Language and Reason

There are two extreme ways by which to understand the relation of language to reality. One is to think of language as a representation of reality and in that case, as Bertram Russell put it, a well formed, which means grammatical, proposition is always either true or false because it cannot but be an assertion about reality. That allows for a lot of badly formed propositions, those to be regarded as not much more than nonsense, of no use to the speakers. A professor of mine, a pragmatist, took this view, when he held that what most literary critics were doing when they talked about symbols or what sociologists were doing when they spoke about norms, was just mumbo-jumbo, sounds without meaning, because they could not give clear definitions of their basic terms. Most exercises in language should simply be dismissed as nonsense, however sincere the speakers. It should be remembered that even Aristotle, who supposed that most argument was rhetorical in that it was aimed at winning over people to a leader by persuading them in ways that would appeal to them, still imagined that those forms of persuasion were made up mostly of deformed or short circuited logic, a leap of inference required to get from one place to another. Even tyrants sounded somewhat logical.

Read More

Generalizations about Cultural Periods

A cultural period is a span of years during which the themes and forms of expression are similar and, in fact, unique, and so a cultural period can be said to exhibit the spirit of its age, which is certainly the way that William Hazlitt, that wonderful English Romantic critic, looked at the matter. Alterations in themes and genres provide a definition for a period, and so the long Elizabethan Age, which lasts from the Silver Poets of the 1570’s through John Donne, who died in 1631, is unified by its emphasis on drama and on the idea of the conceit, an image exploited for its various meanings. Any of the periods since the time of Chaucer and before and right up to the present can be considered in this light.

Read More

To Engage with Judy Garland

A. O. Scott, the NY Times movie critic, was right on the mark when he said in his review of “Judy” that the movie really wasn’t that great but that Renee Zellwegger had done such a star turn portraying Judy Garland that she was up there for an Academy Award for Best Actress. I would put it differently. Zellwegger doesn’t look like Garland, she doesn’t sound like her, and she doesn’t have her mannerisms, but she puts together a character which makes you think of Judy Garland, which is in keeping with what Zellwegger has said in interviews, which is that her aim was not to imitate Garland but to convey the emotions that went along with her. The movie itself, however, settles for the usual bio-facts about Garland. She was groomed by Louis B. Mayer to be a star, she took diet pills and sleeping pills from an early age and thus became a life-long addict, she was a car wreck in that she gave erratic performances and often didn’t show up on time, and the movie even threw in another part of the Garland legend, which is that she became an icon for her gay followers, all of these facts following from and in the service of an Achilles like dilemma to have a dazzling life as a performer even if it meant her personal life would be very rough, a pledge she did not regret until the end of her life when she preferred to see herself as a mother than as Judy Garland, the legend.

Read More

Tara Westover's "Educated"

A story, to put it simply, is a set of circumstances into which is introduced some complication or event that sets a chain of events going that the author unfolds in a way that suits the author’s aesthetic sense of what makes a fitting way for a story to proceed and to end. That can mean, in “The Iliad”, having a number of distinct stories intrude on the overall tale of a man returning home after a war. It can mean having a hero move on from one bad moral choice to the next, as in “Macbeth”. It can mean mixing up stories of courtship with ones of war, as in “War and Peace”. It can mean seeing a story that turns back upon itself, as happens in ballet, and also, maybe, in Jane Austen’s “Persuasion”. 

Read More

The Power of Metaphor

A metaphor is supposed to be a word that is associated with what it represents because of some similarity between what the word refers to and what the word is taken to represent. Love is like a madness because it can come up suddenly, becomes an obsession and can’t easily be explained. So a metaphor can consider and evoke other characteristics of the object to be explained than the ones that are its essential characteristics, whatever might be those essential characteristics. That is why a metaphor is so liberating: it gives associations rather than a denotative definition that allows classifying objects always or nearly always accurately. But love is also supposed to be like a red, red rose. There are similarities here too in that a rose is beautiful and delicate, which is often said of one’s beloved, as is the fact that a lover can be thorny. So a person can go very far afield or be very creative when constructing a metaphor, and so the metaphor is more in the mind of its author than in the object represented. Anything can turn into a metaphor, which means that a metaphor is really a symbol, which means that it is arbitrarily or conventionally associated with its object. A recent Nova broadcast was eerie in its account of the inner planets because it treated Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars as if they were human in that these masses of rocks had their moments in the sun, literally, in that they had water oceans before the ever greater heat of the sun robbed them of their atmospheres and their water and made them “dead” planets, even though, of course, planets are not people. The power of metaphor is an important way of understanding the meaning of texts and also prompts consideration of how writers limit the power of metaphor in the service of creating truth rather than opinion.

Read More

Double Irony

Blue Wilderness Dog Food is running an ad on television which shows a household pet dog running alongside a wolf and the voiceover says that the two are related and so both need meat and that the dog food it sells will therefore suit your own dog. The ad is likely to bring a smile or a chuckle to a viewer who is not usually inclined to think that his pet dog is like a wolf. The idea of a wolf deep down in your dog is funny. So this joke is an irony in that it shifts the meaning of a dog to being a wolf in dog clothing and all that implies about being wild and dangerous. The idea is replaced in a second or two or after having watched the commercial once or twice by the realization that the comparison is itself a joke because there is no way the dog who likes to doze on your lap and have his belly rubbed has anything to do with a wolf even if they are genetically related. That too is funny, that a dog could be compared to a wolf. The first joke is the making of a strange or absurd comparison; the second joke is that the first comparison is absurd. The first joke says dogs are like wolves while the second one says that dogs are not at all like wolves. The ad agency should be complemented for having in a ten second commercial directed at a not necessarily highly literate audience led its audience to experience this double irony. I don’t know if it sells more dog food, but it must satisfy the aesthetic sense of the ad’s creators. Now apply this same concept to aesthetic objects that are universally recognized as being worthy of critical attention.

Read More

"The British Are Coming"

It is difficult to work up much interest in the American Revolution because the men wore powdered wigs and stockings, the guiding ideological opposition between monarchy and Republicanism is not salient today while slavery versus freedom and North versus South, issues from the Civil War, are still with us today, and because the Revolutionary War seems so episodic, Bunker Hill here and Washington crossing the Deleware there, and the surrender of two British armies, Burgoyne at Saratoga and Cornwallis at Yorktown, separated by four years. Wars should have the unities provided by the Second World War: retreat followed by advance, climaxing on D-Day, and victory after that. Well, Rick Atkinson has remedied these deficiencies and presented in “The British are Coming”, the first volume of his three volume history of the Revolutionary War, a compelling narrative of the first two years of the Revolutionary War that does justice to its various elements and though it does not present fresh interpretations, helps make that war comprehensible by making it dramatically whole.

Read More

Johnson's Dictionary

The importance of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary is not that it was one of the first or that he had some piquant definitions but that it took a very different approach to language than is generally taken by philosophers. Samuel Johnson does something very radical in his dictionary. He posits the idea that for any word, whether simple or complex, everyday or esoteric, there is another word or string of words that can be generated in English that is its equivalent in meaning. Johnson provides some forty thousand examples as proof of his proposition. That is a remarkable thing to claim about language. However much it expands, whatever new words are added to its vocabulary, there is some other set of words it can be mapped to. Why this is the case, Johnson does not explain. He was not that kind of thinker. But he was a student of language and so could invent or find, take your pick, these equivalences which made language not a closed system in that words could only refer to other words, but an open system, in that new words could always be meaningful because they could be referred to old words. This is a characteristic of language in general, that it expands in this way, and it is not a characteristic which holds for other systems of thought.

Read More

The Moral Lessons of "Now, Voyager"

The poor quality of the movies up for this year’s Academy Award for best motion picture reminds me of the time when movies were indeed better than ever, which was the period of the late Thirties and the early Forties, which produced not only “The Wizard of Oz” and “Stagecoach” (I am still leary of “Gone With the Wind”, another 1939 blockbuster) but also, in the early war years, such movies as “Random Harvest” and “Now, Voyager”, both from 1942, and both heavily melodramatic in that people were given psychological excuses for being out of touch with their own lives and so needed to find ways to integrate themselves back into a social life somewhat abbreviated from a normal life, all the while the characters managing to retain their self respect and not give in to feeling sorry for themselves, which is the constant risk in melodrama. In “Random Harvest” that meant Greer Garson had to settle for a sexless marriage to the man she had known as her husband before he fell into amnesia and in “Now, Voyager” that meant Bette Davis settling for a long term affair with Paul Henreid because circumstances, including themselves, stand in the way of marriage.

Read More

The Double Action of Stories

What makes a story a story rather than just a sequence of sentences is that all stories engage in a double action. Every sentence in a story, even a description of the weather that provides the atmosphere surrounding its action, does two things: it tells the reader of something that hadn’t happened before and at the same time provides information to the reader about how to understand what is to later unfold or has previously occurred. You learn of Macbeth’s forebodings of a promising future, which is an event in the play, and you are forewarned about how to greet further developments. The reader or viewer’s mind is provoked to cast ahead because each event is a revelation as well as something that just happened. That is why stories are so magical. They violate the strictures of time by allowing those who hear it to cast back and forth in the story as if the audience were a god.

