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Friday, May 13, 2016

"We all love to instruct": the didactic purpose of Jane Austen's double stories

My friendly skeptic Nancy Mayer was at it again yesterday in Janeites, giving me yet another prompt to explain myself in a different way: 
"Jane Austen didn't have to go to the lengths of a Da Vinci code  rigmarole  to publish her cautionary tales. She could have published them openly and called them cautionary tales for  young women on the verge of marriage. She was a genius . She would have found a way if she'd  wished."
Nancy, I'll explain this one more time,  since you keep ignoring my repeated explanations of this very point. I've often mentioned the strange Zen paradox that JA put in the mouth of Elizabeth Bennet ("We all love to instruct though we can teach only what is not worth knowing") in this regard, and will do so again now.

I claim that Jane Austen wished to instruct her female readers about the perils not only of the Wickhams of her world but also of the bad Darcys (as opposed to the good Darcys), too. 

And JA realized that just straightforwardly instructing her female readers that rich, powerful handsome men who couldn't take no for an answer could be even more seductive than smooth tongued penniless charmers like Wickham, would be "teaching what is not worth knowing", because a cocky country girl like Elizabeth, who considered herself a great amateur psychologist (studies of character) would just laugh that warning off, and say something like "oh, I wouldn't be that naive, I'm not a fortune hunter, i will marry for love, not money".

But how much more effective a lesson can be indirectly taught in two steps. First JA seduces the female reader to fall in love with Darcy at the end of P&P right along with Elizabeth, and get totally swept up in the fantasy of reforming a narcissistic jerk just by telling him off really well one time! That fantasy is SO powerful, that it has made P&P the most popular love novel of our time, and the 1996 P&P the most popular love film for sophisticated viewers.

But Then later upon rereading (just as Elizabeth changes her mind after repeated rereading of  Darcy's letter, not coincidentally), when the reader eventually becomes aware of the shadow story, the reader can feel that frisson of scary self awareness - "uh-oh, OMG,  it seems that I bought into that unrealistic fantasy just as much as Elizabeth did-I'm actually more vulnerable to the seduction of money and power than I realized. I better be extra alert to that risk the next time a man like Darcy appears in my life.".

That is experiential learning rather than passive ingestion of a "lesson" and is therefore much more powerful than the straightforward lecture you say JA could have written, warning about the dangers of such a man. 

Because JA understood what Shakespeare and Milton "taught" her. Satan (or Iago) operates that way, by whispering in our ears, subtly appealing  to our vanity, and hinting that we would be safe to voluntarily walk down a garden path to our own destruction. Influence is most powerful when the victim buys into the seducer's suggestion, and takes it on as her own idea. 

And finally, speaking of readers seeing parts of the elephant but not realizing there were two stories in one novel, guess who recognized, way back in 1816, that the joke was really on Elizabeth in P&P?:

".....The story of the piece [P&P] consists chiefly in the fates of the second sister, to whom a man of high birth, large fortune, but haughty and reserved manners, becomes attached, in spite of the discredit thrown upon the object of his affection by the vulgarity and ill-conduct of her relations. The lady, on the contrary, hurt at the contempt of her connections, which the lover does not even attempt to suppress, and prejudiced against him on other accounts, refuses the hand which he ungraciously offers, and does not perceive that she has done a foolish thing until she accidentally visits a very handsome seat and grounds belonging to her admirer. They chance to meet exactly as her prudence had begun to subdue her prejudice; and after some essential services rendered to her family, the lover becomes encouraged to renew his addresses, and the novel ends happily..... "

Scott brilliantly nudged open the door, but didn't realize that there was a double story structure.

And finally it's no coincidence that Elizabeth utters that Zen parable to Jane in the same conversation in which Elizabeth jokes about dating her own falling in love with Darcy from the moment she first saw Pemberley. But as I've said many times, in the shadow story the joke was on Elizabeth.

So, at least now I hope you will know and keep in mind what I'm actually saying, and if you want to still disagree, then so be it.

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

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