From manners to machismo, here are two writers who hold the key to great dialogue…
Jane Austen. Ernest Hemingway. At first glance these two writers could not appear more disparate. But within their masterpieces ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’, both hit upon a home truth, a central facet of human nature- language shapes power.
Austen grew up in 18th century England, and within her six published novels ruthlessly dissected the contradictions and absurdities within the landed gentry. From both World Wars to the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway experienced, and documented, the ravages of 20th century conflict.
In analysing the unavoidable conflicts that emerge when people strive for their goals Austen and Hemingway take us deep into the heart of a force that not only dictates literary greatness, but human success itself- the frame.
The frame in Literature
A frame concerns the beliefs and goals characters have within an interaction. It is an envisioned future that both characters strive towards when conversing. At it’s core- it is power.
To outframe someone is to impose your subjective reality over theirs, essentially beating their envisioned future with yours. The frame is not central to conversation- the talking over associated aspects of our reality. This is because conversation is talk without conflict.
However, once we encounter dialogue- talk for the purpose of conflict- we encounter characters interacting in pursuit of their goals. It is in breaking down what these goals and what the path these characters take in pursuit of them entails, that we are lead to the heart of the frame.
Romance and Aggression
Did the Earth move?
First let us turn to the frame of romance and aggression- two heavily intertwined concepts. In both works we see romantically-charged sparring leading to great built up tension. First, a third into ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, we see the matriarch of the band of Spanish Communist fighters Pilar vehemently attack the girlfriend of American explosions operator Robert Jordan. This attack occurs after a passionate encounter between the latter two, in which Maria claimed ‘the ground shook’:
(p.174) “Maria,” Pilar said. “I will not touch thee. Tell me now of thy own volition.”
“De tu propia voluntad,” the words were in Spanish.
The girl shook her head.
“Maria,” Pilar said. “Now and of thy own volition. You hear me.? Anything at all.”
“No,” the girl said softly. “No and no.”
“Now you will tell me,” Pilar told her. “Anything at all. You will see. Now you will tell me.”
“The earth moved,” Maria said, not looking at the woman.
“Truly. It was a thing I cannot tell thee.” …
“It is true,” Maria said and bit her lip.
“Of course it is true,” Pilar said kindly.
One can immediately attribute Pilar’s success to her higher status than the nineteen-year old Maria. Pilar’s high status is one borne of ruthless linguistical determination. Pilar uses a stronger frame to unlock the nature of Maria’s sexual experience: “Tell me now of thy own volition…Now and of thy own volition…Now you will tell me.” Notice the use of the word: “volition”: Pilar is not only telling Maria that she will tell her about the ‘Earth moving’, but also that Maria will do it out of her own will. Pilar’s frame is such that she is not only able to order others to act, but also how to think.
The use of “Now” is telling. Pilar’s envisioned future is stronger than Maria’s. Therefore, in the pair’s verbal conflict, Pilar is sure to prevail. This is evident in Pilar’s concluding certainty- “Of course it is true”- when Maria is defeated. This dialogue dominance is noted by Robert Jordan’s description of how Pilar:
“was not like a snake charming a bird, nor a cat with a bird. There was nothing predatory. Nor was there anything perverted about it. There was a spreading, though, as a cobra’s hood spreads. He could feel this. He could feel the menace of the spreading. But the spreading was a domination, not of evil, but of searching.”
It is this very “domination” and “searching” that strikes at the heart of Pilar’s frame. In constantly imposing her will over Maria, Pilar ‘dominates’ the latter. Through this very domination, Pilar is able to ‘search’ every avenue possible, with which she can defeat Maria- the very “spreading” Jordan senses. Jordan also strikes at the amoral nature of the Frame: Pilar is carrying out a “domination”- one that is “menac[ing]”, but not “evil”. In the world of the frame it is only the winner prevails, regardless of whether their actions can be perceieved as morally ‘good’ or ‘evil’.
