As I was composing my previous post about the single use of any form of the word “big” in Jane Austen’s fiction…
…I serendipitously came across yet another unique word usage in JA’s fiction---the single usage of the word “ambiguous” (which luckily contains within it the word ‘big’) in any of her novels, in the following passage in Chapter 9 of Northanger Abbey. Of course, this is when John Thorpe narcissistically and contradictorily rattles on about the supposedly risky ride of James Morland’s gig:
“Catherine listened with astonishment; she knew not how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing; for she had not been brought up to understand the propensities of a rattle, nor to know to how many idle assertions and impudent falsehoods the excess of vanity will lead. Her own family were plain, matter-of-fact people who seldom aimed at wit of any kind; her father, at the utmost, being contented with a pun, and her mother with a proverb; they were not in the habit therefore of telling lies to increase their importance, or of asserting at one moment what they would contradict the next. She reflected on the affair for some time in much perplexity, and was more than once on the point of requesting from Mr. Thorpe a clearer insight into his real opinion on the subject; but she checked herself, because it appeared to her that he did not excel in giving those clearer insights, in making those things plain which he had before made ambiguous; and, joining to this, the consideration that he would not really suffer his sister and his friend to be exposed to a danger from which he might easily preserve them, she concluded at last that he must know the carriage to be in fact perfectly safe, and therefore would alarm herself no longer.”
What struck me for the first time today, as I reread this passage, was how perfectly it performed a secondary function in NA. On the surface level, it works perfectly as Catherine’s usual level-headed, insightful, and lucid analysis of Thorpe’s motivations and meanings. However, on the metafictional level it also functions as a wonderful parody of the reaction of a hypothetical unimaginative reader of Jane Austen’s double-storied novels, as I will show you, below.
But first, for contrast, let me present you an excerpt from a recent mainstream Austen scholarly take on the above passage. It appears in the 2011 Companion to Jane Austen in a chapter entitled “Turns of Speech and Figures of Mind” by Margaret Ann Doody. Doody writes as follows:
“In Northanger Abbey, devices of language are consistently noted by the author, if visibly neglected by the heroine. Catherine Morland herself is strikingly devoid of information regarding figures of speech. She is puzzled by the inanities of boastful John Thorpe and his contradictory accounts of her brother James’s gig: we are told this puzzlement is a result of ignorance of what language does.”
Then, after quoting the above passage, Doody elaborates: “Catherine cannot bear the ambiguous and has no method of combing out what is going on at a linguistic level. In her family, one parent deals in the pun—linguistic doubling, complexity without significant tenor; the other parent prefers the proverb-plain statement of folk wisdom, overtly significant tenor without complexity. The alliteration of ‘pun” and “proverb” indicates the comic problem.
Catherine Morland’s chief trouble is her ignorance of figures of speech. Her reading in late childhood and adolescence includes works marked by metaphor and other devices…Poetic comparisons have made no dent on Catherine; they are merely lines she can repeat….” END QUOTE
In my view, Doody has (ironically) fallen into Jane Austen’s clever metafictional trap. I.e., Doody, in her harsh judgment on Catherine’s apparent shortcomings in understanding language, is unwittingly describing her own profound tone-deafness to Jane Austen’s language irony, and at multiple levels.
First, Doody fails to realize that the narrator’s descriptions of Catherine’s abilities is deliberately ambiguous, and is meant, as one plausible interpretation, to be taken ironically, because Catherine is actually a brilliant analyst of other people’s motivations throughout the novel, and her only shortcoming is being far too humble about her own instinctive gifts. And second, Doody fails to realize that in the above passage Jane Austen is not only mocking the tone deafness and lack of imagination of those literalistic readers, like Doody, who miss JA’s irony, she’s also parodying the reactions of those readers who fail to grasp that JA is deliberately ambiguous in her writing!
To be more specific, using JA’s language, JA expected her sharp readers to “know how to reconcile two such very different accounts of the same thing” (i.e., one of her novels); to understand that JA’s double stories are not “idle assertions and impudent falsehoods”; to understand that JA used “wit, puns, and proverbs” ironically; to understand that JA was not “telling lies” but was in fact “asserting at one moment” (i.e., in the overt story) what JA “would contradict the next” (i.e., JA would reverse the overt story in the shadow story). And finally, if read properly, this very passage, when read against the grain as I suggest, provides the reader “in great perplexity” with “a clearer insight into [JA’s] real opinion on the subject”.
Above all JA was not going to make it too easy for her passive readers. I.e., she was not going to “giv[e] those clearer insights, in making those things plain which [s]he had before made ambiguous”. Instead, in order to train her readers to be proactive and imaginative, she was going to hint and hint and hint, but never say overtly what she was really up to.
And this is nothing other than a metafictional restatement of JA’s famous ironic epistolary witticism to sister CEA, right after publication of P&P, in reference to ambiguities of pronoun references that family and friends had complained about---that she did “not write for such dull elves who have not a great deal of ingenuity themselves”.
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