(& scroll all the way down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Monday, January 30, 2012

A SECOND Allusion to a Very Famous Biblical Passage Hidden in Plain Sight in the Judgment of Mr. Bennet

I've given some more thought to my discovery a few days ago.....

(see also my two comments in which I added additional angles)

.....that Mr. Bennet channels the famous Judgment of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:16-28 about the two putative mothers claiming one living baby, when he renders _his_ judgment on Lizzy having to choose between two parents in Chapter 20 of P&P, and concludes:

"An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. Your mother will never see you again if you do /not/ marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you /do/."

I've also paid close attention to the synergy (which I wrote about shortly after I made that discovery)......

....between my above discovery and Anielka Briggs's earlier excellent analysis of issues of judgment and forgiveness in JA's novels, and the subliminal aura of the Bible inherent in same. As a result, I have now been rewarded with a great deal of additional insight into the wondrously complex and yet elegantly simple ways that Jane Austen engaged with both the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Bible in this one short but memorable episode in P&P. As I see it, JA dealt with them both separately and in combination, as she formulated her own seamless integration and extension of all parts of the Bible, with special focus on these same slippery issues of judgment and forgiveness, and, as I have frequently claimed, always always with a special focus on women's issues.

Although I've generated a great deal of fresh material about JA's amazing virtuosity and insight during these past few days, too much to attempt to summarize within the constraints of posting in these groups, I do want to bring forward one major additional highlight among my latest findings, which is that the Judgment of Solomon is _not_ the only famous Biblical story that Jane Austen covertly burlesques in the Judgment of Mr. Bennet on Two Parents!

Amazing as it is that a burlesque of one such famous Biblical story was deftly hidden in plain sight by Jane Austen in the Judgment of Mr. Bennet, and has not previously been detected, it is ten times more amazing, I argue, that Jane Austen managed to hide a burlesque of a _second_ equally famous Biblical story in that same memorable comic vignette in Chapter 20 of P&P, as well. Can you guess which other famous Biblical story it is?

I will give my answer below, but here are five hints, which point to strong parallelism between these two Biblical burlesques by JA:

Hint #1: As you might have guessed from my introductory comments, above, the second burlesque is from the Christian Bible--specifically, one of the Gospels.

As in JA's burlesque of the Judgment of Solomon in the Hebrew Bible, in JA's other Biblical burlesque source we also have:

Hint #2: Mr. Bennet once more cast as a "wise king".

Hint #3: Mrs. Bennet once more cast as a "bad guy".

Hint #4: Elizabeth Bennet once more cast as a woman who has transgressed marital norms.

Hint #5: The judgment of Mr. Bennet once more provides justice, and a fresh start, to Elizabeth Bennet.

(scroll down)

(scroll down)

(scroll down)

And my answer is---the following extremely famous passage inJohn 8:3-11:

"Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” "

Here's how I schematize it. In JA's burlesque:

1. Mrs. Bennet stands in for the Pharisees who seek to punish a woman who has transgressed against "the law" (in Mrs. Bennet's mind, Thou Shalt Accept Any Proposal by A Man With Money is the unwritten Eleventh Commandment!);

2. Elizabeth Bennet is of course the transgressive woman; and

3. Mr. Bennet is Jesus, who, like Solomon, seems to be caught in a juridical Catch 22, but eludes same by thinking outside the box and changing the rules of the game (sorta like Captain Kirk dealing with the Kobayashi Meru unpassable test at the Starfleet Academy).

Here are two particularly spicy aspects of this allusion, I am sure there are more:

1. The Pharisees have as their primary agenda the discrediting of Jesus, and the stoning of the adultress, while an end in itself for such rigid-thinking sexist hypocrites, is more a means to their primary end. It's interesting to think about Mrs. Bennet's agenda vis a vis Mr. Bennet in this regard. Yes, it's clear to all of us that Mrs. Bennet's Eleventh Commandment is a huge priority for her, independently of her feelings about Mr. Bennet. And yet, I now believe JA meant for those readers who perceived her burlesque of John 8:3-11 to also reflect on a deeper motivation that Mrs. Bennet had, which she might not even have been consciously aware of herself. I.e., at that crucial moment in the history of the Bennet family, Mrs. Bennet believes herself to be in a position to force Mr. Bennet to stop indulging his darling Lizzy, and to make Lizzy do something she does not want to do.

