Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice utilizes a combination of narrative voice and dialogue, or telling and showing, to effectively create the impression of a social world inhabited by a variety of characters. The novel is written in the 3rd person, where the narrator isn’t an actual character in the story (as in 1st person narration), but a separate entity. In Pride and Prejudice they are also omniscient, allowing them to enter a particular character’s mind and inform the reader of proceedings from his or her perspective. This article explores some of the sophisticated narrative techniques Austen employs through analyzing an excerpt (found on pp.33-34, Oxford World’s Classics edition) from the novel.
The first section of the excerpt – beginning from ‘And so ended his affection’ (p.33) – is predominantly dialogue. The omniscient narrator enters a brief state of abeyance as the novel’s two principal characters – the protagonist Elizabeth Bennet and the standoffish Mr. Darcy step forth to convey the story in their own words. This is a major process of showing, known as direct speech or dialogue, and is typified by the exact representation of a character’s discourse, enclosed within quotation marks, and read as if it were occurring in real time, instead of being merely reported back to the reader. Such a process is effective for creating a sense of intimacy between the characters and the reader, as well as eliciting a more immediate response from their dialogue, such as sympathy or judgement. For example, the reader is instantly able to discern the contrast of opinion between Elizabeth and Darcy, in this instance their differing views on poetry. Such disagreements between characters echo the linguistic theories of the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who believed that words were essentially interactive – an idea that he defined as ‘dialogic’. He regarded all language as fundamentally a dialogue of conflicting voices, and usage of direct speech in prose fiction is a means of artistically orchestrating these voices.
The frequent use of dialogue in Pride and Prejudice brings forth the issue of veracity. Which character is the reader to believe? Bearing in mind the supposed truthfulness of the narrator can also be called into question. The veracity of Elizabeth’s dialogue is strengthened when the author doesn’t employ a detached narrative voice to describe the protagonist’s thoughts, but focalizes the proceedings through her, meaning that the reader views the story from Elizabeth’s perspective, seeing the current milieu through her eyes while comprehending the story via the narrator’s voice: “the general pause which ensued made Elizabeth tremble… She longed to speak, but could think of nothing to say” (p.33). This process serves as a means of eliciting empathy on the part of the reader with Elizabeth, as opposed to assuming a position of ironic detachment – a quality that is typical of Austen’s writing, and something she employs frequently with other characters, most notably Elizabeth’s mother, the overbearing Mrs. Bennet.
Further on the narrative perspective shifts away from Elizabeth as the reader encounters the use of indirect speech, “Mrs. Bennet began repeating her thanks to Mr. Bingley” (p.33). The difference between direct speech – such as dialogue – and indirect speech is that with the former the reader is presented with the exact words a character uses, enclosed in quotation marks, where as with indirect speech they are merely told what has been said. In this instance, the reader is made aware of the fact that Mrs. Bennet apologizes to Mr. Bingley, but remains unenlightened as to the woman’s exact turn of phrase.
The narrative voice then assumes an initially uncertain position. The line: “tax Mr. Bingley with having promised on his first coming into the country to give a ball at Netherfield” (p.33) isn’t spoken by any particular character, neither directly, through the use of dialogue, or indirectly, as in employing indirect speech. Instead it is an example of a sophisticated narrative technique known as ‘free indirect speech’. The voice appears to be that of the narrator, although it has temporarily adopted the style and intonation of Lydia, the youngest Bennet daughter. The line however isn’t focalized through this character as the reader isn’t given Lydia’s perspective, such as earlier in this paragraph where the viewpoint was clearly that of Elizabeth. It is also important to realize that Elizabeth’s thoughts weren’t conveyed through a process of free indirect speech as there was no slippage into her manner of articulation.
The ingenuous and self-confident aspect of Lydia’s free indirect speech anticipates the concise yet detailed character description that begins the following paragraph. The reader learns that the youngest Bennet has “high animal spirits, and a sort of natural self-consequence” (p.33), personality traits that undeniably concur with the nature of her free indirect speech. This portrayal isn’t focalized through any particular character but is solely that of the narrator, assuming a detached attitude to enable a vaguely comic impression of Lydia. The reader is much more likely to sympathize with Elizabeth over her younger sister on account of this narrative choice.
Mr. Bingley is another character of whom the narrator encourages the reader to empathize. This is evinced in the following: “Mr Bingley was unaffectedly civil in his answer” (p.33), as well as the dialogue between him and Lydia towards the end of the extract. The subtle intimacies as to Mr. Bingley’s and Lydia’s personalities are effectively consolidated through the sections detailing their direct speech. The dialogue clearly indicates Mr. Bingley’s genuine concern for Jane, the eldest Bennet daughter, “But you would not wish to be dancing while she is ill” (p.34). This is contrasted with Lydia’s typically unabashed persuasiveness as she swiftly ripostes by stating she will insist that Captain Carter should also give a ball as well as Mr. Bingley.
This excerpt is a revealing example of how Austen utilizes a variety of sophisticated narrative and dialogic techniques to successfully convey and develop her story. Methods of both telling and showing are effectively employed. The reader encounters a range of narrative voices that, through artful organization, are able to impart the story’s proceedings in an interesting, innovative and exciting manner.