Written in 1813, Pride and Prejudice is an epistolary romantic novel by Jane Austen unraveling a love story between the protagonists, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy. One of the main characteristics of this chef-d’oeuvre novel is the use of letters as a literary device. In the 19th century when this work was written, letters were the only mode of communication apart from the word of mouth. Therefore, Austen uses over 40 letters in the novel to pass information from one character to another and ultimately to the audience. The genre of epistolary as a way of writing was common at the time of writing Pride and Prejudice and Austen uses this style to weave her letters into the natural narrative of description and dialogue. The usage of letters allows the reader to understand the various characters and their various attributes, which underscores the aspect of character development. Additionally, the letters are predominantly used to form narrative crisis points or give a new direction in the story’s plot. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen uses letters for plot and character development as discussed in this paper.
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According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a letter is “a direct or personal written or printed message addressed to a person or organization.” Letters thus are used to convey information from one person to another, especially in cases where the word of mouth is possible. Generally, letters could be informal or formal. Additionally, apart from being a means of communication and information storage, letters have been used widely to reproduce writing as a form of art throughout history. Within the context of Pride and Prejudice, letters play a central role as they are used as a vehicle to advance character and plot development. Austen primarily uses letters as a mode of communication whereby the characters constantly correspond with one another but she weaves this element into the broad context of the novel by bringing together the various aspects of literary devices, such as plot development, characterization, themes, and other related attributes.
Letter Usage for Character Development
Much of what the audience learns about the characters in Pride and Prejudice is through correspondence. The continued exchange of letters between different characters exposes the intricacies and complexities surrounding the underlying relationships. Through letters, the author lets her characters go beyond the precincts of the novel’s dialogue, thus creating the room to distinguish one character from the others. Presumably, the most important letter in the novel is that by Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet. The letter exposes Elizabeth’s ignorance and prejudices against Mr. Darcy. From the surface, the letter appears to be insolent and imperious, but this perception changes the moment the issue of Mr. Bingley and Jane is succeeded by Mr. Wickham. At first, Elizabeth thinks Mr. Darcy is condescending and proud, and thus the audience develops the same perception. However, the beauty of letters, as used in the novel, is that they allow characters to highlight the side of their story and explain the motivation behind their actions. For instance, Mr. Darcy uses his letter to Elizabeth to explicate the reasons for separating Mr. Bingley and Jane coupled with what happened with Wickham. By so doing, Elizabeth learns that she has the wrong impression of Mr. Darcy – that he is not a proud man and all he ever wanted was the best for everyone. The letter also exposes Wickham’s tricks and lies that he has been feeding those around him. Additionally, Elizabeth learns about her prejudices towards Mr. Darcy and this self-knowledge and awareness elevate her to the level of being the heroine in the story. Ultimately, it is clear that Mr. Darcy respects Elizabeth and he wishes her the best despite the insulting proposal. Similarly, the letter to Elizabeth by Jane paints her (Jane) as a caring sister. The letter by Mr. Collins to Mr. Bennet presents him (Mr. Collins) as pompous, condescending, snobbish, and conceited as shown by his constant reference of Lady Catherine. For instance, he says,
I’ve been so fortunate as to be distinguished by the patronage of the Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, widow of Sir Lewis de Bourgh, whose bounty and beneficence has preferred me to the valuable rectory of this parish, where it shall be my earnest endeavor to demean myself with grateful respect towards her Ladyship, and be ever ready to perform those rites and ceremonies which are instituted by the Church of England (Austen 63).
The deliberate wording of this letter underscores pride, pomposity, and condescension because he is writing to ask for a hand in marriage from Mr. Bennet with one of his daughters, but he sounds as if he is doing the family a great favor. As such, Mr. Collins comes out as simple-minded, unnecessarily dramatic, and the unfeeling type of a person. Similarly, Caroline Bingley, in her first letter to Jane, discloses her frivolous and cattish nature. She says,
If you are not so compassionate as to dine today with Louisa and me, we shall be in danger of hating each other for the rest of our lives, for a whole day’s tete-a-tete between two women can never end without a quarrel (Austen 29).
Therefore, in the light of these arguments, it suffices to argue that letters in Pride and Prejudice play a central role in character development.
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Letter Usage and Plot Development
Austen uses letters in the novel for plot development by taking readers on an intricate journey characterized by love, life, pride, and prejudice. For instance, Mr. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth marks a crisis and a change of the story’s direction. The letter presents a subtle climax in the story when Darcy explains how he feels about Jane and Bingley’s improvident marriage, hence the reason why he (Darcy) attempts to separate the two. Darcy also explains why he begrudges Wickham, and thus in the process, the letter gives the reader a clear view of Darcy’s mind and personality. Austen uses this letter to show the audience how it changes Elizabeth’s perception of Darcy, especially when she thinks she has “courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away” (Austen 215). This encounter leaves Elizabeth baffled and depressed, which marks a change in the story’s direction and plot as she starts her journey to rediscover Darcy. Another letter that advances plot development is from Mrs. Gardiner to Elizabeth. Mrs. Gardiner informs Elizabeth that Mr. Darcy is the one behind the arranged marriage between Wickham and Lydia, contrary to the common belief that Mrs. Gardiner is responsible. However, Mrs. Gardiner clarifies that Mr. Darcy acted out of love for Elizabeth, and this new information further convinces Elizabeth that she is wrong about Mr. Darcy. Similarly, the letter of invitation to Netherfield accompanied with another announcing that Mr. Collins will be visiting throws an entire household of single daughters and their mother into frenzy and excitement. However, another letter stating that the Bingley’s will be leaving for London and Lydia has eloped tempers this excitement. Austen uses letters to piece the novel together and facilitate the flow of ideas in the process of plot development. The many letters act as a link connecting various pieces of the story that could not be covered through dialogue and narration. For instance, through letters, the audience gets an idea of what happens between different interactions and conversations, specifically where small events occur, but they do not require being described in great details through narration.
In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen uses letters as a form of literal device in epistolary fiction to develop her characters and advance the story’s plot. Mar. Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, which is arguably the most important in the entire story, changes everything including the direction of the plot development. In retrospect, Elizabeth learns about her prejudices towards Darcy, which is her turning point to rediscover Darcy. While the letters seem like natural forms of communication, Austen uses them to give a detailed exposition of events and reveal the novel’s characters to the audience. Additionally, the letters contribute centrally to the overall narrative and plot development connecting one event to another to ultimately create a captivating story that is Pride and Prejudice. The letters mount and release tension as they weave the readers through the intricate story of love and life, which makes this novel one of the most read works in literature.
Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. C. Scribner’s Sons, 1918.
Merriam-Webster. Letter. n.d. Web.