THR Web Features   /   June 29, 2023

Conversation Pieces

Measuring characters by their conversations.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( THR illustration/Alamy Stock Photo.)

They knew they would have to go out to the forecourt to fetch the containers which the soldiers, fulfilling their promise, would leave in the area between the main gate and the steps, and they feared that there might be some ploy or snare, How do we know that they won’t start firing, After what they’ve done already, they’re capable of anything, They are not to be trusted, You won’t get me going there, Nor me, Someone has to go if we want to eat, I don’t know if it isn’t better to die being shot than to die of hunger, I’m going, Me too, We don’t all have to go, The soldiers might not like it, Or get worried and think we’re trying to escape, that’s probably why they shot the man with the injured leg, We’ve got to make up our minds, We can’t be too careful, remember what happened yesterday, nine causalities no more no less, The soldiers were afraid of us, And I’m afraid of them, What I’d like to know is if they go blind, Who’s they, The soldiers, In my opinion they ought to be the first.

José Saramago, Blindness (1995, trans. Juan Sager)


“Sir William’s interruption has made me forget what we were talking of.”

“I do not think we were speaking at all. Sir William could not have interrupted any two people in the room who had less to say for themselves. We have tried two or three subjects already without success, and what we are to talk of next I cannot imagine.”

“What think you of books?” said he, smiling.

“Books—oh no!—I am sure we never read the same, or not with the same feelings.”

“I am sorry you think so; but if that be the case, there can at least be no want of subject. We may compare our different opinions.”

“No—I cannot talk of books in a ball-room; my head is always full of something else.”

“The present always occupies you in such scenes—does it?” said he, with a look of doubt.

“Yes, always,” she replied, without knowing what she said; for her thoughts had wandered far from the subject, as soon afterwards appeared by her suddenly exclaiming, “I remember hearing you once say, Mr. Darcy, that you hardly ever forgave;—that your resentment, once created, was unappeasable. You are very cautious, I suppose, as to its being created?”

“I am,” said he, with a firm voice.

“And never allow yourself to be blinded by prejudice?”

“I hope not.”

“It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”

“May I ask to what these questions tend?”

“Merely to the illustration of your character,” said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. “I am trying to make it out.”

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)


Prose fiction has always been at home in the public world, and thus it has always had an ear for conversation. Whether one dates the origins of the novel to the ancient world or to the early modern one, dialogue is there: It is in fiction’s DNA. Yet over the centuries, dialogue has taken diverse forms, a fact apparent when one considers the evolution of the fictional page. Though certain typographic strategies now prevail, there has never been one way to distinguish dialogue from narration. Quotation marks became a standard feature in English fiction only during the reign of George III. Samuel Richardson’s celebrated Pamela (1742), for example, makes no use of them. Likewise, the setting of speakers’ remarks on a series of indented lines (effectively, miniature paragraphs) was a later eighteenth-century development. (Again, Richardson: And he said, I’ll do you no harm, Pamela; don’t be afraid of me. I said, I won’t stay.) Some early modern writers marked off speech attributions with brackets (cried I), while modern writers such as Joyce have employed a dash: —Come up, Kinch! Come up, you fearful jesuit! Others prefer naked text (R.I.P. Cormac McCarthy). Some have made of point of abandoning decorum altogether, as William Faulkner does for stretches of dialogue in The Sound and the Fury that aren’t indented and include almost no punctuation: Keep your shirt on I’m not trying to make you tell me anything you dont want to meant no offense….

My first extract is the more obviously experimental of the two. Saramago was a devotee of the long sentence and page-long (and sometimes multi-page-long) paragraph, and those are the typical vehicles through which he delivers his dialogues. In this case, he crowds a series of utterances—from unnamed speakers—into the back end of a sentence. Given the utter lack of attributions (i.e., “he said” statements), the reader is hard pressed to determine how many men are present. To make matters worse, the speakers trade mostly pedestrian words (bonus points to whoever said “causalities”), sometimes only two or three syllables in length. Little means are given to differentiate their voices.

But the very poverty of Saramago’s exchange is the point. BlindnessEnsaio sobre a Cegueira (Essay on Blindness) in the original Portuguese—is a fictional thought experiment: What if an entire city were to go blind in a short span of time? The present scene appears within the mental hospital where the government quarantines the first victims (with the promise of daily rations) before the epidemic overtakes the population. The dialogue—like so many in the book—comes to nothing; in good time, a loudspeaker erupts, summoning the internees to fetch their provisions, which unsurprisingly results in mayhem. We don’t hear from these men again.

The question Saramago raises, in turn, is a common one to dystopian literature: What language is adequate to the disordered world into which the characters fall? What kinds of talk are possible there? Blindness suggests that under such conditions the coordinates of our identities quickly lose significance, and dialogue becomes chiefly pragmatic. Faced, presumably for the first time, with the challenges of bare survival (acquiring food and shelter, sustaining basic hygiene), the internees are uninterested in trading life histories with their cohabitants. They don’t learn each other’s names. Character development—especially through shared speech—is largely impossible in this environment; character deterioration is the more natural trajectory. People continue to talk (and sometimes shout)—there is no shortage of spoken lines in these pages—but widespread social disintegration means that conversation withers. 

Beside a Faulkner or a Saramago, Jane Austen—whose conversations are neatly arranged on the page—appears a stodgy conservative in the presentation of dialogue. But a conversation like the one that I’ve chosen for my second extract shows that our first impressions (the original title of Pride and Prejudice) mislead us. Notice that Austen includes only three attributions as to who says what (two “said he’s” and one “said she”) and few external cues about tone (such as Darcy’s smile at one point and “firm voice” at another). Austen scholars have shown that the novelist was pioneering in this minimalism (which successors like Saramago would take it to its extreme), exhibiting greater restraint than her precursors and many of her contemporaries, including the punctilious Walter Scott. (Scott held that the novelist “must not only tell what the characters actually said … but must also describe the tone, the look, the gesture, with which their speech was accompanied.”) Save where clarification seems strictly necessary, Austen is content to allow the characters’ remarks to stand on their own.

Critics have argued that Austen’s sparing use of attributions produces greater “immediacy” in her dialogue, which is true enough. But—in my view—such claims represent an unnecessarily guarded way of saying that Austen’s technique contributes to the illusion that we are hearing real people talk. That illusion is, of course, to a far greater degree the effect of Austen’s surpassing excellence in molding voices out of diction and syntax—as the comparison with Saramago, fellow de-attributor, makes plain. Yet Austen’s sparing use of attributions is also a sign of her confidence in her art. She dispensed with unnecessary scaffolding.

That confidence is also evident in the weight that she gives to scenes of dialogue within her plots. In other writers, dialogue moves the plot along; in Austen’s fiction, scenes of dialogue often produce plot-driving conflict, and conversations are always fundamental to her narrative resolutions. This emphasis on dialogue reflects the social occupations of the leisured classes: Conversation ranks among their primary pastimes and is, therefore, an essential personal possession, especially for her marriageable young women. Conversation showcases one’s learning, one’s breeding, one’s intelligence—or, alternatively, reveals one’s stupidity, vapidity, lack of manners. In this world, you can—and Austen’s characters constantly do—measure other people by their conversation. (When Ms. Bingley’s lists Elizabeth Bennet’s faults, conversation comes first: “she had no conversation, no style, no taste, no beauty.”)

Any of Elizabeth and Darcy’s exchanges could be cited here as models of the art of dialogue, but in my humble estimation Austen’s genius is best appreciated in their failed interviews. Why do we love to listen to Elizabeth and Darcy even when, maybe especially when, they fail to communicate? Let me suggest two reasons. First, Austen knows, her characters know, and she trusts that her audience knows how polite conversation is supposed to go—that is to say, its conventional topics, locutions, and turn-taking rhythm. Here, however, these two well-bred people fail miserably at it. In this episode, Darcy won’t, initially at least, play his required role of asking insipid questions, spurring Elizabeth, after several minutes of silence, to complain (in a speech that appears right before the quoted extract) that “It is your turn to say something now, Mr. Darcy. I talked about the dance, and you ought to make some kind of remark on the size of the room, or the number of couples.” When he does suggest a standard topic—books—Elizabeth then refuses to play along. His reticence and her pique disrupt the standard social script, resulting in a succession of awkward silences, missteps, and parries that is far more engaging than the expected fare of pleasantries. We love these characters because they are more than etiquette-book cutouts: Like real people (like us), they fail to find the mot juste, say things they don’t really mean, and sometimes end conversations in dissatisfied silence.

The second reason is that Darcy and Elizabeth here treat conversation in the same way that we, the readers, do: as a kind of reconnaissance—an effort to “make out” a person’s character based on his or her spoken words. Elizabeth, of course, says this directly in the present scene. But Austen has also alerted us (back in Chapter VI) that Darcy is on the same mission. Having reconsidered his infamous initial impression of Ms. Bennet (“She is tolerable”), which she had overheard, he seeks, by snooping on her conversations, to “know more of her.” Nowadays, one in Darcy’s position would begin by consulting the apps with which we surveille each other, thereby gleaning @thereallizzybennet’s culinary preferences, political views, team affiliations, professional networks, and relationship status. But in Austen’s world, talk is the principal means of self-disclosure or, in the case of misspoken or reckless words, self-exposure. We take special relish in Elizabeth and Darcy’s exchanges, polished and stumbling alike, because they are our companions in “close listening.” To learn to listen well, as Elizabeth and Darcy eventually will do, isn’t just a question of acquiring a social grace; it’s nothing less than the novel’s moral crux (and, if we read well, one of its enduring lessons).