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

Thursday, July 15, 2010

On the DELIBERATE use of puns

I have just spent a while sussing out how, in a most interesting way, recent threads on the use of puns and Mr. Woodhouse as fool or savant, seemingly unrelated, have converged most pleasingly on the word “deliberately”, as used by Mr. Woodhouse in his statement to Emma about Mrs. Elton:

"Well, my dear," he deliberately began, "considering we never saw her before, she seems a very pretty sort of young lady; and I dare say she was very much pleased with you.

I ended my last message claiming that Mr. Woodhouse in this statement plays the fool very deliberately, and it was at that moment that I myself “got” JA’s pun on the word “deliberately”. How wonderful to think that this single word conveys two utterly different messages about the way Mr. Woodhouse operates in the world—he is extremely deliberate, i.e., slow and painstaking, and he is also (I claim) extremely deliberate, i.e., he pretends to be an absurd fool, and exactly like Shakespeare’s fools, his “foolish” statements can be read as wise comments on what he sees around him.

As is my custom when I “get” another one of JA’s puns, I did a global search in the novels on the word “deliberately” and its variants, and found several interesting usages which shed further light on this point.

First, although it should go without saying, we know for certain that JA was well aware of the meaning of “deliberately” as “intentional”. I found two unambiguous instances of same:

In Chapter 46 of P&P:

“For such an attachment as this, she might have sufficient charms; and though she did not suppose Lydia to be DELIBERATELY engaging in an elopement, without the intention of marriage, she had no difficulty in believing that neither her virtue nor her understanding would preserve her from falling an easy prey.”

There was nothing slow or painstaking about Lydia’s elopement with Wickham!

And in Lady Susan:

“I do not suppose that you would DELIBERATELY form an absolute engagement of that nature without acquainting your Mother and myself, “

I note in passing Lady Susan’s malicious insinuation that her prim and proper daughter, Frederica, might elope the way Lydia Bennet does.

But I also found several interesting usages of “deliberately” which do seem to me to point toward a thematically meaningful pun:

First in Emma, in Chapter 25, we have, curiously, another usage which involves Mr. Woodhouse:

“But the idea of any thing to be done in a _moment_, was increasing, not lessening Mr. Woodhouse's agitation. Mr Weston must be quiet, and every thing DELIBERATELY arranged.”

Mr. Woodhouse has been bemoaning the invitation of Emma to their evening party, and that leads him to remind Mr. Weston of his grievous error in marrying poor Miss Taylor. Mr. Weston, impulsivity personified (and I will, in passing, add him to the trinity of faux fools I mentioned before), attempts to appease Mr. Woodhouse, and that’s when we read the above, which represents the female solution to this difficulty---everything must be deliberately arranged, i.e., both slowly AND also with calculated, intentional planning—both meanings of “deliberately” fit perfectly here.

Second, there is a subtle example in Chapter 43 of Mansfield Park, as Fanny reads Mary Crawford’s letter:

“This was a letter to be run through eagerly, to be read DELIBERATELY, to supply matter for much reflection, and to leave everything in greater suspense than ever.”

The pun applies here, because it is a letter to be read slowly and carefully, but also to be read, i.e., interpreted, as containing multiple intentional innuendoes and hints of all sorts of intrigue. Mary Crawford is, after all, the one who requested not to be suspected of a pun, immediately after throwing out out into the universe one of our most infamous literary puns!

Third, in Ch. 14 of P&P, we have Mr. Collins (another fool who perhaps is not so entirely foolish), deciding on a book in the Longbourn library suitable to be read from by him to the Bennet multitude:

“Other books were produced, and after some DELIBERATION he chose Fordyce's _Sermons_.”

Here we actually have a triple pun, where the surface meaning is that of “internal thought-processing”, but it also comfortably can be read with the secondary meaning of “slowly”, i.e., we can see Collins melodramatically taking a long time to make this “weighty” decision, and the tertiary meaning also, to my eyes, also works, if we allow for the possibility that Collins actually has a brain in his head, and he might just have chosen Fordyce’s Sermons as revenge on the Bennet girls for making fun of him, which he only pretends not to notice. Food for thought….

Fourth, in Ch. 49, we have a particularly nice example, when Lizzy and Jane race to find their father so that they can hear the news in their uncle’s letter from London:

“Upon this information, they instantly passed through the hall once more, and ran across the lawn after their father, who was DELIBERATELY pursuing*/ /*his way towards a small wood on one side of the paddock.”

Yes, we have the surface meaning that Mr. Bennet was walking very slowly and resolutely, like Sisyphus, away from his father so he can process Uncle Gardiner’s bombshell in private for a while. But I also see a sly Mr. Bennet who, as we all know, LOVES to play mind games with his family, by withholding news he knows they desperately want to hear. And so, I claim, Mr. Bennet once more plays that game, and deliberately takes himself off, knowing that eventually Lizzy and Jane will hear of the letter delivery (Hill is also VERY familiar with Mr. Bennet’s tiresome game-playing), and be forced to run to find him. Not very nice, but then, sometimes Mr. Bennet IS NOT very nice!

Fifth, and perhaps my personal favorite, is an example where there actually is no pun on “deliberate” as “intentional”, but where I was led to notice the paragraph in which it appears in S&S, which I had never noticed before, but which may be the most dramatic wink by JA about the cluelessness of her heroines:

During a conversation with Edward about the true nature of Marianne’s character, and whether Marianne really is serious or merry, Elinor pops out the following non sequitur whopper:

"I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes," said Elinor, "in a total misapprehension of character in some point or other: fancying people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why, or in what the deception originated. Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving one’s self time to DELIBERATE and judge."

Is there any better description of what I have just been describing, as to characters who appear to be one way, but actually can be read as precisely the opposite?

I finish on a humorous note by noting that a few days ago, Christy helpfully provided us with the key element of a pun—“A pun must be DELIBERATE.”

And I would add, it’s an even better pun if that pun is ON the word “deliberate”! ;)

Cheers, Arnie

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