function.” However, “this is knowledge that [Banfield's] theory cannot capture or reflect” (“Unspeakable Sentences” 32-33). Banfield's failure to take context into account—I would add to McHale's criticism—also means that she cannot permit free indirect discourse to remain ambiguous; for her there must always be linguistic markers which signal it unambiguously to readers. McHale suggests Banfield is “groping” toward a “contextual component” (“Unspeakable Sentences” 34). But in fact her theory again and again forbids such a component, perhaps the strongest argument against it.

  16. Pascal notes that “the self-assertive ‘I'” is omitted by this kind of free indirect discourse (51), which partly accounts for its flavor of indirectness.

  17. Recall Bronzwaer's “more insightful” view of “the formal indications of FIS” than Banfield's “speaker-coherence model,” according to Dillon and Kirchoff 434. As Dillon and Kirchoff suggest, following Bronzwaer, “the narrator's and character's point of view may not always be in ‘functional contrast'—it is only when they are that it is important for the reader to distinguish them” (434). That is, it may sometimes not matter whether we attribute a given sentence of free indirect discourse to character or narrator. I would only add that it is important to distinguish when and with which characters this “functional contrast” occurs and when not.

  18. In Marxism and the Philosophy of Language, Bakhtin distinguishes two fundamental tendencies in indirectly reported discourse. “Referent-analyzing” indirect discourse transmits and comments on the content or reference of an utterance; Bakhtin implies that it usually transmits the whole of the utterance in question. “Textur-analyzing” indirect discourse, on the other hand, “incorporates … words and locutions that characterize the subjective and stylistic physiognomy of the message viewed as expression … in such a way that their specificity, their typicity are distinctly felt” (130-31). In Bakhtin's terms, whole-sentence, lyric free indirect discourse is referent-analyzing, and its markers occur in its reference: we recognize content more likely to belong to a character than to the narrator, or at least equally likely to belong to either. But satiric free indirect discourse is typically texture- no less than referent-analyzing, marked by form (diction or syntax) as well as by content.

  19. If a sentence without attribution can plausibly be read as indirectly quoted discourse, then according to my definition it is free indirect discourse. That is, I call it free indirect discourse. I have begun to suggest, however, using Mr. Darcy's “profess,” one function in Austen's novels of the at least temporary ambiguity of free indirect discourse.

  20. Adding “have” is the usual emendation of this passage, according to R. W. Chapman (PP 397), but Chapman's suggestion that we instead read this sentence as “What could be come of …” (thus, in the fabula, “What can be come of …”) does not change my reading of it as free indirect discourse.

  21. Genette calls a narrative “internally focalized,” or “focalized through” a character, when it is focused through the consciousness of that character (189).

  22. Indefinite free indirect discourse resembles how we suppose a narrator might articulate what a character does not articulate, which is also one function of Hough's colored narration (see note 5 above). I distinguish these two modes in theory by insisting that indefinite free indirect discourse is possibly reported discourse because it contains what could be ipsissima verba: it might quote what a character perhaps articulated. Since colored narration, on the other hand—narration about a character's viewpoint but in the usual narrative idiom—is not quoted discourse, it should not contain ipsissima verba. It narrates and therefore articulates what a character perhaps could—but may well not—articulate (compare Chatman's “free indirect perception” [Story and Discourse 204] and Cohn's “psycho-narration” [Transparent Minds 11-12 and 21 ff]). My suggested definition of free indirect discourse as unattributed ipsissima verba thus implies that free indirect discourse cannot report non-reflective consciousness, though the category I call indefinite free indirect discourse contains in practice many ambiguous examples. Note too how closely indefinite free indirect discourse may in practice resemble Kenner's Uncle Charles Principle.

  23. Does the narrator quote Elizabeth's thoughts and quote Mr. Collins's speech, or quote Elizabeth who quotes Mr. Collins to herself? These possibilities (see note 17) are not in “functional contrast.”

  24. Samuel Johnson, for one, notes in Rambler 14 that authors both “improve” and “delight” their readers (78). Mary's and Mr. Collins's moralizing suggests that quoting—by analogy with John R. Searle's analysis of promising—may be defective or infelicitous if the quoter implicitly endorses what is quoted but does not sincerely intend to act on it. Mr. Bennet satirizes defectively if we assume that satire implies a promise not to act on what one quotes satirically (though satire, unlike moralizing, may imply no such promise). I suggest elsewhere (Neumann 235) that Elizabeth learns to combine delight with instruction by the end of the novel. She not only quotes the novel's other characters to her friends in order to satirize them; she also quotes them to herself to test her memory and judgment.

  25. The romance-reading heroine of Charlotte Lennox's Female Quixote (1752) is “filled with the most extravagant Expectations, … alarmed by every trifling Incident; and kept in a continual Anxiety by a Vicissitude of Hopes, Fears, Wishes, and Disappointments” (1: 6). In 1807, Austen reread this novel with “very high” amusement: “I find the work quite equal to what I remembered it” Letters 173). In Mrs. Bennet's discourse too, the language of “trusts, hopes, and fears” represents what Austen described to one of her novel-writing nieces as “novel slang” (Letters 404): Mrs. Bennet flatters herself by quoting the literary heroines of her youth to attribute their romantic sensibility to herself.

  26. I wish to thank Ann Banfield and Seymour Chatman for helpful conversations. And, to Avrom Fleishman and Jerome Christensen, I owe “gratitude and esteem” (PP 279).

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd. ed. 5 vols. London: Oxford UP, reprinted with revisions 1943-69.

———. Jane Austen's Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 2nd ed. London: Oxford UP, reprinted with corrections 1959.

Bakhtin [Baxtin], M. M. “Discourse Typology in Prose.” Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views. Ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska. Cambridge: MIT P, 1971. 176-96.

———. [V. N. Vološinov]. Marxism and the Philosophy of Language. Trans. Ladislav Matejka and I. R. Titunik. New York: Seminar, 1973.

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Trans. Christine van Boheemen. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985.

Banfield, Ann. Unspeakable Sentences: Narration and Representation in the Language of Fiction. Boston: Routledge, 1982.

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.

———. “The Structure of Narrative Transmission.” Style and Structure in Literature. Ed. Roger Fowler. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975. 213-57.

Cohn, Dorrit. “Narrated Monologue: Definition of a Fictional Style.” Comparative Literature 18 (1966): 97-112.

———. Transparent Minds: Narrative Modes for Presenting Consciousness in Fiction. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1978.

DeRose, Peter L., and S. W. McGuire. A Concordance to the Works of Jane Austen. New York: Garland, 1982.

Dillon, George L., and Frederick Kirchoff. “On the Form and Function of Free Indirect Style.” PTL 1 (1976): 431-40.

Fowler, Roger. Linguistics and the Novel. London: Methuen, 1977.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1983.

Ginsburg, Michael Peled. “Free Indirect Discourse: A Reconsideration.” Language and Style 15 (1982): 133-49.

Hough, Graham. “Narrative and Dialogue in Jane Austen.” Critical Quarterly 12 (1970): 201-29.

Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler. Ed. W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss. Vol. 1 of The Works of Samuel Johnson. 3 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969.

Kenner, Hugh. Joyce's Voices. London: Faber, 1978.

Lennox, Charlotte. The Female Quixote. 1752. Facsimile rpt. 2 vols. Upper Saddle River: Literature House-Gregg, 1970.

McHale, Brian. “Free Indirect Discourse: A Survey of Recent Accounts.” PTL 3 (1978): 249-87.

———. “Unspeakable Sentences, Unnatural Acts: Linguistics and Poetics Revisited.” Poetics Today 4 (1983): 17-45.

Neumann, Anne Waldron. “Consciousness and Comment in Jane Austen's Novels.” Diss. Johns Hopkins U, 1984.

Pascal, Roy. The Dual Voice: Free Indirect Speech and its Functioning in the Nineteenth-Century European Novel. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1977.

Ron, Moshe. “Free Indirect Discourse, Mimetic Language Games and the Subject of Fiction.” Poetics Today 2 (1981): 17-39.

Searle, John R. Speech Acts: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970.

Stanzel, F. K. A Theory of Narrative. Trans. Charlotte Goedsche. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984.

Tave, Stuart M. Some Words of Jane Austen. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1973.

Tomashevsky, Boris. “Thematics.” Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Trans. Lee T. Lemon and Marion J. Reis. Regents Critics Series. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1965.

Wehrle, Albert J. Introduction. The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics. By M. M. Bakhtin/P. N. Medvedev. Trans. Albert J. Wehrle. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978. ix-xxiii.

Bruce Stovel (essay date winter 1987)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4134

SOURCE: Stovel, Bruce. “‘A Contrariety of Emotion’: Jane Austen's Ambivalent Lovers in Pride and Prejudice.The International Fiction Review 14, no. 1 (winter 1987): 27-33.

[In the following essay, Stovel asserts that Austen's novel allows for the interpretation that Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy's relationship is an example of ideal love, as well as the view that it is an “immediate and magnetic attraction.”]

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “ambivalence” as “the coexistence in one person of the emotional attitudes of love and hate, or other opposite feelings, towards the same object or situation,” and this concept would seem to apply precisely to Pride and Prejudice. During the first half of the novel, the central couple, Elizabeth and Darcy, are held together by just such contradictory feelings. Like Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing, each is the one the other loves to hate—and hates to love. And, like Beatrice and Benedick, the two lovers are matched in every way, including disdain for the other, and each finds the other a fascinating and inescapable object of attention. Yet that unwilling attraction to the other makes each hate the other as a threat to his or her pride and emotional independence. But one lover's expression of this hatred only increases the other's fascination; the power of the fascination increases the threat, which intensifies the expressions of hatred. This vicious circle can only be broken when the lovers fully accept their love and dismiss their hatred—that is, when their feelings for each other are no longer ambivalent.

Yet “ambivalence” is a word which entered the language only in this century, so it is well to be cautious in applying it to Pride and Prejudice. Not only was Jane Austen's novel composed almost 200 years ago, but in it she seems to attack love-as-attraction, a notion presupposed in the idea of emotional ambivalence. We know that the first version of Pride and Prejudice, written in 1796-97, was called “First Impressions”; though Jane Austen dropped the title before her novel was published in 1813 (another novel with that title had been published in 1801),1 she suggests why she chose the original title late in the novel, after Elizabeth has seen the change in Darcy's manners at Pemberley and feels it can only be due to her influence: “If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth's change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise, if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method, in her partiality for Wickham, and that its ill-success might perhaps authorize her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment.”2 Like Sense and Sensibility, the one novel that precedes it in Jane Austen's career, Pride and Prejudice seems designed to discredit romantic love, or love at first sight, and to elevate instead “a less interesting mode of attachment”: love grounded in a knowledge of the other's character.

Apart from the question of authorial intention, there is another reason for caution: many of Austen's most persuasive critics see no such ambivalence in the attitudes of Elizabeth and Darcy towards each other. True, many readers have clearly delighted in the lovers' ambivalence, whether or not the term was in existence to describe it. The anonymous reviewer of the novel in The British Critic for March, 1813, for instance, says of Elizabeth, “She is in fact the Beatrice of the tale; and falls in love on much the same principles of contrariety.”3 Writing in 1917, Reginald Farrer argued that, as in Emma, the heroine of Pride and Prejudice is “subconsciously … in love with” the hero from the start—but that in the earlier novel the author failed to make her heroine's real feelings clear.4 And several modern critics consider Darcy's and Elizabeth's feelings towards each other as ambivalent, though none, to my knowledge, uses the term; David Monaghan, for example, notes that Elizabeth's acts of rudeness to Darcy “derive from an unconscious need to deny that, for all his faults, she finds Darcy attractive.”5 On the other hand, many acute modern commentators find no such depth psychology in Pride and Prejudice. Susan Morgan, for example, says, “For much of the story, Mr. Darcy cares for Elizabeth in spite of herself, and she does not care for him at all.”6 And Joseph Wiesenfarth says much the same: “Darcy comes to think that Elizabeth loves him whereas she could not care less for him because of the way she feels about his treatment of Jane and of Wickham.”7 Howard S. Babb says of Elizabeth that “the opposition of her whole nature to Darcy” brings about “the chief dramatic effect of the story: overwhelming surprise at his first proposal.”8 And Marilyn Butler, in her convincing account of Jane Austen's moral thinking, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, suggests that Jane Austen meant to ridicule the whole notion of love at first sight by offering hate at first sight: “It is clear that to her love at first sight and hate at first sight are essentially the same. Both are emotional responses, built on insufficient or wrong evidence, and fostered by pride or complacency toward the unreliable subjective consciousness.” Thus, she believes, the second half of the novel is necessarily drawn out: “Jane Austen has to allow time … for Elizabeth to change her emotional antipathy to Darcy into a predisposition to love him.”9

Butler, Babb, Wiesenfarth, and Morgan are all primarily concerned with tracing the moral changes within Austen's protagonists; they analyze moral patterns embedded within Austen's plot, characters, and authorial commentary and show little interest in psychological analysis. But Pride and Prejudice is comic, and comedy has a both/and rather than an either/or vision. The novel invites us to see in its protagonists both a moral pattern and a psychological state, just as its plot shows Elizabeth and Darcy each combining, by the end, the apparent opposites of pride and humility, just as Elizabeth learns to combine her sister's charity with her own judgment, just as the marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth unites the unalloyed calculation embodied in the hasty and furtive union of Collins and Charlotte with the unalloyed impulse embodied in the equally hasty and furtive union of Wickham and Lydia. This harmonizing, inclusive vision has irony as its technical instrument. What is stated is less important than what is implied. Jane Austen was speaking of Pride and Prejudice when, in a letter to her sister, she adapted a couplet from Scott to describe her style: “I do not write for such dull elves / As have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves.”10 Thus any one act or speech in the novel may carry both a moral and a psychological sense, and each sense will then support the other. Elizabeth, for instance, tells Jane at the start of Volume Two that “There are few people whom I really love, and fewer still of whom I think well” (p. 135). Morally, Elizabeth is engaged in protecting herself from her own sharp intelligence: she has been humiliated by Charlotte's defection, but rather than asking why she has been so mistaken about Charlotte's character, she considers Charlotte's choice of Collins unaccountable and the world unsatisfactory. At the same time, she reminds us of her psychological predicament: she cannot think well of the people (Darcy included) whom she loves. The moral and psychological implications do not conflict, but illuminate and enrich each other.

Therefore, the question of authorial intention should be approached with this sense of the novel's comic and ironic inclusiveness in mind. Jane Austen may well be presenting in Elizabeth and Darcy's relationship both an ideal form of love, one grounded in a well-tested respect for each other's character, and a more immediate and magnetic attraction. If we think about the passage in which she defends Elizabeth's “less interesting mode of attachment,” several counterbalancing implications emerge. For one thing, the novel shows that Bingley and Jane loved each other deeply and truly from their first meeting. “Oh! she is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld,” the smitten Bingley says of Jane at the Meryton assembly (p. 11). Furthermore, Elizabeth did not actually give romantic love much of a trial in her partiality for Wickham, since he appeals to Elizabeth, not in himself, but as a weapon she can use in her merry war against Darcy. When we are told, “Elizabeth thought with pleasure of dancing a great deal with Wickham,” the sentence continues, “and of seeing a confirmation of everything in Mr. Darcy's looks and behaviour” (p. 86). If her response to Wickham shows the unreliability of immediate physical attraction as a basis for love, it also shows the strength of the unacknowledged attraction that binds Elizabeth to Darcy. And if Jane Austen's defence of “the other less interesting mode of attachment” insists that the rational love between her central pair possesses dignity, serenity, and security, that does not preclude their having reached this plateau in Volume Three by a less than smooth and straightforward path during Volumes One and Two. Their attainment of rational love is all the more impressive when we realize the deeply irrational impulses from which it has grown.

In fact, virtually all of Jane Austen's pronouncements on Elizabeth's feelings towards Darcy occur in the second half of the novel: once his letter has been received, Darcy himself is largely absent—but Elizabeth's need to define her attitude towards him is pressing, and so we follow Elizabeth as she reviews “the whole of their acquaintance, so full of contradictions and contrarieties” (p. 279) and moves from credence to respect to approval to esteem to gratitude to affection and the realization that “he was exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her” (p. 312). But in the first half of the novel, Darcy, with all his dispositions and talents, is before Elizabeth, at least for the most part, and there is no occasion for her to define her feelings about him, since those feelings are of no real interest to her. If she notices during her stay at Netherfield that Mr. Darcy looks at her frequently, she assumes it must be caused by marked disapproval, and decides, “She liked him too little to care for his approbation” (p. 51). Apart from this one ironic summary—ironic because Elizabeth cannot see how much she does like Darcy, how much she does care for his approbation—the novel's hero remains during these scenes, to the heroine, simply “that abominable Mr. Darcy” (p. 144).

In short, despite the novel's original title and the author's comment upon the nature of love, nothing in the novel invalidates, and much encourages, the view that Jane Austen invites us to contemplate a hero and heroine who get to know each other by loving to hate and hating to love. When, halfway through the novel, Elizabeth is forced by Darcy's letter to look back over her thoughts and actions, she castigates herself in very suggestive terms: “How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly” (p. 208). Elizabeth, it would seem, even in her great moment of self-recognition, is still protecting herself from full self-knowledge. A further clue to the presence of irony here lies in Elizabeth's self-accusation of vanity, and not pride. In the fifth chapter, Mary Bennet proudly distinguishes between these two apparent synonyms: “Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us” (p. 20); Darcy continues this distinction six chapters later, replying, when Elizabeth obliquely accuses him of vanity and pride: “Yes, vanity is a weakness indeed. But pride—where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation” (p. 57). In short, Elizabeth should accuse herself of pride in her own superiority of mind, not vanity. Like Darcy, she is proud to be vain—and too proud to admit, at least yet, that she has been so wretchedly blind just because she has been in love.11 Love, not vanity, has been her folly, but this fool will persist in her folly and become wise.

Elizabeth and Darcy, then, neither love nor hate at first sight, but fall quickly into a love/hate relationship which they do not recognize as such. Elizabeth admits something of the sort when Jane asks her at the end of the novel how long she has loved Darcy: “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began” (p. 373). Darcy, by the way, makes the same confession to Elizabeth: “I was in the middle, before I knew I had begun” (p. 380). This ambivalence is highlighted by the symmetrical way in which each lover's feelings mirror the other's during the three main sections of the novel: the episodes leading up to Darcy's proposal; the proposal scene and ensuing letter (which together form the novel's center); and the whole second half of the novel, which follows from this central episode.

During the first section of the novel, the two lovers seem to be in different predicaments: Darcy is aware that he loves, and makes conscious advances toward Elizabeth; she is unaware of the love she feels for him, and her advances toward him are unintentional. At the same time, though, the lovers, as lovers, are mirror images of each other: each loves and yet struggles to conquer that love. If Darcy finds, after spending two days in Elizabeth's company at Netherfield, that “She attracted him more than he liked” (p. 60), Elizabeth has exactly the same divided response to him, although she does not realize it. And so she flirts with Darcy: she teases him, taunts him, quarrels with his statements, throws his past words in his face, points out his character defects, criticizes his treatment of his friends and his enemies, takes delight in vexing him—all without realizing that her assumption of easy freedom and intimate concern encourages him to believe that she sees his love and welcomes it. Like Emma with Mr. Elton, Elizabeth must make the humiliating discovery that she has led her suitor on to propose: “I believed you to be wishing, expecting my addresses,” Darcy tells her at the novel's end (p. 396). There is ironic accuracy, then, in Darcy's statement to her at Rosings: “I have had the pleasure of your acquaintance long enough to know, that you find great enjoyment in expressing opinions which in fact are not your own” (p. 174). Jane Austen leaves Elizabeth's viewpoint frequently during Volume One to give us glimpses of Darcy's growing love and of his struggle against that love; these glimpses force us to see Elizabeth's comic ignorance, not only of Darcy's inner conflict, but, by implication, of her own as well.12

Darcy's proposal culminates and epitomizes this ambivalent courtship. His offer of marriage is meant to express his love, but unintentionally expresses hatred: he confesses that he proposes against his will, against his reason, and even against his character (p. 169). Elizabeth, on the other hand, is vehement in her anger and intends to wound, yet her very vehemence is a sign that she feels more than she realizes. This is part of the point in Austen's careful paralleling of Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth with Darcy's. Elizabeth feels no anger towards Collins, no matter how insulting he becomes (and he does tell her that she is unlikely ever to receive another offer of marriage, since her expectations only amount to one thousand pounds in the four per cents). Collins is a fool, and Elizabeth knows that “His regard for her was quite imaginary” (p. 112). On the other hand, she realizes that Darcy is more worthy of her and does, in his way, love her, but with a love that undervalues her own, and this is why she is so hurt and vindictive in their great confrontation.

Elizabeth's accusations instigate Darcy to write his long letter to her. It is this letter and not Darcy's proposal which constitutes “the chief dramatic effect of the story” (to use the words of Babb quoted above): Elizabeth may feel overwhelming surprise when Darcy proposes, but we hardly do, since Jane Austen has prepared us for it by the narrative shifts to Darcy's viewpoint during Volume One and by an increasingly obvious serious of hints during the scenes at Rosings (a series something like those signs of Elton's intentions which Emma resolutely ignores). The letter, however, is completely unexpected, and creates a decisive change in the relationship of Elizabeth and Darcy. And, like the proposal, the letter epitomizes the ambivalent feelings of both the speaker and his auditor. Darcy begins in bitter hauteur—“Be not alarmed, Madam, on receiving this letter, by the apprehension of its containing any repetition of those sentiments, or renewal of those offers, which were last night so disgusting to you” (p. 197)—and the tone of wounded pride, of vindicating himself at her expense, is clear when he appeals to her justice and refers to the letter as “the explanation which is due to myself” (p. 197). But, despite appearances, Darcy's letter is really a love letter, as his candor, his scrupulous fairness, his respect for Elizabeth's judgment, the care with which he accounts for his actions, and the confidential revelation about Wickham's attempted seduction of his sister all confess. The letter ends with a sentence, “I will only add, God bless you,” which Elizabeth considers to be “charity itself” (p. 368). If the letter is written out of divided feelings, Elizabeth responds to it with “a contrariety of emotion … Her feelings as she read were scarcely to be defined” (p. 204). At a first reading, “It was all insolence and pride” (p. 204); she is then indignant, incredulous, ashamed, humiliated in turn. After two hours of wandering in the Hunsford lane, “giving way to every variety of thought,” she returns home, fatigued by “a change so sudden and so important” (p. 209). That change is summarized by Elizabeth's reflections after she meets Darcy again at Pemberley some four months later: “She lay awake two whole hours trying to make [her feelings] out. She certainly did not hate him. Hatred had vanished long ago, and she had almost as long been ashamed of ever feeling a dislike against him, that could be so called” (p. 265).

These last words suggest the change which occurs within both Elizabeth and Darcy during the second half of the novel: not only does hatred of the other vanish, but its place is taken by shame and humiliation, hatred turned inward. Elizabeth cries, “How despicably have I acted!” (p. 208), about her treatment of Darcy, and he says of his proposal to her, “I cannot think of it without abhorrence” (p. 367). In the first half of the novel, each directed hatred outward in order to protect a love turned inward, a self-love: what Darcy says in the closing pages is equally true of Elizabeth: “I was … allowed, encouraged, almost taught … to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own” (p. 369). In the second half, each of them, by a painful act of will caused by the need to love and be loved, reverses this emotional balance, and loves outwardly and hates inwardly. Each finds that mutual love is preferable to self-love enjoyed in isolation. By an elegant homeopathy of the emotions, the expression of hatred has driven out hatred in each case. “How you must have hated me after that evening?” Elizabeth asks Darcy at the novel's end, and he replies, “Hate you! I was angry at first, but my anger soon began to take a proper direction” (p. 369). And Darcy says that his letter contained “some expressions which might justly make you hate me” (p. 368)—but, of course, Elizabeth learns Darcy's letter by heart, studies every sentence of it, reveals it to no one, and “her anger was soon turned toward herself” (p. 189). This inner redirection causes a change in behavior, and each lover moves, tentatively and indirectly, toward the other. Darcy's manners are transformed, and he rescues the Bennet family from disgrace, even becoming best man at Wickham's marriage to Lydia; Elizabeth allows herself to be taken to Pemberley and, after meeting Darcy there, instinctively seeks his sympathy and help by telling him of Lydia's elopement (a confession which parallels and answers his unprovoked confession about his sister's relations with Wickham). And, amusingly, as love replaces ambivalence in Elizabeth and Darcy, humility and diffidence supplant pride and prejudice, so that their sparkling duels of wit give way to tongue-tied, blushing, floor-scrutinizing encounters that would make Bingley and Jane seem brash and poised by comparison. At the novel's end, the two of them, and all of us, can be grateful, not only to Lady Catherine's attempts to separate them, but to the ambivalence which drew them together.

This psychology of ambivalence is not evident in Sense and Sensibility13 or any of the obvious models for Pride and Prejudice, such as Fanny Burney's Evelina. Where did Jane Austen discover this new and rich conception? We will never know, of course, but it is interesting to speculate. The idea is consistent with the thinking of Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen's particular authority on moral and religious questions: “Inconsistencies,” Imlac points out in Chapter Eight of Johnson's Rasselas, “cannot be right, but, imputed to man, they may both be true.” Richardson's self-divided and self-contradictory lovers—particularly Lovelace and Clarissa—may have contributed something to Jane Austen's psychology of love. Perhaps the literary precursors of Elizabeth and Darcy are the wilful heroes and heroines of stage comedy: Shakespeare's Beatrice and Benedick, but also their progeny on the Restoration and eighteenth-century stage, such as Congreve's Mirabell and Millamant. The real source for Elizabeth and Darcy, however, was probably Jane Austen's observation of actual people. Just as many, perhaps most, readers of Pride and Prejudice are reminded of real-life counterparts of Mr. Bennet (whose character also lacks a clear literary precedent), so versions of the Elizabeth-Darcy mating dance abound in everyday life. It is a striking fact that the Beatrice-Benedick plot of Much Ado About Nothing is the one story in all of Shakespeare's plays that has no known literary source. Similarly, Jane Austen might well have said of Elizabeth Bennet's contrariety of emotion what she says about her heroine at the end of Northanger Abbey. After explaining that Henry Tilney came to love Catherine Morland simply because he could see that she loved him, Jane Austen adds, “It is a new circumstance in romance, I acknowledge, and dreadfully derogatory of an heroine's dignity; but if it be as new in common life, the credit of a wild imagination will at least be all my own.”14


  1. See the Introductory Note in R. W. Chapman, ed., The Novels of Jane Austen, 3rd ed., II: Pride and Prejudice (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), pp. xi-xiii.

  2. Pride and Prejudice, ed. Chapman, p. 279. All references are to this edition.

  3. Cited from Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam (London: Routledge, 1968), p. 44.

  4. Farrer, “Jane Austen,” Quarterly Review, 228 (1917), 1-30; cited here from Pride and Prejudice, Norton Critical Edition, ed. Donald J. Gray (New York: Norton, 1966), p. 344.

  5. David Monaghan, Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision (London: Macmillan, 1980), p. 66.

  6. Susan Morgan, In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen's Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 82.

  7. Joseph Wiesenfarth, The Errand of Form: An Assay of Jane Austen's Art (New York: Fordham University Press, 1967), p. 63.

  8. Howard S. Babb, Jane Austen's Novels: The Fabric of Dialogue (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1962), pp. 136, 114.

  9. Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 213, 209.

  10. Letter of January 29, 1813, cited from Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed. R. W. Chapman (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 298.

  11. Andrew H. Wright has noted this irony. See Jane Austen's Novels: A Study in Structure (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961), pp. 113-14.

  12. E. M. Halliday makes some important points about the effect of these changes in narrative viewpoint in his article, “Narrative Perspective in Pride and Prejudice,Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 15 (1960), 65-71. The article is reprinted in the Norton Critical Edition of the novel and in Twentieth Century Interpretations of Pride and Prejudice, ed. E. Rubinstein (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969).

  13. A first version of Sense and Sensibility, entitled Elinor and Marianne, was completed before Jane Austen began First Impressions in late 1796. See Chapman's Introductory Note, p. xi.

  14. The Novels of Jane Austen, 3rd ed., V: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (London: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 243.

Rachel M. Brownstein (essay date 1988)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5467

SOURCE: Brownstein, Rachel M. “Jane Austen: Irony and Authority.” Women's Studies 15, nos. 1-3 (1988): 57-70.

[In the following essay, Brownstein focuses on several of Austen's novels, including Pride and Prejudice, to support her argument that Austen uses irony to convey a “discursive authority” from which women can derive pleasure in a patriarchal society.]

It is a truth universally acknowledged, right now, that language is involved in giving and taking both power and pleasure. Whether we begin by asking if the pen is a substitute for the penis, or think about why we read stories of love and adventure, or consider, from any point of view, pornography or psychoanalysis, we end by analyzing ways people please themselves and assert authority over others by using words. (To observe that critics writing about pleasure and power have managed to get what measure of the good stuff they can is to state the merely inevitable.) Claiming that women writers are powerful—i.e. effective and influential—has been a focus of feminist critics concerned to dispute the canon, to rehabilitate forgotten writers, and to revise women's relation to the languages of power. That Jane Austen, unforgotten, canonized, and stunningly authoritative, has been a problem for feminists is not surprising: in the struggle for power between politically radical and conservative critics, she has for years been claimed by both parties. Her own interest in power is suggested as her uses of the word acknowledge there are different kinds: in Pride and Prejudice, for instance, Elizabeth says that “It is not in my power to accept” an invitation (211), and, “I do not know any body who seems more to enjoy the power of doing what he likes than Mr. Darcy,” (183) and her friend Charlotte reflects that “all her friend's dislike [of Darcy] would vanish, if she could suppose him to be in her power.” (181) Courtship as power play is the subject of all Austen's novels; playing with—or against—power is the substance of them. And through irony, by pointing to the limits of definitive and assertive language, Jane Austen suggests a powerful and pleasurable relation women in patriarchy may have to discursive authority.

The title page of Sense and Sensibility, the first novel Austen published, identified it as by “A Lady”; Pride and Prejudice is signed “By the Author of ‘Sense and Sensibility,’” in other words by A Lady already published. The veiling signature insists on the dignity of femininity itself as “Currer Bell,” “George Eliot,” “Fanny Fern,” or “Mrs. Humphry Ward” do not. It implies, as if modestly, that all ladies speak in the same voice—Austen was of course not the only one to write as one—, which with pointedly feminine obliqueness will avoid such blunt signifiers as proper names, and say precisely what one might expect it appropriately to say, and no more. “A Lady” insists like a post-modern critic on an author's gender and class, indeed identifies the writer simply as a representative, perhaps only a function, of gender and class. The word makes the titillating suggestion that sex is the subject, and also a promise that it will be avoided. (Austen obliges on both counts.) Finally, the signature indicates that the female author is an accepted kind of author, probably one who will make herself delightful and useful without going so far as to set up as an authority. As Mary Ellmann wrote decades before the body became a theme of cultural critics, “the male body lends credence to assertions while the female takes it away” (148). Signing herself “A Lady,” even a published author promises to assert neither her (discreetly veiled) self nor any original idea of her own. This novelist will not, presumably, pit her literary capacity and performances against “the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, [which] are eulogized by a thousand pens;” she does not claim authority, merely, slyly, “genius, wit, and taste.” (NA, 37)

On the other hand, precisely by coming on as A Lady the author is assuming a certain kind of authority: as Mary Poovey has argued, economic changes, together with anxieties about class and gender distinctions, created in eighteenth-century England the enthroned image of The Proper Lady, symbol of refinement and taste (and perhaps wit, if not genius), and with it, at considerable cost to themselves and their sex, some real power for ladies. It was largely limited to the drawing room. Austen's writing as such A Lady, her mode of assuming ladylike authority in ladylike language, provokes the questions about her social and political allegiances that have divided the critical authorities who have written on the most respected woman writer in English. Jane Austen's awesome respectability has alienated some of her readers, and inspired wrong-headed enthusiasm in others. Does she want women's power confined to drawing rooms? Does she sanction or mock the image of the authoritative proper lady, which confines as it defines feminine power?

As A Lady, Austen seems now to represent and speak for British civility, perhaps even civilization, at its toniest. In The Counterlife, the American novelist Philip Roth introduces a representative traditional Austen fan, an Englishwoman who rereads the novels each year because, she says, “The characters are so very good.” More explicitly, she continues, “I'm very fond of Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park. When she goes back to Portsmouth after living down with the Bertrams in great style and grandeur, and she finds her own family and is so shocked by the squalor—people are very critical of her for that and say she's a snob, and maybe it's because I'm a snob myself—I suppose I am—but I find it very sympathetic. I think that's how one would behave, if one went back to a much lower standard of living.” (270) Mrs. Freshfield is pleased that the characters are fastidious, and that the author is—that both dislike squalor, quite as she does. It is not fair to lump such a reader with the so-called Janeites; she is no idealizer of a gentle, genteel Jane; what she is is a Jane Austen snob. She imagines Jane Austen has the same standards of embattled gentility she has, that like her Austen values those standards above everything. Readers of Mansfield Park will allow that Mrs. Freshfield's confusion of standards for living with standards of living is something Jane Austen tempts one toward; the serious question is whether Austen is accountable for attracting snobs like her and encouraging them in snobbishness. I think she is. When we thrill to the way Mrs. Bennet is dispatched as “a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper,” or to the translucent, transcendent tact with which Mr. Bennet tells his daughter Mary, in company, “You have delighted us long enough,” (101), we respond with approval to a snob's ruthless high standards, and to her high-handedness. Austen's novels set us at a little, pleasant, critical distance from the actual, inelegant, disorderly world her letters reveal she herself lived in just as we do. Furthermore, the twentieth-century reader who, while not an authentic member of the English gentry, enjoys the sublime confidence of Pride and Prejudice—famously one of the world's impeccable masterpieces—can congratulate herself on her superior taste with a smugness very like Mrs. Freshfield's. I suspect that even morally serious readers able to list the shortcomings of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram, and prove Jane Austen knew they are no better than Fanny Price's Portsmouth parents, enjoy their own complicity with Austen's sure, exclusive Lady's tone.

This tone is, wonderfully, so authoritative as to enable Austen to put down titled ladies. Those of us who are not complacent about being snobs enjoy noting that titled ladies are not among the most admirable characters in the novels: that hypercorrected Lady Middleton and empty Lady Bertram are portrayed as patriarchy's mere creatures, and conventional Lady Russell and authoritarian Lady Catherine de Bourgh as its wrong-headed police. Nevertheless, it is as a lady—an untitled member of the gentry, “a gentleman's daughter,” which is how Elizabeth Bennet appropriates the term for herself—that Jane Austen condemns them. Austen carefully shows that Lady Catherine's manners are no more than her aspirations better than Mrs. Bennet's. To mock Lady Catherine's “authoritative manner,” (84) she reports in unexceptionably calm and decorous ladylike tones that, for instance, after dinner and cards at Rosings, “the party … gathered round the fire to hear Lady Catherine determine what weather they were to have on the morrow. From these instructions they were summoned by the arrival of the coach. …” (166) Austen's special interest in exposing the pomposities of a great Lady or the pretensions of a couple of would-be ones—for example, the “two elegant ladies” (41) who are the Bingley sisters' maids—are signs, if we need them, that she signs herself with irony. There are ladies and ladies; “A Lady,” as a signature, claims to be generic and claims at the same time a certain classy distinction. How are the claims related?

About being A Lady writing, which is to say about writing as a member of the group of women novelists, Austen's irony is even clearer, and also more complex. Her position on women's novels is spelled out in Northanger Abbey: they are more original than most of what's published, she declares. Even though their characters are very often stereotyped and their plots are commonly implausible, she says, they are both pleasurable and accurate, works “in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.” (NA, 38) The emphasis falls on “chosen language.” Choosing language, commenting on the stereotypes and formulas of novelists, and the language available for use in social life, is always Austen's subject. Of Emma's response to Mr. Knightley's proposal, the narrator writes: “What did she say?—Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.” (E, 431). Writing as A Lady, Austen savors the discrepancy between being a stable sign in her culture as well as a user and analyst of its signs.

A letter to her niece Fanny Knight suggests her relish of a woman writer's peculiar position and power. Fanny, evidently, had regaled her aunt by recounting an adventure rather wilder than a fictional Austen heroine might have had, a visit to a gentleman's room. Intending to be charmed, indeed excited, there, poor Fanny had ended up disgusted, like Swift's gentleman in the lady's squalid dressing room. Evidently she emerged with her sense of irony intact, and of this her aunt expressed approval: “Your trying to excite your own feelings by a visit to his room amused me excessively.—The dirty Shaving Rag was exquisite!—Such a circumstance ought to be in print. Much too good to be lost.” (Letters, 412) A cluster of characteristic Austen values come together here: an appreciation of telling details; a pleasure in telling them, and in hearing tell; a clear sense of the connections between saying and feeling, and social and emotional life; and seriousness about getting into print. Austen admired women's novels that told stories like Fanny's, about the ironic self-awareness of a rational creature absurdly caught in a lady's place.

Her own novels, with their ostentatious embrace and sly mockery of the tropes of fiction for women, depend on her readers' familiarity with that fiction—on their having the thorough, easy knowledge of them that enables one to recognize social or literary conventions, and to relish them. The reader she counts on will respond to a turn of standard plot as if to the anthem of an outgrown school, and treasure a collegial allusion to such matters as the “telltale compression of the pages [that promises] … we are all hastening together to perfect felicity” (NA, 250)—all of us together, characters and narrator and readers assembled in the same linguistic craft. Austen presents herself as a daughter of the novelists who formed her vision and her readers', and continued to inform it. Condescending, mocking, competitive, this attitude is also defensively and devotedly filial. Far from struggling in a Bloomian agon with awesome precursors she aims to overthrow, Austen keeps her mother and sister novelists always in mind to measure the ways she is like and yet unlike them. If we must have a psychological hypothesis to “explain” this with, the paradigm of female development elaborated by Nancy Chodorow will be more useful than the Oedipal model.

Austen wrote first of all for her intimate family, “great Novel-readers & not ashamed of being so” (Letters, 38), as she put it; Austen fans tend like a very close family to be clubby and even a little apologetic about a very personal taste (as opposed to a liking for George Herbert, say, or George Eliot). We relish a sense of the choosiness and the exclusiveness (the sad accident of there being only six novels enhances it) of our little community. The pronoun in the title of Lionel Trilling's last essay, “Why We Read Jane Austen,” reveals something more than a magisterial critic's traditionalist, universalist attitude: the feeling that the culture we share with Jane Austen is beleaguered or not enough valued, that powerful people on the outside don't take it seriously, serves to bind us more tightly together, “we” snobs like Mrs. Freshfield, “we” readers of women's novels, “we” humanists in a dehumanizing world, even “we” wary students of how language determines our pleasures and power. Those others who take the truth to be whatever is universally acknowledged remain ever in the corner of Jane Austen's eye: by their limitations we measure our own sagacity, and also our snugness. As Katherine Mansfield remarked, “every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone—reading between the lines—has become the secret friend of their author.” Wayne Booth, quoting this in The Rhetoric of Fiction, adds—losing the connection with words on the page, but avoiding Mansfield's “he”—that the Austen reader has an “illusion of travelling intimately with a hardy little band of readers whose heads are screwed on tight and whose hearts are in the right place.” (266) The illusion depends on the way the confident, confidential tones of A Lady are deployed so as to mock the accents of authoritative patriarchal discourse in the universe that contains her universe and her fictions.

The literary tradition in which Jane Austen was placed and/or placed herself—the tradition of Jane West and Mary Brunton—was not the dominant tradition; one of the most arduous projects of feminist scholars has been to retrieve and reevaluate eighteenth-century fiction by women. Everything Austen wrote about the novel (and perhaps everything in her novels too) indicates that she knew quite as well as we do that the genre she chose or was constrained to choose (rather as her heroines choose their husbands) was not universally esteemed—that Catherine Morland is representative if not accurate in her assumption that “gentlemen read better books” than novels (NA, 106), works, presumably, of greater heft and seriousness. Logically enough, while portraying authority figures and their discourse as in general not exemplary, Austen mocked women's novels most for their moralizing. The maxims that articulate the attitude of patriarchal authority on sex and marriage, the main subject of such novels, are parodied in Pride and Prejudice: Elizabeth lifts up her eyes in amazement as her sister Mary moralizes, after Lydia runs away, “that loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable—that one false step involves her in endless ruin—that her reputation is no less brittle than it is beautiful.” (P & P, 289) Pointedly, Austen does not write down: she will not preach like pedantic Mary. Her Mr. Collins comically echoes the stentorian tones of the “learned doctors” who spell out the moral meanings of romantic actions in novels by, for instance, Charlotte Lennox and Fanny Burney. In his final letter to Mr. Bennet he warns “my cousin Elizabeth, and yourself, of what evils you may incur, by a precipitate closure with [Darcy's] proposals,” and declares his amazement at the “encouragement of vice” that occurred with Lydia and Wickham were received by her parents. (363-4) Mr. Bennet rightly observes that this clergyman's attitude is less than Christian, but he himself is no more a reliable authority than his heir is. He is as Elizabeth's meditations on his character point out considerably less than ineffectual, not only pathetically hampered by the entail from disposing of his own patrimony, but worse than useless as a head of his household. Austen's shift from the explicit didacticism of her sister novelists is signalled by the absence of an authoritarian father figure from the novel: Mr. Gardiner, who has the tact to arrange some things, is a shadowy minor character. There is no one but the hero and heroine themselves to discuss, at the end, what “the moral” of their story might be (381). Hapless Mr. Bennet's comment on life itself meanwhile resonates: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” (364) It is neither the moral of the whole novel nor one the whole novel repudiates.

Pride and Prejudice is about women's lives in relation to sexual roles and to marriage; therefore—that the connection is inevitable is Jane Austen's point—it is about power, and independence and authority. The novel opens, seductively, in the mode of the Johnsonian essayist: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” On the face of it this sentence has an authoritative ring: as surely, it is the paradigmatic Jane Austen sentence, which was famously and enigmatically praised by Virginia Woolf as “a woman's sentence.” Confronted by the sentence suitable for men writers, Woolf declared, Austen “laughed at it and devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it.” (80) The initiating philosophical-sounding premise of Pride and Prejudice is a good example. It laughs at authoritative sentence-making. As everyone has pointed out, it is full of logical holes: a truth universally acknowledged is probably less than true; the truth at issue here is not really that single men want girls (which “in want of” does not mean anyway) but that poor girls need husbands. And, far from describing the real state of things in society, the novel's first sentence expresses a gossip's fantasy that women exchange or traffic in men. The sentence acknowledges, by putting it first, Mrs. Bennet's view of things (or is it only what for her purposes Mrs. Bennet acts as if she believes?): that rich men want to be supplied with (even poor) wives. We are encouraged to reflect that although this is not the case, it may be operatively true when people act as if it's true. The power of discourse to determine action is suggested.

The last sentences of Chapter I, quite as authoritative as the first sentence is, complement it, by contrast. Far from entertaining Mrs. Bennet's point of view, the narrator here speaks from above, and decisively detaches herself from the woman: “She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news.” These dismissive declaratives crackling with the briskness that charms snobs are very different from the meditative voice that pronounces the ironic, pseudo-philosophical first sentence. But the conclusion of the chapter resembles its commencement in one important regard, that is, in claiming distance and authority—the authority a lady in a drawing room shares with a philosopher, a society epigrammatist shares with a judge. The reader is encouraged to reflect on the similarities and also the differences between ladies and philosophers, drawing rooms and the arenas of real power. And the limits of any authoritative statement are suggested when we look more closely and discover that the impressive balance and antithesis of the final sentence is factitious: Mrs. Bennet's solace, far from being a change from her business, is her mode of conducting that. “News,” the narrator's last word on this first chapter, a simple word rather elaborately kinder to Mrs. Bennet than “gossip” might be, nicely labels the subject of the chapter. The cap suggests the chapter was substantive; but as Chapter 2 follows, the roundness and fullness the cap helps emphasize begin to seem illusory. We find that the scene between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet was by no means as crucial and conclusive as we thought when it turns out that Mr. Bennet visited Mr. Bingley before his wife asked him to.

