the study of Jane Austen’s fiction is like Pemberley’s Park—very large, and of great variety (PP 271). A search of the MLA International Bibliography for resources published in the last thirty years alone returns 3,192 results, their critical variety ranging from formalist to Marxist, structuralist to feminist, narratological, historical, sociological, postcolonial, and reader-response among many more.1 Amidst such a flourishing field, few Austen researchers appear to have noticed the sprouts of cognitive literary criticism, a source of critical analysis that has emerged in those same thirty years. Laurence W. Mazzeno’s 2011 study in the history of Austen criticism attests to this situation. Mazzeno wrote, “Without meaning to create prejudice against some truly fine works of critical analysis, I believe it is fair to say that the volume and quality of psychological studies of Austen lags significantly behind work done from other perspectives” (202). Most of the psychological studies that Mazzeno found are Freudian. As few as one listed derives from cognitive literary criticism.2 The present article intends to introduce this new critical approach to a larger community of Austen researchers and to provide them a cognitive literary reading of the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice that reveals how Austen enrolls readers in the same course of self-discovery that drives the action of the novel.
A burgeoning approach to the study of literature, cognitive literary criticism begins with the idea that humans possess universal cognitive processes on which literary techniques tend to have absolute effects.3 The interdisciplinary approach of this criticism helps us understand empirically why when Mr. Bennet lounged with a book “he was regardless of time” (PP 13), and how his daughter Mary could “‘infinitely prefer a book’” to other pleasures (246). A disingenuous Miss Bingley yawns at silent reading and announces, “‘How pleasant it is to spend an evening in this way! I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!’” (60). Let Miss Bingley carry on attention-seeking; her words nevertheless describe the way many others feel. The advances of cognitive psychology in the study of how narrative discourse affects readers have allowed us to begin identifying what leads Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey, for instance, to say earnestly about a novel, “‘Oh! I am delighted with the book! I should like to spend my whole life in reading it’” (33).
Henry Tilney expresses a confession typical of many happy readers: “‘The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay down again;—I remember finishing it in two days—my hair standing on end the whole time’” (NA 108). Henry’s experience is valid, but his language perpetuates a misconception about the reading process. Readers often describe great stories (and some bad ones) as active entities operating upon them as they respond with subordinate receptivity. They say a story captures them, or sucks them in. Being lost in a book is a common expression. By these descriptions, one might think of a storyworld as a spider stunning its captives before doing its work. But this concept is inaccurate. The world of a narrative does not lurk in the pages of a book. It exists in readers’ minds, dependent upon each reader’s cognitive processes for its creation and sustenance. The human brain engaged in the task of reading is far from subordinate or passive. It does not simply project onto a mental screen complete and unaltered information about the storyworld received through one or more of the senses. Rather, readers mentally perform a narrative with knowledge, emotions, and processing patterns unique to their brains.4 During this performance, readers decode text, recover meaning, retrieve knowledge embedded in memory, exercise logic, generate inferences, and connect all of this together in sustained patterns. The process of reading a narrative does involve a passive party, but it is not the reader. Those coveted moments of “relaxing” with a good book may actually provide the most engaging activity a brain experiences all day.5
This paradox exposes a principle of reading for pleasure: active brains make happy readers. The more cognitive activities a narrative offers, the further a reader may travel into the storyworld. The height of this activity is a phenomenological experience frequently referred to by a metaphor of transportation.6 The experience involves a change of consciousness. Transported readers cease awareness of their physical surroundings and mental conditions. Attentional resources focus on the storyworld, causing readers’ minds to begin producing images, emotions, and thoughts in response to the fictional reality. Transported readers are perched at the pinnacle of reading performance. Complex mental processes collude to bring readers to this place, and must continue the performance to keep readers there. Significantly, the construction of a narrative can assist this relocation. Though the activity occurs in the mind of the reader, a writer can embed various literary devices and techniques into the narrative to manipulate readers’ cognitive processes in ways that entice readers to transport quickly, travel deeply, and remain longer in the storyworld.
Even the simplest of an author’s stylistic choices can affect readers’ experiences in ways that promote their receptivity not only to the story’s world but also to its thematic meanings. Scholars have long acknowledged Jane Austen’s expertise with these rhetorical strategies. In his groundbreaking work The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth dedicated a full chapter to Jane Austen, describing her as “one of the unquestionable masters of the rhetoric of narration” (244). Now more than fifty years later, cognitive literary criticism is revealing how Austen’s mastery of narrative rhetoric extended from her intuitive mastery of human cognition. Consider, for example, the reading that follows. It shows how Austen’s narrator deploys multiple narrative techniques in the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice to manipulate readers’ cognitive processes as part of a rhetorical strategy to control readers’ experiences with the storyworld from the moment they enter it.
