Writing Catalog

Noel Ullom

Grade: 12

Hathaway Brown School

Instructor: Elizabeth Armstrong

The Sound of Silent Confession: Examining the Role of Music in Giving Voice to Emotion in Pride & Prejudice

Critical Essay

The Sound of Silent Confession: Examining the Role of Music in Giving Voice to Emotion in Pride & Prejudice

At the heart of Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen, the developing relationships between families, friends, and lovers become subject to the vulnerabilities that characters allow to remain unexpressed more than the vulnerabilities they allow themselves to confess. Each interaction, each conversation, and each remark within the novel ironically prove themselves most significant through what is left on the tongue, leaving the true intentions of these interactions to live within moments of silence or suggested hints. The most reliable catalysts for intimate connections between characters such as Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy do not only include silence or hints, however, but include music as well. The art of hearing and playing music continuously amplifies other senses, providing more time and space for Darcy to closely observe Elizabeth, her younger sister Jane to feel Mr. Bingley's hand on her waist, among many other instances. Alongside reflecting the rigid structure of nineteenth century English society, music revives the individuals that have suffocated under this society's pressure and reaquiants them with their vulnerabilities, giving more palatable forms to them in the process: the dialogue that surrounds music, body language under the influence of music, and the practicing of music itself.

The creation of an elegant piece of music, whether in composing or playing it, relies upon the same discipline and sense of control with which the young Bennet and Bingley family members struggle in their own society. Just as the measures and beats of a musical piece define its rhythm, the rigid structure of upper class life in nineteenth century England constructed by class divide, gender roles, and familial responsibility define the way in which characters such as Mr. Darcy and Mrs. Bennet choose to perceive the world and the way in which Elizabeth and her younger sisters suffer under these closed-minded perspectives. In discussing the role of young women and the qualities that deem them worthy of praise, Miss Bingley cries, "'no one can be really esteemed accomplished who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word'" (26). Throughout this tense discussion between Miss Bingley, Mr. Darcy, and Elizabeth as they disagree over what constitutes fair expectations of women, music continuously reappears as a reference to perfection. In relation to other forms of art listed by Miss Bingley, music presents an avenue through which a woman may prove her self-control and talent to an audience. However, in demonstrating her talents and worth in this way, a woman also then allows the notes of a composer to speak for her. Her talent becomes a recitation of what is quite literally spelled out on a page before her, and she is discouraged from changing its tune. The societal value of performing and performing well any task that is given to a woman presents itself in many instances throughout the novel, most notably when Mrs. Bennet expects Elizabeth to accept the earliest marriage proposal that comes her way or when she expects Jane to sacrifice her health to visit Mr. Bingley in hopes of increasing her chance of marriage. Similarly, Lady Catherine de Bourgh later plainly states to Mr. Darcy, "'I often tell young ladies that no excellence in music is to be acquired without constant practice. I have told Miss Bennet several times, that she will never play really well unless she practises more'" (118). Through her emphasis on practice and its relationship to the pleasures of music, Lady Catherine reveals that the true value she finds in music is not the art of sound itself, but the art of a woman surrendering utterly and completely to the rehearsal of it. More broadly, she finds value in the art of surrendering entirely to rigidity and routine. This message directly reflects the inevitable yet unfortunate reality of a society or piece of music that thrives on its own limitations; while existing in a state of unyielding rigidity, both a well-practiced musical piece and a maturing woman begin to sacrifice their unique expression to the expectations placed upon them.

Apart from reflecting the novel's setting in upper class English society and its suffocating structure, the presence of music throughout the story also reveals the unpredictable nature of human emotion that refuses to yield to this structure. One of the most frequent ways in which music accomplishes this includes amplifying other senses, allowing characters such as Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth to indulge their romantic curiosities more blatantly. As Mrs. Hurst and Miss Bingley sing for Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth in Bingley's home, Austen writes, "Mrs. Hurst sang with her sister, and while they were thus employed, Elizabeth could not help observing, as she turned over some music-books that lay on the instrument, how frequently Mr. Darcy's eyes were fixed on her. She hardly knew how to suppose that she could be an object of admiration to so great a man; and yet that he should look at her because he disliked her, was still more strange" (34). The frequent usage of words and phrases referring to the sense of sight in this passage, including "observing," "look," and "object of admiration," highlight the tender fascinations between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth unveiled under the influence of music. While Mr. Darcy lacks the words to confess his love for Elizabeth at this point in the novel, music speaks for him in his place, giving voice to his otherwise silenced passion while he observes her. As one of the earliest art forms, music reflects and reveals the most unpredictable aspects of human emotion despite music's own composed structure and moments when this influence is not intended. The connection of song to the budding intimacy between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth continues to develop in the same scene when "[Miss Bingley] had not the smallest objection, and the pianoforte was opened; and Darcy, after a few moments' recollection, was not sorry for it. He began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention" (39). Apart from exposing a character's vulnerability to another individual, music serves as an instigator for personal reflection and self-realization as well. Due to the usage of descriptors with contrasting emotional affiliation, such as the feeling of excitement that comes with the "opened" pianoforte and sharp regret that comes with the "danger" of paying an individual too much attention, this passage highlights the contrasting emotions that control Darcy in this moment. The elegance and composure of music mocks human unpredictability in this scene and throughout the novel, as music both represents the desire for stringency in older characters and the inevitable disobedience of this limitation in the passion of young lovers.

Music contradicts itself by its own nature, and does so in a comedic and tragic representation of the individuals that write and play it. In hopes of a freeing expression of passion and humanity, a composer creates a musical piece subject to measures and rhythm, and in hopes of displaying unique artistry, a musician recites the art of another. Incredibly similar to these inward struggles and searches for outward relief are the romantic endeavors of the Bennet sisters, yielding both to the demands of familial responsibility and personal attraction. While music reflects the challenges that endanger the relationships between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy and between Jane and Mr. Bingley, most notably the unjust expectations placed upon women and the strictness of class divide, music also encourages the characters to reach beyond these obstacles and reach instead for their own genuine desires. Overtime, music grows to become as loud if not louder than the voice of family. This influence of music finally results in a major shift in the Bennet sisters and their romantic interests' perception of marriage, and as a result, offers them new beginnings of harmonious partnerships and more peaceful daily rhythms for decades to come.