Think about it. Mr. Bennet has been making fun of Mrs. Bennet for 23 years, and has, in her jealous eyes, been spoiling Lizzy for many of those years. We receive evidence of this dynamic at the very beginning of the novel, when Mr. & Mrs. Bennet have the following pointed exchange:

[Mr. B] "....I dare say Mr. Bingley will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his marrying whichever he chooses of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy."

[Mrs. B] "I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good-humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving /her/ the preference."

And so on a subconscious level, I can see Mrs. Bennet in Chapter 20 in full "carpe diem" mode, thinking that finally the wheel of karma has turned to a very favorable position, in which she, Mrs. Bennet, suddenly has an opportunity to use Mr. Bennet as a mallet with which to batter poor Lizzy into submission, and to take jealous revenge on her husband for loving Lizzy much more than he loves his own wife!

But, just as Jesus deftly ducks out of the trap set for him by the Pharisees, so too does Mr. Bennet, using his wit and humor so as to not directly contradict Mrs. Bennet's demand that he crush Lizzy's resistance to Mr. Bennet, and yet get that exact message across nonetheless. Just like Jesus, he refuses to accept the mantle of abusive authority that others wish to force on him, and instead frames the issue as "an unhappy choice" to be made by Lizzy, not by himself.

2. The final wink of JA's eye as to her burlesque of Jesus and the Adultress in John 8:3-11 comes in the following passage three chapters after Lizzy refuses Collins, in Chapter 23, after Charlotte Lucas has snatched Mr. Collins in marriage:

" Mrs. Bennet was in fact too much overpowered to say a great deal while Sir William remained; but no sooner had he left them than her feelings found a rapid vent. In the first place, she persisted in disbelieving the whole of the matter; secondly, she was very sure that Mr. Collins had been taken in; thirdly, she trusted that they would never be happy together; and fourthly, that the match might be broken off. Two inferences, however, were plainly deduced from the whole: one, that ELIZABETH WAS THE REAL CAUSE OF THE MISCHIEF; and the other that she herself had been barbarously misused by them all; and on these two points she principally dwelt during the rest of the day. Nothing could console and nothing could appease her. Nor did that day wear out her resentment. A week elapsed before she could see Elizabeth without scolding her, a month passed away before she could speak to Sir William or Lady Lucas without being rude, and MANY MONTHS WERE GONE BEFORE SHE COULD AT ALL FORGIVE THEIR DAUGHTER/*. */"

What a wonderful irony, that JA deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to _whose_ daughter Mrs. Bennet could not forgive for many months! My guess would be that many Janeites over the years have read that last clause as referring to Charlotte Lucas, because it is immediately preceded in that same sentence by a report that Mrs. Bennet waited a month before speaking amicably to Sir William and Lady Lucas. And certainly Mrs. Bennet feels entitled to be angry at Charlotte for "taking in" Mr. Collins and taking Mr. Collins away from one of her daughters. But....I also surmise that many Janeites whose eyes are caught by "Elizabeth was the _real_ cause of the mischief" will then infer that the most difficult "sin" for Mrs. Bennet to forgive will be the one that was at the root of the miscarriage of justice that Mrs. Bennet perceives.

And that latter reading, with Mrs. Bennet taking forever to forgive _Lizzy_, functions perfectly as a veiled burlesque of John 8:3-11. Why? Because Jesus's brilliant strategy brings about instant awakening of conscience in the Pharisees who've gathered to accuse the adultress, but Mrs. Bennet, being a tough nut to crack, takes months before she moves on, and one would infer that this moving on occurs merely due to the sheer passage of time, rather than any awakening of conscience.

