This Week in My Classes (January 16, 2008)

For me, at least, and I hope for my students, this is a fun week of reading in both of my winter term classes.

Mystery and Detective Fiction: We’ve begun our discussions of Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone, a novel that I enjoy more every time I teach it. My main focus for the first couple of classes is on the way the novel sets us up to worry about problems of interpretation and misinterpretation. With its series of first-person narrators, the novel is self-consciously set up to mimic the testimony of a series of eye-witnesses, but right from the Prologue we know that seeing something with your own eyes is not always enough to tell you just what it is that you have seen: you require an interpretive framework, and the first-person narrators also serve to remind us that these frameworks reflect the presuppositions and prejudices of each individual witness. The prologue also introduces the idea of “moral evidence,” as opposed to legal or circumstantial evidence, which relies among other things on understanding of people’s characters (not something an “objective” outsider like Sergeant Cuff can bring to a case). And it sets supernatural or otherwise unscientific theories and interpretations against reason and common sense. By setting the theft of the diamond from Rachel’s Indian cabinet against the story of its other thefts across history, the novel complicates questions of legitimacy and ownership; by emphasizing the bloody aggression of the English against the Indians, it also undermines the fantasy of the main characters that their home represents order, tranquility, and justice that is disrupted only by the invasion of the “devilish Indian diamond.” “Good heavens, mamma!” Rachel exclaims in Chapter XI; “Are there thieves in the house?”–to which the answer is of course, yes, on one interpretation they are all thieves, even before the diamond goes missing. Today we get to talk about Sergeant Cuff and how far his outsider perspective can move the inquiry forward. If we have time, we might do a bit with Rosanna and her friend Limping Lucy, too, one of the many clues we get that the novel as a whole is not entirely (if at all) behind the values so cherished by our first narrator, Betteredge: “Ha, Mr Betteredge, the day is not far off,” she warns him, “when the poor will rise against the rich.” So much fun, and always we’ll be thinking about how Collins is using the form of his novel–the first-person narrations so similar in effect to dramatic monologues, and the juxtaposition of so many of them as if to model one possible way of overcoming their limitations. (In classes when I teach both The Moonstone and Middlemarch, it’s always interesting to compare his strategy here to George Eliot’s use of her omniscient narrator and manipulations of point of view.)

The Victorian ‘Woman Question’: Here we’re moving into The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, another novel that foregrounds issues of narrative construction through its nested narratives and chronological doubling-back. Again, we get a telling introductory piece with the letter from our main narrator, Gilbert Markham, to his buddy Halford; the letter, apologizing for a failure of confidence and making amends by offering up the story of Gilbert’s own marriage plot, raises all kinds of questions about masculinity and friendship, and also, by beginning where Gilbert’s story actually ends up–for instance, after his process of maturation and development–helps us understand what the novel will be about. When the story ‘begins’ we go back to his younger self and realize how far he has to develop before he will be capable of such a letter. Then, of course, when we reach Helen’s diary, we see that she too, so strong and independent in Gilbert’s narrative, has evolved significantly through her own experiences. Today’s reading is the first instalment of her diary, taking her from her first meetings with Huntingdon to their marriage. It brings to life central issues in the debate over the ‘woman question’; one aspect I find particularly interesting is its emphasis on Helen’s desire to be Huntingdon’s saviour–just as she has been taught to see her ‘mission’–but of course, as the novel goes on to dramatize in compelling detail, the female influence she so looks forward to wielding means absolutely nothing in the absence of actual power or leverage, social or economic. I think Bronte handles her first-person narrations really artfully as well; though her characters are nowhere near as diverse (or comic) as Collins’s, they do reveal themselves by their language as well as by their self-reporting.

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