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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Monday, December 15, 2014

Jane Austen’s great “Gotcha!” & the yearning for certainty

The recent lively discussion in Janeites & Austen-L about the ambiguity of Harriet Smith's character brings home to me so powerfully how strong is the universal yearning for certainty, above all in the realm of knowing the character (I.e., personality) of others....and (even more so) of ourselves.

The discussion made me think about that because this deep yearning extends beyond real life, and also applies to the way fictional stories are read. The default expectation for most readers is that the author, like a benign, wise shepherd, will herd the reader through the story, make everything clear by the end, and provide direct moral instruction as to who the good guys were and who the bad guys.

And so it is perceived by many if not most readers as a kind of betrayal by the author if any significant ambiguities are left at the end, untidied up, messy. It must have been a careless oversight of the author, or some unconscious unintended revelation of some embarrassing or shameful personal secret. For an author to deliberately confuse, create ambiguity, wink or hint at matters unexplained or ambiguous, simply  could not be justified. Somehow it is felt as a breach of the on written contract between author and reader. Certainly, outside of a tiny world of elite scholarly, literary studies, that contract is never even consciously noticed, let alone considered seriously.

But it should be obvious where I am going with this rhetorical gambit. I.e., it was when I first started seriously contemplating 10 years ago WHY Jane Austen would create double stories in all her novels, that I quickly realized that this was actually a sophisticated profoundly didactic tactic on her part.

This is epitomized in the Jan. 1813 letter to Cassandra, about ambiguous pronouns in P&P-why do so many Janeites, including many who should know better, still take JA’s obviously ironic comments in that letter as if she were really regretting syntactical mistakes??

I.e., what better way to encourage and support a reader's struggles to overcome the reader's own yearning for certainty when certainty is not justified, than to lead the passive reader down the garden path of apparent certainty and clarity, while at the same time constantly subliminally suggesting that the road to more complex truth is the unmarked path in the shadows to the left or right.

Early in 2005, I read a wonderful 1986 essay by Adena Rosmarin, in which she unpacked, in a number of remarkable ways, the deep game that Jane Austen played with her readers in Emma. However, Rosmarin was unaware of the shadow stories that Jane Austen created, so her brilliant analysis went only halfway into explicating Jane Austen's artistry.

As Rosmarin explained, there's nothing quite like making a big mistake of interpretation, then realizing it, and THEN being able to go back and retrace the steps where one went astray, for learning how to avoid that same mistake the next time.

I believe Jane Austen did this covertly for her readers in her first three published novels, but she found that her readers were not "getting it". That is why, I have long suggested, Emma was so different on the surface, because it contains the great "gotcha!" in Austen's fiction. It was JA's upping the ante, trying to lead more readers to awareness.

And that is why the recently deceased P.D. James called Emma "the detective story without a murder", which is one of the great Trojan Horse Moments of literary criticism history, since James apparently did not consciously realize that, in the shadow story of Emma,  Mrs. Churchill WAS murdered!

And...James also didn't realize that The Great "Gotcha!" was itself a trapdoor, which pulled the floor out from under the reader's feet- because the story Emma hears about Jane and Frank, including most of all Frank’s letter to Mrs. Weston which comprises the entirety of Chapter 50, is itself a cover story for a deeper truth!

THAT is the most important point of all. I.e., the revelation that Jane and Frank were involved from the beginning, if you think about it, tells the sensitive reader that such a deception can be pulled off by a skilled writer for 49 chapters-so who's to say whether there are not OTHER such deceptions scattered all over all of Jane Austen's novels, which have not been debriefed by her at the end in that way??

That thought is the key that, like the moment when Neo KNOWS that the Matrix is an illusion, opens Pandora's box for the alert reader, because thereafter the yearning for certainty can be reined in and blunted, and ambiguity tolerated long enough, to get closer to accurate judgment of a murky moral/ emotional/psychological dilemma in a fictional story.

There’s a really good analogy here to modern sports. Fans know that the difference between an ordinary returner of a tennis serve or an ordinary hitter of a baseball, and a great one, is the ability to wait that extra fraction of a second before swinging. In that tiny increment of time, the ball will commit itself first (as a curveball or slider in baseball, or a spinning serve in tennis), and so the ball can then be properly hit.

It's exactly the same with a reader of complex fiction like Jane Austen's.. If you can just be patient and tolerate the ambiguity long enough---including most of all on successive re-readings---you have a chance of eventually seeing clearly into the shadows of the novel before you irrevocably commit to any single interpretation.

This is true didacticism on JA’s part, because it teaches readers not by dogmatic explicit assertion of meaning or instruction, but by encouraging and fostering the reader's proactive judgment. The former provokes passivity, the latter provokes growth and proactivity.

In this regard, think about what Fanny Price says to Henry Crawford, when Henry begs Fanny for advice about a managerial decision at his estate:

“…I have a great mind to go back into Norfolk directly, and put everything at once on such a footing as cannot be afterwards swerved from. Maddison is a clever fellow; I do not wish to displace him, provided he does not try to displace me; but it would be simple to be duped by a man who has no right of creditor to dupe me, and worse than simple to let him give me a hard-hearted, griping fellow for a tenant, instead of an honest man, to whom I have given half a promise already. Would it not be worse than simple? Shall I go? Do you advise it?"
"I advise! You know very well what is right."
"Yes. When you give me your opinion, I always know what is right. Your judgment is my rule of right."
"Oh, no! do not say so. We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be. Good-bye; I wish you a pleasant journey to-morrow."

Note that Fanny refuses to take Henry off the hook, and forces him to make his own moral judgment, and that is exactly what I see Jane Austen doing with her readers, when she  presents readers with ambiguities. She is, in effect, saying to the reader “When you see ambiguity in my text, don’t look to me, Jane Austen, for the opinion you should adopt in regard to that ambiguity, use your better guide, which is in yourself, your own ability to read against the grain and embrace that ambiguity, and see where it leads you.

But even here, JA plays with multiple levels of subtle didacticism. As I explained in my recent talks at the Montreal JASNA AGM and to the local JASNA chapter here in Portland, at the same time Fanny believes she is encouraging Henry toward goodness by heeding his own inner voice of truth, she herself is on the verge of romantic capitulation to his clever seduction via Shakespeare- Fanny herself is a victim of her own naive belief in a fixed truth about romance and love that can be miraculously accessed internally. Meanwhile Henry, who is way way ahead of Fanny, has been using Fanny's own moral evangelicalism against her, making a complete end-around her massive emotional defenses, and using her refined and sophisticated taste in literature against her, charming her through Shakespeare and his acting, and then having a clear path to make a large hole in her heart—in that sense, Henry is an “assassin” like the conspirators who stab Caesar in Shakespeare’s great tragedy and  make a hole in his heart!

And, speaking of Shakespeare, I conclude these ruminations, by pointing out that I came to realize within two years after my first epiphany about Jane Austen's shadow stories, that she was not the originator of this anamorphic form of storytelling-above all, her mentor was Shakespeare, but there were others as well.

So, to paraphrase the guy in the Dos Equis beer commercials, be patient readers, my friends.

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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