THE NEED FOR REASON AND IMAGINATION
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!
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