Persuasions #11, 1989                                                                                                                                                            Page 85-91

Secrets, Silence, and Surprise in Pride and Prejudice 

Department of English, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E5

As literary concepts, secrecy, silence, and surprise are closely connected: they form a single entity at the very heart of the notion of a plot.  A secret consists of information generally unknown, yet understood by a select few – etymologically, something sifted out and set apart.  A storyteller’s plot is built around a secret, but the storyteller, while continuing to narrate the tale, preserves silence on this secret until the time for divulging it with greatest effect – the time for surprise – has come.  Once all the secrets have been divulged, we can no longer be surprised, and the plot is over: the author relapses into literal silence.  These ideas underlie the witty title which Henry Fielding gives to Book I of Tom Jones: “Containing as much of the Birth of the Foundling as is necessary or proper to acquaint the Reader with in the Beginning of this History.”  On the one hand, the author must not give away the nub of the matter: a game of hide-and-seek is no fun if we know the secret hiding-places right away.  On the other hand, the reader must know a certain amount in order to begin playing the game at all.  Narration thus proceeds by indirection – but also moves in a definite, foreknown direction.  These ideas are implicit in Aristotle’s notion that the best plots are those which build to a simultaneous reversal and recognition (Poetics, Chapter XI).  

This set of ideas plays an important part in Pride and Prejudice, as we can see in the little comic playlet that is enacted in the opening paragraphs of the novel.  Mrs. Bennet pesters her husband to visit their new neighbour, Mr. Bingley, so that Bingley will be able to marry one of their five daughters; during successive days of badgering Mr. Bennet replies with such masterful indirection that Mrs. Bennet finally cries, “I am sick of Mr. Bingley,” and now the time has come for Mr. Bennet, the concealed author of this little drama, to break his silence and reveal his secret: “ ‘I am sorry to hear that; but why did you not tell me so before?  If I had known as much this morning, I certainly would not have called on him.’ … the astonishment of the ladies was just what he wished’ (5).1  

If Mr. Bennet contrives this little comedy, which might be called “The Visit,” for his own rather cruel amusement, for an audience of one, Jane Austen has constructed the whole novel on much the same principles, though for a much larger audience and for a much more humane purpose.  Secrets, silence, and surprise are of the utmost importance in Pride and Prejudice; an attempt to define her handling of them in the novel throws some light on its plot, a construction that George Henry Lewes insisted was more artful, subtle, and economical than the much-praised plot of Tom Jones.2  This approach further emphasizes what many readers and critics have noted: that despite the novel’s disposition into three volumes, its plot falls into two halves, separated by the novel’s central episode – Darcy’s proposal, his letter the next morning, and Elizabeth’s ensuing reflections.  Before this Aristotelian reversal and recognition, Darcy and Elizabeth are separated by secrets; after this point, secrets unite them.  Similarly, the teasing dialogues between Darcy and Elizabeth in the first half of the novel, a form of pseudo-silence similar to Mr. Bennet’s ironic rejoinders, in that speech has served to disguise meaning, is replaced during the second half of the novel, for the most part, by genuine silence: Darcy and Elizabeth are separated, and each now has the material, the opportunity, and the motive for introspection and moral change.  Furthermore, the surprises that astonish Elizabeth in the first half of the novel are pseudo-surprises for the reader: beginning with Wickham’s non-appearance at the Bingleys’ ball and climaxing in Darcy’s proposal, each of these developments has been clearly signalled in advance to us.  Beginning with Darcy’s letter, however, which is a major surprise to us as well as Elizabeth, the last half of the novel contains a series of marvellous comic surprises: events which we could never have anticipated, which suddenly transform pain into pleasure, which cause the sober truth that Elizabeth has vowed to respect to astonish her.  

