Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Conjecturing Possibilities: Reading and Misreading Texts in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Conjecturing Possibilities: Reading and Misreading Texts in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

Article excerpt

Precisely halfway through the novel (almost to the very letter by a computer count of words), Elizabeth Bennet, the central character of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, is the recipient of a letter. She is forced to read it twice. The letter is from Fitzwilliam Darcy, the man she will eventually marry, but still in the grip of those two flaws from which the novel takes its title, Elizabeth at first misreads it. Only when she reads it again in a different frame of mind is she able to arrive at a closer estimation of the meaning of its words and the intention of its author. In a novel initially written in the epistolary style, it is not, of course, remarkable that letters should be received and sent, and indeed there are quite a few coming and going on its pages. Yet this one, so centrally placed, functions not only as a turning point in the progress of events but as the focal point of a theme that is devoted only in part to the ways of courtship and marriage and-for it is important to note the incident Austen picks as her image-far more to the reading of texts. Kelly and Newey are fight to argue that in this novel the reading of texts stands as both a fact and a metaphor, for Austen often speaks here of "reading" the world as well as the word (e.g., 90, 95). But Austen is actually more precise. What she wants to teach Elizabeth, and the reader along with her, is, in the strictest sense of the word, a philosophic understanding of the epistemological grounds that allow us to read at all.

We have not typically thought of Austen as a novelist much disturbed by such philosophical questions, although a number of excellent studies have sought to dislocate this prejudice. (1) These, and the work of Martha Satz and Zelda Boyd, to whom I shall return in a moment, have not, however, yet succeeded in changing the general impression that if Austen has an interest in anything but human affairs, it is in social manners and history, not in philosophic issues. Even critics like Gilbert Ryle, who takes her to be a serious moralist and to be interested in the theory as well as the practical end of morality, begins his analysis of her views by stating that she is not a "philosopher" (168). Yet Austen is highly philosophical, alert both to ideas in general and to the currents of her time. What is deceptive is that rarely does she present these theoretically. Mostly her conceptual world is so fully dramatized in her characters and her plots that it can only be inferred from the nature of the action and the language of the narrative. But once in a while we do, in fact, find a moment so abstract as to convince us beyond doubt that Austen's purpose is philosophical. Thus, for example, in Mansfield Park, Mary Crawford, the embodiment of the skeptical point of view, measures the distance and the duration of her walk in the woods with Edmund in subjective and relative terms. He, the voice of another age, proposes an objective criterion. Consulting his watch, he tries to show her she has mistaken both space and time. But this means nothing to Mary Crawford. "'A watch,'" she protests, exasperated, "'is always too fast or too slow. I cannot be dictated to by a watch'" (95). The presence of such a striking scene and the central place of these characters indicate that the human relationships that stand at the forefront of Austen's action, important as they are in themselves, serve as illustrations as well of a philosophic theme. Austen seems to be asking here, is there such thing as truth? Can it be known? And by what means? And with what degree of certainty?

These same epistemological questions lie at the heart of Pride and Prejudice. Its vocabulary--and Austen, as I shall show, uses lexical devices to guide the reader through her argument-relies heavily on such words as "suspect," "presume," "conjecture," "guess," "detect," "surmise," "infer," "trust," "perceive," "believe," "construe." "Suppose," her favorite of this kind, turns up ninety times in the novel. …

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