The way a piece of literature is communicated can underline the nuanced messages and societal themes that it projects. Works that employ a more general style of language frequently exemplify this idea, as their use of plain or “real” discourse is often intended to make a statement in relation to the common individual and social collectives. The diction, syntax, style, and subject matter reflected in Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, William Wordsworth’s Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey, and Jane Austen’s Emma demonstrate how the integration of plain language in literature can reflect prominent themes within each work. In a transitionary period characterized by a literary movement from patronage to a commercial market, the use of common language and focus on the mundane was not only radical at the time, but it embodied unprecedented concepts related to individuality, commonality, and society as a whole. Thus, the real language of men, as perceived by each respective author, becomes an emblem of human connection and experience.
The definition of “plain” or “common” language differs between Defoe, Wordsworth, and Austen, despite the commonalities that exist in their reasoning for applying this style of expression. The narration of Moll Flanders can be characterized by a combination of casual or colloquial speech, stark subject matter, and personal reflection. Moll frequently describes her subjective experiences in blunt and simple terms not typically seen in conventional literature of the era. This presents an act of stabilizing language or simplifying it from a more eloquent and abstract form. For example, after surrendering to her desires and developing an intimate relationship with a married gentleman, Moll confesses, “I exchanged the Place of Friend, for that unmusical harsh-sounding Title of Whore” (Defoe 93). Here, Moll uses brusque diction to describe an unrefined, inelegant experience. Rather than focusing on aristocratic themes, the narrative often centers on instances of sexuality and intimacy. Defoe’s interpretation of common language also includes economic discourse and “cant” language, or criminal colloquialisms, which align with his general use of a common, “real” dialect.
While Wordsworth employs a similar style of informal diction, he places more emphasis on a deviation from formal, normative mechanics. The genre of the “lyrical ballad” provided an experimental movement from standardized neoclassicism to a narrative told in an expressive voice. Written in blank verse, Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey has a natural and fluid style of expression. When the speaker states, “While with an eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony…We see into the life of things,” it becomes clear how the form deviates from conventional standards (Wordsworth 157). The enjambment creates a sense of fluidity while the use of second person and more casual diction seem to mimic natural human cogitation. This imitation of natural communication characterizes much of Wordsworth’s integration of “real” language.
Although Austen seems to conform to a more formal style of language, specific elements of the discourse in Emma reveal her implementation of “common” dialect. When the narrator describes the seemingly mundane and unnecessary details of Emma “lacing her half-boot” to remove herself from the conversation between Harriet and Mr. Elton, the novel gains a sense of realism (Austen 71). Thus, the individual experiences and emotions expressed through the narration become more realistic, despite the novel’s fictional qualities. This naturalizing element demonstrates Austen’s technique of incorporating a sense of reality through a style of common language. Thus, each author exhibits a specific understanding of what characterizes language as common or customary, which influences its significance within each work.
Defoe’s perception of plain language and the role it serves within Moll’s narrative imparts a specific message relating to the individual experience and their existence in society. The events Moll experiences are told from a first-person, subjective viewpoint. After reuniting with Jemy for example, Moll recounts, “…the first reflections made upon the horrid detestable Life I had liv’d, began to return upon me, and as these things return’d my abhorrence of the Place I was in, and of the way of living in it, return’d also; in a word, I was perfectly chang’d, and become another Body” (Defoe 221). This description provides a paradigmatic moment of contemplation between events in Moll’s life, where she analyzes herself in a sentimental and retrospective fashion. She abhors the indecency of her actions, which present some of the inelegant subject matter that is the center of much of the narrative. By claiming that she has metaphorically transformed, Moll emphasizes the instability of her identity in an equally unstable society. Further, Defoe proves to utilize “real” language to accentuate this theme and its relation to a larger social body.
The common language employed throughout the narrative aligns with the theme of fluidity by highlighting the transparency of extravagant language and therefore stabilizing, or simplifying it. Many times Moll’s introspective moments are accompanied by changes in verb tense or the use of proleptic descriptions, which heighten this sense of inconstancy. Her economic discourse has a similar effect. By focusing on the monetary value of her social exchanges, Moll integrates the instability of the market into her narrative, thus enforcing the concept of a fluctuating society. These specific tactics in language style therefore work to enhance the theme of instability as it relates to individual identity and social collectives.
