Pride and Prejudice perfectly follows the story arc of a comedy: things start with promise, but get all tangled up, and are ultimately un-knotted so everyone can live happily ever after.
Balls as a motif for deepening humiliation
In Volume I, two balls, one given by the town of Meryton and one given by Bingley serve as a recurrent place or motif for Elizabeth’s humiliation. At the first ball, she hears Darcy say that she is not handsome enough to tempt him to dance. Ouch. At the second, she does end up dancing with him, but is increasingly conscious of her father’s, mother’s and sisters’ unclassy behaviour.
A similar event can be used effectively more than once, especially as a downward spiral of humiliation and exposition.
Basically, Pride and Prejudice is conversation. The first two chapters are Mr. and Mrs. Bennet discussing the arrival of an eligible bachelor in the neighbourhood. Despite the length of the conversation, very few dialogue tags are needed because each character has such a different voice- he’s sarcastic, she’s hysteric. I also noticed that people don’t speak in sentences, but paragraphs. Some people would say that modern readers prefer punchier, shorter dialogue, but if a character has something to say, let them go on for more than a few sentences. Also, does each character have a distinctive enough voice as to be recognizable without dialogue tags?
Almost entirely absent. In fact, Austen says she’s not going describe the beauties of Derbyshire because others have already done so.. We don’t know what anyone really looks like, other than a basic sketch (e.g. Mr. Collins: He was a tall, heavy-looking young man of five and twenty.) People are handsome or plain, tall or large. Rooms are fine or not. Clearly, Austen has not designed a character’s wardrobe as part of her writing prep. Their inner life—foibles, follies and fancies– are more important than their outfits. This may be one reason why this novel has aged so well.
Embarrassment as Enemy
Many elements conspire to embarrass Jane and Elizabeth: their loud-mouth mother, their marriage-minded cousin, their silly younger sisters, their father’s nonchalance toward his daughters’ upbringing, Darcy coming home to Pemberley a day early. It’s not some big scary bad guy, but it’s layer upon layer of people who make them feel unworthy, or ill at ease. Lesson: it’s not the big catastrophes, but the daily cringe.
Not in this book. It steadily moves forward from the inciting incident on the first page (Have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?) and progresses chronologically toward its conclusion. There is reference to the past, but it is recounted, not relived.
Couldn’t think of anything.
Mr. Darcy is the hero who saves Elizabeth and Jane from dishonour by paying unscrupulous Wickham’s debts and making him marry Lydia. There’s no fighting, there’s no showdown, but there is self-sacrifice for the sake of love, which is the ultimate heroism, if you ask me.
Obviously. But it comes in stages. First, the Lydia-Wickham scandal is resolved to everyone’s relief. But Jane is still in doubt about Bingley. Oh, look, Bingley comes back and makes a bee-line for her. Yay! But Elizabeth isn’t sure if Darcy will ever risk professing his love to her again, if he even does love her still. Oh he does! How delightfully romantic.
We only get inside Elizabeth’s head, and much more in the second half of the story. The sections right after she reads Darcy’s first letter and when she is puzzling over whether he loves her close to the end merit a close reading.
Lots of indirect dialogue. “Elizabeth tried hard to dissuade him from such a scheme.” “He seemed astonished too on finding her alone and apologized for his intrusion, by letting her know he had understood all the ladies to be within.” Is it a space saver, a way to skip over the less interesting or important bits and zoom in on what counts? If they’re just talking about the weather, waiting for someone to show up, probably best to use indirect dialogue: “A short dialogue on the subject of the country ensued, on either side calm and concise…”
This is another bad trait that creates a counterpoint: Caroline Bingley cuts up Elizabeth and her family to Darcy, not realizing that she’s rooting him more firmly in his preference for Elizabeth. In the end, Caroline’s plans come to naught. She wants her brother to marry Georgiana and she wants to marry Darcy, but the Bennet sisters snag both men. Her jealousy creates an interesting dynamic, and shows that even nice characters like Bingley can have odious sisters. In your story who’s jealous of whom and why? Is the jealous character powerful or not?
