(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Hunger Games, Titus Andronicus, Philomela, & Mary Crawford's Heathen Heroes

The following is a link to my blog post earlier today about the veiled allusion to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy:

You may ask, what is the relevance of my post to Jane Austen? And my answer to that reasonable question is that just as Shakespeare was particularly interested in the Philomela myth (which is a tightly wound ball of rape, mutilation, murder, cannibalism, and revenge) from Ovid's Metamorphoses when he wrote the tragic character of Lavinia for Titus Andronicus, so too have I long been of the opinion that the young Jane Austen showed a surprising (and, from my perspective, highly disturbing) interest in that same disturbing Philomela myth when she wrote her juvenilia poem, Ode to Pity, and included the following line therein:

While Philomel on airy hawthorn Bush
Sings sweet and Melancholy, And the thrush
Converses with the Dove...

Now, it's not just the reference to Philomel which leads me to this opinion, because I acknowledge that merely reciting the name Philomel would not by itself prove that JA meant to invoke all the horror of the Ovidian tale. What has made me so certain of JA's darker meaning is that this reference is embedded in a poetic context in Ode To Pity with a great deal of jarring, almost grotesque clanging of metaphors, which most decidedly point in a dark but mysterious direction.

But that's not all there is to the Jane Austen connection to Philomel. Speaking of things jarring and grotesque, writing my above linked blog post also led me to realize, as a collateral benefit, that JA's interest in Philomel was not merely a passing youthful fancy on JA's part. No, I now am convinced that when Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram have the following exchange about Sir Thomas's imminent return from Antigua....

"Your father's return will be a very interesting event."

"It will, indeed, after such an absence; an absence not only long, but including so many dangers."

"It will be the forerunner also of other interesting events: your sister's marriage, and your taking orders."


"Don't be affronted," said she, laughing, "but it does put me in mind of some of the old heathen heroes, who, after performing great exploits in a foreign land, offered sacrifices to the gods on their safe return."

...I believe that Jane Austen, through her wickedly satirical creature Mary Crawford, is very very pointedly and specifically painting a portrait of Sir Thomas as nothing less than a Regency Era Titus Andronicus! The allusion becomes obvious when you look closely at the precise circumstances which arise at the very beginning of Titus Andronicus, in Act 1, Scene 1.

What do we have? A heathen war hero, Titus Andronicus, has just returned to Rome after performing great exploits in the wars against the Goths, bringing back with him as prisoners the Goth queen Tamora and her three sons---and what does Titus do immediately upon his safe return with only a handful of his own sons surviving, as he prepares to inter the most recently deceased of his sons?

Of course, like any worthy heathen hero, he promptly _sacrifices_ Alarbus, one of Tamora's sons, in order to take ritual revenge for the deaths of so many of his own sons, specifically for the one whom he is at that moment interring in the family mausoleum.

And that sacrifice of the Goth prince is the first domino to fall in a grotesquely tragic spiral of revenge which leaves nearly every major character in Titus Andronicus dead by the end of Act 5.

But JA (via Mary) also points to Lavinia when she refers to "your sister's marriage"---because Lavinia, daughter of the returning hero Titus Andronicus, is also supposed to be married to Bassianus, one of two princes vying to be emperor--however, in short order, Lavinia is passed around like a piece of meat, first to the other prince, Saturninus, who first claims Lavinia as bride, then just as quickly rejects her as nonconforming goods, then she is raped, mutilated and eventually murdered by her own father.

And I believe we see shadows of Lavinia in both Maria Bertram and Fanny Price.

So, Sir Thomas as Titus Andronicus.....a darkly droll, satirical concept that JA has baked into a pie and served to her readers in Mansfield Park, her darkest novel. And perhaps, JA also closes the loop with her youthful reference to Philomel, with both Ode to Pity and Mansfield Park pointing toward dark secrets of the Austen family which must not be spoken aloud, but can only be hinted at.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Arnie Perlstein said...

This P.S. is addressed to Diane Reynolds, in regard to her observations 10 days ago in Janeites and Austen-L about the _Moor_ Park apricots in MP being, in part, a veiled allusion to Othello, who is of course the most famous "Moor" in English literature:

Diane: "...To me, the two important words in the passage s are "Moor" and "Insipid." I had a flash that Mrs. Norris must be rejecting the play Othello when she calls it the most "insipid" play in the English language (though it could be anyone talking--the phraseology simply sounds like Mrs. Norris--see below). The third use of insipidity comes when Mr. Yates, jealous of Henry Crawford's acting ability, "exclaimed" against it's "insipidity" (Of course, the ranting Yates overacts) and Mr. Rushworth concurs--turning to Fanny with a "black" look and referring to HC as "an undersized, little, mean- looking man." Rushworth exaggerates Crawford's looks--he's jealous too-- but we know from others, such as the Bertram girls, that Henry is small and that he is dark. Henry excites jealousy, clearly the theme of Othello...."

As I was just rereading my post of earlier today about the veiled allusion to Titus Andronicus in Mansfield Park, I recalled one other point which had caught my eye when I reviewed Mansfield Park, and especially its shadows, against the template of Titus Andronicus, but which I overlooked, in my haste, to include in that earlier post.

And that point has to do with the _second_ most prominent "Moor" in the Shakespeare canon after Othello--those who know all of Shakespeare and not merely his "greatest hits" will immediately realize that I am referring to Aaron, the Moor, who, in Titus Andronicus, is Tamora's lover who sires a biracial child on her. But he is much more than that, in many ways he is the Iago of Titus Andronicus, a being of purely malicious evil, a literary Charles Manson who manipulates everyone around him, repeatedly getting them all to do evil deeds for him without his actually having to kill with his own hands.

And his entire character is encapsulated in his parting words as he is led off to what will be a horrific and painful death, when he speaks in exactly the same unrepentant vein as the most famous unrepentent sinner of all, Don Giovanni:

**O, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done:
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform, if I might have my will;
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

A true Satan, in other words.

But how does Aaron the Moor fit with Mansfield Park, beyond the pun on "Moor Park" apricots? Diane has surely by now realized where I am going with this, which is that, in light of my longstanding (since July 2006) speculations that the Crawfords may be mixed race progeny of the English colonial empire----perhaps even kin to Sir Thomas himself, chickens coming home to roost, so to speak---and in light of Henry Crawford's resemblance to so many of Shakespeare's malevolent shape-shifters, like Iago, Edmund, Richard III and Aarron, this makes a veiled allusion to Aaron--and in particular the biracial baby born to Tamora whom Aaron rescues from death---very interesting indeed!

Cheers, ARNIE