Read More

4/9: Jane Austen and Shakespeare

Lady Reading in an Interior,  Marguerite     Gérard,  1795

Lady Reading in an Interior, Marguerite Gérard, 1795

Jane Austen was a literary intellectual in the sense that she used literature as a vehicle for writing about life rather than just to amuse readers so that they would buy her books, notwithstanding that her first two novels were satires of the popular genres of her time: the gothic romance and the novel of domestic life. Jane Austen was also an avid follower of the contemporary theatre. It is not surprising, therefore, that she would self-consciously choose Shakespeare as the model against which to work “Mansfield Park”, the first completed of her second trilogy of novels. Shakespeare was both part of her own education and part of the accepted lore of English culture, he just coming into his Romantic stature as a god-like figure who could even serve as the basis for a set of imitations and reflections in a number of genres for a number of Romantic figures that included Coleridge, Hazlitt, Lamb, and Landor.

Austen says as much within “Mansfield Park”. Jane is playing with her reader when she provides Mr. Crawford, a supposedly obtuse young man, with a speech about how Shakespeare seeps into every Englishman's sensibility, whether the plays are read or not. Fanny and Edmund, who think themselves well read, are horrified at this excuse for ignorance, but they are not prepared to see its truth, which is that there is such a thing as a culture, with its own way of seeing things, that goes beyond a set of quotations or plot summaries. What Crawford says strikes home because it is so candid an admission of how Shakespeare functions even for those who are not particularly literate. By this point in the novel, Jane's readers should know that admissions about how the world serves self interest are usually true observations. Culture operates even upon those who simply wish to appropriate it so that they will seem cultured. So Jane's clue that her own novel is Shakespearean even if it does not again overtly refer to Shakespeare is so obvious that, like the purloined letter, it is likely to be missed.

The structure of “Mansfield Park” is that of a Shakespearean tragedy. First, the plot adds on additional complexities until it becomes a Gordian knot somewhere in the third act. This is the moment of highest emotional distress and tragic recognition. The play then unravels its complexities into some kind of resolution. If the play had been a comedy or romance, there would have been a restoration of family through intricate pairings of lovers on every level of class and generation. If the play is a tragedy, however, the family whose life the play chronicles is destroyed once and for all. Lear's soul is destroyed, but the life of his favorite daughter is also taken. The crown does not descend from Hamlet to some relative but is usurped by Fortinbras. No descendants are mentioned for Anthony and Othello. None of these tragic heroes become connected to future generations. For Shakespeare, tragedy is when a family line ends, because the usual melodrama of fate can no longer operate, as it inevitably does, to merely alter a family or cause it grief. In a tragedy, there is no longer a stable universe of the family within which grief can be acknowledged and overcome.

The same can be said of “Mansfield Park”, which is also about the continuation of families into the next generation, and which ends only with the creation of a replacement family for the Bertrams, rather than any of the marriages that would have simply extended the family line into another generation of gentility built on inherited wealth and community standing. This tragedy is shown indirectly, however, because it does not arise out of a decline in family fortunes, which is the early clue Jane Austen plants to provide suspense about the future of the family, or even with the melodramatic foolishness of some of the characters, who seem to bring the family to ruin because they throw their lives away by loving the wrong people, which is a false trail Jane Austen provides towards the end of the novel and which takes in most readers and critics.

The reader trained on the Brontes is likely to think that Fanny's story is that of an observer who has been brought into the drama to do that and to some extent rescue the fall of the Bertrams. But Fanny is more than an observer; she is a deus ex machina. The story is constructed around Fanny's rise to prominence in the family, which is not just an ironic counterpoint to the fate of the family, but also suggests her growing role in creating that fate. She is the one who appears to come to fit into the world of the Bertrams, but who, in fact, is so unassimilable that her presence skews the responses of others, like the Crawfords, to the Bertrams, and makes more difficult a sensible response by one or another of the Bertrams to the opportunities that avail themselves. Though not the single force that leads to the degeneration of the Bertrams to a family whose best marriage, finally, is between Edmund, a clergyman, and Fanny, his poor relation, Fanny does live up to the prophecy of the Cassandra of the story, Mrs. Norris, who thought from the beginning that Fanny would detract rather than add to the family.

The drama is arranged as a rags to riches story. Fanny's rise in the family from a minor to a major figure accompanies the first part of the drama, which moves from childhood to the crisis of courtship and arrives at its apex when Sir Thomas Bertram returns from Antigua and proceeds to set things on their topsy turvy course--or else to preside over trying to set right what has already gone so amiss that it proves beyond repair. The denouement, suitable for Shakespeare, is full of action as well as attempts to find as right a pairing as is possible that will preserve the future of the family. Sir Thomas is moved to discard one pairing after another, each one of lessened importance, until the final matching of Edmund and Fanny, far from a triumph, comes out as the best that can be done under the circumstances, no matter that it is a love match or that Sir Thomas actually likes Fanny.

Even that minor saving grace is accomplished only after even this last match has been made almost impossible. Fanny has been sent off to Portsmouth, where she had begun her life, with no expectation of a future role in the family drama in which she played so large a role despite herself. The drama is turned full circle: she had arrived at Mansfield Park, found a place for herself there, moved to center stage, then moved herself off center when she refuses to marry Crawford, and then even farther off stage to Portsmouth from which she is rescued only by her usefulness in patching up as best can be events that had gone beyond all control.

This symmetrical movement, which also appeals to Keats and Emily Bronte, runs counter to another feature of the narrative. The pace of the novel picks up as it moves along, and there is an unfolding of ever more sophisticated levels of description by the author, and a building to a final epiphany that changes all meanings, rather than just a central meaning to which the plot ascends and from which it descends.

As in Shakespeare, the stages of plot are symmetrical but the stages of language are successive. In each of the great tragedies, language proceeds from its "lower" to its "higher" forms. Macbeth, Othello, Lear especially, and even Hamlet, move from the language of politics in the first sections of each play, where the characters are concerned with the calculation and balancing of the interests of the political players, a type of language Shakespeare had perfected in “Julius Caesar”, to the language of the great soliloquies, in which the central characters consider the confrontation of mankind with the forces of nature, including the elemental passions. Lear on the heath, Macbeth transformed by his guilt and his understanding of his own nature and nation, Othello confronted with the possibility of his own jealousy, an uncontrollable force which surprises a man whose passions had previously been so in concert with his social position, the protagonist now agonized into eloquence, and so speaking poetry.

Poetry then gives way in the resolution of each of the tragedies to what might be called, following Lear, the language of the birds, the music which allows perfect communication of love and the kind of serenity provided by the survival of tragedy and the appreciation of tragedy. This is very short for Othello, who turns his grief into a ritualistic killing of the one he loves, a sacrifice to the gods performed by him, perhaps for the first time, as an act from which his consciousness is removed. For Macbeth, this period is somewhat more extended, as he resolves to be what he has become, and move ever deeper into blood.

The removal from one language to the next brings a quickening of the pace of the narrative in each tragedy because each level of language operates at its own speed. Events in the political world seem to move quickly only because there is so much talk and analysis of what people mean by each action they take. There are so many implications in any possible action that any action once taken seems a surprise, an intrusion on the never satisfied pace of deliberations. Any action is taken too soon for the significance of the last prior action to have been properly analyzed, and so there is certainly insufficient time left over for the contemplation of an impending event. Politics moves too quickly in real time to allow time for its analysis, and so seems always rushed.

Here is a passage from the first third of “Mansfield Park” which speaks the language of calculation, the prose of political discourse:

“The time was now come when Sir Thomas expected his sister-in-law to claim her share in their niece, the change in Mrs. Norris’s situation,and the improvement in Fanny’s age, seeming not merely to do away any former objection to their living together, but even to give it the most decided eligibility; and as his own circumstances were rendered less fair than heretofore, by some recent losses on his West India Estate, in addition to his eldest son’s extravagance, it became not undesirable to himself to be relieved from the expense of her support, and the obligation of her future provision. “

The language of poetry, for its part, can go on indefinitely exploring the meaning of nature for a new level of insight. Nature comes to mean whatever is eternal because it means what repays infinite contemplation. Nature is not rushed, nor is the plenitude of poetry that it stimulates, but there is no completion of that relationship, because it is timeless, and is altered only when the metaphysical and natural landscape which sparks the poetry is eliminated. Lear could have stayed on the heath forever, or at least only until he died, just as Hamlet could have wondered around Elsinore, forever contemplating the psychological dynamics of kinship and love, if he had not been moved by his thoughts to actions that had consequences. To alter the environment is to take away the object of contemplation, the seat of reverberations.