Pride and Prejudice begins with an inference task so complex that cognitive psychologists neither fully understand nor agree on how the human brain processes it. This task is the perception of irony.7 Multiple factors influence whether a developed human brain perceives irony. Two factors are central. One of those factors derives from the size of disparity between the speaker’s preference or expectation and the situation about which the speaker communicates. Cues embedded in that communication contribute the other factor (Gerrig and Goldvarg). For example, read this concluding commentary from the narrator of Sense and Sensibility about Lucy Steele:
The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience. (426)
Prior knowledge of how the narrator feels about Lucy’s behavior affects a reader’s perception of that commentary. Readers who have followed the narrator’s guidance to the end of the novel will register an inconsistency: this narrator who has documented Lucy’s every selfish foible throughout the story, and who has positioned her as a foil to Elinor’s love, now summarizes Lucy’s behavior—with a positive tone? It is a situational disparity. The larger this disparity, the more likely an ironic intention will be perceived. The language itself can also cue the reader of ironic intent. In this instance, superlative vocabulary such as “the prosperity which crowned it” and “a most encouraging instance” may also prompt the reader to infer that the positive expressions intend to communicate antipathy.
One of these two critical factors is missing from the instance of irony that begins 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.” Readers have only just entered the world of the narrative; they know neither background information about the narrator communicating this statement nor contextual information about the situation in which the statement is communicated. Readers must comprehend the statement while deprived of the means to perceive a disparity between the statement, the situation, and the speaker. Perception of an ironic intention would be unlikely in this instance without the strong on-line cues that guide readers to another source of information they can access: “universally acknowledged,” “must.” These on-line superlatives cue readers to access their memories for their own knowledge about universal truths and imperative situations. If their knowledge does not coincide with the assertion, readers will perceive a gap between the information communicated in the narrative and its intention. As a result, readers construct an alternative comprehension. A couple of things happen in this process.
First, readers engage the narrative by bringing to bear upon it their own cognitive processes and knowledge. An immediate need to begin processing inference greets readers at their entrance to this storyworld. The lack of information and familiarity requires readers to exert cognitive effort to infer the ironic intent. Not only does this activity make the reading more enjoyable, it makes the reading more personal as readers resort to their own experiences in their own worlds to generate the inference. To perceive the irony, readers have considered the statement of the narrator in light of personal knowledge they have retrieved from their memory banks. The more readers cross back and forth gathering necessary information from the real world to apply to the storyworld, the more the line between the two worlds blurs. Readers are transporting.
A second thing happens as a consequence of perceiving the irony: readers demonstrate a skill that is thematically important to this storyworld. If readers have perceived the ironic intent of the first sentence, they have demonstrated an ability to think beyond what they are initially told or shown. By perceiving the irony, readers have practiced looking beyond first impressions—Austen’s original title for the novel. Many of the characters who populate its world lack this ability to look beyond first impressions, and their trials and errors with learning the skill drive the plot. The task of perceiving irony embedded into the opening line of the novel prepares readers for this journey by offering them their own practice of not implicitly accepting the superficial appearance of what they first see. What readers do not see, however, is that they are being set up. For as soon as readers receive this preparation, they slide into a situation designed to make them form a false first impression; readers emerge from the irony perception that has encouraged them to think beyond the surface of the text and enter a process that entices them to think only at the surface of the text. The following paragraphs explain.
Readers who have perceived the irony discern its relevance upon meeting Mrs. Bennet. A. Walton Litz has expressed how “Even in isolation, the novel’s opening sentence contains a certain irony: the exaggeration of the statement jars against our sense of reality, and prepares us for the discovery that this ‘truth’ is acknowledged only by Mrs. Bennet and her kind” (107). Both the general character and specific topic of Mrs. Bennet’s conversation in the chapter provide the on-line cues readers need to make this discovery. Her echo of the narrator’s ironic statement cements the association: “‘A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!’” (4). Readers who perceive the irony can realize that the narrator is poking fun at Mrs. Bennet’s point of view. Readers likely will not realize, though, that the irony also intends to pull them into an exclusive relationship with the narrator. Consider this definition of irony: “Irony may be defined as the use of words intended to convey one meaning to the uninitiated part of the audience and another to the initiated, the delight of it lying in the secret intimacy set up between the latter and the speaker” (Fowler).8 Readers who perceive the irony and its relevance are rewarded by initiation into an inner circle with the narrator, a fellowship defined by Mrs. Bennet’s exclusion. And readers soon discover another companion in the circle—Mr. Bennet. When Mrs. Bennet reveals her intention for Mr. Bingley to marry one of the Bennet daughters, Mr. Bennet asks if it is their new neighbor’s design to settle into the neighborhood for a bride hunt. Mrs. Bennet replies as their discussion continues:
“Design! Nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with one of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.”
