When people talk about what makes Jane Austen’s writings so marvelous, they usually mention her wit, her keen observations of society, and the vivid characters she creates. But I’d like to draw your attention to a lesser-known Austen quality: her use of symbols.
One of the most obvious symbols in Pride and Prejudice is dancing. A couple’s compatibility in dance is almost always a symbol of their relationship.
When Elizabeth and Darcy dance together the first time, their steps are stilted and formal, much like their relationship at that point. Neither knows quite what to do with the other, and it shows in the hesitating steps back and forth and the awkward breaks in their conversations. Their courtship will be filled with hesitating steps and misunderstandings.
Likewise, when Elizabeth has to suffer through a dance with Mr. Collins, he missteps, grovels, and embarrasses in front of her friends and family, just as he will do later when he proposes to her.
We do not get to see Elizabeth and Darcy dance together after they are engaged, but it is easy to imagine the smooth steps and easy, if reserved, affection they will finally be able to show each other on the dance floor.
Another symbol in Pride and Prejudice is the outdoors. Outdoor settings become symbols of openness and understanding, a loosening of the rigid expectations of society. With few exceptions, Darcy and Elizabeth move towards each other emotionally in outdoor settings. Indoors, their misunderstandings tend to multiply. This is true at Netherfield, in Kent, and especially at Pemberley.
The pattern continues right up to the end of the novel, when Elizabeth and Darcy, after a long separation, are at last together inside Longbourn—but they still cannot speak freely to each other. It is not until they take a walk outside together that they finally come to an understanding with each other. Then they go back inside Longbourn and endure another uncomfortable evening in company with her family before announcing their engagement. One has the idea that this couple would be content to be always outside-outside of the house, and outside of the rules and class distinctions that have made their courtship so difficult.
Finally, let’s talk about Pemberley itself, by far the most obvious symbol in the novel. When Austen describes Pemberley as neither “formal, nor falsely adorned,” she may as well be describing the improved Darcy Elizabeth is about to encounter. The lack of pretension, refined taste, and gracious welcome experienced at Pemberley describe the man as much as the manor. Elizabeth falls in love with Darcy in large part because she sees his true character revealed through his home.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look at symbols used in Pride and Prejudice. My upcoming novel, tentatively titled Duty Demands, uses a symbol at a crucial point in the story, and so I am including an excerpt from that story here. In this passage, Darcy has brought his new bride outside to see a comet over Pemberley.
Darcy looked down at her, his eyes nearly as dark as the night itself. “I believe we were all put here for a purpose, Elizabeth. We all have our appointed tasks which we must complete before our time on earth is through, and if our lives are cut off prematurely, who is to say whether our Maker does not grant us a little while longer to look down on those we love, and perhaps have a second chance to complete our assigned tasks?”
“That is a whimsical notion, sir.”
“Whimsical it may be, but life thrives on such fancies and wishes; they nurture the soul and give it hope.”
“I confess I did not expect to hear such a statement from you.” Elizabeth said, her head still tilted at an angle to look up at him. It occurred to her that this was an odd conversation for a man to have with a woman he had married only for convenience and to fulfill the demands of society, a woman he found beneath him in every way. She waited for him to respond but he made no answer, and after a moment she turned back to gazing at the comet. The silence stretched out for several minutes.
“I have heard,” Elizabeth finally said, “that the ancients used to believe in making wishes on stars as they fell to the earth, thinking that wishes made at such times would be granted. Never having observed a falling star in person, I have never had the opportunity to try it for myself.”
“And what would you wish for, if you could?” Darcy’s voice was deep and warm in her ear.
“Why would I need to wish for anything?” she answered lightly. “You and Georgiana are very kind, and my family is safe and happy. I want for nothing.”
“There must be something,” her husband protested. “Everyone has at least one thing that they desire, some wish that has not yet been fulfilled. I wish you would tell me what yours might be.”
Once she had wished to marry for love, but that chance was now gone forever. “You are very gallant, Mr. Darcy. If you insist on knowing, then my desire would be to finally see a falling star for myself. But now, since you have discovered my wish, I must know yours. What would you ask for, if you could?”
“To know the hearts of the ones closest to me.” Darcy’s voice was suddenly grave. “To understand their thoughts- to know their desires completely, and bring them nothing but the greatest of happiness.”
“You are speaking of Georgiana, of course,” Elizabeth said, serious in her turn.
“Georgiana-“ Darcy’s voice suddenly seemed choked. “Yes, of course. My sister.”
You can look for Duty Demands to be released sometime this fall!