And, in closing, it occurs to me that it makes _perfect_ psychological sense that Mrs. Bennet would be _particularly_ unable to forgive Lizzy for the "sin" of refusing to marry a foolish spouse. You see where I am going with this, I am sure. On some subconscious level, Mrs. Bennet would realize that Mr. Bennet is refusing to order Lizzy to make the exact same mistake he made, a mistake that has one ironic benefit for Mr. Bennet, i.e., giving him Lizzy as a daughter!

I'm amazed Mrs. Bennet _ever_ forgave Lizzy, given the enormous "freight" and "baggage" with which her refusal to marry Mr. Collins is loaded!

Now, to conclude with a series of implications of the above for other aspects of Austen (and Biblical) studies:

1. The burlesque of John 8:3-11 is in total synch with what I wrote last year about the universal misunderstanding by Austen scholars of the famous passage in Letter 36 when JA writes: "...I have a good eye at an Adultress..." ..... that it reinforces my claim that JA, in Letter 36, was mocking the "Pharisees" of her own world who judged adultresses so harshly.

2. The burlesque of 1 Kings 3:16-28 is also in total synch with what I wrote last year about Jane Austen's covert allusion to the tale of Sempronius, Chloe & Caelia in Sarah Fielding's The Governess..... (and several other posts before and after) that I now believe that Jane Austen would've picked up on Fielding's veiled allusion to the Judgment of Solomon in the way that Sempronius chooses his wife based on how they respond to the Solomonesque moral test that he sneakily subjects them to, and emulated Fielding in her own burlesque of same in P&P (and in MP, with Fanny Price's Judgment on the Knives).

3. From a JA biographical perspective, all of the above only reinforces my previous conviction that Jane Austen was put under enormous pressure by various members of her family, but particularly her mother, to marry Harris Bigg-Wither in 1802, and that she never forgot, and perhaps also never forgave, this trauma inflicted on her, which is why she kept revisiting the trauma, with heroines like Lizzy and also Fanny Price, being subjected to such pressures. And perhaps (as was deftly portrayed in Miss Austen Regrets), perhaps JA was repeatedly reminded of her refusal of Bigg-Wither by family members such as her mother, for years and years after 1802.

4. Last but certainly not least, I note one additional major point only in passing---my sense is that Jane Austen, by doubling up these Biblical burlesques in the same passage in P&P, has not only pulled off a massive tour de force of authorial ingenuity, she has also implicitly conveyed her deep insight into the relationship _between_ these two Biblical passages! I.e., I assert that this doubling of burlesques is itself thematically significant--it is a coded message to readers who see both burlesques that JA realized that Jesus (and the author of John 8:3-11) knew 1 Kings 3: 16-28 very well, and had the tale of Solomon's Judgment firmly in mind during the action (and writing) of John 8:3-11. And in my sleuthing out all of the above, she has also taught me to notice this Biblical parallelism.

A quick Internet search has confirmed to me that some relationship between these two "Kobayashi Maru"-like Biblical passages _has_ been detected previously by a few Biblical scholars, and I believe it would be a very fertile area for investigation and analysis. Whether a Biblical scholar believes that the parallels are a reflection of Jesus as a worthy emulator of Solomon, or are a reflection of Jesus as "Solomon 2.0", or some variant on either of those positions, it is a question well worth investigating.

For today, I am content to take this as yet one more example of Jane Austen as an amazingly profound literary scholar, who so deeply understood the texts she read and alluded to, and spotted connections that eluded most other readers, even the most famous (and mostly male) scholars of her day. And was so self assured that she would not explain herself explicitly, but instead left it for the reader to find it out, and struggle to understand its meaning. That was her way.

But JA, even though she was a poker player who did not reveal what cards she held in hand, did take pains to bring her best insights, like these, to her reader's special attention. The way she did this was brilliant--I've come to realize that JA often embedded her most learned and intricate allusive insights into her most memorable scenes, precisely so as to make sure that her readers all read (and reread) those passages, and would therefore be more likely to spot the deeper meanings concealed within them. That's playing fair with the reader!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

No comments: