Elizabeth Bennet reads Mr Darcy’s letter

The account of his [Wickham’s] connection with the Pemberley family, was exactly what he had related himself; and the kindness of the late Mr. Darcy, though she had not before known its extent, agreed equally well with his own words. So far each recital confirmed the other: but when she came to the will, the difference was great. What Wickham had said of the living was fresh in her memory, and as she recalled his very words, it was impossible not to feel that there was gross duplicity on one side or the other; and, for a few moments, she flattered herself that her wishes did not err. But when she read, and re-read with the closest attention, the particulars immediately following of Wickham’s resigning all pretensions to the living, of his receiving in lieu, so considerable a sum as three thousand pounds, again was she forced to hesitate. She put down the letter, weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality – deliberated on the probability of each statement – but with little success. On both sides it was only assertion. Again she read on. But every line proved more clearly that the affair, which she had believed it impossible that any contrivance could so represent, as to render Mr. Darcy’s conduct in it less than infamous, was capable of a turn which must make him entirely blameless throughout the whole.

Jane Austen ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Oxford World’s Classics edition (1990) p. 182

firth and ehle

This passage represents a turning point in the narrative: first Darcy and then Elizabeth are forced to reassess their own embedded narratives (Palmer, 2004) in order to incorporate that of the other. Darcy has spent much of the night writing an explanatory letter to Elizabeth after she has given her reasons for refusing his proposal of marriage, and the excerpt under discussion shows Elizabeth’s reaction on reading this letter and learning a different sort of truth to the one she has previously upheld. The world-view of each character alters dramatically, and this change is reflected also in the situation of the reader, who is forced to revisit and reassess the novel’s events up to this point at the same time Elizabeth does so, and is therefore subject to the same reading experience as Elizabeth. Many of Elizabeth’s memories will tally with the reader’s recollection of events, and the reader, alongside Elizabeth, will revise formerly-created contextual frames (Emmott, 1997). It is now that the reader will realise that many of these memories were not, in fact, impartially formed, but were coloured by Elizabeth’s perception of events. She is the novel’s focaliser, and at this point she is also the focalised while she examines her recollections and even her conscience: this passage occurs shortly before Elizabeth famously cries out: ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself’ (185). It is at this moment in the novel that the difference between the narrator and focaliser is apparent, and once this difference is recognised, the reader is also cognisant of the extent to which the two were previously confused. The narrator has encouraged the deception of the reader through discreet use of the focaliser-character’s world-view to distort the creation of memory as the novel’s events occurred, thus enabling the narrator to administer a salutary corrective to both Elizabeth and the reader when Darcy’s letter is read and the ugly truth about Wickham’s character known.

The narrator states that Elizabeth has to collect herself before re-reading the letter, an activity described as a ‘mortifying perusal of all that related to Wickham’ (182). Although Darcy is not yet exonerated for his part in Bingley’s rejection of Jane, the narrator indicates here that he is in no way to be held accountable for Wickham’s misfortunes, and that Elizabeth knows this to be the case even before she embarks upon reading the letter for a second time. In writing the letter, Darcy has provided his own defence against Wickham’s aspersions, and Elizabeth is to judge between the two narratives. The passage under consideration shows Elizabeth weighing the evidence before passing judgement. Sections of Darcy’s letter reappear in paraphrase: for example, ‘Wickham’s resigning all pretensions to the living, of his receiving in lieu, so considerable a sum as three thousand pounds’; thus the reader receives the same information twice in quick succession having read Darcy’s letter in the chapter preceding, and these reiterations now serve as a makeshift summing-up. In addition, these paraphrases are iconic of Elizabeth’s own experience of re-reading Darcy’s words, as she also repeatedly encounters the same information in her several attempts to digest the contents of the letter.