       If we examine the novel’s plot, five secrets keep Darcy and Elizabeth apart during the first half of the novel: each secret is known by one of the central pair, but not by the other.  Darcy does not know that Jane Bennet, despite her placid demeanour, loves his friend Bingley.  Elizabeth is ignorant of four crucial pieces of information: that Darcy had kept from Bingley the knowledge that Jane was in town; that Wickham is a detestable hypocrite; that Darcy is, against his will, increasingly in love with her; and that she herself is, against her will, increasingly in love with Darcy.3  Elizabeth does know what Darcy does not: that Jane loves Bingley.  Darcy clearly knows three of the four things that are hidden from Elizabeth – that he has kept Bingley ignorant of Jane’s presence in London, that Wickham is far from being a victim of the Darcy family, and that he is in love with Elizabeth (if against his will, his reason, and his character [p. 169]) – and he, ironically, is fully convinced of the fourth, of Elizabeth’s love for him.  He can see in her behaviour to him what she can not: “I believed you to be wishing, expecting my addresses,” he tells her at the novel’s end (328).  

       The proposal scene and its result, Darcy’s letter, are thus pivotal.  The proposal, itself a secret between them, reveals three of the five secrets: Jane’s love for Bingley, Darcy’s separation of Bingley from Jane, and Darcy’s love for Elizabeth.  Darcy’s ensuing letter, also a secret between Elizabeth and Darcy, throws further light on all three of the secrets just revealed to Elizabeth.  It is especially eloquent on the third secret, Darcy’s love.  For, despite its haughty opening and its cool tone, it is really a love letter – in its appeal to Elizabeth to share with him in reaching a mutual understanding of their situation, in its painful efforts to be honest and precise, in its trust in her intelligence and ability to keep his confidence.  Furthermore, the letter reveals a fourth secret, Wickham’s past.  By the time Elizabeth has read and absorbed the letter, only one of the five original secrets is unknown to her: her own love for Darcy.  That love will slowly become apparent to her as she moves in a series of steps accelerated by her encounter with a transformed Darcy at Pemberley, from credence to respect to approval to esteem to gratitude to affection and, finally, the realization that “he was exactly the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her” (275).  

From the proposal and letter onwards, then, Darcy and Elizabeth are united by their secret knowledge.  This is even more evident when a new secret emerges in the second half of the novel: Wickham and Lydia have eloped and disappeared!  The elopement has often been treated with disdain by critics; Tony Tanner considers that it presents us with “externalities … mere melodrama.”4 The elopement in itself may have been melodramatic, but Jane Austen carefully limits her presentation of it to its effects upon the other characters, which are not.  Elizabeth, moved by impulses that she cannot explain and later regrets, spontaneously tells Darcy about the elopement right after reading Jane’s letters announcing it.  By entrusting him with this secret she reciprocates the trust in her revealed by his disclosure to her of Wickham’s intended elopement with his sister; perhaps even more important, she conveys to him the message that her love for him has been strengthened, not destroyed, by the battering each gave the other at Hunsford.  Mutual confidences and mutual confidence have grown up together.  And, of course, her disclosure allows Darcy to demonstrate exactly the same strengthened love for her: he secretly rescues Lydia and the Bennet family by arranging (and paying for) a marriage which almost guarantees that he will not only be allied to the Bennets, but also have Wickham as a brother-in-law, if he proposes again to Elizabeth.  Darcy’s secret rescue of the Bennet family has further significance in the plot, since it is only when Elizabeth takes the initiative and thanks him for it that he finds himself able to ask for her hand again.  But before that Elizabeth guarantees Darcy’s return to Longbourn by her refusal to divulge a secret – a refusal that, if unsatisfying to Lady Catherine, itself discloses Elizabeth’s secret to Darcy.  

