Catching Austen in the “act of greatness”

Virginia Woolf, a leader of the Modernist movement in the early 20th century, deeply admired Jane Austen but once quipped “that of all great writers she is the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness.”

Why is this?

Well, before we examine that, you might realize that you may feel this way, too, when you pick up one of Austen’s novels for the first time. If your experience of Austen has only been through Keira Knightley and the 2005 Pride and Prejudice with its lush landscapes and affecting music – or, even better, the award winning BBC 1995 miniseries with its delightful acting, quick banter, and wit, and Colin Firth – you might find when you finally open a copy of the original written work itself that it seems a little… flat.

What is all the fuss about, anyway? How do these novels inspire such adoration and affection? Why do so many people keep making different movie versions of them?

All Austen’s plots certainly seem rather predictable, and their social norms archaic. The average reader would be hard-pressed to discover how they are “ahead of their time.” For those with strong religious convictions and a kind of rosy-eyed nostalgia for earlier ages, you might be disappointed to discover that, despite scholarship around Austen’s exploration of virtue, she never discusses prayer or God, nor do her characters seem troubled by any obviously existential questions. In fact Austen seems to have an unusual kind of restraint or reserve concerning the areas of life most intimate (and important) to us, areas of faith, of loss, of love–though her novels are populated by courtships, clergymen and country estates aplenty.

So, what makes her so wonderful?

I’m unpacking that question myself, and I think there are many ways to answer it. But here’s one “act of greatness” in which we might be able to catch her: the ability to reveal the interior lives of her key characters through a technique she was one of the earliest writers to master. It’s called free indirect discourse.

Technically, free indirect discourse occurs when certain words / phrases / clauses that are part of a third-person narrative reflect the perspective–and, I would argue, voice–of a particular character.

It’s often best to explain with examples. Here are three I made up that contain basically the same content, but are expressed in different modes of discourse:

Direct discourse:  She said, “I love Mr. Darcy—his quiet seriousness, his desire to do what is right—oh, but it’s more than that. How can I express it?”

Indirect discourse: She said that she loved Mr. Darcy because of his quiet seriousness and his desire to do what was right, but admitted there was something more she could not put into words. She wondered aloud how she might express it.

Free indirect discourse: She loved Mr. Darcy—his quiet seriousness, that desire of his to do what is right—yet it was more than that. How could she express it?

In direct discourse, the narrator quotes the character directly—we hear the character’s actual spoken words.

In indirect discourse, the narrator reports to us, indirectly, what the character is saying. But the tone, the voice, the diction of the sentence remains the narrator’s, just the phrasing of words would be if we report to our friend Ashley what our other friend Mark said to us at lunch.

In free indirect discourse, however, the narrator actually slips into the thoughts of the character—almost as Virginia Woolf or James Joyce would in stream-of-consciousness. Indeed, free indirect discourse is a precursor to that modernist technique. In free indirect discourse, the narrator takes on the interior voice of a character.

Another way to think of it is that in direct discourse and indirect discourse, we are being given reports of what a character says– either in his spoken voice or the narrator’s. In free indirect discourse, we are being given access to the character’s unspoken thoughts.

Here’s a real example from Pride and Prejudice, right after Elizabeth unexpectedly runs into Darcy at Pemberly. I will italicize the text where I think the free indirect discourse begins–though of course it is not italicized in the original:

The others then joined her, and expressed admiration of his [Darcy’s] figure; but Elizabeth heard not a word, and wholly engrossed by her own feelings, followed them in silence. She was overpowered by shame and vexation. Her coming there was the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world! How strange it must appear to him! In what a disgraceful light might it not strike so vain a man! It might seem as if she had purposely thrown herself in his way again! Oh! why did she come? Or, why did he thus come a day before he was expected?

The exclamation points are a giveaway, which makes this example of the technique all the more clear (the narrator herself never employs them). Obviously, the narrator knows that this meeting is not “the most unfortunate, the most ill-judged thing in the world.” Those are Elizabeth’s (mistaken) thoughts on the matter. The narrator is not quoting Elizabeth either–Elizabeth is not speaking–nor is she merely reporting indirectly her own version of what Elizabeth is feeling (as she does when she says “[Elizabeth] was overpowered by shame and vexation”). Rather, the narrator has actually slipped into the mind of Elizabeth so that we can hear her— so that we can have access to thoughts that otherwise we never would have in a third person account.

Why should we care about this?

Well, Austen is revealing to her readers something I believe had not been really made fully explicit in literature before: the notion of the private self, the hidden self.

Think about it. Achilles is as Achilles does and says, and though we see him moping on the beach and rampaging through Trojan lines we never hear his private thoughts. His lamentations are public–spoken to his mother, his slaves, etc. Most of ancient literature is like that. The closest thing we might come to it prior to Austen is Shakespeare’s monologues (“To be or not to be!”) but even then, these are spoken aloud, performed—and thus rendered in a way that is not really how most of us converse with ourselves.

Elizabeth Bennet is so relatable and delightful not just because of her quick intelligence and witty replies to the snobs around her, but because of her interior life. We have access to thoughts and feelings she never shares with other characters: not with her beloved sister Jane, not with Darcy. We get to see her make mistaken internal judgments–and then learn from them. We note her interior frustration and embarrassment around her family not just because of the color of her cheeks, but because of her mortified thoughts.

This is a degree of intimacy with a person we normally can only have with ourselves.

First person accounts, like Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe or even Augustine’s Confessions (more intimate since written as a prayer to God) also come close, but I would argue that they still don’t give you that same kind of access. In a way, the first person narrator is addressing you as he would a confidante, but not as he would address himself.

The genius of Austen’s technique is that it alienates us from some characters just as much as it connects us to others.

Why does Mrs. Bennett seem so utterly ridiculous and Wickham so despicable? Why is Lydia so annoying? It’s not just because of their reprehensible actions and stupid (or deceptive) words. It’s also because, for us, they have no interior lives. Presumably, as human beings in the real world, they might—-but Austen’s narrator keeps us safely ignorant of them. It’s interesting to track which characters in each novel are revealed to us through free indirect discourse, and which ones are not.

Why do we love Emma, despite her stupidity, manipulation of others, and snobbery? One reason is that Austen gives us this same kind of interior access to her interior life in this later novel as she does with Elizabeth–more, in fact, and so much more that we end up seeing most of the story through Emma’s eyes even though it is a third person account. As a result, we are also deceived about other characters and situations and likewise humbled when the truth of the matter is revealed.

When Knightley helps Emma see how badly she behaved toward the impoverished Miss Bates, we not only see Emma’s actions and words as she repents later and try to make amends, as we would in any novel, we also get to hear her silent self-recrimination. Again, I’m putting the free indirect style in italics:

[Emma] continued to look back, but in vain; and soon, with what appeared unusual speed, they were half way down the hill, and every thing left far behind. She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed—almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of this representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!

Notice the beautiful movement in this paragraph from the exterior to the interior, gradually moving more and more inward: first, Austen gives us the barest brushstrokes of the outer scene, accessible to any viewer, of Emma looking out the carriage window until “they were half-way down the hill”. Then the narrator takes us into the carriage and reports (and, in a sense, interprets) Emma’s feelings: “agitated, mortified, grieved”. Already the narrator’s voice may be giving way to the character’s. We learn that “she was vexed beyond what could have been expressed;” so, of course, she does not express it. At least not aloud. And at last, we are drawn into Emma’s inner thoughts, that no one else in the novel will hear. Other characters will see her actions, hear her voice, but they will not share with her this pivotal inner moment of remorse and regret, like we will.

It’s so subtle. Free indirect discourse is not something we usually notice when we read–and that’s kind of the point. We are pulled in and find ourselves sympathizing before we know what we’re about. In pioneering this style, Austen gave us a great gift; the ability to imaginatively and sympathetically enter the hearts of flawed, ignorant people like ourselves who are trying to be better.

It’s an experience, I believe, that allows us to look at those around us in the real world a little differently, with greater kindness and a sense that the real story of each person’s life is the interior, hidden one, the story which only that soul and God get to read—except in the case of a good novel.


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