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Pride and Prejudice and the art of conversation
In Pride and Prejudice, the characters have conversations with each other, about trivial and not-so-trivial matters and it might be accurate to say, also, that the book’s narrator is having a conversation with us: the readers. Austen’s novels are fascinating examples of the use of romance and comedy, satire and sentimentality, fairy tale and realism. (1)
In literature, novelists tend to use dialogue as one of several techniques with which to express a character’s outlook on the world and to show us how they are thinking and how they are feeling. Jane Austen’s use of dialogue has long been regarded as one of her most significant creative achievements and Pride and Prejudice is a striking example of how she uses conversations to show the ways in which her characters are behaving. The conversations we read communicate that a character might be feeling optimistic, or perhaps rather sad and concerned. Austen even uses conversation to show how we can be both selfish and generous in how we speak with each other. The conversations in Pride and Prejudice illustrate the themes of the novel and also give us an impression of how people would have spoken to each other two hundred years ago. Some of the ways in which people spoke then might be quite different to how we speak English today; but, in other ways, we might be able to identify many similarities.
Whilst Pride and Prejudice is a novel that ends happily, this conclusion is only arrived at after a series of more difficult situations have developed. In this way, the novel is believable and ‘true to life’ and the importance of conversations is key to this quality.
In Jane Austen’s novels, the story’s narrator is a very important character in their own right, sharing their opinion on the things that the characters think and do.
The novel introduces Mr Darcy in chapter 3. He is at a dance where he first encounters Elizabeth. When Mr Bingley suggests that Mr Darcy dances he expresses how unenjoyable he finds the gathering. In this excerpt look at how language can communicate social rules and otherwise unspoken expectations about behaviour: “I certainly shall not. You know I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with me partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with.”
Chapter sixteen of the novel is a very useful example of how the narrator converses directly with the reader to give them an insight into a character. In this chapter, Elizabeth is aware that Mr Darcy is looking at her as they listen to a piano being played: “She could only imagine…that she drew his notice because there was something more wrong and reprehensible, according to his ideas of right, than in any other person present. The supposition did not pain her. She liked him too little to care for approbation.” The narrator here explains that Elizabeth is aware of the attitude that Mr Darcy appears to have and even though she feels a little concerned the narrator’s closing comment tells us that Elizabeth does not care so much about what he thinks of her.
In chapter thirty-four Darcy explains to Elizabeth his feelings for her and the use of verbs expresses the battle he has faced in reaching this point “ In vain I have struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
In chapter twenty-nine, Elizabeth has dinner with Lady Catherine and challenges the older woman’s assumptions at every opportunity. It’s a heroic moment for Elizabeth and the dialogue is brilliantly realised as Elizabeth explains that her sisters are out in society whilst she chooses not to be: “The last born has as good a right to pleasures of youth as the first. And to be kept back on such a motive! I think it would not be very likely to promote sisterly affection or delicacy of mind.” The narrator then reinforces Elizabeth’s confidence in challenging Lady Catherine: “Lady Catherine seemed quite astonished…and Elizabeth suspected herself to be first creature who had ever dared to trifle with so much dignified impertinence.”
In chapters forty three to forty five, Elizabeth visits Mr Darcy’s country house, which is named Pemberley. During her visit she begins to more fully understand his character. Jane Austen uses descriptive language as a metaphor so that the description of the house is a description of Mr Darcy: “it was a large handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and back 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.” As she explores the house, everything she sees stands for Mr Darcy: “it was neither gaudy nor uselessly fine; with less of splendour, and more real elegance…”
Just as we write emails to each other in our personal lives and in our working lives, in Pride and Prejudice the role of letter writing is important as a way for characters to express themselves, and to continue their conversations with each other. Letters being sent and received by character also function well as a device for Jane Austen to use to advance the plot.
The Narrator Converses with the Reader
Throughout Pride and Prejudice, the narrator provides us with insights into the characters’ thoughts and feelings that we cannot be given directly by the characters.
The very famous opening sentence of the novel is given in the voice of the narrator and it establishes the importance of humour whilst also describing a social situation into which Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters, as middle class women, found themselves in Regency period England.
In chapter fifty two, we find an example of how the narrator talks to the reader in order to describe Elizabeth’s reflections on Darcy’s actions and his influence on various situations that have occurred. In this chapter, the narrator is an important ‘voice’ in providing us with a sense of the novel’s values. In chapter forty six there is a very brief, but important, observation made by the narrator who explains that “gratitude and esteem are good foundations of affection…”
1. The Cambridge Introduction to Jane Austen by Janet Todd