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

Friday, September 11, 2015

Mr. Woodhouse’s “gammon”: greed and domination masked as generosity and politesse

 Diane Reynolds wrote the following in response to my last post:     
As soon as I saw that Jenny had identified backgammon as slang for sodomite--and, yes, of course, it would be slang for that once you think about it--I immediately jumped to the two bookend backgammon woes that Emma suffers--her fear of endless nights of backgammon with her father at the beginning and the seemingly ridiculous, comic idea of her penance after Box Hill--spending time playing backgammon with her father!”

Yes, Diane, it is right there, hiding in plain sight in the text of Emma—a repeated motif/detail that seems to be in the text solely for comic relief in the overt story, turns out to be a crucial material clue to a major theme in the shadow story. That’s Jane Austen’s “m.o.” in a nutshell!

Just for completeness, I want to briefly put my post of yesterday into a fuller context. The following are three posts I have written during the past few years which provide cross-validation for reading “backgammon” as sexual code pointing directly at the pedophilia of Mr. Woodhouse:

Mr. Woodhouse & Emma/Isabella as representations of Antiochus the king and his dangerous riddle about his ongoing incest with his unnamed daughter, in Shakespeare’s Pericles Prince of Tyre.
The “bad air” of “South End”, Mr. Woodhouse’s pedophilic focus on Isabella in Chapter 12, Mr. Perry his imaginary friend & “peri”.

Garrick’s Riddle points to Pericles.

Each of these strands of evidence, standing alone, already makes a strong case that Jane Austen intentionally created this father-daughter incest theme. But when you see that all four strands, coming from four directions, all converge on exactly the same interpretation, that makes the combination a hundred times stronger case! I.e., no amount of imagination on my part could have created this four-sided reading out of whole cloth --- that would be as absurd a coincidence as Darcy, Collins, Wickham, and Mrs. Gardiner all independently converging on Elizabeth Bennet!

Diane also responded as follows: “But then I looked up gammon on a whim and it is the back portion or hind leg of a pig. You know how often I have pondered and been nagged by that hind portion of the pig that Emma/Mr. W sends the Bates, wanting somehow to connect it to the animal cruelty of eating suckling pigs described in Lamb's seemingly comic essay on roast pig written after Austen's death. But now it takes on a different meaning that fits perfectly with the slang meaning of backgammon. So fascinating.”

That’s a fantastic additional wrinkle, Diane! To refresh your memory of our dialogue about Lamb/Swift Modest Proposal subtext hidden in plain sight in the “porker” obsession of Mr. Woodhouse, read this post from last December:

But you are clearly onto something more and significant with that double definition of “gammon” as the hind leg of a pig. Here’s the relevant passage in Emma:

“…Mr. Woodhouse, whose thoughts were on the Bates's, said— "It is a great pity that their circumstances should be so confined! a great pity indeed! and I have often wished—but it is so little one can venture to do—small, trifling presents, of any thing uncommon—Now we have killed a porker, and Emma thinks of sending them a loin or a leg; it is very small and delicate—Hartfield pork is not like any other pork—but still it is pork—and, my dear Emma, unless one could be sure of their making it into steaks, nicely fried, as ours are fried, without the smallest grease, and not roast it, for no stomach can bear roast pork—I think we had better send the leg—do not you think so, my dear?"
"My dear papa, I sent the whole hind-quarter. I knew you would wish it. There will be the leg to be salted, you know, which is so very nice, and the loin to “be dressed directly in any manner they like."
"That's right, my dear, very right. I had not thought of it before, but that is the best way. They must not over-salt the leg; and then, if it is not over-salted, and if it is very thoroughly boiled, just as Serle boils ours, and eaten very moderately of, with a boiled turnip, and a little carrot or parsnip, I do not consider it unwholesome."

And here, without any thought of the above, is the dictionary definition of a “gammon”, which is strongly parallel in reference to the above discussion by Emma and her father of the pig leg, and salting of same:

“Gammon is hind leg of pork after curing by dry-salting or brining. It may or may not be smoked. Like bacon, it needs to be cooked before it can be eaten.“

And…when I checked further, I saw that “gammon” is also the special term, in backgammon, for a “shutout” of the opponent in backgammon, when one player gets all his pieces to their destination before the other play can get any of their pieces there!

These definitions of “gammon” converge on Mr. Woodhouse: the symbol of the selfish, greedy, imperialist English male ruling elite, who take ALL the resources (including all the food, all the land, and all the female bodies) for themselves, and leave nothing for their victims (the poor, the Irish, and the women). And yet they are also such extreme hypocrites that they wear a mask of generosity and philanthropy, as if they are being good Christians, even as they literally and figuratively rape their victims in every conceivable way. It’s a deadly “game” which they win by default every single time, because all the rules of the game are stacked insurmountably in their favor—they cannot lose!

I don’t know when pigs came to be associated with greed, but how ironic that in Emma, the greedy Mr. Woodhouse makes a show of generosity by giving away the “behind” of a pig!

I also received a response which was not so positive from Nancy Mayer in Janeites:

Nancy wrote: "Thinking that Jane Austen spent hours thinking up prurient and salacious jokes and puns does not induce me to read her works. I do not want to  have her send her life  chortling over dirty jokes. Such things do not add a speck to my enjoyment o the works and  will soon  deprive me of all pleasure in them."

Nancy, only to set the record straight and not to try to convince you to change your mind, I keep saying over and over and over again that I believe Jane Austen was not making dirty and salacious jokes because she had a dirty mind--rather, her "tic" of frequent veiled sexual innuendoes is a reflection of the trauma suffered by victims of sexual abuse (I believe, starting, but not ending, with herself) in her era, when men had the power to do whatever they wanted to women--most of all to their wives and daughters---with little adverse consequence to fear from law, church, or societal mores.

There is often dark humor in episodes of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and for the same purpose--a way of coping with the horrible events of abuse depicted in that very long running TV series (Season 17 starts in 12 days).

There's a reason why Jews and African Americans, and more recently women and gays/lesbians, have been disproportionately represented among the most famous and influential standup comedians in the United States during the past century--they have been the very same groups who suffered from prejudice and abuse by the majority.

That's the place whence springs Jane Austen's sexual innuendoes. And Mary Crawford's "rears and vices" joke is the quintessential example. If you can only see that joke as Mary being inappropriate and trying to shock, then you see Mary in a bad light. But if (as i do) you see Mary as blowing the whistle on the sexual abuse William Price is going to suffer as the "price" of that commission that Henry obtains for him via the Admiral his uncle, then you see Mary as noble, courageous, and defiant of an abusive male power structure.

So, at least, characterize my arguments accurately, Nancy, and then disagree if you still wish to.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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