Monday, January 23, 2012

Austen's Persuasive Style

Ahhh... Austen.

Yes, I mean Jane. I'm teaching 19th Century British Novel this semester, and I admit it's with a certain degree of nervousness that I even tackle the topic of Jane's work.

I don't want a horde of angry Janeites (yes, they have their own nickname) to descend upon me.

Austen is a consummate stylist. As everyone who knows anything about Jane knows, she is a master of free indirect discourse, as epitomized in the famous opening sentence of her very famous novel, Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife."

Who are these people, who universally acknowledge such a truth? That is the question.

Scholars have argued that Austen uses free indirect discourse to avoid speaking "individually," as a way of communicating a sense of a communal voice. A kind of gossip, if you will.

And yet, the irony of her voice undercuts the commonality: she mocks those who acknowledge such universal truths, even as she purports to speak for them.

I'm teaching Austen's last, finished novel, Persuasion, and in it, she frequently elides the narratorial voice with the voice of the protagonist, Anne Elliot.

It's a strategy that Dostoevsky will use to similar effect over fifty years later in Crime and Punishment: we forget that we are reading a novel told in the third person, and instead feel that we've entered the mind of the protagonist her- or himself.

In Austen, though, we never lose the sense of ironic distance. Dostoevsky has a sympathy for his characters that is never fully articulated in Austen's novels. She views her protagonists' foibles coolly, with a full appreciation for the difficulties they create for themselves and for others--for the lack of self-awareness they demonstrate and for its ultimate consequences.

And yet, Austen is the novelist of community.

For me, more interesting than her protagonists are her minor or peripheral characters. Although her heroines may (occasionally) lack self-awareness or only come to it in the fullness of time, her novels are peopled with characters who nevertheless understand the value of kindness, particularly in the face of a general (and unfortunately widespread) social obtuseness.

They are not quite as ... mean, perhaps?... as her narrators, in the end.

A case in point: in Persuasion, the narrator describes Richard Musgrove, a son who has died at sea and who is mourned only by his mother (if at all):
the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year; that he had been sent to sea, because he was stupid and unmanageable on shore; that he had been very little cared for at any time by his family, though quite as much as he deserved; seldom heard of, and scarcely at all regretted, when the intelligence of his death abroad had worked its way to Uppercross, two years before. (45-46)
In case you didn't get it the first time, Austen's narrator goes on to point her moral:
He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him 'poor Richard,' been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead. (46)
I remember the first time I read this, I actually said out loud, "Holy cow. Jane Austen just called someone a dick."

She did. A "thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick" who was entitled to nothing more than being called, well, "Dick," actually.

And yet, even though everyone knows he was a Dick and nothing more, everyone respects the feelings of his mother and acts as if he were "poor Richard."

In short, we laugh because Austen's narrator makes us laugh.

But then, out of compassion for someone who wants to believe that her son was and could have been something better, we stifle our laughter and admire the tact of Captain Wentworth who, after indulging a "transient" moment of self-amusement (noticeable to no one except the woman who loves him), becomes "perfectly collected and serious," sits down next to the bereaved mother and "enter[s] into a conversation with her, in a low voice, about her son, doing it with so much sympathy and natural grace, as shewed the kindest consideration for all that was real and unabsurd in the parent's feelings" (58-59).

As "absurd" as her feelings and her perception of her son may be, there is always something very "real" about a mother's grief.

And, in Austen's world, ridicule should always give way to "the kindest consideration."

And this is what Austen often does, I think. She uses her narrator's free indirect discourse to tell the "truth" of a character or a situation, and then shades in the reactions of others--characters who know the "truth" but who are willing to acquiesce in a few white lies to spare someone's feelings--to suggest a larger moral, a greater "truth" about who we are and how we should treat each other.

The truth hurts in Austen's world and as Austen's narrator tells it. And yet, we can always lessen the sting for one another, if we will.

And in the end, Austen suggests, the best of us will.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."