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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Darcy and Wickham

The following is a response to posts by fellow Janeites Sylwia and Simon which I just posted to the Janeites yahoogroup (which I heartily recommend as the best online forum for discussion of all things Jane Austen, but where I must be careful not to wear out my welcome with undue discussion of shadow stories!) to a couple of excellent comments regarding the shadow story of P&P. I welcome any additional comments here.

"Thank you for your explanation, Arnie. I'm not sure I can read the book the way you do. I don't see two stories there, only many accounts. Although it's true that many readers read the book superficially, I think that there are many others who see it in a deeper way. Nonetheless, what I see is still in line with the main story rather than not."

Fair enough, Sylwia. Then I say, do it your way and enjoy it. Your augmented version of the overt story is an interesting and complex one, even if it is one that I don't believe was intended by JA.

"Could you tell me where you disagree? If there are any holes in it I'd be happy to stand corrected."

No, I really can't, because that would reveal all the other shadow story elements I have discerned over the past 4 years. It's not a question of holes or errors, you have done a very thorough job within the scope of what you've discerned. Rather, what I can say, borrowing from AJ Harvey's 1968 metaphor of the shadow story as an invisible planet exerting a kind of "gravity", is that when you are aware of the other shadow story elements besides the secret relationship between Darcy and Wickham, that relationship is "reshaped" in very complicated ways by the gravity exerted by the other pieces of the shadow story.You've seen one planet, but there are actually nine planets in the solar system. ;)
"The problem with Darcy is that the range of interpretations of him as a character is very wide. Some people think that he's shy, some that he has Asperger's, some that he's a libertine, some that he's Superman (as a friend of mine often jokes), and some that he's Jesus Christ (as I like to joke about the Darcy who sacrifices himself for just about anybody who's around and in need)."

And I am suggesting that about half of that huge interpretive variance is accounted for by the inadvertent conflation of the overt and the shadow story. Even after one does the separation of the overt from the shadow story, there is still plenty of interpretive variance in each version of the story, but it is over a smaller range of possibilities.

"From what I've seen all over the internet, in fanfiction and in movies i.e. Lost in Austen or Bridget Jones, Darcy often personifies anything from Prince Charming for adults to Heathcliff. There is now a P&P retelling published where Darcy has sex with various women all the way to Pemberley, and I've seen people argue that it's in line with Austen's Darcy too."

There's a reason for all those reader reactions to P&P. At least some of those responses to P&P are genuinely midrashic, in that they do constitute a kind of implicit response to actual shadow story elements intentionally created by JA, and are not merely, as a shadow-story denier such as Victoria would suggest they are, entirely and solely the products of those later writers's imaginations. All of the Bronte sisters did definitely read JA's novels, and you can see this much more clearly in their novels when you let in the shadow story of JA's novels.

"It's just very easy to read the book in a way that ignores the text and impresses one's fantasy."

Yes, but the subtle trick is to tether one's fantasy to the text of P&P, in order to see the shadows that JA intentionally created, and to discard the ones that do come solely from one's own fantasy. The rigorous act of tethering, and insisting on textual "bread crumbs" as validations of fantasy, and on knitting together different strands of shadow story elements into a coherent alternative story, is the corrective for unbridled fantasy.

"In short I don't think there's one Darcy out there, and even people who read only the story that "everybody knows" are in disagreement about him."

Yes, but as I suggested above, much less disagreement if you separate the overt from the shadow story.

"What I've been trying to do is to find out what the text says about him (and about others too), in as fair a way as possible, even if I didn't like what I found."

Me, too! It's just that I am taking into account a lot more shadow material than you are. I could tell that you were otherwise reading against the grain of the normative reading of Darcy, in a way similar to my own approach. You were REinterpreting the text of the novel in light of Darcy and Wickham's secret relationship, and you did a pretty good job of it. But you were not working from all available information.

"So I wasn't assuming that the good characters say truth and only truth and that the bad ones lie, but rather compared the evidence. Perhaps I cannot read two stories there because I cannot pretend that some things never happened when they're clearly supported by the text, which means that if it's a shadow story then I don't see there any overt one with a better Darcy in it."

Where you and I part ways is that while I agree with you that what you see about Darcy and Wickham is "clearly supported by the text" (you must know that not only you and I, but also several others have also seen it), but that I believe, but you do not, that there are indeed a number of OTHER such strands of shadow story which are ALSO "clearly supported by the text", involving all the other major characters except Lizzy (in whose head we have been all along, and so she is the only major character who is the same in the shadow story as in the overt story).

It is fundamental to JA's artistry that we be in the head of the heroine and the heroine alone (except in rare instances) during the entire novel. It gives JA enormous freedom with all the other characters.

I invented the term "Trojan Horse Moment" to describe the technique that JA used---the shadow story is like a Trojan Horse, that JA has planted inside the heads of all her readers. There are a lot of little "soldiers" inside the "Horse", and one of the soldiers in P&P is the Darcy-Wickham secret relationship. That soldier became visible to you one day. What you don't realize is that there are a lot of other little soldiers in there whom you haven't seen yet!

Now, imagine the joy and challenge of making those other soldiers visible over a period of years--that describes what I've been doing since late 2004! It's as much art as it is science, and it is the meanest high of all! Like doing a hard NY Times crossword puzzle that takes many years to solve. And what's even better, each of the novels is its own puzzle, but these puzzles are also related to each other, so that solutions in one help you see solutions in the others!

And now to reply to Simon as well.....

"Lurker replying here... I'm intrigued, Arnie, by your latest posts on the shadow story. I've been reading messages for years, and so am very, very familiar with your theories (at least in outline; in specifics they somewhat elude me)."

Because I've never been that specific, and intentionally so!

"I was just wondering - does anything where we're not-quite-told something, where something happens off the page, immediately transfer to the shadow story? Is it ever possible that a subtly hidden character trait, or action, is intended for the primary story - or can that only be read as what happens 'in front of the reader', as it were?"

To shadow or to overt, that IS indeed THE question for an interpreter of JA's novels! I cannot give you a mathematically precise answer--perhaps there is a skeleton key that has even after all these years eluded me, which enables a reader to reliably assign some of those shadows to the overt story rather than to the shadow story. But for whatever my intuition is worth after all these years of reading JA's subtle hints and clues, my sense is that there is a certain cleanness and elegance in the separation of overt from shadow story, which fits with my conception of JA as a classicist, a kind of Mozart of Words. Once you let in all the shadows, the blending seems hopelessly complicated, contradictory, messy, fuzzy, and Romantic (in the musical sense of that term). There is a crystalline quality that emerges when you do the separation, which is so beautiful, that it must have been what she intended.

And one more point, that relates back to Sylwia's perception of the Darcy-Wickham secret relationship. If you see that secret relationship, and let in its full implications, it changes EVERYTHING in the novel, because it changes Darcy so fundamentally, and he is so central to the action of the novel. So it is a kind of fulcrum, a crossroads. Take one road, and you have the overt story, take the other, and you have the shadow story.

Thanks to you both for your excellent questions, and the opportunity to explain myself more fully.

Cheers, ARNIE


Anonymous said...

Useful phrase

Arnie Perlstein said...

Anonymous (please use your name in any future comments), do you mean "Trojan Horse Moment"? If so, thanks, I agree, I have used it a hundred times!