The first sentence and the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice, integral, finished units in their different, equally forceful ways, mime so as subtly to mock the certainties of authoritative discourse; in the plot of the novel, such discourse becomes a theme. Proud Mr. Darcy sets the action going when he scrutinizes Elizabeth Bennet and pronounces her “Tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me!” To the feminist critic, that italicized pronoun recalls the sinister bar of the masculine “I” that Virginia Woolf described, in A Room of One's Own, as a shadow disfiguring male texts: as Darcy goes on to declare his opinions on female accomplishments and related matters, the egoism of the male authority is amusingly exposed. The action that devolves from his comment on Elizabeth proves his first judgment was false and the first step toward its own undoing. To begin with, Elizabeth mocks by repeating the line, telling the story on him; “she had a lively, playful disposition,” the narrator explains, “which delighted in any thing ridiculous.” (12) By talking so as to render him ridiculous she is deliberately manipulating her own psyche (rather in the manner of Fanny Knight visiting her gentleman's room); “he has a very satirical eye,” she tells Charlotte, “and if I do not begin by being impertinent myself, I shall soon grow afraid of him.” (24) In other words, by repeating his words to others she is talking for—in effect to—herself, choosing and using language not to express feeling but to create it, to make herself feel powerful. Darcy will accurately observe, much later, that she finds “great enjoyment in occasionally professing opinions which in fact are not your own” (174). Lest we think she does this just to flirt, we find her, very much later in the novel, doing the same thing in the very private precincts of her own mind, as she thinks about the question of whether Bingley will propose to Jane. At the conclusion of that gentleman's visit to Longbourn, toward the novel's end, the narrator tells us that, “Not a word passed between the sisters concerning Bingley; but Elizabeth went to bed in the happy belief that all must speedily be concluded, unless Mr. Darcy returned within the stated time. Seriously, however, she felt tolerably persuaded that all this must have taken place with that gentleman's concurrence.” (346) Here again, talky Elizabeth is enjoying herself by professing—silently, but nevertheless as if to a drawing-room audience, in well-constructed, carefully timed sentences—an opinion that is not seriously—not in fact—her own. The remarkable sentence that begins “Seriously, however,” as it remarks on the non-seriousness of the sentence that precedes it, raises interesting questions about the power of positive assertions—highly subversive questions about the seriousness of all definitive statements and sentences, in what is after all a tissue of words, a series of sentences. Austen invites us to consider that words and sentences might not be signs or containers of meaning after all, that playfulness rather than meanings might be what they represent: “My dearest sister,” Jane says once her affairs are settled and Elizabeth's are at issue, “‘now be serious. I want to talk very seriously. Let me know every thing that I am to know, without delay. Will you tell me how long you have loved him?’” Elizabeth answers, “‘It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.’” Jane can tell she doesn't mean it: “Another intreaty that she would be serious, however, produced the desired effect; and she soon satisfied Jane by her solemn assurance of attachment.” (373).

Elizabeth could tell herself Darcy might ruin her sister's happiness only because she knew he would not, being ready by now to have his friend marry Jane. As she also knows, he was long before conquered by her own “lively”—he does not call them “satirical”—eyes, “bewitched” by her powers, so much so as to ask her to understand—she would have had to be either an impossibly rational creature or a very smug witch to do so—that he fell in love with her against his better judgment. But she does not say these things. Many chapters later, when they finally can both with dignity agree to marry, it is after a long talk which ends with Elizabeth biting her tongue: on the verge of making a caustic observation, she “checked herself,” for “she remembered that he had yet to learn to be laught at, and it was rather too early to begin.” (371) Since people are comical, quite as Mr. Bennet says, dignity is precarious, and silence helps better than words to maintain it. Darcy will eventually be made to learn to laugh: in the novel's nearly penultimate paragraph, which begins to detail the bliss of the married life of the Darcys at Pemberley, we are told that Darcy's sister Georgiana “at first … listened with an astonishment bordering on alarm, at [Elizabeth's] lively, sportive, manner of talking to her brother. He, who had always inspired in herself a respect which almost overcame her affection, she now saw the object of open pleasantry. Her mind received knowledge which had never before fallen in her way. By Elizabeth's instructions she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband, which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself.” (388) In the happy end Georgiana will take the place at Elizabeth's side of Jane, the more feeling sister with whom Elizabeth shared the sisterly mockery of men Jane never could engage in either. She will be the female confidante and foil—the other woman to talk to—that is necessary to the happiness of even the mistress of Pemberley. Both Darcys, then, will be instructed by Elizabeth happily ever after. In other words, just as the marriage plot comes to triumphant closure it is neatly undercut: female bonding and women's laughter are elements of this novel's happy end. One woman will make a man the object of her pleasantries while another one listens and learns. This subtle subversion of the conventional romantic plot accords with the novel's attitude toward verbal tissues that appear to wrap things up once for all.

Like her heroine, Austen questions authoritative discourse through dialogue. Dialogue, Mary Ellmann wrote, “might be defined as the prevention of monologue” (xii); as such it is a critique of patriarchal absolutism in prose. There are many modes of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice, the first of which is ironic narrative. When Austen refers to the “two elegant ladies” who wait on the Bingley sisters she means that these women absurdly pretend, like their mistresses, to elegance. Irony is an efficient mode: the description of the maids serves for the mistresses. Like an impatiently rude interlocutor, irony questions a statement as it is made; a single sentence becomes in effect two, assertion cum contradiction.

Literal dialogue between characters in the novel may also be a process of assertion and contradiction, sometimes of opinions, sometimes of the authority to state them. Although we tend to remember Pride and Prejudice as chock full of witty exchanges, some of the most interesting dialogue is between talk and the lack of it. There dialogue is as much the subject as the mode of discourse. The first chapter is a case in point: “My dear Mr. Bennet,” his lady begins the action by saying to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”, to which “Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.” The switch to indirect discourse signals the man's taciturnity; he is not quite responding to his wife. One is reminded of this marital lack of exchange when Elizabeth and Darcy talk together later: “‘It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy.—I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.’ He smiled, and assured her that whatever she wished him to say should be said.” (19) Elizabeth is unlike her mother making deliberate, sophisticated conversation about conversing, but my point—aside from the small truths that voluble Elizabeth resembles her mother, and that Austen's egoistic young people both tend to italicize pronouns—is that Darcy is hardly a Benedick to Elizabeth's Beatrice, therefore that the real exchange is between talking and not talking, and that that is one way Austen suggests the limits of discursive authority.

In her Lady's voice, which combines an authoritative ring with flexible self-mocking undertones, Austen can comment with varying degrees of explicitness on the limits of rhetorical and human authority. Through self-reflexive irony she can keep her distance from the discourse of authority, the patriarchal mode of imposing oneself through language. Except for ladies in domestic and literary circumstances (drawing rooms and fictions) circumscribed by the world of men, women have been denied such authority. Writing as A Lady and considering the constraints that determine her persona—considering as a persona—, Austen reflected on the power of authoritative language. And on other kinds of power. When Elizabeth scrutinizes her third-volume feelings about Darcy, she acknowledges that it is she who has the power to provoke the words that will change her life: “She respected, she esteemed, she was grateful to him, she felt a real interest in his welfare; and she only wanted to know how far she wished that welfare to depend upon herself, and how far it would be for the happiness of both that she should employ the power which her fancy told her she still possessed, of bringing on the renewal of his addresses.” (266) The rhythms are authoritative, magisterial. The novel reader knows the heroine must wait, and we with her, for a second proposal it is not in her power to make—but also that Elizabeth's struggle to turn fancy into knowledge and power is the significant action. The proposal, important though it is, will be a coda to the inner action of discriminating among thoughts and the words for them. Only if we ignore that sentence and its sisters can we read Pride and Prejudice as a mere romance. Which is not to gainsay the pleasure we take in the novelist's very romantically and conventionally uniting the lovers, in the very end—or, rather, in the Gardiners' having done so. Having been responsible for the mechanics of getting the couple together, Elizabeth's relatives are thrust forward in the novel's last sentence as the only legitimate claimants to agency. Does the emphasis fall on the fact that the hero and heroine are mere puppets of circumstances, or perhaps of the marriage plot? Are we meant to envy their prospect of happiness ever after in the paradise of Pemberley? Or to note with sly pleasure that these cultivated but rather dull middle-class Gardiners will be frequent guests at that monument to Lady Catherine's class? It is hard to decide, and this, I think, is what must be borne in mind when we write about Jane Austen, whose authoritative irony eludes, even mocks, our authoritative critical discourses.

Selected Bibliography

Austen, Jane. The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R.W. Chapman (5 vols.) Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933.

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen's Letters, collected and edited by R.W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Chodorow, Nancy. The Reproduction of Mothering. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Ellmann, Mary. Thinking about Women. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1968.

Poovey, Mary. The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Roth, Philip. The Counterlife. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1986.

Trilling, Lionel. “Why We Read Jane Austen.” The Times Literary Supplement, 5 March 1976.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957.

Jean Ferguson Carr (essay date 1991)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8699

SOURCE: Carr, Jean Ferguson. “The Polemics of Incomprehension: Mother and Daughter in Pride and Prejudice.” In Tradition and the Talents of Women, edited by Florence Howe, pp. 68-86. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Carr analyzes the role of the mother in Pride and Prejudice, focusing on Mrs. Bennet's exclusion from the social world.]

She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.

—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Stupidity (incomprehension) in the novel is always polemical: it interacts dialogically with an intelligence (a lofty pseudo intelligence) with which it polemicizes and whose mask it tears away … at its heart always lies a polemical failure to understand someone else's discourse, someone else's pathos-charged lie that has appropriated the world and aspires to conceptualize it, a polemical failure to understand generally accepted, canonized, inveterately false languages with their lofty labels for things and events.

—Mikhail Bakhtin, “Discourse in the Novel”

My first epigraph depicts the fictional mother, Mrs. Bennet in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (1813), who is identified by her exclusion from the realms of sense and power, and is contained within her comic role.1 As such, she stands in uneasy relationship to her daughter, Elizabeth, who both shares her mother's exclusion and seeks to dissociate herself from her devalued position by being knowing and witty where her mother is merely foolish.

My second epigraph, from Bakhtin's The Dialogic Imagination, raises questions about the social functions and effects of what is perceived as knowing discourse and what is perceived as meaningless babble.2 What is usually identified as intelligence is the force that constructs the social order, creates canons, names names, and decides what is acceptable. It is central, focal, organizing. This “authoritative word,” what Bakhtin terms “the word of the fathers,” “permits no play with the context framing it, no play with its borders, no gradual and flexible transitions, no spontaneously creative stylizing variants on it. … One cannot divide it up—agree with one part, accept but not completely another part, reject utterly a third part” (pp. 342-43). Stupidity appears as a weakness that has no place in this proper order, that does the wrong thing and uses the wrong words, is unacceptable or embarrassing. Judged by the unity of the father's word, it seems incoherent or unproductive. Yet such “stupidity (incomprehension) in the novel is always polemical” (p. 403), interacting dialogically with authoritative discourse to disrupt its proper names and categories.

Incomprehension exposes the father's words to play, to jokes. The prototypical literary character who deploys such incomprehension is the fool, whose nonsense reveals gaps in the seamless authority of the father's word, for “by his very uncomprehending presence he makes strange the world of social conventionality” (p. 404). Yet as Freud argues in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, the naïve's “effect” depends on our conviction that he is unaware of (in Freud's terms, “it is not present in him” or he “does not possess”) the inhibitions that govern most social discourse, or else he will be judged “not naïve but impudent.” If we are not so convinced, “we do not laugh at him but are indignant at him.”3 The fool is a professional who plays the part of a naïve. His power is instrumental, defined not in terms of what he can “possess” for himself but by the effect he has on those in power. Fools exemplify what Freud calls a “misleading [misverständlich] naïveté,” representing “themselves as naïve, so as to enjoy a liberty that they would not otherwise be granted” (Jokes, p. 184). As long as liberty is something that is “granted,” as long as fools do not expect to be made kings, the power of the father remains fundamentally intact.

Yet there is a type of incomprehension whose polemical effects are not finally so easily contained. Its social and literary prototype is the figure of the mother, who shares her child's exclusion from the languages of adulthood and power, and who has an interest in exposing the restraints imposed by patriarchy. A mother like Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice is not in a position to understand the polemics of her incomprehension. In the patriarchal culture in which Austen wrote, such an exposure must be indirect and guarded, or even unaware of its own threat and seriousness. The mother cannot afford to get her own jokes, nor can others accept the implications of her comedy. Her comedy hovers uncomfortably between unawareness and impudence, between triviality and threat. Unlike the fool, her “stupidity (incomprehension)” may not be sanctioned by the novel's explicit directives. It is often understood as simply ridiculous, even by the novel's other outsiders.

It is a critical commonplace to laud a fool's ability to “teach” authoritative speakers to laugh at their rigidity or to expose the faults and follies of a society's discourse.4 But Mrs. Bennet is primarily defined not in such a direct relationship with authoritative speakers, not as “wife” who challenges “husband,” but in her displaced role of mother who guides and restrains her children according to conventions that she herself need not comprehend and has not authorized. Her comedy is constrained by this dual role, by the effect of her foolishness on the children who must grow up under patriarchy. Yet stupidity is always polemical even when it is not explicitly understood, even when it is not incorporated into the novel's thematic designs. It may function not as a local challenge to individual failures of perception but as a sign of a general ideological confusion. The mother's position can be neither dismissed nor acknowledged. She persists at the margins of the novel as an irritating, troublesome, and yet indispensable figure.

In Pride and Prejudice, as in many nineteenth-century novels, the mother's function is misleadingly represented. Mrs. Bennet is a “woman of men understanding, little information, and uncertain temper,” but this representation serves complex interests. To accept her as merely a figure of ridicule is to prevent any investigation of those interests, to ignore the ways in which this novel, in Pierre Macherey's words, is “haunted” by what it cannot say. We must, instead, conduct a double reading, attending not only to what Macherey describes as “that which is formally accounted for, expressed, and even concluded” but also to what is left unspoken or implicit.5 We need to attend to the novel's resistances, to what is produced only to be quickly dismissed. We thus “make strange” not only the ideology figured in the novel's social world but the ideology guiding the author's representations of social relations and conventions. We thereby consider tensions that remain tacit, that are neither authorized nor expunged, but that make the novel's resolution of social conflicts unfinished or overdetermined. Such a double reading extends our literary interests outside of the novel's social world to the exchanges between the novel and its formative culture. By reading doubly we question the insistence with which cues are delivered and the ways in which constructions are buttressed. We consider what is at stake when certain details are treated as error or as slips of the pen.

Mrs. Bennet is denied the prerogatives of a comic literary tradition: she does not win pleasure for her comedic scenes, forgiveness for her foibles, or credit for her effect on the social world. With an energy that seems excessive, given her slight role in the narrative, she is ridiculed both by powerful characters and the narrator. She is harshly criticized for a role she does not fulfill, for serious effects she does not achieve. She marks a lack of adult feminine power in the culture, a lack felt strongly by the young women she is supposed to educate and protect, and she is blamed for the excesses of the patriarchal culture. This essay explores what unspoken interests produce such a contradictory role for Mrs. Bennet. What interests are served by novelistic insistence that this character does not matter, that she is one-dimensional, that she has no effect? And how does such insistence coexist with the nagging, unsettling effect of the “trivial” character, with the threat she seems to pose to the social world of the novel, to her husband and daughters, to the possibility of women's discourse? Why should Mrs. Bennet's outbursts be found intolerable rather than humorous or socially productive?

Adrienne Rich calls the relationship between mothers and daughters in nineteenth-century fiction “the great unwritten story.”6 Mothers are thoroughly erased from these novels—rejected by their daughters, who wish to distance themselves from the socially conforming and repressed circumstances of their mothers, and disposed of by authors, who write them out of the story by imagining them as dead, bedridden, or left behind while the daughter journeys to Bath. They are, all too often, dismissed or ignored by critics who accept their marginalized status. The few mothers who do appear vanish into narrow stereotypes, both social and fictional. They are either dutiful and selfless or silly and self-indulgent, more likely to humiliate their daughters than to become role models or friends. They are not even given the dubious recognition afforded in twentieth-century fiction of being powerful, damaging adversaries.7 Mothers are treated as wayward children, likely to say embarrassing things in front of company, needing to be cajoled and pampered, but not a very serious force—for good or ill.

As Nina Auerbach has argued, most nineteenth-century heroines strive to escape the “community of women,” which “may suggest less the honor of fellowship than an antisociety, an austere banishment from both social power and biological rewards” (p. 3). They reject the more confined social world their mothers occupy to challenge the expectations of their fathers, brothers, or lovers. The great plot concerns not mothers and daughters but courtship,8 which leads the heroine away from her mother and ends, conveniently, before marriage or childbirth, before the heroine must find a way to reconcile herself to that woman's world she earlier rejected. Through the ritual of courtship the heroine demonstrates her difference from her parents, especially her mother, whose concern with social rules, respectability, or safety is challenged, if not rejected. Yet the liberation of young, unmarried heroines leaves other women subject to patriarchy. The heroine (or the woman writer) is understood as the one woman who can negotiate the perils of the patriarchal world.

In The Madwoman in the Attic, Gilbert and Gubar discuss the “absence of enlightened maternal affection” in Austen's novels, which produces mothers “who fail in their nurturing of daughters” and daughters who are “literally or figuratively motherless.” The relationship of mother and daughter is defined by “matrophobia—fear of becoming one's mother” (pp. 125-26). As a result, a mythical “mother-goddess” replaces the problematic social mother and becomes the figure of a feminine tradition that has been “dismembered, dis-remembered, disintegrated” under patriarchy (p. 98).9 To “remember” and “become a member” of this “shattered tradition that is her matrilineal heritage” (p. 98), the nineteenth-century woman writer/heroine must “kill” the images imposed by patriarchy, the social mothers whom the dutiful daughter is supposed to reflect and reproduce.10

One of the ways the daughter seeks to liberate herself is through sharing the male characters' perception of the mother as comic. The situation could have been presented as tragic or wasteful—for the mother, who has no relationship with those around her, and for the daughter, who suffers from the lack of a significant guide. Imagining the mother as a “joke” seems to mitigate this loss and allows the daughter to move beyond what her mother desired or imagined. Yet Freud warns that there is no such thing as an innocent joke, that all jokes are tendentious.11 Certainly the representation of the mother as comic is tendentious, ultimately working against the daughter's own interests. However much she gains by differentiating herself from a ridiculous mother, she cannot afford to trivialize the position she herself may occupy. Her own possibilities are finally implicated in the mother's position.

Mrs. Bennet occupies just such an uncomfortable position in her culture and in relation to her daughter Elizabeth. She is repeatedly characterized as trivial, static, or uninfluential, the antithesis of Lizzie's complexity and change. Modern readers have willingly accepted such cues and seen her as a dehistoricized trope, as “simply unformed matter,” “the embodiment of the unthinking life-force that works through women,” or “a transparently scheming boor” who, “like the life force, will persist, as foolishly as ever.”12 Mrs. Bennet holds none of the valued positions of mothers in her culture: she has little influence over the domestic realm and is absent from her daughters' scenes of confession and self-discovery. Elizabeth can “hardly help smiling” at Lady Catherine's concern that Mrs. Bennet has been “quite a slave to your education” (p. 199). Although Mrs. Bennet seems inescapable, constantly interrupting conversations and intruding where she is least wanted, she is ignored and countermanded by her husband and elder daughters. The narrator concludes the first chapter with an invitation to dismiss her as a static character of little interest. Having introduced Mr. Bennet as “so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character,” the narrator adds: “Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news” (p. 53). Although Mrs. Bennet is dismissed (p. 262) as a woman whose “weak understanding and illiberal mind” have lost her the “respect, esteem, and confidence” of her husband—and, by implication, of her daughter, the narrator, and readers—she is a constant enough force in the novel to evoke such strong criticism.13 She is a serious handicap to her eldest daughters' romances and a serious instigator of her youngest daughters' folly.

Like Dickens's Mrs. Nickleby, who spoke “to nobody in particular … until her breath was exhausted,”14 Mrs. Bennet's language reveals her self-absorbed inattention to her family's needs. She invariably misconstrues her effect on listeners, imagining specific insult from Darcy's general views about the country and city (p. 89) and missing the contempt with which the Netherfield ladies greet her comments (pp. 90, 144). She dwells in a land of “delightful persuasion” (p. 144), where she alone chooses how to interpret others' behavior. As when she bursts forth with her “exuberance” about Lydia's last-minute marriage, she cannot be shamed nor can her present feelings be disrupted with concern about the past or future.15 Her well-rehearsed discourse on her “poor nerves” preempts her daughters' chances to complain or suffer publicly. After Lizzie rejects Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet recasts the entire episode as an attack on her. She does not imagine what the unpleasant scene may have cost Lizzie, nor does she consider how her daughter may have felt in rejecting a man her mother supports. Her complaints admit no cosufferers and need no audience: “nobody is on my side, nobody takes part with me, I am cruelly used, nobody feels for my poor nerves” (p. 153). Although she vows never to speak to her “undutiful children” again, she babbles on, lost in a self-contained grievance: “Not that I have much pleasure indeed in talking to any body. People who suffer as I do from nervous complaints can have no great inclination for talking. Nobody can tell what I suffer!—But it is always so. Those who do not complain are never pitied.” Her complaints earn her no pity from her daughters, who “listened in silence to this effusion, sensible that any attempt to reason with or sooth her would only increase the irritation” (p. 154).

Although Lizzie is in some ways allied with her mother in a struggle with patriarchal powers, she does not willingly admit the allegiance. Embarrassed by her mother's failures and inadequacies, she can neither laugh her off as comic nor fully dissociate herself. Lizzie never speaks her criticism to her mother, treating her as someone beyond conversation or reform, beyond the improvement of sensibility evoked in the novel. Yet she clearly feels the burden of the association and struggles to convince others of their differences. Her mother has a surprising power to silence the heroine, who speaks out in every other situation. At Netherfield, in front of the critical audience of Darcy and Miss Bingley, Lizzie trembles “lest her mother should be exposing herself again. She longed to speak, but could think of nothing to say” (p. 90). She is all too aware of how powerful and final the response to such exposure can be; it is after such an outburst in front of the Netherfield set that “the mother was found to be intolerable” (p. 68). Physical distance does not shelter her from her identity as daughter of “such a mother” (p. 187),16 and she suffers from the disturbing effects of Miss Bingley's reminders of their “dear friend's vulgar relations” (p. 83). It does not require her mother's presence, but only the “thought of her mother,” to make her lose “confidence” in an argument with Darcy (p. 219). Lizzie's concern about exposure—her mother's and, more to the point, her own—shows her tenuous social position, her vulnerability to being judged by her rank or family rather than by her words, her fear that even her words will prove too daring, too revealing.

Lizzie's intense discomfort around her mother seems reciprocal: she is the “least dear” (p. 145) of Mrs. Bennet's children, the one chosen by Mr. Bennet to confound his opinion of women as “silly and ignorant” (p. 52). Such comments suggest that Lizzie has risen above the devalued position of her mother, both personally and socially. Yet Lizzie shares more with her mother than her father or the narrator acknowledges or than she herself can recognize. Her disvalued fictional role allows Mrs. Bennet to voice more radical discontents than can the heroine of the novel. She is “beyond the reach of reason” in her diatribe against entailing an estate away from her daughters “in favour of a man whom nobody cared anything about” (pp. 106-7)—a complaint Elizabeth Bennet might well make if she were not too rational, too worldly wise. Lizzie shares her mother's shock at Charlotte's engagement to Mr. Collins, although she “recollected herself” (p. 165) in time to address her friend with guarded politeness. Like her mother, Lizzie allows herself “agreeable reflections” about what it would mean for Jane to marry Bingley, but whereas Lizzie keeps her dreams private, her mother speaks “freely, openly” (p. 140), causing her daughter to try “in vain … to check the rapidity of her mother's words, or persuade her to describe her felicity in a less audible whisper” (p. 141). Although Elizabeth has claimed she does not care what Darcy thinks of her, she “blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation” (p. 141) in watching his contempt for her mother's expressed social expectations. The aspiration of rising through marriage is thus displaced onto her mother's vulgarity, although Lizzie too has imagined Jane marrying into a fine house: “she saw her in idea settled in that very house in all the felicity which a marriage of true affection could bestow” (p. 140). Nor can Lizzie openly support her mother's eagerness to arrange for dinners or balls, contrivances necessary to promote the futures of five dependent girls. The calculation needed to achieve a secure marriage cannot be articulated except as comically disvalued speech.17

Mrs. Bennet, whose outbursts are a constant source of anxiety for her elder daughters, is regularly interrupted by her husband, her priorities ridiculed or diverted. Irked at her long tale about a ball and dancing partners, Mr. Bennet dismisses his wife's story and its mode of telling as designed only to irritate him (p. 60). That his daughters' futures depend on such slight details as who dances with whom and in what order, that they too must learn to read minute social signs, is of no concern to Mr. Bennet. As Nina Auerbach has argued, it is Mrs. Bennet who “forges her family's liaison with the outside world of marriage, morals, and money that eligible men embody. … While the mother builds connections, the father retreats from the business of marriage to his library” (p. 36).

Such nonchalance, such silence is the prerogative of the powerful, and in Pride and Prejudice it is permissible only for propertied men. Mr. Bennet regularly gains the upper hand by not answering his wife's addresses, and Darcy similarly maddens the importunate Miss Bingley. Mr. Bennet teases his family by postponing word that he has visited the new bachelors in town, and Darcy chooses when and how to impart the information he controls about Wickham and Georgiana. But when Jane or Lizzie is silent, the unusual behavior is noted and has serious consequences, causing Darcy, for one, to conclude that Jane is cold or Lizzie hostile. In her chapter on women's conversation in The Women of England (1838), Sarah Stickney Ellis codifies the “uses of being silent” for women, suggesting that a woman's silence and speech are alike secondary, functioning “rather to lead others out into animated and intelligent communications, than to be intent upon making communications from the resources of her own mind.”18 Woman's silence is thus very different from the silence of authority which, as the inverse of Bakhtin's “word of the fathers,” need not be repeated to make itself felt. The women in Pride and Prejudice work to fill up silences, to repair the suggestion that they have no purpose, no presence. At Netherfield, the ladies, whose “powers of conversation were considerable” when the men were out of the room, are reduced to nervous stratagems to persuade the men to break the silence they instill (pp. 99-102). The struggle is described as a contest, and Miss Bingley's failure to “win” Darcy “to any conversation” shows the imbalance between men and women speakers. Lizzie comments on this contest, suggesting that “our surest way of disappointing him, will be to ask nothing about it.” She thus appears to control the situation, to have seen through and assumed for herself the power of silence that Miss Bingley, described as “incapable of disappointing Mr Darcy in any thing,” cannot manage.

But Lizzie's silence is only an imitation of Darcy's power to withhold his words, since she must explain that she is doing it and must perform the very role in the scene she hopes to evade, that of speaker who waits for Darcy's response. When Darcy is “surprise[d] at her silence,” Lizzie tries to validate her silence as something she has determined to enact, not merely a product of her social position. She does so with a complicated speech that she expects will “affront him”: “Oh! … I heard you before; but I could not immediately determine what to say in reply. You wanted me, I know, to say ‘Yes,’ that you might have the pleasure of despising my taste; but I always delight in overthrowing those kind of schemes, and cheating a person of their premeditated contempt. I have therefore made up my mind to tell you, that I do not want to dance a reel at all—and now despise me if you dare” (p. 96). Lizzie claims her silence as a powerful privilege, affording her time in which to determine, know, delight, and make up her mind. Yet she must speak to defend her silence, and her actions all respond to expectations that are beyond her control to change. She can refuse to dance, but she cannot alter the nature of dancing and conversing, nor can she alter her position as one who must first be invited, who can only startle “in reply.” The social discourse is preconstituted.

The less powerful speakers in such scenes are regularly marked as “crying” out their speech, as breaking the decorum of a scene in which Darcy's words need only be “said” to have impact and to gain attention. Women are thus required to speak in excess if they are to be heard at all, but such excess marks their speech as negligible. Mrs. Bennet is described by the narrator as “sharp” in defense of her five daughters, as indulging in “raptures” and “exaggeration.” Although her words are necessary to safeguard a minimal social and economic standard for the Bennet girls, she must “rail bitterly” to make her point. And Lizzie has constantly before her the warning of Lydia, whose energies to procure her own desires are described by the narrator as “put[ting] herself forward,” as full of “high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence,” full of “assurance” that makes her “insist” rather than “cry,” and “very equal therefore to address Mr Bingley on the subject of the ball, and abruptly remind[ing] him of his promise” (p. 91).

Lizzie can only differentiate herself from these censured women by explaining at length how her words are to be taken. She does not have Darcy's luxury of silence or her father's indulgence of privacy. As she experiences in her painful encounters with Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins, she is drawn into public discourse despite every attempt at resistance. When Mr. Collins dismisses her careful rejection of his proposal as “merely words of course,” the “usual practice of elegant females,” Lizzie cannot extricate herself from the social construction he has imposed. “I know not how to express my refusal in such a way as may convince you of its being one,” she says. “Can I speak plainer?” Her only recourse is to refer him to her father, “whose negative might be uttered in such a manner as must be decisive” (pp. 148-50). Similarly, although she struggles to mark off some prerogatives for herself in her conversations with Lady Catherine (telling her, “You may ask questions which I shall not choose to answer”), she cannot end the scene. She can deny that Lady Catherine is “entitled” to know her mind and can refuse to be “explicit,” but she must continue to speak to reject further attacks. Even as she insists, “I have nothing farther to say,” she is provoked into a string of defensive replies (“I will make no promise of the kind”; “I must beg, therefore, to be importuned no farther on the subject”; “I have said no such thing”). Her defeated reaction afterward—“to acknowledge the substance of their conversation was impossible”—reflects more than an unwillingness to confide in her mother; it also suggests how powerless she is to control the “substance” of conversations (pp. 364-68).

Lizzie has been warned about the limits on women's discourse by an offhanded remark of Miss Bingley's. When Lizzie recommends that they “punish” Darcy by teasing or laughing at him, Miss Bingley protests that laughter would only serve to “expose ourselves … by attempting to laugh without a subject” (pp. 101-2). Lizzie rejects such an “uncommon advantage” for her male peer, refusing to allow him to conceal himself from the considerable power of her laughter. Yet, although Lizzie “wins” this scene by appearing to reject the conventions of male-female difference, Miss Bingley's comment raises a disturbing problem about women's discourse in Austen's realm. Lizzie's power to laugh depends on having a “subject”; without it her humor will seem as absurd and self-absorbed as her mother's. Although she seems more in control than her mother, Lizzie can neither end nor begin a scene of her own volition. If Darcy does not raise objections for her to correct or mock, her laughter will be seen as having no substance, no social effect; it will emerge not as valiant independence but, like her mother's, as ignorant blindness of serious realities.

The treatment of her mother as comic allows Lizzie, and Austen, to displace the implicit challenge against social limitations with a parental battle that is simpler to fight. The daughter challenges restrictions voiced by a mother who has had no role in creating those rules. Her resentment toward her mother suggests an inability to confront her father's authority and responsibility, but it also gives her the chance to practice rebellion in a less threatening context.19 Mrs. Bennet's embarrassing outbreaks concern Lizzie partially because they proclaim what she must conceal and partially because the reception of these remarks shows Lizzie the contradictory proscriptions for women. Her mother has warned Lizzie (with a “cry”) to “remember where you are, and do not run on in the wild manner that you are suffered to do at home” (p. 88). But Lizzie is caught in a bind: she must be guarded in her words and tactful in her wit if she is to win Darcy (she must always remember she is not “at home”), yet she can win him only by seeming independent and daring (by not allowing him to determine where her home shall be). She vacillates between an astute political analysis and a repression of such insights. When, for example, Darcy confesses he has been attracted by the “liveliness” of her mind, she suggests it might more accurately be termed “impertinence” (p. 388). But she is careful to teach her prospective sister-in-law how “impertinence” gets translated into a permitted or even valued quality: “[Georgiana's] mind received knowledge which had never before fallen in her way. By Elizabeth's instructions she began to comprehend that a woman may take liberties with her husband, which a brother will not always allow in a sister more than ten years younger than himself” (p. 395). Lizzie instructs Georgiana in a mild, affectionate version of sexual politics, but even such casual reminders indicate how careful women must be in determining what is allowed and what will be censured. Lizzie does not presume that Darcy's fondness raises her to a permanent position of “liberty”; even after they have declared their love, she is guarded in her speech, “check[ing]” her “long[ing]” to tease him by remembering “that he had yet to learn to be laught at, and it was rather too early to begin” (p. 380).

Lizzie is also cautious about making explicit the power relations between men and women. She counters her sister Jane's belief that “women fancy admiration means more than it does” with a caustic “and men take care that they should.” But when Jane pursues the issue of what is “designedly done,” Lizzie demurs from the extremity of her views—“without scheming to do wrong, or to make others unhappy, there may be error, and there may be misery”—and finally offers to be silent before she offends by “saying what I think of persons you esteem. Stop me whilst you can” (pp. 174-75). In the very next chapter, however, she rearticulates the political awareness to her aunt Gardener, who has attributed the failure of Jane's romance to “accident.” “These things happen so often!” her aunt has concluded, and Lizzie sharply responds: “An excellent consolation in its way, but it will not do for us. We do not suffer by accident” (p. 178). She ultimately admits her father's complicity in Mrs. Bennet's ridiculed position, but even a private acknowledgment of this insight seems dangerous and must be carefully contained. Although she “had never been blind to the impropriety of her father's behavior as a husband” and “had always seen it with pain,” she “endeavoured to forget what she could not overlook, and to banish [it] from her thoughts.” It is only the public disaster of Lydia's seduction that allows her to blame her father as well as her mother for the “disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage” (p. 262).

Lizzie is trapped between the equally unpleasant expectations of the “good” and “bad” daughter. The fall of Lydia, the bad daughter who is her mother's favorite, is instructive, since it reminds Lizzie of the danger of being judged as “fanciful” or “wayward.” Mrs. Gardiner has warned Lizzie to be a good daughter, not of her mother but of her father: “you must not let your fancy run away with you. You have sense and we all expect you to use it. Your father would depend on your resolution and good conduct, I am sure. You must not disappoint your father” (p. 181). But Lizzie can see what society's “good sense” wins, what a good daughter can expect for herself. She is greatly unsettled by Charlotte's “sensible” marriage and has little sympathy with the “composure” with which both Jane and Charlotte repress their desires and observations. She also has the example of Miss Bingley, who has constructed herself as the perfect product of social rules, as exceedingly careful to do whatever it takes to win herself a powerful husband and house. In the fabulous world of Pride and Prejudice, it is Lizzie, the “bad” daughter, who succeeds and is allowed to laugh at her competitor and to outrank her sensible friend and sister. The happy ending rewrites the historically more likely outcome, the coopted marriage of Charlotte or the ridiculed position of her mother.20 The heroine wins propriety and wealth through daring and rebellion made palatable to her world through her partial adherence to its rules. She succeeds by publicly being a “bad daughter” to her unworthy mother, but she also succeeds by evading the sense and directives of patriarchal culture.

Pride and Prejudice marks the beginning of a time, as Judith Lowder Newton has argued, of “general ideological crisis, a crisis of confidence over the status, the proper work, and the power of middle-class women” (p. 1). The ambivalent role of the mother, who in Austen's novel is both powerful and negligible, becomes a more conventional trope as it is codified and rationalized by a proliferation of advice books, novels about women's struggles, and treatises on the Woman Question. It is, therefore, productive to compare how the “foolish mother” is positioned in a novel in which the role is still implicit and how that position is solidified in a novel like Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891). By the end of the century, in Tess, Hardy presents a daughter passionately condemning her foolish mother, blaming the mother for the daughter's tragedy. Such a scene is unmentionable in Austen, and not only because of the differing conventions of polite discourse.

By 1891 it was relatively uncontroversial to represent the mother as scapegoat for cultural disorder. When Tess discovers that there is “danger in men-folk,” it is her “poor foolish mother” she blames for not having warned her.21 The mother's failure in the personal realm is given broad-ranging cultural implications. Tess's mother has seen their fall from “nobility” as merely a “passing accident” rather than the “haunting episode” that ruins her child's expectations (p. 162). Her foolishness thus becomes a historical emblem—of the peasantry's failure to understand the threat of the aristocracy and of the urban world, of the failure of the “past” to understand the demands of “the modern age,” of the failure of seeing “accident” or “nature” as a sufficient cultural explanation. And it apparently makes sense to trace all these powerful failures to a mother who has not taken her responsibilities seriously enough: “‘O mother, my mother!’ cried the agonized girl, turning passionately upon her parent as if her poor heart would break. ‘How could I be expected to know? … Why didn't you warn me? Ladies know what to fend hands against, because they read novels that tell them of these tricks; but I never had the chance o' learning in that way, and you did not help me!’ Her mother was subdued.”

The implication is that ladies have an undue advantage over the daughter of a “poor foolish mother,” an advantage which Tess sees as literary but which could more accurately be seen as the advantage of wealth and class. The mother's “simple vanity” becomes the focus for her daughter's anger, which cannot find its more appropriate targets, both individual and cultural. But when the novel has Tess blame her mother for not “telling” her of worldly dangers, and when such an accusation “subdues” the mother into a proper acceptance of guilt, there has been an important ideological manipulation of the role of mother. It is contradictory to locate the fault in not “telling”—in words—rather than in the “wrong doing” of men or the class inequities that make ladies better prepared to negotiate the perils of adult life. Tess thus provides a scapegoat for the powerful social transformations that affect the lives of women, for which daughters must be prepared. The mother, who is at best a commentator on the social realm, has taken the place of initiator, guardian, or betrayer.

Mid-nineteenth-century advice books, like the influential series by Mrs. Ellis—Wives of England, Daughters of England, and Women of England—similarly imply that mothers are the source of broad cultural changes that disrupt the family and the lives of their daughters. They charge women with the responsibility for correcting and upholding moral standards for man, who is “confused by the many voices, which in the mart, the exchange, or the public assembly, have addressed themselves to his inborn selfishness or his worldly pride [and …] stands corrected before the clear eye of woman, as it looked directly to the naked truth, and detected the lurking evil of the specious act he was about to commit” (The Women of England, p. 42). The blame for continued “selfishness” or confusion, for worldly pride or lurking evil, then rests not on the “confused” man but on the woman who fails to oppose him, to provide him with a “clear eye” in which to see his faults. In an 1832 essay on the “Education of Daughters,” Lydia Maria Child cites as a “true, and therefore an old remark, that the situation and prospects of a country may be justly estimated by the character of its women” and stresses the important transmission of such influence from mother to daughter.22 Such pronouncements suggest a cultural concern over what is perceived as women's and, more explicitly, mothers' responsibilities and failures. They also stress the narrow range of possibilities afforded mothers, in which the mother's behavior is always a failure, incapable of satisfying incommensurable demands. Deborah Gorham describes the mother-daughter relationships figured in Victorian literature and art as inevitably producing two outcomes: “one in which the mother fulfilled her maternal functions, and one in which she would not or could not do so” (p. 47). To be a “good” mother according to the culture's proscriptions was to be a failure in her daughter's eyes. But to be a “bad” mother was also to be a failure, to embarrass or commit her daughter to living outside the system of social rewards and approval only the father could bestow.

By working to institutionalize the “proper” discourses of women, to teach the emergent middle class how to be “good” mothers and “dutiful” daughters, nineteenth-century advice books suggest that the relationship between mother and daughter was not seen as “natural” or as the province of individuals, but as requiring considerable institutional support and guidance. The aim was not to create self-fulfilled individuals but to acquire facility in approved social functions. In Women of England, Mrs. Ellis warned against encouraging young women to be too “striking” or to stray from their proper “station” as “relative creatures”: “If, therefore, they are endowed only with such faculties, as render them striking and distinguished in themselves, without the faculty of instrumentality, they are only as dead letters in the volume of human life, filling what would otherwise be a blank space, but doing nothing more” (p. 108). To be part of social discourse, to avoid the marginality of being a “dead letter,” a “blank space” in the “volume of human life,” young girls must learn to function in predetermined ways, to fulfill the “instrumentality” established as their role and use in culture. Like their mothers, like Freud's child, they must learn to accept what is “granted” to them by an authority they work to uphold. It would be difficult for a mother to speak from such a proscribed position, and it would be painful for a daughter to hear such words. Austen's Mrs. Bennet makes the position and its restrictions visible and laughable; she “fails” to become an appropriate function and thus remains outside approved social practices. Her daughter “succeeds,” but she too is implicated in her mother's exclusion from the social world. The novel “forgets” the bleakness of women's prospects in its exuberant ending, but at the cost of banning the mother from its view and of suspending the objections she voiced.


  1. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, 1813 (New York: Penguin, 1972), p. 53.

  2. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 403.

  3. Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, 1905, ed. and trans. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963), p. 182. Freud wrote: “weil eine solche bei ihm nicht vorhanden ist,” “er besitze diese Hemmung nicht,” and “lachen nicht über ihn, sondern sind über ihn entrüstet” (Sigmund Freud, Der Witz und Seine Beziehung zum Unbewussten [Leipzig and Vienna: Franz Deuticke, 1905], p. 156).

  4. Bakhtin locates the effect of incomprehension, not within the novel or in any specific character's ability to “teach” others, but in the novelist's awareness of multiple discourses: “A failure to understand languages that are otherwise generally accepted and that have the appearance of being universal teaches the novelist how to perceive them physically as objects, to see their relativity, to externalize them, to feel out their boundaries, that is, it teaches him how to expose and structure images of social languages” (The Dialogic Imagination, p. 404).

  5. Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall (1966; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), pp. 80, 83. Macherey argues that such a double reading seeks “the inscription of an otherness in the work, through which it maintains a relationship with that which it is not, that which happens at its margins” (p. 79).

  6. In Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1976), her influential analysis of American cultural attitudes toward motherhood, Rich claims: “This cathexis between mother and daughter—essential, distorted, misused—is the great unwritten story” (p. 225). See also Signe Hammer, Daughters and Mothers: Mothers and Daughters (New York: Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co., 1975); and Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978). In her review essay on “Mothers and Daughters” (Signs 7 [1981], 200-222), Marianne Hirsch discusses the reasons for the historical “silence” and “the subsequent centrality of the mother-daughter relationship at this particular point in feminist scholarship” (p. 201). Her essay provides an extremely useful survey of recent studies that are “attempts to prove that the story of mother-daughter relationships has been written even if it has not been read, that it constitutes the hidden subtext of many texts” (p. 214). See also The Lost Tradition: Mothers and Daughters in Literature, ed. E. M. Broner and Cathy N. Davidson (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1980), a collection of essays on this issue. Studies that discuss the nineteenth-century scene in particular are: Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination (New York: Avon Books, 1972); Françoise Basch, Relative Creatures (New York: Schocken Books, 1974); Ellen Moers, Literary Women (New York: Doubleday, 1976); Elaine Showalter, A Literature of Their Own (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977); Lynne Agress, The Feminine Irony (New York: University Press of America, 1978); Nina Auerbach, Communities of Women (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978); Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979); Judith Lowder Newton, Women, Power, and Subversion: Social Strategies in British Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981; rpt. London: Methuen, 1986); and Deborah Gorham, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982).

  7. In “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1 (1975), 1-29, Carroll Smith-Rosenberg suggests that “taboos against female aggression and hostility” may have been “sufficiently strong to repress even that between mothers and their adolescent daughters” (p. 17). But she also challenges the modern assumption that hostility between generations, “today considered almost inevitable to an adolescent's struggle for autonomy and self-identity,” is an essential, ahistorical fact. Patricia Spacks explains the omission of mothers as a stylistic version of an unchanging resentment: “In nineteenth-century novels women express hostility toward their mothers by eliminating them from the narrative; twentieth-century fiction dramatizes the conflict” (The Female Imagination, p. 191).

  8. Ellen Moers calls courtship “a dreadful word” in Austen, “for it implies something a man does to a woman, and can include adultery.” She prefers “marriageship,” and argues Austen saw marriage as “the only act of choice in a woman's life” (Literary Women, p. 70). Gilbert and Gubar concur that marriage is “the only accessible form of self-definition for girls in [Austen's] society” (Madwoman in the Attic, p. 127).

  9. See Gilbert and Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic, pp. 97-104. Moers describes women writers as “an undercurrent” literary tradition (Literary Women, p. 42); Showalter discusses the “covert solidarity that sometimes amounted to a genteel conspiracy” between women novelists and readers in the nineteenth century (A Literature of Their Own, pp. 15-16).

