PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.34, NO.1 (Winter 2013)

Elizabeth Bennet, the Socrates of Descriptive Reason

Brett Bourbon


Brett Bourbon (email: is an Associate Professor at University of Dallas and a Visiting Associate Professor in the Program of Literary Theory at the University of Lisbon.  He is the author of Finding a Replacement for the Soul: Meaning and Mind in Literature and Philosophy (Harvard UP, 2004).


i want to begin with two claims I will not quite justify.  First:  for Austen, we live and love by exchanging descriptions, one kind of which we call gossip.  And second:  A marriage should consist of gossip made just.  But I won’t quite argue for these, nor will I show how descriptions work within the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy.  I will instead work my way to the edge of their marriage.  To get there we will have to see how Elizabeth and Darcy survive that harridan beast, the Queen of Hearts of Pride and Prejudice:  Lady Catherine De Bourgh.


Lady Catherine and Elizabeth Bennet at the end of the novel engage in a battle of descriptions.  Their battle concerns whether Elizabeth will or would be able to marry Lady Catherine’s nephew, Darcy.  It is a battle of descriptions:  Lady Catherine keeps trying to describe Elizabeth and to get her to accept these self-serving descriptions, which will then constrain Elizabeth to Lady Catherine’s will, and prevent Elizabeth from marrying Darcy.  Elizabeth refuses this gambit, not so much by denying Lady Catherine’s descriptions, as by defining the limits of Lady Catherine’s power to describe her, and in so doing she in effect acknowledges Darcy’s power to describe her.




In saying this, I am giving great power to description.  Such power can seem unreasonable, but I want to convince you that it is not.  To do that I first want to tell you a story about chimpanzees.  I am a collector of chimpanzee stories, which I have always found heart-warming and useful in all sorts of situations, including literary essays.


In the wild, if a chimp finds food, it will call out to its fellow chimps in the troupe.  The call means Come here, there’s food.  Or maybe just, Food—to which the other chimps react by running to that place.  It has been observed that sometimes a really clever chimp will find food but not call out; instead he will move away, make the call from somewhere else, and then circle back and eat the food himself.  Let’s call this the Lucifer chimp, the chimp that knows how to lie.1


But lying is no easy cognitive task.  To lie one has to be able to first represent not only the situation in which one finds oneself (the current situation) but also other possible situations—and then reason about those possibilities.  The Lucifer chimp represents to himself an alternative scenario to the normal one:  if I go over there and make the call, the others will run there and not here; and then I can come back and eat the food.  The reasoning is actually much more complicated, but this description gives the essential elements.  The chimp can represent the actual situation, and he can represent possible situations, and he can reason about those representations relative to each other.  If he can so reason, then he can chose to enact one of those possibilities.  The Lucifer chimp can lie because he can represent by description current states of affairs and possible states of affairs; he can reason about these and make choices.  The ability to choose means he has the ability to lie.


From this story we can conclude the following:

1. Descriptions are representations.

2. We reason not about the world, but about representations.

3. Representations can describe possibilities.

4. If we can reason about these possibilities, by means of inference, we can make choices.

5. When we grasp a description, we grasp certain implications, on which we can act.

6. We often react to representations as if we were reacting to what we see.

7. So representations allow us to choose, and representations allow us to be fooled.


The critical thing to remember here is that descriptions are representations, in the way ruminating is a kind of thinking, and day-dreaming is a kind of playing.


Lady Catherine lies like Lucifer the chimp.  She wants Elizabeth to react like his troupe-mates, erstwhile Eves and Adams.  She wants Elizabeth to accept and believe her descriptions, and by this acceptance manipulate her.  What this means is that Lady Catherine, like the Lucifer chimp, argues by description, or rather by descriptive assertion.2


At the beginning of her confrontation with Elizabeth, Lady Catherine asserts:  It is impossible that you, Elizabeth, would be engaged to my nephew.  Elizabeth responds:  If it is impossible, then why are you here?  Lady Catherine replies:  To stop the gossip.  Elizabeth counters:  But by coming here you will confirm the gossip.  And thus Lady Catherine is exposed as foolish or false (or both).  (Throughout this essay I will often paraphrase what is said in the novel in order to make clear the logical content of conversation between Elizabeth and Lady Catherine.)


