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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, March 25, 2016

The answer to my special bicentennial Emma quiz

Now I’m ready to reveal my answer to the special quiz about Emma I posted two days ago. The quiz question was very simple:

“What is the single extrinsic allusive source that connects all of the following excerpts (mostly pertaining in some way to Mr. Woodhouse and/or Frank Churchill) which I copied from 18 different chapters in Emma? “

I hinted that this was an allusive source which has previously been connected to Emma by a few other Austen scholars in a general way, as well as by myself in a more specific way several years ago—but writing my previous post about “disposing of poor Mr. Woodhouse” made me see that connection in much sharper focus, and to connect it directly to the shadow story of Emma.

And the answer is…..Oedipus Rex by Sophocles!

To be more specific, I suggest that the below quoted passages (from 18 different chapters in Jane Austen’s Emma)  collectively constitute a subliminal, sophisticated, tragicomic parody of Sophocles’s ancient masterwork, in which:

OEDIPUS is represented by Frank Churchill, who was given away by his biological father as a young child, and then by his adoptive father as a boy—and Oedipus is secondarily represented by Emma, who is, as every Janeite knows, the quintessence of clueless blindness about what happens around her;

LAIUS, Oedipus’s biological father, is represented by Mr. Woodhouse---and NOT Mr. Weston, who, in the shadow story, was Frank’s first adoptive father (and Mr. Churchill was his second adoptive father). This dovetails with eerie precision with my prior claims…  …that Mr. Woodhouse was a lifelong incestuous pedophile, based in part on other incestuous fathers as well: the Biblical Lot and King Antiochus in Shakespeare’s Pericles (which itself is clearly based in part on Oedipus Rex);

JOCASTA, Oedipus’s biological mother, is represented by Mrs. Weston, who, when she was Miss Taylor, an unmarried teenager, was molested and impregnated by the lecherous Mr. Woodhouse, and who, as a young middle-aged woman, is found so attractive by her own biological son, Frank; and

THE CHORUS, whose repeated warnings are ignored by Oedipus, is represented by Miss Bates, whose constant stream of choric commentary is ignored by Emma, even though she speaks about what is actually happening.

And this masterful veiled allusion by Jane Austen to Oedipus Rex is carried forward throughout the novel by a liberal sprinkling of the word “BLIND”, because Oedipus Rex is a foundational text in Western literature on that very theme of blindness, both literal and metaphorical, with Hamlet and Freud’s Oedipal Complex as its most intellectually influential “children”.

Beyond that short encapsulation, I think the easiest way to elaborate on my interpretation will be to first present a brief synopsis of Oedipus Rex for those not familiar with it, and then repeat those 18 excerpts (plus two others I’ve since spotted) from Emma, but this time with the keywords which point to Oedipus Rex in ALL CAPS, and brief “translations” of JA’s parody of Sophocles in each passage. No one of them is sufficient to support my reading—it’s the aggregation of all of them that, in my opinion, constitutes proof. Then, at the end of my post, I’ll sum up these findings one last time.

So first, here is that synopsis of Oedipus Rex:

“A son is born to King Laius and Queen Jocasta of Thebes. After Laius learns from an oracle that "he is doomed/To perish by the hand of his own son", he tightly binds the feet of the infant together with a pin and orders Jocasta to kill the infant. Hesitant to do so, she orders a servant to commit the act for her. Instead, the servant takes the baby to a mountain top to die from exposure. A shepherd rescues the infant and names him Oedipus (or "swollen feet"). (The servant directly hands the infant to the shepherd in most versions.) The shepherd carries the baby with him to Corinth, where Oedipus is taken in and raised in the court of the childless King Polybus of Corinth as if he were his own.
As a young man in Corinth, Oedipus hears a rumour that he is not the biological son of Polybus and his wife Merope. When Oedipus questions the King and Queen, they deny it, but, still suspicious, he asks the Delphic Oracle who his parents really are. The Oracle seems to ignore this question, telling him instead that he is destined to "Mate with [his] own mother, and shed/With [his] own hands the blood of [his] own sire". Desperate to avoid his foretold fate, Oedipus leaves Corinth in the belief that Polybus and Merope are indeed his true parents and that, once away from them, he will never harm them.
On the road to Thebes, he meets Laius, his true father, with several other men. Unaware of each other's identities, Laius and Oedipus quarrel over whose chariot has right-of-way. King Laius moves to strike the insolent youth with his sceptre, but Oedipus throws him down from the chariot and kills him, thus fulfilling part of the oracle's prophecy.
Shortly after Oedipus solves the riddle of the Sphinx, which has baffled many diviners: "What is the creature that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?" To this Oedipus replies, "Man" (who crawls on all fours as an infant, walks upright later, and needs a walking stick in old age), and the distraught Sphinx throws herself off the cliffside. Oedipus's reward for freeing the kingdom of Thebes from her curse is the kingship and the hand of Queen Dowager Jocasta, his biological mother. The prophecy is thus fulfilled, although none of the main characters knows it.

