HGBW #4: Lizzie Bennet’s Four Suitors

Last week I asked, how many suitors does Lizzie Bennet have? 

Most people say three: Mr. Collins, Mr. Wickham, and Mr. Darcy. But a writer would say she has four. 

Lizzie Bennet’s Four Symbols

In a romance, every suitor is a symbol. The suitor offers the protagonist a possible life, and by offering her that life, he represents a vision of what happiness or fulfillment could be. When the protagonist chooses a suitor, she chooses the life she will have – but she enables the author to speak about what lives we all can or should have. So, what symbols does Lizzie consider, and what do they symbolize? 

Mr. Collins and the Claims of Conventionality

First there is Mr. Collins. Pompous, proud, self-centered Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins represents the financial exigencies of marriage in Austen’s day. He is the Bennets’ cousin and, as the closest male relative of Lizzie’s father, he will receive the Bennet family’s home and income when her father dies. Lizzie’s mother is overjoyed that he proposes to her, for he is everything that Mrs. Bennet looks for in a man.

If Lizzie were to choose Mr. Collins, she would choose respectability, security, and a good income; she would declare, “I do not care about finding a husband who is well matched for me, only about finding a living.” He is a symbol of the social order that tells women to marry for money and social stability, and Lizzie pursues marital happiness against the pressure of these social expectations. 

However, in a stroke of true brilliance, Austen uses Mr. Collins to humble Lizzie and to make a surprisingly compelling case for conventional, money-bound ideas about marriage. After Lizzie rejects Mr. Collins, her friend Charlotte Lucas accepts his proposal of marriage. Lizzie is aghast, and says to her friend’s face that the match is “impossible.” But Charlotte is poor, twenty-seven, and not pretty. She faces a life of hardship if she does not marry soon, and no man has ever proposed to her. Some months after their marriage, Lizzie visits the Collinses and finds that Charlotte has built a comfortable, respectable life – the life that was the best prospect for many women (and not a few men) in Austen’s day. The whole sequence reminds us that Pride and Prejudice is a kind of fairy tale, and that not everyone gets Lizzie Bennet’s happy ending. 

George Wickham, Lizzie’s “Perfect” Match

Mr. Wickham, a dashing, handsome young officer, is everything that Mr. Collins is not. He makes a good impression on everyone he meets. He’s charming, he’s funny, and he speaks to you as though you’re the most important person in the world. I’ll have more to say about Mr. Wickham, and Austen’s talent in his portrayal, in a later newsletter. For now, I want to point out that he takes Lizzie in…and he takes her in precisely because of who she is. 

When she meets Wickham, Lizzie has already formed a snap judgment about Mr. Darcy: he is cold, aloof, and proud. She does not want to think well of him. Lizzie observes Wickham run into Darcy and sees that there is tension between them; Wickham observes her observation. Later, they meet at a party, and Wickham sounds her out. He hints that she might have noticed the tension between himself and Darcy; he susses out that she dislikes Darcy; and he tells her a story by which Darcy deprived Wickham of his inheritance. He composes his story out of half-truths and misrepresentations, but relatively few outright lies, and Lizzie is left admiring him and despising Darcy. 

Wickham has everything that Lizzie thinks she is looking for, except for goodness. He is witty, clever, observant, and thoughtful. He is poor—which, from a writer’s perspective, makes him an especially good suitor because he contrasts so perfectly with Mr. Collins. 

If Jane Austen were telling a simpler and less interesting story, she would give Lizzie a choice between true love and social convention. In that story, Wickham would be Lizzie’s man. And precisely because Wickham can mold himself to look like what Lizzie wants, he fools her. She learns, by being wrong about Wickham, that people are not always what they seem, that wit and cleverness are not as important as she thought, and that her initial judgments of people can be horribly wrong. 

Mr. Bennet and Lizzie’s Beginnings

Lizzie’s father is obviously not a literal suitor. But in terms of story strucure, he is exactly that. At the story’s beginning we see him as Lizzie does: clever, easygoing, funny, and sarcastic. He makes swift judgments and delivers bon mots, just as Lizzie does. He pokes fun at his wife’s silly ambitions and wants to see Lizzie with someone who will make her happy. It is no wonder that Lizzie adores him. 

