(& scroll down to read my literary sleuthing posts)
Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Irony in Emma and in Jane Austen’s overall narrative structure

As I noted in my immediately preceding post.... I came across “Irony in Jane Austen: A Cognitive-Narratological Approach” by Wolfgang G. Muller, a chapter in a recently published book. Muller’s essay addresses what I consider to be the most central yet challenging-to-understand aspect of Jane Austen’s genius – her pervasive use of irony.

In my preceding post, I quoted two excerpts therefrom relating to Pride & Prejudice which I found most significant, and, as to each such excerpt, my reaction to it. In this post now, I will react to two other excerpts in Muller’s essay, with my comments, which pertain, respectively, to irony in Emma, and then to Austen’s overall novel structure. So, without further ado:

MULLER EXCERPT #3: [While discussing irony in Emma] As a somewhat more complex example of irony based on an assumed community between two persons, a passage from Emma will now be examined. It comes from a dialogue between the protagonist and her protegee, Harriet Smith. Emma is filling Harriet’s ears with hopes for a great match, which she is arranging for her. These plans are completely illusory and shall fail miserably, as the reader learns later in the novel:
“This is an alliance which, whoever—whatever your friends may be, must be agreeable to them, provided at least they have common sense; and we are not to be addressing our conduct to fools. […]
“Yes, very true. How nicely you talk; I love to hear you. You understand every thing. You and Mr. Elton are one as clever as the other.” 
In this passage, the irony is turned against Emma herself in her exaggerated expression of self-righteousness and arrogance. And there are two ironic aspects in Harriet’s reply, without her being aware of them, first, the idea that Emma understands everything, when she in fact understands nothing, and, second, the opinion that Emma and Mr. Elton are intellectually equal, which suggests a relationship between the two, which Elton aspires to unbeknownst to Emma. There is a double irony in this exchange of words, an irony that is directed against Emma’s intellectual pride and her match-making plans, and an irony directed against Harriet, who allows herself to be manipulated by Emma. The whole passage illustrates the effect that involuntary irony can have. The ironies in this passage show the whole intricate tangle of the three characters in a nutshell- Emma, the self-congratulatory matchmaker; Harriet, the victim of her manipulation; and Mr. Elton, the would-be social climber. The dialogue represents one of the many examples of the pleasure of cognitive processing that Austen’s novels afford the reader…..”

As will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with my theories about Jane Austen, I believe another entire layer of irony has been missed by Muller, if one takes the point of view (as I do) that Harriet Smith’s character is (even more so than Mrs. Bennet, as I described in my preceding post) profoundly ambiguous, and amenable to two diametrically opposed interpretations – that of the unpretending fool, or the pretended fool –or, in Richardsonian terms, a Pamela or a Shamela.

I.e., Emma is not merely clueless about Mr. Elton’s supposed romantic interest in Harriet, she is even more profoundly clueless about Harriet’s supposed adoration of, and obedience to, Emma! That is a far more exquisite irony, because never explicitly revealed to the reader – but, as I have often pointed out, Harriet’s one major speech in the entire novel, when Harriet shocks Emma with the revelation of her romantic aspirations toward Knightley, is a speech that cannot plausibly have been spoken by the uneducated simpleton Emma believes Harriet to be.

Had Muller been able to see Harriet as Shamela, he would have then seen the hilarious ironic humor of the rest of that dialog between Emma and Harriet:

[Harriet] “…This charade!—If I had studied a twelvemonth, I could never have made any thing like it.”
[Emma] “I thought he meant to try his skill, by his manner of declining it yesterday.”
“I do think it is, without exception, the best charade I ever read.”
“I never read one more to the purpose, certainly.”
“It is as LONG again as almost all we have had before.”
“I do not consider its LENGTH as particularly in its favour. Such things in general cannot be TOO SHORT.”
Harriet was too intent on the lines to hear. The most satisfactory comparisons were RISING in her mind…”

The shadow Harriet I see, a canny manipulator of a clueless Emma, is having some fun pretending she has no clue as to the answer to Mr. Elton’s charade, even though (as Colleen Sheehan showed in her  2007 Persuasions Online article) Harriet’s ‘wrong’ answers to Mr. Elton’s “courtship” charade turn out to be spot-on in pointing to a second, satirical answer, the “Prince of Whales”, which winks broadly at Lamb’s doggerel poem and Cruikshank’s visual caricatures of the Prince Regent –and, perhaps, also of the locally powerful Mr. Knightley as a veiled fictional representation of the nationally powerful real-life Prince.