  10. Showalter discusses the “remarkable frequency” with which nineteenth-century women writers identified with the father at the “loss of, or alienation from, the mother” (ibid., p. 61). “[M]ost mothers in middle-class families were more narrow-minded and conventional than the fathers, who had the advantages of education and mobility. … The daughter's nonconformity would increase the strains in her relationship with her mother and lead her to make greater demands upon her father for love and attention” (p. 62). Susan Peck MacDonald argues that the “absence of mothers” in Austen's novels derives “not from the impotence or unimportance of mothers, but from the almost excessive power of motherhood.” The mother's power to “shield her daughter from the process of maturation” must be met by a “psychological rift” with the mother (“Jane Austen and the Tradition of the Absent Mother,” in The Lost Tradition, ed. Broner and Davidson, pp. 58, 64). See also my discussion of Louisa Gradgrind's negotiation of her father's system and her mother's ineffectual resistance, in Jean Ferguson Carr, “Writing as a Woman: Dickens, Hard Times, and Feminine Discourses,” Dickens Studies Annual 18 (1989), 159-76.

  11. “Jokes, even if the thought contained in them is non-tendentious and thus only serves theoretical intellectual interests, are in fact never non-tendentious. They pursue the second aim: to promote the thought by augmenting it and guarding it against criticism. Here they are once again expressing their original nature by setting themselves up against an inhibiting and restricting power—which is now the critical judgment” (Freud, Jokes, pp. 132-33). See also Sigmund Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, 1924, trans. Joan Riviere (New York: Washington Square, 1952), in which he discusses slips of the tongue and other comical errors: “They are not accidents; they are serious mental acts; they have their meaning” (p. 48).

  12. The first two depictions are by Douglas Bush in his 1956 article “Mrs. Bennet and the Dark Gods: The Truth about Jane Austen,” rpt. in Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Pride and Prejudice, ed. E. Rubenstein (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), p. 113, and the last two by Mark Schorer in his introduction to Pride and Prejudice (Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), pp. xiii, xxi.

  13. Nina Auerbach argues for the “equivocal” nature of Austen's discussion of “direct female power” and cites Harriet Martineau's “oblique apology” in Society and America (1837) that English girls would obey such a “foolish mother” (Communities of Women, p. 50).

  14. Charles Dickens, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (London, 1838-39), ch. 11.

  15. On Lydia's return, Austen describes Mrs. Bennet as “disturbed by no fear for her felicity, nor humbled by any remembrance of her misconduct” (p. 320). Nina Auerbach discusses Mrs. Bennet as curiously vague about the details of domestic life, but sees Lizzie as “beyond a certain point devoid of memory”: “if she shares nothing else with her mother, her faculty of nonremembrance confirms Mrs. Bennet's perception of the nonlife they have had together” (Communities of Women, p. 43).

  16. In her essay on Charlotte's prospects, “Why Marry Mr. Collins?” in Sex, Class, and Culture (1978; rpt. London: Methuen, 1986), Lillian Robinson discusses Lady Catherine's harsh reminder that although Lizzie's father is a gentleman she is not “the daughter of a gentlewoman as well” (p. 185).

  17. Judith Lowder Newton discusses Pride and Prejudice's subversion of the issue of economic concerns by its association with Mrs. Bennet, “a woman whose worries we are not allowed to take seriously because they are continually undermined by their link with the comic and the absurd” (Women, Power, and Subversion, p. 70). See also Lillian Robinson's discussion of the economic difference the heroines would experience as daughters and as wives (Sex, Class, and Culture, p. 198).

  18. In The Women of England, Their Social Duties, and Domestic Habits (London, 1838; rpt. Philadelphia: Herman Hooker, 1841), Mrs. Ellis begins her chapter on “the uses of conversation” with what she admits is the “somewhat paradoxical” discussion of silence, the “peculiar province of a woman” which derives “from her position in society” (p. 101). In The Wives of England: Their Relative Duties, Domestic Influence, and Social Obligations (London, 1843; rpt. New York: D. Appleton, 1843), she provides a fitting example of the authority of men's silence and the contingency of woman's speech. She advises men to leave the discipline of servants and children to their wives “because the master of a family with whom it rests to exercise real authority cannot so well unbend, and make himself familiar with the young people under his direction, the claims of this part of the community are strong upon the wives of England” (p. 235). The husband retains “real” power by being silent but allows his wife to “unbend” in speech; her exercise of domestic power is granted on the condition that she make herself “familiar” to a “part of the community” that remains “under” the “master.”

  19. A sociolinguistic study of mother-daughter relationships comments on the use of “indirection” by mothers to signal “to their children that a directive is meant more seriously than its surface structure suggests.” They cite the view that “indirection occurs because mothers are less willing to demonstrate power openly than are fathers. They see in the mother's use of indirect means in controlling her children evidence of her discontent with the superordinate position of power which is available to her as a mother, but not elsewhere in her life.” Their study suggests that such a doubled discourse both acknowledges and attempts to circumvent the disparity in social power of men and women, and its use arises from the mother's inexperience with power and her unwillingness to claim it openly. See Ruth Wodak and Muriel Schulz, The Language of Love and Guilt: Mother-Daughter Relationships from a Cross-Cultural Perspective (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1986), pp. 35-36. Wodak and Schulz discuss indirect means of control or instruction as a sign of the mother's need to domesticate her authority, to make it appear less intrusive or insistent, less like a usurpation of male prerogatives, but they also cite it as a manipulative practice which preserves the mother's power in a realm beyond critique, “because indirection denies the child a chance to respond” (p. 37). As is evident in the interviews, the mother's linguistic claim to power often arises from her borrowing of patriarchal languages. The signal to serious portent, or to powerful command, is achieved by moving outside the language used by mothers to children, by using those social discourses that remain the province of fathers—logic, proper language, or an approved state language. They provide many examples of such “metaphorical code switching (a switch from one register to another)”: for example, American mothers' attempt to “convey seriousness by switching from a diminutive name to the child's full name” or Norwegian mothers' movement “from their local dialect into Standard Norwegian to emphasize a command” (p. 36).

  20. See Lillian Robinson's discussion of the ending as improbable, “outside the realm of [Lizzie's] own and Jane Austen's imaginings” (Sex, Class, and Culture, p. 188).

  21. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the D'Urbervilles (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), pp. 69-70.

  22. Lydia Maria Child, “Hints to Persons of Moderate Fortune,” in The American Frugal Housewife: Dedicated to Those Who Are Not Ashamed of Economy (Boston, 1832; rpt. Worthington, Ohio: Worthington Historical Society, 1965), p. 1.

This essay is dedicated, with love and admiration, to my mother, Mary Anne Heyward Ferguson, who, unlike Mrs. Bennet, has been a wise comprehender and a supportive instigator of her daughters' efforts. An early version of this essay was presented at a Wellesley College symposium, “Mothers and Daughters in Literature,” in February 1982.

Joseph Litvak (essay date fall-winter 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6302

SOURCE: Litvak, Joseph. “Delicacy and Disgust, Mourning and Melancholia, Privilege and Perversity: Pride and Prejudice.Qui Parle 6, no. 1 (fall-winter 1992): 35-51.

[In the following essay, Litvak explores the ideas of disgust and pleasure in the various contexts in which they are presented in Pride and Prejudice.]

Let it be understood in all senses that what the word disgusting de-nominates is what one cannot resign oneself to mourn.

—Jacques Derrida

In a well-known passage from one of her letters to her sister Cassandra, Jane Austen records her own response to Pride and Prejudice (1813):

I had some fits of disgust. … The work is rather too light, and bright, and sparkling; it wants shade; it wants to be stretched out here and there with a long chapter of sense, if it could be had; if not, of solemn specious nonsense, about something unconnected with the story; an essay on writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparté [sic], or anything that would form a contrast, and bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness and epigrammatism of the general style.1

That Austen can be driven to disgust not just by her own writing, but by its very refinement, by what is most “light, and bright, and sparkling” in it, comes as no surprise: the hyperfastidiousness she evinces here conforms perfectly with the venerable stereotype of gentle Jane, where the gentleness or gentility in question easily assumes a pathological or ideologically suspect character. Of course, what disgusts Austen is not so much her novel's “general style” itself as the lack of a “contrast” that would “bring the reader with increased delight to [its] playfulness and epigrammatism.” In its belated wish to interpolate a certain differential heaviness, however, Austen's acute calculation of rhetorical effects bespeaks the characteristic work of an aesthetic of distinction.2 Gagging on the stylistic consistency—that is, the overconsistency—of Pride and Prejudice, getting sick from what amounts to too much of a good thing, Austen thus presents herself as her novel's ideal reader. For reading Pride and Prejudice—reading any Austen novel—means submitting, consciously or not, to a rigorous aesthetic discipline, undergoing subtle but incessant schooling in the ever-finer classifications, discriminations, and aversions that maintain Austen's exacting (because never quite explicit) norms of good manners and good taste, of “rectitude and delicacy,” according to which anyone, even a distinguished hero or a delightful heroine,3 or anything, even an unrelieved “playfulness and epigrammatism,” can fall under the dreaded rubric of the disgusting.

But what if, instead of merely providing evidence of how well Austen has learned her own lessons, her “fits of disgust” signified a protest against that discipline? There is more than one way, after all, of being disgusted by Pride and Prejudice—indeed, by the very aesthetic properties that would seem to make it irresistibly appetizing. For if the novel functions discreetly and thus all the more efficaciously as a kind of conduct book, the good manners and good taste it works to implant operate in the service of a eugenic teleology of good breeding: that is, of the marriage plot, whereby the traditional novel idealizes heterosexuality and its reproduction. Much of the most adventurous recent Austen criticism, of course, has concentrated on uncovering just this ideological labor in her fiction. As a result, it has become possible not only to see how her novels serve up what D. A. Miller calls “social prescriptions that readers are palatably, even deliciously made to swallow,” but also to begin to resist such dubious nourishment, spitting out—even spitting up—what no longer tastes quite so delicious.4 In expressing her disgust on reading Pride and Prejudice, Austen may be doing something other than just voicing her fear of dulling (or offending) our palates with too much brilliance: she may in fact be seen as at once authorizing and enacting a resistant reading of her own text.

If Pride and Prejudice is disgusting because it is “too light, and bright, and sparkling,” its seductive surface does not so much conceal a disciplinary core as constitute and convey a new and improved discipline of its own. The lightness of the style, I would argue, functions much like that of today's lighter, leaner cuisine, which, as we are constantly reminded not just by doctors and dietitians but, even more dishearteningly, by restaurant critics and cookbook authors as well, is both what we want and what's good for us. Pride and Prejudice, whose low-fat, low-cholesterol language positively makes our mouths water, begins to seem uncannily “modern,” a prescient fictional precursor of our own food and drug administration.5

But the stylish askesis the novel purveys is not merely a question of style. In thematizing its écriture minceur, it articulates the strict moral regimen enforced by and upon what it would project as a whole interpretive community of weight watchers. The “easy playfulness” (70) of Elizabeth Bennet's manners is matched, not surprisingly, by her “light and pleasing” (70) figure, so that she serves as a fitting embodiment of the verbal ethos of the novel in which she stars. Thus streamlined, moreover, she can figure over and against characters like Mr. Collins, whose “heavy looking” (109) body almost automatically convicts him of the “stupidity” (163) with which he is soon charged, and which accounts for most of the rare morsels of “solemn specious nonsense” to be found in the text; or like the “indolent” (81) Mr. Hurst, whose vice is confirmed, and whose character irreversibly discredited, in the summary observation that “when he found [Elizabeth to] prefer a plain dish to a ragout, [he] had nothing to say to her” (81). If we haven't yet internalized the precept that less is more, those of us unfortunate enough to share Mr. Hurst's taste are reminded that the only appropriate response to a ragout is dégoût.

Even more telling, of course, is Elizabeth's moral superiority to the novel's various comically aberrant female characters, all of whom, in different ways, betray both an excessive appetite and an inability or an unwillingness to control it: Mrs. Bennet, who has never learned how to “hold her tongue” (305); Lydia Bennet, who has inherited not only her mother's shameless garrulity but also her none-too-discriminating taste for soldiers; Miss Bingley, who, with her invidious sarcasm (literally, a rending of flesh), repeatedly and haplessly bites off more than she can chew; Lady Catherine de Bourgh, whose similarly self-subverting freedom in “delivering her opinion” (198) more efficiently delivers proof of her “ill breeding” (207). Reduced—or rather, expanded—to comic types, these characters, paradoxically, can never really “grow”: they can only repeat themselves. Even the notoriously “fast” Lydia is stuck in a one-joke role. Along with Collins, these “literary fat ladies,” as Patricia Parker would call them, indeed provide whatever precious textual padding remains amid the general svelteness.6 Modelled against the static backdrop they compose, the self-disciplined Elizabeth should seem to move even more sleekly through the novel's marriage plot, which, though it places obstacles in her path, does so, apparently, in order that we may marvel at the “liveliness” and general light-heartedness with which she negotiates them.

As Austen anticipated, however, the novel may not be sufficiently “stretched out” or larded to make us consume it with such “increased delight.” Not every reader, at any rate, will choose to join the “admiring multitude” whom the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy is destined to “teach … what connubial felicity really was” (325). What one hears as a certain sarcasm in this very phrasing may even bespeak Austen's distaste for the ideological project in which she finds herself enlisted. Of course, in carrying out this project, she is hardly unique among eighteenth- or nineteenth-century English novelists, and Pride and Prejudice is hardly the only one of her novels in which the exigencies of the marriage plot ultimately take precedence over every other claim for narrative interest. What makes Pride and Prejudice unusually hard to swallow, I have been suggesting, is not so much the marriage plot per se as the particular ideologico-aesthetic ruse that is supposed to make it go down so easily. For no matter how the novel's distinctive lightness (liteness?) gets glamorized, it remains a fetish in a symbolic economy of privation: indeed, it has to be turned into an object of desire precisely insofar as it represents—and requires—the systematic denial of pleasure.

For all its “Mozartean perfection,” in short, Pride and Prejudice seems to me the least enjoyable of all of Austen's novels. Where the other novels offer us various juicy tidbits to sink our teeth into on the way to the wedding, Pride and Prejudice, though not entirely fat-free, generally exercises an almost stingy restraint in dispensing preclosural gratifications, withholding any that might tempt us to stray too far or too unproductively from its foreordained linear trajectory, catering only to those tastes whose indulgence will leave us, like the heroine, lithe and trim enough to be put through our paces.

Novels such as Sense and Sensibility and Emma obviously have to conduct their heroines (and their readers) toward the triumphant genital heterosexuality enshrined in the institution of marriage, but, as critics have shown, the very plotting of that development through a progression of proto-Freudian “phases” at least affords their heroines (and their readers) various perversely “pregenital” and/or nonprocreative excitations.7 Faced with Pride and Prejudice, however, the reader who is not especially tantalized by the prospect of a wedding feast is going to be left feeling more than a little hungry.

In this situation, is there anything to do with one's mouth besides complain? As I have suggested, one way of resisting the heterosexist teleology of Austen's master plot is to cultivate—indeed, to savor—whatever perverse reader-relations that plot may permit, if only so as, precisely, to master them. To tease out the kinkiness of the interaction between Emma and Knightley, for example, or to play up the seductive theatricality of Mary and Henry Crawford, is fantasmatically to perpetuate a relation with a lost or occluded object: in the first example, a perversity between characters, which the normalizing narrative has to cover up; in the second, an energy more visibly located within characters themselves, who must therefore be dealt with more punitively, expelled from the text in a climactic paroxysm of moral revulsion. What a resistant reading of Mansfield Park may resist, then, is the pressure to reenact that expulsion: instead of casting the Crawfords out, as one is expected to do, one may try to keep them in, guarding them, perversely, in what French Freudian theory has helped us to picture as a crypt within—or upon—one's own reading body.8

In other words, if the disgusting “is what one cannot resign oneself to mourn,” purgation is not the only response to it; what has been theorized as the fantasy of incorporation suggests an alternative form of non-mourning. The fantasy of incorporation promotes what Freud calls the work of melancholia, where the refusal to mourn signals a refusal of loss. Neither a mere throwing up and casting out nor, as in mourning, an idealizing, metaphorical introjection of the lost object, incorporation, as Derrida has suggested in his commentary on the work of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, “involves eating the object … in order not to introject it, in order to vomit it, in a way, into the inside, into the pocket of a cyst.”9 Insisting on a certain literalization of the object, at once killing it and keeping it alive, incorporation is a fantasy not only of eating one's cake and having it, but also of becoming one's cake, of identifying oneself with it and thus of denying its absence, which the metaphorical substitutions characteristic of mourning would implicitly acknowledge.10

In view of what I've said about the slim pickings presented by Pride and Prejudice, however, the question would seem to be: how can one perpetuate a fantasmatic relation with something one never had in the first place? One possible answer might begin by recalling that, under the novel's terroristic regime of good taste, no one, not even Elizabeth Bennet, is immune from the charge of vulgarity. For example, Elizabeth's very athleticism—the clearest demonstration that hers is a disciplined body—provokes Miss Bingley's disgusted censure when, in a burst of unladylike impetuosity, Elizabeth undertakes the walk to Netherfield to visit her sister Jane and shows up in a dirty petticoat. If Miss Bingley's sneering assertion that this behavior displays “a most country town indifference to decorum” (82) testifies more damningly to her own bad moral taste, there might nonetheless be some advantages to not sanitizing Elizabeth too quickly by reading the passage “figuratively.” That is, it might be useful to allow Elizabeth's dirtiness itself to maintain a certain insistent literality, a weight and density comparable to those enjoyed by the incorporated object in the work of melancholia.

And though, Lydia's worthy efforts notwithstanding, the novel as a whole may not satisfy one's appetite for certain perverse pleasures, Miss Bingley's ill-advised mudslinging, like Lady Catherine's later judgment that Elizabeth's marriage to Darcy constitutes a “pollution” (396) of the woods of Pemberley, has the oddly appealing effect of stigmatizing the heroine as not only a transgressor of class distinctions but also a sexual threat. However transparent a betrayal of her own jealousy, snobbishness, and sheer mean-spiritedness—that is, however disgusting in its own right—Miss Bingley's disgust suggests one way of cathecting what we might otherwise pass up as an excessively wholesome text: by recognizing that, through the very plotting of its heroine's upward mobility, of her inevitable ascent toward marriage, it affords us a way of articulating sex with class—specifically, of eliciting from it a certain social perversity, in which the older sense of “vulgarity” as social offense already anticipates or implies the newer one of “vulgarity” as sexual offense.

In fact, far from being adventitious or merely occasional, Elizabeth Bennet's implication in the disgusting to a great extent defines her. It is this very stance, moreover, that she takes (rather self-congratulatorily) to define herself. What she shares with her father, of course, and what qualifies the two of them to figure as the novel's most conspicuous author-surrogates, is a sophisticated “delight … in any thing ridiculous” (59). Self-styled connoisseurs of the stupid and the vulgar, bemused practitioners of the art of treating the disgusting as a delicacy, these two characters demonstrate the classic middle-class technique, recently delineated by John Kucich, of making oneself look classier than the rest of the middle class.11 But this raises a potentially unsettling question: to what extent are they therefore not only author-surrogates but critic-surrogates as well?

One reason for retaining a certain psychoanalytic frame of reference is that, inflected by an awareness of the politics of sophistication, it can help us not only to resituate the “easy” ironic “playfulness” that informs this lightest and liveliest of Austen's novels, but also to rethink our own way of consuming it. If the interesting characters in Austen's novels usually fall into two asymmetrical categories—the category inhabited primarily by the heroines, who can (or must) do the essentially interiorizing work of mourning; and the category of those who, endowed (or afflicted) with no such interiority, live exclusively in the nauseating vicariousness that, for Austen, virtually is the social—if, in short, the characters can be classified as either elegiac or emetic—what makes the jaunty Elizabeth Bennet differently interesting is that, oddly like the melancholic, she marks out a liminal zone between the interior and exterior. While she dwells exclusively neither among the disgusting nor among the mournfully refined, she effects a certain commerce between these two realms. As a refined consumer of the disgusting, she may have tastes more like those of a resistant critic than we might imagine, and more to teach us about our own refractory middle-class fantasies of incorporation than we already know.

That is, if Pride and Prejudice, more saliently than any of Austen's other novels, mobilizes the marriage plot in such a way as to legitimate the nascent social conjunction that has been called a “middle-class aristocracy,”12 the concomitant middle-class sophistication embodied by Elizabeth Bennet has the capacity to signify more than just a binding of potentially unruly social energies: its overdetermination can provide an instructive context for the oppositional projects of contemporary bourgeois academic criticism. It is an irony worth remarking, in other words, that the discursive strategy impelling Elizabeth's success story—in which what really succeeds, more balefully, seems to be ideological containment itself—looks a lot like the discursive strategy whereby latter-day middle-class sophisticates would disrupt the very ideology in whose interest Elizabeth fares so well.

Much of the appeal of Pride and Prejudice, in any case, consists in its fulfillment of the wish that middle-class readers can be sophisticated. While the middle-class heroine of Northanger Abbey can only aspire to the sophistication epitomized by her aristocratic husband, Elizabeth Bennet not only possesses sophistication before the novel has even begun, but proves herself more charming than Prince Charming himself—more charming, more clever, more witty than all the Darcys and Bingleys and Hursts and de Bourghs put together. But what exactly is this middle-class sophistication that makes Elizabeth, according to her author, “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print”? Just what is it in Elizabeth's “general style” that enables her not only to win Darcy but, in so doing, to outclass and infuriate snobs like Miss Bingley and bullies like Lady Catherine, making her the prototype of all those wisecracking comic heroines of literature and film, those avengers of their class against its supercilious would-be oppressors?

Consider the following exchange, in which Elizabeth attempts to recuperate her mother's embarrassing monologue about a suitor of Jane's who once wrote verses for her:

“And so ended his affection,” said Elizabeth impatiently. “There has been many a one, I fancy, overcome in the same way. I wonder who first discovered the efficacy of poetry in driving away love!”

“I have been used to consider poetry as the food of love,” said Darcy.

“Of a fine, stout, healthy love it may. Every thing nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

Darcy only smiled; and the general pause which ensued made Elizabeth tremble lest her mother should be exposing herself again.


Clearly framed as a diversionary tactic, Elizabeth's rather panicky “playfulness and epigrammatism” here work not just to take the spotlight away from her vulgar mother, but to establish Elizabeth's distinction over and against that vulgarity, with which she might otherwise seem too closely affiliated. But though Elizabeth may come off looking distinguished, the playful epigrammatism thanks to which she does so is not entirely distinct from the abjected discourse of the mother.13

For Elizabeth's wit obeys a chiastic logic, whereby Darcy's apparently refined, metaphorical defense of poetry as the “food of love” gets set up as a mere received idea, against which her own ironic, deidealizing reading, if it is to emerge as superior in analytic sophistication, must invoke a certain irreducible antimetaphorical insistence: that of the body and its appetites in their ineloquent, almost stupid, but strangely heroic materiality. While the “fine, stout, healthy” body in love can take poetry or leave it, such merely metaphorical food will hardly nourish what Elizabeth rather surprisingly disparages as a “slight, thin sort of inclination.” (Even if “stout,” in Austen's day, may have meant “vigorous” rather than “thickset,” we can indeed imagine here a happy prolepsis, not unlike that of “vulgarity,” whereby the body for which this health-conscious novel secretly longs is neither slight nor even light, but perhaps best described by the distinctly un-Austenian adjective, zaftig.14) Indeed, so paradoxically offensive is the idealized metaphoricity of poetry as the food of love that it can have the literally disgusting effect of “starv[ing]” that weak inclination “entirely away.” The savvy, down-to-earth Elizabeth advertises a robust middle-class materialism that—at once appealing to the debunking force of what a nicer aesthetic would find repulsive, and thereby evincing its own disgust vis-à-vis the latter—chokes on the spiritualizing clichés that the aristocratic Darcy, for one, has not been too proud to swallow.

This is not to say that Elizabeth has no saving interiority: her grief and humiliation in the wake of the disgrace caused by Lydia and Wickham, her anguished recognition that “never had she so honestly loved [Darcy], as now, when all love must be vain” (295), testify to her appetite for the work of mourning. But Elizabeth owes her success to more than just her refined and refining inwardness. If, on the one hand, what makes middle-class sophistication middle-class, as Norbert Elias suggests, is its displacement of merely exterior, superficial aristocratic civility into a psychologized cultivation, it just as constitutively distinguishes itself, on the other hand, by activating the resulting self-consciousness through an endless putting into quotation marks of its own lower stratum, of the vulgarity that thereby figures within it as an indelible prehistorical trace.15 Through her witty remarks on poetry and love, Elizabeth distinguishes herself from Darcy and her mother alike, playing the high metaphorizing taste of the one off against the low literal-mindedness of the other—the terms in which she champions the body and literality, for instance, are themselves figurative—and thus exhibiting a rhetorical virtuosity that neither of them can claim.

Playing both sides against the middle—that is, against itself—middle-class sophistication vulgarizes mere (i.e., aristocratic) sophistication and sophisticates mere (i.e., lower-class) vulgarity. Elizabeth invites Darcy to acknowledge the charm of the latter tactic when, at the end of the novel, she asks him “to account for his ever having fallen in love with her”:

“My beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners—my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”

“For the liveliness of your mind, I did.”

“You may as well call it impertinence at once. It was very little less. The fact is, that you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you, because I was so unlike them.


Resorting again to chiasmus, Elizabeth identifies her manner, as well as her “manners,” in terms of an alluring “impertinence” as opposed to a disgusting “civility.” Yet if she has “interested” Darcy where other women could not, this is not simply because of her difference from their “deference”—not simply because he finds refreshing what would otherwise seem disgusting—but because she has had the wit to stylize the vulgarity that keeps threatening to reclaim the rest of her family. “Bordering on the uncivil,” Elizabeth's stylistic practice is a strategically displaced, ironically mannered version of what she has avowed in herself as a certain “coarseness of … sentiment,” itself bordering on the incorrigible Lydia's “coarseness of expression” (247; Austen's emphasis). And while Elizabeth by no means celebrates such contaminating contiguity with Lydia—or, for that matter, with any of the more disgusting members of her family, which is to say, just about everyone but Jane, the Gardiners, and perhaps her father—her remarks to Darcy above make disarmingly clear that she has grasped the rhetorical and social advantages of vomiting vulgarity into the inside, of incorporating it into a new, more capacious and more versatile class style.16

The evident upward mobility of this style might represent something of an embarrassment for those of us who recognize in it an uncanny precursor of our own would-be “impertinent” deployment of the “disgusting”: if not unabashedly downward, the movement of oppositional criticism is supposed to be audaciously and unpredictably lateral, transgressing disciplinary divisions, cultural boundaries, and so forth. The point is not to unmask oppositional criticism as merely another mode of bourgeois careerism, but to mark the different, almost opposite, ethical and political valences with which strikingly similar strategies can be charged. For the fantasy of incorporation, which I have associated with an admirably perverse resistance to the normalizing (i.e., heterosexualizing) pressures of the marriage plot, bears a strong resemblance to the far less attractive operation of containment—more specifically, to “the endless ‘rediscovery’ of the carnivalesque within modern literature” (and criticism), which Peter Stallybrass and Allon White have demystified as “a counter-sublimation, a delirious expenditure of the symbolic capital accrued (through the regulation of the body and the decathexis of habitus) in the successful struggle of bourgeois hegemony.”17

Perversely cultivating a taste for what the regime of “family values” demonizes as the disgusting, much recent gay, lesbian, and anti-heterosexist criticism could probably be historicized as a “counter-sublimation” of the kind Stallybrass and White describe. But less than the question of whether that criticism is “really” oppositional or “really” complicit in the success of bourgeois hegemony, what interests me is why the problematic of class and the problematic of sexuality so rarely engage each other in contemporary academic discourse. Not that our culture as a whole abounds in places where they can be found in dialogue; in this respect, the academy indeed mirrors the world from which it might be imagined to differ. While every television talk show nowadays strikes another blow against the poor old repressive hypothesis, what remains largely unspoken, in as well as out of the academy, is not sexuality but the class relations around sexuality. Yet, if this issue seldom gets addressed, it nevertheless—or for that very reason—gets acted out, generating powerful or even violent effects, as demonstrated currently by a whole range of attacks on “cultural elites,” attacks launched most notoriously and most visibly in and through the mass media by right-wing politicians like Vice-President Dan Quayle, but also increasingly in evidence within the field of lesbian and gay studies itself, where a resentful activism sets itself up in opposition as much to a supposedly triumphant ivorytower mandarinate as to the aforementioned guardians of the Family.18

If the example of the impertinent Elizabeth Bennet confronts “perverse” criticism with a hypothetical narrative of its own class origins, it should go without saying that, far from constituting one more discrediting assault, this genealogy is designed to promote the cause of perversity. Instead of neutralizing “perverse” criticism by exposing its position of class privilege, it would suggest that “privilege”—or what gets stereotyped under that rubric—can itself have the dangerous force of the perverse. In a culture that tolerates the sophisticated even less than the disgusting—indeed, for which the sophisticated paradoxically represents the disguisting at its most egregious—and that constructs its middle class as the sacred repository of normality itself, the sophisticated middle-class connoisseur of the disgusting commits an offense that includes but is not limited to the sexual. Or rather, her sexual offense counts as a social offense, and vice versa. Not only has she developed unorthodox appetites, but she has the effrontery to flaunt them, as though looking down her nose at those members of her class who, less knowingly fluent than she in their command of the operative codes of good and bad taste, and therefore less adept at scrambling them, have to content themselves with merely upholding them. And since pride must always be met by prejudice, the bold infractions of elite criticism have to get recoded as pathological, as symptoms of sexual abnormality in its most repellent form, so that what might seem an enviable cosmopolitanism can take on instead the horrifying, abject alterity of what one avoids like the plague.

That this repellent form, especially in the age of “AIDS,” is almost always male homosexuality reveals what we might call the other face of counter-sublimation: if the continuing success of bourgeois hegemony is best allegorized by the rising heroine of the marriage plot, her recasting in the homophobic image of the gay man reminds us how easily the privileged middle-class subject can turn into a scapegoat.19 Rather than designate one figure or the other as the “true” embodiment of elite middle-class culture, we might try to imagine them as a telling composite, as an emblem of the dynamic interdependence of perversity and privilege in oppositional criticism. For if the former obviously inflames our culture's numerous arbiters of taste, the outrage that it signifies is scarcely separable from that of the latter. Privilege may not seem the most likely feature in the repertoire of an oppositional politics, but while its provocative potential may be hard to admit in theory, its provocative effects are everywhere legible in contemporary social practice.

Only if we presume to know that “privilege” can only mean one politically suspect thing does its intimate relationship with the perverse appear necessarily to give away the game of oppositional criticism—give it away, that is, as “nothing more than” a game, in which, for example, what is at stake is merely the familiar (or quasi-familial) antagonism between fractions of the dominant class, between, say, the Elizabeth Bennets and the Lady Catherine de Bourghs of the late twentieth century.20 The pleasures of such sociological reduction are not to be denied; but privilege has its pleasures too, and if oppositional critics have not exactly denied them, neither have we been particularly eager to affirm them, whatever certain “activists” and “populists” would say to the contrary. By exhibiting our shameful “elitism” as tastelessly as our engrossed detractors like to accuse us of doing—as saucily, in other words, as we flaunt the sexual transgressiveness with which that “elitism” is symbolically interfused—we revolting critics might do more than just play into the hands of the enemy. By living up to our bad press, with the full insolence we are already thought to enjoy, we might find ourselves in an even more privileged position to repel sexual and aesthetic regimes that, as many people (not all of them middle-class academic critics) might say, are strictly from hunger.

This essay is an expanded version of a paper delivered at a special session entitled, “Austen's Manner,” at the 1991 Modern Language Association convention. I would like to thank Mary Ann O'Farrell, who organized and chaired the session, and a fellow panelist, D. A. Miller, who has encouraged me to indulge my indelicate appetites. As always, Lee Edelman has provided invaluable nourishment, intellectual and otherwise.


  1. Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed. R. W. Chapman, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1932), 2:299-300.

  2. On this aesthetic (which, the author is at pains to show, is by no means merely an aesthetic), see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984). One of Bourdieu's central theses is that “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier. Social subjects, classified by their classifications, distinguish themselves by the distinctions they make, between the beautiful and the ugly, the distinguished and the vulgar, in which their position in the objective classifications is expressed or betrayed” (6).

  3. The phrase “rectitude and delicacy” describes Jane Bennet (Pride and Prejudice, ed. Tony Tanner [Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980], 168). Austen thought Elizabeth Darcy “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” (Letters, 2:297), but one does not have to endorse the snobbery of a Miss Bingley to notice in Elizabeth some of that “want of propriety” (228) that Darcy observes in almost everyone else in her family. As even a sympathetic critic like Claudia Johnson has to admit, “Elizabeth's wit is occasionally marked by an unabashed rusticity bordering on the vulgar” (Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988], 76); Johnson also remarks that Elizabeth's “celebrated liveliness” “verg[es] sometimes on unlady-like athleticism” (76). As for Darcy, it is significant that, while he makes a favorable first impression, before long “his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity” (58).

  4. D. A. Miller, “The Late Jane Austen,” Raritan 10 (Summer 1990): 79. Miller's sumptuously suggestive reading of Austen's body politics has provided me with abundant food for thought. Other critiques of Austen's marriage plot include, for example, Joseph Allen Boone, Tradition Counter Tradition: Love and the Form of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 89-96; Franco Moretti, The Way of the World: The “Bildungsroman” in European Culture, trans. Albert Sbragia (London: Verso, 1987), 15-73; Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 194-207.

  5. An example of the incoherences that occasionally beset this discourse of reduction appears in an article by Gina Kolata, entitled “Squeezing Fat, Calories, Guilt, and More Profits out of Junk Food,” on the “Ideas and Trends” page of the New York Times “Week in Review” section (Sunday, August 11, 1991, E5). On the one hand: “‘It is very clear that the consumer wants low-fat and low-calorie foods—there is no question about that,’ said Nomi Ghez, an analyst at Goldman Sachs who follows the food industry.” On the other hand, several paragraphs later: “‘We have been telling people for decades to give up most meats and dairy products, to eat vegetables, grains and fruits,’ said Dr. Adam Drewnowski, the director of the human nutrition program at the University of Michigan. ‘But this is not happening. People seem to be not entirely thrilled about eating naturally low-calorie foods like broccoli and grains. They turn up their noses and say, How about some chocolate chip cookies?’”

  6. Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies: Rhetoric, Gender, Property (New York: Methuen, 1987).

  7. See, for example, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl,” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991): 818-37.

  8. That, alternatively, one may cathect Fanny Price's oddly juicy neurosis itself, her “monstrosity,” is suggested by Nina Auerbach, “Jane Austen's Dangerous Charm: Feeling As One Ought About Fanny Price,” in her Romantic Imprisonment: Women and Other Glorified Outcasts (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 22-37.

  9. Jacques Derrida, “Foreword: Fors: The Anglish Words of Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok,” trans. Barbara Johnson, in Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok, The Wolf Man's Magic Word: A Cryptonomy, trans. Nicholas Rand (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), xxxviii. This essay's epigraph, which I have just incorporated partially into the text, is from Derrida, “Economimesis,” trans. Richard Klein, Diacritics 11 (Summer 1981): 23. The text, an analysis of Kant's aesthetics, informs my reference below to the relationship between disgust and vicariousness.

  10. For a shrewd discussion of incorporation in terms of “the melancholia of gender,” see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990), 57-72. Butler's account is extremely helpful in its inflection of psychoanalytic theorizing toward a more searching analysis of the politics of gender and sexuality. My highly condensed remarks on incorporation owe much to her impressive synthesis and reorientation of a number of Freudian and post-Freudian texts.

  11. See John Kucich, “Transgression in Trollope: Dishonesty and the Antibourgeois Elite,” ELH 56 (Fall 1989): 593-618. In my thinking about the genealogy and the dynamics of middle-class sophistication, I am greatly indebted to Kucich's essay. See Poovey, 196-99, for an excellent account of the essentially defensive function of Elizabeth's “playfulness.”

  12. The term “middle-class aristocracy” comes from Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 160. See 134-60 for an account of Austen's role in articulating that “paradoxical configuration” (160). In his reading of Pride and Prejudice, Moretti also provides a helpful analysis of the symbolic marriage between the middle class and the aristocracy.

  13. I allude here to Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

  14. According to R. W. Chapman, stout in Austen “perhaps never = fat”; but he indicates one possible exception in her letters, and one could adduce others. See Chapman, ed., Austen's Letters, 2:Index VII (“Jane Austen's English”; no page number). As D. A. Miller would remind us, however, the economy of scapegoating virtually requires that any fat-affirmative gesture we glimpse here be accompanied by a compensatory violence against the “slight, thin” body: on “the aggression that the diminutive woman suffers in Austen no less than the large,” see Miller, “The Late Jane Austen,” 62-64. On the fat (female) body as “an alternative body-identity fantasy” in recent gay male culture, see Michael Moon and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Divinity: A Dossier, A Performance Piece, A Little-Understood Emotion,” Discourse 13 (Fall-Winter 1990-91): 13. The notion of “chunks of literality” (36) elaborated in that essay has had a stimulating effect on my thinking about fatty residues in Austen. I am further indebted to Michael Moon for the felicitous term, “revolting criticism,” which he used as the title for a session at the 1990 MLA convention, and which I echo at the end of this essay.

  15. See Norbert Elias, The History of Manners: The Civilizing Process, Volume I, trans. Edmund Jephcott (New York: Pantheon, 1978). On the function of the lower bodily stratum in middle-class culture, see Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986).

  16. For an acid and deliberately reductive reading of Derrida's sophisticated vulgarity, see Bourdieu, 494-500.

  17. Stallybrass and White, 202, 201

  18. On the activist/elitist binarism in gay studies, see Lee Edelman, “The Mirror and the Tank: ‘AIDS,’ Subjectivity, and the Rhetoric of Activism,” in his Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, forthcoming). For an example of how this binarism gets framed and circulated, see Jeffrey Escoffier, “Inside the Ivory Closet,” Out/Look 10 (Fall 1990).

  19. For an extensive and richly nuanced analysis of how the homophobically constructed gay man can figure as the “other face” of the heterosexual woman, see Lee Edelman's essay, “Imag(in)ing the Homosexual: Laura and the Other Face of Gender,” also forthcoming in Homographesis.

  20. Readers of Bourdieu's Distinction will recognize that I allude here to his differentiation between dominant and dominated fractions of the dominant class, and to his elaboration of the conflict between those class fractions.

Gordon Hirsch (essay date winter 1992)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7743

SOURCE: Hirsch, Gordon. “Shame, Pride, and Prejudice: Jane Austen's Psychological Sophistication.” Mosaic 25 (winter 1992): 63-78.

[In the following essay, Hirsch discusses Pride and Prejudice in the light of modern psychology, focusing on the role of shame in the novel.]

Elizabeth Bennet's great moment of psychological insight in Pride and Prejudice comes soon after she reads Darcy's letter:

She grew absolutely ashamed of herself. Of neither Darcy nor Wickham could she think without feeling that she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd.

“How despicably have I acted!” she cried. “I who have prided myself on my discernment. … How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one [Wickham], and offended by the neglect of the other [Darcy], on the very beginning of our acquaintance I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

(176-77; 2:13)1

Elizabeth's “prepossession” in favor of Wickham and against Darcy—her “prejudice,” in other words—stems from her feeling slighted by Darcy, from her wounded “pride,” from her sense of vulnerability. Her confidence, her “pride” in her own discernment, has collapsed, and she now reports feeling ridiculous, humiliated, ashamed. In this way Jane Austen not only underlines the themes alluded to in her novel's title but also highlights their connection. Elizabeth's “pride” has driven her to be defensively “prejudiced.” Although she once took satisfaction from her pride, it is now seen to be a response to threats to her self-esteem, a defense against feelings of inferiority, vulnerability and shame. Elizabeth understands her prejudice to be a product of her vulnerable pride, and beneath that pride—ready to return with a vengeance—is the feeling of shame.

With the notable exceptions of D. W. Harding and Bernard Paris, most critics of Jane Austen have not focused on the emotional content and concern with affect in her novels, preferring to concentrate either on her technical manipulations of tone and structure or on her moral thematics. This is particularly true of Pride and Prejudice, a novel which Austen herself referred to as possibly “rather too light, and bright, and sparkling” (Letters 299). Given that concern with appearing ridiculous is a major issue in the novel, however, the very nature of Austen's disclaimer invites one to look beneath the sprightliness of the performance. In doing so, one discerns not only the psychological acuity of her insights into the emotional dynamics of shame but also her sociological perceptiveness about the way a culture reinforces feelings of shame as a means of maintaining its hierarchies and control.

An instructive way to begin such a discussion is to note that about a century before Austen wrote her novel, David Hume had also investigated the relation between pride and shame, and stressed the importance of these two “passions” in the psyche. In his Treatise of Human Nature, Hume identified pride and humility as two fundamental, opposed feelings about the self—the first pleasant and the second painful. For Hume, as for Austen, pride is “not always vicious, nor [humility] virtuous” (297-98). Pride and humility are above all connected with “our idea of ourself” (277), though that idea is affected by the way others regard us; these emotions are, then, important regulators of human behavior in society. Like Austen, Hume was interested as well in the curious way pride attaches not only to our personal qualities but also to our family—“their riches and credit”—and to “any inanimate object which bears a relation to us”—a house, garden, region, or nation (307-08). Austen's study of pride and shame is, however, considerably more concrete and detailed than Hume's philosophical formulations, and the psychological issues she dramatizes are further illuminated by bringing the insights of modern psychology to bear.

The “Shame Experience,” as Susan Miller calls it, or “Facing Shame,” as Merle A. Fossum and Marilyn J. Mason entitle their book, is one of the subjects most intensively studied in recent years by psychoanalysts and psychodynamically oriented clinicians. Although such research includes a broad range of ideas, these studies have in common a particular emphasis on affect or felt emotions, and a view of shame as especially important and problematic in the development of identity, the sense of self. “Shame” is seen as encompassing a complex of associated affective and cognitive states, which include feeling ashamed, embarrassed, ridiculous, humiliated, dishonored, worthless, etc. Each term denotes a similar painful feeling about the self, though each suggests its own particular admixture of guilt, self-directed hostility, and other, related feelings.

One prominent clinician, Helen Block Lewis, offers this general description of the phenomenology of shame: “In shame, hostility against the self is experienced in the passive mode. The self feels not in control but overwhelmed and paralyzed by the hostility directed against it. One could ‘crawl through a hole’ or ‘sink through the floor’ or ‘die’ with shame. The self feels small, helpless, and childish” (“Shame” 19). Shame is a feeling of disgust, displeasure or embarrassment about some quality of the self, occurring typically at a moment of uncovering and exposure. It is connected with feelings of low-self esteem, and in some cases it may produce depression. Pride, identified with positive feelings about the self, is at the opposite pole of what the psychiatrist Donald Nathanson terms “the shame/pride axis.” As is often the case in psychology, however, opposition at the poles may be more apparent than real. Frequently individuals attempt to master their shame through the development of an illusory, brittle pride. Shame is thus a “master emotion,” one which is likely to trigger other affects and behaviors (such as rage or grandiosity) in response to deeply rooted feelings of personal inadequacy and inferiority. One reason for the importance of studies of shame in contemporary psychological research is the emphasis on observed, primary affect, and on a response to this affect which is also frequently evident on an emotional level, without an inordinate reliance on abstract psychological metatheory. These new, affect-based studies can be particularly useful in analyzing a novel like Pride and Prejudice, which seems to take feelings of pride and shame as its core psychological focus.

The heroine of Austen's novel, Elizabeth Bennet, appears at first glance to be witty, able and self-possessed; one recognizes, with Caroline Bingley, that “in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency” (226; 3:3). Nevertheless the basic situation of the novel explores Elizabeth's recurrent feelings of shame about her family, and the book tends to move from one shame-laden situation to another. Darcy's first proposal of marriage to Elizabeth and his letter of explanation after Elizabeth has rejected his proposal underline the importance of shame in the book. Even as Darcy proposes, “his sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination were dwelt on” (161; 2:11). Elizabeth's mother, in particular, is only the daughter of a smalltown attorney, a station in life taken up by her brother-in-law, while her brother (Elizabeth's uncle) is, unfortunately, from the point of view of Darcy and his class, a London businessman who actually lives “within view of his own warehouses” (120; 2:2). “Could you expect me to rejoice in the inferiority of your connections?” Darcy pointedly asks (164; 2:11). Still worse than the “situation of your mother's family,” Darcy notes, is “that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself [Elizabeth's mother], by your younger sisters, and occasionally even by your father” (168; 2:12). Although Elizabeth begins Darcy's letter as a resisting reader, she grows increasingly distressed by what she feels to be the accuracy of his charges:

The compliment to herself and her sister [Jane] was not unfelt. It soothed, but it could not console her for the contempt which had been thus self-attracted by the rest of her family; and as she considered that Jane's disappointment had in fact been the work of her nearest relations, and reflected how materially the credit of both must be hurt by such impropriety of conduct, she felt depressed beyond anything she had ever known before.