And now, here are those same 20 excerpts from Emma:

2: Captain Weston, who had been considered, especially by the Churchills, as making such an amazing match, was proved to have much the worst of the bargain; for when his wife died, after a three years' marriage, he was rather a poorer man than at first, and WITH A CHILD TO MAINTAIN. From the expense of the child, however, he was soon relieved. The boy had, with the additional softening claim of a lingering illness of his mother's, been the means of a sort of reconciliation; and Mr. and Mrs. Churchill, having no children of their own, nor any other young creature of equal kindred to care for, OFFERED TO TAKE THE WHOLE CHARGE OF THE LITTLE FRANK soon after her decease. Some scruples and some reluctance the widower-father may be supposed to have felt; but as they were OVERCOME BY OTHER CONSIDERATIONS, the child was given up to the care and the wealth of the Churchills, and he had only his own comfort to seek, and his own situation to improve as he could….
[I claim that Captain Weston took baby Frank from Miss Taylor for money, and then “sold” Frank to the Churchills for more money at his first opportunity, and so Isabella is spot-on to question this in Chapter 11, see below!]

9: [Mr. Woodhouse to Emma] "Ah! it is no difficulty to see who you take after! Your dear mother was so clever at all those things! If I had but her memory! But I CAN REMEMBER NOTHING;—not even THAT PARTICULAR RIDDLE which you have heard me mention; I can only recollect the first stanza; and there are several….”
[The Sphinx’s riddle that “Laius” can’t remember, but he knows it’s important!]

10: They now walked on together quietly, till within view of the vicarage pales, when a sudden resolution, of at least getting Harriet into the house, made her again find something very much amiss about her boot, and fall behind to arrange it once more. She then BROKE the LACE off short, and dexterously THROWING IT INTO A DITCH, was presently obliged to entreat them to stop, and acknowledged her inability to put herself to rights so as to be able to walk home in tolerable comfort.
"Part of my LACE IS GONE," said she, "and I do not know how I am to contrive. I really am a most troublesome companion to you both, but I hope I am not often so ill-equipped. Mr. Elton, I must beg leave to stop at your house, and ask your housekeeper for a bit of ribband or string, or any thing just to keep my boot on." [This is JA at her punning best. Emma “broke the LACE” and threw it into a ditch—Oedipus “broke” LAIUS, and threw his corpse into a ditch!-LACE/LAIUS, get it?]

11:  [Isabella re Frank] "I have no doubt of his being a most amiable young man. But HOW SAD it is that he should NOT LIVE AT HOME WITH HIS FATHER! There is something SO SHOCKING IN A CHILD’S BEING TAKEN AWAY FROM HIS PARENTS and natural home! I never could comprehend how Mr. Weston could part with him. TO GIVE UP ONE’S CHILD! I really never could think well of any body who proposed such a thing to any body else."
[Oedipus’s being sent off to die by his father is shocking and sad!]

15: [John to Mr. Woodhouse] “…Another hour or two's snow can hardly make the road impassable; and we are two CARRIAGES; if one is BLOWN OVER in the bleak part of the common field there will be the other at hand. I dare say we shall be all SAFE AT HARTFIELD before midnight."
[Laius’s fatal carriage ride when he encounters Oedipus on the road]