Now here is a passage from the second third of “Mansfield Park”. It speaks the language of poetry, which is, for Jane Austen, the description of the natural social situation, and is particularly well put by Edmund, Fanny’s true love:

“ “But, Fanny,” he presently added, “in order to have a comfortable walk, something more is necessary than merely pacing the gravel together. You must talk to me. I know you have something on your mind. I know what you are thinking of. You cannot suppose me uninformed. Am I to hear of it from everybody but Fanny herself?” “

These few lines are funny. They are also poetic in the conventional sense because “pacing the gravel together is such an apt image of a walk without conversation. It is also a reflection on the nature of conversation as that is put at a distance from the present occasion to which this wisdom applies. Staying silent when there is something on your mind means that others can reveal it and that is not a good thing if the two parties to the conversation are to consider themselves intimate friends. Edmund’s remarks also indicate that he is someone worthy of Fanny because of his wit and intelligence.

The final language of music is the most quickly paced because action is unhurried since action and language move at the same pace, the language now a direct expression of action, fully integrated with action. Characters, like Lear, need speak very little, and Hamlet can become terse, for actions seem decisive, decisions quickly made, events unfolding with a will of their own as the protagonists adopt the Shakespearean understanding of Stoicism: they appreciate that their own engagement in the world is part of the action of the world rather than merely a cause or a contemplation of actions in the world. They thereby succeed, for a moment, in achieving a kind of simultaneous distance from and acceptance of action.

The characteristics of Shakespearean tragedy hold true for “Mansfield Park”, except that the novel is set in the framework of Humean empiricism rather than the framework of Elizabethan Stoicism. The language of the novel moves from a way to cloak self-interest as good will, which is the way Mrs. Norris talks when Fanny first arrives, and which places Fanny as the outsider who must parse the language to find who are her friends and enemies, where her self-interest lies in the politics of Mansfield Park. The language then shifts, as Fanny becomes a member of the family, to a way to align self-interest with sentiment, which is the way Fanny and the other members of the Bertram family come to talk between themselves as they contemplate the eternal round of life that country life imagines itself to be, full of platitudinous and universal moral truths about the way life has to be, how reality is connected to illusion, and language to sentiments, and how each of us pine to find a way out of the metaphysical impasse of convention and self.

The language of the novel makes a second transition to being a language which is able to speak truthfully and therefore of the consequences of the events described, in which case words are meaningful and, far from being fluff, are all too accurate and lacerating. This new language allows the narrative to move along at ever greater speed, since events can be so quickly telescoped and their implications communicated, if the reader has learned his lessons, and been prepared by Jane Austen's instruction on how to read language and character. The novel can now move into the pace of actual life, rather than operate on the levels of, first, calculation and then, second, the obfuscation or poetry by which we make life managable or, at the least, commensurable.

And here is a passage from the last third of “Mansfield Park”. It speaks the language of the birds, which in this case means the rapid fire emotionally charged action where the events and the meaning are smoothlessly tied together, the events proceeding so rapidly that the characters have little time to consider what is being said but must get on with drawing conclusions. This passage takes place when Fanny has returned to Portsmouth:

”Mr. Crawford contrived a minute’s privacy for telling Fanny that his only business in Portsmouth was to see her, that he had come down for a couple of days on her account and her’s only, and because he could not endure a longer total separation. She was sorry, really sorry; and yet, in spite of this and the two or three other things she wished he had not said, she thought him altogether improved since she had seen him; he was much more gentle, obliging, and attentive to other people’s feelings than he had ever been at Mansfield;....”

Fanny makes instant and complicated judgments of which she feels very sure because that is what is now required by the circumstances but also by the author. Those rapid fire decisions, with which Jane's characters too often seem to indulge themselves, require considerable patience and insight by the reader if they are to be unravelled, even if it is the case that most of life does indeed go on at this pace and does seem to require what might anachronistically be described as simultaneous translation. The consequence of having to cope with subtleties is that life seems to go on much more slowly than it really does. Jane Austen seems to suggest that by careful instruction the reader can be liberated to follow the action quickly by apprehending language as if it were direct, rather than cope with the more realistic slow pace of language that, however accurate, makes the commission of literature so much harder. Literature is artificial because it makes language more accurate and more subtle and more effectual than it really is so that reality can be represented, as in Shakespeare, through eloquence and poetry as well as a music of words that can break through from feeling to action.

3/9: Mobility and Manners in "Mansfield Park"

Screen Shot 2018-12-04 at 11.43.18 AM.png

“Upward mobility” is a sociological term coined to describe the movement of people from the social class into which they were born into a higher class during their lifetimes. It also refers to the movement into higher social classes across the generations, children outdoing their parents. The point of upward mobility, whether it is intra- or inter-generational, is that it is not merely a matter of increased position and wealth, but also a matter of changed perspectives. The upwardly mobile person has to adjust to the way of life of the class which is joined, and even then may be regarded as presumptuous for appropriating the ways of his betters.

For the most part, the Eighteenth Century drama of upward mobility was played out as a matter of self-interest, legitimacy, and marriage, that mix further tangled by passion or indiscretion. This presentation did not do justice to the difficulty of upward mobility, for the portraits of the different classes were less nuanced in England than were, for example, the portraits of different nationality groups, which were understood by Goldsmith and others to have different personality traits, as well as contrary interests. Just as children were little adults, the inferior social classes were thought of as just more deprived in wealth and position, given to liquor or licentiousness as a result of their situation, rather than because the differing situations of the differing social classes gave rise to differing perspectives about what made sense in the conduct of life. Moll Flanders is as articulate as her betters, and just as given to calculation. Even the characters in “Tom Jones” are differentiated by station and what is therefore their natural interests, rather than by a different sense of life. Every individual can be thought to calculate what is best in the same way and would arrive at the same conclusion, given the same particular set of circumstances. Utilitarianism is a calculus which is the same to the observer and the observed.

Jane Austen refocuses the calculation of interests by adding to it the differing sentiments which arise in particular social classes. She is a Humean who relies on human sympathy to help people coordinate their interests with one another and to make the social world a humanly recognizable one, a place for mutual cooperation as well as competition. The calculus of morals combined with sentiment and self interest is a complex one which she demonstrates in some detail. But she also accomplishes something else: she offers a set of classes who do not understand one another, where there is no common measure of moral worth which all classes accept. There is indeed an objective scale of classes, but each social class understands the virtues and vices which seem morally essential to each class differently. It could not very well be otherwise, since each class will prize its own virtues and see the virtues of the other classes as vices, so closely does a class identify its own way of life with the way things have to be, of right. Social classes are mutually intolerant, and so their intermingling leads to misperceptions by each of them of the meanings of the words and actions in the other social classes. To the extent that Jane Austen has a thesis she wishes to illustrate, this is it, but the social analysis which occupies the first third of “Mansfield Park”, the novel which most clearly addresses the ways the social classes rub off against and with one another, will give way to a second third that is tragic, and then to a lyrical vision, each of the three parts of the novel so well worked out that the author's ability to transcend her own terms of analysis, not once but twice, is intellectually and emotionally dazzling.

The deep dirty secret of “Mansfield Park” is that Fanny Price, its heroine, doesn’t much like or come to identify with her erstwhile benefactors, and they don’t have much use for her either. A generation before Jane Eyre is frightened but ready to fall in love with posh living and a dashing benefactor, Fanny does not lose her resentment at the slights which she might be expected to weather for having been introduced on the scene as the poor cousin of the Bertrams, brought to Mansfield Park out of the misplaced goodwill of Mrs. Norris, who makes some purely verbal gesture at doing something for a child of the poor sister of Lady Bertram. Even though Mrs. Norris never takes any responsibility for the child, refusing to take her into her own home even after she is widowed, and despite what she had promised to undertake, Fanny's fate is the result of the flippant and hypocritical words of Mrs. Norris. Fanny does not outgrow her grudges.

The world into which Fanny is introduced is full of hypocrisy. All the words mean the opposite of what they would seem to mean. People exercise power by claiming they are doing something for other people, when they are in fact arranging matters in their own favor. Language seems to serve the purposes of making excuses for doing things in one's own interest, and a person is a master of language to the sense that they can craft it for those purposes.

Fanny comes to see that the class inflected language increases her own condition of dependance. She is at first not equipped to speak it at all. Her introduction to Mansfield Park has the Dickensian quality of a child observing the fulsome speech of their elders without yet having the wit to defend herself or the sophistication to hide her own immediate concerns. Fanny arrives on the doorstep at Mansfield Park tired after a long journey, and acts the way a child would under such circumstances, and this is taken as the sign of the class from which she has come. This also is a Dickensian touch, blaming the lower class for being merely human, rather than demonstrating some superhuman virtues which the betters could not themselves offer.

Fanny is hard pressed to survive in this environment. She makes some room for herself by never by asking too much or demanding too much. Rather, she simply waits around so that something can be offered out of the generosity that overcomes the giver because of the awkwardness that results from her being a member of the family deprived of such simple amenities. How Fanny gets her horse is a good example of this. She pouts and resents until Sir Thomas Bertram finds a horse for her, while Maria, a “legitimate” daughter, has no trouble getting her’s. The lesson Fanny learns is that you get what you are entitled to by pouting and not forgetting the humiliation you have to go through to get what should not need to be asked for. Fanny bears the scars of her ordeal. She takes Mrs. Norris too seriously, thinking herself unworthy of more than the crumbs she gets; she falls back upon herself, and her own wit, in which she can take some pride, and the moral righteousness she shares with Edmund, the cousin to whom she is closest.