“I see no occasion for that. You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better, for as you are as handsome as any of them, Mr. Bingley might like you the best of the party.”
“My dear, you flatter me. I certainly have had my share of beauty, but I do not pretend to be any thing extraordinary now. When a woman has five grown up daughters, she ought to give over thinking of her own beauty.” (4)
Mr. Bennet ironically mocks his wife’s idea of the wealthy newcomer marrying one of the women of his family by calling forth the least likely candidate. While Mr. Bennet intends for this to wryly communicate disagreement with his wife’s proposition, Mrs. Bennet misperceives her husband’s irony as flattery. She is clearly excluded from the camaraderie shared by an inner circle of the reader, narrator, and Mr. Bennet. Led by the example and wit of these latter two, the reader may feel in good company to dismiss Mrs. Bennet and her ideas as silly.
Something else is going on with Mr. Bennet’s lady, too. Search the chapter: nowhere is Mrs. Bennet properly named. Mr. Bennet is named. Sir William and Lady Lucas are named. Bingley is named. Netherfield Park is named. Even the property agent of Netherfield, a man who never appears in the story, is named. Never, though, a “Mrs. Bennet.” Empirical research conducted by psychologists A. J. Sanford, K. Moar, and S. C. Garrod reveals the significance of Mrs. Bennet’s namelessness. Their study demonstrated that readers assign more prominence to characters in literature referred to by proper names than characters referred to by descriptors. “His lady,” “she,” “his wife,” “‘my dear,’” “‘you’”—neither the narrator nor Mr. Bennet have the decency to introduce Mrs. Bennet to readers by any more proper noun. This side-stepping of Mrs. Bennet’s name achieves two goals. It keeps readers cognitively engaged with the narrative as they search to reinstate the proper referent of the descriptors, and it continues the devaluation of Mrs. Bennet in readers’ minds. By the time readers reach the final paragraph of this chapter, the capsule description of Mrs. Bennet’s mentality summarizes what readers are ready to believe about her: “Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news” (5).
A constant stream of inference processing has attracted readers into performing this first scene of Pride and Prejudice. From perceiving the ironic intent of the chapter’s first sentence, to constructing a situation model of the setting and the characters, following dialogue, processing inferences, and maintaining coherence, readers have enjoyed an active cognitive experience. These happy readers are on their way to transporting into the storyworld. Yet from their first steps, the narrative of this world has manipulated readers’ cognitive processes to develop a dismissive impression of Mrs. Bennet. The inner circle formed between the reader, narrator, and Mr. Bennet to the exclusion of Mr. Bennet’s unnamed wife is actually a conspiracy constructed against the reader. Visitors to this storyworld, however, are too engaged in the reading process to notice they are being set up—for Mrs. Bennet’s preposterous tittering turns out to be prophecy. As readers discover long after they have formed their impressions of Mrs. Bennet’s ideas, Mr. Bingley’s entering the neighborhood is a fine thing indeed for her girls! So why does such a “light & bright & sparkling” story conspire against its readers in this way (4 February 1813)? Simply, this aspect of the narrative exists to educate its readers. Austen’s narrator does not invite these honored guests into the storyworld as inerrant gods looking down upon the characters and their mistakes. Rather, Pride and Prejudice harnesses readers’ cognitive processes to guide readers into the same course of learning about first impressions as the main characters of the storyworld experience. Readers can learn not only by watching the journey characters take but also by the journey readers take themselves, so that they too may discover with Elizabeth, “‘Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind’” (230).