Lizzie’s father is a symbol for another life path – and it’s the path that Lizzie is following when the story begins. It’s a path of gentleness and ease, one that doesn’t take the world too seriously, but sits back and laughs at it. It’s also one that sizes up the world quickly and enjoys its idiosyncrasies. Frequently, Lizzie and her father bond by exchanging clever observations about the people around them. Like Lizzie, Mr. Bennet trusts his own assessment of people, most of whom he thinks are ridiculous. And once he has assessed someone, he rarely changes his opinion or exerts himself on their behalf. 

Lizzie grows during the novel, and my favorite summation of her growth is this: she learns why her father’s way of living is not enough. When Lizzie reads Mr. Darcy’s letter, she learns the truth about George Wickham. She also learns how much her family’s bad manners contributed to Mr. Bingley’s leaving Jane. She begins to reassess everyone in the novel – not only herself, Darcy, and Wickham, but also her parents and her sisters. For the first time, she begins to take her younger sisters seriously.

Up to this point, Lizzie has never done much besides make fun of her sisters, but now she starts to consider their welfare. Shortly after Lizzie reads the letter, her yongest sister Lydia, who is only 15, receives an invitation to travel with a friend to a resort town where a regiment’s officers are quartered. The friend is married to one of the officers, but she is not much older than Lydia and nowhere near mature enought to keep Lydia safe. Lizzie does something she has never done before: she tries to protect Lydia. And she does it by talking to their father. 

Lizzie urges Mr. Bennet to forbid Lydia from taking this trip, fearing that Lydia will do something that endangers herself and the family. She tells her father that Lydia’s rudeness has already endangered the family’s reputation (she is thinking of Jane’s engagement to Mr. Bingley, which was torpedoed by their sisters’ and mother’s behavior). Mr. Bennet responds by teasing her – he has no idea what happened to Jane, and he jokes that Lizzie might have lost one of her admirers.

Then he sees that Lizzie is seriously upset and he tries to comfort her. 

Mr. Bennet saw that her whole heart was in the subject, and affectionately taking her hand said in reply:

“Do not make yourself uneasy, my love. Wherever you and Jane are known you must be respected and valued; and you will not appear to less advantage for having a couple of—or I may say, three—very silly sisters. We shall have no peace at Longbourn if Lydia does not go to Brighton. Let her go, then. Colonel Forster is a sensible man, and will keep her out of any real mischief; and she is luckily too poor to be an object of prey to anybody. At Brighton she will be of less importance even as a common flirt than she has been here. The officers will find women better worth their notice. Let us hope, therefore, that her being there may teach her her own insignificance. At any rate, she cannot grow many degrees worse, without authorising us to lock her up for the rest of her life.”

(Chapter 41)

He says, in other words: “There’s no helping Lydia. She’s an idiot. And anyone who knows you and Jane will know that you are not like Lydia. Hopefully, this trip will teach her that no one cares about her; and if not, at least we’ll have some peace and quiet.”

It’s an incredibly cruel thing to say about his own daughter – but it is exactly what Lizzie would have thought at the start of the novel. In fact, two chapters earlier, Lydia said something rude, and Lizzie realized that she had often thought exactly the same thing. She realizes – and her father does not – that she is not as different from Lydia as she had thought. 

Mr. Darcy and Character Growth

We’ll spend next week’s newsletter on Mr. Darcy, Lizzie’s fourth suitor. But it’s important to have the other suitors – and especially Mr. Bennet – in mind, because so much of Darcy’s symbolism depends on his differences from the other suitors. Mr. Darcy doesn’t just represent the life that Lizzie wants. He represents the life that Lizzie, at her best, could have – but for which she will need to undergo some painful change. And (another mark of Austen’s genius) Darcy’s own change is just as dramatic, and just as necessary, as Lizzie’s own. 