Fanny is at first thus dependant, but then, as the years of courtship approach for the older girls in the family, she becomes entwined in the family life, still inferior in station, but allowed to hear conversation of a domestic sort which shows that language is not just for the purpose of disguise, but a complex matter of meshing sentiment and family feeling with social obligations. It becomes clear to the more mature Fanny that people are willing to shed the proprieties when it suits them because the proprieties are only that people need gentle language only when they are dependant upon it, which is what happens so that people manage to survive the day, needing company so they can do their needlework. People are useless, and social life is claustrophobic, but nonetheless essential, for without it people would be without emotional sustenance and the support that allows them to think well of themselves, because they are under such pressure to think poorly of themselves. The cripples helping the cripples.

Fanny survives by becoming a moral icon. Since she has come to this way of life late, she learns it as a lesson, a process of assimilation, and is therefore less likely to alter it, to treat it as malleable and circumstantial. She internalizes propriety while for others propriety is simply a social fact. This accomplishment comes to be a weapon with which she shames others, though largely unintentionally, since she gives off the aura of morality when in fact morality seems the natural way to act since that is what she has learned to identify as the way of life of the society which she has joined. She takes aristocratic respectability more seriously than do those born into the aristocracy. This is so much the case that when she first hears Mary Crawford, a visitor to Mansfield Park, criticize the family that had adopted her--adoption not seeming to be a strange though not therefore unremarkable an occasion, Fanny is scandalized. People don’t say such things about people on whom they are dependant. Fanny and Edmund come to the same explanation for this failing that the people at Mansfield Park had given for her own shortcomings: bad child rearing.

Not that Fanny is immune from gaffes. Her concern for her gown is comic and pathetic; her wearing of the jewelry given as gifts to her is absurd. But Fanny is taken as a person for whom it is a given that their manners are imperfect, and so that must be set aside if she is to be appreciated. Which results in the converse, that when she is appreciated, her poor manners and slightly off putting manner must be set aside. This also contributes to her character as a moral icon, since it is a characteristic to be perceived through her very visible frailties, as is also the case with Yoda, and so is a tribute to those who can observe her to have that deeper, more sublime, kind of virtue.

Fanny moves from being dependant to being part of a mutually dependant community, each member having to exhibit the social traits suitable for the social class from which they come. James Rushworth is such a failure when he takes them to visit his estate because a man of such a high station should be able to carry off the visit without a hitch, and should act as if he does not care when things go badly, for it is not he who should try to impress them, but they who should be grateful for what he condescends to offer them.

In such a world, how do people court? By where they sit on a stage, or who they walk with, because such events have double meanings: acceptable in their own right as innocent, but capable of interpretation as significant. Only when the burden of such ambiguous moments builds up, does one have the right to take them as signals of courtship, so that a declaration of love, when unambiguously stated, has been long prepared, and every indication has been given it would be accepted, because no event contrary to such an interpretation is available, even though any number of events can still take on an innocent gloss. That is why Henry Crawford’s declaration to Fanny is so dramatic even if he has made an eccentric choice and why Fanny's rejection seems so perverse in spite of that because she was in no position to do any better.  But the decorum of courtship also shows that there is a hairline of difference between events which can be interpreted and those which declare themselves to be what they are. There is always a dramatic gap between what is as yet unannounced and its announcement. This provides the suspense and the interest of these love stories, because it emphasizes the way in which all love stories turn triumphant or tragic on the basis of correctly or incorrectly understood intentions.

Fanny moves from group dependance to self-dependance. She falls back, in the third part of the story, to being her own guide, which is a role she has been prepared for, but did not want to undertake in so powerful a way, but which was unavoidable because so many unforeseen opportunities for which their is not a simple moral calculus, given her position and dispositions.

It is from this posture that she must make her judgment of Portsmouth, her original home to which she returns as a “mature” woman. Portsmouth is not easy to accept or reject, and  the reader is likely to trust Fanny's judgment because she is, despite everything, the character with the clearest and most objective sense of class since she is the one who moves most easily between them and retains her intellectual and even a bit of emotional distance. Although Fanny is at first taken aback by the material insufficiencies of her mother's house, that is not her final judgment. It is that these are not nice people, no nicer than the people at Mansfield Park.

How are we to separate out the issues of class circumstances, the culture of a class, its state of disorganization, and the individual personalities? It was not at all clear then or now. Are people more virtuous in one class rather than another, or is it simply a confusion of morals with manners? Fanny appreciates the question, but thinks the poorer people do not simply speak in a more vulgar way, or have to contend with meaner conditions, which leads them to concentrate on more vulgar concerns, but are, in fact, baser sorts of people when everything is added up. She will not make a joke of it and so, like Henry Higgins, declare Eliza Doolittle’s father to be a superior kind of moralist.

These are the issues which have become familiar from social analysis of upward mobility in any age, but are best applied to Jane Austen by understanding her usage of terms properly. What could she mean when she presents people as lacking manners? Is that an attribute of their social class? It is, if we understand the term “manners” properly. There is a conceptual gap between Fanny’s world and the world of today that is the result of just a shift in meaning. Manners do not mean today what they meant in Jane Austen’s time. Today, “manners” means a code of conduct which allows people to be civil to one another whatever are their feelings toward one another. People who have good manners will not embarrass other people out of a sense of tact and what is proper behavior for a civilized behavior at the moment. Manners are today the province of--well, Miss Manners, and also of Emily Post and all the others who write about etiquette, they quick to point out that they are not concerned about whether a reader uses the right spoon but whether a person tries to put another person at ease and otherwise tries to smooth out the bumps in social relationships, whether that means telling someone an uncomfortable truth because it might relieve the person told or telling of an uncomfortable burden, or not to tell a hidden truth because it will bring with it unnecessary pain.

But in Jane Austen’s time, as her characters make clear, manners refers to a person’s manner, what we might even call their personality, because it is about how a person presents themselves to others, whether that person can help being that way or not. A manner is a presentation, how the person comes across, whether as gruff or arrogant, or winsome, or argumentative, or flirtatious and oh much too well mannered, as is the case with Mr. Wickham, who uses his manners to seduce Lydia in “Pride and Prejudice”. So manner may be feigned or inevitable, but they are the revelations of character not always to be trusted, as is the case when Elizabeth early on finds Darcy to be arrogant and standoffish only later to find that he is decent and honorable and devoted even if he still is arrogant and standoffish.

And that is the case in “Mansfield Park”. Fanny has a poor manner in that she is greedy and pouts a lot and has to get her way, even if she has learned how to eat properly. As in Shakespeare, what appears to be the case really is the case. Richard III is in his soul as ugly as he is as a person. Jane Austen translates that insight into meaning that people are their manner: what you see is what you get. Fanny is what she is and will continue to being that however much love or the appearance of love is sent her way. Why people are the way they are is perhaps beyond Jane Austen’s understanding, as it is beyond ours. But what Austen offers is the very conservative message which is not to trust people to be any better than they apparently seem to be, which is very different from the liberal message that people can be improved and are improved, are elevated in their social class, even if their manners are better given that their manner is not. The conservative message is to trust to social categories such as race and social class, while the liberal message is to trust to essential humanity, and these two messages are so in collision that we, today, recognize them as conflicting feelings rather than conflicting ideas. We sense them to be the bedrock on which political positions and social viewpoints can rest.

2/9: Tone and Texture in "Pride and Prejudice"


Tone is a set of feelings evoked by a novel and we have long established names for characteristic sets of feelings. These are the names of the genres: comedy, tragedy, melodrama, romance, and all those others, the hybrids, such as tragicomedy, referred to by Hamlet in his speech to the players. Texture, for its part, is the way these characteristic features are established through the stylistics of the text: how a text combines dialogue with description, how it leaves ironies hanging in the air; what it takes to be a joke or a resolution or even a mere development in a conflict. Jane Austen who, as the narrator of her novels, is a distant, jaundiced and amused authorial voice, works her will largely by how she structures her scenes so as to allow for verbal confrontations, a playwright as much as a novelist, which makes sense given her debt to Shakespeare.  But as a novelist, she was quite good at changing and managing different tones within the same novel. This is certainly the case in "Pride and Prejudice", where there is a conflict between two families that differ in much more than wealth. The Bennets and the extended family of Mr. Darcy differ in tone. The Bennets are comic, always being a bit silly, though not always as much as Mrs. Bennet. Elizabeth desperately wants to escape from that. The wealthy families, on the other hand, are given over to melodrama. They take themselves very seriously, and they exaggerate their emotions, as when Darcy finds the first ball he attends terribly dull. They are also touched by tragedy, which is what happens when Mr. Wickham ruins Darcy's sister, though the reader does not find that out until much later, when Darcy reveals his family disgrace to Elizabeth and so clinches the case that he really loves her by going into an intimacy that would be, at the time, truly shocking and from which his sister would not be expected to recover.