Common language, as portrayed in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, similarly makes a claim regarding the individual and their relation to their surroundings. Wordsworth purposefully navigates away from standard form, and instead uses a style that emulates natural human discourse. The focus therefore falls upon the subjectivity of the speaker as he describes his aesthetic and emotional experience. When describing the sense of tranquility he felt after becoming immersed in nature, he states, “In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,/ Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart…” (Wordsworth 157). Here, the narrator reflects upon being temporarily disburdened by the peaceful nature of his surroundings. Alliteration and enjambment create a fluid style of expression that focuses on the sensory, empirical experience of the narrator. Further, Wordsworth uses this tactic to universalize the emotions experienced by the individual, and to draw a connection between the individual and their role within society.
The simple characteristics of the language used connect the work with humanity, similar to the way in which the natural emotions described are shared among individuals, creating a united social collective. According to Wordsworth, to connect individuals with their message, poets must communicate in a way that is understandable to the common individual. In other words, “He must express himself as other men express themselves” (“Preface” 303). Just as the language the speaker employs is real and honest rather than embellished, so are the emotions that unite humanity. Thus the genre of the “lyrical ballad” becomes apparent within Wordsworth’s work, as a lyric suggests poetry as an individual account, while a ballad is a narrative often intended for performance to a larger audience. This fusion of styles along with the incorporation of common dialect offers a captivating vision of the emotional sphere that unites individuals.
Although dissimilar in her perception of the “real” language of men, Austen similarly utilizes a form of common language to underline specific themes relating to social collectives within Emma. The novel focuses primarily on the individual and their empirical experiences and development. Much of the language, therefore, describes ordinary and seemingly unnecessary details of Emma’s daily life. By emphasizing the mundane elements of private life, the language employed increases the sense of realism within the narrative, despite its innately fictional qualities. This naturalizing ideology relates individuals to the common themes and messages presented. In addition to banal subject matter, Austen makes didactic statements in the style of Samuel Johnson, incorporating morals and social norms into the events portrayed. For example, the narrator makes the claim that, “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of” (Austen 142). Although this statement seems to purely highlight a common social pattern, the irony present in the comparison of marriage and death suggests a wittier, unconventional presentation of a social practice. Therefore, Austen seems to use language to undo Johnsonian maxims and present society’s norms in a more realistic manner. In addition, this sense of realism projected through common language connects individuals with central themes relating to imagination and the social sphere.
To underline central themes related to subjectivity and speculation, Austen uses unconventional language styles that relate these themes to a social collective. Her unusual narrative tactics, for example, often incorporate these themes. After pronouncing Emma’s certainty of Mr. Elton’s sentiments toward Harriet, the narrator states that these individuals’ subtle behaviors were, “not one of the least agreeable proofs of his growing attachment” (Austen 34). Given the opposing circumstances presented later in the novel, Emma’s false assuredness seems to highlight the faultiness of her fanciful, imaginative claims. In addition, the narration adopts Emma’s subjectivity as the narrator projects her speculations as purely descriptive elements. This style of free indirect discourse emphasizes the pervasiveness of the imagination and how it often intervenes in social exchanges. Austen connects this central theme with her naturalizing descriptions and integration of broad moral claims by suggesting that imagination and speculation form an integral part of the human experience and often characterize much of the exchanges that occur within a larger social collective. Ultimately, Austen utilizes her perception of natural language to emphasize the relation between the imaginative, subjective individual and their relations with a larger social body.
The “real” language employed in literature often varies in definition and style, however in the works of Defoe, Wordsworth, and Austen, this application of common language serves a similar symbolic purpose. While Defoe integrates coarse subject matter and simplified statements into Moll’s narrative, Wordsworth focuses on natural mechanics in poetry. Austen, however, depicts common language as a focus on the ordinary for the purpose of creating a more realistic representation of society. Each of these techniques strives to connect the individual with a larger social body. Therefore, themes such as universal instability, emotional connectedness, and imagination are emphasized through common dialect, which unites individuals with these central meanings embodied in each work. Thus, the power of simplified forms of communication is revealed through their ability to accentuate the interconnectedness of humanity and present perhaps a more poignant form of expression.
Defoe, Daniel. Moll Flanders. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. Print.
Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: Oxford’s World Classics, 2003. Print.
Wordsworth, William. “Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Wordsworth and
Coleridge Lyrical Ballads, edited by R.L. Brett and A.R. Jones, Routledge Classics, New
York, 2005, pp. 156-161.
Wordsworth, William. “Preface.” Wordsworth and Coleridge Lyrical Ballads, edited by R.L.
Brett and A.R. Jones, Routledge Classics, New York, 2005, pp. 287-314