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

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Miss Bates the Delphic Oracle AND Greek Chorus of Highbury

In Janeites and Austen L yesterday, I asked for help in understanding the meaning of the following sentence in Chapter  44 of Emma:

"Miss Bates would hardly give Emma time to say how perfectly new this circumstance was to her; but as without supposing it possible that she could be ignorant of any of the particulars of Mr. Frank Churchill's going, she proceeded to give them all, it was of no consequence."

Subsequently, I posted one interpretation  myself, then Christy Somer posted hers, and then, when I awoke today,  I saw Diana Birchall’s answer, all of them different! I have now spent even more time carefully studying all three of our respective answers to my question as to the proper interpretation of the “shes” and “hers” in the above sentence from Emma, and I have come to the entirely sincere conclusion, as hinted at in my Subject Line, that all three of our answers are not only correct (i.e., make plausible sense in the context of Chapter 44), but that Jane Austen intended all of them to be correct, for the  reasons I will explain at the end of this post.

But first here are our three versions, and our own respective explanations, this is the easiest way to keep track of where we differ:

My Pronouns: "Miss Bates would hardly give Emma time to say how perfectly new this circumstance was to [Emma]; but as without [Miss Bates] supposing it possible that [Miss Bates] could be ignorant of any of the particulars of Mr. Frank Churchill's going, [Miss Bates] proceeded to give them all, it was of no consequence."

My Explanation: I kept telling myself that the "she" in "she could be ignorant" must be _Emma_, but now I realize, that "she" is Miss Bates herself! The sentence thus means something different than I originally understood. It is really Emma's perspective on Miss Bates's state of mind. She perceives Miss Bates as rattling off all the particulars she knows, and as blithely assuming that all Miss Bates knows is the same as all that relevant. Emma feels slighted, because Miss Bates does not bother to ask Emma whether Emma knew any of it (which of course she did not, but that doesn't stop Emma from feeling slighted!)

Diana’s Pronouns:  As without [Emma] supposing it possible that [Miss Bates] could be ignorant of any of the particulars of Mr. Frank Churchill's going, [Miss Bates] proceeded  to give them all, it was of no consequence."

Diana’s Explanation: That is:  Emma knew perfectly well that Miss Bates knew the whole story, which Emma herself did not know.  Miss Bates did not stop to ask Emma if she  knew it or not - but she proceeded to tell the whole story anyway,  so the fact that Emma did NOT know it previously, "was of no consequence"! Emma did not have to bother to ask - she was told anyway!

Christy’s Pronouns:  "Miss Bates would hardly give Emma time to say how perfectly new this circumstance was to her; but as without [Miss Bates] supposing it possible that she" [and I read this 'she' as referring to the latter individual in the preceding sentence -`Emma'] "could be ignorant of any of the particulars of Mr. Frank Churchill's going..."

Christy’s Explanation: As I read this, the author is presenting Miss Bates as assuming Miss Woodhouse's intelligence regarding any of the matters pertaining to the Weston's and whatever may be going on at Randalls, but still, not being able to stop herself from passing along the information anyway. She is mistaken, of course, as Emma did not know any of this -that is the irony, imo. The assumed knowing (and actual not-knowing) being communicated between them. And because of the ending of this piece with: "it was of no consequence", For me, this is Emma giving `no consequence' (and at the same time honoring  Mr. Knightley's Box Hill lesson), to what might have been in the past a very irritating and bothersome `consequence'.

Now, all interpretations arent equal in this case, in various ways. Diana’s is the most straightforward, in the sense of requiring fewest extrinsic assumptions.  But mine and Christy’s, I would suggest, are compensated for our extra assumptions by finding richer resonance as to Emma and Miss  Bates’s characterizations. I.e., note that I found in the passage validation for the motif  of Emma being quick to feel slighted, whereas Christy found in it the opposite meaning, i.e., to show that Emma had well absorbed the Lesson of  Box Hill, which had occurred only the day before, and no longer felt slighted when she previously would have.  