Darcy and his family also have the virtue of taking situations into hand when they need to with resolution as if a good deal depended on how you handled life rather than just responded to it. Darcy is not judgmental about Lydia falling for Mr. Wickham. Foolish girls will do such things. He just sets out to do the things that will make the situation right. He arranges for a marriage by paying off Wickham's debts and may have had a hand in seeing him assigned to a military post in the north where he and Lydia will be out of the way, seen only occasionally on visits. Darcy's first marriage proposal to Elizabeth may seem unromantic but it was full of good sense. There is a problem in the marriage of people of such different wealth and disposition and so his willingness to create structures that will help resolve the differences between the two shows just how much he loves her even if he cannot put it that way and comes over, eventually, to her view that a marriage must brook no such impediments: it must be done for purely romantic reasons and so Darcy puts aside his misgivings about how well Elizabeth will do as mistress of Pemberley. For her part, Elizabeth has to put aside her amusement at Darcy's haughty manner and take him to be the recently converted non-snob he now claims to be, knowing full well that he cannot give up that part of his character, nor would she want him to.

Texture, on the other hand, refers to the various techniques of writing that are used in moving ahead the plot through whatever tone or combination of tones the author chooses to engage. Texture is created by the balance between dialogue and narration, in the nature and type of authorial voice used in the novel, in the extent of the description of such atmospherics as furniture or architecture or countryside, in whether scenes are long or short, and on whether the author indulges in subplots to pass the time or give some relief from the central action of the novel. Dickens was long on subplots and atmospherics while having a strong authorial voice inclined to sympathy for the unfortunate lives being portrayed, while Jane Austen was short on subplots and atmospherics while also having a strong authorial voice inclined to a rational appreciation of the circumstances that drove her characters to have the deep emotions that they only sometimes expressed.

So how is it that these two people, Elizabeth and Darcy, being of such different temperments, of two different styles, come together? They are brought together by Mr. Binkley and Jane Bennet, Darcy accompanying Binkley on his visits to the Bennet household, events that seem deeply unpleasant to all concerned, even to Mrs. Bennet who so much wants to move them in the right direction. Binkley and Jane, it is pointed out over and over again, are simple souls who do not see the complications of themselves falling into a love match, while Elizabeth and Darcy, at the beginning of their love affair, can see nothing but the obstacles that stand in their way. That is the way, by coincidence, that their love affair is able to prosper.

Consider the way Jane Austen uses both tone and texture to distance the reader from the scandal of Lydia's elopement, which is not just a shame on the family but a disaster for it because it means that none of the young women will be able to make a suitable marriage. The incident is rendered comic because Mr. Collins, when he comes to console them, candidly speaks of the very bad news in just the condescending and censorious tone that is likely to make the family regain a sense of amour propre. Only Mr. Collins would be so full of gloom and doom, however much what he says is true. No politeness here. Small mindedness may be rampant everywhere, but nowhere so clearly as in Mr. Collins. And the texture of the novel also distances the rendition from the emotions conveyed by the events themselves. The story of the elopement is revealed through letters concerning Lydia's disappearance, then her location, then her marriage, and then her impending visit, when, only then, does Lydia let the cat out of the bag by referring to something she was not supposed to, which was Mr. Darcy's presence at her wedding. So all becomes clear to the discerning Elizabeth, as it never becomes clear, fortunately, to the obtuse Lydia, that Darcy had arranged it all, and so introduced himself back into the story of the lives of the Bennet family, and contributed to changing Elizabeth's mind to him--clinched it, really, in that Elizabeth had already softened to him. That prepares the stage for he and his friend, Mr. Bingley, to reappear in the neighborhood, and propose their respective marriages, never mind that Lydia and Mr. Wickham have been moved off the stage so that their very unpropitious marriage can work itself out. What will happen when Wickham runs out of money this next time is not discussed by Jane Austen.

The way Jane Austen organizes her dialogues is so characteristic that it can be abstracted out to be a principle of organization and so part of the texture of the work as a whole. We have already observed the way she manages the conversations that take place at Netherfield between Elizabeth and Darcy, others present in the room. The dialogue is abbreviated, a quick set of piercing exchanges that leave the others in the room far behind and so bored but the conversations themselves crackling with bon mots and devastating insights. In the last one of these, Elizabeth says Mr. Darcy is mean and Mr. Darcy says that Elizabeth deliberately misunderstands people. Both are correct. There is nothing more to be said because each has reduced the other to some basic insight about the person: an emotion that is core to their characters.

Ending a conversation after hitting some bedrock after the preliminaries are out of the way is not the way most conversations in the real world proceed. Rather, people return over and over again to old themes and insights, to digressions, to newly invented rejoinders and side issues. But it is the way in which Jane Austen conversations operate because she is a rationalist who thinks that conversations actually do something. They clarify issues, get down to axiomatic disagreements, and then there is nothing left to say and so they are over. That is very much in keeping with Jane Austen's view of the novel itself, each of her own not simply giving the reader a window into a way of life with which the reader is unfamiliar and delicious to savor, but so as to solve a problem that Jane Austen has set up in the early pages of the novel. "Pride and Prejudice" opens with two eligible gentlemen of means coming into the neighborhood doubtlessly in search of brides, and by the end of it have been married off to girls who are either early or late all too glad to have them. Similarly, "Mansfield Park" is about how a poor relative taken in by a wealthy family makes her way with the family, changing it more than changing herself, and "Emma" is about a busybody who finally has to grow up and cope with her own feelings rather than the feelings of others. How will she manage that? "Persuasion" is also simple and straightforward in its story. How does a romance get rekindled, if it can, some years later, between people whose prior romance had not worked out? That is an intellectual problem for Jane Austen to contemplate, even as it is an emotional one as well, "Persuasion" having the most poignant of all her plots.

That this is Jane Austen's approach to dialogue and to plotting--start with a problem and end it with a solution or at least a recognition that there is no where else to go--is telegraphed many times, perhaps most successfully in Mr. Collins' proposal to Elizabeth, which is farcical and always included in the movie versions of the novel because the irony of the scene is so readily grasped: that Elizabeth wants nothing to do with the man and that he persists anyway totally oblivious to her feelings. In spite of her not even wanting to be alone with him so he could propose, he clears the room, thanks to Mrs. Bennet, and then gives the rational basis for his decision--his comfortable position and the fact that his patron, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, thinks he should marry--and when Elizabeth tries to let him down gently, he claims that is because girls are likely to turn down a proposal the first time out of modesty, and when she perseveres, saying that something as important as a proposal is not likely to be turned down a first time out of form lest the proposal not be repeated, Mr. Collins says right out loud why he thinks she should not turn him down: the family estate is entailed to him anyway and this is the only way for the family to get out of that difficulty, and that Elizabeth is not likely to attract another suitor. All of this is hardly gallant or likely to win over a girl. Elizabeth says her answer is final and flees the scene, but Mr. Collins will not accept that a conversation is terminated when it is over and so appeals to Mrs. Bennet to get Elizabeth to reconsider before he changes his mind, and so she appeals to Mr. Bennet to interceded, at which point, Mr. Bennet, fully aware of the disaster to his family that his judgment portends, says he will not speak to Elizabeth if she accepts the proposal, and Elizabeth, of course, is much more concerned with the judgment of her father than of her well-meaning but marriage obsessed mother.

The same principle applies to other instances of conversation in "Pride and Prejudice". There is a point to Lady Catherine de Bough's chatter, which is to intrude herself into everyone else's decisions about how they live their lives and even about things she knows nothing about, such as music, when she claims authority without being able to play herself, and people do not quarrel with her about that. She criticizes Elizabeth's family for having done without a governess and having introduced all the daughters into society, and is piqued at Elizabeth unwilling to declare her age, that to her an impertinence, however trivial a matter it is, so that Elizabeth complies by admitting to being twenty-one. So we know what conversations are about at Rosling: hearing what Lady Catherine has to say. Lady Catherine, however, is not Wilde's Lady Bracknell. She is neither wise nor witty; she is, instead, boring and boorish and no one should have to put up with her but they do simply because she is rich.

There is a different purpose in Elizabeth's conversation with Mr. Fitzsimmons, who provides crucial information to Elizabeth when she makes casual reference to the fact that Darcy seems to look after Bingley, perhaps trying to probe into a relationship where one seems so clearly the intellectual superior of the other. What Fitzsimmons reveals is that Darcy had helped Binkley by discouraging him from an inappropriate and unnamed relationship, which Elizabeth quickly enough recognizes to have been the one with her sister. So the exchange of gossip, as that takes place when any of us discuss friends who are not present, results sometimes in useful information, and that is the purport if not the intention of such conversation. Talk has purpose.

