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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Anne Elliot Drowning in "De Nile": "So Altered", Indeed!

In Austen-L this morning, Deb Barnum, the charming moving force of JASNA Vermont, responded to my recent posts claiming Anne Elliot's vision impairment as follows:

Deb: "Your thoughts on Anne Elliot are interesting, though as I am re-reading Persuasion as we speak, I do find that many of the references to her limited vision in various wordings are mostly referring to her not seeing because her mind is distracted, or she is upset or overwhelmed - I think Diane may have mentioned this.... but I am taking note as I read..."

I responded as follows:

Yes, that is true, Deb, but my point, in a nutshell, is that these frequent narrative descriptions (of Anne's feelings causing her not to see) can be plausibly interpreted in not one, but TWO ways:

As you just described, i.e., Anne Elliot's emotional turbulence interferes with and/or short circuits her visual perception--that is, I think it fair to say, the normative interpretation, the one that the text seems to invite the reader to make;  and

As I described, i.e., Anne Elliot's progressively worsening organic visual impairment is so disturbing to her emotionally that she is drowning in denial ("De Nile") about it, and therefore is constantly self-talking with rationalizations, on the general theme that she really is not interested in looking at this or that object or person within the range of normal sight.

We all agree that A and B are present, but the normative scenario is that A is the cause and B is the effect, whereas I turn that on its head, and claim that B is the cause and A is the effect!

To my eyes and ears, the lady (Anne E. that is) truly doth protest too much---way too much, even as I realize that this incessant rationalizing self-talk is what keeps her afloat emotionally--the internal mantra that she is standing on solid ground, so to speak, and is making her own choices--in short, she is not "nobody".

There's a PSA commercial that has gotten a lot of airtime down here in South Florida of late, maybe you've seen it, which underscores my point.  In the PSA, there's a middle aged woman who is identified as an asthma sufferer, who is sitting on half of a couch, speaking to the camera. The point of the PSA is that she is in total denial about the severity of the impact of her asthma on her life, even though everyone around her knows exactly what is going on:

When she says "My asthma does not interfere with my work", her boss pops onto the seat next to her, like Barbara Eden, talking about how our heroine misses workdays all the time;
When she says "My asthma doesn't interfere with my sleep", her husband pops onto the seat next to her, and complains about how her coughing keeps him up half the night;
When she says, "My asthma doesn't interfere with my parenting", her son pops onto the seat next to her and complains how she doesn't take him to extracurricular functions because she doesn't feel well.

You get the point.  THAT is the Anne Elliot I see in these passages, and it makes perfect psychological sense---any person living in that era, when medicine was incapable of curing most diseases and afflictions, would be extremely distressed if they began to lose their vision on  a steady basis, and it kept getting worse.  I think very few people, especially younger people, achieved a stoic calm internally, in the face of such horrible medical events--the will to live, the will to see, hear, taste, and feel, to move, to eat, etc., are all extremely powerful in every human being, regardless of societal expectations. It's not anachronistic thinking to ascribe such reactions to people living 2 centuries ago.

But someone in Anne's vulnerable position in the Elliot family would feel the additional distress of realizing that her already inferior status in her cruelly insensitive family would be driven down ten notches further if she were to become blind, or even were to plateau at half blind. Do you imagine that Sir Walter and Elizabeth would exert themselves to take extra care of Anne?  And if Anne could not longer see people even in confined spaces, what would her life be then? She's already powerless enough, but imagine her doomed to a life of spinsterhood living in the shadow of two insensitive domestic overlords, totally dependent on them (who have also frittered away precious family resources that could be used to help provide her with extra TLC that she'd need if she went blind).  This is truly a domestic Gothic horror story in the offing! No wonder she denies it, over and over and over again. It's unthinkable.

Having said all of that, Deb, I must also thank you for raising your concerns, just as Diana and Diane did in different words, because in my attempt to explain myself to you this time around, I just realized not one but two key additional points that have been hiding in plain sight, so to speak--points which make my interpretation even stronger. See if you agree.

FIRST POINT:  Anne's alleged "decisions" not to perceive are almost all involving not LOOKING at people other than Wentworth--there are over a dozen of them, I estimate. However, very curiously, none (or almost none) of her "decisions" are choices not to LISTEN to third parties other than Wentworth! Not only is that not the case, it's the opposite--she is constantly listening, and hearing and understanding what she hears, and not just Wentworth! Street noises, Lady Russell, her father and her sisters, all intrude

So...if focus on Wentworth was supposed to be a full explanation for Anne's repeated selective lapses of vision, how to explain why this laser focus is limited to vision and not also to listening?  It makes no sense, unless there is an organic physical reason. If it were purely emotional and psychological, it should apply across the board of all the senses, not just vision. And yet, vision is the only sensory modality adversely affected, and listening is the only one positively enhanced.

How else can this be explained in a simple plausible psychologically consistent way, and without recourse to saying that Jane Austen did all this by accident, being ill, etc etc.?

For those who agree with me, could there be a more perfect example of literary figure-ground, duck-rabbit anamorphism?

And to those not convinced but who are still open to entertaining my claim as a possibility, all my experience has taught me that there is only one really reliable method of testing my claim.  Just reread those passages I've quoted from in my three main posts on this topic AS IF you already knew, with certainty, that Anne's vision WAS declining, in a way that she found so alarming that she could not admit it, to anyone else or even to herself.