There is a structure to Lady Catherine’s argument, the purpose of which is to assert her will against Elizabeth.  The structure is like this:


The situation is x; or, “x!”


Which means


I, Lady Catherine, want x.


A simple structure, but profound.  Such arguments by description are often powerfully successful (as with gossip and in political speeches).


Elizabeth, however, is neither chimp nor chump.  She refuses to accept Lady Catherine’s descriptions.  Her refusal, however, is not yet her victory.  Lady Catherine tries again.  She asserts another description:  “‘Mr. Darcy is engaged to my daughter’” (393).  Elizabeth is not fooled.  If this were true, as she again points out, then there would be no need for Lady Catherine’s request or anxiety.  Faced with this contradiction in her reasoning, Lady Catherine confesses: well, not really engaged.  The engagement is “‘of a peculiar kind,’” an agreement between herself and Darcy’s mother when their children were young.  But all this engagement means is that Lady Catherine wants them to be engaged.


Foiled again by Elizabeth, Lady Catherine changes tactics.  She stops describing the situation she wants and starts describing Elizabeth.  The new structure becomes:  You’re a blankity blank (insert insult).  Lady Catherine calls Elizabeth of “‘inferior birth, of no importance in the world,’” “‘wholly unallied to the family’” (393).  Which means:  Given what I say you are, (a blankity blank), you should conclude, by implication, that you can’t marry Darcy.


Lady Catherine elaborates her insulting descriptions.  She claims, for example, that honor, decorum, prudence, and self-interest should constrain Elizabeth’s options and choices (394).  She is saying to Elizabeth that her future married life with Darcy would be dishonorable, indecorous, imprudent, and against her self-interest.  The underlying motive structure is:  if Elizabeth does not acquiesce to Lady Catherine’s demands, then Elizabeth is dishonorable, indecorous, etc.  Lady Catherine uses these moral terms to describe the consequences of Elizabeth’s intransigence.  She claims that Darcy’s family and friends would reject Elizabeth, but because she describes Elizabeth in negative moral terms, she means to imply that by being so rejected Elizabeth would demonstrate that she should be rejected.  So Lady Catherine claims that Elizabeth would be “‘censured, slighted, and despised’” because in marrying Darcy she would be wrong, slight, and despicable (394).


Elizabeth does not deny that people might judge her in this way, nor does she deny that she might be rejected.  She could make such denials, but she does not.  Instead, she argues that even if true, these are not reasons for her to refuse Darcy.  Such a rejection would not contaminate her happiness with Darcy.  Her happiness would not be dependent on the opinion of others, as long as Darcy did not describe her as Lady Catherine does.


Elizabeth repeatedly responds to Lady Catherine’s descriptions:  You, Lady Catherine, say X is the case, but that is nothing to me, if it is nothing to DarcyYou want x, but your wants are immaterial to me In so doing she is resisting Lady Catherine’s sovereignty and creating a kind of constitutional boundary between the two of them.  I put this politically because in Austen’s world the possibility of forming a household is the primary political activity.


Elizabeth does not provide a competing description but a limit-description—a re-description of what Lady Catherine says that marks the limit of its power and sense.  In this case, Elizabeth’s limit-descriptions mean two interrelated things:


1. What you, Lady Catherine, say may be true, but it is no concern of mine.

2. What you say would only matter if it mattered to Darcy.


Lady Catherine cannot hear this logic, so she continues her descriptive attacks.  She states:  An alliance between you and my nephew would be a disgrace.  This assertion is meant to prompt Elizabeth to make the following inference:  I, Elizabeth, do not want to be a disgrace; therefore I should not agree to an alliance with Darcy.  But Elizabeth refuses this inference and responds:  If I were disgraced in your eyes, as the wife of Mr. Darcy, I would be amply compensated.  She does not say:  It would not be a disgrace In other words, she does not respond in kind to Lady Catherine; she does not assert a competing description, like:  You, Lady Catherine, and your family are a bunch of aristocratic prigs, of questionable moral character, and superficial and selfish judgment.  She says, in effect:  My disgrace would matter not at all in relation to the grace I would find with Darcy.