The written form of the chosen passage also mirrors the meaning in a more immediate sense. Vocabulary choices reflect both language of a legal character, and the act of comparing two differing accounts of the same events and weighing or measuring one account against the other: exactly, equally, confirmed, difference, on one side or the other, read and re-read, put down, weighed, deliberated, probability, each statement, both, assertion, every line proved, impossible, represent, entirely, the whole. On a syntactical level, Elizabeth’s mental gymnastics are encapsulated in the way in which her initial thoughts are each time balanced against another statement introduced with the co-ordinating conjunction ‘but’, which appears four times in this short excerpt. The ‘written’ nature of the passage reveals to the reader the presence of a narrator beyond Elizabeth’s consciousness, and if this were not enough, the narrator’s voice actively intrudes three times to make it clear to the reader that Elizabeth is mentally fighting against the information newly-received, and in the process is doing her best to retain her former mind-set: ‘for a few moments, she flattered herself that her wishes did not err’; ‘weighed every circumstance with what she meant to be impartiality’; and thirdly, the twisty final line of the passage contains a subordinate clause which comprises 23 words – exactly the same number as the main clause. Darcy is found to be ‘blameless’ in the more important main clause, but the lengthy subordinate clause represents the depth and rigidity of the opinion Elizabeth had willingly formed beforehand. She finds her previous opinion difficult to relinquish, as demonstrated here in the syntax of subordinate clause (former beliefs) versus main clause (new beliefs). While Elizabeth struggles hard to exonerate Wickham, in the end she cannot do so, and is therefore confronted not only with the downfall and disgrace of her former favourite, but also the humiliating knowledge that she herself has judged wrongly and has allowed her prejudice to blind her to the reality of the situation: ‘Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned’ (185). Elizabeth now joins the narrator in balancing her words: pleased/offended; preference/neglect; ignorance/reason.

Until this moment, the narrator has colluded with the focaliser-character to mislead the reader, and now the narrator takes a step back to uncover the deception. Elizabeth’s desire for Wickham to be innocent is clearly acknowledged by the narrator, tied as this circumstance is to Elizabeth’s self-respect, and her partiality is revealed. In staying close to Elizabeth, the narrator has before this moment presented her views as if they were the objective truth, but in retrospect, both the reader and Elizabeth can see that her emotional response at the time of previous meetings with the two men was instrumental in the formation of her memory of each event (Wiltshire, 2014). Darcy’s revelations force Elizabeth to confront the folly of her behaviour and she says in conversation with Jane: ‘ “the misfortune of speaking with bitterness, is a most natural consequence of the prejudices I had been encouraging” ’ (200). In accepting without question Elizabeth’s view of Darcy and Wickham before Darcy writes his letter, the reader has also been hoodwinked and is complicit in Elizabeth’s shame. Austen’s narrator is one who deceives in order to instruct, a very different approach to the didactic satirical method adopted by Swift in Gulliver’s Travels. Austen chooses to involve the reader instead of actively preaching and the linear character of the reading experience is very much taken into account by Austen’s wily narrator. Austen is well-known as an accomplished exponent of free indirect discourse, and it is through liberal use of such that voices of narrator, focaliser and character become intermingled and indistinguishable; thus when the rebuke comes for Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, the reader feels it just as keenly. Re-reading Austen is a very different experience to an initial reading of her novels because one can only be fooled by the likes of George Wickham and Frank Churchill once. The pleasure in re-reading is in retracing exactly how the deception was carried out.

In terms of the story, this is a moment when nothing is happening. Elizabeth is merely reading and re-reading Darcy’s letter while remembering and reassessing former events. Genette would refer to this as a pause in the story (1980), but this is not to say that the same is true of the narrative: in actual fact, there is an enormous amount of mental activity happening at this point which will determine how future events play themselves out. It is, as previously stated, a pivotal moment in the narrative. Elizabeth is made aware of her error and from this point onwards she begins to fall in love with Darcy. In Proppian terms, this is the moment when the hero is recognised and the false hero or villain exposed (Toolan, 2001: 19-20).

It is notable also that Elizabeth’s mental activity at this crucial juncture is linked to one of the much wider themes of the novel. Wiltshire argues that Pride and Prejudice is a novel about memory and how memories are created (2014: 51-71), and the whole of chapter thirteen of Austen’s novel, from which this extract is taken, is given over to Elizabeth’s musings on reading the letter. Elizabeth examines her memory of events and makes several corrections in the light of what she now knows. The reader is not strictly witnessing flashbacks, but the narrator actively points the reader to previous episodes where Elizabeth interprets events according to the background context entertained at the time, which leads to the creation of a memory coloured by an emotional response: the relevant parts of the text are ‘was exactly what he had related himself’; and ‘agreed equally well with his own words’; but then the vital difference emerges in relation to Darcy’s father’s will and ‘What Wickham had said of the living’.

List of references:

Austen, J. (1990 [1813]) Pride and Prejudice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emmott, C. (1997) Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Genette, G. (1980) Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Palmer, A. (2004) Fictional Minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Swift, J. (1967 [1726]) Gulliver’s Travels. J. Chalker & P. Dixon. Eds. London: Penguin.