Two additional points might be made.  The first is that the secrets that separate Elizabeth and Darcy in the first half of the novel are really pseudo-secrets: the characters may be ignorant, but we easily see the true state of affairs.  Unlike the question of Tom Jones’ parentage, which is a secret the author carefully conceals from all but the preternaturally acute reader, Jane Austen has put us in a position to be in on these pseudo-secrets.  We know, of course, of Jane’s love for Bingley, since Jane confides in Elizabeth and Elizabeth is the point-of-view character.  We also know, though less explicitly, that Elizabeth is remarkably obtuse on each of the four remaining questions.  She refuses to believe that Bingley has left Longbourn for good because she is convinced that he loves Jane and that “a young man so totally independent of every one” (108) will do just what he wants.  She is correct on the first count, Bingley’s love for Jane, but wildly mistaken on the second, Bingley’s independence: to adapt the words of Colonel Fitzwilliam to Elizabeth just minutes before Darcy’s proposal at Hunsford, Elizabeth has lessened the honour of Darcy’s triumph very sadly (165).  Similarly, Elizabeth can see clearly after reading Darcy’s letter just how self-contradictory Wickham’s posture of offended virtue has been.  As for Darcy’s growing love for Elizabeth, Jane Austen leaves Elizabeth’s viewpoint several times during Volume One to give us direct glimpses of both his love and his struggle against it, and during her stay at Hunsford in Volume Two, though we remain within Elizabeth’s perspective, we can see increasingly clear signs that the struggle is going to be in vain.  And, in fact, Darcy’s growing love for her is further evidence to us of the fourth secret, that she is falling in love with him, though without realizing it; E. M. Halliday makes the interesting point that Darcy’s secret love for Elizabeth, whom we like immensely, makes him worthy of her love, at least in our eyes.5  

       A second important point about these secrets, or more accurately pseudo-secrets, is that Darcy and Elizabeth cannot penetrate them because of their pride and prejudice.  Darcy cannot see Jane’s love for Bingley because he is determined not to: he confesses in his letter to the belief that the Bennet family, except for Jane and Elizabeth, have so little propriety that the match would be “a most unhappy connection” (176); he does not admit, in the letter or afterwards, what Caroline Bingley has suggested in her letter to Jane: that Darcy is prejudiced in his assessment of Jane by his desire to arrange a marriage between Bingley and his sister.  Similarly, Elizabeth does not want to admit to Darcy’s power over Bingley, to Darcy’s moral superiority to Wickham, to Darcy’s evident admiration for her, and to her own feelings toward him, all for the same reason: to do so would be to lose her independence and her conviction of her own superiority.  There is room for growth and change on each side.  The final words regarding Bingley and Jane in Darcy’s letter contain an unintended precision:  “though the motives which governed me may to you very naturally appear insufficient, I have not yet learnt to condemn them” (177).  Not yet, perhaps, but he will eventually.  It takes more than five months, but, as Darcy explains to Elizabeth, “On the evening before my going to London, I made a confession to [Bingley], which I believe I ought to have made long ago” (329).  In the same way, Elizabeth’s understanding of her errors and their cause undergoes a long, slow change, culminating, perhaps in her reaction to the news from Mrs. Gardiner that Darcy has secretly arranged the Lydia-Wickham match: “For herself, she was humbled; but she was proud of him” (289).  Elizabeth, like Darcy, has learned to condemn her earlier certainties.  

       What I have said about secrets in the novel also applies to the related notion of silence.  The relationship of Elizabeth and Darcy during the first half of the novel consists largely of pseudo-silence: Elizabeth may believe that Darcy is a man of silence, and twit him repeatedly for being so, but actually their relationship during this section of the novel is a talkative one.  All of this is nicely symbolized when Elizabeth finds herself dancing with Darcy at Netherfield: “She began to imagine that their silence was to last through the two dances, and at first was resolved not to break it; till suddenly fancying that it would be the greater punishment to her partner to oblige him to talk, she made some slight observation on the dance” (p. 81).  Of course, the key word is “fancying”: Elizabeth grasps neither Darcy’s devotion to her nor why she is so determined to punish him.  In short, their talk during the first section of the novel is the equivalent of Mr. Bennet’s evasiveness on the subject of visiting Bingley: it is a confusing disguise, but moves indirectly in a desired direction.  The proposal scene and the letter put Elizabeth and Darcy into direct communication, and, as we have seen, this central episode is followed, at least for the most part, by a long period of genuine silence, introspection, and change on the part of each.  It is worth pointing out that Elizabeth has had no interest in introspection in the first half of the novel: her attention has been focused on her attempts to account for the mysterious events that are happening around her.  On the other hand, we readers are much less uncertain about events than Elizabeth, since what is secret to her is only apparently secret to us, and as a result our attention is drawn to what Elizabeth is determined to ignore: her own motives for her judgements and attitudes.  The final sentence in Elizabeth’s apostrophe to herself after reading Darcy’s letter – the bottom line, as it were – is, “Till this moment, I never knew myself” (185).  