18: [Knightley to Emma re Frank] "I suspect they do not satisfy Mrs. Weston. They hardly can satisfy a woman of her good sense and quick feelings: standing in a mother's place, but WITHOUT A MOTHER’S AFFECTION TO BLIND HER […] If Frank Churchill had wanted to SEE HIS FATHER, he would have contrived it between September and January…We hear of him for ever at some watering-place or other. A little while ago, he was at Weymouth. This proves that he can leave the Churchills…There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty; not by manoeuvring and finessing, but by vigour and resolution. It is Frank Churchill's duty to pay this ATTENTION TO HIS FATHER. He knows it to be so, by his promises and messages; but if he wished to do it, it might be done. A man who felt rightly would say at once, simply and resolutely, to Mrs. Churchill—'Every SACRIFICE of mere pleasure you will always find me ready to make to your convenience; but I must go and SEE MY FATHER immediately…They would feel that they could trust him; that the nephew who had DONE RIGHTLY BY HIS FATHER, would do rightly by them; for they know, as well as he does, as well as all the world must know, that he ought to pay this VISIT TO HIS FATHER…;
[Emma] "I rather doubt that. You are very fond of bending little minds; but where little minds belong to rich people  in authority, I think they have a knack of SWELLING OUT, till they are quite as unmanageable as great ones…He ought to have opposed the first attempt on their side to make him SLIGHT HIS FATHER. Had he begun as he ought, there would have been no difficulty now."
[Knightley] "Yes; all the advantages of sitting still when he ought to move, and of leading a life of mere idle pleasure, and fancying himself extremely expert in finding excuses for it. He can sit down and write a fine flourishing letter, full of professions and falsehoods, and persuade himself that he has hit upon the very best method in the world of preserving peace at home and PREVENTING HIS FATHER’S HAVING ANY RIGHT TO COMPLAIN. His letters disgust me."
[Oedipus’s return home to his father does not end well----and his name means “SWELL-foot”!]

23: And at last, as if resolved to qualify his opinion completely for TRAVELLING ROUND to its object, [Frank] wound it all up with astonishment at THE YOUTH AND BEAUTY OF [Mrs. Weston’s] PERSON.
"Elegant, agreeable manners, I was prepared for," said he; "but I confess that, considering every thing, I had not expected more than a very tolerably well-looking woman of a certain age; I did not know that I was to find A PRETTY YOUNG WOMAN IN MRS. WESTON."
"You cannot see too much perfection in Mrs. Weston for my feelings," said Emma; "WERE YOU TO GUESS HER TO BE EIGHTEEN, I should listen with pleasure; but she would be ready to quarrel with you for using such words. Don't let her imagine that you have spoken of her as A PRETTY YOUNG WOMAN."
"I hope I should know better," he replied; "no, depend upon it, (with a gallant bow,) that in addressing Mrs. Weston I should understand whom I might praise without any danger of being thought extravagant in my terms."
[Of course Frank as latter-day “Oedipus” would think that the much older “Jocasta”is looking fine!]
[Emma’s] OWN FATHER’S PERFECTION EXEMPTION FROM ANY THOUGHT of the kind, THE ENTIRE DEFICIENCY IN HIM OF ALL such sort of penetration or SUSPICION, was a most comfortable circumstance. Happily he was NOT farther from APPROVING MATRIMONY than from foreseeing it.—Though always objecting to every marriage that was arranged, he never suffered beforehand from the apprehension of any; it seemed as if he could not think so ill of any two persons' understanding as to suppose they meant to marry till it were proved against them. She blessed THE FAVOURING BLINDNESS. He could now, WITHOUT the drawback of a single UNPLEASANT SURMISE, without a glance forward at ANY POSSIBLE TREACHERY IN HIS GUEST, give way to all his natural kind-hearted civility in solicitous inquiries after Mr. Frank Churchill's accommodation on his journey, through the sad evils of sleeping two nights ON THE ROAD, and express very genuine unmixed anxiety to know that HE HAD CERTAINLY ESCAPED catching cold—which, however, he could not allow him to feel quite assured of himself till after another night.
[Mr. Woodhouse, as Laius, has no clue who Oedipus is when he encounters him on the road outside Thebes as Oedipus unwittingly returns home!]

24: Some of the objects of [Frank’s] curiosity spoke very amiable feelings. He begged to be shewn THE HOUSE WHERE HIS FATHER HAD LIVED in so long, and which had been THE HOME OF HIS FATHER’S FATHER; and on recollecting that AN OLD WOMAN WHO HAD NURSED HIM was still living, walked in quest of her cottage from one end of the street to the other; and though in some points of pursuit or observation there was no positive merit, they shewed, altogether, A GOOD-WILL TOWARDS HIGHBURY in general, which must be very like a merit to those he was with.
"But I beg your pardon, Miss Woodhouse, you were speaking to me, you were saying something at the very moment of this burst of my AMOR PATRIAE. Do not let me lose it. I assure you the utmost stretch of PUBLIC FAME would not make me amends for THE LOSS OF ANY HAPPINESS IN PRIVATE LIFE."
[Oedipus comes back to Thebes where he was born and achieves “public fame” but “loses happiness in private life”, to put it mildly!]