Toolan, M. (2001) Narrative: A Critical Linguistic Introduction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Wiltshire, J. (2014) The Hidden Jane Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Transitivity patterns in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116: ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds’

What follows is my answer to an exercise on transitivity patterns for the MA Literary Linguistics programme on which I’m enrolled. This post is probably not going to be particularly readable unless you’re familiar with transitivity patterns – however, I’ve uploaded a pdf of a mindmap I made which may help. You might have to zoom in on the pdf to make parts of it legible. If you’d like to browse some original sources, you’ll need to look up Michael Halliday and read his work.

Transitivity mindmap pdf below. The examples of each process are taken from John Braine’s Room at the Top, but these are examples I’ve picked out myself, so please be wary: I’m not altogether sure I’ve really understood the difference between an attributive and an identifying process, so best treat the examples with caution.

Action mindmap

I’ve reproduced below Sonnet 116 in full…and you might remember Marianne (Kate Winslet) reciting part of it after she’s been heartlessly dumped by Willoughby (Greg Wise) in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds

Admit impediments; love is not love

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove.

O no, it is an ever-fixèd mark,

That looks on tempests and is never shaken;

It is the star to every wand’ring bark,

Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.

Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks

Within his bending sickle’s compass come;

Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,

But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

If this be error and upon me proved,

I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

Which type of process is dominant in the poem, or does the poem mix different types? 

The poem consists of a mixture of different transitivity types.

There is a speaking voice in the sonnet, an ‘I’ or a ‘me’, whose presence is most noticeable in lines 1-2, 5 (‘O no’), and 13-14; on a discourse level, therefore, the sonnet in its entirety could be understood as a mental externalised process in which the SAYER is the I/me of the poem, the VERBIAGE is the text of the sonnet, and the TARGET is the reader/audience (Simpson, 1993: 90). Simpson’s PROCESS is absent but understood, owing to considerations of form. There is no novelistic reporting clause such as ‘said the poet’.

The other processes involved are material action processes of both intention and supervention; relational processes and a mental internalised perception process (‘That looks on tempests’).

Labelling the processes is a difficult exercise in this case because much of the poem’s transitivity involves a metaphorical blend in which a personified abstract concept takes on the role of animate ACTOR, and in addition, much of the ‘action’ of the poem is actually inaction. Moreover, the poem contains many expressions of negativity (not, never, no, nor…ever), which complicates matters further.

Who is the main actor or agent in the poem? 

The ACTORs are:

•’I/me’ (the speaker of the poem);

•‘love’ as abstract concept until the third quatrain when it appears as a personification;

•‘not love’;

•possibly no man in the final line, but there is ambiguity here. The words ‘nor no man ever loved’ could be taken to mean ‘I have never loved a man’ as well as ‘no man has ever been in love’. This depends on whether we understand ‘no man’ to be the ACTOR, or whether we consider the subject to be ‘I’ still, carried over from ‘I never writ’: it could be argued that the subject of the following phrase has been removed, but that ‘I’ is understood.

‘Love’ is the CARRIER of the poem’s attributive processes, and the IDENTIFIED of its identifying processes.

Who or what receives all the action? 

The action is distributed between the ACTORs, but it should be noted that perhaps as many as two-thirds of the material action intention processes actually refer to an action not being performed. Love as an abstract noun or personification is associated with that which is fixed, permanent and immovable. Any action attributed to Love is that of inaction, and movements such as altering and bending are associated with Love’s antithesis, ‘not love’. This call to inaction reflects the desire expressed in the first line of the sonnet that the poet should not ‘admit impediments’ to ‘the marriage of true minds’: namely, that the poet wishes to do nothing to hinder true love.

Is there a pattern for processes and participants in main clauses, compared with the pattern in subordinate clauses? 

Main clauses tend to feature relational processes, and the claim made by way of this process is explored further in the subordinate clauses through material action processes, either intention or supervention.

How can your annotated analysis help to support your sense of the meaning of the poem?  

In the opening lines of the sonnet, the speaker exhorts someone to prevent him or herself from embarking on a certain course of action. The remark could, of course, be self-directed – a ‘note to self’ not to act as described. It is the equivalent of a theatrical soliloquy, in which an actor shares his or her thoughts with the audience. The speaker expresses his/her desire not to act, or not to behave in a certain way, and one can see that throughout the rest of the poem the transitivity patterns support this call to inaction. Love is something fixed, immovable and enduring, whilst its antithesis (‘not love’) ‘alters’ and ‘bends’ when provoked to do so.

