Jane Austen draws a connection between literal reading habits and the ability tofiguratively read the world through social cues and conversation in Pride & Prejudice andEmma. Throughout both novels, Austen takes time and effort to describe the intimate details ofcharacters’ perspectives, readings, and interpretations. Austen uses the correlations between hercharacters’ literal reading of books and their figurative reading of life as a way to challenge heraudience to read more carefully.In an age of progress and industrialization, Austen wants her readers to progress and gainmore knowledge and experience as well. While she is unable to radically reform educationalinstitutions for women, or personally teach her audience the proper ways to read, Austen uses hernovels to urge her audience to ask questions, interpret situations, and think for themselves.
Heraudience, much like her main characters, is comprised of readers who must decipherconversations, letters, and the narrator’s words. Thus Austen is able to pull her audience into thenovel and involve them in the action. Readers of Austen must ask themselves: to what extent canthe characters and the narrator be trusted; to what extent do they tell the truth? And furthermore,where does the truth of the novel lie?One way in which Austen constructs the two-levels of reading is through her shift awayfrom the epistolary style. Through a mixture of third-person narration and letters written bycharacters, we are able to see through many different eyes. Suddenly, letters mean more whenfound in the novels, as they are not the medium for storytelling, but devices used to create adeeper meaning when used.
Here the two-levels of reading becomes clearer. The first level ishow characters interpret and read one another; Elizabeth’s back-and- forth opinion of Darcy’sletter is a prime example. Austen gives Elizabeth a letter in order for Elizabeth to gain a betterunderstanding of who Mr.
Darcy is, and of his true character. It is up to Elizabeth to interpret andread the letter correctly. The second level is the audience’s understanding of the characters andthe events taking place. Austen enables her reader to not only see Darcy’s letter, but alsoElizabeth’s reaction to the letter, thus allowing the audience to understand how Elizabeth readsand feels about the content. Through these two-levels of reading, the audience and Elizabeth areplaced on the same playing field in terms of Mr. Darcy’s letter: both parties are given newinformation, but it is up to the reader to interpret and change based on their new knowledge.As another means of involving the actual reader of the novels into the story, Austen uses”lexical devices,” including such words as ‘suspect,’ ‘presume,’ ‘guess,” points out the”uncertainty of truths” (Bonaparte 142) within not only the character’s words and actions, but thewords of the novel itself.
Austen is able to break the fourth wall by introducing the idea thateveryone, including the novel’s audience, should be reading with caution and asking questions.When the narrator guesses something, or says something must be so, there should be a degree ofdoubt in the audience’s mind. The audience “tends to treat quotation marks as the stamp oftruth,” (Pinch xv) but Austen is turning truth on its head. As stated above, the audience has theadvantage of a third-person perspective, giving them insight into multiple characters, events, andconversations, but that does not necessarily mean the narrator is a completely unbiasedperspective.
Austen uses language that implies and assumes rather than states in order to prompther audience to read more carefully.