If you work on that single assumption, and reread all those passages scattered throughout the entire novel, and if it works as well for you as it does for me, then you have to ask yourself the followup question---could it work so well by accident, as a kind of unintended (by JA) side effect of depicting Anne's laser focus on Wentworth?  I say, as you might guess, that if it works so well, it CAN'T  be an accident. And then I bolster my argument by repeating the fatal flaw in the normative reading.

SECOND POINT: And now here's something I just recalled, without even rereading, which I had overlooked before, staring me right in the face in the text of the novel, but which only came to mind as I spent the time thinking about Anne's psychological coping with her ocular deterioration:

Chapter 7:  ...On one other question which perhaps her utmost wisdom might not have prevented, she was soon spared all suspense; for, after the Miss Musgroves had returned and finished their visit at the Cottage she had this spontaneous information from Mary:--"Captain Wentworth is not very gallant by you, Anne, though he was so attentive to me. Henrietta asked him what he thought of you, when they went away, and he said, 'You were SO ALTERED he should not have known you again.'" Mary had no feelings to make her respect her sister's in a common way, but she was perfectly unsuspicious of being inflicting any peculiar wound.  "Altered beyond his knowledge." Anne fully submitted, in silent, deep mortification. Doubtless it was so, and she could take no revenge, for he was not altered, or not for the worse. She had already acknowledged it to herself, and she could not think differently, let him think of her as he would. No: the years which had destroyed her youth and bloom had only given him a more glowing, manly, open look, in no respect lessening his personal advantages. She had seen the same Frederick Wentworth. "So altered that he should not have known her again!" These were words which could not but dwell with her. Yet she soon began to rejoice that she had heard them. They were of sobering tendency; they allayed agitation; they composed, and consequently must make her happier.  END QUOTE

Assuming that she knows what Wentworth meant by "so altered beyond his knowledge", Anne unconsciously suppresses any awareness that his statement might have had to do with her having, during the intervening years, gone half-blind, and noticeably so. It makes perfect sense that her mind (and therefore, the reader's mind) immediately leaps to what is actually a less devastating explanation, i.e., that she has visibly aged during that time period:

"Frederick Wentworth had used such words, or something like them, but without an idea that they would be carried round to her. He had thought her wretchedly altered, and in the first moment of appeal, had spoken as he felt. He had not forgiven Anne Elliot. She had used him ill, deserted and disappointed him; and worse, she had shewn a feebleness of character in doing so, which his own decided, confident temper could not endure. She had given him up to oblige others. It had been the effect of over-persuasion. It had been weakness and timidity."

And then at the end of Chapter 8, Anne again revisits this question inside her own head, where she can receive no contradiction from any objective source, and speculates without any basis in fact about what Wentworth is looking at her so intently:

 "Once she felt that he was looking at herself, observing her altered features, perhaps, trying to trace in them the ruins of the face which had once charmed him."

It never occurs to her that he might be observing her, in a benign and concerned way, trying to ascertain the extent of her vision loss.

This reminds me of what I speak about in my Jane Fairfax presentations, when Frank Churchill stares so intently and repeatedly at Jane, that his staring catches Emma's (jealous) notice--Emma accepts Frank's hasty explanation about Jane's outre hairstyle, but what he's really noticing for the first time, is something that no one else in Highbury has chosen to enlighten him, i.e., that Jane is pregnant!

JA delighted in repeating her covert motifs, and creating these echoes between novels.

But the best part of this interpretation is that we read this following famous passage in Chapter 23 in an entirely differently light:

"I was six weeks with Edward," said he, "and saw him happy. I could have no other pleasure. I deserved none. He enquired after you very particularly; asked even if you were personally altered, little suspecting that to my eye you could never alter." Anne smiled, and let it pass. It was too pleasing a blunder for a reproach. It is something for a woman to be assured, in her eight-and-twentieth year, that she has not lost one charm of earlier youth; but the value of such homage was inexpressibly increased to Anne, by comparing it with former words, and feeling it to be the result, not the cause of a revival of his warm attachment.

How much more poignant is this passage if we read Wentworth as not merely saying, as the normative reading would lead us to, that he loves her so much he doesn't care that she doesn't look as young at 27 as she did at 19. That is no especially great reflection on Wentworth's character, it merely means that he is not a typical Neanderthal with a double standard about physical appearance, i.e., that men can all age gracefully, but women can only age disgracefully.  It's something every decent and honorable man ought to do, especially in a sexist society as JA's was, and he does not deserve massive praise for doing what is right and reining in any male sexism of his own.

But if we read this as Wentworth agreeing to go ahead and marry a woman who may well go completely blind in the next few years, this implies GREAT beauty of character in him! It is a sad truth, witnessed in news accounts on a regular basis, that serious illness or disability is often a cause of the breakup of marriages and other committed relationships, due to the increased burden on the healthy or undisabled partner.   Sadly, many people get out of Dodge pretty quickly when the going gets rough in that way.

And so I am glad to be able to conclude that in this instance, my alternative reading makes the Austenian romance even more romantic, instead of the contrary!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: Last night I also found that many years after Hugh Hennedy, in 1973, identified Anne Elliot’s strong sensory imbalance of hearing over sight, David Selwyn, hardly a revolutionary among Austen literary critics, wrote the following at p. 41 of his book Jane Austen And Leisure:

“…in the Octagon Room, [Anne’s] impression of interior noise parallels that of the noises of the streets on her arrival in Bath: her rising excitement as she realizes that Captain Wentworth is not in love with Louisa Musgrove is counterpointed by ‘the almost ceaseless slam of the door, and ceaseless buzz of persons walking through’. The whole scene is interesting for the EMPHASIS that is placed ON Anne’s AURAL, RATHER THAN VISUAL, experiences.”

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