The reader has been so well schooled in Jane Austen's view of dialogue, which is that it is over when it is over, and that extending it is ridiculous and shameful, that we are prepared to see Elizabeth's rejection of Darcy's first proposal just as she perhaps did not mean it to be: categorical and final, the end of the matter. That is the person she is, not a dissembler in the manner of Mr. Collins. Darcy understands that and, given that he is not very articulate in person, sends Elizabeth a letter where he candidly admits to having intruded between Bingley and Jane, but defends his behavior towards Wickham. In a letter, Darcy can deliver an extended argument that makes clear that he is both candid, showing his real motives, owning up to those that the one who receives the letter will disapprove of, as well as feeling honorbound to explain what others might misunderstand. He does in writing what Elizabeth does in speech: make points.This theory of conversation is also why it is very brave of Darcy to raise the question of marriage one more time, much later, after the Lydia-Wickham marriage, and after Lady Catherine has already informed Elizabeth of Darcy's continuing interest in her. This time, true to form, she does not hesitate, but quickly gives her consent, which means that it is an actual and rational and fully emotional assent, true to both her own and Jane Austen's sense of dialogue.

The movie versions of "Pride and Prejudice" are not true to either the novel's tone or its texture. Elizabeth as played by Greer Garson is too regal and self-possessed to be Elizabeth, while Laurence Olivier has just the right tone of arrogance and even a bit of meanness, though he is made out to be more articulate than he is in the novel. That film becomes a romantic comedy where spats rather than issues are at stake, demonstrating only that these are independant and therefore well matched people, sort of like in Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movies. The very well received, and deservedly so, multipart BBC production of "Pride and Prejudice" stars a much too beautiful Jennifer Ehle who is matched in her sweetness by a heartthrob Colin Firth, and so there is established a tone of not at all bittersweet romance, the emotions syrupy rather than rough. Keira Knightley, in the 2005 version directed by Joe Wright, is also regal and so self-possessed that no one could fault her virtues, thus betraying the real conflict that is going on in Darcy's soul, and which Jane Austen, who is no great fan of her heroines, is out to portray, while her soulmate, the most recent Darcy, is more moody than arrogant, a Heathcliffe without the moors, and so providing a drama that is deeply Romantic, full of feeling and poignant and pregnant expressions.

I much prefer the authorial voice of Jane Austen herself, which is clearly present in her narrative, ordering her story so that it is clear what happens first and what goes next and how complications ensue and are resolved, ever mindful, that voice, of how people respond to their good sense and not just their emotions, and come to decisions that are reasonable under the circumstances. Jane Austen is an Enlightenment, not a Romantic, writer, however much her sense of the thickness of custom and culture, in that it is real rather than imaginary obstacles that get in the way of our lives turning out as we would like, and that people are amazing in their ability to thwart what in other times would have been thought of as their fates, which, in the case of this novel, is that all of the Bennet girls would have been condemned to very unsatisfactory even if necessary marriages.

The third movie version takes an interest in the atmospherics of nature that is true to a Romantic consciousness but not to Jane Austen, who did not show much interest in descriptions of nature. Elizabeth stands on a bluff and Darcy arrives through a mist. In that movie, Elizabeth also lives in a house where pigs wander through, and so much too ramshackle for this respectable if not wealthy family. That a house befits your station is important to Jane Austen. Darcy's Pemberley is grand, while the Bennet house is not, although comfy enough, as in the Greer Garson version, and Mr. Collins' house is even more bare than that, with only a mere suggestion of a garden.

The movie versions are a backdoor way of making another distinction between tone and texture. Tone and texture are two characteristics of literature that are particularly relied on as resources for the novel, while structure and language are more important in lyric poetry and drama. The tone of a novel is front stage. It is what preoccupies the reader. How will the story turn out? What are the motives of the characters? The texture of a novel, on the other hand, is what is upstage, the scenery, as it were, of the novel, and so absorbed indirectly by the reader. The texture of a novel has to do with the social world it creates, the kinds of situations and social circumstances which people encounter. The costumes, manners, occupations, beliefs, institutions, of the society provide the texture of a novel, and the reader, like the audience to the movies that are the lineal descendants of the novel, is awash in that world which is an alternative to the present one for its vividness and its strangeness, but not so off as to be unrecognizable as the world of understandable situations that the reader does inhabit. In that sense, all novels are historical novels, in that they create a world just slightly different (and a bit before) the actual present, and embellish the setting so that it seems exotic and so sets off feelings which are perhaps more familiar to the time or setting of the reader than of the place and time described. That is one reason why the novel is told in the past tense: because it is a chronicle of what is past, although it contains information and characters new to the reader who has not heard this novel before. The reader wants to know what will happen to Elizabeth and Darcy but is also caught up, inevitably, in the manners and manors of Regency England: how people speak and how they live.

1/9 Jane Austen: Dialogue in "Pride and Prejudice"

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery, London

Jane Austen, after Cassandra Austen, published 1870, National Portrait Gallery, London

“This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.”

George Saintsbury, a most neglected early Twentieth Century literary critic, ranked Jane Austen, along with Charles Dickens, as the most distinguished of the English novelists. I would go much further than that and assign to her the title of greatest novelist I have ever read. That is because, when it comes to technique, she can organize a gigantic set of characters into a plot that moves at the pace of a play, and write dialogue that both crackles with wit and complexity, revealing levels of character it takes a lifetime of study to fully appreciate, and she also evokes a social ambiance that is fully aware of the historical and economic forces at work, all this while seeming only to offer up an amusing diversion about the restricted lives of the country gentry in Regency England. Moreover, while her novels may all involve courtship as the defining feature of their plots, each novel is different, exploring different aspects of the nature of life, such as the nature of the past in “Persuasion” and, in “Pride and Prejudice”, the very difficult to access aspects of class differences that lie beneath the obvious ones, such as wealth and manners, which are so easy to ridicule-- something which Austen is by no means reluctant to do. Fun is to be had, but there are more serious issues afoot which are ubiquitous and yet amorphous. Jane Austen’s themes are universal and as deep as it gets. I sometimes wish that Jane Austen were used to train Senators and diplomats and psychoanalysts in how to do their jobs. Rereading Jane Austen shows her to be even better than we remember her to have been.

This is the first of a set of nine essays that will appear weekly to show some of Jane Austen’s complexity, her charm, her never failing realistic evaluation of the human condition, however much she may seem to be showing only the most obvious of conflicts and resolutions, although that too was a part of her irony: to show what might seem obvious to be very complicated indeed. I do so by engaging in close textual analysis of the text, which is a technique not usually applied to the novel because it is such an ungainly form, and going into detail about only two of her novels: “Pride and Prejudice” and “Mansfield Park”. That analysis is set in the context of sociological observations that will show what she has to say still bears learning. The reader of the series should come away resolute in a desire to plunge even more deeply into Jane Austen, even beyond what had been thought a sufficient understanding of her novels.

A first cut at establishing the greatness of Jane Austen as a novelist can be done by comparing her to another great Nineteenth Century novelist, Leo Tolstoy, who also describes courtships that take place at balls and large social gatherings where people who are largely strangers to one another converse, flirt, and dance with one another. Leo Tolstoy is a describer. A central moment in “Anna Karenina” occurs when Anna dances with Vronsky at the ball. They have flirted with one another, but that is all. Something happens during that dance that moves them into being potential lovers. Tolstoy decided not to let the reader hear what it is that they said to one another, like a movie director who shows an argument or some other impassioned conversation taking place behind a window or a glass door, the lips moving, but not letting the audience know exactly what is being said, only indicating its purport. So is conveyed the information of a death or other bad news or the particularly good news of the declaration of peace after a war.

Why did Tolstoy do what he did? It is not that he does not have the talent to do conversation. He does many conversations between Pierre and Andre, between Levin and Kitty. But he hides the most important conversations because they are not the active forces in moving along the narrative. The actions that would be enunciated in words are already established, predetermined, by the characters and the circumstances of the people involved. We know why Anna would fall in love with Vronsky, and we know why he would fall in love with her to the extent he could. Words do not make things happen; they only can be used, therefore, to describe feelings and thoughts that are there for otherwise established reasons. Tolstoy is less concerned to explain what happened between Anna and Vronsky then to investigate its causes and consequences, even to her humiliations and eventual suicide. Indeed, one of the few times words count in “Anna Karenina” is when Anna’s husband speaks overtly to her about what is going on and gives a cynical account of how he will hide her secret for the sake of propriety. He reveals to the reader what had not been known to the reader before: how callous a man he is, one who took out the insult to his self respect by a refusal to acknowledge even his own feelings, not even willing to tell Anna how hurt he had been in his own soul by her action. It makes the reader think about what their personal life had been and whether that had not provided reason enough for Anna to look elsewhere for male companionship.

But that pulling back of the curtain on the intimate life of a Russian Victorian couple is used only to suggest what had already happened, not what was made to happen in the words, however much words had sealed the doom of the relationship. The words made neither of them free. This strategy of Tolstoy’s, to shroud pivotal conversations, is used in “War and Peace” and in “Resurrection”, and even in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, where there no conversation about death but only an internal monologue. That fact suggests Tolstoy’s sense of how alone people are at the time of their deaths, as well in the lives they lived before that.