Til next week, happy writing, 

Bill

HGBW #3: Pride and Prejudice and Story Structure

Starting this week, we’re taking a deep dive into the writing choices and techniques that make Pride and Prejudice a great novel. (If you haven’t read it already, check out this post on how Jane Austen makes her characters lively through density of action). Let’s start by asking, what kind of story is Pride and Prejudice? And, what elements do you need to write that kind of story?

The Elements of Romance

The answer to the first question is straightforward: Pride and Prejudice is a romance. We know this because its central dramatic question is, “Whom will Lizzie Bennet marry?” Many stories contain a romance subplot, but in a true romance, the protagonist’s search for a relationship drives the action and the protagonist’s growth as a character.

In a romance, the protagonist begins with a flaw and needs to overcome it to end up with the right person. Usually, the suitor needs to grow and change, too. Film romances typically foreground one suitor and show us how the protagonist comes together with that person. The relationship prompts both people to develop until they become better versions of themselves—versions that are suited to be with their partner. There’s conflict and give-and-take as each partner comes to understand the other. This is why, in terms of story structure, a rom-com is almost identical to a buddy-cop movie. Both tell stories of two people who seem poorly matched but discover that each has something the other needs.

(Structurally, one of the great rom-coms of the ’90s. Image credit: Wikipedia)

Romance is the structure of many great novels, including Anna Karenina, Portrait of a Lady, The Tale of Genji, and Middlemarch. It also flourishes in film, TV, and popular fiction. Certain elements occur in nearly every romance, from The Divine Comedy to The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Here are some of the main elements that we need:

  1. A protagonist.
  2. The protagonist’s flaw. A good way of identifying the protagonist’s flaw is to ask, “What habit or characteristic is preventing our hero from being with the love interest?”
  3. The protagonist’s world and its rules. This includes the protagonist’s social order (e.g. Regency England, with its gender roles) as well as the characters in her community, work, family, and other parts of life. To some degree, she has been able to make her way in this world. The world has certain rules, and she is able to follow them and get by. In other words, her world has allowed her to get away with her flaw.
  4. An instability in her world. Something needs to push the protagonist out of the life she is living when the story begins. The instability can be internal (she’s unhappy) or it can be external (she loses a job she thought she loved). But something needs to drive her to step, irrevocably, beyond her boundaries.
  5. Suitors. In a romance, the protagonist’s interactions with suitors drive the action forward. Suitors offer different lives that the protagonist could live. They represent possibilities.

Now, how do these elements work in Pride and Prejudice?

The Protagonist

Lizzie Bennet. Lizzie is smart, capable, observant, and funny. She has a keen read on the people around her. She is kind and goodhearted, sometimes dramatically so (she walks three miles through the mud after a storm to take care of her sister while everyone else worries about getting dirt on their clothes). Her mother and younger sisters irritate her, but if someone outside her family judges them, she leaps to her family’s defense. And because she is so clever, she does not suffer fools lightly.

The Protagonist’s Flaw

As for many people, Lizzie’s faults are the flip side of her strengths. She is smart and strong-willed, so she makes snap judgments. She believes her judgments to be sound because, often, they are sound. Her keen powers of observation lead her to understand people quickly…and to judge them equally quickly. Eventually we see that Lizzie’s assessment of people is not as reliable as it first seemed. Sometimes, she wildly misjudges people. She needs to learn to look deeper, to see that things are not always as they seem.

The Protagonist’s World and Rules

Lizzie lives with her family, and each member has a clearly defined role. Lizzie adores her father, who is witty and affectionate toward her but sarcastic toward his wife. Her older sister Jane is warm, kind, and loving. Her youngest two sisters are young, silly, and boy-crazy, and her mother is obsessed with marrying off the girls. In this world, Lizzie’s mother will try to marry off the girls; the younger girls will go along with it. Lizzie will sit with her father making fun of it all. Nice work if you can get it.

Of course, Lizzie’s world also includes the expectations of Regency England. Her world offers no jobs to middle-class women; the girls must marry or face a life of poverty. In this world, a “good” match is one in which the husband is financially secure and socially prominent.

The instability

Lizzie’s father’s inheritance is entailed, so when he dies his house and all his money will pass to a male cousin. Lizzie enjoys life with her family and she is reasonably happy, but a time will come (no one knows when) when the women will be forced out of their home. If she wants a stable life, she will need to marry.

Suitors are Symbols

Let’s think in terms of story structure about how a suitor functions in a romance. We’ve already seen that suitors drive the action forward. By pushing the protagonist, a suitor catalyzes the protagonist’s growth. But they do something else, too. They are symbols.

A suitor represents a specific way in which the protagonist might to grow, as well as representing a vision of fulness or happiness. The nature of character growth determines what story we’re reading: Lizzie Bennet learns not to judge people so quickly, while Pam Beasley in The Office learns to stand up for herself.

Here’s the difference between a classic novel like Pride and Prejudice and a great film romance. A film usually focuses on the relationship between the protagonist and one suitor. Sometimes there is a second, “wrong” suitor (often the protagonist’s current partner), but that character usually has a minor role because a two-hour film rarely has time to depict multiple suitors. With at most two suitors, a film generally stages a straightforward competition between two sets of values, one right and the other wrong.

But a novel can be more complex. In a great novel like Pride and Prejudice, several suitors compete for the protagonist’s hand and each one symbolizes a different set of values. The novel stages a conflict among several accounts of what it would mean for this person, the protagonist, to be happy. The protagonist flirts, literally, with different ways in which her life could go.

Next week, we’ll take a closer look at Lizzie’s suitors and their roles in the story. For now, here’s a question to think about: How many suitors does Lizzie have? The obvious answer is three. But from the point of view of story structure, she has four. We’ll talk about them next week,

Happy writing,

Bill

HGBW #2: Creativity, Rhetoric, and Monkeys

Hi Everyone,

This week I want to talk about writing and learning: how we learn and how we could learn. 

Ancient teachers did not teach “literature” as a separate subject, but they taught storytelling as part of rhetoric—the art of persuasion. And they expected their students to learn to tell stories, not just analyze them. Many ancient, medieval, and renaissance students began their training in rhetoric by retelling stories such as Aesop’s fables. The original stories are short, often fewer than 100 words in total. A student might be asked to expand the text to five or ten times its length by adding dialogue, characterizing speakers, or even adding entire scenes, while remaining consistent with the original characters. 

Monkeys Deliberate: How the Greeks Taught Writing

Here’s an example from an ancient Greek teacher named Hermagones. He offers this short fable as a framework for young writers:

The monkeys in council deliberated on the necessity of settling in houses. When they had made up their minds to this end and were about to set to work, an old monkey restrained them, saying that they would more easily be captured if they were caught within enclosures

Then he shows how a student might expand the story. He starts with the first “plot point,” the proposal that the monkeys should build a city: 

The monkeys in council deliberated on the founding of a city; and one coming forward made a speech to the effect that they too must have a city. “For see,” said he, “how fortunate in this regard are men. Not only does each of them have a house, but all going up together to public meeting or theater delight their souls with all manner of things to see and hear.” 

A young writer would continue the scene, inventing arguments from the different monkeys and characterizing each of them. Maybe she would decide that one monkey plays on their fears. The monkey warns his fellows that without city walls they will always be at the mercy of humans. 

Another monkey might point out that many humans live in squalor and ask, “Why should we leave our beautiful homes among the trees?” A third could remind the monkeys that they always go hungry in winter. A city would allow them to stockpile fruits and nuts. 

Yet another speaker might address the monkeys’ pride. He could say that every great people has cities, and ask, “Why should humans lord it over all the other creatures? We should show that we’re just as good as they are.”

The only rule is that the story must include all the plot elements of the original. The monkeys must deliberate about founding a city, they must decide to do so, and then an old monkey must get up and convince them against building a city because they are safer without one. 

The original story implies that the old monkey is wise, but a clever writer might play with that, too. Maybe the old monkey has been the chief for a long time, and he speaks against the plan because he cannot understand the new world that he sees coming. Or maybe he is jealous of the young, ambitious monkey who wants to build the city. 

The only requirement was that the old monkey needs to win. Nothing says he needs to be right.

Structure Enhances Creativity

The exercise above is from an ancient course of studies called the progymnasmata, which includes many other tools for learning to tell stories. Teachers asked their students to take a long narrative and condense it—turning a story of, say, 2,000 words into one of 100. Try doing this sometime: it will force you to distinguish between the crucial points of the narrative and those that are less important. 

In another exercise, called “impersonation,” you would give a speech in the voice and manner of a particular person. Sometimes this was a figure from history or legend, but other times it was an ordinary person in a new circumstance. My favorite ancient assignment is an example of impersonation: students were told, “Deliver the speech that a farmer from inland Greece gives when, for the first time in his life, he sees the ocean.”

What do all these have in common? They are structured exercises in creativity. Each one gives you a framework within which you can create. Often, today, we think of rules and structure as opposed to creativity, but the ancient Greeks didn’t think that way at all—and neither did thinkers in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance. They all saw that rules produced and enabled creativity.

If you’re looking for something to write this week, give one of these a shot. Take a story, identify its key elements, and write another story that shares them. Your story can be shorter or longer than the original; it can change the point of view or reassess the characters. But the key events of the story should be fixed. Maybe you’ll find—like I usually do—that following those rules makes your writing flow. 

Best wishes and happy creating,

Bill

HGBW #1: MFA Thinking, Movie Structure, and Reading Like a Novelist

Dear Friends,

Welcome to How Great Books WorkI started this newsletter because I want to figure out what classic novels, poems, and plays can teach us about writing. 

My name is Bill Gonch, and I’m a writer, a literature teacher, and a writing coach. But for years, I’ve struggled with writing. 

Writing well isn’t easy, but learning to write is harder than it needs to be. I think there’s a better way. 

If you want to write, you need to learn two quite different things: how language works, and how stories work. A lot of books, writing groups, and tools will teach you how to write. You can get an MFA in creative writing (I did, and learned a ton), you can study sentences carefully, and you can learn to trust your instinct for language. 

But often, people who can write prose that is clear, fun, and alive, struggle to answer the simplest questions about any story: what happens? How do you make your story live? 

Story Structure Today: What Film Can Teach Writers

Here, writers for film and TV have a language that writers for print (or for the internet) can use. Screenwriters talk about story structure like carpenters talk about wood. They study plot points, A-, B-, and C-stories, reversals, and other key elements that go into making a story—especially the kind of story that fits into a 120-minute film or an hourlong TV episode. That’s why you can find smart, thoughtful analyses of Indiana JonesAlien, or the pilot of Breaking Bad on podcasts and YouTube channels. 

Screenwriters have written some great books on story, but most of them teach you how to write the kinds of stories that make a good movie. A protagonist will begin with a problem and a flaw; she’ll be pushed, harder and harder, until she digs down, overcomes her flaw, and solves her problem. In the structure of their stories, Luke Skywalker has a lot in common with Elle Woods.

Learning Story from the Great Books

What about all the novels that are not set up like movies? A novel can delve into a character’s consciousness, like Henry James or Virginia Woolf does. It can render a story in dialect, like Huckleberry Finn or Beloved. It can modulate an entire story based on who tells it—James Joyce does this, but so does The Lord of the Rings. Writers deserve a vocabulary for stories with all the technical awareness of screenwriting, but written for people writing novels, stories, or memoirs. 

That’s what How Great Books Work is for. Every week, we will unpack an element of a great work of fiction, approaching it as a writer would. Our first series will be on Pride and Prejudice – starting with a post on why Jane Austen’s characters are always doing things. I also have a series on how to begin a story, with articles on openings by Charles Dickens and Frederick Douglass. There’s lot’s more to come. 

I’m writing about the great books, but whatever you like to read, or whatever you write, there’ll be something for you. Today, there’s less difference than ever between good genre writers and good writers of literary fiction. The Library of America has published mystery novels and science fiction; Umberto Eco wrote mysteries and David Mitchell writes fantasy. Essayists and historians use techniques pioneered by the great novelists. Personally, I’m a lifelong fantasy reader and fan; maybe you are working on a memoir, a thriller, or a work of creative nonfiction. If you have a creative project, I want to help you make it as fresh, original, and exciting as you can. I hope this newsletter will help. 

And if you’re not a writer? If you love books, or if you’ve ever wanted to learn more about literature, I hope you’ll find that reading HGBW gives you some new ideas about old books…and I hope you’ll have fun reading it, too!

If you have thoughts, questions, or suggestions, please email me at William.gonch@howgreatbookswork.com. I look forward to chatting with you – and please, forward this newsletter to your friends!

Best,

Bill

Why Are Jane Austen’s Characters so Alive?

Quick-witted and sharp-tongued Lizzie Bennet sticks in your mind. So does her gentle older sister Jane; dark and reserved Mr. Darcy; as well as many other Austen protagonists. Her minor characters might be even more memorable—no one forgets Mr. Collins. 

At least as impressive is her ability to handle so many characters. In Chapter 7 of Pride and Prejudice, eleven significant characters are on stage: all seven Bennets, Mr. Bingley, his sister Catherine, Mr. Darcy, and Charlotte Lucas. The chapter is less than 2,000 words long – the length of a longish blog post. Look through your favorite books and you won’t find many scenes with so many characters. And yet every one of those characters is vividHow? 

Austen manages her enormous cast, and characterizes them colorfully, with two techniques: 

  1. She drives a fast-moving plot forward through significant action by her characters. Austen’s chapters are short, each one contains multiple twists—and a person causes every one of those twists. Almost nothing happens to characters in an Austen novel; characters’ choices, good and bad, advance the plot. Every action has consequences.
  2. Even the smallest action characterizes the person who performs it. A silly character in Austen, for example, will not just say silly things. Sooner or later she will do something silly that makes everyone else scramble to catch up.     

Important Choices Everywhere

In Chapter Seven the story opens on Lydia and Kitty, the youngest Bennet sisters, who make daily visits to the local village to search out gossip about local officers. As they hear more, they lose interest in their previous obsession, the newly-arrived Mr. Bingley and his interest in Jane:  

“They could talk of nothing but officers; and Mr. Bingley’s large fortune, the mention of which gave animation to their mother, was worthless in their eyes when opposed to the regimentals of an ensign.”

(Read it all)

The girls return home, their father declares them “two of the silliest girls in the country,” and their parents bicker over whether the girls are airheaded or merely young. They are interrupted when a letter arrives from Mr. Bingley’s sister Caroline, inviting Jane to visit Netherfield, and Mrs. Bennet concocts a plot. She notices that the weather looks foul and they expect rain, so Jane should take the family’s covered carriage to Netherfield—but instead, Mrs. Bennet insists that she ride. If it rains, Mrs. Bennet reasons, Jane will be “forced” to stay overnight and have more time to spend with Mr. Bingley. Lizzie, Jane, and Mr. Bennet all object that her plan is crazy, but she insists on having her way and “attend[s Jane] to the door with many cheerful prognostics of a bad day.”

The rain, however, doesn’t wait for Jane to reach Netherfield, but opens up while she is on her way. Jane gets soaked, catches a cold, and writes to tell Elizabeth that she is staying overnight at Netherfield. As a result, Lizzie walks three miles to Netherfield to visit Jane. Her mother complains that Elizabeth will get muddy and make a bad impression on the Bingleys. But Lizzie says that she’s only going to support Jane and it won’t matter how she looks. In fact, Mr. Bingley’s sisters do judge Lizzie for coming all that way on foot and looking muddy. But Mr. Bingley acts the perfect host, and the Bingleys invite Elizabeth to stay with them until Jane recovers.  

Austen dramatizes all this—along with her characteristic commentary, brimming with sarcasm, psychological insight, and wit—in fewer than 2,000 words. 

This chapter—like every chapter—is packed thick with decisions. Every few paragraphs, a character makes a choice that sets the action in a new direction…even if it is just Mr. Bennet making a sarcastic comment that upsets his wife. Because he makes that comment, she is on fire to advance her daughters’ marital prospects when Caroline Bingley’s letter arrives.