And one more related point. The above quoted passage also contains within it what I see as a broad sexual innuendo, as to which the length of Mr. Elton’s “charade” can also be read as winking at the length of Mr. Elton’s body part most relevant to his courtship of Emma. This is a close analogy, by the way, to the ideas discussed in my preceding post regarding Excerpt #1 , above, but this time with Jane Austen, the author, being the person whom we should suspect (as we suspect Mr. Bennet and Elizabeth) of enjoying saying  things she doesn’t really believe.

Now, some of you are probably thinking I’m reaching too far, in claiming that the “most satisfactory comparisons rising in Harriet’s mind” are of a sexual nature –i.e., that the word “charade” stands in (so to speak) for Mr. Elton’s phallus. Well, I have this friendly challenge for you skeptics-- please then explain to me why that interpretation fits so uncannily well with the sexual innuendo (recognized by more than one mainstream Austen scholar) in the following later dialog between Emma and Harriet, when Harriet is ready to ritually dispose of her “precious treasures” collected from Mr. Elton:

“Emma was quite eager to see this superior treasure. It was the end of an old pencil,—the part without any lead.
 “But, Harriet, is it necessary to burn the court-plaister?—I have not a word to say for the bit of old pencil, but the court-plaister might be useful.”
“I shall be happier to burn it,” replied Harriet. “It has a disagreeable look to me. I must get rid of every thing.—There it goes, and there is an end, thank Heaven! of Mr. Elton.”

The image of Harriet symbolically sending Mr. Elton’s private parts up in flames reminds me of voodoo, and is thus a diabolically exquisite irony which must have given Jane Austen much pleasure in creating.

MULLER EXCERPT #4: “On the basis of our analysis, it can be concluded that Austen tends to restrict her use of free indirect thought to female characters and, more specifically, to the protagonists of her novels, while free indirect speech is restricted to minor characters, regardless of whether they are male or female. It is an astonishing phenomenon—one hardly ever recognized by critics—that in her novels the speech of the (female) protagonists is usually exempted from free indirect representation. Therefore, what can be noticed is that Austen’s large-scale use of free indirect style is strongly gendered, privileging female consciousness. The article’s second result is that, as far as the emergence of irony in free indirect discourse is concerned, the ironic mode tends to be employed for the most part in passages involving free indirect speech, while the use of irony in passages involving free indirect thought is comparatively rare, with the significant exception of Emma, and perhaps, Northanger Abbey…”

Here the irony I see is on Muller himself as a scholar, because in his analysis, I believe he (a lot like Emma) brilliantly spots and highlights a key point (the dichotomous treatment of thought and reported speech between the heroine, on the one hand, and all the other characters, on the other); but then Muller explains it as Austen’s wishing to “privilege[e] female consciousness.”

It is not that I believe Muller is incorrect in that regard, because, indeed, one of Austen’s radical (for that era) and brave innovations was to have women tell the story of women, during an era when it was still the cultural norm for women not to hold the pen or tell their own side of the story. However, Muller misses an equally large significance of that ubiquitous structural pattern in all of Austen’s published novels.

It has been my central mantra the past 12 years that by focalizing 98-99% of the narrative through the mind of the central heroine, Austen has thereby (deliberately) made it possible for her to carefully craft her narration such that readers may plausibly perceive either of two parallel but distinct fictional realities – one in which the narration is largely objective (the overt story), and one in which the narration is often subjective (the shadow story).

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

No comments: