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Book: On Verbal Art

Chapter: Jane Austen’s Shapely Sentence and the Differentiation of Dialogue from Narrative: Towards a Clause Complex of Her Own

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.29809


In this chapter, I twist together two different strands of Ruqaiya Hasan’s work: her work on verbal art and her work on the semiotic codes found in the language of the home. I begin with Virginia Woolf’s observation that Jane Austen could not simply appropriate the “male” clause complex of the elaborated registers used by Johnson and Gibbon to write the novels of conversation and free indirect discourse which we read today. Jane Austen had to develop new kind of “shapely” sentence. This raises three intriguing questions, to which Ruqaiya Hasan’s two strands of systemic functional linguistics can tell us a great deal in answer. Firstly, what makes the clause complexes typical of Johnson and Gibbon “male”? I find that it was an elaborated register, characterized by heavy nominalization, relational verbs, and parallelism, often using antithetical polarity, which heretofore had not been associated with the novel. Secondly, how does the Austenian sentence stand out in contrast? Using the “back yard” SFL methods as well as the more sophisticated UNAM Corpus Tool that allows us to compare whole texts, I find that Austen made a clear—even slightly exaggerated—distinction between the narrator and the characters, using much shorter turns with that focused heavily on interpersonal meaning in the latter. Thirdly, what does this distinction signify for the exclusiveness of male discourse and the historic transition towards universal literacy that we see with the rise of female readers and female writers? The answer appears to be that it at first merely served to cast a slightly parodistic light on narration, but that later it began to allow the thoughts of the characters to penetrate the narration itself, and transformed “narrative” into intra-personal, self-directed dialogue. This penetration of the elaborated register by the restricted register—the permeation of the thoughts of the narrator by the thoughts of characters ---represented, despite the well-known social conservatism of Jane Austen, a revolutionary move which decisively placed new semiotic means in the hands of women.

Chapter Contributors

  • Fang Li ( - fli5373) 'Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, Seoul'