Jane Austen, for her part, is a writer of dialogue, perhaps because she was so influenced by Shakespeare and Milton, neither of whom had much time for description but a lot of time to have their characters wax on at great length about one thing or another, some of those words, amazingly many of them, crucial for the movement of the narrative. Consider some scenes from “Pride and Prejudice” that serve the same function as the dance scene in “Anna Karenina”.

Elizabeth later admits to her sister and father that it was not love at first sight between herself and Darcy. Indeed, most of her early encounters with Darcy had been contentious. But over the long run, she had so grown on him that she says to her sister, when she does not think he will ever call on her again, that she very much regrets that he may be out there in the world thinking poorly of her. That is as fine a declaration of love as there is.

The long courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy over the course of years, takes place at occasional meetings that are remarkable for the slow pace of the developing candor between them. In fact, at first they barely speak to one another. Elizabeth overhears Darcy making a disparaging comment about her looks. At subsequent occasions, he finds himself trailing her and thinking more kindly of her looks, Jane Austen catching on to the fact that men who begin to think about a woman seriously gradually find her to be more attractive than they originally thought, their sense of a woman’s character informing their perception. Elizabeth notices that he has been overhearing her conversations and calls him on it, and he does not respond, but Darcy’s sister notices what is happening, and jumps ahead to tell Darcy that he should expect Mrs. Bennet to be a mother-in-law who is constantly visiting.

The first extended contact between the two takes place when Elizabeth walks three miles through the mud to visit her ailing sister at Mr. Bingley’s estate, and the women of the family comment on how much worse for wear Elizabeth looks, Darcy keeping to himself his admiration for Elizabeth’s devotion to Jane. That evening, in response to Mr. Hurst’s platitude about how accomplished women are, Jane downplays her own education and remarks that it is not much of an accomplishment to do the things that women do (or as we might say today, are allowed to do), such as stitching screens, and when Elizabeth leaves the room, the woman think it rude for Elizabeth to have disparaged her own sex, Darcy again left to cultivate his own thought that what Elizabeth said constituted an insight, allowing himself only to say that women who do something that is cunning, which is to say, requires some mind, are thought despicable, a remark that leaves others troubled for reasons they cannot say, perhaps because it is too foreign a thought for them to consider. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are caught up in a world of philistines, men and women who are devoted only to card playing and eating and gossip when they are in one another’s company.

Next day, Mrs. Bennet, another uninvited guest, shows up to see how Jane is doing and manages to be provincial enough to defend country living over town living, which even Elizabeth thinks is going too far, but that does not keep Elizabeth from offering another original thought, which is that love poetry puts an end to love because it substitutes for it and serves as a way to end a relationship. Darcy finds this piquant observation amusing rather than just contrarian.

And so the days pass while Jane convalesces. As if to outdo herself, or merely because she cannot resist the urge, Elizabeth does indeed turn rude in dealing with her host, Mr. Bingley, when he remarks that he dashes off his own correspondence while Darcy labors over his. Elizabeth says that he claims a false modesty because, in fact, he is proud to do things quickly, even if thoughtlessly, and so to say he would leave this estate if he took a mind to, it would mean he would neglect whatever business had been left undone, and so leave his life to chance. Darcy enters the conversation to say that a friend who asked someone to leave their estate to immediately attend upon him had offered no reason and so such a request should not be honored, to which Elizabeth replies, raising the moral stakes, that a friend need have no reason to make such a request, friendship sufficient reason to honor the request. Bingley is getting hot under the collar and Elizabeth plunges the dagger in all the way when she says that being simple does not mean being of bad character, something Bingley cannot take as a compliment. Bingley will have no more of arguments, and one wonders whether Darcy has no other friends that he spends so much time consorting with a person who is so much his intellectual inferior.

It is out of such conversations that a courtship is constructed: talk that is abbreviated, elusive, about apparently more general matters such as what is the meaning of friendship, and usually in the presence of others so that Darcy and Elizabeth do not have to confront or contend with one another, especially since their obviously growing interest in one another meets with the disapproval of all those around them. That has not changed by the time Darcy makes his first proposal to Elizabeth. He blunders about it, as if there could not have been a way to refer to their difference in positions in a less insulting way, though he is so conflicted about it, so much a prisoner of convention, that it would have been difficult for him to form a better way of saying it even if he had been much more clever than he is or nearly as clever as Elizabeth, who is able to meet not just him but Lady Catherine on equal rhetorical terms.

Early on in the novel, Jane gives forth with a sententious statement, something unusual for her, as the narrator notes, but which is key to understanding the novel. Jane says that pride is a belief in one’s own powers, while vanity is a concern with what other people think of you. Darcy is guilty of both. He is so prideful that he remains mute before most of the people with whom he associates, while he is overly concerned with the prejudices of his relatives about Elizabeth as ungainly, unmannered and overly intellectual and what they will think of her should she become his bride and so someone who has risen far above her station. So he is the one who has to overcome pride and prejudice while Elizabeth is not particularly prideful, but rather dismissive of her own accomplishments, and is not vain in that she is unmindful, to a fault, of how she might come off to other people. It is up to Darcy to see the diamond in the rough and attend to it accordingly, invoking and transforming his own feelings and beliefs. That is the gravamen of the novel: it is up to the man to be up to the task, even for an Elizabeth worthy of his love.

This point is more than adequately made by the last of the conversations at Bingley’s estate, which again takes place with others in the room. Miss Bingley asks Elizabeth to stroll around the room with her and Darcy declines to draw them insisting that there are only two reasons the two woman would do that, and he is prompted by Miss Bingley to name them: either to share a confidence or else to show off their figures. Noone is shocked, however candid Darcy may be, and Elizabeth enjoins Jane’s distinction between vanity and pride to get Darcy to say that pride will get a man to control his vanity, which leads to something of a direct confrontation, Elizabeth saying that makes Darcy perfect, if he says so himself, which brings Darcy out enough to defend himself by saying that he does not trust his own temper and that a bad opinion once formed is not likely given up. Elizabeth does not give up in spite of the fact that such self-deprecation on Darcy’s part might be thought a way to make peace. She finishes him off by saying that his propensity is to hate everyone, and the best he can reply to that is that her defect is to misunderstand him, which is true enough. Darcy emerges from the encounter warning himself that he will never get the better of her and so pursuing her is a dangerous thing to do. Elizabeth and Jane return home in the next chapter. The couple, not yet a couple, know well enough what they are each about, though they have not yet learned to see what they take to be vices are also virtues.

The pace of a Jane Austen novel picks up as it reaches its end. What had been told at a leisurely pace, as we shall see again when considering “Mansfield Park”, turns feverish or even operatic. What that means in the case of “Pride and Prejudice” is that the quality of the many important conversations that take place towards the end of the book change from being stilted or out of control to being eloquent, each character coming to say exactly what they want to say, nothing more and nothing less. This happens when Lady Catherine confronts Elizabeth and tries to get her to promise never to marry Darcy, which, as Elizabeth notes in her response, must be a prospect more real than she would have thought it to be for otherwise Lady Catherine would not be here to get a denial and a promise. Elizabeth does not go further than she wants to, as she often has before, especially as she had in denying Darcy’s first proposal, because all she says is that she is not engaged to Darcy but will not promise what will happen in the future. So Elizabeth is forewarned of what will happen when Darcy does show up again, he clearly having discussed what a marriage to Elizabeth would mean for his family, his sister already thinking well of her, whatever Lady Catherine might think. So she can accept his apology for her having treated him so badly after he first proposed, even if he had very clumsily though not untruthfully put the question of the differences between their stations in life. She had over-reacted then, but not this time, accepting him for the snobbish and proud man that he is because he is also a person of depth and integrity who seeks to right wrongs, very much a knight who had embarked on a quest to save the honor of Lydia through the means appropriate in Regency England: no duels, just payoffs.

And then Elizabeth handles her father in just the way he has to be handled to give his consent to the marriage, as if he could do otherwise even if he does not want to lose the apple of his eye. Elizabeth treats his permission as something that is freely given, not just to secure a fortune that would get his family out of hock, by declaring, truthfully, what her feelings are, which is that she truly loves Darcy. A father would not be fooled by a false declaration. As Jane Austen well knew, that scene brings a tear to every reader’s eye, and is a meaty scene for whomever plays Mr. Bennet, whether it is Edward Gwenn, Benjamin Whitrow, or Donald Sutherland. Mr. Bennet is shown to have deep feelings rather than just the avoidance of feeling that might come from having been cooped up in his library to avoid the nagging wife he must have found charming twenty years before. And so the next generation embarks on its life journey, as that is always measured by the circumstances of courtship and marriage, which may seem to be and are rendered comic, but is for most people the dramatic highpoints of their life, when they themselves become heros and heroines rather than character actors who fill up the background.

