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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Elinor Dashwood in and out of rejoicing for Edward and Lucy in Chapter 35 of Sense & Sensibility

Looking again at S&S these past few days for the first time in a long while, as a result of my recent epiphany about Edward’s inadvertent “visit” to Barton Cottage, I came across another one of Jane Austen's subtle little narrative constructions, which force the careful reader to stop and carefully parse the syntax of her elaborate sentences, in order to figure out what she means by one or more cryptic or subtly ambiguous portions thereof. It's one of the many reasons I love reading Jane Austen, because she rewards the careful reader who is willing to invest some time in analyzing her writing, with successively deeper understandings of the extraordinary psychological depths and complexities of her fiction which are (to paraphrase Lydia Bennet) hidden in the private lines under her public words. What I love most is that JA presents her characters’s (often flawed) self-descriptions, and leaves it to us to decide if we agree with them!
Here is the passage that made me pause and parse, and then pause and parse again, at the beginning of Chapter 35, right after Elinor has finally met the dragon-like Mrs. Ferrars:

"Elinor's curiosity to see Mrs. Ferrars was satisfied.— She had found in her every thing that could tend to make a farther connection between the families undesirable.— She had seen enough of her pride, her meanness, and her determined prejudice against herself, to comprehend all the difficulties that must have perplexed the engagement, and retarded the marriage, of Edward and herself, had he been otherwise free;—and she had seen almost enough to be thankful for her OWN sake, that one greater obstacle preserved her from suffering under any other of Mrs. Ferrars's creation, preserved her from all dependence upon her caprice, or any solicitude for her good opinion. Or at least, if she did not bring herself quite to rejoice in Edward's being fettered to Lucy, she determined, that had Lucy been more amiable, she OUGHT to have rejoiced."
Two interpretive questions arose for me in this rereading. First, after a bit of parsing, I grasped with certainty that the unnamed "one greater obstacle" that preserves Elinor "from suffering under any other (obstacle to Elinor's marrying Edward) of Mrs. Ferrars's creation" is Edward's secret engagement to Lucy.  

Elinor is engaging in the paradoxical rationalization that she's actually lucky that Edward is secretly engaged to Lucy, because it spares Elinor from two alternative, even more painful tortures, had Lucy not been in the picture at all, and had Edward therefore been single and free to marry Elinor:
having to contend with Mrs. Ferrars's "pride, meanness and determined prejudice" against Elinor, which would have permanently put the kibosh on a match between Elinor and Edward; or
even if Elinor and Edward had somehow managed to overcome Mrs. Ferrars’s opposition and get married, then having to endure on a daily basis the nightmare of having to suck up to Mrs. Ferrars for the rest of the latter's life!

What I can't quite 100% decide for sure is whether Elinor smiles to herself at these twisting and turning reflections, sadly savoring their fatalistic irony, or if the irony escapes her, and she thinks them in earnest sincerity. I lean toward her having enough of a sense of humor and irony, that she can enjoy a bit of gallows humor. I am strongly reminded of the following exchange between Emily (played by Joan Cusack) in the brilliant film comedy, In and Out, and Howard (played by Kevin Kline), when she is, most justifiably, venting her spleen at him over his having just jilted her, literally at the altar, when, instead of saying "I do", he shocks both her and the entire assembled dearly beloved, and even himself, by instead uttering, "I'm gay":

Here’s the immediate aftermath, that reminds me so much of Elinor’s rationalization:

HOWARD: …I'm scum, I'm garbage, I'm vermin...and I'm sorry.

EMILY: You're sorry?.....You're sorry?...After I... I...wait for you for...
No! No! Not just three entire life!
After I plan my future around our wedding?
After I base my entire concept of self-esteem...on the fact that you're willing to marry me?
And you're sorry?

HOWARD: I'm sorry.

EMILY: Thank God my parents are dead! This would've killed them!

In In and Out, this is played as broad farce, but in JA’s narration, the irony is subtly underplayed, requiring, as I’ve suggested, pausing and parsing in order to savor it fully.

But that is not the end of my puzzling over this excerpt in S&S. I had to struggle a while longer over the last sentence, with its sudden shift in another direction, a hypothetical imagining of Lucy being a different Lucy who was "more amiable". I eventually grasped that Elinor has instantly snapped back from the absurdity of her rejoicing in Lucy's engagement to Edward, and instead imagining a Lucy whose amiability and goodness would raise a duty in the masochistically self-denying Elinor to rejoice for Lucy and Edward to be entering into a happy marriage, regardless of the pain Elinor would be suffering even in that event.
But my final question was whether Elinor was smiling to herself ironically as she thinks about an amiable Lucy, or was she humorless in her self-denying fantasy? I vote for irony, as I think that Elinor is finding the same solace in ironic gallows humor in that turn of thought that she had just enjoyed in her previous mental conceit. But were there still more subtleties hidden in this passage that I had not addressed?
After composing the above analysis, I Googled, and found I was not entirely alone in my curiosity about
the above quoted passage in Chapter 35--in Reshaping the Sexes in Sense and Sensibility, Moreland Perkins presented the following take thereon, which, while not as minute as mine, puts that passage in a broader context:

“…the narrator of S&S is more inclined to an abstruse, mock-metaphysical wit than is the narrator of P&P. The same contrast holds between Elinor Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennet. Although bright, Elizabeth is not an intellectual. She falls short of Elinor in this way despite the fact that she is witty in a way Elinor is not; for Elinor’s wit is scarcely social and never sociable…The mock-metaphysical wit of Elinor and her narrator reinforce each other in helping render Elinor’s portrait as an intellectual; the narrator’s higher flights raise the altitude of her heroine’s by a kind of attraction or osmosis.
Consider the private meditation below in which Austen shares with Elinor the narrator’s disposition to a witty abstruseness in condemning Edward’s disagreeable mother: they (she) imagine(s), as (a) mock-philosopher(s), a uselessly hypothetical because utterly imaginary duty of Elinor’s to rejoice! Elinor has at last met Mrs. Ferrars, but only after her love for Edward has been thwarted by her learning of his secret engagement to Lucy Steele: [Perkins then quotes that same excerpt as I did]
With the climactic “she determined”, the narrator makes conclusive the transfer to Elinor of the most abstruse element in this reflection….”

Any reactions?

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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