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

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Jane Austen’s Conscious Fictional Depictions of the Freudian Unconscious

A comment in the Janeites group about the unconscious, which I briefly responded to in my previous message by pointing to Lizzy Bennet’s unconscious thoughts about marrying Darcy, remained as a tiny spur in my mind, and I was prompted by it to do a quick tour of Jane Austen’s writings to see where the concept of the unconscious as a part of the mind that could express itself in words or actions beyond the control of the conscious mind, might have been addressed in JA’s writings, in addition to that Lizzy/Darcy passage.

It turned out to be a brief, but very rewarding, even startling, tour, with a few huge pleasant surprises.

For starters, in Pride&Prejudice Chapter 34 itself, I find two explicit usages of the word “unconsciously”, which, in a brilliant bit of authorial staging, function as brackets for the passage I previously quoted, which enacts the unconscious without using the word itself!:

Here is the passage near the start of Ch. 34:

"In such cases as this, it is, I believe, the established mode to express a sense of obligation for the sentiments avowed, however unequally they may be returned. It is natural that obligation should be felt, and if I could feel gratitude, I would now thank you. But I cannot -- I have never desired your good opinion, and you have certainly bestowed it most unwillingly. I am sorry to have occasioned pain to any one. It has been most UNCONSCIOUSLY done, however, and I hope will be of short duration. The feelings which, you tell me, have long prevented the acknowledgment of your regard, can have little difficulty in overcoming it after this explanation."

Lizzy consciously uses the word as a synonym for “unintentionally”, but she does not realize that she has also unconsciously occasioned Darcy pain in the Freudian sense, i.e., because she was so furious at him, she unconsciously DID wish to cause him pain, and so she did so, in spite of her conscious desire not to! This is an amazing tour de force of wordplay on JA’s part!

And then, at the end of Chapter 34, we get a bookend to the above, which is every bit as brilliant as the first one:

“The tumult of her mind was now painfully great. She knew not how to support herself, and from actual weakness sat down and cried for half an hour. Her astonishment, as she reflected on what had passed, was increased by every review of it. That she should receive an offer of marriage from Mr. Darcy! that he should have been in love with her for so many months! -- so much in love as to wish to marry her in spite of all the objections which had made him prevent his friend's marrying her sister, and which must appear at least with equal force in his own case -- was almost incredible! -- it was gratifying to have inspired UNCONSCIOUSLY so strong an affection….”

Again, we see a dual meaning of “unconsciously”—Lizzy consciously tells herself that she inspired so strong an affection in Darcy by accident, but it is clear to me that her considerable attraction to him from the moment she sees him has worked its unconscious magic, and she, in spite of her (conscious) self, has been behaving precisely so as to further bewitch and enamor him of her!

So, those two examples by themselves constitute dramatic (in both senses of that word, too!) evidence that Jane Austen was perfectly conscious of repeatedly depicting a Freudian sort of unconsciousness in her most charismatic heroine. But, as I have come to expect from JA, when she innovates something brilliant, she finds a way to surpass it in her later novels. And that was an approach that JA clearly expanded on in Emma, as evidenced by the following two passages:

First, in Chapter 23 :

“[Mr. Weston] ’Well, well, I am ready;" and turning again to Emma, "but you must not be expecting such a very fine young man; you have only had my account you know; I dare say he is really nothing extraordinary:" though his own sparkling eyes at the moment were speaking a very different conviction. Emma could look perfectly UNCONSCIOUS and innocent, and answer in a manner that appropriated nothing…. "

Here Emma consciously pretends not to be super-excited about Frank’s coming, but the sharp irony is that throughout the entire novel, Emma is actually deeply unaware and innocent of practically everything that happens around her! And,what’s more, she is also Freudianly unconscious about all sorts of things, including her own feelings for the men around her!

But the second usage of “unconscious” in Emma is so spectacular that it takes my breath away, now that I understand it better via this keyword “unconscious”. It appears in Ch. 44:

“There was nothing in all this either to astonish or interest, and it caught Emma's attention only as it united with the subject which already engaged her mind. The contrast between Mrs. Churchill's importance in the world, and Jane Fairfax's, struck her; one was every thing, the other nothing -- and she sat musing on the difference of woman's destiny, and quite UNCONSCIOUS on what her eyes were fixed, till roused by Miss Bates's saying, "Ay, I see what you are thinking of, the piano forte. What is to become of that? Very true. Poor dear Jane was talking of it just now. 'You must go,' said she. 'You and I must part. You will have no business here. Let it stay, however,' said she; 'give it house-room till Colonel Campbell comes back. I shall talk about it to him; he will settle for me; he will help me out of all my difficulties.' And to this day, I do believe, she knows not whether it was his present or his daughter's." Now Emma was obliged to think of the piano forte and the remembrance of all her former fanciful and unfair conjectures was so little pleasing, that she soon allowed herself to believe her visit had been long enough; and, with a repetition of every thing that she could venture to say of the good wishes which she really felt, took leave. “

So the literal meaning of “unconscious” in that passage is “unaware”, but JA’s deeper game is that she is at that instant depicting Emma having a reverie in which Emma’s unconscious is working overtime to try to repress the recollection of walking in on Jane and Frank in the spectacle rivets scene!

