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

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Amazingly Biblical and Tevye-esque Eclat of Mr. Bennet’s Veiled Proverbs

For nearly twenty years now, even since I first watched P&P2, I have believed that Sholem Aleichem was very slyly alluding to the Bennet family in P&P, when he conceived of the family of Tevye the Milkman, his wife Golda, and his numerous daughters, each with her own very different character and suitor, three of whom he marries off.  

I first posted about this in Janeites in 2001 after another listmember threw out that same idea, and most of my focus was on the many parallels between the respective wives, daughters, and suitors in Meryton and Anatevka.  

And even though this resonance, particularly with respect to Mrs. Bennet and Golda, was enhanced in the translation of Sholem Aleichem’s original stories from page to play, and then to film--of course Fiddler on the Roof— it’s clear to me that the Bennets were already firmly in the mind of the author sometimes referred to as the Yiddish Mark Twain a century ago. So, I would suggest, he could even more readily fit  the moniker “the Yiddish Jane Austen”.

However, it was only today that I realized there was another rich vein of covert allusion by Sholem Aleichem to Jane Austen hiding in plain sight, which focuses on parallels between Mr. Bennet and Tevye themselves, and not merely on parallels between their wives and daughters----specifically their shared love of book study, in particular the Bible, and their shared fondness for expressing that love aphoristically and humorously.

Of course everyone knows that Tevye practically never stops paraphrasing the Bible--interpreted by him according to his own unique, off-center homespun theology— it’s his hilarious yet poignant trademark, his go-to way of coming to terms with the often absurd and even tragic conditions of his existence in the quintessential Jewish shtetl, Anatevka, symbol of the soon to be vanished world of Eastern European Jewry from which my own ancestors came, under the thumb of the cruelly anti-semitic Czar. And what does Teye dream of, besides going to Jerusalem? He dreams of having the free time to study the Torah.

But what I only realized last night, by chance, was that Mr. Bennet, in his own quintessentially English way, and reflecting a level of formal education and polish which Tevye lacks, nonetheless does very much the same things, and feels the same way, that Tevye does! His home library is his sanctuary, his “synagogue”, surrounded by his beloved holy books—and if we dig a bit beneath the surface, we realize that one of those beloved holy books must have been the Bible, just as with Tevye!

Mr. B, after all, is the speaker of some of the most memorable epigrams and bon mots in the entire Austen canon—his only serious rival in that department being Mary Crawford—and so, ironically, it is he whom his daughter Lizzy inadvertently describes when she delivers one of her famous barbs to Darcy:

"…I have always seen a great similarity in the turn of our minds. We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the eclat of a PROVERB."

Did you catch that giant wink by JA to the Book of Proverbs? JA, the sly daughter of an Anglican clergyman, gives Mr. Bennet’s wry humor a distinctly Biblical twist, focuses EIGHT TIMES on a single word that has both Biblical (and Shakespearean) resonance:    FOOL.   And that is our giant clue that zeroes in on one particular chapter in the Book of Proverbs, as you will shortly see.

But first consider Mr. Bennet’s eight references to fools and folly:

In Chapter 7, he calls Lydia and Kitty “two of the silliest girls in the country” and the reiterates to his wife  “I must so far differ from you s to think our two youngest daughters uncommonly foolish.”
In Chapter 13, he describes Mr. Collins to Lizzy as follows: “I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse. There is a mixture of servility and self-importance in his letter, which promises well. I am impatient to see him." and then when Mr. Collins follows him into his library, he complains that he is “prepared to meet with folly and conceit in every other room of the house, [but] he was used to be free from them there.”
In Chapter 23, he pronounced his agreeable experience “to discover that Charlotte Lucas, whom he had been used to think tolerably sensible, was as foolish as his wife, and more foolish than his daughter!” in marrying Mr. Collins.
In Chapter 42, he found consolation for his folly in mismanaging Lydia and his finances but he also “to his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement.”
In Chapter 49, he pronounces "Wickham's a fool if he takes her with a farthing less than ten thousand pounds. I should be sorry to think so ill of him, in the very beginning of our relationship."
In Chapter 53, once more in mock-petulant mode, he utters: "No, no. You forced me into visiting [Bingley] last year, and promised, if I went to see him, he should marry one of my daughters. But it ended in nothing, and I will not be sent on a fool's errand again." But he does go, and then we learn that “Bingley was punctual to his appointment; and he and Mr. Bennet spent the morning together, as had been agreed on. The latter was much more agreeable than his companion expected. There was nothing of presumption or folly in Bingley that could provoke his ridicule, or disgust him into silence; and he was more communicative, and less eccentric, than the other had ever seen him.
In Chapter 57, finally, in describing Mr. Collins’s second letter to him, he reports: “The rest of his letter is only about his dear Charlotte's situation, and his expectation of a young olive-branch. But, Lizzy, you look as if you did not enjoy it. You are not going to be missish, I hope, and pretend to be affronted at an idle report. For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"
And then, after Lizzy responds: "Yes—that is what makes it amusing. Had they fixed on any other man it would have been nothing; but his perfect indifference, and your pointed dislike, make it so delightfully absurd! Much as I abominate writing, I would not give up Mr. Collins's correspondence for any consideration. Nay, when I read a letter of his, I cannot help giving him the preference even over Wickham, much as I value the impudence and hypocrisy of my son-in-law.

