Men, Women, and the Willful Misinterpretation of Female Speech

Essay by Eggy June 2004

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Female speech in Jane Austen's novels is heavily dictated by the whims of her male characters, and although "[f]emale speech is never entirely repressed in Austen's fiction, [it] is dictated so as to mirror or otherwise reassure masculine desire" (Johnson 37). However, there are times when women stray from the gendered rules of speech and, in expressing their opinions, threaten male control over discourse. In these situations men resort to either willful misinterpretation or forced silence in order to draw women back into their verbal control. Mary Crawford and Elizabeth Bennet are two of Austen's more dynamic threats to male control over discourse, but even the meek and modest Fanny Price can become a threat by departing from the gendered rules of speech. When she refuses Henry's proposal, Sir Thomas is stunned, having "[expected] from Fanny [a] cheerful readiness to be guidedSh Her resistance implies an assumption of self-responsibility that challenges his authority" (Johnson 104).

Mary and Elizabeth are atypical of Austen's female characters in that their freedom of speech means that they do not need men to educate them or to form their opinions. Other heroines, such as Catherine Morland, are lost without a man to guide them. Without Henry Tilney to point out the natural beauty of Northanger Abbey, Catherine "should not know what was picturesque when she saw it" (NA 141). But Mary and Elizabeth are firm in both forming their own opinions and then expressing them. They are aware of and comfortable with their freedom of speech. Mary, when faced with Edmund's disapproval of her flagrant speeches about morality and the church, counters with, "I am a very matter of fact, plain spoken being, and may blunder on the borders of a repartee for half an hour together without striking it out" (MP 84). Mrs. Bennet...