And the best part of that passage is that Miss Bates, who is supposed by some—especially Emma-- to be rather dull, has actually read Emma’s mind right there! She has observed Emma staring at the pianoforte, and Miss Bates, that trickster, has also correctly inferred why Emma is staring at the pianoforte, and so Miss Bates makes sure that Emma will remember what she does not want to remember, by starting to talk about the pianoforte.

Miss Bates knows perfectly well that Emma is not at all concerned about where the pianoforte will wind up now that Jane and Frank are engaged, that is just a smokescreen, a way for Emma to save face. But look at how masterfully JA depicts—and even underscores---Miss Bates’s success in her little psychological gambit. Emma does recollect the spectacle rivets scene, and as soon as she does, she realizes that she had completely misunderstood it when it actually occurred, and she is not pleased at all to have been led to that unpleasant bit of self-awareness!

Miss Bates has, in short, taught Emma a lesson, the kind of lesson that Emma badly needs much more of, but is not going to receive once she has married Mr. Knightley. Why? Because Box Hill is already ancient history, and Knightley makes a big point in the last few chapters--once he has gotten engaged to her--of suddenly flattering Emma right and left with how she was right all along about Harriet, etc!

I am also strongly reminded of Andrew Davies’s brilliant tweak of P&P, in which he shows Lizzy as reminding Mr. Collins about what Lady Catherine might think about his staying too long in the presence of the toxic “pollution” at Longbourn. Of course, this is an inspiration of Lizzy, because it is a gambit designed to prompt Mr. Collins to leave right away!

That is exactly what I see Miss Bates doing in her masterful way, pushing the right button in Emma’s head in order to get rid of Emma! And, expanding on that to a much more major aspect of the novel, that insight leads me to realize, that is exactly why Miss Bates always talks so much around Emma—why? Because she wants Emma to leave sooner rather than later!

I will finish my little tour with the following brief passage, from NA, Ch. 29:

“Every mile, as it brought her nearer Woodston, added to her sufferings, and when within the distance of five, she passed the turning which led to it, and thought of Henry, so near, yet so UNCONSCIOUS, her grief and agitation were excessive.”

The clear overt meaning of the narrator is that Henry is unaware of Catherine passing so close by Woodston in the carriage taking her back to Fullerton. However, I detect a very subtle double entendre there, because I do believe that Henry Tilney is, as I have previously opined, a “Hamlet” figure, in particular in terms of his being largely unconscious, during most of the novel, of the causes of a good deal of the angst that plagues him, the angst that causes him to be so relentlessly passive-aggressive toward Catherine, an angst which he only begins to be released from in the climactic scene at the Abbey when he rants at Catherine, which is a very intentional allusion by JA to the scene in Gertrude’s closet in Act 3, Scene 3, of Hamlet!

And finally, I did a very quick search of my own files to see where I might have collected any interested observations by Austen scholars about her use of the unconscious, and I found two:

First, in “The Absent-Minded Heroine: Or, Elizabeth Bennet has a Thought” by Susan C. Greenfield, in Eighteenth-Century Studies - Volume 39, Number 3, Spring 2006, pp. 337-350, Greenfield first quotes Lizzy’s diss of Darcy, and then observes:

“If such a formulation prefigures the Freudian unconscious it does so because Austen makes the mind ironic. As with the linguistic absurdities Elizabeth so enjoys, there is a difference between what the mind articulates and what it really means.”

And of course I agree with that statement.

And then, in "The Labor of the Leisured in Emma: Class, Manners, and Austen" by Jonathan H. Grossman, in a journal with a title that might seem drolly incongruous as the locus of an article about Jane Austen, Studies in Family Planning 54.2 (1999), at P. 143, we read:

“The final result in the novel is that Emma mentally reconstructs her own previous conduct and feelings. Emma, who once had "no doubt of her being in love" with Frank (p. 264), declares that "she had never really cared for Frank Churchill at all!" (p. 412). She does not simply rework the past to justify the present; rather, Emma's feeling that she had never felt anything for Frank registers an active process for her of forgetting what has occurred, in which the performance of "proper conduct" has moved from a realm of self-consciousness and scrutiny to a realm of unconsciousness and acceptance by way of incorporation.”

I agree with Prof. Grossman as well in all respects.

Cheers, ARNIE

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