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Narrative style

Jane Austen’s narrative style has sometimes been described as detached. It might also be called polished and precise. When she is writing as the narrator she writes carefully as if she is evaluating her characters, checking the gaps between what they say and what they think, catching the echo of their different voices. Sometimes she is a simple reporter of a character’s thoughts and feelings (most often Elizabeth’s) but she can also be judgemental, contemptuous, sarcastic or warm and humane, even emotional.


Reading aloud

Although the structure of Jane Austen’s sentences may not be the structure we would usually use today, she regularly read her work aloud to her own family so this remains the best way to catch her elusive, distinctive voice.

Pride and Prejudice wasn’t written in a hurry. Austen polished and revised. Remember that whatever is there, is there for a reason.


Language - Mr Collins voice

Mr Collins’s voice portrays his conceit and pomposity. When Mr Bennet sets him talking about Lady Catherine’s affability, we continue to hear this tone even though it is being reported indirectly via the narrator: ‘And with a most important aspect he protested that he had never in his life witnessed such behaviour in a person of rank – such affability and condescension, as he had himself experienced from Lady Catherine’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 14, p. 54).

It is important to hear the rhythm here – the stress falling on ‘important’, ‘never’, ‘life’, ‘rank’, ‘himself’, etc. Mr Collins’s use of many unnecessary words and such a long sentence, simply to say that Lady Catherine has been kind to him, makes the reader begin to doubt both the reality of the kindness and the intelligence of the speaker.

Austen presents Mr Collins as a caricature rather than as a rounded human being whose feelings might be hurt by Elizabeth’s rejection: ‘though his pride was hurt, he suffered in no other way’ (p. 94). Although he presents himself as generous about money, the fact that he mentions it at all in a proposal of marriage is also revealing: ‘it is by no means certain that another offer of marriage will ever be made you. Your portion is unhappily so small that it will in all likelihood undo the effects of your loveliness and amiable qualifications’ (p. 91).


What is voice

The way a character speaks, or the way in which the narrator speaks to the reader.

The distinctive tone or style of a character’s speech, including the individual tone of the narrator

Apart from the narrator, whose is the central perspective on events?
2. The central point of view is Elizabeth’s


Different voices

In good dialogue writing you should be able to identify who is speaking from the style of their speech. You will learn to recognise the tone of their voice – as you would in life. Austen’s characters speak in distinctive ways which reveal their personalities. Their speech also varies according to the context. For instance, Mr Bennet’s wit has a bitter edge when he is talking to Mrs Bennet: ‘You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 1, p. 3). When he speaks to Elizabeth, his tone is quite different. When she asks, ‘Can [Mr Collins] be a sensible man, sir?’ He replies, ‘No, my dear; I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse.’ The key word here is ‘hopes’ – Mr Bennet trusts Lizzie to understand why he hopes that their guest will be ‘a mixture of servility and self-importance’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 13, p. 53).


Language features

When writing about the language of a novel you should be ready to consider the following features: voice, dialogue, irony, diction (choice of words), caricature, perspective (point of view) and sentence structure. If this sounds a bit daunting, don’t worry. Identifying the technique is Step One but writing about its effect is the more important Step Two. If you can’t remember the precise technical term, at least describe how you, as reader, see it working and its effect.


Language device - irony

The difference between what is said and what is meant

Statements or situations that may suggest something rather different from the obvious meaning.
Elizabeth’s hidden anger towards Mr Darcy is revealed in a response to Colonel Fitzwilliam: ‘Oh! yes, […] Mr Darcy is uncommonly kind to Mr Bingley, and takes a prodigious deal of care of him’ (Vol. 2, Ch. 10, p. 153).
Effect =
The words ‘uncommonly’ and ‘prodigious’ are so exaggerated as to suggest she is not sincere.

Use of Language – Irony
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The narrator is often ironic. How is Lady Lucas described?
‘... not too clever  to be a valuable neighbour to Mrs Bennet.’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 5, p. 13)

Use of Language – Irony
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Sometimes comments are so exaggerated that the irony is closer to sarcasm. When Elizabeth is angry how does she describe Darcy’s friendship with Bingley?
‘Darcy takes a prodigious  deal of care of him.’ (Vol. 2, Ch. 10, p. 153)

Narrative irony
Mrs Bennet asks, ‘What is Mr Darcy to me, pray, that I should be afraid of him? I am sure we owe him no particular civility’ (p. 83). The story will show that Mrs Bennet is wrong in every way at this point. Mr Darcy will eventually be her wealthiest son-in-law and her lack of general civility on this occasion almost ruins everything for Jane – the daughter she is boasting about. This is an example of narrative irony as well as demonstrating Mrs Bennet’s prejudice and bad manners.

