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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, April 22, 2011

P.S. re Opening Pandora's Royal Box at the Abbey

As I reflect upon my post yesterday entitled "Opening Pandora's Royal Box...", I realize that I did not flesh out one aspect of my argument, which was the notion of Northanger Abbey as being, in important part, a retelling of not only the Bluebeard story made famous by Perrault in 1701, but also the Greek myth of Pandora opening her famous box.

Jane Austen makes it clear, subliminally, that Catherine Morland's "transgressive female curiosity" is what, in the shadow story of the novel, leads her to the central mystery of the novel, which is the abuse of the ordinary English wife by the ordinary English husband. How does she do this? Austen's most powerful tool are textual "bread crumbs", hints left in the form of keywords which alert the reader who already suspects the subtextual allusion that the allusion is indeed intentional.

The keyword of the Pandora myth is the word "hope"--if you follow that word during the scenes when Catherine is snooping first in the chest in her room, and later in Mrs. Tilney's room, the word "hope" pops up with remarkable (and telling) frequency and aptness.

Check out, e.g., the following passages from Chapter 21 of Northanger Abbey:

"Again, therefore, she applied herself to the key, and after moving it in every possible way for some instants with the determined celerity of HOPE’s last effort, the door suddenly yielded to her hand: her heart leaped with exultation at such a victory, and having thrown open each folding door, the second being secured only by bolts of less wonderful construction than the lock, though in that her eye could not discern anything unusual, a double range of small drawers appeared in view, with some larger drawers above and below them; and in the centre, a small door, closed also with a lock and key, secured in all probability a cavity of importance.
Catherine’s heart beat quick, but her courage did not fail her. With a cheek flushed by HOPE, and an eye straining with curiosity, her fingers grasped the handle of a drawer and drew it forth. It was entirely empty.....The dimness of the light her candle emitted made her turn to it with alarm; but there was no danger of its sudden extinction; it had yet some hours to burn; and that she might not have any greater difficulty in distinguishing the writing than what its ancient date might occasion, she hastily snuffed it. Alas! It was snuffed and extinguished in one. A lamp could not have expired with more awful effect. Catherine, for a few moments, was motionless with horror. It was done completely; not a remnant of light in the wick could give HOPE to the rekindling breath."

I would suggest that Pandora's Box is in some ways the _central_ subtext of the shadow story of the novel, because JA, as an author, is emulating the mythological Pandora, by tearing off the covers which conceal all the evil which festers in the ordinary "general" English marriage. In a sense, then she "releases" those evils into the world, in the sense of making them visible to all those who were blind to them. That is the service which I claim Catherine Morland unwittingly provides to Henry Tilney, opening his eyes to the injustice of English marriage.

In Pride and Prejudice, much of the plot turns on the key question that various characters grapple with, which is whether it is better to reveal their knowledge of someone else's wrongdoing to third parties, or to conceal that knowledge out of a desire not to gossip or slander someone's reputation.

It is clear to me that Jane Austen felt it was her ethical responsibility, as an enlightened woman, to share her insight into the evils of English marriage, which is a way of opening Pandora's box, because she understood that it was only in this way that there was any _hope_ of expunging those evils!

In short, the overt story of the novel seems to argue that opening Pandora’s Box is a bad thing, but the deeper shadow story makes it clear that this is a delusion, and that opening Pandora’s Box as (like eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge) is a good thing!

Cheers, ARNIE

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