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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Friday, May 27, 2016

Joe F.O.X. & Mr. D.A.R.C.Y. make offers that Kathleen & Elizabeth cannot refuse

I ended my post last week about Mr. Bennet’s “independence” with my take on his comments about Mr. Darcy as a kind of Regency Era Don Corleone: 

“ "Well, my dear," said he, when she ceased speaking, "I have no more to say. If this be the case, he deserves you. I could not hiave parted with you, my Lizzy, to anyone less worthy.” You really have to wonder about Mr. Bennet’s never daring to refuse Darcy anything that he “condescended to ask”— it drips with euphemistic irony, and is the kind of “polite” statement that could most aptly have been made about Don Corleone, the Godfather!

This very famous scene in The Godfather Part I comes specifically to mind:
MICHAEL: We’re all proud of you…   JOHNNY: Thank, Mike.
MICHAEL: Sit down, Johnny— I want to talk to you…The Don is proud of you.  JOHNNY: Well I owe it all to him. 
MICHAEL: Well, he knows how grateful you are. He wants to ask a favor of you.  JOHNNY: Mike, what can I do?
MICHAEL: [Asks for the specific favor, then]  FREDO: Hey, Mike, are you sure about that? Moe loves the business, he never said nothin’ to me about sellin’.    

And so the idea that Mr. Bennet has been on Darcy’s payroll all along, as a result of Darcy’s having preyed on the financial vulnerability of the Bennet family, and therefore Darcy’s “request” for Mr. Bennet’s consent truly is a proverbial offer he cannot refuse, is very appealing to me.”  

Today, I return to this curiously striking similarity between the Darcy and Corleone “families”, in order to acknowledge that I’m actually not the first Austen scholar to see Darcy’s Godfatherliness — I was beaten to the punch two decades ago by the subtle brilliance of the late, great Nora Ephron in her sneakily erudite romcom You’ve Got Mail. This is a tale of authorial genius that you can’t refuse to read!

I’ve previously blogged on several occasions…
…about the veiled allusion in You’ve Got Mail to Shakespeare’s great “romcom” Much Ado About Nothing that is best viewed through the lens of Ephron’s not-so-veiled allusion to Pride & Prejudice.  And, because of that undisguised evocation of P&P in You’ve Got Mail, I’d guess that a pretty large number of Janeites have seen You’ve Got Mail, and therefore are familiar with the three scenes in which The Godfather is explicitly mentioned, even if they’ve never paid those mentions any particular attention. Now I will show you how significant those “passing” references actually are.

In the first such scene, Kathleen suddenly realizes that the nice guy who brought kids to her bookstore is actually her business nemesis, Joe Fox, heartless bookstore magnate. Thereupon, she immediately confronts him: 

KATHLEEN    Fox?  Your last name is Fox?
Joe spins around, looks at her.
JOE     F-O-X.
KATHLEEN God, I didn't realize.  I didn't know who you--
JOE   -- were with. (quoting) "I didn't know who you were with."
KATHLEEN  Excuse me?
JOE   It's from The Godfather.  When the movie producer realizes that Tom Hagen is the emissary of Vito Corleone --
Kathleen is staring at him.
JOE -- just before the horse's head ends up in his bed--never mind --
KATHLEEN  You were spying on me, weren't you? You probably rented those children.
JOE     Why would I spy on you?
KATHLEEN   I am your competition.  Which you know perfectly well or you would not have put up that sign saying "Just around the Corner."
JOE    The entrance to our store is around the corner.  There is no other way to say it. It's not the name of our store, it’s where it is.  You don't own "around the corner."

Kathleen’s justifiable suspicion that Joe has been spying on her iconic “village” bookstore in order to crush it, and her witty, sarcastic “suspicion” that he rented two children to make him appear kind and humane, is uncannily in synch with my longstanding suspicion that in the shadow story of Pride & Prejudice, Mr. Darcy similarly stage-manages a completely inauthentic, faked performance of himself as the generous, benevolent patron of Pemberley, who “accidentally” shows up just as Elizabeth (not coincidentally) is brought there by her uncle and aunt.

In the midst of being bowled over by the Pemberley Experience, Elizabeth slides right by her perceptive observation of the ambiguity of Darcy’s power:  “As a brother, a landlord, a master, she considered how many people's happiness were in his guardianship!—how much of pleasure or pain was it in his power to bestow!—how much of good or evil must be done by him!”  

Elizabeth doesn’t pay any attention to the “evil” side of that ambiguity, nor does she realize that the “adoring servant” Mrs. Reynolds is just as much of a role as the two “fake children” that Kathleen mockingly suspects Joe has rented for the occasion. But rest assured that Nora Ephron understood this very well indeed!

We know this in part because Ephron has Joe Fox in effect boast about his own omnipotence by invoking The Godfather. Like Donald Trump, Joe is so arrogant and certain of his power that he indirectly boasts about it by implicitly comparing himself to Tom Hagen, the outwardly friendly face of the murderous Corleone family. And we find explicit authority on that category of boast in this speech by Mr. Darcy, which fits very well indeed with Joe Fox’s real pride of his rapacious business career:

"My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them—by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents."
"Your humility, Mr. Bingley," said Elizabeth, "must disarm reproof."
"Nothing is more deceitful," said Darcy, "than the appearance of humility. It is often only carelessness of opinion, and sometimes an indirect boast."
"And which of the two do you call my little recent piece of modesty?"
"The indirect boast; for you are really proud of your defects in writing, because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which, if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting….”

So far, then, we can already see Ephron weaving P&P and The Godfather together via the character of Joe Fox. But this is only the beginning.