Christy was convinced I was wrong, I was convinced that Christy was wrong, and Diana was convinced that both Christy and I were both wrong!  And yet, we’re all “right”!  How can that be?

That, ladies, was, I would suggest, Jane Austen’s main intention! We all know she was perfectly capable of writing unambiguous sentences and pronouns references whenever she chose, and so it cannot be mere slovenliness that resulted in the tortured ambiguities of this one little sentence.

Here’s where I think we begin to find the deeper answer to why Jane Austen would engage in this sort of authorial chicanery, first in an online article about the ambiguity of the pronouncements of the ancient Oracle of Delphi:

“Croesus, king of Lydia: 'Should I make war on the Persians?'. The answer is: 'If you make war on the Persians, you will destroy a great realm'. This persuades Croesus to attack. He loses the war. The realm referred to was his own.  This could be a useful oracular response to any question about waging war. But it is first recorded more than a century after the time of Croesus, and it looks like a typical paradox of the kind relished in folklore - a detail conceived in hindsight and fashioned into a satisfying story.  There is a shorter gap, of only about forty years, before the first mention of the answer supposedly given to Athens (that she should rely on a ‘wooden wall’ against the Persians). But this too has the marks of hindsight rather than oracular brilliance. The walls of Athens fail. The ships of Athens prevail. There is the opportunity for a pleasing riddle with 'wooden wall' as the answer. It will quickly do the rounds in the aftermath of victory.  All the ambiguous answers by the oracle are from the early centuries, when there is no contemporary evidence. From about 430 BC contemporary evidence is available, and the answers given are straightforward. It seems clear that the real function of Delphi is one common to great religious centres - to provide reassurance to the believers. “    END QUOTE

That last sentence says it all—Jane Austen constructed the sentence we’ve been discussing  (and also, for that matter, many of Miss Bates’s utterances in the novel) so as to be amenable to more than one plausible interpretation.

Emma invariably treats those utterances as verbose nonsense, and therefore so do many readers of the novel. But Miss Bates’s statements have great oracular value for those who treat them as significant hints about what’s going on around her, in regard to Emma, Jane, Frank, Knightley, et al.  And so I believe JA took particular care with the above-discussed sentence, to make all three of our interpretations (and perhaps even  a fourth none of us has even imagined?) plausible, so that  we would each find  “reassurance” for our own beliefs as to the meaning of what we’ve just read. It is only in conversation like this, when we each get  to hear  that our own interpretations are not exclusively valid, that we begin to appreciate what a subtle masterpiece each Austen novel really is.

But wait! Here’s another, related ancient Greek source for Miss Bates, as described  in an essay I just  found online:

“From Strategies of Greek Tragedy: The Chorus and the Structure of Antigone” by Nola Smith

"Thus, this chorus is the character who, unlike the rigid and strongly opinionated named characters, is free to weigh options and to change its mind. The chorus shifts its position throughout the play, and is swayed by each character's best arguments. This fluctuation is useful, for it validates the opposing claims, leaving no definite right. Even those chorus opinions that appear settled in Antigone are actually equivocal. The individual odes are ambiguous. What appears as a condemnation of Antigone would serve equally well as a denunciation of Creon in a later stage of the play. Each rebuke at Creon's pride could just as well serve as a criticism of Antigone's self-righteous posturing as a martyr. The chorus demands that the audience constantly re-evaluate, and so helps the audience toward discernment, and even wisdom.” END QUOTE

As I first wrote back in 2008 in Janeites, “Miss Bates is a Greek chorus at that moment, a subliminal echo of Emma's private ruminations. But Emma is "deaf" to Miss Bates's message.” And Diane Reynolds has made much the same point several times since then, as to various passages.

In conclusion, then, in addition to being learned in the significance of the ancient classics, Jane Austen was a connoisseur of the pitfalls of human subjectivity, the enormous difficulty of being able to see things from more than one plausible point of view. This is one important way she showed (not told) that subjectivity to her readers.

Cheers, ARNIE

No comments: