Austen uses various techniques of narration in this passage, which grasps the readers’ attention, drawing them into the lives of Elizabeth and Darcy. We can empathise with the varying emotions as this scene unfolds through both dialogue and narrative voice.
From lines 1 to 16, we hear Elizabeth becoming increasingly irate as she rebuffs Darcy. The irony of the opening comment that she was attempting to “speak with composure” is highlighted just moments later when she does the exact opposite. Her youthful exuberance takes over and her inexperience and lack of forethought allows her rhetoric to descend into insults about his “arrogance” and “conceit”. She produces her final harsh insult of Darcy being “the last man in the world” she would marry, before Darcy feels he must interrupt.
These 16 lines of direct and free indirect speech are all written from Elizabeth’s viewpoint. We may be told of Darcy’s reactions, but they are as Elizabeth sees them. We can however understand how Darcy would indeed have been shocked into an “expression of…incredulity”, when he would have been used to more deferential attitudes. We may also be told of Darcy’s appearance during Elizabeth’s denunciation, but we are never given any insight into his thoughts. This keeps us focalised on seeing events unfold from Elizabeth’s perspective.
From line 17, Darcy enters the dialogue and his composed and more refined reply contrasts significantly with Elizabeth’s more uncouth speech. As Austen turns to the usage of dialogue, as a reader we feel we are actually present and listening to the conversation; it therefore becomes more authentic to us. There is a sense of non-disclosure however and we are left wondering what Darcy is really feeling. As the narration is focalised through Elizabeth, we cannot know at this point what secrets Darcy is concealing (which are revealed in his letter to Elizabeth in the next chapter).
Our feelings are altered during this exchange. Austen very shrewdly makes us squirm with embarrassment for Darcy. For someone who is so used to obsequious admirers, such as Miss Bingley, we feel his astonishment at this tirade. Upon first reading of this book (with no knowledge of events to come), even though we would be sympathetic to Elizabeth’s point of view, we would still have compassion for Darcy, who retains utmost politeness (“forgive me…accept my best wishes”) in the face of Elizabeth’s downright rudeness. However justified Elizabeth thinks she is, I do feel we lose a little sympathy with her at this point. We must nevertheless also bear in mind that alternatively, perhaps it is the very crime Elizabeth accuses Darcy of, “his abominable pride”, which allows him to maintain his aloof demeanour in his polite, but cold, response.
With line 21 comes a change of narration; the “showing” dialogue is replaced with the “telling” narrative. This is practical, as Elizabeth is now on her own and is useful for Austen to provide us with an insight into Elizabeth’s current thoughts and feelings.
The “tumult of her mind” is apparent as we can feel the sentences stumbling over each other as her mind races. We have repetition of various words, “should”, “in love”, “pride” and this brings our attention to her fast, tumbling speech and agitated state. This is a realist novel in motion, as we can empathise with her troubled emotions. The number of exclamation marks (lines 26, 27, 30) point to her incredulity, outrage and indeed surprise at recent events and this free indirect speech of Elizabeth draws us into her incredulous reaction.
Because the narration at this point is most definitely Elizabeth speaking and therefore a very one-sided declaration of events, we must also wonder about what is not being disclosed by Elizabeth, as she is swept away by her outrage. It is only with knowing what is to come, further in the book, that we can read this speech with a wry smile on our face. It is also with typical Austen irony that she rebukes Darcy for his “abominable pride”, when indeed she is also guilty of this crime throughout the book. She may not have pride of status, as Darcy, but she does allow her pride (and prejudice!) to cloud her re-evaluation of any pre-conceived thoughts she has on her companions.
With the final three lines, we have the return of our omniscient narrator and again the realist novel is apparent, as we can identify with Elizabeth’s need to escape from scrutiny and retire to consider her own thoughts and conflicts.
Because Austen writes almost this entire passage focalised from Elizabeth’s point of view, we do lean towards her perspective. It is however difficult to trust what we are hearing, simply because Elizabeth is quite clearly showing herself to be too emotionally overwrought to perhaps be seeing things clearly. Also, we only have her point of view and not the more impartial narrator’s point of view. Elizabeth is obviously being truthful to her own feelings, but we question the validity of those feelings (especially upon subsequent readings of the novel). As the narration is focalised through Elizabeth, we do feel sympathy for her turmoil, regardless of whether we agree with it or not.
Austen is setting the scenes to come. We are being equipped for the explosive realisation that Elizabeth has perceived many things wrong and of course the scene is being set for the blossoming friendship and love between Elizabeth and Darcy. Bearing in mind this is a realist novel, we as readers almost need Elizabeth to turn Darcy down initially, so that we can believe in the sincerity of their impending union.
Austen uses both narrative voice and dialogue in this passage. However both are mainly from Elizabeth and it is difficult to gauge Darcy’s true feelings, with such little input from him. Our own perspective and feelings are changed throughout this significant passage, and important events to come are set in motion. By focalising from Elizabeth’s point of view, upon first reading of this novel we can sympathise more readily with her reaction and we can be caught up in her current indignation and therefore her future embarrassment, as events unfold and both Elizabeth and the reader realise their prejudice has been unfounded. It is only upon subsequent readings of the novel, that our sympathy is a little less forthcoming. Austen has succeeded, through the techniques of her narration, to influence and involve her reader in the lives of her characters.
Austen, J (2004) Pride and Prejudice, Oxford, Oxford University Press
The Open University (2005) The Realist Novel
The Open University. (2005) Approaching Prose Fiction
The Open University. A210 Audio Cassette AC1