28: [Frank] "I have been assisting Miss Fairfax in trying to make her instrument stand steadily, it was not quite firm; an unevenness in the floor, I believe. You see we have been WEDGING ONE LEG with paper…” 
[The pianoforte is the elderly man in the Sphinx’s riddle, with weak legs requiring support from a cane—and the sexual innuendo of “making the instrument stand steadily” fits with the sexual innuendo of the “third leg” in the Sphinx’s Riddle]

29: [Mr. Woodhouse] “….That young man (speaking lower) is very thoughtless. DO NOT TELL HIS FATHER, but THAT YOUNG MAN IS NOT QUITE THE THING. He has been opening the doors very often this evening, and keeping them open very inconsiderately. He does not think of the draught. I do not mean to set you against him, but indeed HE IS NOT QUITE THE THING!"
[Naturally, “Laius” would say not nice things about “Oedipus”!]

39: Miss Smith, and Miss Bickerton, another parlour boarder at Mrs. Goddard's, who had been also at the ball, had walked out together, and TAKEN A ROAD, the Richmond road, which, though apparently public enough for safety, had led them into alarm.—About half a mile beyond Highbury, MAKING A SUDDEN TURN, and deeply shaded by elms on each side, it became for a considerable stretch very retired; and when the young ladies had advanced some way into it, they had suddenly perceived at a small distance before them, on a broader patch of greensward by the side, A PARTY OF GIPSIES. Harriet was soon assailed by half a dozen children, headed by a stout woman and a great boy, ALL CLAMOROUS, and IMPERTINENT IN LOOK, though not absolutely in word.—More and more frightened, she immediately promised them money, and taking out her purse, gave them a shilling, and begged them not to want more, or to use her ill.—She was then able to walk, though but slowly, and was moving away—but her terror and her purse were too tempting, and she was followed, or rather surrounded, by the whole gang, demanding more. In this state FRANK CHURCHILL HAD FOUND HER, she trembling and conditioning, they loud and insolent. By a most fortunate chance his leaving Highbury had been delayed so as to BRING HIM to her assistance AT THIS CRITICAL MOMENT.   
[Of course this is a comic parody of Laius’s fatal encounter with Oedipus at the crossroads outside Thebes!]

41: Disingenuousness and double dealing seemed to meet [Knightley] at every turn. These letters were but the vehicle for gallantry and trick. It was A CHILD’S PLAY, chosen to conceal A DEEPER GAME ON FRANK CHURCHILL’S PART. With great indignation did he continue to observe him; with great alarm and distrust, to observe also HIS TWO BLINDED COMPANIONS. He saw a short word prepared for Emma, and given to her with a look sly and demure. 
[The boardgame is a parody of the Sphinx’s riddle, and a wink at the self-blinded Oedipus]

43: [Frank] “…Here are seven of you, besides myself, (who, she is pleased to say, am very entertaining already,) and she only demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at them all."
"Oh! very well," exclaimed Miss Bates, "then I need not be uneasy. 'Three things very dull indeed.' That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan't I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body's assent)—Do not you all think I shall?"
Emma could not resist. "Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once."
[This is a parody of the three part structure of the Sphinx’s riddle, and Miss Bates as the ignored Chorus]

44: [Miss Bates to Jane] 'My dear,' said I, 'you will BLIND yourself'—for tears were in her eyes perpetually. One cannot wonder, one cannot wonder. It is a great change; and though she is amazingly fortunate—such a situation, 
[Again, blinding and a homophonic pun on the “tears”—i.e., gashes--Oedipus causes in his own eyes]

45: A sudden seizure of a different nature from any thing foreboded by her general state, had carried her off after a short struggle. The great Mrs. Churchill was no more. It was felt as such things must be felt. Every body had a degree of gravity and sorrow; tenderness towards the departed, solicitude for the surviving friends; and, in a reasonable time, curiosity to know where she would be buried. 
[Echo of the death of Jocasta, plus a hint at hypothetical Mr. Woodhouse’s parricide in Ch. 53, below]

47: How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been [Emma’s] conduct! What BLINDNESS, what madness, had led her on! It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world….She was bewildered amidst the confusion of all that had rushed on her within the last few hours. Every moment had brought a FRESH SURPRIZE; and every surprize must be matter of humiliation to her.—How to understand it all! How to understand the DECEPTIONS SHE HAD BEEN PRACTISING ON HERSELF, and living under!—The BLUNDERS, the BLINDNESS of her own head and heart!—
[Oedipus’s tragic madness-causing realization of his own blindness]