So the portrait is indelibly painted from one end of P&P to the other of a husband/father/scholar who believes it is human nature, and one of life’s most piquant pleasures, as he so aptly sums it up, “to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn.” In short, fools and folly, especially in family, are the fodder that famously feed Mr. Bennet’s fetish. (So there, Mrs. Jennings, some wordplay on the letter F).

But now think about Mr. Bennet as you consider the following, being verses 1-12 and 18-19 in Proverbs 26, the subtitle might well have been “Fools & Folly”:

1 As snow in summer, and as rain in harvest, so honour is not seemly for a FOOL.
2 As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come.
3 A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the FOOL's back.
6 He that sendeth a message by the hand of a FOOL cutteth off the feet, and drinketh damage.
7  The legs of the lame are not equal: so is a parable in the mouth of FOOLS.
8 As he that bindeth a stone in a sling, so is he that giveth honour to a FOOL.
9 As a thorn goeth up into the hand of a drunkard, so is a parable in the mouths of FOOLS.
10 The great God that formed all things both rewardeth the FOOL, and rewardeth transgressors.
11 As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a FOOL returneth to his FOLLY. 
12 Seest thou a man wise in his own conceit? there is MORE HOPE OF A FOOL THAN OF HIM.
18 As a mad man who casteth firebrands, arrows, and death,

What first caught my eye, and suggested this post to me, were verses 4&5, and then, upon reading through the entire chapter, also verse 19.  Don’t the first two uncannily seem to address Mr. Bennet’s M.O. as a satirist? He takes special delight in deceiving Mr. Collins, by answering his foolishness with a straight face, pretending to be impressed, and never letting Mr. Collins in on the covert joke at his expense. And Mr. Bennet is less careful when he repeatedly puts his foolish wife on, answering her folly by leading her on, before zinging her.  

And then throw Verse 19 into the mix, and now JA’s veiled allusion becomes extremely obvious, as Mr. Bennet’s most famous aphorism, in Chapter 57, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"  pings several keywords in that Verse.  

Now, the interesting question is, does that repeated practice make Mr. Bennet a fool of a different kind, as Verse 4 suggests? Should he have been honest with his guest, as Verses 5 and 19 advise? I think the answer is complicated, and that, to me, is Jane Austen’s agenda in covertly alluding to those verses. She wants those of her readers who hear the echo of Proverbs 26 to examine and reflect on this question, and come to some reasoned opinion, recognizing that there is no simple proverbial wisdom to guide us in life, but shades of grey that require nuanced thinking.

What is your answer about Mr. Bennet? Is HE a fool?

And what do you think about the comparison between Mr. Bennet and Tevye? Who is a wiser man?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Actually, I realized as I was composing this post, that I also heard a distinct echo of Verse 6 in Charlotte Lucas’s covertly & deliberately planting the false rumor of Lizzy and Darcy being engaged in her foolish husband’s ears. Charlotte does this, according to Kim Damstra in 1999, and then myself in 2004, so that Mr. Collins will predictably turn the rumor into fact when he immediately informs Lady Catherine, who will then predictably descend on Lizzy at Longbourn, all resulting in the boomerang net effect of bringing Darcy and Lizzy together.

I see this hidden pattern as JA’s playfully perverse special exception to the rule of Verse 6, because sometimes fools are the very best messengers, when one is a “Lucifer” like Charlotte, who cannot risk taking direct action, but who figures out a way to turn fools into inadvertent puppets.

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