Always be alert for examples of irony when reading Pride and Prejudice. In this chapter, for instance, Elizabeth questions Darcy about being ‘blinded by prejudice’ and stresses the importance of ‘judging properly at first’ (p. 78). This is exactly what she is failing to do herself.

The narrator often explains people’s behaviour: for example, Georgiana’s shyness could make people assume she was proud, especially if they ‘felt themselves inferior’ (p. 219). The narrator also comments on people’s behaviour, pointing out that Caroline has only succeeded in making Darcy say ‘what gave no one any pain but herself’ (p. 223). Jane Austen’s ironic tone can invite us to smile at characters’ behaviour in an affectionate way as well as a satirical or judgemental way. Her description of Mrs Gardiner and Elizabeth presents them as slightly comic but is not unkind: ‘Mrs Gardiner and Elizabeth talked of all that had occurred, during their visit, […] except what had particularly interested them both’ (p. 223).


Language - voice Mrs Bennet

Mrs Bennet characteristically speaks in incomplete sentences – very often with exclamations: ‘Every thing that is charming! Three daughters married! Ten thousand a year! Oh Lord!’ (Vol. 3, Ch. 17, p. 314) She is illogical and never notices how frequently she changes her mind and contradicts herself.

Use of Language – Sentence structure
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Mrs Bennet’s sentences are usually incomplete exclamations. What does she say when she knows Elizabeth will be marrying Darcy?
‘Such a charming man! – so handsome! so tall  !’ (Vol. 3, Ch. 17, p. 313)

Mrs Bennet reacts violently with an outpouring of contradictory thoughts after Charlottes engagement to me c is out

Elizabeth knows her mother will be either violently set against the match or violently delighted. Notice how Austen springs a small surprise: Mrs Bennet is silent. After that her speech is even more fragmented than usual, full of incomplete sentences and exclamation marks.


Narrator’s tone

The narrator’s tone is frequently ironic and may also be sarcastic. Read the passage about Lydia’s marriage from ‘The good news quickly spread’ to ‘her misery was considered certain’ (Vol. 3, Ch. 8, p. 254). Underline some of the words and phrases which suggest that what is said and what is meant are not identical (= irony). Then choose a different colour to underline words that express clear criticism, anger or bitterness and so might better be described as sarcastic or satirical


Language device - use of detail

Pride and Prejudice is full of observations that sum up a whole situation or character in a few words. They often take the form of brief statements, rather than description, and gain their effect through Jane Austen’s precise selection of vocabulary (diction) and the strong rhythm of her sentences.

‘In as short a time as Mr Collins’s long speeches would allow, everything was settled’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 22, p. 102).
The opposites ‘short’ and ‘long’ balance each other and offer the reader a quick reminder of just how boring Mr Collins is. It is a measure of the Lucases’ relief at Charlotte’s engagement that they cheerfully put up with this. If you read the sentence aloud you are likely to find that you stress the word ‘everything’. That’s it, business concluded, Charlotte’s future sorted out – for better or worse.


Language device - euphemism

Look out for Austen’s use of euphemism (substitution of a less harsh or indirect word or phrase for something embarrassing or unpleasant). The phrase ‘secluded in some distant farmhouse’ (Vol. 3, Ch. 8, p. 254) means giving birth in secret because unmarried.


Narrator’s voice

omniscient narrator
A story-teller who knows everything that is happening and all the characters’ thoughts

Austen acts in the novel as an omniscient narrator (someone who knows about everything). Occasionally she comments on her characters in the first person, for example on Mrs Bennet: ‘I wish I could say [that] the establishment of so many of her children, produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life’ (Vol. 3, Ch. 19, p. 319). Putting ‘I wish’ at the beginning warns the reader in advance that this did not happen.

Use of Language – The voice of the narrator
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The narrator lets us know what other people are doing. What did Charlotte Lucas do when she saw Mr Collins walking towards her home?
... set out to meet him accidentally  .’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 22, p. 102)

Use of Language – The voice of the narrator
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The voice of the narrator is often judgemental. How is Mrs Bennet described at the end of the first chapter?
‘... a woman of mean  understanding ...’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 1, p. 3)


Language device - rhetoric

What is rhetoric?
The skills of using language effectively and persuasively.
Austen and her characters often use rhetorical techniques to make particular points. Lady Catherine tries a rhetorical question: ‘Are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?’ (Vol. 3, Ch. 14, p. 296) At least she thinks it’s a rhetorical question as she assumes the answer must be an obvious ‘No’.
The reader, however, will be guessing (or hoping) ‘Yes’ and will therefore see Lady Catherine’s arrogance more clearly than ever.

