Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Meaningful Gazes: Looking at Narrative in Chapter 15 of Pride and Prejudice

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Meaningful Gazes: Looking at Narrative in Chapter 15 of Pride and Prejudice

Article excerpt

WHEN HE ARRIVES IN PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, Mr. Wickham catches the attention of every lady" in the Bennet family (80). Jane Austen's reader witnesses his introduction from several angles: sometimes through the famous "'fine eyes'" of Elizabeth Bennet (30); sometimes through the haughty gaze of Mr. Darcy; and sometimes, mysteriously, from the perspective of nobody at all. The scene is a tangle of gazes and coded appearances. "What could be the meaning of it?" Elizabeth wonders, not unreasonably. Ashley Tauchert has stressed the importance of the character's gaze as Austen's tool for directing the gaze of the reader (163). This passage in chapter 15 shows Austen using this tool to create and conceal that "meaning" in a surprising variety of ways.

Laura G. Mooneyham argues that Wickham's unorthodox introduction in the middle of the street is "a clue that [he] will eventually be unmasked as a man who subverts social rules" (61). There are further clues to be found in Austen's linguistic choices as Darcy and Mr. Bingley join the gathering:

   On distinguishing the ladies of the group, the two gentlemen came
   directly towards them, and began the usual civilities. Bingley was
   the principal spokesman, and Miss Bennet the principal object. He
   was then, he said, on his way to Longbourn on purpose to inquire
   after her. Mr. Darcy corroborated it with a bow, and was beginning
   to determine not to fix his eyes on Elizabeth, when they were
   suddenly arrested by the sight of the stranger, and Elizabeth
   happening to see the countenance of both as they looked at each
   other, was all astonishment at the effect of the meeting. Both
   changed colour, one looked white, the other red. Mr. Wickham,
   after a few moments, touched his hat--a salutation which Mr. Darcy
   just deigned to return. What could be the meaning of it?--It was
   impossible to imagine; it was impossible not to long to know. (81)

Austen's stilted, formulaic report of the "usual civilities" reveals little about Bingley and Jane, the "principal" characters. Indeed, their "principal" status is contested by the drama taking place among their observing friends. As the narration becomes focalized through Darcy, Austen draws the reader away from visible actions and into his hidden thoughts. This narrative movement foreshadows Darcy's intervention into the burgeoning romance between Bingley and Jane. With Darcy as the focalizer, the reader learns what only he knows: that he is "beginning to determine not to fix his eyes on Elizabeth." As Tauchert has noted, Austen places Darcy under the reader's objectifying gaze by her reference to his eyes, which are drawn, one might assume, to the much-admired "fine eyes" of Elizabeth. This suggests the possibility of a "meaningful] " moment of eye contact. Austen creates the illusion of a near miss as the focalization moves swiftly from Darcy to Elizabeth, who "happen[s] to see the countenance[s]" of Darcy and Wickham. Although the moment for eye contact has passed, Austen suggests a connection between Darcy and Elizabeth through this narrative movement within the sentence.

Austen's use of the gaze in this scene is far more complex than Tauchert suggests. Despite this narrative closeness, Darcy's and Elizabeth's perspectives are divided by an intruding clause when Darcy's eyes are "suddenly arrested by the sight of the stranger." Austen's choice of "arrested" implies a sudden stop to dynamic movement. The narrative closes in from a street scene to Darcy's eyes as he reacts to the sight of Wickham. In this scene, the real drama is not created by outward action, but by looking and seeing.

The impact of Wickham's intrusion is reflected in the transition out of focalization through Darcy to an unsettling narrative no-man's land. Wickham is not a "stranger" to Darcy, as his reaction reveals, yet no other character can know that Darcy's gaze has been "arrested." As Susan C. Greenfield has argued, the narrator of Pride and Prejudice prefers an "unknowing mind" (343). …

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