In the second such scene, Joe and Kathleen, who’ve been trading instant messages on AOL without knowing each other’s identities, discuss (in IMs) Kathleen’s business woes dealing with….Joe!:

JOE   I'm a brilliant businessman.  It's what I do best.  What's your business?
KATHLEEN  No specifics, remember?
JOE   Minus specifics, it's hard to help. Except to say, go to the mattresses.
JOE  It's from The Godfather.  It means you have to go to war.
KATHLEEN (to herself) The Godfather?
KATHLEEN  What is it with men and The Godfather?
JOE  The Godfather is the I Ching.  The Godfather is the sum of all wisdom.  The Godfather is the answer to any question. What should I pack for my summer vacation?  "Leave the gun, take the cannoli."  What day of the week is it? "Maunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Wednesday.” And the answer to your question is "Go to the mattresses.”….You're at war.  "It's not personal, it’s business.  It's not personal it’s business."  Recite that to yourself every time you feel you're losing your nerve. I know you worry about being brave, this is your chance.  Fight.  Fight to the death.

Once again, Joe reveals his true (and ugly) self via his Godfather-mania, yet Kathleen is not quite able to consciously connect the dots (“What is it with men and The Godfather?”) between Joe’s invocation of same, and her online “friend”’s. This is also Ephron counterbalancing Joe’s worship of The Godfather with Kathleen’s worship of Pride & Prejudice. But, by the end of You’ve Got Mail, it’s also Ephron’s sharp irony: since Kathleen does not grasp the dark shadow story of P&P, in which Darcy does not actually reform, but merely pretends to reform, she is doomed to repeat Elizabeth’s error—believing that, in real life, a narcissistic man of power can receive an “instant message” that instantly transforms his character completely!

And that brings me to the third such scene, which occurs much later in the film, after Joe knows who Kathleen is, but she does not. This carries the implicit message that Joe still believes that it’s perfectly okay to retain complete control of his relationship with a woman he wishes to manipulate into loving him, by concealing that he is the same man as her dear online friend, and by showering her with apparent love and kindness.

And a prime example of this is when Joe talks with Kathleen about his own online persona:

JOE   Come on, I'm not going to write him.  Is that what you think?                                                
JOE    One five two.  One hundred fifty two. Very interesting.  He's 152 years old. He has 152 hairs remaining on his head. He's had 152 moles removed and now he has 152 pockmarks.
JOE    His combined college board scores.
JOE    The number of women he's slept with.
KATHLEEN   The number of times he's seen The Godfather.
JOE     That's the first good thing I've heard about him.

Note how subtly brilliant is Ephron’s dialogue there. Once more Kathleen inadvertently and subconsciously connects Joe and NY152 by bringing up male Godfather obsession, and Joe clearly enjoys validating it –safely, because he still conceals that he and NY152 are the same man. And only while writing this post today did I get a brief chill wondering whether Joe got a special charge out of telling the truth when he wrote “The number of women he’s slept with.”

Perhaps he is indeed the kind of man who keeps that kind of score. It’s not unrealistic, given that Ephron has subtly set the stage for this dark side of Joe’s character by letting us see his father and grandfather, both of them board-certified represensible serial lechers and cocksmen.

And once again we see Joe enjoying the narcissistic thrill of daring to hide it in plain sight (as an apparent joke) to Kathleen, because he feels so confident she would never suspect him of such a horrid thing.

It was only on my third or fourth viewing of You’ve Got Mail that I began to realize that the happy ending of You’ve Got Mail was every bit as tainted by strong doubt as that of P&P – in effect, Ephron has showed me, in several different but related ways, that she understood that P&P was a double story, with a romantic fantasy of an overt story masking a cautionary tale of a shadow story. And Ephron did this the way great storytellers do: not by heavy handed imitation, but by the subtlest kind of emulation of her literary models.

Most brilliant of all, Ephron confronts her audience with the same puzzle that JA presented her readers with — to show the heroine falling in love with a man who does not hesitate to manipulate her, to spy on her, to plan an elaborate ruse in order to get a second romantic chance with her, all the while controlling the entire situation, knowing everything about her, while allowing her to know nothing about his disguise until after her resistance to him has been reduced to nothing—and still, despite all these undisguised actions, Ephron manages to make the audience fall in love with Joe F.O.X. by the end, right along with poor motherless storeless Kathleen.

And, speaking of Kathleen’s mother, and thinking about that very poignant scene when Kathleen, standing and sadly looking at her now empty store, vividly recalls herself as a young girl dancing with her young mother, it makes me wonder whether Ephron had in mind the scene at Longbourn only a very short time before Darcy proposes a second time. Elizabeth is sitting and fretting about Darcy’s ignoring her, and then a young woman (as I’ve written before, I believe it is actually sister Mary Bennet) whispers this in Elizabeth’s ear: "The men shan't come and part us, I am determined. We want none of them; do we?"

Unfortunately for Elizabeth, she doesn’t hear this feminist whisper. And unfortunately for Kathleen, whose female world at her store inherited from her mother has been shattered by Joe’s having gone to the mattresses against her, she doesn’t hear this “instant message” from her long-dead mother, and allows herself to be abducted into Joe’s world – as we hear the romantic strains of “Somewhere over the rainbow”, if we pay really close attention, we might just hear Nora Ephron whispering to us “Don’t believe it, Kathleen has just put herself entirely into the hands of the Wizard of Oz, but this time it’s Kathleen whose still asleep at the switch, romantically speaking.”

And, finally, Ephron brought The Godfather into the mix, I think, most of all because she recognized that Michael Corleone, in his dreadful cold, narcissistic, compulsion to control his wife, was a perfect match for the Mr. Darcy of the shadow story, who will, I fear, treat Elizabeth at Pemberley much the same way that Michael treated his wife, making her a prisoner of his bloated ego and refusal to take no for an answer—because, after all, their idea of marriage was as an offer that no woman could refuse.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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