49: [Emma to Knightley re Frank & Jane] “My BLINDNESS to what was going on, led me to act by them in a way that I must always be ashamed of, and I was very foolishly tempted to say and do many things which may well lay me open to unpleasant conjectures, but I have no other reason to regret that I was not in the secret earlier…. He was THE SON OF MR. WESTON—he was continually here—I always found him very pleasant—and, in short, for (with a sigh) let me SWELL OUT the causes ever so ingeniously, they all centre in this at last—my vanity was flattered, and I allowed his attentions. Latterly, however—for some time, indeed—I HAVE HAD NO IDEA OF THEIR MEANING ANY THING.—I thought them a habit, a trick, nothing that called for seriousness on my side. He has imposed on me, but he has not injured me. I have never been attached to him. And now I can tolerably comprehend his behaviour. He never wished to attach me. It was merely a BLIND to conceal his real situation with another.—It was his object to BLIND all about him; and no one, I am sure, could be more effectually BLINDED than myself—except that I was not  BLINDED—that it was my good fortune—that, in short, I was somehow or other safe from him."
[And still more of “Oedipus’s” tragic realization of his own blindness]

51: [Knightley] had been thinking it over most deeply, most intently; he had at first hoped to induce Mr. Woodhouse to remove with her to Donwell; he had wanted to believe it feasible, but his knowledge of Mr. Woodhouse would not suffer him to deceive himself long; and now he confessed his persuasion, that SUCH A TRANSPLANTATION would be A RISK OF HER FATHER’ S COMFORT,  perhaps even of his life, which must not be hazarded. MR. WOODHOUSE TAKEN FROM HARTFIELD!—No, he felt that it ought not to be attempted. But the plan which had arisen on the SACRIFICE of this, he trusted his dearest Emma would not find in any respect objectionable; it was, that he should be received at Hartfield; that so long as HER FATHER’S HAPPINESS—IN OTHER WORDS, HIS LIFE—required Hartfield to continue her home, it should be his likewise.
Of their all removing to Donwell, Emma had already had her own passing thoughts. Like him, she had tried the scheme and rejected it; but such an alternative as this had not occurred to her. She was sensible of all the affection it evinced. She felt that, in quitting Donwell, he must be SACRIFICING a great deal of independence of hours and habits; that in living constantly with her father, and IN NO HOUSE OF HIS OWN, there would be much, very much, to be borne with….
[Prelude to the parricide of Mr. Woodhouse, who must be “disposed of” before Emma can marry]

53: The difficulty of DISPOSING OF POOR MR. WOODHOUSE had been always felt in [Mrs. Weston’s] husband's plans and her own, for A MARRIAGE BETWEEN FRANK AND EMMA. How to settle the claims of Enscombe and Hartfield had been a CONTINUAL IMPEDIMENT—less acknowledged by Mr. Weston than by herself—but even he had never been able to finish the subject better than by saying—"Those matters will take care of themselves; the young people will find a way." But here there was nothing to be shifted off in a wild speculation on the future. It was all right, all open, all equal. No SACRIFICE on any side worth the name. It was a union of the highest promise of felicity in itself, and without one real, rational difficulty to oppose or delay it.
[And here is the crucial parricidal reference vis a vis Mr. Woodhouse (“Laius”) and Frank (“Oedipus”). What droll irony that “Those matters will take care of themselves; the young people will find a way” means, Oedipus will murder Laius, marry Jocasta, and tragedy ensues!]

So, if I am right about Oedipus as a source for Emma, what is its significance? In the 11 years since I began decoding the shadow story of Emma, the trickiest part of that task has been to bring coherence to the very murky pre-story of the novel. I.e., there’s no mention whatsoever of the parents of the Knightley brothers, nor of the parents of Mr. and Mrs. Weston. Plus, the strange stories of Frank’s and Jane’s ancestries both involve early parental deaths. Nor is there any mention of Harriet’s mother, nor are we ever told the name of Harriet’s father. All of that collective narrative silence is, for me, deafening, and demands investigation.

I’ve been of the opinion for several years that Mr. Woodhouse, whose first name is Henry, is just like his infamous namesake Henry the Eighth in one crucial way---I believe he’s not only the progenitor of Isabella and Emma, but also of most, if not all, of those parentless characters: the Knightley brothers, Frank, Jane, and Harriet.  