       To put this another way, Elizabeth begins the novel as someone determined to talk, because she knows exactly what to think.  Darcy’s proposal, his letter, and their ensuing separation force her to choose to be silent, even to Jane, on some matters, and to understand the value of silence.  Her first act in the plot is to entertain everyone with the story of what she has overheard Darcy say to Bingley about her; her decisive act at the end of the novel, when Lady Catherine sweeps up in her chaise and four, shows how much she has learned.  Elizabeth has become more like Darcy during the course of their relationship, just as he has gained some of her liveliness and poise.  

       Secrets and silence lead to surprise.  It seems to me that there are five major surprises within the first half of the novel, culminating in Darcy’s proposal to Elizabeth, but that these surprises are actually pseudo-surprises – events that catch Elizabeth, but not the novel’s readers, unprepared.  These surprises are all disturbing shocks to Elizabeth, brought on by her delusions.  In the second half of the novel, however, beginning with Darcy’s letter and culminating in Lady Catherine’s descent upon Longbourn, there are another five surprises, but of a very different kind: each is pleasant, and each is a genuinely astonishing turn of events that no one, neither Elizabeth nor we readers of the novel, could ever have predicted.  

       Elizabeth’s first major unpleasant surprise occurs when Wickham does not attend the Bingleys’ ball: “a doubt of his being present had never occurred to her” (79).  An even more painful shock occurs when Charlotte Lucas tells Elizabeth that she has agreed to marry Mr. Collins:   

that Charlotte should encourage him, seemed almost as far from possibility as that she could encourage him herself, and her astonishment was consequently so great as to overcome at first the bounds of decorum, and she could not help crying out, “Engaged to Mr. Collins! my dear Charlotte, – impossible!”  (113)   

       Elizabeth’s third surprise comes at about the same time.  Bingley has indeed left Netherfield for good, though Elizabeth had been so certain it could not happen: “The idea of his returning no more Elizabeth treated with the utmost contempt” (108).  Her fourth unpleasant surprise follows quickly and consists of another defection: Wickham leaves off his attention to Elizabeth and begins determinedly making himself agreeable to a Miss King, whose most remarkable charm is the sudden acquisition of £10,000 (134).  Elizabeth is ostensibly cool and unaffected at the loss of her admirer, but her professions of cynical acceptance are so bitter that Mrs. Gardiner remarks, “Take care, Lizzy; that speech savours strongly of disappointment” (138).  Her fifth and greatest surprise comes when Darcy abruptly enters the drawing room at Hunsford, where she is sitting alone, and bursts out with the words, “In vain have I struggled” (168).  Darcy’s proposal is actually, of course, merely the culminating instance in a series of unsettling overtures by Darcy to Elizabeth during the Netherfield and Hunsford scenes.  

       My point is that all of these surprises are ironic ones: surprises to Elizabeth, but pseudo-surprises to us.  For instance, Wickham’s tale to Elizabeth is preposterous: he intersperses his maligning of Darcy with claims such as, “Till I forget his father, I can never defy or expose him” (71).  Similarly, we have seen Charlotte consistently profess and act upon a credo of cynical opportunism, though Elizabeth has been blind and deaf where Charlotte is concerned.  And, of course, Darcy’s proposal has been looming more and more inevitably: an increasingly obvious flurry of hints while Elizabeth is at Hunsford shows us that his is a kettle about to reach the boiling-point.  In short, the greatest surprise of all to Elizabeth in the first half of the novel is the event that we most expect.  

