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

Friday, September 16, 2011

"...though where so many hours have been spent in convincing myself that I am right, is there not some reason to fear I may be wrong?"

I never before noticed a very curious formulation that Colonel Brandon says to Elinor in Sense and Sensibility, right before he tells her the story of Willoughby and Eliza, Jr.:

"...My regard for her, for yourself, for your mother—will you allow me to prove it, by relating some circumstances which nothing but a VERY sincere regard—nothing but an earnest desire of being useful—I think I am justified—though where so many hours have been spent in convincing myself that I am right, is there not some reason to fear I may be wrong?" He stopped...."


What caught my eye today was the last part of that quotation: "though where so many hours have been spent in convincing myself that I am right, is there not some reason to fear I may be wrong?" He stopped...."

In context, Brandon is saying that he has just spent a great deal of time grappling with the question of whether he ought to reveal Willoughby's misdeeds to Elinor, for her to relay on to Marianne. And with characteristic subtle brilliance, Jane Austen has Brandon utter a psychologically astute paradox--i.e., the very thing that makes him fear he may be wrong in judging that such revelation would be the right thing for him to do, is precisely that he has spent so many hours convincing himself he is right! Of course Brandon is not suggesting that it would be proper for him to simply act on impulsive and blurt out the whole story without due consideration to all the consequences of same. He recognizes that difficult moral judgments sometimes require a great deal of consideration, weighing of pros and cons. But he _also_ recognizes that the danger of error is not removed merely by spending a lot of time thinking about a difficult question, because, if anything, a person may become even _more_ deeply entrenched in error, and perspective can be lost, as more time is invested.

That is cool enough, I think, but I also see a secondary meaning in these quoted words. Taking them _out_ of the context of the novel plot, I find Brandon's words (which are, after all, really Jane Austen's words, and we have no reason to believe she disagrees with Brandon) to be strikingly applicable to the eternal debates that we have had in these groups over many years over interpretation of JA's writings. I.e., that fear of being wrong could apply equally to someone (like myself) who has spent so many hours convincing myself that I am right about my claims that there are shadow stories in Jane Austen's novels, but also equally could apply to someone who strongly opposes my claims, who has spent so many hours convincing themselves that they are right about my claims being wrong! Etc etc.

And what I suggest is that Jane Austen knew very well that her writing was going to raise all sorts of interpretive questions in the minds of her readers, and by this bit of ventriloquism using Brandon's voice, she is alerting _all_ her readers--the subtexters and the anti-subtexters alike--to the paradoxical dangers inherent in answering murky interpretive questions--there is danger in thinking too little about a point of interpretation, but there may also be danger in thinking too much about it!


Cheers, ARNIE

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