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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


I have just enjoyed reading the following article, which somehow had eluded my previous research, even though I have taken a special interest in literary criticism which recognizes Jane Austen's philosophical sophistication.

“Sense and Semantics in Jane Austen” by Donald D. Stone Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 1 (Jun., 1970), pp. 31-50

Stone not only (correctly, in my view) compares Austen to Wittgenstein (high praise indeed) in terms of her emphasis on the power of words to shape thought, he then shows an acute insight into the double-parody of Northanger Abbey, which has eluded most other critics:

“In the real world, [Catherine Morland] learns of both the inadequacies of a romantic point of view and the disadvantages of a realistic point of view. In the real world, she discovers, heroism is nonexistent but evil exists, although in a less readily recognizable form, with the same ferocity as in Gothic fiction. ‘…in suspecting General Tilney of either murdering or shutting up his wife, she had scarcely sinned against his character, or magnified his cruelty.’.… if one is to get by in life, one must be wary of both illusion and the presumed absences of illusion. When Tilney mocks the simplicity of Catherine’s background—‘What a picture of intellectual poverty!’ (79)—Jane Austen by no means intends for us to agree. When the author unites anti-heroine Catherine and anti-hero Tilney, she in effect combines a noble simplicity with an ironical intelligence—and implies that the latter may need the former more than the reverse."

All you ever hear about in Northanger Abbey is that Catherine has great common sense, yes, but she needs Henry Tilney to bring her runaway imagination down to earth so she can see what is "really" there. Just as all you ever hear about re Knightley's recall of Cowper's famous poetic line "Myself creating what I saw" is that it alerts us to the dangers of overimagination.

Stone did briefly discuss Emma, but he failed to mention that highly relevant passage in Emma, and the parallel between it and Catherine's situation in Northanger Abbey. Regarding that passage in Emma, a point parallel to Stone's WAS caught, by the way, in 2004, by William Deresiewicz in his wonderful book Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets, where Deresiewicz very astutely pointed out that JA very cleverly has not only overtly alluded to Cowper, she has also COVERTLY alluded to Wordsworth's subtle poetic formulation to the effect that one needs both reason AND imagination in order to understand what is most worth understanding.

Emma's mistake is not that she imagines too much, it's that she applies her imagination spectacularly in order to spot all sorts of stuff that others overlook, but then she goes astray in the interpretation of what she has spotted.

But Jane Austen lays a trap for the unwary reader, by making it look in each of these cases that the problem is too much imagination, which is very ironic, since the reader, in order to avoid that trap, has to use.....imagination!


Anonymous said...

There's this line in an interesting take on P&P (which you can watch on YouTube called The Lizzie Bennet Diaries) that popped into my head while reading your post just now.

Lizzie says to the camera: "Darcy says I 'intentionally misjudge people. How the hell do you intentionally misjudge people!?"

It seems to me that this is a common theme in all of Austen's works. That of 'intentionally misjudging people'. It's an interesting thing that a person can be so observant and then let thier imagination run wild to connect the facts.

Catherine definitely does this, Emma does this, Elizabeth does this. I'm not so sure that Fanny or Anne does this. But the theme still seems to be there.

Do you think there is one theme running through all her books (even if its not this one)?

You may have answered my question in a blog post I haven't read. Either way Im really enjoying your blog!

Arnie Perlstein said...

First, I encourage you not to remain anonymous..... ;)

Second, thanks for your response! I think you might have misunderstood what I meant in this post (from 4 years ago, but my position remains exactly the same)---I am saying that Jane Austen was pulling a DOUBLE bluff with Emma, with Catherine, with Elizabeth---she's making it seem, on the surface, that each of these heroines is taught by a man to rein in their imagination, which has gotten out of control--but the deeper story is that these heroines were actually correct in their initial readings of many things, but then they get talked out of their correct interpretations by manipulative men--at least, that is true in the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice and of Emma, Darcy and Knightley being those manipulative men.

What do you think????