1Jane Austen (or her characters) use rhetoric To argue or persuade

‘Mr Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends – whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 18, p. 76).

Austen uses a wide range of sentence structures for rhetorical effect as well as to illustrate character. Here are some examples:

Example Effect
A balanced sentence: ‘Mr Wickham is blessed with such happy manners as may ensure his making friends – whether he may be equally capable of retaining them, is less certain.’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 18, p. 76)
This makes a true and damning point about Wickham (which Elizabeth ignores). It reveals Darcy’s strong character that he can speak in such a controlled manner even when he is clearly upset.
Piling up phrases or clauses to make a point more strongly: ‘She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper.’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 1, p. 3)
The reader is left in no doubt that the narrator dislikes Mrs Bennet.


Metaphors, similes, imagery etc

Metaphors, similes, imagery, assonance, alliteration, description are not frequently used by Austen but they are there in her writing and usually emphasise a particular point. For instance Lady Catherine’s accusation that Elizabeth has used ‘arts and allurements’ (Vol. 3, Ch. 14, p. 293) to capture Darcy is made more powerful by Austen’s use of alliteration.


Language - device concrete and abstract nouns

Diction (choice of words)
Includes abstract nouns referring to moral qualities (‘pride’) and judgmental adjectives (‘a woman of mean intelligence’). Careful choice of words indicates intelligence (‘Can he be a sensible man?’).

1. Give an example of an abstract and a concrete noun from the novel.
2. For example: abstract nouns – pride, prejudice; concrete nouns – chicken, petticoat

What are concrete and abstract nouns?
Concrete nouns are precise and specific names for things.
Abstract nouns are more likely to be generalised or refer to qualities.

Austen uses many more abstract nouns than would be usual today. When she focuses on a specific object it is usually for a special effect.
‘Lady Lucas, who had been long yawning at the repetition of delights which she saw no likelihood of sharing, was left to the comforts of cold ham and chicken.’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 18, pp. 83–4) ‘Delights’ and ‘comforts’ are abstract nouns; ‘cold ham and chicken’ are concrete and linked to ‘comforts’ by alliteration.
This gives the impression that Lady Lucas is a straightforward person with rather simple tastes.

Use of Language – Concrete and abstract nouns
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Naive Maria Lucas is flustered when Miss de Bourgh and her companion call at Hunsford Parsonage. What does Elizabeth claim she expected?
‘... that the pigs  were got into the garden ...’ (Vol. 2, Ch. 5, p. 132)

Use of Language – Concrete and abstract nouns
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Mr and Mrs Gardiner are puzzled by Darcy’s courtesy and kindness when they meet him at Pemberley. What motive do they begin to suspect?
‘... a partiality  for their niece.’ (Vol. 3, Ch. 2, p. 213)

When writing about Jane Austen’s diction you are likely to mention her use of abstract nouns such as ‘greatness’ (p. 132). Writers today often keep their language concrete (specific) and avoid abstraction. This was not the case in Austen’s time and usually her more refined characters use more intellectual language. However, you might like to list the occasions when Austen uses a very brief, concrete word and what effect she gains by this technique. For example, when she sees Miss de Bourgh’s carriage stop at the parsonage gate Maria Lucas insists that Elizabeth hurries downstairs ‘for there is such a sight to be seen! I will not tell you what it is’ (p. 132). When Elizabeth has seen the ‘wonder’, she comments ‘I expected at least that the pigs were got into the garden; and here is nothing but Lady Catherine and her daughter!’ The emphasis of the sentence falls on the word ‘pigs’. Elizabeth is implicitly criticising the fuss Maria has made about two quite normal human visitors. It is disrespectful to hint that pigs would have been more interesting and suggests that Elizabeth will not be intimidated by grandeur.


When writing about language

When discussing Austen’s language, make sure you refer to the techniques she uses, and, most important, the effect of those techniques. Don’t just say, Austen uses lots of exclamation marks here. Write: Austen’s use of exclamation marks shows [or demonstrates or conveys] the ideas that …


Language - sentence structure

Tone, rhythm, sentence structure
Intended to be read aloud as well as privately. Narrator’s ironic comments can undercut a character. Exclamations indicate ignorance (Mrs Bennet) or unusually extreme emotion (Elizabeth).

Use of Language – Sentence structure
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Calm, admirable characters speak in well-balanced sentences. When Elizabeth is telling Jane about Wickham and Darcy she says that one of them ‘has got all the goodness’. What does she say about the other?
‘... the other all the appearance  of it.’ (Vol. 2, Ch. 17, p. 186)
Mrs Bennet’s sentences are usually incomplete exclamations. What does she say when she knows Elizabeth will be marrying Darcy?
‘Such a charming man! – so handsome! so tall  !’ (Vol. 3, Ch. 17, p. 313)

Balanced sentences
Mr Bennet is not a perfect father and his poor relationship with his wife is a weakness in the family. However he is rational, intelligent and humorous and on this occasion he deals with the situation decisively. ‘Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr Collins, and I will never see you again if you do’ (p. 93). Austen expresses the balance and clarity of Mr Bennet’s mind through the balance and clarity of this sentence. Elizabeth shares this quality of rational thought and clear expression. For example, she tells Mr Collins, ‘You could not make me happy, and I am convinced that I am the last woman in the world who would make you so’ (p. 90).

Austen’s longer sentences are clearly organised by use of subclauses and/or rhetorical balance: for example ‘and more than commonly anxious to please, she [Elizabeth] naturally suspected that every power of pleasing would fail her’ (p. 213). Thus far Elizabeth has seemed able to behave very easily and naturally as well as politely, so this complex sentence expresses her new self-consciousness. The three-part sentence ‘Bingley was ready, Georgiana was eager, and Darcy determined to be pleased.’ (p. 214) is held together by pattern and rhythm as the three visitors are held together by their wish to be friends. Use of long sentences means that any very simple sentence stands out, for example: ‘It was gratitude’ (p. 217).


Hidden language

Polite language inadequate to express private feelings. Feelings shown through movement, change of position (as in a play). Body language (e.g. blushing) reveals physical attraction.


Examples chapt 1-2

It is important that you can write about key aspects of Jane Austen’s style evident in Chapters 1–2. Make sure you can explain the effects of the following key features:

Irony: The first sentence contains powerful words and phrases such as ‘truth’, ‘universally acknowledged’ and ‘must’. The force of these words is undercut by the acknowledgement of ignorance ‘However little known’ (p. 1).
Characteristic speech rhythms: Mrs Bennet tends towards exclamations and assertions, while Mr Bennet usually seems to prefer calm statements: ‘You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves’ (p. 3).
Narrator’s: Used to describe and condemn – as in the contemptuous adjectives applied to Mrs Bennet: voice, ‘mean’, ‘little’ (p. 3). ‘uncertain’


Language -comedy

Pride and Prejudice can be considered as a comic novel. Sometimes it is the narrator’s comment that underlines the gap between what a character says and what she or he does. An example of this is Caroline Bingley struggling to read the second volume of Darcy’s chosen book. She is constantly stopping and interrupting. Finally ‘she gave a great yawn and said, “[…] How much sooner one tires of anything than a book!” […] She then yawned again, threw aside her book, and cast her eyes around the room in search of some amusement’ (pp. 44–5). A sense of humour is part of Elizabeth’s personality: ‘Follies and nonsense, whims and inconsistencies do divert me, I own, and I laugh at them whenever I can’ (p. 46). Her half-laughing argument with Darcy might lead the reader to guess that she is more attracted to him than she realises.


Free indirect speech



Elizabeth shows good understanding of Bingley: ‘much as she had always been disposed to like him, she could not think without anger, hardly without contempt, on that easiness of temper, that want of proper resolution which now made him the slave of his designing friends’ (p. 111).

This is an example of free indirect speech (reflecting on events from inside Elizabeth’s head) and allows us to share her perception that Bingley’s faults are closely linked to his virtues. We see her rationality in the balanced pattern of clauses but also her potential for emotion in the strong words ‘anger’ and ‘contempt’.


Jane Austen uses free indirect speech to allow the reader into Elizabeth’s mind so that we share her thoughts and feelings about Darcy’s proposal. In the previous chapter we saw how alive she was to the idea of marriage when Colonel Fitzwilliam explained why he couldn’t propose to someone with no fortune and Elizabeth understood what he was telling her: ‘Is this,’ thought Elizabeth, ‘meant for me?’