I have been told that Jane Austen’s portrayal of the courting dynamics of two hundred years ago do not hold up for the present generation which is given up to a “hookup” culture where a series of one night or abbreviated sexual relationships do not provide the basis for a long term relationship because the premise of long term relationships is that there is a process of delayed gratification whereby people try to come to understand one another before they become committed to one another and so afterwards become sexual familiars. But people can engage in sex while still holding in abeyance whether they want to have a long term relationship. People can start a new relationship, as Madonna puts it, “for the very first time”. Romance is possible even after previous sexual experience. Courtship is the process of making up one’s mind about having a stable rather than a temporary relationship. The point about stable relationships is that they are stable. People know who they are sleeping with every night, what their habits are like, what they smell like. There is less tension than there is in unstable relationships. People fall into an emotional division of labor as well as a financial one that suits their personalities and capacities. Couples become codependent. The desire to do that does not seem to have changed even if circumstances present different difficulties in Jane Austen’s time, when there were not enough eligible men in the neighborhood, and so one would have expected any girl to take up the first offer, which Elizabeth does not do, though it is suggested to her that she ought to, and the circumstances in our own time, where there is a plethora of men to pick for one night stands and therefore girls have to use other criteria to decide whether one of these or a man drawn from another pool is a subject for courtship.

The insight Jane Austen has is that courtships are conducted through conversations in which people either explain who they are or give off who they are through their words. Not everyone is equally articulate. Elizabeth pays an unwarranted compliment to Jane when she says her sister always reports what she thinks, which is perhaps because Jane is so pure so as not to be able to lie, but may also be because Jane does not have the mental equipment to dissemble. Her courtship with Mr. Bingley is an easy one because they are so well suited to one another’s personality that they cannot but be candid, while the courtship between Elizabeth and Darcy is fraught with difficulty because both of them have their reasons not to be candid: he to protect his wealth and the feelings of his family a well as his own privacy, she to overcome the embarrassment of her family. But most of us communicate well enough to engage in courtship, to plight our trow, according to the customs of the time, and that is the drama of courtship that remains fascinating whether in romantic comedies or in farces or in romances or in the serio-comedies and tragedies of Jane Austen.

Kate Atkinson's "Transcription"

Kate Atkinson’s recently published novel “Transcription” is a very good minor novel. A major novel, for its part, is when an author invites his readers to enter a social world slightly skewed (or more so) from the world with which they are familiar and thereby to observe the lives of people who are slightly skewed (or more so) from people with whom they are familiar in the “real” world. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and James Joyce are major novelists. Minor novels, on the other hand, are plays on generic types of novels where the author adds a touch of style or insight that distinguishes the novel from others of its type. Kate Atkinson has adapted the spy novel for these purposes. She is less interested in character than is John Le Carre and less interested in the turns history can take than is Alan Faust, and doesn’t pretend to the deep and dark seriousness of Joseph Conrad. She most reminds me of a novelist of a previous generation, Muriel Spark, who also had a light, fey touch in dealing with metaphysical metaphors, although Spark’s frame was never, as I remember, a spy story.

Read More

The End of "Hamlet"

In Shakespeare’s major tragedies, there are two kinds of movements. The stages of a plot are symmetrical in that an initial situation, such as Hamlet coming home to the wedding of his mother so soon after the death of his father, is complicated by developments that reach some kind of climax in Act III, and then what follows is the unraveling of those events, which usually means that a person who has risen high, such as a Hamlet welcomed home with much pomp, is brought low, thought a madman, before he is done in because he is now disposable, in a duel arranged for that purpose. The same thing happens to Macbeth, who is amazed at his good fortune until he comes to bear the weight of his deeds and so sees a ghost and so drives forward to what he must know is his inevitable fate. Anthony arrives in Egypt as king of the world and ends as the tool of the queen.

Read More

Time in Literature

Fiction is only sometimes an attempt to present a straightforward presentation of a story from beginning to end, which is what we would be led to believe by Aristotle’s dictum that stories have beginnings, middles and ends. To the contrary, writers tell their stories by wandering around between what is presumably past, current and future, each with their own way of doing this, and that in part is what makes their storytelling into an art, something controlled by the artist, So a story may have a beginning, middle and an end, but the telling of it is in the hands of the storyteller. Let us consider some of the ways authors do this.

Read More

Literary Concision

Writers are often praised for being concise. Their sentences lack flab and are full of information and comparisons. Their plots get started right away without buildup or much preparation and various plot elements overlap so that the story or play or novel is at once an allegory, an insight into character and motivation, and also casts light on the society being observed. That is certainly the case with the sprawling novels of the English Nineteenth Century, where you learn from Dickens that Peter Dombey is at once imperious and weak, too readily the tool of his assistant and that tells you how an English law firm of the time works as well as how that will get in the way of the hero and heroine of the novel.

Concision, however, is not just a virtue demonstrated by a good writer. Rather, concision is implicit in all story telling which is, after all, the telling of events in a sequence which may not at all be the sequence in which the events described are purported to happen and where material not regarded as necessary to the telling of the tale is left out. You don’t depict every time a businessman has coffee or takes a bathroom break but deal with relating what you are trying to describe about business. An author also has to deal with the inevitable longueurs that occur in real life, nothing much happening until the next event important to telling the story. So days may go on before a break in a murder mystery a screenwriter is unfolding and that will be dealt with in a quick cut. News organizations face similar problems in telling their own stories. There may be an announcement by the Justice Department about the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in American elections, and then the news media will spend a few days or a week milking whatever is announced or turning to something else, like a cave disaster, to fill their airtime before returning to the main story when something new is anticipated or is revealed. News programming is a constant fight to make news into a story. In fact, the reader relies so heavily on the author to do his job properly that when there is a description or an interlude that is included that seems merely comical, as when Bloom goes to an outhouse in “Ulysses”, the reader has to ask himself what that incident signifies, for why else would it be included? The sophisticated reader is well trained in what he or she has to bring to the reading of a story. But there are very different ways in which authors handle concision and that is what I want to discuss.

Read More

Second Half of Twentieth Century American Fiction

It is sad to sum up a lifetime of reading contemporary American fiction, as if that came anywhere near to summing up a life or the meaning that was found in it, but here goes.

Philip Roth, who died just the other day, made a big splash when his first book, the collection of short stories, "Goodbye Columbus", appeared when I was an undergraduate. All the young literary people I knew were much taken with him and not just because he was so clearly a Jewish writer. We also had Malamud and Bellow and the still then insufficiently appreciated I. B. Singer, who was the best of the lot. But we stayed with Roth because he delivered the goods-- at least his goods: his preoccupation with the lives of Jews, sex, the nature of irony, all of which seemed very repetitious until now, just this past year, when the tumescence of males has to be defended rather than, as in Roth’s day, merely recognized to be thought shocking. The themes of his late novels as in "The Human Stain" and "Everyman", become so much more universal. Often overlooked as a piece of serious literature is Roth’s “The Plot to Undermine America”, which is treated by critics as a polemic alternative history of the sort Sinclair Lewis fashioned in “It Could happen Here”, but is in fact a work which shows how welcoming America is to its Jewish residents, the Irish Newark Police Chief comforting Roth’s mother during the worst of an anti-Jewish riot by telling her that he would protect her by giving her special police protection. It is she who turns away at the door during that riot her own sister who had sided with Lindbergh as President and whose husband had set up CCC like camps for Jewish youth so as to assimilate them into American society. But Roth’s mother sees all this as malign intent against the Jews, while Roth the author sees it as non-threatening, and the demented Philip, the narrator, reflects his mother’s view, his breakdown not healed until 1963 when the alternative history becomes united with actual history on the date of JFK’s assassination. As if who is in the right is not made clear by Roth’s mother turning away her own sister at the time of the rioting. So much for blood being thicker than ideology. Would a German Jew have turned away on Kristallnacht a sister who had gone all secular? So the book is an exploration of how fantasies can turn malignant, and yet that still does not leave it as a major achievement, which is to invest the reader in a fantasy, malignant or not, from which it is not easy to awake, as is the case in Kafka and Mann and Faulkner.

Read More

What A Classicist Discovers

Classicists are awesome. Those that I know personally and those whom I have read are the smartest and most widely read people I know. They have mastered languages and history and literary criticism and whatever other fields of scholarship and social science that come to interest them. Well known classicists apply these skills far beyond the subject matter of the ancient world. Norman O. Brown became expert in psychoanalytic theory and Gary Wills has written very freshly about both the Gettysburg Address and The Declaration of Independence. Classics remains the hardest of the liberal arts, harder even then philosophy, in that classicists know ancient philosophy, and harder than history and English and the Romance languages, classicists also having to know the related disciplines of politics and art history, and classics is certainly harder than the social sciences, my own field of sociology coming out at or near the bottom of the pecking order. And so I picked up Mary Beard’s book “Confronting the Classics” with high expectations. She is a renowned classicist of this generation and I had very much admired another of her books, “SPQR”, which is a history of Rome, for its clear style and judicious appraisal of its materials and I thought that this book, which is a collection of essay-reviews, would give me an idea of how a classicist fits into her field and of the give and take of scholarly controversy in the field. The book does have her sprighty style and makes use of her vast knowledge of literature up to the present time, but it was disappointing because, to put it bluntly, the issues that she sees as concerning classical scholarship yield very little in the way of results and are resolved mainly by rhetorical flourish. Is the day to day work of classicists really such small beer?

Read More