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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, August 23, 2010

One more time: the dribbling dart of love

This is a last, further revisiting of my earlier claim that the "new idea" that darts into Catherine Morland's head when Eleanor Tilney begins to tell Catherine about the mysterious evening visitor to Northanger Abbey, is not that Catherine fears that something bad has happened to Henry, but that, for whatever reason---whether his father's refusal to consent or Henry's own misgivings or uncertainties about the strength of his feelings for Catherine, or a combination of the two----she fears that the message from Woodston is that Henry is never going to ask her to "dance" the dance of marriage.

Terry argued that this cannot be so, because the narration he quoted indicates that, not long before that fateful evening, Catherine is feeling very confident that Henry WILL be requesting a "dance". Here, again, is the last narration we have prior to the fateful evening, describing Catherine's confidence level:

"The kindness, the earnestness of Eleanor’s manner in pressing her to stay, and Henry’s gratified look on being told that her stay was determined, were such sweet proofs of her importance with them, as left her only just so much solicitude as the human mind can never do comfortably without. She did — almost always — believe that Henry loved her, and quite always that his father and sister loved and even wished her to belong to them; and believing so far, her doubts and anxieties were merely sportive irritations."

My last answer was that Catherine was "protesting too much" in her own mind, and that her confidence was fragile.

Now I will add the following additional reasons which have occurred to me, which support my claim. First, Catherine, for all her naivete, is not a fool, and she knows that it's one thing for Henry to look gratified that she is going to stay on at the Abbey--that's cause for optimism--but it would be quite another thing for him to actually say it! Up till that moment, in fact, he has never given her a direct, unambiguous, heartfelt compliment or avowal of affection, it has always been indirect, intellectualized--sorta like that silly beer commercial where the guy just can't say "I love you", he stammers and hems and haws, beating around the bush.

But, the more important factor, which I had not stepped back far enough to realize, was that the arc of the second half of the novel is all about Catherine having her "certainties" challenged and overturned by the real world. And that is especially the case with respect to the romantic triangle with Isabella Thorpe at the fulcrum. The first blow to the edifice of Catherine's naive belief that people always mean what they say in the realm of romance comes when she receives James's letter which tells her that Isabella has jilted him--James warns her to take care that it does not happen to her. The second blow comes when she learns that Captain Tilney has hoist Isabella on her own petard, by jilting HER.

So, those two jilts are prologue to the moment when the visitor arrives that fateful evening at the Abbey. Catherine, ever the budding student of human nature, now observes her dear friend Eleanor looking pale as a ghost--is it any surprise that Catherine would now think, "I was sure that love was real between man and woman twice, and twice I was proved wrong. I've been trying to convince myself that it won't happen to me too, that my brother is wrong, but now I can see, from the look in my friend's eyes, that she has some terrible news for me--it must be that it's MY turn to be jilted!"

And here's the final link in the chain, a passage I had not paid close attention to, which describes Henry's reaction when he reads James's letter to Catherine in wihch the strong mutual attachment between Isabella and Captain Tilney is described:

"He gladly received the letter, and, having read it through, with close attention, returned it saying, “Well, if it is to be so, I can only say that I am sorry for it. Frederick will not be the first man who has chosen a wife with less sense than his family expected. I do not envy his situation, either as a lover or a son.”

Catherine listens to what Henry says very closely. And she hears that Henry does not envy Frederick's situation either as a lover or a son......Hmm.....what does this mean? As a lover---that seems to mean that Henry would not want to be romantically involved with a silly young woman--which is exactly what Henry made Catherine feel like a few chapters earlier, when he castigated her--and he has never explicitly backed off from that position, he has merely been nice to Catherine in a general way. So, she still has doubts that he respects her mind. a son, that seems to mean that Henry would not want to be romantically involved with a woman who was considered silly by his father, because, presumably, his father might just cut him off financially.

These are his actual words spoken to her. So, now we have the full context of what underlies Catherine's "new idea". Either the reader can think that all of this background is just window dressing, and instead conjure up a fear for Henry's physical well being out of thin air, with no textual basis, or the reader can take all this highly elaborate, nuanced textual background into full account, and connect the dots and follow the chain of inference I have outlined, and take JA seriously as a master of psychological realism on two rich inches of ivory. .

I find the intense psychological realism of the latter explanation compelling, and the insubstantiality of the former unsatisfying.


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