(177; 2:13)

In her own past behaviour, there was a constant source of vexation and regret; and in the unhappy defects of her family a subject of yet heavier chagrin. They were hopeless of remedy.

(180; 2:24)

If the climax of the second volume, coming just at the midpoint of the novel, consists of Elizabeth's unflattering recognition of her vulnerability to shame and her understanding of what has motivated her behavior toward Darcy, the climactic chapter of the first volume, the description of the Netherfield ball, is a lengthy account of the way Elizabeth is racked by shame and embarrassment occasioned by one incident after another.

Elizabeth's two first “dances of mortification” with Mr. Collins, her clerical cousin, supply her with “all the shame and misery which a disagreeable partner for a couple of dances can give. The moment of her release from him was ecstasy” (78-79; 1:18). Next, Elizabeth dances with Darcy; they spar inconclusively on various topics, and end their dance in frosty taciturnity. Caroline Bingley then denounces Wickham to Elizabeth on the grounds that, “considering his descent, one could not expect much better” than “infamous” behavior from him (83; 1:18), an attack that particularly enrages Elizabeth because the Bennets' own rank in society is an issue. Collins again embarrasses Elizabeth by indecorously approaching and introducing himself to Darcy, who is vastly his social superior, justifying this breach of decorum to Elizabeth on the grounds that “I consider the clerical office as equal in point of dignity with the highest rank in the kingdom” (85; 1:18). Mary Bennet, “after very little entreaty … oblige[s] the company” with a song, followed by an encore, though it is obvious to all that “her voice was weak and her manner affected” (88; 1:18). Elizabeth's mother loudly proclaims her hopes that Jane will marry Bingley, as well as her indifference to Darcy's opinions. Through all of this, “Elizabeth blushed and blushed again with shame and vexation,” and “was in agonies”; indeed, “to Elizabeth it appeared that had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to play their parts with more spirit or finer success” (87, 88, 89; 1:18).

Reaching momentary peaks at the Netherfield ball and at the time she receives Darcy's letter, shame is the main affectual motif associated with Elizabeth throughout the novel. Sometimes she herself feels ashamed, worthless, humiliated; at other times, characters attempt to shame her. Whether they succeed or not depends on such things as the accuracy of their charges and the degree of her attachment to the shamer. Caroline Bingley, Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are largely ineffectual in their attempts to play upon her shame; Darcy's criticisms are, in the long run, less easily dismissed. Elizabeth's characteristic response to feelings of shame is caustic wit. She defends against feelings of worthlessness and self-hate by attempting to gain the upper hand through witty and aggressive repartee.

This strategy is evident as early as the novel's third chapter, when Elizabeth overhears Darcy's remark at a ball that “she is tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” (12; 1:3). Her effort to turn the tables and triumph over Darcy when recalling this incident is characteristic: “Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings toward [Darcy]. She told the story however with great spirit among her friends; for she had a lively, playful disposition, which delighted in anything ridiculous” (12; 1:3). Much later she recognizes the defensive and self-aggrandizing quality of her wit: “I meant to be uncommonly clever in taking so decided a dislike to [Darcy], without any reason” (190; 2:17).

Elizabeth grows increasingly angry and distraught as she learns of Darcy's efforts to dissuade Bingley from calling on Jane in London, which she attributes chiefly to Darcy's sense of the Bennets' “want of importance”: “The agitation and tears which the subject occasioned brought on a headache; and it grew so much worse towards the evening that added to her unwillingness to see Mr. Darcy, it determined her not to attend her cousins to Rosings” for tea (159; 2:10). When Darcy, to her amazement, calls on her instead at the parsonage later that evening to propose marriage in a manner which she finds wounding, Elizabeth responds with a reactive humiliated fury, with what psychologists today would call “shame-rage” (Lewis, “Shame” 19): “She lost all compassion in anger. … ‘If I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot. … The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation'” (161-62; 2:11). Darcy is able immediately to grasp some of what underlies Elizabeth's response: “[My] offences might have been overlooked, had not your pride been hurt by my honest confession of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design” (163-64; 2:11). But Darcy's explanatory letter is required before Elizabeth can examine critically the origins of her own feelings.

Despite Elizabeth's conscious recognition, while reading Darcy's letter, of the role her vulnerable self-image played in the development of her “prejudice,” her sister Lydia's later “infamy” in running off with Wickham reactivates her sense of shame, producing sleepless nights (250; 3:6). She sees Lydia's action as “such a proof of family weakness, such an assurance of the deepest disgrace” as certainly to foreclose any possible renewal of Darcy's proposal (232; 3:4): “From such a connection she could not wonder that he should shrink. The wish of procuring her regard, which she had assured herself of his feeling in Derbyshire, could not in rational expectation survive such a blow as this. She was humbled, she was grieved; she repented, though she hardly knew of what. She became jealous of his esteem, when she could no longer hope to be benefitted by it” (260-61; 3:8).

Lydia returns unashamed to her father's house after her marriage to Wickham (which has secretly been arranged by Darcy to preserve the honor of the Bennets), and Elizabeth is “disgusted” by “the easy assurance of the young couple. … Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless. … It was not to be supposed that time would give Lydia that embarrassment from which she had been so wholly free at first” (264-65; 3:9). Lydia has essentially followed in Elizabeth's footsteps: she has been attracted to and conned by Wickham. Worst of all, she is not even ashamed of acting on her wishes and running away with him! Lydia's impulsive behavior and lack of shame represent precisely what Elizabeth fears and represses in herself. Elizabeth is furious, too, that her mother is “more alive to the disgrace which the want of new clothes must reflect on her daughter's nuptials, than to any sense of shame at her eloping and living with Wickham a fortnight before they took place” (260; 3:8). When Darcy and Bingley revisit Longbourn, Elizabeth's “shame,” “misery” and “wretchedness” all return as she listens to her mother brag about Lydia's marriage and single Bingley out for her attention while ignoring Darcy (282-83; 3:11).

At this critical moment of renewed low self-esteem, Lady Catherine de Bourgh reenters the novel and attempts to shame Elizabeth into promising not to marry Darcy. Lady Catherine's intervention backfires, of course, and this is certainly one example of the considerable strength and resiliency in the face of blatant and overt attempts to shame her which are also part of Elizabeth's character. She is restored to happiness when Darcy revives his marriage proposal, but at the end of the novel considerable attention is devoted to the continuing embarrassments of the courtship phase at home and to the question of who will and who will not be welcome at Elizabeth's new abode on Darcy's estate:

The Collinses were come themselves to Lucas Lodge. … The arrival of her friend was a sincere pleasure to Elizabeth, though in the course of their meetings she must sometimes think the pleasure dearly bought, when she saw Mr. Darcy exposed to all the parading and obsequious humility of her husband. …

Mrs. Philips's vulgarity was another, and perhaps a greater tax on his forbearance; and though Mrs. Philips, as well as her sister, stood in too much awe of him to speak with the familiarity which Bingley's good humour encouraged, yet, whenever she did speak, she must be vulgar. … Elizabeth did all she could to shield him from the frequent notice of either, and was ever anxious to keep him to herself, and to those of her family with whom he might converse without mortification; and though the uncomfortable feelings arising from all this took from the season of courtship much of its pleasure, it added to the hope of the future; and she looked forward with delight to the time when they should be removed from society so little pleasing to either, to all the comfort and elegance of their family party at Pemberley.

(322-23; 3:18)

Of all the members of her family, the ones most truly welcome at Pemberley will be her uncle and aunt Gardiner, about whom Elizabeth had earlier said, “It was consoling that [Darcy] should know she had some relations for whom there was no need to blush” (213; 3:1). Throughout the novel, then, the family of emotions associated with shame—and Elizabeth's efforts to cope with these feelings by means of hostility or wit—constitute Elizabeth's leitmotif.

In fact, not only Elizabeth but one character after another, whether major or minor, is connected with feelings of shame, or attempts to shame another character, or related issues of self-esteem. Sir William Lucas, Charlotte's father, knighted during his mayoralty, takes “a disgust to his business and his residence in a small market town” and quits them both in favor of a more genteel existence in “Lucas Lodge” (17; 1:5). Caroline Bingley repeatedly tries to shame Darcy into giving up his interest in Elizabeth by calling attention to the woman who would become “your mother-in-law” should he win her (46; 1:10), or by remarking on Elizabeth's dirty stockings and petticoat “six inches deep in mud”—“such an exhibition”—when Elizabeth arrives at Netherfield after walking in the rain (32; 1:8). Mr. Collins's “mixture of servility and self-importance” (56; 1:13) expresses perfectly Austen's insight that grandiose fantasies and aggressive self-promotion may be a defense against threatened self-esteem. Intuitively knowledgeable about such matters himself, Collins pitches his proposal of marriage to Elizabeth in such a manner as to play upon her susceptibility to shame: “You may assure yourself that no ungenerous reproach shall ever pass my lips [about your want of fortune] when we are married” (93; 1:19); or, when his rejection appears likely, he warns Elizabeth that “it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage may ever be made to you” (95; 1:19). Wounded by Elizabeth's rejection, Collins, in a “state of angry pride” (100; 1:21), seeks revenge by rapidly turning his attention to Charlotte Lucas. Wickham, a confidence man usually able to defend against feeling by a display of “manners,” nevertheless registers shame when he unexpectedly encounters Darcy in Meryton: “Both changed colour, one looked white, the other red” (63; 1:15). Lady Catherine de Bourgh tries to shame Elizabeth during the latter's visit to Rosings by expressing amazement that the Bennet daughters have had no governess and that all are “out” in society at once (142; 2:6). In her later, last-ditch effort to separate Elizabeth and Darcy, she castigates the “upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune” (299; 3:14).

In particular Austen explores the role of shame in the makeup of four of the novel's more important characters—Charlotte Lucas, Mr. Bennet, Jane Bennet and Darcy. Elizabeth's relations with the first of these frequently touch on the expression of affect in this sense. Charlotte apparently feels less emotion but is readier to display her desire than Elizabeth. Though Elizabeth can scarcely believe her friend is serious about such tactics, Charlotte insists that “a woman had better show more affection than she feels” for a man, lest “she lose the opportunity of fixing him” (20; 1:6). When Charlotte acts on her beliefs and “fixes” the ridiculous Collins, Elizabeth sees Charlotte as “disgracing herself and sunk in her esteem”—“a most humiliating picture” (110; 1:22). Throughout her visit to Charlotte's new home at Collins's parsonage, Elizabeth studies Charlotte for signs of shame and embarrassment: “When Mr. Collins said anything of which his wife might reasonably be ashamed, which certainly was not seldom, she involuntarily turned her eye on Charlotte. Once or twice she could discern a faint blush; but in general Charlotte wisely did not hear. … When Mr. Collins could be forgotten, there was really a great air of comfort throughout, and by Charlotte's evident enjoyment of it, Elizabeth supposed he must be often forgotten” (134-35; 2:5). If “in general Charlotte wisely did not hear” what Collins says, the implication is that she does in fact “hear” it but chooses wisely to ignore it. The “faint blush” alone betrays her shame. Generally, Charlotte seems able to will to “forget” Collins altogether—at least so “Elizabeth supposed.”

One of the problems readers experience in evaluating Elizabeth's visit with the Collinses is that nearly every perception of their marriage is filtered through Elizabeth's judgmental eyes, so that it is difficult to discern how critical Austen herself is of this marriage. Charlotte has, after all, attained the establishment she sought, however inadequate Collins may be as a spouse from Elizabeth's point of view. In fact, Elizabeth can scarcely see Charlotte as a person distinct from herself, with different needs and values. Elizabeth's parting thoughts about the couple suggest that the truth may be a bit more complicated than it had seemed at first: “Poor Charlotte!—it was melancholy to leave her to such society! But she had chosen it with her eyes open; and though evidently regretting that her visitors were to go, she did not seem to ask for compassion” (183; 2:15). Charlotte, in other words, may be at least a little less susceptible to feelings of shame, or perhaps a bit less threatened by them, than Elizabeth. Although alternative explanations are, of course, possible—for example, that Charlotte gives no indication of seeking compassion precisely because she feels ashamed—it still remains clear that Charlotte has made her choice with a pretty good sense of the sort of person Collins is, and that Elizabeth would find such a choice more objectionable, and perhaps more threatening to her self-image, than Charlotte does.

Elizabeth's father is also defined largely in relation to shame, because he both humiliates his wife and fails to keep his younger daughters under sufficient control so as not to bring disgrace upon the whole family. “Captivated by youth and beauty,” he has weakly married the ignorant and foolish Mrs. Bennet, and then has withdrawn both from her and from his family to his library (199; 2:19). When he is with his wife and family, he is guilty of “that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible” (200; 2:19). Furthermore, in failing to restrain his younger children, he is, as Elizabeth warns, compromising “our [family's] importance, our respectability in the world. … Oh! my dear father, can you suppose it possible that they [Kitty and Lydia] will not be censured and despised wherever they are known, and that their sisters will not be often involved in the disgrace?” (195; 2:18).

Of all the characters in the novel, Elizabeth's older sister, Jane, seems most identified with anxieties about harshly judging the self and others. Her principal trait is her reluctance to be critical of anyone. She is always ready to excuse and defend, or plead extenuating circumstances for whatever wrongs are done her by Mr. Bingley, his sister Caroline or Darcy. Jane would, for example, defend Charlotte's marriage to Collins, or argue that Darcy and Wickham have somehow simply misunderstood one another or been misinterpreted to one another. To some extent, her reluctance to judge is a tonic to Elizabeth's defensive rush to judgment, and some of the things the less critical Jane says turn out to be largely true. Yet Austen suggests that Jane's “steady sense and sweetness of temper” (202; 2:19) are also to be understood as what we would now describe as a reaction formation against critical feelings and even anger directed against her own self and others. These critical ideas and feelings, in other words, are replaced in her conscious awareness by their opposites—feelings of placidity and general benevolence. Jane's anger is a bit difficult to discern since she is “shut down,” not capable of expressing it. If readers are not given much of an interior view of Jane's emotional life, we are, however, provided with a rather full portrait of the psychological dynamics at work within her family. Elizabeth's shame about and anger at both her parents are tangible, and it seems reasonable to suppose that some of these feelings are present in Jane, too, precisely because she has gone to the opposite extreme in her refusal to think ill of anyone.

Certainly in Jane's tendency toward depression, which emerges in the second volume of the novel, after she has apparently been dropped by Bingley, there is evidence that all is not well with Jane, that her “sweetness of temper” comes at a price. If Elizabeth occasionally gives way to a psychosomatic headache (159; 2:10), Jane seems to suffer longer-lasting “periods of dejection” (131; 2:4). When Elizabeth scans once more “all the letters which Jane had written to her since her being in Kent … in all, and in almost every line of each, there was a want of that cheerfulness which had been used to characterize her style. … Elizabeth noticed every sentence conveying the idea of uneasiness, with an attention which it had hardly received on the first perusal” (160; 2:11). “Jane had not written in spirits,” Elizabeth decides (155; 2:10); “Jane was not happy” (192; 2:17). Jane is convinced that Bingley's failure to call on her in London can be explained only by his indifference to her, whereas Elizabeth more accurately suspects a conspiracy to keep Bingley away. Suspicions and critical feelings about others are in Jane's psyche, then, turned against the self. No one is unworthy except herself.

In fact, Jane seems to cope by attempting to suppress all kinds of uncomfortable affect, whether strongly negative or strongly positive—like her affection for Bingley. As Elizabeth sees it, “Jane's feelings, though fervent, were little displayed, and … there was a constant complacency in her air and manner, not often united with great sensibility” (177; 2:13). As a result, Darcy has a hard time discerning that Jane really is in love with Bingley, and we are similarly forced to deduce how sternly Jane judges herself. In both cases, however, the evidence is in the text. There is a restrained, depressive quality about Jane Bennet, an unmistakable sense of deficiency and diminished self-esteem. If a certain amount of self-restraint and humility are virtues for Jane Austen, she is also quite capable of demonstrating how these tendencies may be so pronounced as to become dysfunctional.

Of all the characters in the novel, however, Darcy represents perhaps the most interesting example of Austen's anatomy of shame—precisely because there seems to be an ambivalence on her part about the “pride” with which he is associated. If Elizabeth is the exemplar of the “prejudice” in the novel's title—by reason of the way she forms too readily and on insufficient information a judgment against Darcy and in favor of Wickham—Darcy is the exemplar of “pride.” Of course, Austen characteristically complicates her thematic by showing that Elizabeth's prejudice arises from her wounded pride, and that Darcy is at various times associated with something very like prejudice. Yet the question the novel repeatedly poses is whether or not, given his immense fortune, grand estate and distinguished family, Darcy's pride—manifested particularly in his stiff and stand-offish manners—can be justified. Is there such a thing as “proper” pride, or is all pride to be seen as a kind of defense against shame or anxiety about shame?

For the first half of the novel, Elizabeth's criticism of Darcy's hauteur dominates, and Elizabeth appears to win her debates with the defenders of Darcy's pride—Charlotte Lucas, Mary Bennet, and Darcy himself. Elizabeth's antagonists repeatedly try to distinguish vanity from pride. Darcy “has a right to be proud,” Charlotte thinks (18; 1:5); and bookish Mary Bennet, “who piqued herself upon the solidity of her reflections,” as Austen puts it in a wry revelation of Mary's own vanity, offers this distinction: “Vanity and pride are different things, though the words are often used synonymously. A person may be proud without being vain. Pride relates more to our opinion of ourselves, vanity to what we would have others think of us” (19; 1:5). Thus Austen very early in the novel gives to two characters least likely to be identified as her spokespersons a certain grain of truth; a potentially strong defense of an appropriate pride is placed in weak hands. Can there be a sense of dignity and strength that is not riddled through with anxiety about shame, anxiety about the adequacy of the self? Can there be a pride which one has “a right” to feel?

The answer to these questions shifts gradually in Darcy's favor toward the center of the novel, particularly after he has a chance to defend himself and his behavior at length in his letter to Elizabeth; and the beginning of the third book, when Elizabeth and the Gardiners visit Darcy's home, Pemberley, tips the balance in Darcy's favor, when his housekeeper and Mrs. Gardiner weigh in on his side. As Mrs. Gardiner says, “There is something a little stately in him to be sure … but it is confined to his air, and is not unbecoming. I can now say with the housekeeper that though some people may call him proud, I have seen nothing of it” (215; 3:1). By the end of the novel, Elizabeth is able to declare flatly, “He has no improper pride”; those who, like her father, think him “a proud, unpleasant sort of man” simply “do not know what he really is” (316; 3:17).

This issue is complicated again, however, by Darcy's own, ashamed condemnation of his pride, which he describes as a defensive walling off of himself from others, something which cannot be justified on the grounds of either his personal character or his elevated social status:

My behaviour to you at the time had merited the severest reproof. It was unpardonable. I cannot think of it without abhorrence. …

I have been a selfish being all my life in practice, though not in principle. As a child I was taught what was right, but I was not taught to correct my temper. I was given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit. … I was spoiled by my parents … allowed, encouraged, almost taught to be selfish and overbearing, to care for none beyond my own family circle, to think meanly of all the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own. … You [Elizabeth] taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you I was properly humbled.

(308, 310; 3:16)

It is clear that Darcy could truly believe in his own distinction (and that of his family) only if he could “think meanly” of everyone else. Indeed, when one looks again at his original slighting of Elizabeth as “tolerable; but not handsome enough to tempt me” (12; 1:3), or of his response to Mrs. Bennet's chatter—“The expression of his face changed gradually from indignant contempt to a composed and steady gravity” (87; 1:18)—it is difficult not to give Darcy's self-criticism as much weight as other characters' later justifications of his behavior. They offer a defense in terms of behavior proper to one of his social rank; he offers a criticism based on knowledge of his own history and motivations. One assessment is social, the other psychological. Each has a kind of validity, and Austen never entirely settles the matter. Yet by opening up the issue to psychological investigation in this way, Austen raises the possibility that the less attractive components of Darcy's “pride”—his tendency to look upon others with contempt—derive from a potentially fragile image of self and family. These tendencies constitute what the psychologist Gershen Kaufman describes as a “defending script” to insulate the self against shame (101). Fond as she is of subtle definitions, Austen would find interesting Kaufman's attempt to differentiate between a desirable pride which affirms the self's accomplishments and personal qualities, and a more suspect version of pride, contempt, which elevates the self above others (224-25). Yet Austen would probably be skeptical about how readily this distinction can be maintained in practice. After all, her novel is not only about the vicissitudes of pride and shame, but also about their complicated relationship to one another.

By the end of the novel, Elizabeth has done a complete turnabout and now regards Darcy's behavior as entirely appropriate to one of his situation. This enables her to identify with his social rank and escape the shame of being associated with her own family. Of course, Elizabeth's marriage speaks to more than this; it represents the solution of a very complex human equation, for Elizabeth and Darcy are a suitable match in a number of ways. They like one another, each has a developed intellect, their temperaments are complementary, and their union is neither “imprudent” (as Elizabeth's with Wickham would have been) nor “mercenary” (like Wickham's pursuit of Miss King). The marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy represents, in other words, the working out of Austen's thematic concerns about what constitutes a good marriage.

Yet it is also true that there is “upward mobility” in Elizabeth's marriage, and surely this improvement in her status will serve to minimize her anxieties about shame, her vulnerability to being disgraced by her family. To some extent, she will now be able to shut herself off from them. Lydia and Wickham will receive financial help, but neither Lydia nor her mother will be frequent guests at Pemberley. From Elizabeth's point of view, Darcy's social status and pride, now assimilated to herself, are very useful. In his study of the dynamics of shame, Leon Wurmser argues that love—as much as contempt, ridicule, envy, numbness and boredom—can be a screen affect for shame: “The one who loves wants to undo a basic disparity [a sense of deprivation or need] in himself and acquire in the fusion with the partner what he is lacking inside” (200). In this sense, Elizabeth is able to overcome her shame through her love and through her identification with Darcy.

On the one hand, Austen sees the painfulness of her young heroine's struggle with feelings of shame. Even when that shame is transformed defensively (reactively) into aggressive wit or anger, or into a kind of deadening repression of affect (as is at least partly the case with Charlotte Lucas and Jane), it is necessarily deforming. Shame may be associated with feelings of low self-esteem which become overwhelming, verging on depression. Jane Bennet is, as we have seen, depressed for much of the central part of the book, and Elizabeth, too, suffers self-hate and something very like depressive episodes after she receives Darcy's explanatory letter and again after Lydia runs off with Wickham.

On the other hand, Austen herself seems very much caught up in feelings of shame and acts of shaming. As a comic author and a satirist, she is concerned with ridiculing the ridiculous. Marvin Mudrick's well-known Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery is only one of many studies to focus on this crucial aspect of Austen's narrative technique—the way she takes a hard-headed, satiric look at all kinds of pretense, especially self-delusion, and engages in understated, implicit kinds of exposure. The author of these novels herself, then, exposes and shames. She does this, as Wayne Booth points out, not so much by having her narrator point and mock, as by coercing the reader in subtle ways to adopt her critical point of view toward her characters. Readers frequently express amazement at how they have been persuaded to see the action of the novel from Austen's point of view, how they have been seduced into sharing her values—values which they may not hold at all in real life—concerning the importance of class-consciousness, what constitutes a suitable marriage, the importance of rational control and emotional restraint, etc. As Bernard Paris has demonstrated, there is a connection between Austen's personal style and her writing style; in both she is a perfectionist (182-91). Attuned to the power relations between people in social life, and fascinated by the efforts of one person to dominate another, she is concerned to be in control of every word in her text, so as not to be found wanting. Her motto might be: “They are ridiculous, not I.” For Austen as for Elizabeth Bennet, aggression is turned outward, away from the self. Yet, as one of the debates between Darcy and Elizabeth suggests, Austen is also aware that there are certain dangers in a consistently satiric stance toward life:

“Mr. Darcy is not to be laughed at!” cried Elizabeth. “That would be an uncommon advantage, and uncommon I hope it will continue, for it would be a great loss to me to have many such acquaintance. I dearly love a laugh.”

“Miss Bingley,” said he, “has given me credit for more than can be. The wisest and best of men, nay, the wisest and best of their actions, may be rendered ridiculous by a person whose first object in life is a joke.”

“Certainly,” replied Elizabeth—“there are such people, but I hope I am not one of them. I hope I never ridicule what is wise and good. Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can.—But these, I suppose, are precisely what you are without.”

“Perhaps that is not possible for any one. But it has been the study of my life to avoid those weaknesses which often expose a strong understanding to ridicule.”

(50; 1:11)

Elizabeth adopts the pose of the traditional satirist: I ridicule the ridiculous as a corrective measure, hoping to shape a better, more rational world. Yet Darcy knows that this attitude may be carried too far, that even the good may be turned into the ridiculous by an aggressively self-protective wit. Thus at the conclusion of this debate he suggests that Elizabeth's “natural defect … is wilfully to misunderstand” everybody (51; 1:11), to appropriate whatever anyone says in the service of her wit.

One way of putting Austen's own dilemma in this respect is to note that although she presents herself finally as a rationalist, committed to a corrective satiric vision, she is psychologically astute enough to know that the process of deciding what is “real,” “true” and “rational” may have its unconscious and defensive determinants. Psychoanalyst Pinchas Noy links creativity with psychological insight in a way that Austen approaches intuitively, but also stops short of fully endorsing: “The main feature common to the process of creativity and the phenomenon of insight in psychoanalysis is the ability to transcend the rigid, reality-oriented frame of the intellect and transform it into a flexible apparatus suitable for dealing with the self in its needs, its defenses, and its striving for expression and contact with objects” (qtd. in Wurmser 284). On a rational level, Austen seems to think that the “reality-oriented frame of the intellect”—for her, reason and will—ought to dominate. Intuitively, however, she recognizes the power of an affect like shame and the role it might play in forming and shaping what an individual perceives as rational and correct.

In this context, the historical climate in which Austen composed her “novel of manners” becomes especially significant; Pride and Prejudice was written at the end of the Enlightenment—when the socially enforced religious sanctions used in earlier periods to keep personal behavior in check were being replaced by more secular, internalized, social sanctions. This is one reason why “manners,” behavior that conforms to social norms, is such an important issue in the Austen world. Lewis argues that shame is, to some extent at least, a post-Enlightenment means of social control in a secular society: “An ethical system based on the premise that human nature is evil or aggressive [e.g., a system based on a premise of original sin] will emphasize guilt as its major control, whereas an ethical system that includes human sociability as a ‘given’ will also emphasize the shame (in one's own eyes) of losing the love of the ‘other'” (“Shame” 3-4). If Calvin requires guilt, Rousseau must have shame for his social order.

Lewis, moreover, sees shame as a particular problem for women in Western society, since “our sexist and intellectual heritage contains an explicit devaluation of women and an implicit, insoluble demand that they accept their inferior place without shame” (“Shame” 4). While men are encouraged to be aggressive and dominating, women are raised to seek the approval of others (Lewis, Sex 203-19). Certainly this is the situation of the female characters in Pride and Prejudice. Their vulnerable place in the social order is underlined and maintained by their shame. Conversely, male characters like Darcy and Collins develop exaggerated forms of “pride” to express and maintain their social power and control. The characterization of Darcy is especially relevant in this respect, since here Austen also raises the question of whether this sort of pride can ever be anything but defensive and brittle in such a culture.

Accordingly, it is not surprising that the role of shame in cultural formation has drawn the attention of anthropologists and historians as well as psychologists. In their 1953 study, Gerhart Piers and Milton B. Singer provided an overview of the anthropological attempts to distinguish “shame cultures” from “guilt cultures.” More recently, in a study entitled Southern Honor, the historian Bertram Wyatt-Brown points to the development of an ideal of personal honor, reinforced by episodes of shame and humiliation, as an essential element in the creation of the ideology and culture of the Old South.

Nor are we, at the close of the twentieth century, so remote from the shame culture that Austen and these other students of culture describe, for as Donald Nathanson notes: “The more I have studied shame and applied the results of this study to my work with patients, the more I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of our population lives in a state of chronic shame. This shame is either perceived as a sense of inadequacy relative to the ego ideal or denied and inverted as false pride” (191). As examples of “false pride” today Nathanson points to the pursuit of wealth and power, identification with sports teams, and the like—all in the interest of defending against “our (denied) fragility” (204). He might also have pointed to Cold War versions of American “patriotism,” to the continuing tendency of the U.S. to resort to military intervention to work its will in the world, and to its recurrent need to proclaim its superiority, whether on the playing fields or in the international arena.

Shame and its “defending scripts” seem to play an important role in the academy as well. Academics tend to fall into two groups: those with narcissistic, grandiose images concerning the importance of their work and those who are convinced that they can never be good enough, that they are “impostors” who will be found out and perhaps driven from the academy. In their classic study of this “impostor syndrome,” Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes have analyzed the tendency of gifted professional women in particular to believe that they are really not bright and capable, that they have merely fooled anyone who thinks they are. Nor is the phenomenon limited to the female sex or to any specific professions. In society at large, the alternatives frequently seem to be a choice between, in Nathanson's words, “a sense of inadequacy relative to the ego ideal” and “false pride” (204).

The fact that shame and the defenses against it play such an important role in our own lives and culture thus suggests both how little things have changed and how much we have to learn from Jane Austen's exploration of these feelings nearly two centuries ago. Reading Pride and Prejudice in conjunction with modern discussions of the psychology of shame can help us better to understand not only Austen's novels but also some very important psychosocial forces that inform modern Western culture.2


  1. All quotations from Pride and Prejudice are taken from the Signet New American Library edition. Since many modern editions of this novel are available, in my parenthetical citations I have provided not only page numbers but also, following the semicolon, book and chapter numbers.

  2. My spouse, Elizabeth, and my colleagues, Michael Hancher and Joel Weinsheimer, gave this essay attentive readings and offered helpful suggestions, for which I am most grateful.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. 1813. New York: New American Library, 1980.

———. Jane Austen's Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.

Booth, Wayne C. “Control of Distance in Jane Austen's Emma.The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1961. 243-66.

Clance, Pauline R., and Suzanne A. Imes. “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice 15 (1978): 241-47.

Fossum, Merle A., and Marilyn J. Mason. Facing Shame: Families in Recovery. New York: Norton, 1986.

Harding, D. W. “Regulated Hatred: An Aspect of the Work of Jane Austen.” Scrutiny 8 (1940): 346-62.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human Nature. 1739-40. Ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1965.

Kaufman, Gershen. The Psychology of Shame: Theory and Treatment of Shame-Based Syndromes. New York: Springer, 1989.

Lewis, Helen Block. “Introduction: Shame—the ‘Sleeper’ in Psychopathology.” The Role of Shame in Symptom Formation. Ed. Helen Block Lewis. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1987. 1-28.

———. Sex and the Superego: Psychic War in Men and Women. Rev. ed. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1987.

Miller, Susan. The Shame Experience. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic P, 1985.

Mudrick, Marvin. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1952.

Nathanson, Donald L. “The Shame/Pride Axis.” Lewis, Role of Shame. 183-205.

Paris, Bernard J. Character and Conflict in Jane Austen's Novels: A Psychological Approach. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1978.

Piers, Gerhart, and Milton B. Singer. Shame and Guilt: A Psychoanalytic and a Cultural Study. Springfield, IL: Thomas, 1953.

Wurmser, Leon. The Mask of Shame. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

Wyatt-Brown, Bertram. Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South. New York: Oxford UP, 1982.

Matthew Schneider (essay date spring 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4995

SOURCE: Schneider, Matthew. “Card-playing and the Marriage Gamble in Pride and Prejudice.Dalhousie Review 73, no. 1 (spring 1993): 5-17.

[In the following essay, Schneider argues that card-playing serves as an apt metaphor for the courtship ritual in Pride and Prejudice.]

Henry Austen's casual observation that his novelist sister “was fond of dancing, and excelled in it” (Pride and Prejudice 308) has in recent years been invested by critics with a far-reaching metaphoric significance. Dancing, the argument goes, both figures the particular charm of Austen's style and provides an elegant symbolic matrix for much of the social interaction around which the novels are structured. A love of dancing was “the sort of thing one might expect,” writes Stuart Tave, “that enjoyment and ability in moving with significant grace in good time in a restricted space” (1); and Langdon Elsbree observes that dancing provides a primary source for “action and speech in Jane Austen's fictional world and dramatize[s] the theme of courtship and marriage” (114). Celebrating the sexual passions in a ceremony that hints “at their power while keeping them safely contained in art” (Mansell 9), dancing embodies the tension between the struggle for individuality and polite society's prescribed gender identities and roles. As Henry Tilney tells Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey:

I consider a country-dance as an emblem of marriage. … [I]n both, man has the advantage of choice, woman only the power of refusal; that in both, it is an engagement between man and woman, formed for the advantage of each; and that when once entered into, they belong exclusively to each other till the moment of dissolution: that it is their duty, each to endeavour to give the other no cause for wishing that he or she had bestowed themselves elsewhere, and their best interest to keep their own imaginations from wandering towards the perfections of their neighbors, or fancying that they should have been better off with anyone else.


While in most of Austen's six novels dancing serves as an unmatched metaphor for courtship and marriage, its aptness is less evident in Pride and Prejudice. Another frequently portrayed leisure activity, no less ubiquitous than dancing, seems better to represent in this novel the combination of behaviors and factors that enter into the complex process of matching nubile men and women with each other. Card-playing, a pastime of which the novelist was, to judge by her letters, at least as fond as she was of dancing, incorporates two important elements of the Austenian portrayal of courtship which dancing is less able to evoke: money and luck. For many women in the world of Austen's novels, marriage was synonymous with economic survival: the narrator of Pride and Prejudice concurs with Charlotte Lucas's opinion that marriage “was the only honourable provision for well-educated women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want” (86). Pride and Prejudice concerns itself with how at least one well-educated woman of small fortune, Elizabeth Bennet, reconciles the conflicting demands of happiness and love with material subsistence. Card-playing, an activity which boils down to staking money—one kind of fortune—on the skilful manipulation of one's luck—another kind of fortune—incorporates these two indispensable elements of a successful marriage and thus symbolizes better than dancing the full range of factors that enter into marriage and courtship. No less ritualized than dancing, card-playing emphasizes the essential—even simultaneous—parts played by money and luck in Austen's depiction in Pride and Prejudice of engendering legitimate relations between the sexes.

If Jane Austen was fond of dancing and excelled at it, she was also fond of card-playing and other games that combined the elements of chance and skill. Letters to her sister Cassandra frequently describe both these games and Austen's chagrin at having been cajoled into playing and losing. Their mother seems to have been fond of the card-game commerce, in which players assume the roles of stock or commodities traders, offering to sell, barter, or trade their cards in order to acquire something like a winning hand in gin rummy. This game, which the Abbé Bellecour, author of a 1754 handbook of card game rules and strategies, calls “a very social Game, for as we have said, a dozen persons may play at the same time, and it is a Game of Commerce, as you win or lose in proportion as you estimate your Counters” (184), was not among Austen's favorites: on 7 October 1808 she wrote to Cassandra that the previous evening's diversion had consisted of “two pools of commerce, but I would not play more than one, for the stake was three shillings, & I cannot afford to lose that, twice in an eveng—” (Letters 215). Austen's favorite card game, at least through the autumn of 1808, was speculation: on 24 October she writes to Cassandra that “our evening was equally agreeable in its way: I introduced speculation, and it was so much approved that we hardly knew where to leave off” (229). Speculation's popularity with the Austen family seems to have ended with the coming of the new year, when it succumbed to a new game: brag. On 10 January 1809, Austen wrote to Cassandra that

the preference of Brag over Speculation does not greatly surprise me, I believe, because I feel the same myself; but it mortifies me deeply, because Speculation was under my patronage; and, after all, what is there so delightful in a pair royal of Braggers? It is but three nines or three knaves, or a mixture of them. When one comes to reason upon it, it cannot stand its ground against Speculation—of which I hope Edward [Cassandra's son] is now convinced. Give my love to him if he is.


Brag's ascendancy was even more short-lived than speculation's, however; only one week later, Austen again wrote to her sister:

I have just received some verses in an unknown hand, and am desired to forward them to my nephew Edwd at Godmersham.

“Alas, poor Brag, thou boastful Game!—
What now avails thy empty name?—
Where now thy more distinguish'd fame?—
My day is o'er, and Thine the same.—
For thou like me art thrown aside,
At Godmersham, this Christmas Tide;
And now across the Table wide,
Each Game save Brag or Spec: is tried.”
“Such is the mild Ejaculation,
Of tender hearted Speculation.—”


Austen displays her wit in her response to this facetious family controversy; but the contest between brag and speculation also orients the surface moral distinctions implicit in the choice of card games in Pride and Prejudice. Though similar, the two games have, from the point of view of the novel, a significant difference, suggested by their names: whereas both are three-card betting games, in speculation, players bet “blindly”—that is, they wager on the face value of cards before they see them. Brag is identical to draw poker, but played with three instead of five cards. The dealer antes an opening blind bet, called the “dealer's edge,” and the players bet both against the luck of the draw and each other, with each player knowing the value of the hand he holds. Speculation is thus a game of pure chance, while brag calls on its players to attempt to manipulate or outface their luck with their skill at bluffing—essentially deceiving—their opponents. As Edmund Hoyle put it, the ability to “deceive and distress your Adversaries” is a key to success in most card games, especially in betting and bluffing games like brag (ch. V).

Probably the relative decorousness of the names of the two games is enough to account for Austen's preference for speculation over brag. No doubt she was also less comfortable with brag's potentially more cutthroat tactics and competition. Ironically, however, her favorite novel depicts a world in which a woman's possession of the acumen and nerve of a good brag or poker player is directly proportional to her chances of making a successful marriage. A woman must be able to read faces, communicate her preferences wordlessly, and stimulate a man's interest while adhering to the strictures of decorum and modesty—in short, use everything in her power to influence the otherwise blindly bestowed dictates of accident and luck. Ultimately, the economically and culturally disadvantaged position of women—a position taken as axiomatic by Austen—means that in courtship and marriage they must overcome the “dealer's edge” held by men through the exertion of greater skill at balancing self-disguise with tacit encouragement and persuasion.

Before Austen can chart the difficult process through which the heroine of Pride and Prejudice becomes a skilled player of the marriage-gambling game, however, the novelist must establish the association between money and marriage. She accomplishes this throughout the book by mixing the languages of love and economics. The novel's celebrated first sentence presents an example of this type of punning: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (1). The line's comic effect derives primarily from the incongruity between the lofty diction of the phrase “truth universally acknowledged” and the baldly mercenary sentiment with which the sentence ends. The humorous conflation of philosophic and monetary speculation continues through the first and into the second chapter, as Mr. Bennet misses no opportunity to amuse himself with repeated puns that portray the arrival of the Bingley party at Netherfield as a serendipitous investment opportunity for the families in the village. When, for example, Mr. Bennet tells his wife that he needn't call on Bingley, since their neighbor Mrs. Long has promised to introduce the Bennet girls to the rich young man at an upcoming party, Mrs. Bennet replies that Mrs. Long is a “selfish, hypocritical woman” who will do no such thing since she has “two nieces of her own” (3). In that case, replies Mr. Bennet, Mrs. Bennet herself should introduce the girls, justifying such a breach of decorum on the sound financial principle that he who hesitates is lost: “if we do not venture, somebody else will; and after all Mrs. Long and her nieces must stand their chance” (4). All financial ventures, from the stock market to marriage, entail an element of risk that one must expect and for which one must plan.

Elizabeth Bennet becomes aware of the social manifestation of this sound financial principle only after her disastrous first meeting with Darcy at Bingley's ball at Netherfield. At that same dance Jane Bennet meets and falls in love with Bingley; and, fittingly, the novel's first reference to card-playing arises in the post-mortem of the event conducted by Elizabeth and Charlotte Lucas. Convinced both of her sister's love for Bingley and his requiting Jane's affection, Elizabeth is thankful that their natural reserve has precluded any unseemly public display of passion:

It was generally evident whenever they met, that he did admire her; and to her it was equally evident that Jane was yielding to the preference which she had begun to entertain for him from the first, and was in a way to be very much in love; but she considered with pleasure that it was not likely to be discovered by the world in general, since Jane united with great strength of feeling, a composure of temper and a uniform cheerfulness of manner, which would guard her from the suspicions of the impertinent. She mentioned this to her friend Miss Lucas.

“It may perhaps be pleasant,” replied Charlotte, “to be able to impose on the public in such a case; but it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten, a woman had better shew more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.


Charlotte's no-nonsense, statistical approach to courtship alarms Elizabeth, who finds herself forced to admit that though Jane and Bingley had spent four evenings together they knew little more about each other than “that they both like Vingt-un better than Commerce” (14). This exchange illustrates card-playing's primary level of signification in Pride and Prejudice. On the surface, taste in card games sounds the keynote of personality. Thus the stuffy and aristocratic Lady Catherine de Bourgh plays the skill-intensive and slow-moving game of quadrille, while the boisterous Lydia Bennet prefers lottery tickets, which the Abbé Bellecour calls “highly diverting,” since “even those Players, whose vivacity prevents them from giving the least attention to their Game, may here play without any disadvantage, as it is altogether a Game of chance” (189). The motif also, however, serves, as Alistair M. Duckworth writes, “to expose elements of social conformity and individual freedom and to define a normative marriage of the moral self to a worthy society” (283). Lady Catherine's devotion to the old-fashioned game of quadrille foreshadows her reactionary opposition to the engagement of Darcy and Elizabeth. And Lydia's preference for games of blind chance both stems from her “always unguarded and often uncivil” (89) nature and portends the thoughtless elopement with Wickham that nearly ruins her family. Similarly, Jane's and Bingley's preference of vingt-un—in which chance predominates over skill—to commerce—which tests a player's skill at a relatively higher level—reflects the timidity that keeps her from making her feelings known and allows him to be swayed easily by his sisters and Darcy. Because both are relatively unskilled in manipulating the dealings of chance, they prefer merely to succumb to its dictates. As Mr. Bennet tells them upon the occasion of their engagement, “You are both of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income” (239).

Though more sophisticated than her elder sister, Elizabeth Bennet at the beginning of the novel is also a relatively unskilled player of the social card game: just as Bingley misreads Jane, Elizabeth misreads Darcy's countenance and demeanor so utterly that his first proposal astonishes her “beyond expression” (130). As her accurate prediction of Jane's problems with Bingley demonstrates, Charlotte Lucas, at least at the beginning of the story, is the novel's canniest analyst of the courtship game. Charlotte is also, however, a skilled player, despite her disingenuous claim that “[h]appiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance” (14). Her betrothal to the egregious Mr. Collins serves as more, however, than merely an illustration of marriage's unfortunate economic component or a primer for Elizabeth's initiation into the subtleties of the courtship game. Ultimately, the Charlotte-Mr. Collins subplot delineates the essential gender difference that underpins the rules of the marriage gamble.

Charlotte's engagement illustrates the extent to which accident and chance play vital roles in a great deal more than just the love affairs in Pride and Prejudice. Chance is in fact the tacit agent of most important plot events in the novel, as the history of Mr. Collins demonstrates. Despite his insufferable officiousness, this distant cousin of Mr. Bennet is the novel's luckiest character: the failure of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to produce male offspring means that Longbourn, the Bennet estate, will upon the “melancholy event” of Mr. Bennet's demise pass to Collins. Mrs. Bennet observes to him that this will be “a grievous affair to my poor girls, you must confess. Not that I mean to find fault with you, for such things I know are all chance in this world. There is no knowing how estates will go when they come to be entailed” (45). The relatively modest income and home meantime enjoyed by Collins had arisen from the “fortunate chance” of his having been recommended to Lady Catherine de Bourgh “when the living at Hunsford was vacant” (48). Though unlucky at cards—he loses five shillings playing whist on his first night at Longbourn—Collins is lucky in love, securing Charlotte's hand only two days after Elizabeth's refusal of his ludicrous marriage proposal. But if Collins appears lucky in making the sensible Charlotte his wife, it is only because of the pains she takes to create such an impression. What appears as his luck may be at least equally attributed to her skill in manipulating what chance throws her way. The gender-based behavioral conventions of the world of Pride and Prejudice demand that women conceal even the relatively weak powers they possess to play the courtship game and influence its outcome. An artful or canny woman in the world of Pride and Prejudice—as elsewhere in Austen's novels—is an object of at best fun and at worst execration (think of Emma's Mrs. Elton). Society demands that women who win in the marriage-game be thought of as the beneficiaries of accident or “beginner's luck.” Elizabeth's refusal of Collins and the simultaneous departure of Bingley from Netherfield strikes Mrs. Bennet as an “exceedingly unlucky” (84) succession of events; but ill fortune for the Bennets means good fortune—in both senses of that word—for the Lucases. Sneaking away from the Bennet household before breakfast, Collins deals a hand which Charlotte has been preparing herself to play: “Miss Lucas perceived him from an upper window as he walked towards the house, and instantly set out to meet him accidentally in the lane. But little had she dared to hope that so much love and eloquence awaited her there” (85) (italics mine).