This short reading explains only a fraction of the insight that cognitive literary criticism brings to the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice and the novel as a whole. The intent for this article was to introduce cognitive literary criticism to a greater number of Austen researchers and to provide them a cognitive literary reading in the hope that they will find its approach relevant and its results engaging. Countless aspects of Pride and Prejudice await elucidation of this kind. One might, for example, inspect instances of the narrator side-stepping proper names in other chapters of the novel for the type of thematic significance they carry in the first chapter.9 The unique style of the first chapter also raises issues worth investigating. The absence of free indirect discourse in the opening scene of Pride and Prejudice is uncharacteristic of Austen’s style in the rest of the novel, an observation that presents questions for applying some elements of this article’s reading in that first chapter to other chapters. How does free indirect discourse affect a reader’s perception of irony, for instance? And with whom does the perception of irony in free indirect discourse compel a reader to associate—the narrator, the character that the narrator mimics, or both?10 Also, any sustained exploration of how Austen’s style harnesses readers’ universal cognitive processes must balance itself with consideration of how circumstantial factors also influence readers’ experiences with a text. Have historical developments since the first edition of Pride and Prejudice, for instance, influenced how modern readers interpret proffered truths about the wants of single men possessed of large fortunes?11
Austen’s literary legacy extends beyond Pride and Prejudice of course, and so does the relevance of cognitive literary criticism. Opportunities for future research of this kind stretch even farther than Pemberley’s park—reaching from Barton Cottage to Mansfield Park, past Highbury, through Bath to Northanger Abbey, and beyond.12
I am grateful to Patricia Michaelson at The University of Texas at Dallas and to Wendy S. Williams at Texas Christian University for supplying helpful commentary on multiple drafts of this essay.
1. A search using “SU Austen, Jane” (i.e., Subjects—All) with the date limiter ‘19830101-20131231’ returns 3,192 results. Narrowing the subject to “SA Austen, Jane” (i.e., Primary Subject Author) with the same limiter returns 2,902 results.
2. Consider Kay Young’s Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot and Hardy mentioned in Mazzeno’s final chapter as the exception.
3. For a practical introduction to the field, see Alan Richardson’s “Studies in Literature and Cognition: A Field Map.” For a theoretical introduction, see Peter Stockwell’s Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction.
4. For a book-length explanation of this information, see Richard J. Gerrig, Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading.
5. Consider Victor Nell’s research in Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure, especially 184-95.
6. For an analysis of this phenomenon, see Melanie C. Green and Timothy C. Brock, “In the Mind’s Eye: Transportation-Imagery Model of Narrative Persuasion.”
7. For a brief overview of the psychology of irony, see Penny M. Pexman, “It’s Fascinating Research: The Cognition of Verbal Irony.” For an extended consideration, read R. W. Gibbs and H. L. Colston, Irony in Language and Thought: A Cognitive Science Reader.
8. My attention was drawn to Fowler’s definition through Gerrig’s Experiencing Narrative Worlds (148).
9. This side-stepping of a character’s name is a narrative technique referred to as proper noun paralipsis, a phrase apparently coined by Gerrig in “Readers’ Experiences of Narrative Gaps.” That article is a good springboard into research. French narratologist Gérard Genette set the groundwork for studying this technique in his seminal Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (particularly 194-96).
10. I am thankful to the anonymous referee for Persuasions who shared this insight. Readers interested in how perception of irony is affected by free indirect discourse will find Vaheed Ramazani’s The Free Indirect Mode: Flaubert and the Poetics of Irony useful. And Daniel Gunn has examined the interplay between the voices of Austen’s narrator and mimicked characters in “Free Indirect Discourse and Narrative Authority in Emma.” Louise Flavin has considered Austen’s use of the discourse method as a rhetorical device in “Free Indirect Discourse and the Clever Heroine of Emma.” See also Flavin’s “Mansfield Park: Free Indirect Discourse and the Psychological Novel.” For a comprehensive introduction to the discourse method, read Monika Fludernik’s “Establishing the Object of Analysis: An Introduction to the Free Indirect.”
11. A grizzled rector of an English heathland reading a novel for pleasure by the light of a parlor fireplace and an American teenager listening to a digital audiobook of the same story while searching online for answers to the homework questions both bring universal cognitive processes to the act of reading while also bringing divergent historical and cultural factors that influence their reading acts. Reader-response critics arrived at the realization of readers’ variances early in the course of their criticism. Their literature remains a fruitful place to begin studying the nuances in interpretation of meaning that socio-historical factors can cause. Consider Reception Study: From Literary Theory to Cultural Studies edited by James Machor and Philip Goldstein. Walter Gibson’s “Contrarieties of Emotion; Or, Five Days with Pride and Prejudice” deals specifically with modern students’ failure to identify the irony of the novel’s opening sentence. The field of linguistics has contributed the influential Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses by James Paul Gee to this research area. Literacy specialists, too, in seeking the best strategies for teaching and assessing reading comprehension, have contributed to the understanding of its socio-historical aspects. See, for instance, Frank Serafini’s “Rethinking Reading Comprehension: Definitions, Instructional Practices, and Assessment.” And from composition studies, Lisa Ede and Andrea Lunsford’s “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition Theory and Pedagogy” argues for the interdependence of authors and audiences in the creation of meaning. I again have the anonymous referee for Persuasions to thank for identifying the need to articulate this caveat.