Stymied once again, Lady Catherine retaliates with descriptive insults, calling Elizabeth an obstinate and headstrong girl (a blankity blank, again).  But then she takes a breath and returns to her earlier gambit of describing the situation in a way that confirms her desire:  “‘My daughter and my nephew are formed for each other’” (394).  “Formed” means “their families have brought them up in this expectation.”  She then shifts into a description of their entwined family trees, as if the trunks, branches and leaves of these families had already sprouted amongst them this new flowering branch of Darcy and Miss De Bourgh.


Lady Catherine then offers confirmation of what she means by “formed for each other,” as if offering an historical description for what is only accidentally not yet accomplished.  She says, “‘They are destined for each other by the voice of every member of their respective houses’” (394).  This is a peculiar use of “destined” although typical for Lady Catherine.  They are destined by their families’ expectations, their marriage fated by these expectations.  Indignant at the threat to her arboreal vision of family, Lady Catherine exclaims:  How can fate be blocked by the “‘upstart pretensions of a young woman without family, connections, or fortune’” (394-95).  Lady Catherine’s grand tree of relatives towers over the little scrubby benighted bush of Elizabeth and her family, a bush unlikely to flower, its little berries already stolen by the likes of Wickham and entailment.


Elizabeth decisively changes her own tactics at this point.  She does not offer a limit-description as she has before, but a counter description—a baseline characterization of her family, with its roots and branches.  She is, she states, a gentleman’s daughter and thus of the same social sphere as Darcy, if not of the same dignity.  This is a description of fact, not a definition of equality.  Lady Catherine demurs by asking about Elizabeth’s mother.


But what of your mother, Lady Catherine challenges.  Elizabeth has proved enough, so she turns again to her limit-description tactics.  She does not defend her mother or her relatives.  Instead she says: If Darcy doesn’t mind, then your opinion is irrelevant.  She establishes that she is Darcy’s social equal but does not defend that self-description beyond saying:  It would be Darcy’s description of me that matters, not yours.  Elizabeth gives Darcy the power to describe her.


The failure of Lady Catherine’s descriptive assertion prompts her to ask again about Elizabeth’s intentions, in effect acknowledging that Elizabeth’s desires are in fact paramount in this situation.  With this acknowledgement Elizabeth answers Lady Catherine’s query.  She admits that she is not engaged to Darcy.


Lady Catherine then seeks to extract a promise from Elizabeth that she will not accept any engagement with Darcy.  Elizabeth refuses, claiming that Lady Catherine has no right or ability to limit her actions.  The only limits on her own actions that she recognizes are those of honor and the inclinations of those involved.  Lady Catherine calls Elizabeth unreasonable.  In so doing Lady Catherine accedes to the fact that Elizabeth can act as she sees fit.  It is not that Elizabeth cannot marry Darcy, as Lady Catherine had insisted earlier in the conversation, but that it is unreasonable that she should marry him and unreasonable that she should not promise her that she will not.  By allowing that Elizabeth can decide not to marry Darcy (the point of her asking her to promise not to), Lady Catherine implies that Elizabeth can in fact marry him.  Lady Catherine has failed to establish her first asserted principle and goal:  that it is not possible for Elizabeth and Darcy to marry.


The battle of descriptions continues, getting more desperate.  Lady Catherine asserts, restates, changes tack, retaining always her specific goal (to get Elizabeth to renounce or deny any connection with Darcy), her general goal (to keep Darcy for her daughter), and her primary premise (her own self-importance and special privilege).  Lady Catherine describes by insult and distortion.3 


What does Elizabeth learn through her resistance to Lady Catherine?  Elizabeth’s battle with Lady Catherine, in its revelation of limits, within a broader moral and legal sense of community, establishes Elizabeth’s power to form a household—and that is what a marriage is for Austen.  Elizabeth, in effect, determines by description the kind of life and marriage possible for her and establishes the conversational and social limits of the world in which she lives.  In her battle of descriptions with Lady Catherine, Elizabeth graduates into social independence, which allows her to relate to Darcy not simply through her wit as his equal but within his world as his social equal.  She thus establishes the possibility for her marriage with Darcy.