The engagement is a godsend for the Lucas family: they consider it “most eligible for their daughter, to whom they could give little fortune; and [Mr. Collins's] prospects of future wealth were exceedingly fair” (85-86). The sober Charlotte is “tolerably composed” by the event: “she had gained her point,” we are told, and, being twenty-seven and “without ever having been handsome,” she feels “all the good luck of it” (86). Elizabeth is stunned by her friend's acceptance of the buffoonish Mr. Collins as a life companion; but Charlotte explains her decision philosophically, and with a characteristic calculation of odds:

“I am not romantic you know. I never was. I ask only a comfortable home; and considering Mr. Collins's character, connections, and situation in life, I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state.”


Luckily, Elizabeth is spared by her relative attractiveness and youth from adopting wholesale Charlotte's harsh philosophy. As difficult as the marriage is for Elizabeth to accept—she “could not have supposed it possible” that Charlotte could sacrifice “every better feeling to worldly advantage” (88)—the significance of the episode is not lost on her. If Charlotte is the novel's most skilled and daring player in the marriage gamble and Jane the least, Elizabeth is, initially, the most reluctant. When Collins attempts to explain away her refusal of his proposal by declaring “it is usual with young ladies to reject the addresses they secretly mean to accept,” Elizabeth replies that she is “not one of those young ladies (if such young ladies there are) who are so daring as to risk their happiness on the chance of being asked a second time” (75). Like Elizabeth, Darcy is reluctant to play the game; ironically, this shared trait results in both the attraction between them and the bluntness which inflames the pride and prejudices to which both are particularly susceptible. In a telling exchange at Lady Catherine's garishly decorated home, Elizabeth jokingly proclaims herself “particularly unlucky” in having met Darcy, since he was able to “expose my real character, in a part of the world, where I had hoped to pass myself off with some degree of credit” (120-1). Darcy too finds himself singularly lacking what the novel's world exalts as the most valuable of social graces: “I have not the talent,” he says, “of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done” (121).

Darcy's first unsuccessful proposal depicts how his “abhorrence of disguise of every sort” (133) initially matches and therefore clashes with Elizabeth's frankness and unwillingness to perceive non-verbal communications.

More than once did Elizabeth in her ramble within the Park, unexpectedly meet Mr. Darcy.—She felt all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring him where no one else was brought; and to prevent its ever happening again, took care to inform him at first, that it was a favorite haunt of hers—.


Elizabeth refuses Darcy's subsequent proposal because she thinks she perceives a contradiction between his words and demeanor:

He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand. 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.


However accurate these observations appear, we cannot forget that they are filtered through Elizabeth's consciousness; and up to this point events have far more frequently surprised her than conformed to her expectations. Elizabeth has previously shown herself a rather poor reader of other people's looks. In spite of Elizabeth's conviction that the love between Jane and Bingley was written on their faces, what had once seemed to all concerned an imminent engagement had never materialized. And it is only Elizabeth's inability to find an ulterior motive for Darcy's account of Wickham that finally dispels her conviction that the latter's “countenance, voice, and manner … established him at once in the possession of every virtue” (142). Darcy's letter has an apocalyptic effect on Elizabeth, opening her eyes to the duplicity into which her pride and prejudice had unwittingly led her:

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried.—“I, who have prided myself on my discernment!—I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity, in useless or blameable distrust.—How humiliating is this discovery!—Yet, how just a humiliation!—Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind. But vanity, not love, has been my folly.—Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment, I never knew myself.”


It is telling that Elizabeth avoids card-playing throughout the novel; while she has, says Duckworth, “no Puritanical objection to cards” (284), she presumably intuits that she lacks the discernment that stamps a winning card-player. The revelation afforded her by Darcy's letter, however, grants Elizabeth that most valuable of the card-player's skills: the ability to read faces. Austen exhibits Elizabeth's new-found skill primarily in two subsequent scenes. The first occurs during her tour of Pemberley, Darcy's estate. In the family gallery, Elizabeth embarks on a “quest” for “the only face whose features would be known to her” (170). “Arrested” by Darcy's portrait, Elizabeth for the first time looks her future husband directly in the eyes, and is surprised to notice a “warmth” in his gaze that “softened its impropriety of expression” (171). The second scene is a great deal more dramatic, and occurs after Darcy has tacitly resolved the family crisis brought on by Lydia's elopement with Wickham. Aghast at rumors of an impending engagement between Darcy and Elizabeth, Lady Catherine rushes to Longbourn to “insist upon having such a report universally contradicted” (243). Elizabeth's demeanor toward her ladyship is perhaps best described as poker-faced: she both refuses to be intimidated by Lady Catherine's haughtiness and repeatedly insists on her right to conceal her thoughts and feelings. When, for example, Lady Catherine demands that Elizabeth admit there is no foundation for the rumors, she replies, “I do not pretend to possess equal frankness with your ladyship. You may ask questions, which I shall not choose to answer” (244). To Lady Catherine's declaration that she is “entitled to know” all of Darcy's “dearest concerns,” Elizabeth responds, “But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this, ever induce me to be explicit” (244). And when Lady Catherine demands that she promise “never to enter into such an engagement,” Elizabeth answers with a sober and mature reminder that such a promise would have little effect in this world, ruled as it is by chance, accident, and the sometimes unfortunate tendency of people to do what they want:

“I am not to be intimidated into anything so wholly unreasonable. Your ladyship wants Mr. Darcy to marry your daughter; but would my giving you the wished-for promise, make their marriage at all more probable? Supposing him to be attached to me, would my refusing to accept his hand, make him wish to bestow it on his cousin?”


Elizabeth's deftness in handling Lady Catherine, a skilled but ultimately ineffectual player of the complicated game quadrille, demonstrates the extent to which her eye-opening experiences with Darcy end up, ironically, persuading her of the frequent necessity of concealing or disguising one's true feelings in order best to manage the decrees of luck and chance in social relations. With Lady Catherine, Elizabeth not only plays her cards close to her vest, she also refuses to be bluffed, to show her hand before the appropriate moment of the game. Unhampered by the impolitic frankness that had previously signalled her inexpertness at the social game, Elizabeth is finally ready to be united with Darcy. And after a brief penance during which she is repeatedly called on to bite her tongue while her unwitting family persists in abusing their savior, Elizabeth's happiness is completed by her engagement to Darcy. That her punishment is no more severe than this may perhaps be attributed to Austen's own tender feelings toward her favorite heroine.

If, as Richard Handler and Daniel Segal have observed, “each of Austen's novels concerns a young lady's movement from her natal family to the family created by her marriage” (1), Pride and Prejudice depicts the vital role played by chance and luck in that deceptively simple movement. That marriage in the world of Austen's novels is intimately connected with money offers further justification for the aptness of card-playing as a metaphor for the courtship, as this activity particularly requires its female participants to stake both their happiness and survival on both their ability to discern men's feelings from their looks and the willingness of men fully to disclose their character and “prospects.” Of course, this is of particular importance to Elizabeth, seemingly the only member of her family to understand the tragedy of her parents' marriage and the destructive effects of the irony with which her father consequently approaches the world. His only sincere moment in the novel follows Elizabeth's announcement of her engagement to Darcy: Mr. Bennet pleads with his favorite child to “let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life” (260).

It is the seriousness of this potential risk that prevents the card-playing metaphor from trivializing its referent. Mr. Bennet's plea to Elizabeth also highlights an aspect of marriage in Pride and Prejudice that the dancing metaphor tends to elide. This, of course, is the sometimes unlucky truth implicit in the state of affairs by which marriage affords many women their only respectable means of economic survival. As an image of the ideal marriage, replete with harmony and temperamental concord, dancing can hardly be improved upon. But even in the happy comic world of Austen's novels, few marriages live up to this ideal; of this sad fact the union of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet stands as an unmistakable reminder:

Had Elizabeth's opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. Her father captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour, which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind, had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her. Respect, esteem, and confidence, had vanished for ever; and all his views of domestic happiness were overthrown.


By marrying Darcy, Elizabeth escapes her parents' fate. She does so only after recognizing, however, the degree to which the skills of the winning card-player correspond to the social skills needed to thrive in a society in which young women and men effectively compete for wealth and happiness. It is toward this somewhat grim truth that card-playing in Pride and Prejudice finally points, while illustrating for us at the same time the extent to which women in Austen's age were faced with staking their very existence on the skilful performance of ultimately competitive social rituals.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Letters to her Sister Cassandra. Edited by R. W. Chapman. Oxford: Clarendon, 1932.

———. Northanger Abbey. New York: Signet, 1965.

———. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Norton, 1966.

Bellecour, Abbé. The Academy of Play. London: printed for F. Newberry, 1754.

Duckworth, Alistair M. “‘Spillikins, paper ships, riddles, coundrums, and cards’: games in Jane Austen's life and fiction.” Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1975.

Elsbree, Langdon. “Jane Austen and the Dance of Fidelity and Complaisance.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 15 (1960): 113-36.

Handler, Richard, and David Segal. Jane Austen and the Fiction of Culture. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1990.

Hoyle, Edmund. Mr. Hoyle's Games. 12th ed. London: printed for Thomas Osborne, n.d.

Mansell, Darrell. The Novels of Jane Austen: An Interpretation. New York: Macmillan, 1973.

Tave, Stuart M. Some Words of Jane Austen. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1973.

Julia Prewitt Brown (essay date 1993)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5058

SOURCE: Brown, Julia Prewitt. “The ‘Social History’ of Pride and Prejudice.” In Approaches to Teaching Austen's Pride and Prejudice, edited by Marcia McClintock Folsom, pp. 57-66. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1993.

[In the following essay, Brown discusses the ways in which Austen's novel depicts early nineteenth-century society, arguing that Austen explores the defining historical realities of her era.]

In what sense are Jane Austen's novels historical? This is often the first question students ask when they read Austen. It may be posed in the form of the familiar question, Where are the Napoleonic Wars, the decisive historical event of her time? Or, more frankly, Why did Austen choose such limited subject matter? Why did she focus exclusively on personal relations? A reminder that “ordinary life” constitutes the blood and bone of the novel genre usually does not satisfy the eighteen-year-old who seeks in works of literature some grandeur of human purpose—and why should it? “Don't begin with proportion,” urges a wise character in E. M. Forster's Howards End. “Only prigs do that. Let proportion come in as a last resource, when the better things have failed” (73). The student who begins by hating Jane Austen, I have discovered, usually ends by learning more from her than does the budding Janeite.

As for the historical content of the novels, students may not see it because they think of social history as “history with the politics left out,” as G. M. Trevelyan once described it, rather than what it is: the essential foundation that gives shape to everything else. For the cultural historian Raymond Williams, for example, Austen's novels provide an accurate record of that moment in English history in which high bourgeois society most evidently interlocked with an agrarian capitalism. “An openly acquisitive society,” writes Williams, “which is concerned also with the transmission of wealth, is trying to judge itself at once by an inherited code and by the morality of improvement” (Country 115). What is at stake here is not personal relations but personal conduct: “a testing and discovery of the standards which govern human behaviour in certain real situations” (113). Those situations arise from the unsettled world Austen portrays, with its continual changes of fortune and social mobility that were affecting the landed families of her time. Thus, although Darcy is a landowner established for “many generations,” his friend Bingley has no estate and has inherited £100,000 from his father, who made money in trade; and although Mr. Bennet has an estate, he has married the daughter of an attorney who has a brother in trade, and his estate will not pass to his own children; and so on.

Readers may glimpse the “openly acquisitive society” in the heroine's first sight of Pemberley, Darcy's beautiful estate. Deeply impressed, even awestruck, by its elegance and grandeur, Elizabeth cannot but admit to herself that “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (245). Later Elizabeth satirizes her own response when her sister asks her to explain when she first fell in love with Darcy: “It has been coming on so gradually,” Elizabeth replies, “that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (373). Elizabeth's wit distances her from herself, from the woman with the conventional response to Pemberley, just as the narrator's irony distances the reader from conventional responses. But before entering into a discussion of Austen's narrative irony, we may as well ask the conventional question, In what sense would being mistress of Pemberley “be something”?

In Austen's day England was still to a large extent an “aristocracy,” or hierarchy based on property and patronage in which people took their places in a pyramidlike structure extending down from a minority of the rich and powerful at the top to ever wider and larger layers of lesser wealth to the great mass of the poor and powerless at the bottom. Together, the aristocracy and gentry owned more than two-thirds of all the land in England. In this largely agrarian society, government was conceived of as the authority of the locality, the government of parish, county, and town, whose officials were members of the gentry appointed by the Crown. In the course of the century, this system of local government was replaced by a modern bureaucracy of trained and elected administrators, but at the time Austen was writing, the gentry were the real governors of the countryside. Not until the commercial and political revolutions, accumulating full force in the eighteenth century, disrupted the solidarity of families founded on landed wealth did these ancient families, and the women who belonged to them, lose much of the power they had so long exercised. Only then did the state pass to the control of parliaments composed of men and elected by men.

Lady Catherine de Bourgh and her nephew Darcy are members of one such ancient family, and they are highly conscious of the power they possess. Both control the lives and incomes of scores of people on their estates, many of whom had no voting power until the Reform Bill of 1832. Even after that, until the secret ballot was passed in 1872, landlords could have a decisive effect on votes, since they were taken orally. Traditionally, the steward of an estate such as Darcy's would round up the tenants who could vote, take them to the polling place, and remain there while they called out their preference. A man such as Darcy, were he to run for a seat in the House of Commons, could then be sure of this built-in constituency of tenants. Wickham's chronic resentment, Austen implies, is a function of his having grown up as the son of the elder Darcy's steward, daily observing so many more advantages accrue to Darcy than to himself.

Although women in the gentry had less authority than men, a matter I take up later, some had considerable power. The tradition of primogeniture established that, under the law, property was passed to the eldest son; and English matrimonial law stipulated that, through marriage, the husband became the owner of all his wife's property. But there were ways in which the gentry could and did protect its women. Mr. Bennet cannot alter the entail requiring that his estate go to the nearest male relation, but he can settle money on his daughters that, if proper legal measures are taken, will remain their own after marriage. Because Lady Catherine's estate is not entailed from the female line, she enjoys most of the advantages of her nephew. She is patroness of the living of Mr. Collins, for example, and he is only one of many people who are dependent on her and therefore must pay court to her. Elizabeth is right when she recognizes that to join Darcy's family and become mistress of Pemberley would indeed “be something.” Family and marriage occupied a far more public and central position in the social government and economic arrangements of English society than they would later. In the novels of Austen, marriage is then accurately seen as an institution that both determines and is determined by history.

By the early nineteenth century, England was in the full swing of the first phase of the industrial revolution, which created the new class society of the Victorians. Vertical economic conflicts arose to challenge the horizontal layers formerly joined in agrarian dependency. Wide-scale competition among groups or classes with differing economic interests produced the vertical antagonism known as “class feeling.” In Pride and Prejudice such tension is evident in the snobbery of the Bingley sisters, which disguises their sense of inferiority in having a parent who made money in trade, and in the way Lady Catherine looks down her nose at the Gardiners, who live in an unfashionably industrial section of London. (It is interesting to note how much more tolerant Austen is of the class of new merchants, revealed in her sympathetic portrait of the Gardiners, than some later novelists—Thackeray, for instance, in Vanity Fair.)

The common complaint against Austen then—that the novels are too narrow in their exclusive attention to the private marriage decisions of a single class—is based on a present-day conception of social organization, with its sharp division of the public and private domains. The word private is itself applied anachronistically to her world. What is its opposite? Is it perhaps public? Yet for much of the nineteenth century, the public authority of the state was only emerging; the public domain was in the process of extending its territory to include all that it would encompass in this century. For most people living in Austen's society, it could be argued that all of life was private, because it was centered in the private estate. In Emma Mr. Knightley talks about his responsibilities as a magistrate in the same breath as his deliberations about the plan of a drain. In Pride and Prejudice Darcy's virtues as a landlord are established by a dependent living within his own house, his housekeeper (248-49).

Perhaps we should define the opposite of private as social or communal and then see if we can locate this nonsocial, noncommunal presence in Austen's novels, especially within the institution that she places at the center of society: marriage. Austen permits us to overhear “private” conversations between husband and wife in several novels. The opening chapter of Pride and Prejudice is one such conversation, and there we notice that even when they are alone, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet address each other as “Mrs. Bennet” and “Mr. Bennet,” suggesting a social and formal dimension within the “private” experience of marriage that has all but disappeared today. At the same time, the fact that Austen makes us privy to the conversation points to one of her greatest overriding themes: the growing privatization of marriage. In Austen's early novel, Northanger Abbey, marriage is linked to the general functioning of society and to the land; in her last, Persuasion, it is separated from the land and from stable community. In Persuasion particularly we see the origins of modern marriage, with its intense focus on the private “relationship” that a secular society imposes and its anticipation of the egalitarian marriage of companionship, represented by Admiral and Mrs. Croft (who, as the heroine notes, share the reins of their carriage—that is to say, marriage). This shift from marriage as a public, social institution to a private relationship is apparent in all the novels. That two of Austen's most famous scenes, in the opening chapters of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, point to the private hell she saw marriage could become suggests such a shift as well, and there is a telling difference between the scenes. In the earlier novel, Austen shows the public and formal structure of marriage determining a loathsome alliance: Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood conspire to cheat their relations of their patrimony. In Pride and Prejudice we see more of the truly private misery of Mr. Bennet beneath the comedy. Actors who have played Mr. Bennet in film and theater have often failed to portray the darker side of his character—his debilitating weariness and boredom, his cynical inattention to his family—and in so doing have made the world of the novel seem weightless and insipid. The novel's “lightness,” which Austen remarked on in her letters, cannot be appreciated if we do not feel its weight, and much of this substance is located in Austen's ever-increasing attention to the private self, most particularly in her rendering of the heroine's inner life.

Here again, the historical shift is apparent. In Sense and Sensibility the private experience of both Marianne and Elinor is almost always understood by means of a juxtaposition of their characters. When Marianne screams in misery at the center of the novel, her sister is there to hear it; the reader is given to understand the cry in its social context. But when Elizabeth Bennet reads Darcy's letter, she suffers alone: “Till this moment, I never knew myself” (208). When Emma realizes how much she has muddled and mangled her own and Harriet's emotions, “she sat still, she walked about, she tried her own room, she tried the shrubbery,” yet no place will accommodate her; she cannot escape herself (323). And the heroine of Austen's last novel is consistently estranged in the way Austen represents her subjective life and role as observer.

The social historian Lawrence Stone calls this change the rise of “affective individualism,” suggesting by the term an intrinsic relation between the democratization of society and the inner life. Austen shows her awareness and perhaps endorsement of this shift in culture by having Elizabeth Bennet declare her right to be happy; and it is interesting to note how frequently the word happiness appears in the novel. Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins because he could not make her happy (107), although their marriage would secure her entire family economic protection for life. Later in the novel, when Lady Catherine attempts to appeal to Elizabeth's sense of social duty by insisting she agree not to marry her nephew, Elizabeth replies, “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me” (358).

Stone's theory of social history suggests that only in a highly individualist society does happiness arise as an ideal: those who see themselves as living for themselves become interested in happiness. But if they view themselves as living for something beyond the self—say, the community—happiness loses its central place in human concern. That Austen reveals in almost every novel how difficult it is to negotiate a compromise between the drive for happiness and the necessity of a life of service all communities require of its citizens (most commonly in their role as parents) is not surprising. The question of happiness lies at the heart of the English tradition of liberal rationalism, particularly as it expressed itself in the works of Austen's contemporary Jeremy Bentham and later in the formulations of John Stuart Mill. One of Mill's major efforts was to reconcile a Benthamite faith in making happiness the supreme goal of human life with his communitarian belief in service, probably acquired through the classical education he received from his father (as Austen did from hers). In order to do so, Mill eventually insists on the existence of a private domain, set apart and separate from the demands of law and custom. This abstraction, the private domain, which we have difficulty imagining as an abstraction so much do we take Mill's ideas for granted, is the basis of the argument of On Liberty (1859). So little did Mill himself take it for granted, however, that a large section of On Liberty is devoted to establishing and defining its existence. Another example is that, until the secret ballot was passed, parliamentarians expressed their astonishment over the proposal on the grounds that no honorable person would have any reason to cast a vote in secret; the private domain was imagined only with difficulty.

These same ambiguities concerning the private self and its relation to custom and community make themselves felt in Pride and Prejudice. Austen tempers her affirmation of individual happiness as an ideal by means of a deep aesthetic vigilance over its possible excesses. The hero of the novel, for example, is as different in substance and temperament from the heroine as could be; he embodies the traditional self, one whose identity is based on a sense of his own position in the social hierarchy rather than on an evaluation of his inner worth. This is what Darcy means when he says to Elizabeth, after they have been united, that he was a good man in theory but not in practice. He accepted his own merit as given; until Elizabeth forces him to, he has no impulse to look critically inward. A traditional self with a strong sense of duty (as distinct from conscience), Darcy has before him a traditional—that is to say, arranged—marriage when the novel opens. Of course, contact with Elizabeth changes Darcy, but that Elizabeth ends by marrying so traditional a personality is perhaps the largest check on the modern drive for happiness (most intelligently represented by Elizabeth) in the novel.

Not all the self-seekers in the novel are as intelligent and virtuous as Elizabeth, however, which brings us to another way Austen tempers her affirmation of the pursuit of happiness. The novel continually juxtaposes to Elizabeth and Darcy's marriage the completely selfish marriage, such as the unions between Lydia and Wickham and between Charlotte and Mr. Collins, who live only for themselves and their own advancement. In contrast, Darcy and Elizabeth are envisioned at the conclusion of the novel as surrogate parents, moral guardians, and educators to Georgiana and Kitty, and as host and hostess at their ancient estate to members of the rising class of merchants, the Gardiners. The novel ends, then, on a note of affirmation of the power of marriage as an agent of constructive social change.

The last and most intimate qualification of the ideal of personal happiness concerns the way in which Austen treats Elizabeth's first involvement: her brief infatuation with Wickham. Whereas Darcy's presence at this point is a constant irritant to her, Wickham's presence makes her happy and is described as a “refreshment” (90). Today we would say that he makes her feel “comfortable”—that is, narcissistically contented with herself. Later Elizabeth comes to see that the pleasure she derived from his company had only to do with his silky talent for appealing to her vanity. The narcissistic feeling of happiness is thus not to be trusted, unless it has been earned, as it later is with Darcy, by means of vigorous criticism directed against oneself and the other. Plato wrote that we must learn to bear pleasure as well as pain, and it is this kind of vigorous joy that Elizabeth is experiencing when she writes to her aunt at the conclusion of the novel. “I am the happiest creature in the world. Perhaps other people have said so before, but not one with such justice. I am happier even than Jane; she only smiles, I laugh” (382-83).

With such qualifications and contrasts working off of and against the pursuit of individual happiness, it is easy to see why critics of the novel traditionally draw from it a moral emphasizing the classical value of living not for oneself but for community. The meaning of life in Austen, they would argue, is to be found not by focusing on ourselves, as Lydia and Wickham do, but in service, as Darcy and Elizabeth do at the conclusion of the novel. Some readers of Austen find this moral comforting; others (particularly feminist readers and critics) consider it objectionable because it appears to endorse patriarchal marriage and to be incompatible with the ideals of modern feminism. Insofar as feminism has been linked with the larger political shift toward liberal democracy over the past two centuries and has accepted unquestioningly the subjectivist premises of Mill, with their emphasis on the self and self-interest, such an interpretation may be justified. But Austen's seeming endorsement of the ideal of service is not incompatible with feminism at its roots, in the writings of her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft. The author of the first major political treatise on behalf of women's rights, Wollstonecraft drew on Plato in centering her social philosophy outside the self and on the ideal of education; in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman she writes of women as “citizens” in whom we must expect “the conduct of an accountable being” (189; Oxford ed.)—a phrase that we can imagine encountering in an Austen novel.

We do not encounter it, however, although phrases like it are put into the mouths of characters; the ironic narrator rarely advances such bald moralities. It is all very well to say that, at the conclusion of the novel, Elizabeth and Darcy are living for something beyond themselves—the national community that Pemberley idealistically embodies, the younger persons they influence, eventually their own children—and that responsibility, rather than happiness, lies at the center of their concerns, but the ethos of Pride and Prejudice as a whole is one of pleasure. This is especially evident in the celebratory atmosphere of the closing chapters, which understandably have been compared to the conclusion of Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Is Austen having it both ways? Is she endorsing Elizabeth's admittedly selfish drive for happiness while at the same time condemning it in others? Elizabeth's words to Lady Catherine, in which she unabashedly asserts her right to think only of herself, make her no different in theory from Lydia. And in marrying the high-spirited individualist Elizabeth to such a traditional, community-minded man, is Austen having her cake and eating it too?

Of course she is. The spirit of Pride and Prejudice is one of pleasure, a high-minded joy in mastering contradictions not to be confused with regressive indulgence or romantic wish fulfillment. At no moment in the elegant and intense verbal combat between Elizabeth and Darcy is the moral attention relaxed. When they do come to an understanding, it is truly that, not the starry-eyed romantic business we see going on between Jane and Bingley. That Austen does marry off her heroine to one of the richest men in England, who is also about her age (no father figure), vigorous, attractive, intelligent, and obviously passionate, shows how reluctant Austen was to sacrifice the small independence Elizabeth already enjoyed as the daughter of an indulgent father to anything but the best and freest circumstances for a woman at that time. How free were such circumstances, one may ask? How challenging will life at Pemberley be for Elizabeth? How fulfilling could such a vicarious form of existence be by modern standards? Beyond bearing in mind, as I have already suggested, that family and marriage in the ruling class Austen wrote of occupied a far more decisive position in social organization than they would in a later, more democratic society, it would be a grotesque luxury to judge it by modern standards.

Feminist critics who have condemned Austen for not opening up any new vistas for the female spirit, for merely reaffirming the traditional option of marriage, may as well say to a starving person, “Man cannot live by bread alone.” Like all her sisters, Elizabeth has only humiliating dependence on relations before her if she does not marry. No professions to speak of are open to her, and laws on every side are designed to restrict her independence. Within the privilege of the gentry class, wives had far less control over their lives than husbands did, and daughters had virtually none. Charlotte Lucas marries Mr. Collins because she does not wish to remain a daughter all her life; that marriage to Mr. Collins is seen as liberating by comparison with “spinsterhood” tells us all we need to know of the depth of Austen's irony on the subject of women.

What is remarkable about Austen's perspective on this subject is that she does not lapse into sentimental wish fulfillment but renders the crass, survivalist posture required of women with unfailing honesty and irony. The “honesty” and “irony” are interchangeable because of the fundamental contradiction in the gentry woman's situation: that she enjoyed tremendous privileges and relative comfort as a member of that class but that her ability to act independently within it was severely restricted. Elizabeth's refusal to marry Mr. Collins, for example, is not ponderously portrayed as an act of courage; it would take little courage to refuse so ridiculous a person as Mr. Collins. But given the situation of women and her own particular economic circumstances, to refuse him without giving way even for a moment to anxiety concerning the future shows an exceptional spirit. Elizabeth's sangfroid is again apparent when she refuses the far more imposing Darcy; she cannot be frightened by circumstance or intimidated by power. Popular women novelists writing at the same time as Austen often show heroines engaged in far more obvious acts of heroism and have been praised over Austen by feminists for portraying more adventurous women; in one such novel the heroine travels down the Amazon River. But Austen did not have to show Elizabeth traveling down the mighty river; she walks three miles in the mud to visit an ailing sister, and the society around her (including the hero) behaves as if she had (32-33). That Elizabeth remains unfazed by their exaggerated response to this most commonplace act—Darcy's admiration no more turns her head than Miss Bingley's visible contempt ruffles her—is not the least of her virtues. It is in Austen's ironic critique of her society, with its vulgar idolatry of the “lady” combined with its brute legal and economic restriction of her independence, together with her passionate endorsement of women who live within it and still manage to retain their self-possession (dignity is too lofty a word) that her feminism lies.

Nowhere is this passionate endorsement more complicated and subtle than in Austen's later work Emma. That Elizabeth Bennet must go through so much painful self-scrutiny to “earn” the happiness that is hers at the conclusion suggests perhaps the more youthful Austen's straightforward sense of justice. (“Justice,” it will be remembered, is a word Elizabeth herself uses in connection with her own happiness in the letter to her aunt referred to earlier.) Austen was in her early twenties when she first drafted Pride and Prejudice. Within the brilliantly eccentric ironies of the more mature novel, Austen is far less concerned with reconciling the drive for happiness with the needs of the community. On the surface, however, Austen does make a deceptively good case for this theme, so good that many critics have read Emma as her most conservative novel from the point of view of social history, with the paternalistic landowner Mr. Knightley educating the young heroine in her responsibility to English community (an education most succinctly expressed in his lecture to her at Box Hill). Such a reading ignores the overriding irony of Emma. Entertaining the kind of massive reversal of sympathies and values that she had already shown herself capable of in Mansfield Park, Austen indulges Emma's caprices, amorality, and mistakes to the full, mourning before the fact the day she becomes Mrs. Knightley and can no longer afford to make mistakes—the way a parent might spoil a terminally ill child. By the time she wrote Emma, Austen's sense of “justice” to women had matured; and unless we appreciate her irony, it may seem bitter. In Emma Austen is secretly rejoicing over the passage of the old order, perhaps rejoicing all the more in knowing that many of her readers would feel it without knowing it, and that she was alone (or so she thought) in imagining a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like” (Austen-Leigh 157).

That Elizabeth Bennet is so easy to like makes Pride and Prejudice the less ironic novel. But Elizabeth's marriage to Darcy, as we have seen, is not without contradiction and irony. After they are united, Elizabeth “remembered that [Darcy] had yet to learn to be laught at” (371). Perhaps a juxtaposition of the two novels suggests more than anything else that no discussion of the social-historical context in which the heroines move can proceed without consideration of Austen's irony. The moral discrimination that forms the basis of that irony is so insistent, writes Raymond Williams, “that it can be taken as an independent value … which is in the end separable from its social basis.” After making this profound observation, Williams goes on to attach that value to the democratic social agenda: “she provided the emphasis which had only to be taken outside the park walls, into a different social experience, to become not a moral but a social criticism,” such as one finds in the Victorian moralists (Country 117). But we will leave it to the historical ideologists to determine the political direction Austen's emphasis would take later. Whatever one concludes, one cannot help but feel that Austen wrote more for later generations than for her own. This perception is apparent not only in her steady refusal to court the public attention she could so easily have gained but in the way the novels seem to feel themselves forward into time, articulating our own historical distance from her world by means of their irony. Historians have long been in the habit of claiming, as A. J. P. Taylor has written, that, among novelists, history began with Walter Scott, the historical novelist and contemporary of Jane Austen. But if history is a form of self-consciousness, perhaps history began with Jane Austen as well.

Works Cited and Consulted

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1932, 1965.

———. Jane Austen: Selected Letters 1796-1817. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1955. Rpt., with introd. by Marilyn Butler, 1985.

———. Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 2nd ed. London: Oxford UP, 1952.

———. Mansfield Park. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1932, 1966.

———. Minor Works. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1954. Rev. ed. 1963.

———. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933. Rev. ed. 1965.

———. Pride and Prejudice. Afterword by Joann Morse. New York: Signet, 1961.

———. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. Donald J. Gray. Norton Critical ed. New York: Norton, 1966.

———. Pride and Prejudice. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 1932, 1967. London: Oxford UP, 1976.

———. Pride and Prejudice. Introduction by Mark Schorer. Riverside ed. Boston: Houghton, 1956.

———. Pride and Prejudice. Introduction by Tony Tanner. Harmondsworth, Eng.: Penguin, 1972.

———. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1933, 1967.

Austen-Leigh, J. E. A Memoir of Jane Austen. London: 1865, 1870, 1871; Oxford: Clarendon, 1926. Rpt. in Persuasion. New York: Penguin, 1965.

Austen-Leigh, William, and Richard Arthur Austen. Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters—A Family Record. New York: Dutton, 1913.

Forster, E. M. Howards End. New York: Random, 1921.

Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage: England, 1500-1800. London: Weidenfeld, 1977.

Williams, Raymond. The Country and the City. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

———. The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence. London: Hogarth, 1984.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. Collected Letters. Ed. Ralph M. Wardle. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1979.

———. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. English Romantic Poetry and Prose. Ed. Russell Noyes. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1956.

William Christie (essay date 1997)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10741

SOURCE: Christie, William. “Pride, Politics, and Prejudice.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 20, no. 3 (1997): 313-34.

[In the following essay, Christie finds that in Pride and Prejudice, a novel deeply concerned with the pressing political issues of the day, Austen's compromise between conservatism and progressivism is ultimately a “collapse of the progressive position.”]

Progressively more preoccupied with the individual sensibility and with the individual as a morally autonomous consciousness, the social phenomenon of the novel reflected that ultimately indefinable manifold of changes in the details and structures of scientific, philosophical, and psychological thinking that is “universally acknowledged” to have altered the personal and social construction of the Self in the eighteenth century. The changes themselves invariably led to the question of authority: of who should rule over, or overrule, whom; of what entitled or empowered someone—more ethically, what qualified someone—to rule at all.

Once upon a time the answers, certainly to the first of these questions, had appeared self-evident: nominally, at least, men were to rule over women and parents to overrule their children; in society as a whole, “land was the most important single passport to social and political consideration,” representing “not merely wealth, but stability and continuity, a fixed interest in the state which conferred the right to govern.”1 But throughout the eighteenth century the question of authority or “the right to govern” became progressively more vexed; by the 1790s—the years of Jane Austen's personal maturing and literary apprenticeship—it was not only vexed, but exigent.


It is no longer possible to assume that Jane Austen's achievement was contingent upon a disciplined, “classical” exclusion of the urgent political issues that occupied the more historically minded amongst her contemporaries; to argue, as George Steiner did in 1975, that it was precisely because of her indifference to “the fierce historical, social crises” which surrounded her that “the area defined for imaginative penetration could be superbly exploited.”2 On the contrary, this indifference is now recognized as artistic indirection, and Austen's novels are read as articulate forms of an historical awareness no less acute, and no less earnestly engaged with contemporary political issues, than Political Justice or Lyrical Ballads.

The titles alone of recent critical studies of Jane Austen's novels challenge the assumption of their decorous temporality and insularity: The Improvement of the Estate; Jane Austen and the War of Ideas; Jane Austen and the French Revolution; Jane Austen and the State; Jane Austen in a Social Context; Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel—amongst many others.3 In their concern with authority in the face of new philosophies which brought all in doubt; in their concern with the relationship between the individual as an autonomous, ethically and emotionally motivated subject on the one hand, and the society to which that individual is somehow “contractually” related on the other—Austen's fictions have taken their place alongside the novels and dissertations of contemporary ideologues, the articles and pamphlets and open letters of contemporary polemicists, and the dispatches of contemporary politicians.

As literary parodies, her novels show how popular, fictional distortions may reflect and even engender profound social (because moral) imbalances of the kind then under debate in the more overtly political arena. As comedies of manners, they are shot through with social and political nuances because for Austen, as for Edmund Burke, manners are no mere conventions (least of all literary ones) but “are more important than laws:”

Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarise or refine us. … They give their whole form and colour to our lives. According to their quality, they add morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.4

The identification of manners in Austen's novels with morals and with culture—in short, with ideology—charges with significance every character, every utterance, every gesture, every action, every social event. “A mind lively and at ease,” as she comments in Emma, “can see nothing that does not answer” (Vol. II, ch. 9).5 Far from being seen as cut off and self-contained, the world of her novels is now read as symbolic of English society in a revolutionary age—as symbolic, that is, in the Coleridgean sense that it “partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible.”6

It is one thing, however, for criticism to acknowledge her high-minded engagement with the urgent questions of authority and its mandate, it is quite another for it to achieve anything like clarity or consensus on what, precisely, Austen's position was on such issues as patronage, the place of women, the distribution of wealth, and parliamentary reform.

That the question of authority is at issue in Pride and Prejudice, for example, is apparent; it is explored through the elaborate pattern of dependence and independence, of decision and indecision, of control and license which constitutes the novel's moral design or “mapping.” Indeed, authority is most often invoked in the novel by its abuse or its abrogation. We are witness to Mr Bennet's exercising no control over the destructive inanities of Mrs Bennet, or over the shameless and trivial behavior of his shallower daughters (or over his bank account, for that matter); to Sir William Lucas's opting out of bourgeois society in order to indulge his aristocratic fantasies and abandoning his daughters on the marriage market without a creditable dowry and a prey to the likes of Mr Collins; to Bingley's good-natured but whimsical irresolution, leaving him prey to the prejudiced certitude of Darcy; to the Colonel's and Mrs Forster's neglecting their role in loco parentis, leaving Lydia prey to Wickham (as well as to her own stupidity); to the Bingley sisters' self-serving representation of the polite world, vaunting its authority over good taste and correct behavior; to Mr Hurst's opting out of responsible, rational existence all together; and so on. What is less apparent, however, is the origin and precise political nature of this crisis of authority, or what the political solution might be.

The truth is that there are two political positions or perspectives in Pride and Prejudice, the discrepancy between which is strategic rather than merely unwitting or adventitious. The challenge of the novel lies in its representing both sides of what Marilyn Butler identifies in the novels of the 1790s as a “critical divide”

between the advocates of a Christian conservatism on the one hand, with their pessimistic view of man's nature, and their belief in external authority; [and] on the other hand, progressives, sentimentalists, revolutionaries, with their optimism about man, and their preference for spontaneous personal impulse against rules imposed from without.7

What I propose is to explore the divided political allegiance of Pride and Prejudice by isolating and examining its two, discrepant positions or perspectives—one progressive and the other conservative—and to ask, among other things, how persuasive they are and whether their political implications are in co-operation or in conflict with each other in the novel.8

Between these positions or oppositions, made readily identifiable to her contemporaries by Austen's choice of certain words and objects and actions, Pride and Prejudice aspires to a critically well-documented compromise that takes its dialectical form from the characterization of Elizabeth (275, 338).9 “Spontaneous personal impulse” is to be disciplined by assimilation into the prevailing order in the hope of giving that order new vigor and a more supple propriety; of humanizing its face without diminishing its authority; indeed, of extending and justifying the power of the ruling class by purging its gratuitous or purely self-serving prejudices, and thus restoring to it a function of which it could be genuinely proud. The energy and articulate individualism of Elizabeth Bennet is harnessed in a symbolic marriage, one that would enliven but (pre)serve the microcosmic order of a hierarchical society. Accommodation has thus arguably been made to genuine virtue and talent, though it has been made indirectly, by appropriation and mutual submission, rather than by direct political eruption, intervention, or reform. And it has been made only after a respect for “external authority” has been discovered or learned.

It is my contention that Austen's aspiring compromise is less a compromise than a capitulation or collapse of the progressive position. Indeed, so severe a sacrifice of progressive values is demanded, and so disingenuous are some of the strategies of recognition and reversal used to effect the supervention of conservative values, that the “critical divide” in the novel is accentuated rather than resolved.


As it turns out, only the Gardiners are consistently responsible and “gentleman-like” (124), counselling and contributing without ever presuming to take over the affairs or the lives of others. And the Gardiners, significantly, are in trade, bringing to gentility the bourgeois virtues of (amongst others) expedition, industry, and an inobsequious humility. (Like all Jane Austen's variously prominent figures of ethical authority, the Gardiners—Aunt and Uncle; word and deed—represent a complex of complementarities.) Their being in trade is “significant” because Pride and Prejudice is an often spirited and occasionally acrimonious attack on the status quo, participating in “that tradition in English culture which has consistently, from the seventeenth century, opposed arbitrary aristocratic and patriarchal privilege.”10

It is in Darcy's unapologetic and aristocratic assumption of control over Bingley's life and destiny, for example, that the pervasive social disease of authority abused can be seen most dramatically and most emblematically. “Why reverence a man because he happens to be born to certain privileges … ?,” the radical William Godwin was asking in Political Justice (1793); must we “renounce our independence, in their presence?”

in those cases of general justice which are equally within the province of every human understanding, I am a deserter from the requisitions of duty if I do not assiduously exert my faculties, or if I be found to act contrary to the conclusions they would dictate, from deference to the opinions of others.

(Bk III, ch. 6)11

The attack on nobility in Pride and Prejudice is confined largely to the first half of the novel. By beginning with the progressive or “optimistic” impulse at work in the novel, I would thus preserve Austen's own, carefully calculated priorities (as throughout I would preserve oppositions that she herself sets up).

The potential for a radical critique is in fact established at the very opening of the novel by Austen's most famous utterance, on the face of it an ingenious and spirited satire on the inquisitiveness and acquisitiveness of the provincial gentry to which she belonged:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Amidst the “wealth” of implication of this single sentence, three extensive and disturbing social strictures formulate themselves—more extensive and more disturbing, that is, than we would expect of a mere flourish of local satire. First, there is the equivocal status of “truth,” here attenuated or debased by its implicit and ironic identification with an equivocal, “universal” consensus. Accordingly, the verifying “universe” of the opening sentence shrinks to “a neighbourhood” in the second:

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

The novel will go on to suggest just how capricious both public and personal “truth” can be, with the case of Darcy v. Wickham at the Meryton Assizes as exemplary: “All Meryton seemed striving to blacken the man, who, but three months before, had been almost an angel of light” (260).

The second and third strictures of the opening sentence are legally and linguistically inseparable; they are the socially constructed “truth” of the relationship between marriage and money on the one hand, and the dehumanization of women into property on the other. Both are established by a terminology of enormous suggestiveness: “in possession of” (owning) / “in possession of” (possessed by); “a good fortune” (wealth) / “a good fortune” (luck); “in want” (need) / “in want” (desire); “must” (of necessity) / “must” (imperative). Even the strictly hierarchical “man” and “wife” from the church ceremony is smuggled in. And what the sentence does not say—what it surely tempts without attempting—is “that a single man in want of a good fortune, must be in possession of a wife.” Simply by reversing the adverbial phrases in the relative clause we have the predicaments of Wickham and of Colonel Fitzwilliam in a nutshell.

Such is the double-edged nature of possession, moreover, that the subtle political and emotional symbiotics captured in these opening lines is soon established, as the “single man” becomes “the rightful property” of the daughters of “the surrounding families.” Seeking to extend his rightful property by marriage, the single man becomes the property of those he would appropriate!

The satire on the abuses of truth, marriage, and women in these lines anticipates the progressivist critique of society in Pride and Prejudice which is my first concern. As a critique, certain incidents or episodes are crucial, and the long episode of Elizabeth's visit to the newly-wed Collinses at Hunsford is a sensational example. Among other things, it is during this visit that Darcy discovers that the Lady Catherine de Bourgh is not qualified to assume the authority to which her position and wealth automatically entitle her. Yet when Darcy responds to Lady Catherine's treatment of Elizabeth at Rosings by looking “a little ashamed at his aunt's ill-breeding” (154), he unwittingly anticipates the barbed accusation of failing to behave “in a more gentleman-like manner” (171) that Elizabeth is to level at him, not long after. In this, as in his meddling in Bingley's and Jane's affairs of the heart, Darcy proves himself his aunt Catherine's nephew. These signal failures in “that chastity of honour” characteristic of Edmund Burke's “age of chivalry” mark decisive moments in the novel as an allegorical “Pride's Progress,” or remorseless humiliation of the aristocracy.12

Lady Catherine's style of patronage is, amongst other things, an anachronism. Although as a literary “character” she is immediately identifiable as the dictatorial dowager of the comedy of manners from Congreve to Coward, it is important also to recognize the historically specific impropriety of her behaviour. Patronage, as Lady Catherine exercises it, is rather a patronizing intrusion into the private lives, even into the thoughts and feelings, of individuals who have rights (to use an especially loaded word from the period)—rights, and the relative autonomy to think and to choose for themselves. “Mr Collins, you must marry. A clergyman like you must marry,” she declares (echoing the confusion of necessity with the imperative that was anticipated in the opening sentence):

“Chuse properly, chuse a gentlewoman for my sake; and for your own, let her be an active, useful sort of person, not brought up high, but able to make a small income go a good way. This is my advice. Find such a woman as soon as you can, bring her to Hunsford, and I will visit her.”


And for the gentlewoman's own sake? Lady Catherine's “interest,” in the old sense—the things that concern her and that come under her aristocratic aegis—is extended comically but tellingly to include matters as trivial as the way in which her “serfs” grow their vegetables. “Nothing was beneath this great Lady's attention” (146).