Miss Bingley on the warpath
In contrast, in Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ notice how the romantic aggression on behalf of Miss Bingley when seeking Darcy’s attention and also to “dominate” her romantic rival, Elizabeth Bennett, completely falls flat. This is first evident in Miss Bingley’s attempts to negatively frame Elizabeth. The latter has walked three miles through the mud to see her ill sister Jane, who is stationed at Mr Bingley’s manor Netherfield, where Miss Bingley, Darcy and Mr Bingley are present:
“To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! What could she mean by it? It seems to me to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum.”
“It shows an affection for her sister that is very pleasing,” said Bingley.
“I am afraid, Mr. Darcy,” observed Miss Bingley in a half whisper, “that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes.”
“Not at all,” he replied; “they were brightened by the exercise.”
In this passage, Miss Bingley fails in her two attempts to paint Miss Bennet as having a “conceited independence” alongside a “most country-town indifference to decorum.” First Miss Bingley is defeated by her brother, who highlights the value of Elizabeth’s “affection” to Jane. But the real loss comes at the hand of her beloved Mr Darcy- her main opponent, who cleverly transforms Miss Bingley’s words. Here we see the frame most evidently come into action. The central motif of Miss Bingley’s attack on Darcy concerns Miss Bennet’s “fine eyes”. These “eyes” were mentioned previously by Darcy as spurring his affection. Therefore, Elizabeth’s eyes serve as a metonymy (a part of something that stands for the whole) for Elizabeth herself. By describing Elizabeth eyes as being “brightened by the exercise” as opposed to “affect[ing]” his “admiration”, Darcy is not only indicating to Miss Bingley that her romantic attacks are failing, but that they are leading to the opposite intended effect.
Next, consider a further Netherfield passage within the same chapter. This passage concerns Darcy’s descriptions of the neccessary attributes of the ‘ accomplished woman’. Elizabeth refutes Darcy’s criteria as impossible to achieve. With Elizabeth having left Netherfield’s living room, Miss Bingley resumes her offensive, describing Elizabeth as:
“one of those young ladies who seek to recommend themselves to the other sex by undervaluing their own; and with many men, I dare say, it succeeds. But, in my opinion, it is a paltry device, a very mean art.”
“Undoubtedly,” replied Darcy, to whom this remark was chiefly addressed, “there is a meanness in all the arts which ladies sometimes condescend to employ for captivation. Whatever bears affinity to cunning is despicable.”
Miss Bingley was not so entirely satisfied with this reply as to continue the subject.
Frame is often a game of emphasis: involving one trying to place strength on the negative attribute of their opponent whilst letting their emphasis on their, or ally’s weakness, dissipate. As is evident, Miss Bingley wholly fails in this regard. In trying to paint Elizabeth’s actions as seeking to “undervalu[e]” her own sex in order to raise herself up as “a very mean art”, a direct line of attack is initiated. However, Darcy, again the frame master, transforms Miss Bingley’s words to highlight the overall “arts” of attack that women often use against each other- strongly tying such tactics to Miss Bingley’s own actions.
One may question why Darcy should even respond to this attack. In turn, one may argue that Darcy’s affection would remain the same if he just sat silent; resolute in his knowledge that he fancies Elizabeth regardless. This is where we see the frame shape meaning through language. The absence of a Darcy counterattack would not only indicate that Miss Bingley’s sleight was warranted, but that it was true.
In turn we see the frame in a further light. Through language, characters like Pilar and Miss Bennet not only seek to go on the romantic offensive, but shape reality itself. If Pilar was to be unsuccessful in her questioning of Maria, the very meaning around Maria’s revelation that “the earth moved” would fade away. Likewise, Miss Bingley’s attempts to sleight Elizabeth as someone of “conceited independence, a most country-town indifference to decorum” and as employing “mean art[s]” would stand as truth if such statements were not contested.
Matadors and cowards
The frame is a function of overcoming. The one who outframes is able direct the flow of dialogue. This is starkly apparent within the intial stages of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, where the previous head of the Communist Guerillas Pablo, is usurped by his wife, the ever-powerful Pilar:
“This foreigner comes here to do a thing for the good of the foreigners. For his good we must be sacrificed. I am for the good and the safety of all.”
“Safety,” the wife of Pablo said. “There is no such thing as safety. There are so many seeking safety here now that they make a great danger. In seeking safety now you lose all.”…
“There is safety,” Pablo said. “Within the danger there is the safety of knowing what chances to take. It is like the bull fighter who knowing what he is doing, takes no chances and is safe.”
