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  • Three Accounts of Literary Style
  • Jean-Jacques Lecercle (bio)

1. It Is a Truth, Universally Acknowledged, That an Author of Good Repute Must Be Capable of Seducing Her Reader in the First Few Sentences Of Her Novel

And this is precisely what happens in the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" (Austen, 1). But how does this instant seduction operate? At first reading, the sentence appears to state a truth, of universal import, the kind of truth we assign to the proposition, "It is a truth that water boils at 100° Celsius." But it immediately weakens this assertion by stating that such truth is "universally acknowledged." Far from being an improvement, this is a retreat: a truth is a truth is a truth, and I need not add that its acknowledgment is "universal"—there would be something strange in the statement that "it is a truth, universally acknowledged, that water boils at 100° Celsius." And the situation gets even worse with the rest of [End Page 151] the sentence. This already weakened truth is weakened even more by the use of the modal auxiliary, must, which the grammar of the English language compels me to interpret as an indication of strong probability, not of obligation (you cannot be compelled to be "in want" of a wife—a need is something that occurs to you, it does not depend on your will or decision: to be in want of a wife is not the same as to be looking for a wife). Not only must this truth be acknowledged by the generality of human beings (and there will always be flat-earthers, or the like) but it is reduced to the rank of mere probability—a poor form of universality indeed. It appears that the sentence is logically incoherent and, provided we read carefully, this incoherence must delay our reading and cause a modicum of puzzlement. But the incoherence soon receives an explanation, and our pause in our reading is rewarded, when we read the first sentence of the third paragraph: "'My dear Mr. Bennet,' said his lady to him one day, 'have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?'"; (Austen 1970, 1). This induces a second reading of the sentence, where everything becomes clear: far from being a universal truth, the initial proposition expresses the fond hopes of a foolish woman, who has five daughters of marriageable age, and an estate entailed in the male line. The modal auxiliary expresses not a strong probability but an obligation, and Mr. Bingley will duly oblige by marrying Jane Bennet at the end of the novel. We thought the first sentence was spoken by a narrator who was the voice of common sense, and we discover that, on the contrary, it expresses the prejudices of a character, neither the most amiable nor the most reliable of the cast. So we have been tricked, for our greatest pleasure, by a wily narrator, who forces us, on rereading the sentence, to interpret the modal auxiliary, against the grain of the language, as a marker of obligation: it is a moral obligation, for the affluent young man who has just rented Netherfield Park, to be in want for a wife, and to marry one of Mrs. Bennet's daughters. This linguistic manipulation, which does not hesitate to play with and against the rules of the English language, is the source of the perlocutionary effect through which the seduction of the text operates. I am overcome by Jane Austen's inimitable style, I am captured by the world of the novel and I fall into it like Alice falling into the rabbit hole. But what exactly does this "style" consist in? [End Page 152]

2. Seduction of Style

Here is another example of a text that displays the seduction of style:

Harris is a fellar who likes to play ladeda, and he like English customs and things, he does...


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