I’m not the first to enter this minefield of speculation. Edith Lank, way back in the 1985 Persuasions, , famously (at least, among Janeites) opined that Miss Bates was actually the biological mother of Harriet Smith --- I’ve always found that claim persuasive, and now it can be fit into a larger pre-story context—Miss Bates, like Miss Taylor, was a sperm donee from Mr. Woodhouse.

It was only yesterday, when I revisited the allusion to Oedipus in Emma that I first took note of in 2005, that I was finally able to connect the dots among a single biological triad of a father (Mr. Woodhouse) and a mother (Miss Taylor), as the parents of one of those parentless adult children (Frank).  And it fits the situation at Hartfield twenty-few years earlier.

First, Miss Taylor would’ve been a teenaged servant at Hartfield, where a much younger Mr. Woodhouse would’ve been her master. And when one thing led to another, and she became pregnant, the baby would have been farmed out discreetly.  

Second, the recently widowed young Captain Weston was ready, “for good and valuable consideration” to acknowledge the baby boy as his own, and to keep him for a short while. But then, the pragmatic young officer saw a chance to double dip, and to flip the boy (like a house in a rising real estate market), for good and valuable consideration, to the rich childless inlaws of his late wife---so Isabella Knightley was spot-on to wonder about all of that, wasn’t she?

And finally, I see yet another ancient Greek source for all of the above: Mr. Woodhouse as Egeus the cruel father from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (as I wrote about in my post earlier this week) has as another source the Plutarchian account of Theseus and the death of his father Aegeus:  “Theseus, in his forgetfulness and neglect of the command concerning the flag, can scarcely, methinks, by any excuses, or before the most indulgent judges, avoid the imputation of parricide.”  So, the comic suggestion of parricide in “disposing of Mr. Woodhouse” which I wrote about earlier this week suggests Knightley as Theseus and Mr. Woodhouse as Aegeus, in addition to the Oedipus Rex subtext I’ve already outlined.

And that all fits perfectly with how Mr. Knightley’s famous reflections about the validity of his suspicions about Jane and Frank have been claimed to be derived in part from Shakespeare’s Theseus’s famous speech about the role of imagination in perception. And so, that supports my notion that Knightley is Mr. Woodhouse’s biological son (perhaps Mrs.  Bates or Mrs. Goddard is his bio mother?).

In short, we begin to see the branches of the concealed family tree in Highbury! And there you have it all as I see it today----I’d love to hear feedback about my above heresies…..

I ADDED THE FOLLOWING P.S. ON 3/25/16 at 10:12 am:

In response to my post about the pervasive allusion to Oedipus Rex that I see in Emma, a good friend pointed me to an amazing article I had been unaware of:

“Oedipus Crux: Reasonable Doubt in Oedipus the King” by Kurt Fosso 

What Fosso is saying about Oedipus Rex is very close to what I say about Shakespeare's plays (most of all Hamlet) and Austen's novels (most of all Emma). I.e., they all were written to allow for counter-readings in which the opposite of what appears to be so at the end of the story, is so. However, Fosso did not reach the idea of a double story, which can be read plausibly in either of two ways.

All the same, he has hit a grand slam home run in his article, because he took the prior scholarly sightings of this unrecognized ambiguity in Oedipus Rex (a tradition begun by Voltaire, it appears) seven leagues further than any of them, and made an overwhelming case for this counterintuitive reading of Oedipus Rex.

I particularly loved Fosso’s final paragraph:

“…the play shifts from being a drama about divine fate to being one about questioning the validity of all sources of truth, from oracles and prophets to custodial, etiological, and other tales. If people cannot place their trust in such traditional sources, the play implies, then the "golden thread of reason" followed by Socrates and company may be what's left. Yet Oedipus himself is largely a negative example, losing his reasoned way by accepting inadequate evidence of his guilt of incest and, via that charge, of parricide. He assembles his self-convicting narrative from a patchwork of prophecies, rumors, testimony, and interpretation. Oedipus is shone in this light to be the first mis-reader of his own myth (and complex), and to be complicit in slavishly imposing Delphi's master narrative upon himself, his family, and city. In reading this tragedy about seeing and not seeing, what some students come to see is that nothing should be taken for granted, neither fact nor theory, not least what is at one's feet.”

I love it because it can easily be adapted to describe Emma at the end of Emma, when she has, in the shadow story, been talked or tricked out of every single suspicious event she has (correctly) observed during the entire novel.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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