“Until he is gored,” the woman said bitterly…Always do they talk that way in their
arrogance before a goring. Afterwards we visit them in the clinic.”
Here we see the values of Pilar and Pablo come directly into play. This is a fight about “sacrifice” and “safety”. Note also that this passage occurs directly after Pilar has won the position of group leader within the band of Communist guerrilas after usurping Pablo.
First, by contrasting the “good and safety of all” with that of “the foreigners”, Pablo creates an immediate frame of conflict- suggesting a stark divide in values between his group and in turn Robert Jordan and the ‘foreign’ group he represents. This serves to pit Jordan’s values against the guerillas, suggesting that Jordan is distinct from them, and therefore no part of the group whatsoever.
Pilar senses the value Pablo is trying to avoid: “safety”. This is the value Pilar hones in on, shifting the argument away from an ‘us’ and ‘them’ frame of foreign domination, to one concerning the good of the group as a whole. Yet Pablo is a far more apt and powerful frame fighter than Maria, using the motif of the skilled “bull fighter” to suggest a clash of values between wisdom and brash stupidity. But Pilar again twists Pablo’s argument to reassert her position that “In seeking safety now you lose all”. Through the personal experience of the matadors she knew, Pilar further shows how Pablo’s cloak of wisdom and ‘safety’ can only but cover the reality of the ‘gorings’ to come.
A stately attack
Elizabeth’s frame-fighting in Chapter 56 of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is equally masterful. Moreover, she is faced with the toughest opponent. Toward’s the novel’s climax, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr Darcy’s aunt, visits Elizabeth with the explicit intention of halting the pair’s expected marriage:
“You have no regard, then, for the honour and credit of my nephew! Unfeeling, selfish girl! Do you not consider that a connection with you must disgrace him in the eyes of everybody?”
“Lady Catherine, I have nothing further to say. You know my sentiments.”
“You are then resolved to have him?”
“I have said no such thing. I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to you, or to any person so wholly unconnected with me.”
Lady Catherine’s attack is explicit. Elizabeth is “resolved to have” Darcy, and such a ‘resolve’ will “disgrace” Darcy “in the eyes of everybody”. This ‘resolve’ is posed as a question to immediately frame Elizabeth. In its structuring it neccesitates a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response; either Elizabeth is ‘resolved’ to have Darcy or she is not
Elizabeth immediately reframes this question by portraying herself as one only seeking her own “happiness, without reference to” Lady Catherine, who she in turn describes as someone “so wholly unconnected with me.”
This not only refutes Lady Catherine’s initial frame but also shatters it- by removing Lady Catherine from the sphere of Elizabeth’s influence, Elizabeth is not only able to indicate to the former that her words have no effect on her, but also, as a result, that Lady Catherine’s words in turn have no power. Elizabeth is literally informing her opponent as to the power of her language and, in turn, the power of her frame.
The Never-ending Frame
Pilar and Elizabeth’s linguistic skill is but one facet of the frame. The frame is something that integrates all human interaction. It provides our verbal sparring with a means to a resolution.
The frame at its heart concerns the conflict inherent in every dialogue- dialogues that can take place both outside and on the page. The word ‘conflict’ can often carry negative connotation, but as we have seen with ‘JHS: Warrior vs King’, your antagonist is often your greatest ally.
In meeting their opposing force a protagonist is pushed into hard choices which reveal their character. This occurs both on the macro level (the story itself), but also within the individual battles that each character’s dialogue entails. Through having their central characters stand up to antagonists like Pablo and Lady Catherine, Austen and Hemingay are not only highlighting the strength and assertiveness within Pilar and Elizabeth’s nature, but also, through the very linguistical battles these characters undertake- how they are able to grow in the process.
However, Pilar and Elizabeth are not the only figures able to grow as a result. In carefully studying such characters, the reader himself can also hope to gain these protagonists framing talents. In immersing ourselves in Mr Darcy’s stately put-downs, Elizabeth’s charming wit and Pilar’s latin dynamism, we not only dive into the heart of the frame, but learn why these authors are such masters in the first place.