You Know Them By Their Actions

In an Austen novel, even the smallest actions express a character’s personality. Mrs. Bennet’s plan to ensure that Jane stay’s overnight is…well…very Mrs. Bennet. It’s silly, bold, ridiculous, rude, and entirely successful at throwing her daughter in the path of a rich young man. Her plot embodies everything we know about her…but it goes farther than we’ve seen her go up until this point. Meanwhile, Mr. Bennet can see that the plan is tawdry and silly. But instead of stopping it, he would rather be snarky. 

When Jane gets sick and Lizzie insists on visiting, her decision is…well…very Lizzie: kind, compassionate, decisive, headstrong, indifferent to what anyone thinks. She does not care that she will arrive covered in mud or that Mr. Bingley’s rich sisters will judge her.

Austen even uses something as simple as the youngest sisters’ decision to visit town to characterize them. We learn that Kitty and Lydia frequently walk down to Meryton to visit the milliner (where they buy new clothes) and to listen to the town gossip, because they are easily bored. Jane and Lizzie are able to entertain themselves at home, or wherever they happen to be, through conversation and observation. 

Even more impressively, Austen accomplishes the vividness of her characters without many of the tools that later writers use. Think about what is not in Austen’s writing. There is little sensory description: a woman might be called “handsome,” but we rarely learn what she looks like. We don’t know much about the layout of Lizzie’s boudoir or the Bennet family library. Because Austen is so sparing in physical description, she does not have access to the symbolic resonances that later writers will give to places and objects. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s green light or John Steinbeck’s turtle on the roadside require more sensory detail than Austen ever uses. And while Austen’s psychological insight is the equal of anyone’s, she uses her insight sparingly. Pride and Prejudice offers no long passages that dive into a character’s consciousness in the manner of George Eliot, Dostoevsky, or many later writers. 

Austen shows us many characters’ thoughts, but she quickly resolves those thoughts into action. In many writers’ hands, such density of action would lead to thin characters and a plot-driven story. But Austen achieves psychologically profound and memorable characters because those characters’ actions always express their inner natures. Actions—large and small, but always tightly woven into the plot—are the way that we come to know Austen’s characters.

Beginnings: Charles Dickens and the Imaginative Child

If you want to learn how to begin a novel, look at how Charles Dickens begins Great Expectations:

“My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip. So, I called myself Pip, and came to be called Pip.

I give Pirrip as my father’s family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister,—Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father’s, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, “Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,” I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine,—who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle,—I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence.”

Dickens was a master of vivid images: you can see Pip as a small boy, standing before a row of gravestones on a grey heath in the rain and imagining his five little brothers lying in a row on their backs, hands in their pockets, all dead. 

But there is much more than an image. Look at how much information Dickens gives us in these two paragraphs:

  • We learn narrator’s name, Philip Pirrip, and his nickname “Pip.” (Pip’s nickname suggests that he is small, doesn’t it?).  
  • Pip is an orphan, and his parents died before he was old enough to remember them.  
  • He was raised by his older sister, his only remaining relative
  • Pip is from the working class: his stepfather is a blacksmith
  • He’s from a small town—we know this because he describes his stepfather as “the blacksmith,” not “a blacksmith.” In other words, he grew up in a town that has only one blacksmith—and in the early 19thcentury, when horses were widespread and most tools were worked by hand, a single blacksmith could only support a couple of hundred people. 
  • The narrator was born before photography, but now he knows what it is. That gives us a pretty precise sense of when he was born: photography was invented in France in the 1820s and was widespread in England by 1850. 
  • Speaking of photography, this statement also tells us that Pip is not going to speak to us as a child, but as an adult reflecting back on his childhood. 

And that’s just Pip’s biography. Dickens also tells us a lot about his character: 

  • Pip’s reference to photography tells us that our narrator is an older man reflecting on his childhood; he understands things now that he did not understand at the time.  
  • Pip is imaginative, and his imagination often runs ahead of him, as when it gives him this vivid, but entirely false, image of his family.
  • He is susceptible to suggestion: he knows that his brothers could not have been born with their hands in their trousers’ pockets, but he cannot shake the image. 
  • He is melancholy. Pip could have opened his account with any one of countless memories, but he chooses to begin with a scene of himself as a young child, looking at his family’s graves.  