       All of these surprises to Elizabeth are disturbing and even humiliating.  They all spring from her prejudices, her determination to think the best of herself and the worst of Darcy, but she chooses to ascribe these surprises to the unsatisfying, undependable nature of reality itself.  She tells Jane that Bingley’s desertion and Charlotte’s marriage are simply “unaccountable” (121).  

A great change occurs, however, with Darcy’s letter to Elizabeth, the sequel to and even continuation of his proposal.  The letter is, in effect, Darcy’s Proposal, Part Two.  It is a complete surprise to us as well as to Elizabeth, such a jolt to the reader’s expectations that Mary Lascelles has argued that it shows Jane Austen sacrificing plausibility in order to advance the plot: “The manner is right, but not the matter: so much, and such, information would hardly be volunteered by a proud and reserved man – unless under pressure from his author, anxious to get on with the story.6  

       The letter is the first of five genuinely surprising events in the second half of the novel; each of these surprises (with the partial exception of the central, transitional letter) is pleasant in nature and satisfyingly advances Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship.  The second comes when Elizabeth finds herself at Pemberley, finds that the house is gracious, but not ostentatious, and finds, to her special astonishment, that his housekeeper Mrs. Reynolds insists that he is a kind master: she has never had a cross word from him in her life, and has known him since he was four years old (218).  The crescendo in this series of surprises at Pemberley comes when Darcy himself steps out from behind his house, and the climax is the change in Darcy’s manners.  The third great surprise is the news of Lydia and Wickham’s elopement, though the surprise lies not so much in the elopement itself as in the change it makes in Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship.  Five lines after Jane’s second letter ends Elizabeth has run to the door of the room and confronted – Darcy.  And then something even more surprising than the elopement happens: Elizabeth finds herself confiding in Darcy.  This act is her response to, her reciprocation of, his letter and his reformed behaviour at Pemberley.  The fourth great surprise leaps out of a babble of trivia as Lydia describes her wedding day to the assembled Bennets:   

“However, I recollected afterwards, that if he [Mr. Gardiner] had been prevented going, the wedding need not be put off, for Mr. Darcy might have done as well.”  

“Mr. Darcy!” repeated Elizabeth, in utter amazement.  (282)   

Elizabeth now induces her aunt to reveal all Darcy has secretly done to bring about Lydia’s marriage, and his actions, of course, have a secret meaning of their own: “Her heart did whisper, that he had done it for her” (288).  The fifth and culminating surprise is Lady Catherine’s appearance at Pemberley, an appearance that, like all of the other surprising events in this half of the novel, is an extremely happy turn of events: Lady Catherine, who loves to be of use, removes all of Darcy’s doubts about Elizabeth’s feelings (339).  Not only are all of these surprises pleasant, but they are genuine: Elizabeth is no longer self-deceived, and once she begins to see the world as it is, she finds that it far exceeds her expectations.  Though, as she tells Wickham, “In essentials … [Mr. Darcy] is very much what he ever was” (207), that true identity proves to be far better than she had ever imagined.   


1 Quotations are from Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Oxford World’s Classics Edition, ed. James Kinsley and Frank W. Bradbrook (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1980).   

2 See Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1968), pp. 152, 175.   

3 The view that Elizabeth unwittingly loves Darcy from the outset is developed in Bruce Stovel, “ ‘A Contrariety of Emotion’: Jane Austen’s Ambivalent Lovers in Pride and Prejudice,” International Fiction Review, 14 (1987), 27-33.   

4 Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univerity Press, 1986), p.  120.   

5 E. M. Halliday, “Narrative Perspective in Pride and Prejudice,” Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 15 (1960), 65-71; cited here from Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Pride and Prejudice, ed. E. Rubinstein (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), p. 81.   

6 Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and Her Art (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), p. 162.

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