Who knows what and who doesn’t creates tension all through the story. First of all, we Wickham says he’s been treated unfairly by Darcy, so when the truth is revealed we get a total shock. Then, Jane and Elizabeth as well as Darcy, conceal this story with disastrous consequences for Lydia. Later, after Darcy has come to the rescue of Lydia and Wickham, Elizabeth finds out, but is sworn to secrecy by her aunt. It’s excruciating for her to see her mother speak coldly to Darcy when she knows how much he’s done for the family. A dirty secret, or even a lie, can create another level of suspense.
This is a huge technical aspect of the novel. Letters are used at almost every critical development:
I think this is a brilliant way to communicate what has happened “off-stage” or in the past, provided your characters live in an era of general literacy with a good postal service.
The Penguin Drop Caps edition is 402-403 pages long and at exactly 201 pages Darcy is proposing marriage to Elizabeth (in a very ungentleman-like manner). We’ve noticed him falling for her, but she hasn’t clued in. And when he says “I love you despite your family,” she’s not too impressed. This confrontation sets up the action in the rest of the novel, leading both of them to repent of their pride and prejudice toward the other.
Is there a confrontation in the middle of the novel that will lead to the resolution of the inciting incident?
In improv you’re supposed to say yes, to stay open to the other player’s ideas, but not so in fiction. “No” dialogue can occur anywhere in the story, and it serves to anchor the protagonist more firmly in a certain stance, to build up conflict and tension, to contrast the personalities of two characters. Lady Catherine De Bourgh’s surprise attack, I mean, visit, to Longbourn is successfully paried by Elizabeth. “You can’t marry my nephew,” says she. “Oh yeah?” says Elizabeth. And it is the report of this conversation that gives Darcy his first ray of hope that his beloved may have had a change of heart toward him.
Where can I include “no” dialogue for exposition or tension in the story?
Obsequious vs. Overbearing
It’s a comedy, after all, and Jane Austen paints several caricatures, using exaggeration for humour. By pairing Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh, she sets up a hilarious contrast: one character fawning, scraping, flattering, bowing, the other advising, commanding, directing and believing all false compliments.
Two extreme characters in juxtaposition highlight each other’s foibles, making them even more laughable. For a dose of humour, this is a great technique.
Point of view
The novel starts with some 3rd person omniscient remarks, but soon shifts to Elizabeth’s limited point of view, with a minor glimpse into the Gardiners’ minds and an omniscient epilogue in the last few paragraphs. I’m not sure that modern novelists could get away with using both limited and omniscient point of view.
I read somewhere that it’s amateurish to have your characters go around asking themselves questions in their interior monologues. Far better to say how they’re really feeling or describe their physical reaction to a scene, than have them ask long strings of questions. This advice led me to do some serious editing. Indeed, in Elizabeth’s chapter long self-examination (Volume II, chapter XIII) after reading Darcy’s letter, she only asks one question, though her mind is boiling over with uncertainties: “How could she deny that credit to his assertions, in one instance, when she had been obliged to give in the other?”
One could accuse Pride and Prejudice of being short on action. After all, there’s no sex, violence or natural disasters. No houses get set on fire (Jane Eyre), no bombs go off, no children die (Native Speaker), no war or famine (The Joy Luck Club), no binge drinking and illicit love affairs (Butterfield 8). But it’s structured like a revolving door. Here’s an incomplete list of some of the important entrances and exits:
So even in a gentle comedy a great deal of action is created by who is on and offstage at a given moment. A question to ask: how can I ramp up the conflict by having characters come or go? Is everyone just sitting around talking or can I have them rush around and bump into the people they least want to see?
Scene & Summary
Fictional time is not like real time. In real life, we can’t skip over the boring bits. Each minute takes exactly sixty seconds. But in fictional time (with the exception of Ian McEwan’s Saturday), authors accelerate through large chunks of time (summary) to get us to the interesting conversations and events (scene).