I want to pay special attention to Pip’s description of his brothers’ deaths: they “gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle.” He writes this line tongue in cheek, making a joke of his brothers’ deaths. He shows himself to be witty—but also that he uses his wit to deflect attention from serious subjects. Pip uses humor to cover up his pain, and this novel will often be most serious when it is funniest. And he thinks naturally of money: unlike his brothers, he will not easily give up trying to get a living. 

You can think of Pip’s self-introduction in three concentric circles. In the center are the images: Pip’s family’s graves, his brothers lying in a row with their hands in their pockets, and himself, as a little boy, looking at all this. This central circle also contains the emotions in this scene—all of which are powerful, but none of which are named. 

The second circle contains Pip’s character, his imagination and tendency to sadness. The outermost circle consists of all the biographical information we learn about Pip. 

When we read this passage, we pay attention to the first circle, which is the most vivid. We notice some elements of Pip’s character from the second circle, but a lot of our response to circle 2 is likely to be unconscious. We know more about who Pip is than we verbalize. And nearly all of the information in the third circle—essential biographical information about Pip and his world—comes into our minds unconsciously. Dickens uses Pip’s memory of the graveyard to place him in a quite clear and significant social world—but biographical facts are boring, and he slips them in unawares.    

Pip on the marsh is a vivid image—but it is the work of a master because of how much emotion and information Dickens conveys through, in, and under that image. What’s more, everything we learn about Pip underpins the story we are about to read. Pip is a poor boy from the country with a vivid imagination who moves to the city and tries to live a gentleman’s life. His imagination will often run ahead of him, sometimes getting him into trouble. He wants to make his fortune and his way in the world, and he is going to run up against the difference between the world as he imagines it and the world as it is. Pip’s dreamy ambition and his melancholy are suggested all at once in this image of the tombstones.

Beginnings: Frederick Douglass and the Self-Introduction

The simplest way to start a story is to introduce yourself. Your narrator states his name, tells us where he is from, when he was born, and describes his background. And yet, you can do so many things with a self-introduction. Here’s how Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist author, begins his autobiography:

“I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age. I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.” (Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845

Douglass’s Narrative tells us where he was born, but immediately runs into a problem: Douglass cannot tell us when he was born, because he was born enslaved. In 19th Century America, births had long since been recorded; there’s something unsettling about not knowing your birthday. It’s even more unsettling that he learns his best estimate of his age only because his owner told him. 

Douglass wants to unsettle us. Many of his first readers were white northerners who disliked slavery but didn’t know much about it. He aims to show them what slavery is really like. He doesn’t start with beatings or torture (he’ll get there soon enough), but with a hidden privation. Most free people would not even think about it. It is as if he says: there are terrible things about slavery that you know about. There are also terrible things that you have never heard of. I escaped from slavery to tell you, and I will be your guide. 

Douglass establishes his credibility by surprising us. That is a key point for writers, whether of fiction or nonfiction: readers begin to trust us when they learn from us. A powerful way to earn trust is to show readers something that was right there in front of them—but which they did not see, and would not have seen, without the writer. 

What’s more, this small-seeming observation—that enslaved people do not know their birthdays—makes the world of enslaved people alive for Douglass’s readers. He makes that world real and concrete by fixing on an overlooked difference between life in slavery and life outside of it. 

Douglass’s ignorance of his age does one more thing: it introduces Douglass’s quest to understand himself and his world. A major conflict in this story occurs between Douglass, who wants to understand the world, and the slave owners who want to keep their slaves ignorant. Douglass relates his growing understanding of the sick logic of slavery, from the beating of his aunt to the slaveowners who encourage their slaves to drink so that they remain ignorant. Many of the book’s famous scenes revolve around Douglass’s attempts to learn. When Douglass is a child, his master’s wife tries to teach him to read, but her husband berates her for it. Later, he finally learns to read by tricking white sailors into teaching him. All throughout, he argues that slaveowners’ most powerful weapon is their ability to keep slaves ignorant about themselves and their condition, and that their best way of fighting back is to learn. Douglass doesn’t say any of this in the first paragraph, but his desire to know his birthday reverberates through the whole book. 

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