Having begun the sonnet with this exhortation, the speaker makes an abrupt switch in line 2 to an exploration of what love is not (and, by implication, what it is):

…; love is not love 

Which alters when it alteration finds,

Or bends with the remover to remove. 

Here a main clause contains two subordinate clauses, both relative, the second a reduced relative clause because ’which’ has been removed, but is understood. The transitivity of the main clause is that of a relational process, incorporating two material action intention processes in the subordinate clauses, where these latter processes are in themselves a metaphorical blend involving an inanimate abstract concept as ACTOR.

The relational process of the main clause is set against the material action intention processes in the subordinate clauses, where the ACTOR ‘not love’ intentionally alters or bends according to circumstances. Put bluntly, action is bad, inaction is good: a ‘still’ process encloses two action processes in which the participants behave in a way that would suggest this is not ‘a marriage of true minds’.

The morphological variations of the action-words enact the changes they describe: ‘alters’ (verb) becomes ‘alteration’ (noun); ‘the remover’ (determiner + noun) becomes ‘to remove’ (verb in infinitive). The change expressed in these two lines (‘alters’, ’bends’) is reflected on a different textual level in the changing word-formations.

In the second quatrain (lines 5-8), the poet moves the discussion on from what love is not, to what love is, and love as an abstract concept is explored through metaphors related to shipping. Once again, the action expressed in the material action intention processes is in fact inaction, and the abstract concept as ACTOR provides a metaphorical blend. Love, expressed as a ‘ever-fixèd mark’, is immobile in the face of a raging sea-storm and immovable regardless of the storm’s violence.

The nautical metaphor continues into the second half of the second quatrain, and love is now a ‘star’, most likely the ‘northern star’ or ‘Pole Star’ (Duncan-Jones, 1997: 342). The star, like the ‘ever-fixèd mark’, serves as a guide to those who are lost (the ‘wandering bark’). The transitivity of line 8 is an attributive process, where the CARRIER is love (personified and metaphorically expressed), and the ATTRIBUTE is ‘of unknown worth’, in other words, invaluable or priceless. This same line balances that which cannot be measured (‘Whose worth’s unknown’) against that which can (‘although his height be taken’). The latter phrase extends the metaphorical references to shipping and navigation: ‘ “take height” was a regular term in navigation and astronomy’ (Duncan-Jones, 1997: 342).

A star is fixed just as the ‘mark’ is fixed, and neither mark nor star can move. In addition, the measurement of the star’s height presumably represents a straight line, which is in contrast to the bending manifested by the ‘not love’ ACTOR and by Time’s sickle in the third quatrain.

The word ‘bends’ from line 4 reappears in one of its lemma forms as ‘bending’, and again, this word is associated with that which is not permanent and which is not love. The transitivity process here is a material action supervention process describing the appearance and action of Time’s scythe scooping up the ‘rosy lips and cheeks’ that are associated with youth and transience, and which serve metonymically here for the whole person. The word ‘compass’ will recall the shipping metaphor of the previous quatrain even though the sense is different here; nevertheless, ‘compass’ shares the same semantic field with the ‘star’ and the ‘wandering bark’.

In lines 11-12, Love as personification is involved in two material action intention processes in a metaphorical blend with a personified ACTOR, as follows:

ACTOR = Love (in personified form)

PROCESSES = 1) alters not, 2) bears it out.

When Love is finally involved in a transitivity process involving action, that action is to stay the same and to do nothing.

The sonnet ends with a rhetorical trick expressed as a hypothetical question which allows no disagreement. The reader has just read the sonnet written by the poet, so ‘I never writ’ is nonsensical in context, and given that this half of the line is untrue, then the second half (‘nor no man ever loved’) is also assumed to be untrue. The transitivity processes may well be those of material action intention process, but as seen several times before, the action referred to represents inaction – in this instance, not writing and not loving. However, because both statements are untrue, the action becomes a positive event: the poet did write the sonnet, people have loved each other, and therefore love must exist as the poet has described it.

List of references

Duncan-Jones, K. (Ed.) (1997) Shakespeare’s Sonnets. London: The Arden Shakespeare.

Simpson, P. (1993) Language, Ideology and Point of View. London: Routledge.