It is hard to resist reading the exaggerated relationship between Lady Catherine and Collins, with his Tartuffian blend “of servility and self-importance” (56) while ultimately impotent and dependent, as a satirical reflection on the relationship between the State and a secularized, pussilanimous Church of England. What we can be certain of is that, in terms of the comic politics of Austen's allegory of the aristocracy, both Collins and Lady Catherine are anachronistic and marginal to a new and commendable spirit or spiritedness, the main expression or incarnation of which in Pride and Prejudice is the character of Elizabeth herself.

Central to the challenge that Elizabeth represents to the status quo is a brazen independence in the face of the intimidations of rank—specifically, in the face of Darcy and of his aunt. In the imposing, if vulgar context of Rosings, for example, when at last in the company of the sonorously portended Lady Catherine, Elizabeth's composure stands for the defiance of the individual, of individual intelligence and self-possession, in the face of arrogant authoritarianism (no less than, say, Caleb Williams's solitary resistance to the vengeful Falkland):13

Elizabeth's courage did not fail her. She had heard nothing of Lady Catherine that spoke her awful from any extraordinary talents or miraculous virtues, and the mere stateliness of money and rank, she thought she could witness without trepidation.


The first thing to note here is that for Elizabeth “money and rank” are merely stately, merely gratuitous. The second is that she can witness the merely stately “without trepidation,” just as she has resisted Darcy's “fortune and consequence” with a comparable intrepidity (69).

Thirdly, she is prepared to defer only to talent and virtue, two values that, because they ignored or transgressed the artificial boundaries of class, were integral to every program for political revolution, reform, or revision. The radical Thomas Holcroft spoke through his eponymous heroine in Anna St. Ives (1792):

It appears evident to my mind, at present, that we ought to consider whether an action be in itself good or bad, just or unjust, and totally disregard both our own prejudices and the prejudices of the world. Were I to pay false homage to wealth and rank, because the world tells me that it is right that I should do so, and to neglect genius and virtue, which my judgment tells me would be an odious wrong, I should find but little satisfaction in the applause of the world, opposed to self-condemnation.

(Vol. VI, letter 100)14

Again, witness Political Justice: “the thing really to be desired is the removing as much as possible arbitrary distinctions, and leaving to talents and virtue the field of exertion unimpaired” (Bk II, ch. 3).15 In 1808, the Whig Edinburgh Review was more uncompromising even than Holcroft and Godwin:

Now, if any man thinks, that we should not extravagantly rejoice in any conceivable event which must reform the constitution of England,—by reducing the overgrown influence of the crown,—by curbing the pretensions of the privileged orders …—by raising up the power of real talents and worth, the true nobility of the country,—by exalting the mass of the community, and giving them, under the guidance of that virtual aristocracy, to direct the councils of England … must have read but few pages of this Journal.16

At Rosings, Elizabeth reserves her deference for such an aristocracy of virtue, and of genius or talents, alone.

It was John Wilkes's notorious demand for “a career open to talents” in the 1760s that made the concept and term “talent(s)” the catchcry of the radical challenge to the wholesale and unapologetic system of patronage and preferment—to the nepotism, that is—that had been institutionalized by, for, and within the ruling classes. Lady Catherine, for one, celebrates the power that she derives from the “privileges” she inherits and confers. Mr Bennet may convert Collins's toadying into broad humor when, at the end of the novel, he recommends that he hastily transfer his allegiance—“the nephew,” he reminds Collins, “has more to give” than the aunt (340)—but the toadying itself is only symptomatic of the institution. His wife Charlotte's passing calculation of the benefits to be gained by the two of them from a marriage between Elizabeth and Darcy is too casually hard-edged even to be funny (161).

A comparably dark, less comic side of Lady Catherine's anachronism is revealed during her last encounter with Elizabeth at Longbourn, the encounter precipitated by Elizabeth's rumored engagement to her nephew. Lady Catherine's belated flourish reflects at once the crippling nostalgia, as well as the consequent panic, of the contemporary ruling classes of England in the face of a threatened attenuation of their power. The echo of her shrill insistence upon the priority and authority of her own and her sister's engagement of Darcy with her daughter Anne has a distinctly dying fall:

“the engagement between them is of a peculiar kind. From their infancy, they have been intended for each other. It was the favorite wish of his mother, as well as of her's. While in their cradles, we planned their union: and now, when the wishes of both sisters would be accomplished, in their marriage, to be prevented by a young woman of inferior birth, of no importance in the world, and wholly unallied to the family? Do you pay no regard to the wishes of his friends? To his tacit engagement to Miss De Bourgh? Are you lost to every feeling of propriety and delicacy?”


It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of the implicit elegy for a dying order in this, and in other passages from the confrontation of Lady Catherine with Elizabeth—whose own replies, incidentally, often verge “on conceit and impertinence” (to quote Caroline Bingley in a different context [20]), and once or twice even upon the cruel. That the issue over which the two fall out should be marriage is no coincidence, for in marriage the question of authority, of the right to choose, bears directly upon both heart and holdings—almost exclusively so for most women of the period.

The complicity established in this exchange between author, heroine, and reader suggests Austen's approval of the supervention of the young couple's rights upon their parents' “interested” preferences, and of the romantic and comparatively recent assumption that affection and companionship were major concerns in the selection of a partner. In line with the growing autonomy of the individual, eighteenth-century England had witnessed a “marked shift in emphasis” in the motives for marriage: “away from family interest and towards well-tried personal affection.”17 As life imitated art, the forms and language of romantic love began to influence or constrain the behavior of all classes of society; “Without taking into account this powerful, widespread, and impelling passion at the heart of the marriage system, it is impossible to make sense of the other features.”18 “Husband and wife are always together and share the same society,” remarked the astonished French tourist the Duc de Rochefoucauld in 1784, adding that “the Englishman would rather have the love of the woman he loves than the love of his parents.”19 Elizabeth is no Marianne Dashwood, but that she, too, accepts the change of priorities is evidenced by her guarded response to her Aunt Gardiner's prudence:

“… since we see every day that where there is affection, young people are seldom withheld by immediate want of fortune, from entering into engagements with each other, how can I promise to be wiser than many of my fellow creatures if I am tempted, or how am I even to know that it would be wisdom to resist?”


Romantic comedy offers such ample precedence for the obstruction of youthful love by superannuated “interest” that an historically specific, political reading of the scene between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth would seem perverse, were it not for the fact that Lady Catherine's patently anachronistic appeal to the priority of tradition and to the authority of her class highlighted the contemporary issues of social cohesion and individual rights: “Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?” she asks, rhetorically, in an unmistakably Burkean strain (317). Thomas Holcroft had the same political object in mind when in Anna St. Ives he had Anna resist her uncle Lord Fitz-Allen's demand that she marry the villain Coke Clifton:

I immediately answered—If, sir … you understand any further intercourse between me and Mr. Clifton, I must not suffer you to continue in such an error. We are and ever must remain separate. Habit and education have made us two such different beings, that it would be the excess of folly to suppose marriage could make us one.

Miss St. Ives—[my uncle collected all his ideas of rank and grandeur] Miss St. Ives, you must do me the honour to consider me as head of the family, and suffer me to remind you of the respect and obedience that are due to that head. The proposal now made you I approve. It is made by a man of family, and I must take the liberty to lay my injunctions upon you to listen to it in a decorous and proper manner.

I answered—I am sorry, sir, that our ideas of propriety are so very opposite. But whether my judgment be right or wrong, I am the person to be married to Mr. Clifton, and not your Lordship.

(Vol. VI, letter 103)20

Like Holcroft, Austen is using a recognizably literary, even archetypal antagonism in an unequivocally political debate—a debate to which all the variously motivated marriages and all the romantic and comic incidents and motifs in Pride and Prejudice can be seen to contribute.

I want to go back now to the question raised by Lady Catherine as to who is most entitled or best qualified to marry Darcy. While the opening sentence leads directly to Bingley's arrival at Netherfield, it is with Darcy's “want of a wife”—again, both need and desire—that the novel and its politics are more concerned. Specifically, we need to go back to Rosings, and to the comic strategy of Ann de Bourgh's disqualification. If Lady Catherine's presumption of her daughter's priority is absurdly anachronistic, it appears as especially absurd when we think of Ann herself: “thin and small” according to Maria Lucas; “sickly and cross,” according to Elizabeth (142). Again, later: “so thin and so small;” “pale and sickly; her features, though not plain, were insignificant” (145). The consensus amongst the various characters, to which Lady Catherine herself enthusiastically contributes, establishes Ann de Bourgh as “of a sickly constitution” (59); as chronically enervated and even mentally defective, quite apart from being taciturn, haughty, uninformed, and untalented. Her character reflects the satirical Austen at her most savage, recalling Swift/Gulliver on the aristocracy in the fourth part of Gulliver's Travels: “a weak diseased Body, a meager Countenance, and sallow Complexion, are the true Marks of noble Blood.

Indeed, Swift goes on—and it is on this idea that I want to expand—“a healthy robust Appearance is so disgraceful in a Man of Quality, that the World concludes his real Father to have been a Groom or a Coachman” (Part IV ch 6).21 Swift's satirical construction of cross-class breeding as a variety of miscegenation, ironically displacing licensed incest, illuminates Austen's satirical technique in this episode of Pride and Prejudice. Using a later analogue, Ann de Bourgh's symbolic function in the novel as a socio-political allegory anticipates that of D. H. Lawrence's Lord (Clifford) Chatterly, the physically (sexually) disabled husband of Lady Chatterly's Lover, in which Swift's “groom” or “coachman” becomes the gamekeeper Mellors. Austen and Lawrence are admittedly strange bedfellows and Elizabeth is hardly prototypical of Mellors. Still, the fact that the anaemic Ann de Bourgh and the emasculated Clifford Chatterly should both figure the social, political, and spiritual inanition of a redundant aristocracy suggests a continuity between the two and confirms that continuity as more than literary.

And like Mellors, Elizabeth is nothing if not “healthy” and “robust,” as “fine, stout, healthy” as the love that she wittily envisages as able to withstand the onslaught of a sonnet (39). Austen goes out of her way to enforce Elizabeth's physical and mental sanity, both at Rosings, where in direct contrast to the “sickly” Ann's hypothetical proficiency at the piano she performs with gusto and laughs “heartily,” and elsewhere throughout the novel. Swiftian eugenics may not have entered consciously into Darcy's deliberations about marriage, but his attraction to Elizabeth is inspired by a sexuality in which both play and physical robustness feature prominently, even though her “easy playfulness” is originally found to be in “mortifying” contradistinction to the “manners … of the fashionable world” (19). It is Elizabeth who attends to Jane when she is bedridden at Netherfield; Elizabeth who, unlike the luxurious Mr Hurst, prefers “a plain dish to a ragout” (30); Elizabeth who supports the otherwise unfailing Mrs Gardiner in their walks around the extensive Pemberley estates (a full, active appreciation of which demands someone “healthy” and “robust”!). Indeed, Elizabeth is only rarely “overcome”—which is to say, only rarely succumbs to what was then the characteristically feminine reaction to physical or mental distress.

On this point, Jane Austen's “feminism” coincides with an historically recent (as well as characteristically rural) concept of female beauty; a concept of beauty which in its turn reflects the radical reorientation of the individual's relationship with the natural world and, correspondingly, with her own body—witnessed, for example, in the indignant protest of Mary Wollstonecraft:

Fragile in every sense of the word, [women] are obliged to look up to man for every comfort. In the most trifling danger they cling to their support, with parasitical pertinacity, piteously demanding succour; and their natural protector extends his arm, or lifts up his voice, to guard the lovely trembler—from what? Perhaps the frown of an old cow. … I am fully persuaded that we should hear none of these infantine airs, if girls were allowed to take sufficient exercise, and not confined in close rooms till their muscles are relaxed, and their powers of digestion destroyed …

I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves22

Wollstonecraft's is a salutary reminder of the politics of fresh air.

The extension to women of the vogue of walking and touring—like Rousseau, Elizabeth had “a love of solitary walks” (162)—meant a measure of bodily emancipation, the ideological significance of which is as evident as the ideological significance of Elizabeth Bennet's energy and independence:

Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last in view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.


Elizabeth is singled out by the novel and by its hero for her “animal spirits,” expressed here in the “impatient activity” of present participles that might as appropriately be applied to her “liveliness” of mind and conversation (338): “crossing”; “jumping”; “springing”; “glowing.” So later, she breaks from the unaccommodating order of Netherfield society en courant to run “gaily off, rejoicing as she rambled about” (46).

An unequivocally sexual energy informs and invigorates Elizabeth's ethical independence, as well as her intrepidity, her intellect and wit, and the anarchic sense of the bizarre that she inherits from her father: “I dearly love a laugh” (50). And the same energy would appear implicitly to promise to carry Elizabeth and all that she represents through the turmoil of the present, of “such days as these” (32).23 Which is why she threatens the Bingley sisters:

Miss Bingley began by abusing her as soon as she was out of the room. Her manners were pronounced to be very bad indeed, a mixture of pride and impertinence; she had no conversation, no stile, no taste, no beauty. Mrs. Hurst thought the same and added,

“She has nothing, in short, to recommend her, but being an excellent walker. I shall never forget her appearance this morning. She really looked almost wild.”

“She did indeed, Louisa. I could hardly keep my countenance. Very nonsensical to come at all! Why must she be scampering about the country, because her sister had a cold? Her hair so untidy, so blowsy!” “Yes, and her petticoat; I hope you saw her petticoat, six inches deep in mud. …”

You observe it, Mr Darcy, I am sure,” said Miss Bingley; “and I am inclined to think that you would not wish to see your sister make such an exhibition.”

“Certainly not.”

“To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to me to shew an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.”


Solitariness and independence—the sort of independence that consistently challenges decorum and wonders at the wisdom, not to say ethics of hastily legitimizing Lydia's and Wickham's doomed relationship, for example (269; 280); an “impulse of feeling” not always “guided by reason” that is correctly, if sententiously, identified by Mary (27); pedestrianism and unapologetic provincialism; an indifference to society's sanctions and conventions (“in her air altogether, there is a self-sufficiency without fashion” [239]); a “wild manner” (37); energy and excess—what do these represent but a configuration of values that can be identified as a version of Romantic radicalism? The censures that the Bingley sisters level at Elizabeth extend their own function beyond that of two ugly sisters in a Cinderella story to that of political conservatives, alarmed at Elizabeth's anarchic athleticism and individualism. Even Elizabeth's being tanned feeds a disgust that is characteristic both of a specifically urban refinement and of a more catholic snobbery. In short, the politics of Pride and Prejudice is in part at least a complex, sexual politics.24

The Bingley sisters' fear is only accentuated by their endeavors metaphorically to belittle (and so contain) Elizabeth's animal energy and its sexual attractiveness; her “crossing,” “jumping,” and “springing,” it should be noted, are reduced to “scampering.” On another occasion, they describe her eyes as “shrewish” (239). Darcy, on the other hand, more ingenuous in recognizing this attractiveness (“her fine eye … were brightened by the exercise”), seeks refuge in rigid, social interdictions, forcibly reminding both Bingley and himself that the Bennet sisters' inferior connections “must very materially lessen their chances of marrying men of any consideration in the world” (31), just as he reminds himself, later, “that were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger” (45).

Darcy's conservative propriety becomes a victim of his own passion, however, and he must learn through Elizabeth that it is “as ridiculous to attempt to fix the heredityship of human beauty, as of wisdom” (to quote Thomas Paine).25 No prediction could be less accurate than Mr Collins's concerning Elizabeth's prospects: “Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness” (98). The effects of sexual attraction, it would appear, cannot be so easily undone. The apparently casual, occasional references to Darcy's “powerful feelings towards her” (84), to his being “in her power” (161), to “the power that she has over him” (234), reflect the hierarchical subversion effected by sexual attraction. “The beautiful expression of [Elizabeth's] dark eyes” (19) becomes the font and focus, so to speak, of an inordinate passion—literally in-ordinate: out of bounds, or out of the prescribed boundaries. With his proud unease and overcivilized repressions, Darcy has “never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her” (45; my italics) and construes Elizabeth as a femme fatale:

“In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how much I love and admire you.” …

His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding. …

He concluded with representing the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer.


In terms of Pride and Prejudice as an allegory of the ruling class brought literally and metaphorically to its knees, this is a powerfully symbolic moment. Darcy learns that the exclusive and arbitrary propriety of social rank that he invokes to strengthen his resistance is not only impotent, it is also iniquitous, and his own behavior arrogant. As he later recalls: “I was properly humbled” (328). Like Elizabeth, the novel is utterly unsympathetic and uncompromising throughout this first proposal, refusing to allow the honesty of Darcy's tortured confession “of the scruples that had long prevented my forming any serious design” to mitigate the offense given by his insensitivity to her moral and emotional individuality, an insensitivity surely understandable, if not “natural and just” (171). The novel would appear to countenance no excuses for Darcy's “pretensions” nor, abstracting, for such pride and presumption on the part of the ruling class.

And this is only the beginning of Darcy's ritual (self-)abasement. To be closeted with George Wickham in Gracechurch St, for example, where once Darcy would hardly have thought “a month's ablutions enough to cleanse him of its impurities” (127), and to be haggling with Wickham over the price of buying him off is, for Darcy, a punishment more sublimely fitted to the crime than anything W. S. Gilbert could invent. A self-confessed spoilt child of the aristocracy—“allowed, encouraged, almost taught … to think meanly of the rest of the world, to wish at least to think meanly of their sense and worth compared with my own”—Darcy ultimately emerges chastened and subdued, and willing to acknowledge rather as his savior, the woman with the “wild, wild eyes” whom he had once seen as la belle dame sans merci: “What do I not owe you! You taught me a lesson, hard indeed at first, but most advantageous. By you, I was properly humbled” (328).

The triumph of the new woman and of progressive individualism over an arrogant ruling class, reluctant to forego the unwarranted power that it inherited with its landed estates? On one level, certainly; there are complications, however.


The character in the novel most inclined to politicize Darcy's behaviour is Wickham, for example, and there is a certain danger in adopting the interpretative strategies of the novel's villain, as well as many of his specific political inferences regarding Darcy and Lady Catherine (69-75). High-minded political criticism in general, moreover, has much to learn from the fact that part of Wickham's “inducement” was an irrational resentment and “the hope of revenging himself” (180).

There is, however, plenty of less oblique evidence of the ultimate inadequacy of reading Pride and Prejudice exclusively as an allegorical “Pride's Progress.” For one thing, there is almost the entire second half of the novel. After the heady episodes at Netherfield and Rosings, the reader is never again permitted such faith in Elizabeth's iconoclastic wit and energy. Her surprise at Darcy's proposal at Hunsford shifts the focus to her own self-ignorance, not to say hypocrisy, for not only has she chosen “wilfully to misunderstand” his manifest feelings (51)—fully apparent though they are to the reader (19)—but she has consciously or unconsciously solicited and encouraged those feelings with a provocative flirtatiousness from the beginning. Her later apology to Darcy represents the sustained reassessment that her values, and with them the values honoured by the novel, have undergone since the proposal: “My manners must have been at fault, but not intentionally I assure you. I never meant to deceive you, but my spirits might often lead me wrong” (328). Elizabeth, “virtual aristocrat,” is required to suffer a humiliation—and “how just a humiliation” (185)—comparable with Darcy's own.

This humiliation and reassessment, along with the genuinely disturbing consequences of actions that at the time had seemed innocuous or “merely” irresponsible, demand a radical revision of many earlier incidents. “Follies” that had evoked Elizabeth's wit and satiric enthusiasm lose their “light, and bright, and sparkling”26 appearance when Jane's happiness is seriously threatened by “the folly and indecorum of her own family” (190). More importantly, episodes that the reader has been encouraged to interpret as the triumph of rational individualism and natural candour over the narrow hauteur of rank can now be reread, in part at least, as exemplifying the threat posed by undisciplined “spirits” to polite or correct “manners.” What for Darcy and the reader was “liveliness of mind” in Elizabeth, she herself now dismisses as “impertinence. It was very little less” (338)—“impertinence”, tellingly, being an epithet used of her by the Bingley sisters (30; 45). Elizabeth's challenging Lady Catherine over Lydia's and Kitty's “coming out,” for example, is to be radically revised as more forthright than just (148), as is her attitude generally. And along with the respect that Elizabeth belatedly discovers for Darcy's judgement comes the belated validity of what had once seemed a repressive formalism on his part, a validity that threatens to include even his disapproving comparison of Elizabeth's eruption into the lifeless rituals of Netherfield with the restrained behaviour of his sister Georgiana (30).

The novel's and Elizabeth's conservative renunciation of her wilfulness generally, and of her wilful interpretation of human motive in particular—a satiric habit itself satirized in the Elizabeth-like satire of the opening line?—belies Marilyn Butler's claim that, in the conservative novel, “there is seldom a hint that the impression the reader receives has been modified by the idiosyncrasies of the hero[/ine]'s vision”. This is not to deny that “society is itself the real hero,” rather to suggest that it is precisely the reader's complacent identification with Elizabeth's voice and vision, and of Elizabeth's voice and vision with author's own, that Austen sets out strategically to undermine.27

Pride and Prejudice in fact demands a more extensive and more radical revision of events in retrospect than any other Austen novel. So much so that if—like Darcy and unlike both Bingley and to a certain extent Elizabeth—we were to “remember at night all the foolish things that were said in the morning” (42), the delayed revelation of Elizabeth's improprieties might well leave the reader feeling betrayed and/or resentful at having been duped into enjoying and sharing her wit and gusto in the first place.

In spite of the revisionary strategies, however, an ineradicable sense remains of the novel's genuinely endorsing Elizabeth's earlier behavior. Nor is this simply willful misreading. Austen was a true poet and of the devil's party, with or without knowing it. The novel's allegiance to the more vital Elizabeth can only be renounced at the cost, not just of a large part of its appeal, but also of its coherence.

As it turns out, the strategically discrepant political positions assumed by the novel over the issue of Elizabeth's independence and iconoclasm are in unproductive, even destructive conflict. Elizabeth and the narrator have become confused—in their wit and irony, obviously; more tellingly perhaps in the “strong,” sometimes ungenerous language of their censure (3; 62; 77; 121)—too confused certainly for so sudden a displacement of political and critical allegiance and so radical a conversion in Elizabeth as take place when she sees Pemberley for the first time:

They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley. … It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills;—and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal, nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!


In one of the oldest of apocalyptic topoi, Elizabeth takes up a position atop “a considerable eminence” from where, like Blake's bard, she “past, present, and future sees.” Her vision is of the power and continuity represented by the Country House, a power that (to quote Coleridge)

reveals itself in the balance and reconciliation of opposite … qualities: of sameness with difference; of the general with the concrete; the idea, with the image; the sense of novelty and freshness with old and familiar objects; … and while it blends and harmonizes the natural with the artificial, still subordinates art to nature28

Pemberley functions as a synecdoche of patriarchal order and a metonym for Darcy himself: “a large, handsome, stone building standing well on rising ground” belonging to one who “drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall, person, handsome features, noble mien” (7). It is, in fact, the second of a sequence of metonymic indices and icons through which Elizabeth comes to reconcile “the idea, with the image” of her future husband. (The first is the letter that Darcy wrote after his proposal at Hunsford.)

Following her apocalyptic vision of Pemberley, Elizabeth will spend the remainder of the novel endeavoring to rationalize and to realize the instantaneous transvaluation that inspires her charged self-confession: “to be mistress of Pemberley might be something.” Because the political implications are anomalous and the emotional implications unpleasant, the reader tends to gloss over this first episode at Pemberley. Not only is Elizabeth's cherished independence sacrificed to a more powerful and spontaneous desire, but the desire itself—the desire to appropriate—is profoundly unromantic, if by romantic love we mean the disinterested affection of two individuals for each other, indifferent to social and political rewards and constraints. No identification of an ideological continuity between the abstract positions of what might be termed “the two Elizabeths” can obviate what presents as an ethical and emotional discontinuity or volte face.

In the subsequent tour through the House, index is confirmed by index and icon. Elizabeth's third insight into Darcy comes through his furniture:

The rooms were lofty and handsome, and their furniture suitable to the fortune of their proprietor; but Elizabeth saw with admiration of his taste, that it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendour, and more real elegance, than the furniture of Rosings.

Again, the impulse to possess is spontaneous, and is underlined by the preponderance of first person pronouns:

“And of this place,” thought she, “I might have been mistress! With these rooms I might now have been familiarly acquainted! Instead of viewing them as a stranger, I might have rejoiced in them as my own.”


Through the carefully generalized, metonymic characterizations of Darcy, the confident distinction that Elizabeth could make at Rosings between “virtue and talent” and the “stateliness of wealth and rank” collapses dramatically. Suddenly, wealth and rank are obscure objects of desire that effect vital transformations; far from being merely stately, they have become very stately indeed. And very compelling.

Longing “to explore its windings,” Elizabeth returns to the garden only to suffer the “embarrassment … shame and vexation” of Darcy's joining them, as well as an unprecedented “discomposure” at the thought of being introduced at Pemberley again (221-2; 229). That her characteristic intrepidity should fail her, as it did not at Rosings, suggests both that a new appreciation of “wealth and rank” has been effected, and that the distinction between good and bad taste is more significant than one might have imagined.

Elizabeth's final insight is mediated by the portraits of Darcy. The first portrait is by Reynolds (Mrs Reynolds, that is, not Joshua; Austen's joke, surely), and relates Darcy to his complex patronage. Its exaggerations and inaccuracies as an ideal imitation—“infidelities” ironically attributed to Mrs Reynolds's faithfulness—end by ennobling her subject. The other two portraits are paintings, the one in the gallery further accelerating the revolution in Elizabeth's attitude:

In the gallery there were many family portraits … and she beheld a striking resemblance of Mr Darcy, with such a smile over the face, as she remembered to have sometimes seen, when he looked at her. She stood several minutes before the picture, and returned to it again before they quitted the gallery …

There was certainly at this moment, in Elizabeth's mind, a more gentle sensation towards the original, than she had ever felt in the height of their acquaintance.


On an earlier occasion, when Elizabeth herself had threatened “to sketch” his character (“if I do not take your likeness now, I may never have another opportunity”), Darcy had doubted that the “performance” would reflect “credit on either” (84). It is all a question of perspective. The “more gentle sensation towards the original” that Elizabeth now experiences she does so, significantly and ironically, in the absence of “the original.” Is this a reflection on the ingenuity, or on the duplicity of art?

Whichever is the case, the painting and especially the portrait has always had a complex nature: as art and as possession or commodity; as a symbol of mimetic and expressive quest and as a symbol of power (most often, like Darcy's library, inherited power):

As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship!—How much pleasure or pain it was in his power to bestow!—How much good or evil must be done by him!


This passage would not be out of place in a Jacobin novel, except that the same “power” celebrated here by Elizabeth would be stigmatized as oppressive and unwarranted; as an encroachment upon the very lives that here comprise an awestruck list of Darcy's responsibilities. And yet Elizabeth's “trepidation” is recorded without manifest irony, heavily ironic though it is in the light of her previous confrontations—as heavily ironic as the “softening” that takes place as she gazes upon the portrait of one whose severity and arrogance has been, literally, “glossed over”:

As she stood before the canvas, on which he was represented, and fixed his eyes upon herself, she thought of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude than it had ever raised before; she remembered its warmth, and softened its impropriety of expression.


Mrs Reynolds, the painter, and Elizabeth are not the only ones guilty of faking their portraits (which in the euphemistic language of the novel has become “softening an impropriety of expression”). The narrator's reticence—Austen's reticence—implicitly sanctions the precipitate and dubiously motivated reaction that Elizabeth experiences.

As a dramatic anagnorisis, the episode of Pemberley involves too sudden a renunciation of much that Elizabeth has felt and much that she has represented. It is just possible to accept that the power figured so seductively by Pemberley and by the portraits has a magic that could not have been conjured by the temporarily “dispossessed” Darcy himself, the Darcy with whom both the reader and Elizabeth have hitherto been familiar. (Though from the beginning there has been magic in Darcy's “consequence” for Charlotte Lucas, whose values are now achieving a belated, if unwitting sanction [81].) It is hardly credible, however, that it was only the bad taste of Rosings that failed to evoke from Elizabeth the intense longing for power and distinction that, when it becomes apparent at Pemberley, suggests a characteristic compulsion. To quote Jane Bennet: “I should be almost tempted to say, that there is a strong appearance of duplicity in all this” (133).

Pemberley stands an index of the “virtue and talent” of Darcy, not just as a individual—certainly not as a lover—but as a person of “wealth and rank”; as a “proprietor” and as an institution. This new synthesis involves the assumption that individuality means in large part the fulfillment of the responsibilities associated with one's function in society. It also involves Elizabeth's active acquiescence in the existing hierarchy, or rather patriarchy: “As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship!” (220). As in Old Testament visions on mountains, where the assumption of divine authority involves a simultaneous submission to God as the highest order, so for Elizabeth “to be mistress of Pemberley”—to be “in possession of” Pemberley, like that “good fortune” of the opening sentence of the novel—is also to be mastered by both Darcy and Pemberley (as Darcy himself is admittedly mastered by Pemberley as a squirearchical responsibility involving historical continuity). “He for God only, she for God in him.”29

Be that as it may, not only does a renewed respect for Darcy enter the novel via Elizabeth at this point, so too does a new sobriety and restraint. The young woman who knew “exactly what to think” (77), especially when provoked by false humility or polite doubt; the young woman who “loved absurdities” (136) and whose habitual tendency was to ironize and often, in liveliness of imagination, to misrepresent—becomes the woman who knows what she does not know and, with that, begins to know what she wants.

Here, too, there is a problem, however. Where in the past Elizabeth had chosen to ignore Darcy's passion and her own feelings towards him, what she now desires is contingent upon her identifying those feelings. Driven by her vision of patriarchal order and a very unromantic passion to appropriate, “jealous of his esteem” and thinking “of his regard with a deeper sentiment of gratitude” (275; 220), Elizabeth embarks upon an agonized search for elusive, possibly even non-existent feelings. The novel is more honest than its heroine on the issue of romantic love, as it turns out, and in some places more honest than its own authorial voice:

If gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection, Elizabeth's change of sentiment will be neither improbable nor faulty. But if otherwise, if the regard springing from such sources is unreasonable or unnatural, in comparison of what is so often described as arising on a first interview with its object, and even before two words have been exchanged, nothing can be said in her defence, except that she had given somewhat of a trial to the latter method, in her partiality for Wickham, and that her ill-success might perhaps authorise her to seek the other less interesting mode of attachment.


“Gratitude and esteem,” arguably, but the lady clearly protests too much. What of the latent ambition so dramatically invoked by Pemberley? And does satirizing the notion that none ever loved “that loved not at first sight” necessarily validate the “affection” or the “regard” to which it is (falsely) opposed? Is her “partiality for Wickham”—with whom, by her own confession, she had “never been much in love” (134)—really a valid measure? Can the rational preference for a love grounded on “gratitude and esteem” and of comparatively slow gestation actually create that love?

Moreover, the ironic appeal to experience in this passage is couched in such a way as to appear self-evident, and thus to disarm and even disdain opposition. But the reader's conscious or unconscious assent remains indispensable, and experience may tell us that “gratitude and esteem” are extremely dubious foundations of affection, especially of an affection between two mutually respectful, independent “rational creature[s] speaking the truth from [their] hear” (to adapt the definition with which a more spirited Elizabeth had challenged Mr Collins's patronizing obtuseness [98]). “Gratitude and esteem” form the basis only of the type of self-limiting or self-taming relationship in which Elizabeth “esteemed [her] husband” and “looked up to him” that Mr Bennet wishes upon Elizabeth on her own behalf (335). In this, too, a reactionary revision of the position adopted earlier by the novel is attempted: “for love and esteem are two very different things,” Mary Wollstonecraft had written in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, “esteem” only reinforcing “a degree of imbecility which degrades a rational creature in a way women are not aware of.”30

Hard as she tries, Elizabeth proves unable convincingly to identify in herself or to invent for herself the love or passion required of her both by the comparatively recent phenomenon of the companionate marriage and by the more established literary genres of romantic comedy and romantic fairy tale. Barbara Hardy has argued that, on the contrary, it is not Elizabeth's love but her “self-analysis” that proves inadequate to the occasion: “the attempts at naming feeling, deny, frustrate, and defeat themselves”, but the “very persistence of her reasoning shows the strength of feeling.”31 But there are other feelings besides love that compel us to rationalize, the “naming” of which we are more likely to repress: ambition, for example, or acquisitiveness. Elizabeth's frustrated endeavors to persuade herself only exaggerate the conservative impulse—even, arguably, darkly pragmatic or inadvertently cynical impulse—organizing the action of the novel. In her awkward conviction that Darcy “was exactly the man, who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her” (275) one hears a refracted echo of Charlotte Lucas: “I am convinced that my chance of happiness with him is as fair, as most people can boast on entering the marriage state” (113).

Accordingly, Elizabeth tends to construct herself rather as the object, than as the subject, of love: “she longed to know … in what manner he thought of her, and whether, in defiance of everything, she was still dear to him” (222-3); “It is impossible that he should still love me” (225); “Her power [over him] was sinking; every thing must sink under such a proof of family weakness” (244-5); “How could I ever be foolish enough to expect a renewal of his love” (302); and so on, throughout some uncharacteristically tedious passages. It is in the long-awaited moment of their mutual “disillusionment” and betrothal that Elizabeth achieves the ultimate self-ratification and proves herself most alien to the spirited individualist of the first half of the novel:

… he expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do. Had Elizabeth been able to encounter his eye, she might have seen how well the expression of heartfelt delight, diffused over his face, became him; but, though she could not look, she could listen, and he told her of feelings, which, in proving of what importance she was to him, made his affection every moment more valuable.


“Light, and bright, and sparkling” fade and sober with each new protestation of happiness that Elizabeth makes. And the comparatively few occasions upon which she exercises her wit in the latter half of the novel—her “spirits soon rising to playfulness again” (337)—can too easily be read as designed to protect herself from an unacceptable truth. Like the plea for a willed amnesia in response to Jane's reminding her of how much she dislikes Darcy:

That is all to be forgot. Perhaps I did not always love him so well as I do now. But in such cases as these, a good memory is unpardonable. This is the last time I shall ever remember it myself.


The real joke here is the one that Austen covertly addresses to the reader, asking for “that willing suspension of disbelief that constitutes poetic faith” in the full and certain knowledge that only that can obviate the inconsistencies!32 And Elizabeth's dating her love of Darcy from the moment of her “first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley” (332) is also a joke—is it not?

There is no magic solution for the self-tamed shrew: “Elizabeth, agitated and confused, rather knew that she was happy, than felt herself to be so” (331). If this is designed to elevate a love based upon esteem and understanding above a love based upon feelings, it is curiously self-defeating, serving instead only to render her commitment to Darcy the more doubtful. Elizabeth's respectful and grateful feelings on the one hand, and Darcy's romantic passion on the other, remain categorically distinct, leaving an ironic gulf between the circumstantial details of the novel and its fairy-tale structure. Here is a version of the perennial Cinderella fantasy indeed, but without the perfunctory mutual love of the hero and heroine.

Austen was not alone in seeing the solution to the impasse that England had reached in the early years of the nineteenth century in a strategic alliance between an enterprising but respectful middle and lower orders on the one hand, and, on the other, an equally respectful nobility and gentry at once responsible and yet responsive to challenge and to qualified changes within the existing order of things. But the sacrifice that is the price of that order in Pride and Prejudice, the sacrifice of that romantic and feminist individualism whose energy and excess enlivened the action and conversation of the first half, is unconvincing. For the symbolic marriage of Darcy and Elizabeth to matter or be meaningful, Elizabeth's belated prostration before “wealth and rank” cannot be fully assimilated. Pride and Prejudice is uncompromising, and cannot negotiate the “critical divide” between progressivism and conservatism that it constructs, other than by repressing the former (“a good memory is unpardonable”). But the Elizabeth who will ever retain the reader's allegiance is irrepressible.


  1. J. V. Beckett, The Aristocracy in England 1660-1914 Oxford: Blackwell, 1986, 43.

  2. In “Eros and Idiom,” in his On Difficulty and Other Essays Oxford and New York: OUP, 1978, 95-136 (131).

  3. Alastair M. Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen's Novels, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971; Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Oxford: Clarendon, 1975; Warren Roberts, Jane Austen and the French Revolution, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1979; Mary Evans, Jane Austen and the State, London and New York: Tavistock, 1987; David Monaghan (ed.), Jane Austen in a Social Context, Basingstoke and London: Macmillan, 1981; Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel, Chicago and London: U Chicago P, 1988.

  4. In the first of “Four Letters on a Regicide Peace;” as quoted in Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Oxford: Blackwell, 1990, 42.

  5. Emma, eds. James Kinsley and David Lodge, The World's Classics, Oxford and New York: OUP, 1980, 210.

  6. In Statesman's Manual; Lay Sermons, Ed. R. J. White, Bollingen Series LXXV, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972, 30.

  7. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, 164-5.

  8. All references to Pride and Prejudice included in the text are to the World's Classics edition, Eds James Kinsley and Frank W. Bradbrook, Oxford and New York: OUP, 1980.

  9. Though criticism sometimes follows Elizabeth in seeing this compromise as emotional and moral only, the political significance is invariably implicit, the classic treatment being Lionel Trilling's dialectic of “female vivacity” and “strict male syntax” in his The Opposing Self, London: Secker and Warburg, 1955, 222. For a selection of more recent “documentation,” see Mary Evans, Jane Austen and the State, 24; Claudia L. Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel, 93; Laura G. Mooneyham, Romance, Language and Education in Jane Austen's Novels, London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988, 68; Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Female Imagination, New York: Knopf, 1975, 121; Jane Spencer, The Rise of the Woman Novelist, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986, 172.

  10. Mary Evans, Jane Austen and the State, 65.

  11. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, Ed. Isaac Kramnick, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976, 245.

  12. Reflections on the Revolution in France [1790], Ed. Conor Cruise O'Brien Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968, 170.

  13. “The mind is master of itself; and is endowed with powers that might enable it to laugh at the tyrant's vigilance” (Vol. II, ch. 13); William Godwin, Caleb Williams [1794], Ed. David McCracken, London: OUP, 1970, 188.

  14. Anna St. Ives [1792], Ed. Peter Faulkner, London: OUP, 1970, 343. My italics.

  15. Political Justice, 184. My italics.

  16. In a review by Francis Jeffrey and Henry Brougham of Don Pedro Cevallos, Exposition of the Practices and Machinations which led to the Usurpation of the Crown of Spain, Edinburgh Review XIII, no. 25 (October 1808), 215-234 (233-4). My italics.

  17. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 [1977], abr. Ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979, 183.

  18. Alan Macfarlane, Marriage and Love in England: Modes of Reproduction 1300-1840, Oxford: Blackwell, 1986, 208.

  19. As quoted in Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage, 220.

  20. Anna St. Ives, 358.

  21. Gulliver's Travels, Ed. Paul Turner, World's Classics, Oxford and New York: OUP, 1976, 261.

  22. Vindication of the Rights of Woman [1792], Ed. Miriam Kramnick, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975, 153-4.

  23. “When Darcy goes on to say, ‘I cannot comprehend the neglect of a family library in such days as these,’ we see that he regards himself as a guardian of his ancestral inheritance and views the present age as particularly threatening,” Laura G. Mooneyham, Romance, Language and Education in Jane Austen's Novels, 53.

  24. For Jane Austen on sexuality, though not sexual politics, see Alice Chandler, “‘A pair of Fine Eyes’: Jane Austen's treatment of Sex,” Studies in the Novel VII (Spring, 1975), and Daniel Cottom, The Civilized Imagination: A Study of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Sir Walter Scott, Cambridge, London, New York: Cambridge UP, 1985, 71 ff.

  25. Rights of Man [1791-2], Ed. Henry Collins, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969, 197.

  26. Jane Austen, of Pride and Prejudice, to her sister Cassandra, 4 Feb. [1813]; Jane Austen's Letters to Her Sister Cassandra and Others, ed. R. W. Chapman, 2 vols in 1, London, 1952, 299.

  27. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, 124.

  28. Biographia Literaria, Eds James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, in 2 vols, Bollingen Series LXXV, Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1983, II, 16-17.

  29. Paradise Lost, IV, 299.

  30. Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 154.

  31. A Reading of Jane Austen, London: Peter Owen, 1975, 51.

  32. On the “deliberately deflationary” endings of Austen's novels, see Daniel Cottom, The Civilized Imagination: A Study of Ann Radcliffe, Jane Austen, and Sir Walter Scott, 94. Robert Garis is more bluntly critical: “Elizabeth learns to love a man whom she has detested on first acquaintance, doesn't know very well and rarely sees,” in “Learning Experience and Change,” Critical Essays on Jane Austen, Ed. B. C. Southam, London, Boston, Melbourne and Henley: RKP, 1968, 60-82 (72).

Sandra Peña Cervel (essay date 1997-98)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10511

SOURCE: Cervel, Sandra Peña. “Pride and Prejudice: A Cognitive Analysis.” Cuadernos de Investigación Filológica, nos. 23-24 (1997-98): 233-55.

[In the following essay, Cervel analyzes Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of Cognitive Linguistics, a conceptual model for reality that, Cervel argues, Austen's novel exhibits.]


An analysis of literary works can be carried out from different points of view which will vary with the critic's aims and ideology. An analysis along the lines provided by specific linguistic theories has seldom been attempted. I shall try to show that this type of analysis sheds light on the understanding of a literary work. In this connection, this paper attempts to be a demonstration of the applicability of an analysis of literary works by means of some of the conceptual tools provided by Cognitive Linguistics1. This linguistic school appeared around the mid 1970s. Since its inception, studies on the way our conceptual systems are organized have been given special prominence. With the mentioned aim in mind, it is our intention to analyze from a cognitive perspective some of the aspects of Jane Austen's 18th century novel Pride and Prejudice2.

According to Cognitive Linguistics, we conceptualize reality in terms of a number of cognitive constructs called Idealized Cognitive Models or ICMs. Among these, metaphor and image-schemas are prominent. I shall attempt to show that Jane Austen makes use of them in an unconscious way. Lakoff (1989, 1990) and other proponents of Cognitive Semantics have shown that metaphors and image-schemas pervade our experience to such an extent that we make unconscious use of them in our everyday life. There is evidence in the novel of these pervasive phenomena and we shall attempt to make them explicit. For instance, the analysis of the characters and their interrelationships will reveal the underlying presence of some of these constructs.

In order to carry out our task, we shall take as our basis the work carried out by such leading cognitive linguists as Lakoff (1987, 1989, 1990, 1993, 1996), Lakoff and Turner (1989), Lakoff and Johnson (1980), Johnson (1987), Taylor (1989), as well as the interesting insights in Fornés and Ruiz de Mendoza (1996), Ruiz de Mendoza (1996), Pérez (1997) and even some ideas I have already put forward in previous work on Cognitive Semantics (see Peña 1996, 1997a, 1997b). First, we shall proceed to define such notions as prototype, image-schema, schematic enrichment, metaphor, idealized cognitive model and others, which will prove invaluable for our purposes. The application of this terminology to the novel shall provide the grounds for the construction of the main characters and shall shed new light on the explanation of the relationships which hold between the main characters. We shall devote the second part of our paper to such an explanation bearing in mind the context and structure of the novel under consideration. We shall see the application of the notion of image-schema and of some metaphors like the DIVIDED PERSON, the TRUE SELF, the SELF AS SERVANT, and the SCATTERED and SPLIT SELF metaphors, which have been postulated by Lakoff (1996). Finally, we shall attempt to reach some conclusions regarding Pride and Prejudice and, more precisely, concerning the relationships among its characters. Hopefully, the overall result will be a somehow innovative analysis of some aspects of Pride and Prejudice.


According to Lakoff (1987: 68) Idealized Cognitive Models (ICMs) are the way in which human beings organize our knowledge. ICMs may be defined as cognitive structures whose purpose is to represent reality from a certain perspective, in such a way that they result in a process of idealization of reality (see Lakoff 1987, 1989, and Peña 1996). Lakoff (1987: 68) states that “each ICM … uses four kinds of structuring principles”:

—propositional structure

—image-schematic structure

—metaphoric mappings

—metonymic mappings

He also adds that “category structures and prototype effects are by-products of that organization”. In this connection, we shall proceed to define prototypes. According to Lakoff (1987) many categories are understood in terms of ideal abstract cases. There exist different prototypes of the same concepts depending on the time and society under consideration. As a matter of fact, a great part of our cultural knowledge happens to be organized in terms of prototypes. We must take into account that the context of the work we will try to analyze is the 18th century England and, no doubt, 20th century readers will regard many 18th century prototypes as too far-fetched. However, they are not, or, at least, they were not, if we bear in mind the context in which Jane's novel is situated. We must not lose sight of the fact that societies, in the same way as customs and cultural features, change considerably with the passage of time. This is the obvious reason why we cannot expect the prototype of the 18th century husband to coincide with the one we have in the 20th century.