After her victory, Elizabeth imagines that Lady Catherine’s arguments, which seemed so foolish to her, might not seem that way to Darcy.  She is certain that Lady Catherine will attempt the same arguments on her nephew.  She takes this possibility as a test of Darcy.  She realizes that she has discovered the constitutional terms under which, given their affection and admiration, they can marry.  So if Darcy rejects Lady Catherine’s arguments, then he will accept, in effect, the constitution of their marriage that she discovered through her descriptive battle with his aunt.


And, of course, Darcy does accept that constitution.


Elizabeth was never really concerned about whether Lady Catherine’s descriptions were true but rather if they were relevant and if they could claim her.  She demonstrated and determined that they did not, that they could not.


Elizabeth’s situation during her battle with Lady Catherine prefigures the situation of Alice at the end of her adventures in Wonderland.  Alice, frustrated at the trial of the feckless knave, speaks up.  The Queen of Hearts, her version of Lady Catherine, screams, “Off with her head!”  Alice could respond:  I am innocent; I do not deserve this; this court is unjust, your judgments ill-considered and tendentious.  She does not.  She says, “Who cares for you? . . . You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” (116).  She says, in effect:  I will not play this game, your judgments have no claim on me.  Alice describes the cards as cards and as irrelevant and powerless—a description of fact and a limit-description.  Alice counter-describes in the same way as does Elizabeth.  And so Elizabeth stands bravely with her great-grandchild Alice.


The social condemnation of Elizabeth might very well happen.  According to certain criteria of propriety, she might be seen as a disgrace.  Her family is in many ways an embarrassment.  But none of this means Elizabeth is unworthy, nor does it mean that it is impossible for her to marry Darcy.  Elizabeth can refuse to play Lady Catherine’s game.  Lady Catherine’s descriptions simply do not matter if they do not matter to Darcy.  Which means if she is to marry Darcy, she must accept his power to describe her.


And this relationship defines what marriage is for Austen—an acceptance of the power and responsibility to describe each other.  Such acceptance requires trust and generosity; it requires love.  For Austen, marriage is a game of determining and exchanging just and loving mutual descriptions.



I want to conclude with another of my favorite chimpanzee stories—one less dire than that of the Lucifer chimp but just as interesting.  Chimps can be taught to count.  And they can be taught various games.  One game involves two bowls, each with a different and countable number of candies.  The game is simple:  point to the bowl with the fewest number of candies, and get the greater number of candies from the other bowl.  The chimps try, but they have a grab-eat response, so each time they instinctually grab for the bowl with the greatest number of candies, and they lose the game.  They get upset immediately, realizing their mistake right after they make it.


But if you represent the candies by symbolic means on two cards and remove the bowls of candy:  guess what?  The chimps can get it right every time.  The abstraction into representation allows them to sidestep their grab-eat response and gives them a chance to reason and make the right choice.


This is what Elizabeth does.  She redescribes what Lady Catherine asserts in different terms, in terms that make apparent Lady Catherine’s motives and bad faith, and in terms that describe the limits of relevance of her descriptions.  Elizabeth does not play Lady Catherine’s “I want x” game but changes the game entirely, and by so doing, she both defines a constitution of marriage that Darcy will have to accept if he is to have her and a constitution that requires that Elizabeth allows herself to be described by Darcy.  And so Darcy and Elizabeth get to make descriptive games for each other, and in so doing they get married.





1. For an interesting account of primate lying, see Cheney and Seyfarth, Chapter 7.


2. I am analyzing the practice of description not the abstract idea of representation.


3. Her common technique of distorting descriptions matches what Quintilian calls paradiastole:  to call, for example, bravery reckless in order to diminish it; or to call recklessness bravery in order to augment it (9.3.65).



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Pride and Prejudice.  Ed. Pat Rogers.  Cambridge: CUP, 2006.

Carroll, Lewis.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  New York: Signet, 1960.

Cheney, Dorothy L., and Robert M. Seyfarth.  How Monkeys See the World.  Chicago: UCP, 1990.

Quintilian.  The Orator’s Education.  Books 9-10.  Ed. and trans. Donald A. Russell.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001.


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