12. Interested readers could consult William Nelles’s practical article, “Jane’s Brains: Austen and Cognitive Theory,” for an overview of much that Austen researchers have accomplished.
Austen, Jane. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen. Gen. ed. Janet Todd. Cambridge: CUP, 2005-08.
_____. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1995.
Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed. Chicago: UCP, 1983.
Ede, Lisa, and Andrea Lunsford. “Audience Addressed/Audience Invoked: The Role of Audience in Composition Theory and Pedagogy.” College Composition and Communication 35.2 (1984): 155-71.
Flavin, Louise. “Free Indirect Discourse and the Clever Heroine of Emma.” Persuasions 13 (1991): 50-57.
_____. “Mansfield Park: Free Indirect Discourse and the Psychological Novel.” Studies in the Novel 19.2 (1987): 137-59.
Fludernik, Monika. “Establishing the Object of Analysis: An Introduction to the Free Indirect.” The Fictions of Language and the Languages of Fiction: The Linguistic Representation of Speech and Consciousness. London: Routledge, 2011. 69-105.
Gee, James Paul. Social Linguistics and Literacies: Ideology in Discourses. 4th ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
Gerrig, Richard J. Experiencing Narrative Worlds: On the Psychological Activities of Reading. New Haven: Yale UP, 1993.
_____. “Readers’ Experiences of Narrative Gaps.” Storyworlds 2 (2010): 19-37.
Gerrig, Richard J., and Yevgenia Goldvarg. “Additive Effects in the Perception of Sarcasm.” Metaphor and Symbol 15.4 (2000): 197-208.
Gibbs, R. W., and H. L. Colston, eds. Irony in Language and Thought: A Cognitive Science Reader. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 2007.
Gibson, Walter. “Contrarieties of Emotion; Or, Five Days with Prideand Prejudice.” Conversations: Contemporary Critical Theory and the Teaching of Literature. Ed. Charles Moran, and Elizabeth Penfield. Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1990. 114-19.
Green, Melanie C., and Timothy C. Brock. “In the Mind’s Eye: Transportation-Imagery Model of Narrative Persuasion.” Narrative Impact: Social and Cognitive Foundations. Ed. Melanie C. Green, Jeffrey J. Strange, and Timothy C. Brock. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 2002. 315-42.
Gunn, Daniel. “Free Indirect Discourse and Narrative Authority in Emma.” Narrative 12.1 (Jan. 2004): 35-54.
“Irony.” A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Ed. H. W. Fowler. 2nd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1965.
Litz, A. Walton. Jane Austen, A Study of Her Artistic Development. Oxford: OUP, 1965.
Machor, James L., and Philip Goldstein, eds. Reception Study: From Literary Theory to Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Mazzeno, Laurence W. Jane Austen: Two Centuries of Criticism. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2011.
MLA International Bibliography. Web. 05 June 2014.
Nell, Victor. Lost in a Book: The Psychology of Reading for Pleasure. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
Nelles, William. “Jane’s Brains: Austen and Cognitive Theory.” Interdisciplinary Literary Studies 16.1 (2014): 6-29.
Pexman, Penny M. “It’s Fascinating Research: The Cognition of Verbal Irony.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 17.4 (2008): 286-90.
Ramazani, Vaheed K. The Free Indirect Mode: Flaubert and the Poetics of Irony. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1988.
Richardson, Alan. “Studies in Literature and Cognition: A Field Map.” The Work of Fiction: Cognition, Culture, and Complexity. Ed. Alan Richardson and Ellen Spolsky. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004. 1-30.
Sanford, A. J., K. Moar, and S. C. Garrod. “Proper Names as Controllers of Discourse Focus.” Language and Speech 31.1 (1988): 43-56.
Serafini, Frank. “Rethinking Reading Comprehension: Definitions, Instructional Practices, and Assessment.” Critical Issues in Literacy Pedagogy: Notes from the Trenches. Rev.ed. Ed. Eurvine Williams. San Diego: Cognella, 2012. 189-202.
Stockwell, Peter. Cognitive Poetics: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2008.
Young, Kay. Imagining Minds: The Neuro-Aesthetics of Austen, Eliot and Hardy. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2010.