Shock at the proposal
Tumult of my mind


Darcy and Elizabeth - intellectually compatible

* Powerful expression of Darcy’s passion, pride and awkwardness.
* An opportunity for Elizabeth to express all the resentment, false impressions and unacknowledged emotion that she has been suppressing.
* This chapter is a crucial development in the romance and is also central to the themes of marriage, pride, manners and class.
If you compare this proposal with Mr Collins’s or with other examples of Darcy and Elizabeth’s dialogue you will see that the hero and heroine are adept at using the same language: for example here they both accuse each other of incivility (p. 156). This reveals the essential understanding and shared values which, in the end will make them a good couple. Darcy listens to Elizabeth as Mr Collins never did.

Notice the unusually high number of negative compound words in this scene of misunderstanding and rejection. Find some of the words beginning with the prefix ‘un-’ and consider what effect they have (pp. 156–60).

Highlight some of the words Austen uses to describe Elizabeth’s ‘perturbed state of mind’ at the beginning of Chapter 13 (p. 169). This will help you to focus on the language Austen uses to convey characters’ emotions.

The reader may have guessed that Elizabeth and Darcy will meet while she is at Pemberley but Austen manages the encounter apparently casually, placing it in the middle of a paragraph where Mr Gardiner is trying to estimate the date of the building. This is contrasted with the heightened emotion shown in Elizabeth and Darcy’s blushes and how Darcy – ‘absolutely started’ and then stands completely still for a moment. However self-control is one of Darcy’s key qualities and Austen shows that he is much better able to control himself that he was in Hunsford Parsonage. He manages ‘perfect civility’ if not ‘perfect composure’. The balance if language reflects his success in keeping calm


Language - Darcys voice

Austen has been working towards this moment ever since Darcy began to notice Elizabeth’s ‘fine eyes’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 6, p. 21). She has frequently presented him as unnaturally silent (for example on several of his visits to the Parsonage) and has expressed his inner conflict through his movements. Here he sits down, stands up, walks round the room, stays silent, then obviously makes up his mind. ‘He came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began, “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”’ (p. 156). If you compare this to Mr Collins claiming to be ‘run away with his feelings’ (Vol. 1, Ch. 19, p. 88) you will see how effectively Austen has established Darcy as a genuinely passionate man. ‘Ardently’ is a word that has connotations of fire and burning. It contrasts with Elizabeth’s ‘cold’ civility at this point (p. 156). Unfortunately he also speaks with ‘warmth’ (p. 157) about his contempt for her family. Throughout Pride and Prejudice Darcy develops more than any other character and this is the halfway stage in his journey.


Language device Repetition

At first Elizabeth tells herself that Darcy’s and Wickham’s conflicting stories are both ‘only assertion’ (p. 170) but then realises how little she knows of Wickham’s background. She was convinced by his charm, good looks and local popularity. Now she realises how wrong it was of him to tell her such a story on first meeting and how wrong she had been to listen. Austen uses a string of negative words to express both the wrongness of Elizabeth’s behaviour and, more important (for the later development of the story), the falseness and untrustworthiness of Wickham: ‘impropriety’, ‘indelicacy’, ‘inconsistency’, ‘no fear’, ‘no reserves’, ‘no scruples’ (p. 171).


Lady c and Elizabeth

The confrontation between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth is one of the most strongly written passages of dialogue in the novel. Lady Catherine, who prides herself on her ‘sincerity and frankness’ (p. 292), shows herself to be arrogant and insulting. Elizabeth defends herself by listening carefully to whatever Lady Catherine says and turning it back on her. For example when Lady Catherine asks whether Darcy has made Elizabeth an offer of marriage, Elizabeth is able to avoid giving a direct answer: ‘Your ladyship has declared it to be impossible’ (p. 293). However, when Lady Catherine says that Elizabeth will pollute ‘the shades of Pemberley’ Elizabeth has had enough: ‘You have insulted me, in every possible method’ (p. 296). Lady Catherine is so angry that she refuses to say goodbye: ‘I take no leave of you, Miss Bennet. I send no compliments to your mother. You deserve no such attention’ (p. 297). The rhythmical repetition of ‘no … no … no … ’ is intended to emphasise her anger but only reveals her lack of real power.

It is well worth looking at the strong sentence rhythms in this chapter as well as examples of other literary devices such as alliteration, when Lady Catherine accuses Elizabeth of using her ‘arts and allurements’ (p. 293) to draw Darcy in. Though this is obviously rude, it is little different from the way Charlotte suggested earlier that Jane ought to behave to succeed in ‘fixing’ or to ‘secure’ Bingley (Vol. 1, Ch. 11, p. 16).



Mr Bennet is suddenly serious while Elizabeth teases Jane about loving Darcy for ‘his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’ (p. 309). The connection of marriage and money, initially threatening, has almost become a joke.