Let us consider now two of those structuring principles used by each ICM. We shall proceed in two stages. First, we shall study image-schemas. Second, we shall focus our attention on metaphor.

The notion of image-schema shall shed light on some aspects of the novel we are analyzing. It is defined as a generic-level conceptual construct. Image-schemas have been found to structure several semantic domains and to lie at the base of a great number of metaphorical constructions, as shall be shown later on. These constructs have been studied in detail, among others, by such authors as Johnson (1987) and Lakoff (1989, 1990, 1993) who define them as abstractions or generalizations over spatial concepts. Among the clearest examples of image-schemas we may include the CONTAINER, the PATH and ORIENTATION schemas. On this occasion, we would also like to place emphasis on the so-called LINK schema, since it plays an important role in the novel. Each image-schema consists of a number of structural elements and a basic logic which can be applied to abstract reasoning. For instance, the CONTAINER schema consists of an interior, an exterior and a boundary; it also has a basic logic according to which entities may be either inside or outside a container, and if A is inside container B, and B inside C, then A is inside C (see Lakoff, 1989: 116, and Peña, 1997a for a critical revision).

In a recent paper (see Peña 1997b), I postulated the existence of two different kinds of image-schema: basic and subsidiary. There is evidence that all image-schemas do not possess the same status. For instance, FORCE does not exist as an independent image-schema but as subsidiary to the PATH schema. We must also bear in mind that there exist different levels of dependency, as will be shown below.

The process of schematic enrichment, as postulated by Fornés and Ruiz de Mendoza (1996), will also constitute a notion of crucial importance in our analysis. According to these authors, the criterion of cognitive economy involves that at least in great part of our metaphorical processing some image-schemas, which are given priority over other non-generic cognitive models, are activated and that, when the activation of another cognitive model is unavoidable, such an activation takes place in a partial way as guided by the basic structure of the image-schema. This guided activation is what they call schematic enrichment. Such a process makes use of cognitive models of all sorts: image-schemas (either basic or subsidiary), metaphor, metonymy, and propositional models. It needs to obey the Invariance Principle3 and it is usually a source of numerous contextual implications4.

Let us analyze an instance of an image-schema. Taking as a basis Johnson's (1987: 45-48) commentary on the most common force structures that are usually found in our experience, we shall begin our discussion of the FORCE schema by providing a more detailed version of it5.

Lakoff, when talking about the PATH schema, distinguishes the following structural elements: a starting point, an end point and a direction. These elements constitute the most basic form of this image-schema. Related to the PATH schema and depending on it for its development, we have the FORCE schema, which Johnson (1987:45ff) has studied in great detail. But other image-schemas such as COMPULSION, OBSTACLE, COUNTERFORCE, DIVERSION, REMOVAL OF RESTRAINT, ENABLEMENT, ATTRACTION and REPULSION depend on the FORCE image-schema, which is in turn dependent on the PATH schema for their understanding and development. Let us see them in detail.

1. COMPULSION. On several occasions, we get the impression that we are moved by some internal or external force. Some metaphorical examples include: I was moved by the poem, I was pushed into depression, He let himself be carried away by the song. The interpretation of these expressions involves a starting point, a path, a destination or end point, a direction and some kind of force, either internal or external, which involves movement. Let us analyze the example I was pushed into depression: the starting point coincides with a non-depressive mood, even though nothing else is specified; the destination is a depression; there also exists some force, which on this occasion is an external one which involves some forced movement toward the destination. The subject is passive and that is the reason why it does not move on its own. Bearing in mind this metaphor and its definition, we could state that the source domain is represented by a path which includes the following correspondences:

—The traveller is a passive subject.

—The path leads the subject to a depression.

—The end point or destination is the depression, which is conceptualized as a container.

—The force involves movement and is external, as suggested by the verb.

2. OBSTACLE. This construct could be regarded as an image-schema in itself. However, it depends on the FORCE schema which is ‘enriched’ by its activation. In some cases, there exists some kind of obstacle which prevents us from reaching our goal or destination. For instance: Her accident was an enormous setback to her career, The failure of the experiment put us back at square one.

Analysing in detail the example Her accident was an enormous setback to her career, which belongs to an important metaphorical system named A CAREER IS A JOURNEY (which is related to others such as LOVE IS A JOURNEY or LIFE IS A JOURNEY) (see Ruiz de Mendoza, 1995), we realize that the career is conceptualized in more concrete terms, like a journey, which implies the PATH schema and the existence of some kind of force which makes the movement possible. Nevertheless, any unavoidable obstacle, which prevents us from moving forward and reaching our goal, can appear. In the proposed example, the obstacle is an accident, which at least for some time, will prevent the subject from reaching her goal or destination.

3. COUNTERFORCE. Johnson (1987: 46) defines such a force gestalt as “two equally strong, nasty and determined force centers which collide face-to-face, with the result that neither can go anywhere”. This concept is interrelated to OBSTACLE, since in some way both force centers which collide are an obstacle which prevents someone or something from reaching a goal or destination. For instance, in the example He was wrestling with his emotions we conclude that there are two forces which counteract and cancel each other out. This is the reason why the movement along the path is interrupted and the goal cannot be reached.

4. DIVERSION. According to Lakoff (1987: 46) this is “a variation on the previous force gestalt”. As a matter of fact, two forces collide face-to-face and one of them, which is weaker than the other one, is diverted. A clear example of this would be: The insufficiency of the welfare system led me to explore pornography. The passive subject is under the influence of two forces, each of them leading him to different destinations. But one of the forces is not strong enough and thus it is the other one that leads and controls the subject.

5. REMOVAL OF RESTRAINT. When an obstacle disappears, any kind of force can move along a path, since there exists no counterforce or diversity of opinions regarding the goal or destination to be reached. For instance, As soon as segregation disappeared, black children proved that they could reach the same goals as white ones. The implication which stems from this example and similar ones is that there existed an initial obstacle which prevented something or someone from reaching a goal, because there was no movement. However, the movement caused by any force can make someone or something move and reach the goal, since such a person or thing is able to avoid the counterforce or obstacle. However, on some occasions, the obstacle does not seem to be easily removed and thus, we find such examples as: The solution is very far, We are not near the solution.

6. ENABLEMENT. This construct takes place when people become aware that they have some power to carry out some action because there exists no obstacle or counterforce to control it. Examples: I think we are on the right track, Let's follow this line of thought.

7. ATTRACTION. In relation to the PATH image-schema, attraction takes place when there exist two or more forces which try to approach each other. Examples: We are getting closer, Those two lovers are inseparable, Something in me pulls me toward the wrong kind of man. It is required that the forces tend to move along the same path which leads them to the same goal so that attraction takes place. On the other hand, the opposite force, REPULSION, involves some diversity of opinions. For instance: They are far from each other.

As we shall later see in our analysis of Pride and Prejudice, the NEAR-FAR image-schema, which as far as Lakoff is concerned is basic, is actually dependent on the subsidiary ones of ATTRACTION and REPULSION. In a few words we could conclude that the former construct depends on some kinds of FORCE, which are dependent on the FORCE schema, which is here postulated to depend on the PATH one. NEAR would imply ATTRACTION and FAR would imply REPULSION.

Furthermore, it should be noted here that the LINK image-schema, which is involved in cases of ATTRACTION, depends on the PATH schema and, more precisely, on ENABLEMENT and REMOVAL OF RESTRAINT, which are dependent on the FORCE image-schema. The structural elements included in the LINK schema are, according to Lakoff (1989: 119) the following: two entities, A and B, and a link which joins them. For instance, in the case of ATTRACTION, A and B can be two subjects and the link joining them the force of attraction between them.

Another theoretical aspect we would like to consider concerns the nature of metaphor. Lakoff, Johnson and Turner, among others, have been able to unravel many of the intricacies of the English metaphorical system within the frame of Cognitive Linguistics. They have postulated metaphor to be a conceptual rather than merely a linguistic phenomenon. According to these scholars, metaphor is a conceptual mapping of a source domain to a target domain, where aspects of the source are made to correspond with the target. These correspondences enable us to reason about the target domain by using our knowledge about the source domain (see Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Lakoff & Turner, 1989; Lakoff, 1993, 1996). Let us take some metaphorical systems which will later prove useful to study some aspects of the construction of the characters in the novel. Lakoff (1996) postulates the conceptualization of the human being in terms of the CONTAINER image-schema. Since our childhood we are fully aware that our bodies are like three-dimensional containers. The basic structural elements contributing to the building of such a construct are postulated to be an interior, an exterior and a boundary. In this connection, the notion of human being, which is an abstract term, is conceptualized in spatial terms, which happen to be more concrete than the former one. Following up this line of thinking, Lakoff (1996) states that the concept of human being could be understood as an ensemble of a Subject and a Self. The Subject represents reason, conscience and subjective experience. The Self, which is controlled by the Subject, represents our body and emotions. These ideas give way to the DIVIDED PERSON metaphor, from which Lakoff derives a series of entailments. For instance, on some occasions, the Subject loses control over the Self, situation from which the LOSS OF THE SELF metaphor stems. Furthermore, the same person's different interests and concerns may be conceptualized as different people in conflict or as people in different places, giving way to the SPLIT SELF or SCATTERED SELF metaphors6. Lakoff (1996) also mentions that another entailment from the DIVIDED PERSON metaphor is the TRUE SELF metaphor, in which the Self and the Subject share the same space. Moreover, the Self can show two different aspects, as will be evidenced in the analysis of the novel under consideration: they are the private and the public self; the former represents the interior self, and the latter stands for the exterior self, which is possible through the metaphorical conceptualization of the human being as a container (see Lakoff, 1996). The final entailment Lakoff (1996) points out is the SELF AS SERVANT metaphor, according to which the Subject is the master and the Self its servant.

Once we have dealt with two basic cognitive constructs, let us consider an instance of an ICM which will be of crucial importance for the analysis of some aspects of Austen's novel. We shall label this ICM ‘the Control ICM’. Part of it contains the following entailments7:

  • 1) Any entity, either a person or an emotion, has an area of influence within which the entities found there are controlled. However, if the entities within such an area of influence are more powerful than the former entity, this entity may be controlled by them. For instance, in the example I fell into a deep depression, the depression, which is conceptualized as a container, is the powerful entity which controls the subject. However, in the sentence I emerged from the catatonic state I had been in, the subject, which was controlled by an emotional state described as a container, proves more powerful than it. As a result, such a subject controls this state and is able to escape its influence.
  • 2) The area of influence created by a container is the inside of the container. Such a container will comprise either people or emotions in the form of fluids. It is usually the case that the intruder entity is the active one affecting the entity or entities within the container, which are thought to be passive, either positively or negatively, but the opposite is also possible. In the sentence I am full of pain the intruder and active entity is ‘pain', which affects the subject, conceptualized as a container, negatively. However, in the example I entered a state of euphoria the intruder entity, the subject, is passive and it is the emotional state, seen as a container, that affects such a subject.
  • 3) Even though the area of influence of a container is the inside of it, by virtue of the process of schematic enrichment, as postulated by Fornés and Ruiz de Mendoza (1996), such an area is liable to be enlarged by means of an implicit PATH schema, either horizontal or vertical, in which control generally decreases in proportion to physical distance. In other words, we can draw a vertical path with an UP-DOWN orientation within a container when dealing with the PEOPLE ARE CONTAINERS metaphor. The more liquid in the container, the farther away the liquid is from the bottom and the less control a person will have over the fluid. When there is too much pressure within the container and the fluid makes the container explode, the greater the distance between the source (bottom of the container) and the end of the path (top of the container) is created. As a result, the loss of control becomes greater. This is due to the fact that the fluid (the emotion or emotions) has crossed the limit beyond which control decreases more and more. For instance, if we say that someone burst with joy, that person will be in a situation in which he or she has no control of this emotion any longer.
  • Moreover, if we imagine the drawing of a horizontal path where the source is the centre of the container, the further we move away from the centre, the more we approach the periphery, and the further the entity is from the centre of the container, the less control it will have over the emotion.

  • 4) The reason for the fact that control generally decreases in proportion to physical distance is that forces usually lose power little by little when they are far from their starting point and this is the case with emotions.
  • The insights into conceptualization provided by Cognitive Linguistics may apply to many aspects of the construction of a novel such as Pride and Prejudice. In what follows I shall examine the characters and the relationships which are established between them. This will be the starting point for the analysis of the characters' changes and relationships in the novel.


It is our intention in this section to apply the cognitive mechanisms and concepts which we have just described in order to shed new light on the way Jane Austen built the characters involved in the novel and on their interrelationships.

To begin with, let us focus on the notion of prototype. We shall analyse two main prototypes: the ideal man and the ideal woman or rather, the ideal husband and the ideal wife. To begin with, the novel clearly reflects the division between high and low social classes of 18th century England. In fact, the novel is but a parallel of the realworld social situation in the 18th century. Pride and Prejudice shall reveal both societies, as will be made evident by means of this analysis. No doubt, the prototypical man and woman of the 18th century differ from the prototypes which are observed nowadays, since some cultural differences are the by-products of the passage of time. Looking for evidence in this respect, the novel explicitly describes the following prototypes:

—Prototypical woman:

p.32: “A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.

“All this she must possess”, added Darcy, “and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading”.

—Prototypical man:

p.318: “Good gracious! Lord bless me! only think! dear me! Mr Darcy! Who would have thought it? And is it really true? Oh, my sweetest Lizzy! How rich and how great you will be! What pin-money, what jewels, what carriages you will have! Jane is nothing to it—nothing at all. I am so pleased, so happy! Such a charming man!—So handsome! so tall! … Dear, dear Lizzy! A house in town! Everything that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year …”

As shown above, it was important for women to be able to get a good husband, which meant a man belonging to the highest social class. Marriage was thought to be a necessity for both men and women and that was the goal pursued by most people in 18th century England. Furthermore, the so-called marriage of convenience was the usual practice, by virtue of which both husband and wife's fortunes were joined. Let us see how marriage is regarded as a necessity for both men and women when Jane Austen has scarcely begun to write her novel.

p.1: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters”.

As may be seen from the excerpt above, to be in possession of money was extremely important. Even the people in the low social class aimed to obtain possessions, property and wealthy husbands for their daughters to marry.

Nevertheless, some characters in Pride and Prejudice (Jane and especially her sister Elizabeth) do violence to the prototype. These two characters do not belong to a noble family but marry two high-ranking men. Bingley and Darcy represent the high social class, whereas Jane and Elizabeth stand for the low layers of society. In this connection, the former characters entail goodness, whereas the latter ones imply evilness. This is explainable in terms of the metaphors GOOD IS UP (OR HIGH) and BAD IS DOWN (OR LOW) (see Lakoff?). That is the reason why Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are looked down on by such high-ranking people as Mr Bingley's sisters and other people belonging to the same social class (for instance Lady Catherine, whose daughter was expected to marry Mr Darcy). At that time people's incentive for marriage used to be money and social status. Jane Bennet and Mr Bingley, the same as Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy, will encounter a series of obstacles in their way to happiness. These obstacles originate in the violation by the characters of the norms associated with the accepted cultural prototypes we have mentioned. Later on, we shall make evident the reason for the fact that at the end Jane and Elizabeth Bennet are able to marry Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy respectively. Such an explanation shall be given from a cognitive point of view.

Another purpose in this section is to reveal how the cognitive mechanisms at work in the novel shed new light on the relationships which the characters themselves establish among one another. Such relationships which exist are extremely complex. I would like to stress the expression between pairs, since the relationships within the frame of the novel are usually established between two people or between the two social classes involved. Because of space limitations it is not possible to cover all the characters and their relationships. However, I shall emphasize those which are more important for the understanding and development of the novel. To begin with, I shall attempt to study the couple formed by Elizabeth's parents so as to go on to analyse their relationship and how these two characters evolve throughout Pride and Prejudice.

Nevertheless, before going into more detail, I would like to point out that relationships in general are established by virtue of the LINK image-schema. A study of this schema sheds light on the nature of relationships in the novel. For instance, the relationship between the Bennet couple could be understood in terms of the force of ATTRACTION. The relationship between such characters is complex to such an extent that they constitute one of the main sources of irony in Pride and Prejudice. At first sight, the division of roles of husband and wife matches the division between the Subject and the Self. Mr Bennet represents the Subject, whereas his wife stands for the exterior or public Self, since her main aim in life is to think about social conventions. She is always in want of hobnobbing with people belonging to the high social class and of marrying her daughters at all costs. She always bears in mind the future husband's wealth and property. However, irony is at work when we readers realize that in fact the one who has control over the other member of the couple is Mrs Bennet. Mr Bennet does not represent the Subject but the Servant of the SELF AS A SERVANT metaphor. In this way, Mrs Bennet would play the role of Subject and her husband would remain loyal to his wife. At the beginning of the novel, there exists evidence in favour of this view. For instance, Mrs Bennet wants her husband to go and visit Mr Bingley as soon as he arrives at the village. Even though Mr Bennet refuses to do it at his wife's request, showing his reason and behaviour as a Subject, eventually he ends up doing it.

p.2:—Mrs Bennet: “But it is very likely that he (Mr Bingley) may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes”.

—Mr Bennet: “I see no occasion for that. You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better, for as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr Bingley might like you the best of the party”.

… “They have none of them much to recommend them” replied he; “they are all silly and ignorant, like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters”.

At the end, however, Mr Bennet surrenders unconditionally and visits Mr Bingley. This is the reason why I have mentioned his role as one of the main sources of irony all through the novel because at the beginning it was Mr Bennet that seemed to be guided by reason and consciousness. However, we can prove that his role is reduced to what his wife orders him to do. Moreover, a great degree of irony is provided by the fact that it is the external Self, represented by Mrs Bennet—who would have to submit herself to the dictates of reason—that controls the one who was supposed to be the Subject in principle.

As the plot develops, Mrs Bennet does not change in character and she will stand for some mixture of outer Self and Subject. She even rejoices at her daughter Lydia's marriage with an officer called Wickham, a dishonest man who only intends to marry her because that is his only way out. Mrs Bennet's jubilant expressions reveal that she is superficial, an outer Self who only tries to adapt herself to the conventions belonging to the high layers of society. In fact, her main aim is to marry her daughters with high-ranking men because in that way they will possess much money and property, love being disregarded as the main objective for marriage. However, Mr Bennet undergoes some change as the novel develops. After his daughter Lydia's marriage with Wickham he realizes he has been too benevolent and he decides to change in character. In this way, he becomes a real Subject and thus, has some control over those who surround him. Let us consider the following example:

p. 250:—“You go to Brighton!—I would not trust you so near it as East Bourne for fifty pounds!. No, Kitty, I have at least learnt to be cautious, and you will feel the effects of it. No officer is ever to enter my house again, nor even pass through the village. Balls be absolutely prohibited, unless you stand up with one of your sisters. And you are never to stir up out of doors, till you can prove, that you have spent ten minutes of every day in a rational manner”.

As a matter of fact, the relationship which is established between Mr and Mrs Bennet is so distant in nature that it may be interpreted in terms of a PATH image-schema. In it REPULSION, a kind of FORCE, plays a prominent role, because they try to be far from each other since their aims and goals in life are very different. We could even talk about some COUNTERFORCE. None of them manages to impose his or her viewpoint on the other member of the couple. We could even go as far as to say that they do not have a defined aim or goal. For instance, let us analyze the following example:

p.5: “… and, as he spoke, he left the room, fatigued with the raptures of his wife”.

In this example and all through the novel under consideration, we reach the conclusion that Mr Bennet does not help being within the same place, which in cognitive terms abides by the container logic as his wife. Thus his main shelter is the library, since he is clever enough to know that his wife will not enter this room. The farther he is from her, the less control Mrs Bennet will have over him by virtue of one of the points of the basic logic of the Control ICM. By applying the CONTAINER image-schema, we can think of a person as a container endowed with an area of influence. The closer Mr Bennet is to his wife, the more he will by affected by her. This is due to the fact that she seems to be more powerful than him, at least until he changes in character and becomes a true Subject.

Another relationship which, from my point of view, is worthy of special emphasis is that which is established between Jane and Elizabeth, the two eldest sisters. Throughout the novel, readers become aware that they differ in character to a great extent. However, a cognitive analysis will shed some light on their characters and behaviour. Their relationship is established by virtue of ATTRACTION, a kind of FORCE subsidiary to the PATH image-schema. The LINK image-schema (dependent on ATTRACTION, subsidiary in turn to the PATH schema) applies in the understanding of the relationship between Jane and Elizabeth. Even though they differ in character, as pointed above, at heart they share the same goal or aim at the end of that imaginary PATH image-schema: happiness, which is equivalent to marriage all through Pride and Prejudice. They seldom happen to be far from each other and when some separation takes place, for instance when Jane travels to London or when Elizabeth goes to Derbyshire with the Gardiners, they always keep in touch by means of letters. By virtue of the CONTAINER image-schema, we characterize both sisters as containers. In the schema, Elizabeth's area of influence affects Jane. Elizabeth may be regarded as the Subject, whereas Jane would stand for the inner Self. Elizabeth is frequently engaged in meditation. An example of Elizabeth's (the subject's) influence on Jane (the inner Self) is the following one:

p.188: “What a stroke was this for poor Jane! who would willingly have gone through the world without believing that so much wickedness existed in the whole race of mankind, as was here collected in one individual … Most earnestly did she labour to prove the probability of error, and seek to clear one without involving the other.

—“This will not do”, said Elizabeth, “you never will be able to make both of them good for any thing. Take your choice, but you must be satisfied only with one. There is but such a quantity of merit between them; just enough to make one good sort of man; and of late it has been shifting about pretty much. For my part, I am inclined to believe it all Mr Darcy's, but you shall do as you chuse”.

—“I do not know when I have been more shocked”, said she (Jane). “Wickham so very bad! …”.

Nevertheless, it is of the utmost importance to emphasize that even though Elizabeth is described as a Subject in cognitive terms, she also partakes of some characteristics belonging to the inner Self. This is so to such an extent that she sometimes shows her feelings and emotions, even though this happens more frequently at the end of Austen's novel. However, she never partakes of the characteristics of the outer Self. Let us consider an example in which Jane shows her feelings, her inner Self, of which Elizabeth seems to be devoid:

p.188: (Jane): … “It is really too distressing. I am sure you must feel it so”.

(Elizabeth): “Oh, no, my regret and compassion are all done away by seeing you so full of both”.

This example shows the PEOPLE ARE CONTAINERS FOR EMOTIONS metaphor. In this way, Jane is regarded as a container in whose interior there is some fluid, represented by the emotions of regret and compassion. However, Elizabeth denies that she is endowed with such feelings. As a result, she stands for a container whose interior is empty. Nevertheless, as postulated before, above all at the end of the novel, Elizabeth undergoes an important change in character. As a result, she reveals her emotions, her inner Self. For instance, let us mention this example:

p.156: “Elizabeth made no answer, and walked on, her heart swelling with indignation”.

In this example, Elizabeth is seen as a container. In cognitive terms, the PEOPLE ARE EMOTIONS metaphor can give way to such a metaphorical system as DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE BODY ARE CONTAINERS FOR EMOTIONS8, which is the case which concerns us at this moment. By virtue of the notion of perspectivization postulated by Taylor (1989: 90), we can pay attention to some parts of the body and disregard others. Thus we focus our attention on Elizabeth's heart, which is a container that holds an emotion in the form of a liquid in its interior and there is such a quantity of such a fluid that the container is swelling, even though it could also explode. Pride and Prejudice abounds in this kind of expressions.

In this vein, we could wonder why Elizabeth makes her feelings and emotions (her inner Self) prominent above all at the end of the novel. By virtue of a non-cognitive explanation we could postulate that this process has been the by-product of a change undergone by the character. However, the cognitive interpretation leads one to think that from the very beginning Elizabeth possessed this inner Self. However, those characteristics with which she was endowed and which made her a Subject were more prominent than those which characterized her as an inner Self. Furthermore, the area of influence created by Jane affects her to such an extent that if at the end we can say that Jane partakes of some features of the Subject, Elizabeth can be said to possess some characteristics belonging to the inner Self.

The proximity which exists between Jane and Elizabeth makes them influence each other. This reflects part of the logical entailments generated by the NEAR-FAR image-schema, which is subsidiary to FORCE OF ATTRACTION (which in turn depends on the PATH schema (see Peña, 1997b)), since, as we have mentioned above, both sisters have the same goal or aim in life: the happiness provided by marriage. Not even their marriage separates them because they will live very near each other:

p.324: “The darling wish of his sisters was then gratified; he bought an estate in a neighbouring county to Derbyshire; and Jane and Elizabeth, in addition to every other source of happiness, were within thirty miles of each other”.

Finally, I shall consider the love relationship between Jane and Mr Bingley before going into that between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy. Even though both relationships have several points in common, they are far from being similar to each other, since the nature of these relationships is very different.

As far as Jane and Mr Bingley are concerned, their relationship is possible thanks to their affinity of characters. Let us see how clearly Mr Bennet describes such an idea:

p.292: “You are a good girl”, he replied, “and I have great pleasure in thinking you will be so happily settled. I have not a doubt of your doing very well together. Your tempers are by no means unlike. You are each of you so complying, that nothing will ever be resolved on; so easy that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income”.

In a few words, their tempers characterize them as inner Selves. There exist many instances throughout the novel under consideration in which both Jane and Mr Bingley stand for the inner Self. As a result their feelings and emotions, which they freely indulge, are of the utmost importance. Their temper is benevolent, this fact resulting in an apparent weakness of character since they seem to be guided by feelings rather than by their reason.

The relationship between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy is comparable to that between Jane and Mr Bingley. There is evidence all through the novel that Darcy and Bingley respond to the requirements of the CONTAINER schema. In this way, the area of influence created by Darcy affects Bingley, the latter representing the inner Self, the former standing for the Subject and especially for pride. In this connection, Jane Austen mentions Darcy's pride on several occasions throughout her novel. However this feature, which stands out from the rest in his character, is made less and less prominent as the plot develops. The reason for this fact may be that Bingley's inner Self affects him, in the same way as Elizabeth undergoes a considerable change by virtue of the area of influence created by her sister Jane. This latter character, just like Bingley, stands for that part of the body which is guided by feelings and emotions.

Furthermore, the relationship held between Jane and Bingley is very complex until the time when they marry. In this connection, the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor9 must be mentioned. This metaphor has been described as a system of correspondences: the two lovers are travellers who travel along the same path towards the same destination. In the novel, Jane and Bingley are seen as travellers who have a common goal which is happiness or love. However, they will encounter many obstacles in their way, the most prominent of them being their different social class. Due to this, Jane is thought to be inferior to Bingley because of the money and property possessed by each of them. Nevertheless, these two characters do not let themselves be carried away by the conventions imposed by the outer Self, by those social conventions which guide the world where they live. As a result, they do not let these obstacles interpose their way to happiness. They will decide to travel together all along this path in spite of difficulties since both are looking forward to reaching their destination. The kind of force named ATTRACTION between Jane and Bingley will be evident throughout Pride and Prejudice. A prominent impediment in their relationship is the fact that Bingley lets himself be controlled by his friend Darcy, who thinks that Jane does not love him and persuades him to travel to London. This is the reason why their relationship is interrupted for some time due to the distance which separates them, even when Jane travels to London.

As postulated before, the relationships which are held between the characters of the novel are conceptualized in terms of proximity. In this respect, those characters belonging to the low social class will gradually enter the area of influence created by high-ranking people. In such a way that the former will approach the latter more and more. The most important settings throughout the novel are those in which high-ranking people live such as Pemberley, Netherfield and Rosings. In this connection, we could talk about schematic enrichment of the PATH image-schema. Those characters who belong to the low social class, such as the Bennets, live in Longbourn, which can be conceptualized both as a container and as the beginning of a path. On the other hand, those places inhabited by high-ranking people will stand for the end of the path, which can also be regarded as a container where balls and important meetings take place. People belonging to the low social class will consider their main destination to reach the other container, that is to say, those places where the high aristocracy lives. In this way, they will be able to enter their area of influence. This is the reason why at the beginning of the novel Mrs Bennet is looking forward to hobnobbing with members of the aristocracy. For instance, she asks her husband to pay a visit to Mr Bingley as soon as possible. This is the way in which Mrs Bennet manages to approach high-ranking people. These places inhabited by rich people will be the setting in which Bingley's love towards Jane and Darcy's love towards Elizabeth will have their origin. Nevertheless, such a path in which there exists some obvious schematic enrichment, will be endowed with several obstacles or impediments, for instance, Bingley's sisters. Or, for example, at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy despises those people who belong to a social class which is inferior to his own. When he talks to Sir William Lucas, a character who plays a secondary role in the novel, the following conversation takes place:

p.20: “What a charming amusement for young people this is, Mr Darcy!—There is nothing like dancing after all—I consider it as one of the first refinements of polished societies”.

“Certainly, sir;—and it has the advantage also of being in vogue amongst the less polished societies of the world. Every savage can dance”.

In relation to the relationship established between Bingley and Jane, as postulated before, distance is a prominent impediment in their common way towards love. This is due to the fact that nearness causes some force of ATTRACTION between them10. When Jane receives the news that Bingley has left Netherfield, she gets disappointed.

p.99: “The whole party have left Netherfield by this time, and are on their way to town, and without any intention of going back again”.

Another obstacle or impediment on Jane and Bingley's way to love is Bingley's sisters, who want their brother to marry a high-ranking woman and they persuade him to travel to London and leave Netherfield. Nevertheless, when Darcy tells him the truth about Jane's feelings towards him, Bingley comes back to Netherfield and the relationship held between him and Jane is established again due to their proximity. Moreover, at this moment the kind of force named REMOVAL OF RESTRAINT is at work since Bingley ignores his sisters. As a consequence, he decides to come back to Longbourn and the novel will develop in the Bennets' house at the end. The reason for this fact is that Bingley enters the area of influence created by the Bennets, since he acts regardless social conventions. Bingley is guided by feelings and nothing prevents him from marrying Jane. We shall notice that the relationship between Jane and Bingley is possible due to Darcy and Elizabeth's influence. But it is also a fact that the relationship between Bingley and Jane makes possible the one established between Darcy and Elizabeth.

I shall also shed new light on the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy by applying the tools provided by Cognitive Linguistics. In the first place, we must bear in mind that this relationship is even more difficult than the one we have just analyzed. This relationship can also be defined by means of the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphorical system. In this way we shall encounter more obstacles or impediments than in the previous relationship. To begin with, the two characters' tempers constitute the first obstacle. Both Elizabeth and Darcy tend to influence other people, the former influencing Jane, her sister, and the latter, Bingley, his friend. Therefore, we could postulate some affinity of characters at first sight. However, at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth stands for prejudice and Darcy for pride. Hence, the title of the novel. The COUNTERFORCE schema, which is subsidiary to the PATH imageschema, allows the reader to interpret the clash between these two obstinate characters. They represent two force vectors which point at two different directions. Elizabeth and Darcy seem to differ in their goals, and this is the reason why they travel along different paths in most part of the novel. We have already set an example in connection with Darcy's pride when talking to Sir William Lucas. Another instance is provided by the following sentence:

p.15: “Everybody says that he is ate up with pride”.

By means of this example, Darcy is conceptualized as a container full of pride. On the other hand, Jane could be said to be filled with prejudices, as the following example shows:

p.18: “But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than she began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes … Of this she was perfectly unaware; to her he was only the man who made himself agreeable no where, and who had not thought her handsome enough to dance with”.

As the novel develops, Darcy begins to like Elizabeth but she does not change her mind since she already has some opinion of him guided by her prejudices and does not pay any attention to him. Moreover, the first time he asks her to marry him, her prejudices lead her to reject his proposal. The first time Darcy proposes marriage to Elizabeth, he does it in the Bennets' house, in the same way Bingley proposed marriage to Jane. This is a reason for Elizabeth to reject such a proposal. Houses were the usual places for people to make marriage proposals and they can be conceptualized as containers. Elizabeth does not let herself be guided by conventions whereas Darcy pays great attention to them, at the beginning above all, due to his pride. The second time Darcy proposes marriage to Elizabeth, she accepts such a proposal since it has taken place outdoors. Their love shall only be disapproved by Lady Catherine because she wanted Darcy to marry her daughter in order to join their large fortunes. Both Elizabeth and Darcy could be defined in terms of independence and decision since they both are Subjects and do not let themselves be controlled. Therefore, the main impediment in their relationship is Elizabeth's prejudice and Darcy's pride, of which they get rid of at the end of the novel. In cognitive terms, we could say that once the type of force named REMOVAL OF RESTRAINT is at work, their path towards love is guided by ATTRACTION. But Elizabeth shall reject her cousin's (Mr Collins) proposal and her relationship with Wickham in this imaginary path towards love. Furthermore, on many occasions Elizabeth hesitates. Thus we could talk about her as conceptualized as the SPLIT OR SCATTERED SELF, even though she hates people who act guided by the postulates it implies:

p.114: “The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters

(italics added)

Mrs Gardiner also defines Bingley in terms of the SCATTERED SELF metaphor, when the truth has not been revealed yet:

p.118: “A young man, such as you describe Mr Bingley, so easily falls in love with a pretty girl for a few weeks, and when accident separates them, so easily forgets her, that this sort of inconsistencies are very frequent”.

As far as the relationship established between Elizabeth and Darcy is concerned, Darcy's pride reaches such a degree that the first time he proposes to Elizabeth, he talks about the obstacles which exist in their path towards love. In such a way that there are not only impediments but also some kind of inner conflict between his reason and his feelings within him. Let us see how he mentions these obstacles:

pp.158-59: “In vain have I struggled. My feelings will not be repressed [i.e., he cannot control his feelings since there exists some kind of COMPULSION which makes him love her, as well as some obvious ATTRACTION]. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you”.

Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, coloured, doubted, and was silent. This she considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority—of its being a degradation—of the family obstacles which judgement had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt on with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit”.

Darcy is still guided by the features which belong to the outer Self, which corresponds to the prejudices and social conventions of the society in which he is living. He cannot ignore these facts. Thus, in their way towards love conventions will constitute an obstacle because Elizabeth belongs to the low social class.

On another occasion, Darcy adds more impediments in their way towards love, which affect his relationship with Elizabeth:

p.166: “My objections to the marriage were not merely those, which I last night acknowledged to have required the utmost force of passion to put aside, in my own case; the want of connection could not be so great an evil to my friend as to me.—But there were other causes of repugnance; causes which, though still existing, and existing to an equal degree in both instances, I had myself endeavoured to forget, because they were not immediately before me.—These causes must be stated, though briefly.—The situation of your mother's family, though objectionable, was nothing in comparison of that total want of propriety so frequently, so almost uniformly betrayed by herself, by your three sisters, and occasionally even by your father.—Pardon me.—It pains me to offend you. But amidst your concern for the defects of your nearest relations, and your displeasure at this representation of them, let it give you consolation to consider that, to have conducted yourselves so as to avoid any share of the like censure, is praise no less generally bestowed on you and your eldest sister, than it is honourable to the sense and disposition of both”.

When Darcy writes Elizabeth a letter where he tells all the truth, she experiences a series of feelings which can be conceptualized as OBSTACLES or even COUNTERFORCES which prevent their relationship from going on. Her prejudices cannot leave her mind and she cannot avoid thinking about what has happened and she even regrets having let herself be guided by prejudice, which can be described in terms of COMPULSION. In the past, she was led to feel what her prejudices dictated her and was not guided by the reason which had always characterized her.

Once REMOVAL OF RESTRAINT is at work, that is to say, when both Darcy's pride and Elizabeth's prejudice disappear, their relationship becomes possible. Through the mediation of the interaction between the NEAR-FAR and ATTRACTION schemas, which are subsidiary to the PATH image-schema, ATTRACTION grows. Due to this fact the relationships between Jane and Bingley on the one hand, and between Elizabeth and Darcy (both of them conventionalized in terms of a journey), on the other hand, are likely to take place. All their obstacles have disappeared and there is nothing or nobody that can stop them. People also change their minds with respect to Darcy, who acknowledges his pride and decides to abandon this attitude.

The relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy is also possible. As mentioned before, both characters let themselves be guided by reason on most occasions. This is evident above all at the end of Pride and Prejudice, where they are not guided by pride and prejudice, the main impediments in their relationship, any longer. This is the way in which Darcy conveys this fact:

p.320: “How unlucky that you should have a reasonable answer to give, and that I should be so reasonable as to admit it!”.


The present paper has attempted to offer the potential reader a new viewpoint of the novel through the analysis of the main characters. This has been done in terms of some cognitive constructs such as image-schemas or conceptual metaphors (for instance, the DIVIDED PERSON metaphor). They have shed new light on the relationships among the characters in the novel. Furthermore, we could go as far as to state that the whole novel is summarized in terms of the LOVE IS A JOURNEY metaphor. The title of the novel itself: Pride and Prejudice, points to some impediments in this journey towards love. However, they disappear, the end of the novel being the typical comic happy ending.

Apart from reducing the novel to a single metaphorical system, an analysis in cognitive terms provides the grounds for the construction of the main characters and for the overall interpretation of the work. Furthermore, this kind of analysis is visual to such an extent that the work is wholly understood without the aid of abstractions. There is evidence that within this framework the changes undergone by the characters and the relationships which hold between them are explained on the basis of what we readers see and experience every day. This is one of the main reasons why the present paper is devoid of abstract explanations. For instance, the conceptualization of people as containers is tremendously visual since it is something which pervades our perception of reality. Moreover, this helps us to understand that the Subject and the Self are two parts which integrate a whole: the human being, and the reason why relationships such as the one established between Jane and Bingley on the one hand and between Elizabeth and Darcy on the other are likely to exist.

Finally, we have seen that Jane Austen has made use of a series of universal constructs as the grounds for the construction of her novel. She has done this unconsciously because they are engraved on our mind in such a way that we use them automatically.


  1. One example of the possibility of applying this linguistic theory to the analysis of literary works has been carried out by Pérez (1997). This author has applied some of the tools provided by Cognitive Linguistics to the analysis of some aspects of Bowles's The Sheltering Sky. Such an analysis has proved invaluable for our purposes.

  2. In the novel, Mr Bingley, his sisters, Mr Darcy and some other high-ranking people arrive in Longbourn, the place where the Bennets and other characters belonging to the low social layers live. As the plot develops, Mrs Bennet, a superficial character, shall attempt to approach aristocratic people more and more so that her daughters may marry rich men. At the beginning, there exist some difficulties in the relationships established between Mr Bingley and Jane Bennet, on the one hand, and between Mr Darcy and Elizabeth, on the other. This is due to the fact that the Bennets are low-class members, whereas the two gentlemen possess great fortunes thanks to their position in society. The clash between social classes is evident. Finally, impediments will disappear and the end is the typical happy ending, even though Lydia Bennet marries a dishonest officer called Wickham. Jane and Elizabeth will be able to marry Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy respectively.

  3. Ruiz de Mendoza (1996) provides an Extended version of the Invariance Principle. Lakoff (1990, 1993) defines what he has termed the Invariance Principle as follows: “Metaphorical mappings preserve the cognitive topology (that is, the image-schema structure) of the source domain, in a way consistent with the inherent structure of the target domain”. The Extended Invariance Principle, as postulated by Ruiz de Mendoza (1996), says as follows: “All contextual effects motivated by a metaphoric mapping will preserve the generic level-structure of the source domain and of any other input space involved, in a way consistent with the inherent structure of the target domain”.

  4. Contextual implications are the result of inferential activity in which ICMs and information from other sources, like the context of situation, are used. Fornés and Ruiz de Mendoza (1996) seem to have drawn this concept from Sperber and Wilson (1995).

  5. For a detailed discussion of the FORCE schema as a subsidiary image-schema, see Peña (1997b). Former versions of the analysis of this image-schema may be found in Peña (1996, 1997a).

  6. At this point, I would like to state that the SPLIT SELF and the SCATTERED SELF metaphors could be postulated to be a single metaphor. Lakoff (1993: 5) refers to the former as a situation in which “inconsistent aspects of oneself are conceptualized as different selves” and to the latter (1993: 11) by stating that “when different aspects of the Self are attending to different concerns, the Self is divided into parts that are in different places”. No doubt, both metaphors make reference to a single situation: the Self is split into several parts, which entails that these parts are in different places.

  7. Former versions of the description of this ICM may be found in Ruiz de Mendoza (1996) and Peña (1996).

  8. For more details on this metaphorical system, see Peña (1997a).

  9. For details on this metaphor, see Lakoff (1993).

  10. As postulated in Peña (1997b), the NEAR-FAR image-schema, which Johnson (1987: 126) regards as basic, is subsidiary to the kinds of force ATTRACTION-REPULSION respectively, the FORCE schema being in turn dependent on the PATH image-schema.


Austen, J., 1963. Pride and Prejudice. London: Dent.

Fornes, M. & Ruiz De Mendoza, F. J., 1996. “Esquemas de imágenes y construcción del espacio”, RILCE, Universidad de Navarra; en prensa.

Johnson, M., 1987. The Body in the Mind: the Bodily Basis of Meaning, Reason and Imagination. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Lakoff, G., 1987. Women, Fire and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Lakoff, G., 1989. “Some empirical results about the nature of concepts”, Mind and Language, 4, 123-129.

Lakoff, G., 1990. “The Invariance Hypothesis: is abstract reason based on image-schemas?”. Cognitive Linguistics 1-1: 39-74.

Lakoff, G., 1993. “The contemporary theory of metaphor”. Ortony, A. (ed.), Metaphor and Thought, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press.

Lakoff, G., 1996. “The internal structure of the Self”. G. Fauconnier & E. Sweetser, (eds.), Spaces, Worlds, and Grammar. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M., 1980. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Lakoff, G. & Turner, M., 1989. More than Cool Reason. A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor. Chicago & London: Chicago University Press.

Peña, M. S., 1996. “The role of the Control ICM and of image-schemas in metaphors for emotions”, Penas, B (ed.) The Pragmatics of Understanding and Misunderstanding. Universidad de Zaragoza, Servicio de Publicaciones Forthcoming.

Peña, M. S., 1997a. “The role of the event structure metaphor and of image-schematic structure in metaphors for happiness and sadness”. Miscelánea. A Journal of English and American Studies. Universidad de Zaragoza; vol 18, pp. 253-266

Peña, M. S., 1997b. “Esquemas de imagen básicos y subsidiarios: análisis del esquema de camino”. Los distintos dominios de la Lingüística Aplicada desde la perspectiva de la Pragmática. Zaragoza: Anubar Ediciones.

Pérez, L., 1997. “A Cognitive Analysis of Pawl Bowles's The Sheltering Sky”, Universidad de La Rioja; unpublished draft.

Ruiz De Mendoza, F. J., 1995. “Perspectives on metaphor”, Proceedings of the 13th Congress of AESLA, Castellón, Jaume I University; forthcoming.

Ruiz De Mendoza, F. J., 1998. “On the nature of blending as a cognitive phenomenon”, Journal of Pragmatics; 30/3, pp. 259-274, North-Holland, Amsterdam.

Sperber, D. & Wilson, D. 1995. Relevance. Communication and Cognition. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Taylor, J. R., 1989. Linguistic Categorization. Prototypes in Linguistic Theory. Oxford: Clarendon Paperbacks. (2nd ed. 1995).

Susan Reilly (essay date April 2000)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7024

SOURCE: Reilly, Susan. “‘A Nobler Fall of Ground’: Nation and Narration in Pride and Prejudice.Symbiosis 4.1 (April 2000): 19-34.

[In the following essay, Reilly stresses that, through her portrayal of the ideal and picturesque private estate at Pemberley, Austen reinforces English nationalism and decries the “dangerous enthusiasms of New World democratic ideals.”]

Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter. The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it at one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood, stretching over a wide extent. Elizabeth's mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the woods ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground.

Pride and Prejudice, Volume III, Chapter I.1

Pemberley Woods is a likely enough spot from which to explore Austen's views on English nationalism and domestic tourism. It stands perhaps as one of her most univocal representations of Englishness and gentrified taste. Yet it may seem a strange landing from which to launch a survey of the author's views on America. Austen's descriptions of the landscape on which Pemberley House is situated, and her narrative style in the novel in which it makes its appearance, however, take on new meaning when viewed in the light of the North American topographical narrative, a genre which during the last decades of the eighteenth century put forward enticing descriptions of a wilderness frontier and brave new world that lured or threatened to lure Southey and Coleridge, among thousands of others, to American shores. Austen's Burkean response to the rhetoric of these narratives, along with the ways that response highlights the relation between novel, empire, and nation, is the subject of this essay.2 Austen's was a response crafted through the deployment of a fierce nationalism which is inscribed, using the principles of the picturesque, in the landscape, plot, and narrative style of Pride and Prejudice—a work whose very title, as we shall see, was taken from a piece of early anti-American satire.