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet’s visit with Bingley is not what’s important. His teasing his wife before he goes and concealing it after are what matter. The teasing takes up all of chapter I, and Mrs. Bennet’s reaction when the concealing is exposed takes up chapter II. The visit itself is summarized in a single sentence: “Mr. Bennet was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley.”
Austen fast-forwards us through two whole uneventful months in one sentence as well: “With no greater events than these in the Longbourn family, and otherwise diversified by little beyond the walks to Meryton, sometimes dirty and sometimes cold, did January and February pass away.”
Another reason Pride and Prejudice has such staying power is that it is centered on the themes of love and shame. “I love him, but he doesn’t love me (I’m unworthy)” or “I love her, but my family won’t love her (she’s unworthy)” are experiences anyone can relate to, or at least understand.
Volumes I, II & III
The novel is divided into three volumes that don’t align with the three acts of the story arc. Instead, I think they align more with the seasons, Fall, Winter-Spring & Summer. Volume I begins just before Michaelmas (late September), and ends before Christmas. It’s fall, and just like the weather, things start off warm but cool off quickly. Volume II begins just before Christmas and ends with Elizabeth and the Gardiners departing for Derbyshire. This volume corresponds with the “Winter” of their feelings: Longbourn is definitively entailed on Mr. Collins & Charlotte Lucas, Jane has seen hide nor hair of Bingley, Elizabeth has rejected Darcy. But then “Spring” arrives and seeds of both bliss and disaster are sown: Lydia follows the militia to Brighton, and Elizabeth, learning the truth about Wickham from Darcy, begins to change her mind about both of them. Volume III opens with Elizabeth nervously starting off for Pemberley in July and ends, symmetrically, with her living there as Mrs. Darcy. It’s summer and everything heats up, starting with Elizabeth’s feelings for Darcy and culminating in the great disaster of Lydia running off with Wickham.
It’s not Romeo and Juliet, but I think Pride and Prejudice is a great example of a universal story: two people who take an instant dislike to each other gradually fall in love, as the good parts of their character are revealed and the bad parts repented of.
He stands in almost perfect contrast to Darcy. Mrs. Reynolds, Pemberley’s housekeeper perceives this and tells Elizabeth and the Gardiners: “He is the best landlord and the best master,” said she, that ever lived. Not like the wild young men now-a-days, who think of nothing but themselves.”
Hero or villain lacking punch? Give them a common root (Darcy and Wickham played together as children) and then turn one into the evil twin of the other.
X- A continuity error?
After Darcy and Elizabeth confess their mutual love in Volume III, chapter XVI, we read “In the hall they parted.” I took this to mean that Darcy left Longbourn, but he’s present in the next scene, so I guess Elizabeth just went upstairs before rejoining the rest of the party.
This is what separates enduring stories from those that get forgotten. This is a story of longing for respect, love, money, prestige, comfort, pleasure. It’s all about the strong desires and the obstacles that arise to block them.
Jane and Bingley fall in love- Bingley’s friends keep him away from her.
Darcy loves Elizabeth – she can’t abide his pride.
Mrs. Bennet wants to keep Longbourn in the family – Elizabeth refuses Mr. Collins.
Elizabeth loves Darcy – she doesn’t think he’ll dare ask her to marry him again.
In contrast, it’s when things go too easily (Lydia runs off with Wickham, Mrs. Bennet can boast she has a married daughter, Charlotte accepts Mr. Collins’s proposal…) that the outcome isn’t good.
How we love the caustic one-liners of Pride and Prejudice, with Mr. Bennet supplying many of the best ones. Here are just a few:
In my own writing, am I holding back out of politeness? Is there a character who can express my most biting thoughts for me?
Well, if you made it this far, you must love P & P as much as I do! Please leave a comment with a suggestion for G or anything else.