A great deal of critical effort centring on the Age of Revolution has been directed towards theories of landscape and towards landscape's connection to textual narrative. Austen has been the subject of a number of such studies, or has been pointed to by-the-way as the exemplar of the Tory idealism of the landed gentry. John Barrell stands behind most views of Austen's heroines as displaying a ‘correct taste’ in landscape with an ‘almost ostentatious virtuosity’.3 Yet even earlier critics like Walton Litz had observed that only in Austen's later novels does she move from ‘man-made landscapes’ which rely on the theory and descriptions of Gilpin to the relatively more ‘natural landscapes’ of Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.4 Indeed Austen's early landscapes are so much centered on the country residences of English society and so blind to the life of the less fortunate around them that Kenneth Clark goes so far as to characterize them as fantastical.5 But whatever claims they may make for the later works, few critics would disagree that Austen's early novels are steeped in rhetorical imitations of the picturesque aesthetic which define, reinscribe, and codify standards of gentrified taste and decorum.

In such works as Observations on the River Wye Gilpin privileged domestic tourism and elevated it as a conduit to taste and sublimity. Austen adopted Gilpin's prescriptions for grouping and for presenting figures and scenes in perspective and shadow and imported his emphasis on the beauties of domestic landscape.6 Editors are quick to gloss the references to his theories in Austen's early works. Mavis Batey in particular among Austen's commentators links notions of ‘Taste and Feeling’ to the picturesque in Austen, and to the ways they connect to matters of aesthetic appreciation in landscape and the cult of sensibility.7

But Austen's adoption of the ideals of ‘the picturesque decade’8 has itself come under critical scrutiny. Carole Fabricant, Raymond Williams, and Tim Fulford have argued that the picturesque ideals of tourism and the prospect view circulated in the works of aestheticians and poets were used by Thomson, Austen, and others to naturalize the suffering of the poor and keep the rhetoric of landscape exclusive to the English landed class. It is especially noteworthy, however, that fiction and theory begin to promote the domestic beauty of the English countryside over and against the primal and Edenic spectacles of North America represented in travel and topographical literature, or in response to accounts of antique and artistic glories on the Continent, at precisely the time such narratives were beginning to gain a toehold on the English imagination.

Marilyn Butler argues that during the ‘alarmist years'—1795-1817—when Austen wrote her six novels ‘about and addressed to the gentry', journals, newspapers, and sermons, along with pamphlets, novels, and satirical verse, were filled with Loyalist sentiment and preached the ‘old-fashioned values of piety and patriotism.’9 Authors like Austen, Gilpin and Burke threaded those values through the narrative tapestry of their works using landscape as their canvas. But the North American travelogue which proliferated during the same period put forward an ideology of human happiness and fellowship which valorized wildly beautiful American land and linked it to revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality. Many were written, in fact, prior to the American Revolution and helped sparked the drive to ‘wilderness’ embodied by America itself.

One influential practitioner in the genre was Gilbert Imlay, perhaps better known as the father of Mary Wollstonecraft's daughter Fanny and the recipient of a series of letters, written by Wollstonecraft, from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark.10 Imlay's Topographical Description (first published 1794) was presented as a collection of unsigned ‘letters’ and included Filson's Boone narratives, The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon and The Discovery of Kentucky, works critical in establishing the farmer-hero of American myth.11 Describing the ‘extent of fine land’ in the Ohio River Valley, Imlay incorporated picturesque prose to connect views of the American countryside to feelings of rapture and brotherhood, and to promote an ideal of a landscape over which even the lowliest creature could be ‘lord’:

While the setting sun gilds those extensive plains, the mild breezes of a summer's eve, playing upon the enraptured senses, softens the heart to love and friendship. Unperceived, upon some eminence, you may enjoy the sport of wild animals, which here rove unconcerned lords of the field. Heavens! what charms there are in liberty!12

Echoing Rousseau, the passage goes on to elevate North American geography, illuminated by the light of reason, as the ‘empire’ of freedom:

Man, born to enslave the subordinate animals, has long since enslaved himself. But reason at length, in radiant smiles, and with graceful pride, illuminates both hemispheres; and FREEDOM, in golden plumes, and in her triumphal car, must now resume her long-lost empire.


After offering up a list of American ‘civil liberties,’13 Letter VIII stresses the amazing fact that ‘foreigners […] may purchase and hold lands on the day of their arrival’ (220).

It was just this sort of ‘un-English’ and libertine view of emigration and parceled-out land in works written by English, American, and French authors that Burke and Austen reacted so strongly against. Travel, even in the pages of a book, which promoted the ‘vice’ of Pantisocratic ideals of accessible or communal land was a threat to Englishness, for by offering foreign landscapes of liberty it weakened an ideal of domestic stability bound to Tory notions of moral fitness and intimately linked to private and paternal control of land. In Pride and Prejudice, as in many of Austen's novels, no one ever stirs abroad. In an age when travel writings, especially those concerning North America, were criss-crossing the Atlantic, the Arcadian countryside of Hertfordshire, augmented by a ‘tour to the Lakes’ and ‘the celebrated beauties of Matlock, Chatsworth, Doverdale, and the Peak’ (Gray 153, 154) seems universe enough for the travelling delights of Austen's characters.

Yet, as Park Honan has shown, Austen had heard or read a good deal about America from her family and their friends.14 And she seems to have developed an aversion to foreigners and foreign travel which bordered on xenophobia. After reading Southey's Dom Espirella's Letters, a travelogue purporting to have been written from England by a young Spaniard offering a lively account of life and manners in that country, Austen characterized the work as ‘Horribly anti-English’ and as despicable as the ‘foreigner’ whose character Southey assumes.15 Still, Austen was an inveterate reader of travel writings, and hers was an age in which such narratives flourished.16 She read Carr's Travels in Spain, either Buchanan's Researches in Asia or his Christianity in India, (and possibly both) and one of Baretti's accounts of Italy, and owned a duodecimo copy of Bell's Travels from St. Petersburg.17 Though she deemed it faulty, one of her most frequently-mentioned travel narratives was Mrs. Grant's account of Catalina Schuyler, a Dutch emigrant to America, entitled Memoirs of an American Lady, published 1808.18 The work contains the usual litany of sites of natural American beauty. Though its author was at pains to position early Dutch settlers as ‘persecuted loyalists’ in their motherland and to recall and date the beauty of the American landscape to pre-revolutionary times, the work characterizes the Hudson River Valley as ‘fertile and beautiful', a land of ‘luxuriant harvest', and noted that the early Dutch settlement contained ‘boundless liberty of woods and pasturage’ (Grant 11, 13, 178). For Grant, as for so many other writers in the genre, America was a field of liberty, a bountiful Eden to which those who had been persecuted and dispossessed of their lands could flee for refuge while being assured of the promise of expansive and fertile ground.

For Austen, however, the ideal landowner embraces not the revolutionary ideals of equality and freedom, but the rural paternalism which assures the stability of the landed class. By acting as ‘landlord and master'—a ‘disinterested’ ‘guardian’ of his estate (Gray 158, 159)—Darcy insures against corruption from within the upper gentry. By his ‘attentive kindnesses’ as a governing steward who is ‘affable to the poor’ (Gray 158), he wards off the threat of ‘democratic opinions’ and peasant unrest.19 As Carole Fabricant has observed, the tour of Darcy's estate by Elizabeth and the Gardiners, like the country-house tourism it reflected, effectively advertises the values of the gentry. Yet while domestic tourism promoted nationalism and offered the poor controlled access to the estates of wealthy landowners, foreign tourism, and the literature that recorded it has been seen as serving very different ideological ends, of encouraging ‘the illusion of cultural diversity while permitting’ and even ‘reinforcing the continued ethnocentricity of English culture’. The ongoing wars with France and America rendered travel even more perilous than crude transportation methods already dictated. But foreign tourism represented other dangers as well—a profligate and wanton access to land which was tied to ideals of classless liberty, and which threatened English culture just as menacingly as did the taste for the bizarre and the primitive which critics have argued it satisfied.20 The attention to the ‘perils of the free spirit’ which form the subject of the ‘persistent theme’ (Litz 220, in Spacks) of Austen's works manifests itself in an aversion to travel and to the freewheeling libertarianism it represented, both on the Continent and across the Atlantic. Austen may never have forgiven Southey his early Jacobin aspirations and she dismissed his early writing as the ravings of a turncoat and a radical; but she read his 1816 The Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo with ‘much approbation',21 for after his early Pantisocratic fervour he depicted ‘the nature of foreign peoples’ in a manner ‘which helped define British imperialist ideology’.22

Austen was inclined to see the worst in foreigners, and even her treatment of the landowning immigrant Lady Catherine de Bourgh is tinged with disdain.23 In this essay I would like to examine another direction in which Austen's distrust of foreigners and foreign ideals was directed: towards the American continent. Her earliest-published novel, Pride and Prejudice, first drafted in the aftermath of the American War and in the shadow of the specter of the French Revolution, uses rising ground not only to figure the moral, cultural, and ethnic elevation of its principal model of Englishness—Fitzwilliam Darcy—but also the ways in which English soil was to be kept safe from the corruption and physical invasion threatened by democratic ideals. As Tim Fulford has persuasively argued, landscapes often reinscribed the ideals of conservative gentry through the use of the prospect view,24 to which Austen frequently alludes throughout Pride and Prejudice. Because they were gained from a commanding position, such views afforded a means for the propertied classes to represent their political dominance as confirmed by the natural scene. Bishop Berkeley had argued in 1712 that the prospect view offered the observer a panorama in which all ‘parts’ of the landscape were viewed in equal proportion.25 An overhead vista offered the capacity ‘to take a distant, extensive and detached view of the scene, to be above self-interest’ (Fulford 3) and thus was a trope of the landowner's disinterestedness, a concept Austen uses over and over in her novels. Disinterestedness, the sine qua non for ‘wise government’ (Fulford 8), is consistently linked, like the prospect view, with moral probity and applied as the crowing virtue in Pride and Prejudice.26

Mr. Darcy, as he was aptly portrayed in an early anonymous piece in the Critical Review, is ‘a man of high birth and great fortune.’27 The very paragon of English virtues, the ‘model landlord and master’ (Fabricant 254) is heir to Pemberley House, which itself sits on an ‘eminence’ commanding a prospect of Pemberley Woods, whose every vista provides the viewer at each step with a ‘nobler fall of ground.’ The ‘rising’ language of the Pemberley Woods scene is impossible to miss. The purview Pemberley House affords from its windows establishes the classic verbal prospect view—a vista from the sublime summit of the ‘vertical empire’ attained via ‘paths of glory’ retold in English art, poetry, and expedition.28 From the dining room window Elizabeth sees that

Every disposition of the ground was good; and she looked on the whole scene, the river, the trees scattered on its banks, and the winding valley, as far as she could trace it with delight.

Immediately after taking the view from Pemberley, Elizabeth's thoughts proceed to its governance—to ruling the estate via a match with Darcy: ‘And of this place,’ thought she, ‘I might have been mistress!’29

Darcy's character is inextricably bound to the type of heritable land he both controls by ownership and admires and prefers. He suffers, for example, from a ‘great curiosity’ to view the prospect from Oakham Mount (241). Elizabeth's eventual entrée to the ‘noble’ estate (52) of Pemberley, accomplished by the marriage which permits unlimited access to those grounds, ‘strengthens and affirms', as Fabricant observes, the elevated social class into which the heroine ascends (Fabricant 255). She rises, like the ground at Pemberley, in a ‘much-naturalized version’ of what Butler has called the ‘anti-jacobin fable’ (Butler 100) into the elevated realm of Darcy and his ancestors, ironically poised to eradicate the polluting French influence of Lady Catherine and restore true English taste and gentility to the land.

The prospect view is inscribed even in the narration of the novel itself. Richard Whately, early Austen critic and supporter, remarked that Austen had ‘not been forgetful of the important maxim, so long ago illustrated by Homer, and afterwards enforced by Aristotle, of saying as little as possible in her own person.’30 Character is revealed with a crafted ‘disinterest’ as though impartially from above and outside. There are no diegetic intrusions of the author's voice until the end, and the plot is unfolded partially through letter and dialogue. The Pemberley scene itself rises like a peak to the centre of the novel.

Representation of landscape in Pride and Prejudice is rooted, too, in the work of another author beloved of Austen—Edmund Burke—and the novel is permeated by Burkean anti-revolutionary rhetoric which expresses itself, as it does in Burke's Reflections, through land-linked representations of England and Englishness. Austen may have known and capitalized on the connection between Burke and his aristocratic patron, Lord Fitzwilliam, when she applied the name to her hero. The ‘decay and corruption’ which for Burke threatens the ‘treasure of [English] liberty’ is the same imminent corruption which threatens the Bennets and the ‘decent regulated pre-eminence […] given to birth', the ‘principle of hereditary property and hereditary distinction’.31 Both Burke and Austen seek to exorcise foreign and libertine ideals through a discourse of English nationalism which both authors linked to the soil itself and to a class of Englishmen who controlled it. As these representations strengthened nationalism, they pointed at the same time to the imagined horrors of a world in which landscape was out-of-control—due partly to the moral laxity of its aristocratic owners—and in the hands of rebels and revolutionaries abroad. The principles of political democracy which Burke critiqued come under attack in his Reflections,32 especially as they were applied to the confiscation ‘to the last acre’ of aristocratic land in France. Burke compared the hordes of democratic ‘money-jobbers’ who implemented seizure of property to the ‘barbarous’ Roman ‘confiscators’ and their ‘auctions of rapine’ (Burke, 215, 216-17). The ‘Barbarism’ which would succeed a revolution in England was to be guarded against by avoiding waste and indiscretion, through a ‘consecration’ of the land which Burke is careful to link in part to the stewardship of the clergy. ‘Wild'ness in Austen is unfavorably linked to uncontrolled behavior, and by extension to the wilderness of North America. Darcy's housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds warns Lizzy and the Gardiners that the profligate and parasitical Wickham has turned out ‘very wild.’ Lydia and Kitty Bennet are characterized as ‘wild.’ The Bingley sisters consider it a serious malign to remark to their brother that Elizabeth ‘looked almost wild.’ For the Bingleys, the wild state is connected not with Edenic harmony and plenty, but with an uncultivated lack of taste which threatens to divide landowners from their estates.

The wild, fertile, and unsettled North American landscape was itself a trope for the democratic liberty which in England threatened to spell the end of estate life. Indeed, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution of France (published 1790) was provoked by the sermons and pamphlets of the radical preacher Richard Price—himself, like the young Burke, a supporter of the American Revolution. By 1790 Burke was arguing that revolutionary ‘grasshoppers’ like Price ‘made the field ring’ from under a fern with their ‘importunate chink’33 while the proper masses of Englishmen, whom Burke portrays as ‘thousands of great cattle', are content to repose ‘beneath the shadow of the British oak', and silently ‘chew the cud’ (Andrews 74-75). For Austen, as for Burke, patriotic Englishmen wanted nothing more than to stay at home, touring and grazing on English countryside.

In 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner wrote the classic academic statement of the myth of the American frontier. European immigrants, he argued, moving onto the wild lands of North America, were seen as gaining the liberty and creativity that were the sources of American democracy. That myth depended on free and available land—on wilderness.34 In the England of Austen's time, topographical narratives spread the craze for North American exploration. American geographical and travel narratives were highly politicized, and offered relief from the general oppression generated by the class system in Europe. Though in 1784 Benjamin Franklin had tried to correct the widespread assumption that emigrants from Europe would be given ‘land gratis’35 in America, the belief that land was to be had almost for the asking was promulgated through works by Imlay, Williams, Cooper, Morse, Crèvecoeur and Brissot. In 1795, the year the Pantisocracy scheme was hatched, Southey had been reading Williams's Farther Observations on the Discovery of North America, a work which would provide him with the eponymous hero of his 1805 poem Madoc.36 Thomas Poole echoed the sentiments of Coleridge and Southey when he wrote that the America of the 1790's offered ‘the only asylum of peace and liberty.’37 Coleridge had read Thomas Cooper's, Gilbert Imlay's, and Jean-Pierre Brissot's accounts of travel in America in 1794. Cooper was the son of a wealthy Manchester industrialist who emerged in 1787 at the age of twenty eight as a friend of liberal causes with the publication of his Letters on the Slave Trade in The Manchester Chronicle. He has been characterized as ‘the land agent of liberty', for he ‘crossed the Atlantic to reconnoiter a suitable refuge for what Joseph Priestley called ‘the friends of liberty” (Andrews 94). The works of Cooper, Imlay, and Brissot, as Coleridge wrote to Southey, commended the eastern shores of the continent as sites of ‘excessive beauty.’38

Brissot, born near Chartres in 1754, abandoned the legal profession for a career in journalism. Later a revolutionary politician who was present at the storming of the Bastille, he was guillotined in 1793 along with twenty other Girondists. Brissot's 1791 New Travels in America sparked tremendous interest in Europe and abroad. A translation was completed in Paris by the American Joel Barlow and was published in London in 1792. It was immediately republished in pirated editions in New York and Dublin in the same year, and in Boston in 1797. Five publications of the work appeared in German between 1792 and 1795, one was published in Dutch in Amsterdam (1794), and one in Swedish appeared in Stockholm in 1797.39 Though there had been numerous land scams in New England (especially in Rhode Island) about which he was aware,40 and although the price of land in New England was rising, Brissot still talked of ‘free Americans’ (‘Amèricains libres’) and of the purchase of land as the project by which a public could be organized ‘according to the lessons taught by experience, […] common sense and reason, and comformable to the principles of fraternity and equality which ought to unite all men.’41

American soil was portrayed as especially fertile:

It would seem logical that all the large land areas of the world are equally fertile. It is, however, possible that the soil of America may be much more productive and contain proportionately many more natural resources.

(Brissot 34)

Connecticut is described as the Paradise of the United States, the Ohio River Valley and Louisiana as rich, fertile, and beautiful. Brissot pointed out in his preface that at the time of his writing, France had already ‘won’ its liberty, but that the French needed to learn from Americans how to preserve that ‘blessing.’

Yet while these narratives were enormously popular and influential, their rhetoric was refuted in works like Burke's Reflections, which proposed that Englishmen ought to be as docile and content to graze on English countryside as a herd of cattle.42 Though born in Dublin, Burke used English landscape as the ground upon which sublimity was reaped and sown. His Tory representations of the English nation ‘as a landed estate which needed to be protected’ so that it could ‘handed down to the next generation’ (Sales 88) was one which Austen handled in miniature through the central conflict surrounding the entailment of the Bennet estate in Pride and Prejudice. An early friend and ally of Charles Fox against the folly of the British government's American policy, Burke's later horror of the revolutionary confiscation of property in France caused him to aver in 1790 that property must be ‘predominant in the representation’ and ‘represented in great masses of accumulation, or it is not rightly protected’ or ‘safe’ from ‘invasion.’ Breaking up the ownership of the land, allowing it to be ‘divided among many', meant weakening its defensive power and rendering it subject to foreign attack (Burke 140). Burke, an ‘erstwhile friend of liberty’43 but by now a large estate owner himself, wrote that ‘the power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it’ (Burke 140). ‘Liberty’ for Burke was a ‘social’ and ‘practical’ liberty to maintain private property and to be free of ‘trespass’ against his estate of Gregories, at Beaconsfield, in Buckinghamshire, a ‘costly establishment’ purchased in 1768.44

Austen grew up in the wake of the separation of American land from England. The United States were declared independent in the first year of her life. She was weaned on Anti-American rhetoric that spewed forth from the pulpit and was heard even in the words of her father, vicar of the parish of Steventon, who beginning three days before his daughter's birth held extra services, and read out prayers against the American rebels.45 Austen's brother Francis, while at naval school in the 1780's, kept careful notes on American geography.46 It should not be surprising, therefore, that ‘the “American War'”, as Park Honan observes, ‘was one household topic at the rectory as Jane Austen first learned to talk, to read, and to interpret adult opinions;’ (Honan 185) yet the influence of America and the American Revolution on Austen has been curiously understudied.

Anti-American sentiment was long-lived. Americans were thought to lack taste, the essential quality for the ‘wise government’ of the Tory gentry. Honan offers a general statement that they were ‘known to be indelicate or tasteless’ (Honan 187); on the home front, at least one anti-American contribution in the Austen brothers' production The Loiterer implied as much and even provided Austen with her final title. In November 1789, five months after the fall of the Bastille, James Austen printed a story by a St. John's College friend which ‘satirizes the American ideal of a classless democracy by investing two moral abstractions, pride and prejudice, with Tory values.’47 The hero is ruined by Washington's American Revolution.

Washington himself had by this time been crafted into a powerful revolutionary symbol—one which was tied to representations of ‘free’ available, and ‘natural’ land in the works of Imlay, Brissot, and others. The French-born Crèvecoeur, who after having traveled through Canada, the Great Lakes Region, and Pennsylvania settled on a farm in the colony of New York, dedicated his Voyages to the American general, who would be portrayed by Byron and others as a wild child of the mountains and cataracts in narratives of the period. Thomas Poole kept a lock of his hair which was given to him by American friends. Coleridge, during one of his famous walking tours, proposed ‘an American toast to General Washington’ at Bala in 1794.48 Washington was also the subject of a prospect poem in the style of Thomson and Cowper, published during Austen's teenage years: William Crowe's 1788 topographical poem Lewesdon Hill had made Washington's Mt. Vernon a landscape of liberty, upon which its owner ‘rests after having delivered his country from British imperialism.’49

Austen's sentiments tended towards anti-Americanism and persisted even beyond the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813. On 2 September 1814, when England was again at war with America, she wrote to her sister-in-law Martha Lloyd that in the continuing British-American conflict (‘War of 1812’) her country was entitled to ‘the protection of Heaven', and she placed her hopes on England ‘as a Religious Nation, a Nation in spite of much Evil improving in Religion, which I cannot believe the Americans to possess’ [emphases mine].50 For Austen, the belief that God was on the English side in the ‘just war’ against America only confirmed and supported her notion of the propriety of class-controlled English land as a defense against further trouble from the upstart, classless and rebellious American child with its well-advertised and alluringly open wilderness. ‘Nobility’ for Austen is literally inscribed on English land: Darcy's ‘nobler fall of ground', bestowed on ‘disinterested’ and deserving gentlefolk, displays its lordly ‘eminence’ in a nature Providentially arranged, its taste, and the moral fitness to govern enjoyed by its owners. And it keeps the English nation a nation by displaying the class-determined and land-linked solidarity of the country of which it is a part.

Pemberley House for Austen is the pinnacle of English taste and landed power. Commanding a view of the valley below, Pemberley Woods is not only figured as lofty but as situated in a position from which to survey and enjoy the many ‘charms’ of the territory below. After entering the woods and ‘bidding adieu to the river for a while', Lizzy and the Gardiners

ascended some of the higher grounds, whence, in spots where the opening of the trees gave the eye power to wander, were many charming views of the valley, the opposite hills, and the long range of woods overspreading many, and occasionally part of the stream.


Prospects like these offered a way to ‘tour’ without movement. Such views brought the country, as it were, to the viewer's feet. Austen's blending of landscape and nation in the Hertfordshire countryside literally lies at the foot of Pemberley, whose eventual governance by Darcy and Elizabeth will pool, as it does in Burke, resource with virtue.

For Burke, ‘the outrage on all the rights of property', ‘the act of seizure of property', was the most noxious of the poisoned effluvia which flowed from the fountainhead of democracy, which itself was in his eyes ‘the most shameless thing in the world’ (Burke 207, 206 191). ‘The very idea of the fabrication of a new government', he wrote, ‘is enough to fill us disgust and horror’ (117). The National Assembly was portrayed as ‘mixed mob of ferocious men, and of women lost to shame', who had ‘inverted order in all things’ (161).

Austen adopts a set of remedies strikingly similar to Burke's in Pride and Prejudice's denouement. Darcy's fortune is certain to be protected by the modesty and prudence of the heroine, one who amidst a luxury-loving circle is so frugally represented that she trims her own hats and travels on her two feet. To allow waste and indiscretion to creep into the landed class, to countenance the ‘wild’ and savage behavior associated both with American landscape and its native inhabitants is to risk both losing the riches gained in Austen by inheritiance and maintained by moral rectitude, and, as in Burke, the dangerous spread of mob-generated ‘wild’ revolutionary ideals.

Fears of domestic insurrection among the English poor (fuelled by the examples of the French and American Revolutions) threatened to overturn the stable world of Austen's Hertfordshire gentry.51 Travel narratives created and inflamed the passion for liberty-through-land which was so attractive for Englishmen with democratic sympathies, and which offered them a prospect, however flawed, for freedom and prosperity. But Austen, as Raymond Williams argues, sees land as linked to issues of class-bound moral worth, cultivation, and taste, which is figured by an inherited code and the country estate—and not to democratic ideals of individual and political liberty displayed in land's easy availability and accessibility in America.52 Austen's English stay in England; Austen's countryside, like the landscape paintings of her British contemporaries, in some sense ‘stands for the nation’53—a nation attempting to maintain an uneasy balance between private property, opening of controlled domestic sites for touring, and the discontent of the growing numbers of poor and opposers of the class system. Austen's ‘omnipotent’ narrator sees all, says all, and hears all in the ‘disinterested’ mode which is in reality the mode of the English gentry. By settling her heroine, through the long-established and inherited land of the hero Mr. Darcy, in a private estate, situated on a prospect, Austen positions her stationary, domestic novel against the perambulatory and peripatetic travel narrative from North America. She limits the spread, by limiting the mobility, of her characters' exposure to the dangerous enthusiasms of New World democratic ideals. ‘Liberty’ for Austen is Bingley's ‘liberty of a manor’ at Netherfield—Burke's ‘social’ liberty applied to the Hertfordshire estate provided by ‘inherited property’ (Gray 11).


  1. All Quotations from Pride and Prejudice are taken from the Norton Critical edition prepared by Donald Gray, (hereinafter cited as Gray) the 1993 edition.

  2. For a discussion of the connection between the sentimental novel in England and America, and their use of the captivity narrative, see introduction to Deidre Lynch and William B. Warner, eds., Cultural Institutions of the Novel (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996) and Michelle Burnham, ‘Between England and America: Captivity, Sympathy, and the Sentimental Novel’ in Cultural Institutions, 47-72.

  3. John Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730-1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972) 5.

  4. A Walton Litz, ‘New Landscapes,’ from Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development (New York Oxford University Press, 1965) 150-60; hereinafter cited as Litz. Excerpted and reprinted in Patricia Meyer Spacks, ed. Persuasion (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1995) 217-23.

  5. See Litz, in Spacks, 217. The Clark phrase which Litz quotes is ‘landscapes of fantasy.’ Spacks fails to note the source.

  6. On Gilpin's influence in Austen's work see Christopher Gillie, A Preface to Jane Austen (London: Longman, 1974), 87-88, passim.

  7. Mavis Batey, Austen and the English Landscape (London: Barn Elms, 1996) 8.

  8. From the title of chapter two, Ann Bermingham, Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

  9. See Marilyn Butler, Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries: English Literature and its Background, 1760-1830 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) 96, 97, and 100.

  10. Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark was first published by Johnson in 1796. See also The Love Letters of Mary Wollstonecraft and Gilbert Imlay (Norwood, PA: Norwood editions, 1978), a reprint of the 1908 edition; and Mary Wollstonecraft: Letters to Gilbert Imlay (London: C. Kegan Paul, 1938), reprinted from 1879 edition.

  11. For a discussion of the evolution of the American hero, see Richard Slotkin, ‘Evolution of the National Hero,’ in Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860 (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 313-68.

  12. Gilbert Imlay, A Topographical Description of the Western Territory of North America, facsimile copy of the third edition (London: J. Debrett, 1797), ed. Joseph J. Kwiat (Duluth: University of Minnesota Press, 1968) 35-36.

  13. Among these are trial by jury and the freedom to practice trades and employment without molestation.

  14. See Park Honan, ‘Jane Austen and the American Revolution,’ University of Leeds Review 28 (1985-86) 181-95.

  15. See David Nokes, Jane Austen: A Life (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997) 335. The letter, in which Austen offers her remarks, was written from Southampton to Cassandra at Godmersham Park on 1 October, 1808, and is printed in Jane Austen's Letters, ed. R. W. Chapman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979) 209-14.

  16. Burke himself penned a clear-eyed contribution to the genre which was relatively free from grand claims and rhetorical flourishes many years before his Reflections,—An Account of the European Settlements in America. In Six Parts (London: Dodsley, 1757), possibly the joint work of Edmund and William Burke. My copy text is the second edition, (London: Dodsley, 1758).

  17. See Chapman, Letters, vol. II, 292 (letter to Cassandra, 24 January 1813). In 1807 Austen was reading either Baretti's 1768 Account of the Manners and Customs of Italy or his Journey from London to Genoa (Chapman I, 185, letter to Cassandra, 20 February, 1807). On Buchanan see Chapman II, 292 (letter to Cassandra, 24 January, 1813). For an description of Austen's copy of Bell, see Gilson, ‘Jane Austen's Books,’ The Book Collector 23, (1974), 27-39, 31.

  18. Anne Macvicar Grant, Memoirs of an American Lady: With Sketched of Manners and scenery in America, as They existed Previous to the Revolution. (London: Longman, Hurst, Ress and Orme, 1808). Austen had read the work by 1809, see letter to Cassandra 10 Jan. 1809, Chapman I 248.

  19. Uvedale Price, Essay on the Picturesque As Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful (1794), quoted in Bermingham 67, 68. Price, like Richard Payne Knight, sought to craft a theory of the picturesque based on Gilpin's practical ideas.

  20. See Carole Fabricant, ‘The Literature of Domestic Tourism and the Public Consumption of Private Property’ in The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature, eds. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown (New York:: Methuen, 1987) 254-75. The quote is from page 257.

  21. Letters, Chapman II 476 (letter to Alethea Bigg, 24 January, 1817).

  22. Timothy Fulford, ‘Heroic Voyagers and Superstitious Natives: Southey's Imperialist Ideology', Studies in Travel Writing 2 (Spring 1998) 46-94, The quote is from page 46.

  23. The matter of Lady Catherine's origins is unsettled in the novel. I am grateful to Richard Gravil for pointing out the nuances and implications of French and Norman ancestry, and for suggesting the possibility that Austen's critique of the ‘Norman yoke,’ if it were in play, would have been allied with Jacobin as much as Tory principle.

  24. See Timothy Fulford, Landscape, Liberty, and Authority: Poetry, Criticism, and Politics From Thomson to Wordsworth (Cambridge: Cambridge U Press, 1996); Introduction and passim. Subsequent references are provided in parentheses in the text.

  25. Berkeley, Passive Obedience, in The Works of George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, ed. T. E. Jessop, 9 vols. (London: 1948-57) vol. VI, 32-33, cited in Fulford 3-4.

  26. See, for one example among many in the novels, Elizabeth Bennett to her sister, Jane: ‘Your sweetness and disinterestedness are really angelic’ (Vol. II Chapter I).

  27. Review: (unsigned), Critical Review March 1813. 4th series, iii, 18-24. Reprinted in B.C. Southam, vol I, page 45.

  28. See Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Knopf, 1995) 463-78, on the importance of ‘mountainous Britain’ to the ideology of empire in the eighteenth century. Quotations are from chapter heading, 463, and 464. For a discussion of the prospect poem, see Fulford, Landscape, Liberty, and Authority, introduction and passim, and William Richey, ‘The Politicized Landscape of Tintern Abbey,Studies in Philology 95:2 (Spring 1998) 197-213.

  29. Citations from Volume II chapter I, 156-157 in Gray.

  30. See Richard Whately, unsigned review in Quarterly Review (January 1821), xxiv, 352-76; excerpted and reprinted in Patricia Meyer Spacks, ed., Persuasion, 197-205, and in B.C. Southam, Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, 87-105. Quote is from Southam, 97.

  31. Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France and the Proceedings in certain Societies relative to that Event (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986) 143, 141.

  32. The problem of whether Burke's critique of the French Revolution is inconsistent with his former support of the revolution by the American colonies is a vexed and complex one. I am grateful for suggestions on this matter from Timothy Fulford and Richard Gravil. For a discussion of the matter of how far Burke's critique of the French was taken up by Cooper see also Gravil, ‘James Fenimore Cooper and the Spectre of Edmund Burke,’ Romanticism on the Net 14 (May 1999).

  33. Stuart Andrews, The Rediscovery of America: Transatlantic Crosscurrents in an Age of Revolution (New York: St. Martin's; Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998) 74.

  34. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, from an address delivered at the forty-first annual meeting of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, December 14, 1893. On American landscape painting and its connection to national mythmaking see Stephen Daniels, Fields of Vision (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), chapters 5 and 6, 146-99.

  35. Benjamin Franklin, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America, in Two tracts: Information to Those Who would remove to America, and Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America, third edition, (London: Stockdale, 1784), 5.

  36. Williams's work attempts to prove that America was discovered by Prince Madoc, about the year 1170.

  37. See Vol. I, 98, Thomas Poole and his Friends, by Margaret Poole Sandford, 2 vols (London and New York: Macmillan, 1888).

  38. It is Andrews who characterized Cooper as ‘and agent of liberty', 94. Coleridge quotation is from a letter his letter to Southey, cited in Andrews, 185, and taken from Griggs, Collected Letters I 99.

  39. Brissot de Warville, Jacques Pierre, Nouveau Voyages dans les Etats-Unis (Paris: Buisson, 1791). Translated from the French as New Travels in the United States of America. Performed in 1788. By Joel Barlow London: J. S. Jordan, 1792. On the publication and translation history, see the Harvard edition, ed. Echeverria, (1964), xxvi-xxviii.

  40. See, for example Brissot's chapter on Rhode Island, 129-33 in 1964 translation. Fraudulent land-agents like ‘The Atherton Company’ would not only bilk Indians, with the help of the colonial government, out of thousands of acres of land, but sell the title to these lands to more than one group of settlers, for example the Huguenots and veterans of King Philip War.

  41. Quoted from Brissot, New Travels in the United States, 29 and 41. For a fuller discussion of Brissot's representations of America see Andrews, chapter 9, 109-20.

  42. Burke, Reflections, cited in Stuart Andrews, The Rediscovery of America: Transatlantic Crosscurrents in an Age of Revolution (New York: St. Martin's; Basingstoke Macmillan: 1998).

  43. Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory, (New York: Knopf, 1995), 248.

  44. Quotations from Burke are from letter of ‘Oct 1789’ referred to in prefatory title, reprinted in Correspondences VI, 39-50, and from Conor Cruise O'Brien, ed., Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, 19. Cobban and Smith, however, established that it was written in November, and probably not forwarded before the end of that year. See Conor Cruise O'Brien, notes to Penguin edition of Reflections, 15.

  45. Tomalin, 19. Such sermons were apparently not uncommon, and anti-American pamphlets were published under the guise of the sermon. Coleridge's father John privately printed his own political statement, A Fast Sermon, which deplored the outbreak of American War of Independence, in 1776. Exactly one year after Revd George Austen's sermon, The Reverend John Coleridge preached another of his anti-American sermons in support of divine right at Ottery St. Mary, Devon. It was printed for the author the next year as ‘Government Not Originally Proceeding from Human Agency but Divine Institution’ in London, and sold by Rivington, Buckland, Richardson, and Urquhart at two bookseller's shops in the city.

  46. See page 188 in Park Honan, ‘Jane Austen and the American Revolution,’ University of Leeds Review 28 (1985-86): 181-95.

  47. Quotation is from Honan, 189. The story appeared in The Loiterer, no 41, 7 November 1789.

  48. Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London: Penguin, 1989) 63.

  49. Quote is from Fulford, Landscape, Liberty, and Authority, 226. For representations of Washington see, e.g., Byron (Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Canto IV, stanza 96, ll. 856-64), and William Crowe, Lewesdon Hill.

  50. R. W. Chapman, ed., Jane Austen's Letters, page 508. Jane Austen to Martha Lloyd, 2 September, 1814.

  51. For a discussion of the relation of landowners to the rural poor, see Bermingham, ‘The Picturesque Decade’ in Landscape and Ideology.

  52. See Raymond Williams, ‘Three Around Farnham,’ 108-19 in the Country and the City (London: Hogarth, 1973).

  53. Michael Rosenthal, Christiana Payne, and Scott Wilcox, eds., Prospects for the Nation: Recent Essays in British Landscape, 1750-1880 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997) 15.

This paper was delivered on 12 December 1999 at the Twenty-Third Annual Conference of the Northeast American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, University of New Hampshire, Durham, New Hampshire, USA.

Barbara K. Seeber (essay date 2000)

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2928

SOURCE: Seeber, Barbara K. “We Must Forget It: The Unhappy Truth in Pride and Prejudice.” In General Consent in Jane Austen: A Study of Dialogism, pp. 85-92. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, which applies Mikhail Bakhtin's linguistic theory of dialogism to Austen's works, Seeber concludes that Pride and Prejudice remains “haunted” by the narrative of Wickham and Georgiana despite the main narrative's repression of this material.]

Pride and Prejudice, Austen's “own darling Child” (Austen 1995, 201), is often considered the quintessential Austen novel, certainly the most widely read and most widely taught in schools and at the undergraduate level. As Marilyn Butler points out, “the general public has liked Pride and Prejudice the best of all Jane Austen's novels, and it is easy to see why” (1987, 217). Susan Morgan agrees that the novel “has a charmed place as the most popular of Austen's novels” (1980, 78). In criticism, too, the novel has held a privileged position: A. Walton Litz, for example, calls it “a summing up of her artistic career, a valedictory to the world of Sense and Sensibility and a token of things to come” (1965, 99).

In this discussion Pride and Prejudice has been far less central, giving way to the novel often considered its diametric opposite: Mansfield Park. Elizabeth triumphantly claims that Jane “only smiles, I laugh” (Austen 1988, 2:383), but Fanny Price does neither. For Lionel Trilling, “no small part” of Mansfield Park's “interest derives from the fact that it seems to controvert everything” that Pride and Prejudice “tells us about life”: the latter “celebrates … spiritedness, vivacity, celerity, and lightness,” while “almost the opposite can be said” of Mansfield Park (1955, 211). Time has proven Austen right: “I am very strongly haunted by the idea that to those Readers who have preferred P&P. it will appear inferior in Wit, & to those who have preferred MP. very inferior in good Sense” (Austen 1995, 306). Austen's famous remark to her sister Cassandra that Pride and Prejudice is “rather too light & bright & sparkling;—it wants shade” has often been read without its irony:

It wants to be stretched out here & there with a long Chapter—of sense if it could be had, if not of solemn specious nonsense—about something unconnected with the story; an Essay on Writing, a critique on Walter Scott, or the history of Buonaparte—or anything that would form a contrast & bring the reader with increased delight to the playfulness & Epigrammatism of the general stile.—I doubt your quite agreeing with me here—I know your starched Notions.

(Ibid., 203)

That Pride and Prejudice is considered Austen's best or most perfect novel has a lot more to do with preconceived assumptions about Austen than with the novel itself. As Claudia Johnson points out, “We will certainly misrepresent her accomplishment if we posit this singular novel as the typical one against which the others are to be judged” (1988, 93).

In the case of Elizabeth and Darcy, love conquers all. Their union, critics argue, is achieved by displacing class and economic realities onto secondary characters and plots. For Mary Poovey, “the realistic elements” are “carefully contained” (1984, 202). The love between Darcy and Elizabeth “not only overcomes all obstacles; it brings about a perfect society” by the end of the story (201): “With Darcy at its head and Elizabeth at its heart, society will apparently be able to contain the anarchic impulses of individualism and humanize the rigidities of prejudice, and everyone—even Miss Bingley—will live more or less happily in the environs of Pemberley, the vast estate whose permanence, prominence, and unique and uniquely satisfying fusion of individual taste and utility, of nature and art, symbolize Jane Austen's ideal” (202). According to Judith Lowder Newton, “For all its reference to money and money matters, for all its consciousness of economic fact and economic influence, Pride and Prejudice is devoted not to establishing but to denying the force of economics in human life. In the reading of the novel the real force of economics simply melts away” (1981, 61). Common to these interpretations is the idea that Austen displaces her social realism and social criticism in order to present a utopian ending “with an air of credibility which lends force to the spell of the fantasy upon us” (85).1

Indeed, Pride and Prejudice presents a particular challenge. Of all the novels, it comes closest to reconciling the individual with society, the very project with which Austen is usually associated. Even a critic like Johnson, whose readings seek to redeem Austen from charges of conservatism, is somewhat baffled by Pride and Prejudice. Agreeing with Poovey that the “markedly fairy-tale-like quality” (1988, 74) of the novel is “almost shamelessly wish fulfilling” (73), she struggles to argue that the novel is not, therefore, “politically suspect” (74): “Austen consents to conservative myths, but only in order to possess them and to ameliorate them from within, so that the institutions they vindicate can bring about, rather than inhibit, the expansion and the fulfilment of happiness” (93). Yet in her conclusion Johnson admits that the novel is “a conservative enterprise, after all” (92): it is “profoundly conciliatory … and of all Austen's novels it most affirms established social arrangements without damaging their prestige or fundamentally challenging their wisdom or equity” (73-4). We can, however, uncover some disturbances to a novel often considered “categorically happy” (73) by bringing the cameo narrative to the fore.

The challenges of the past are displaced or resolved only if we read Pride and Prejudice monologically and ignore the dialogism facilitated by the cameo. The main narrative requires characters and readers to forgive and forget, but the cameo vengefully offers a reminder of the past. In his introduction to Bakhtin's Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, Wayne Booth admits that he has “often scoffed about modes of criticism that care so little about formal construction that they would be unaffected if the works discussed had been written backward”; yet much of Bakhtin's criticism “would not be affected if we discovered new manuscripts that scrambled the order of events, or the handling of flashbacks and foreshadowings, or the manipulations of point of view. It is not linear sequence but the touch of the author at each moment that matters. What we seek is what might be called the best vertical structure, rather than a given temporal structure and its technical transformations” (1984, xxv). If we refuse to follow the main narrative's linearity and temporal progression towards reconciliation and instead place the “handling of flashbacks” in the foreground, then we arrive at a very different text, a dialogic text, in which the narrative cameo holds equal weight with the main narrative. Such an interpretation, which could be construed as reading Pride and Prejudice as if it “had been written backward,” registers the novel's dialogism. The main narrative is based on a reconciliation of the past and the present, but if the reader refuses to become co-opted into this monologic narrative, then Pride and Prejudice's happy ending emerges as fragile and conditional indeed.

In his letter of vindication to Elizabeth, Darcy tries to explain his interference in Jane and Bingley's relationship, and he gives a history of Wickham: “My character required it to be written and read” (Austen 1988, 2:196). Darcy's narrative is, of course, in direct contrast to the one circulated by Wickham earlier in the novel. Darcy reveals the profligate behaviour of Mr Wickham, culminating in his attempt to seduce Georgiana, then only fifteen years old: “Mr Wickham's chief object was unquestionably my sister's fortune, which is thirty thousand pounds; but I cannot help supposing that the hope of revenging himself on me, was a strong inducement.” Georgiana confided in her brother, who fortunately averted the crisis: Mr Wickham “left the place immediately” (202).

This past, rather than being contained in the cameo, repeats itself. Wickham reincurs massive debts and seduces and elopes with Lydia. Again Mr Darcy rescues the situation and bribes Wickham to marry Lydia. The cameo narrative points out the vulnerability of the heroine. Like Marianne Dashwood and Anne Elliot, who closely escape the villains of their respective novels, Elizabeth narrowly avoids the dangerous consequences of her flirtation with Wickham.

Moreover, the cameo brings out the anxieties surrounding the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy. The plot of Wickham, the fortune-hunter in pursuit of Georgiana and Pemberley, presents an unflattering parallel to Elizabeth's aspirations towards Pemberley: “She felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (245). As Susan Fraiman points out, there is an “element … of crass practicality”: “Elizabeth is appalled by Charlotte's pragmatism, and yet, choosing Darcy over Wickham, she is herself beguiled by the entrepreneurial marriage plot” (1989, 182). Lady Catherine de Bourgh would agree. The narrative cameo aligns Elizabeth and Wickham and almost sets them in competition with one another. Wickham's failed attempt to win Ge