This Week in My Classes (March 19, 2008)

Because this week in my life has been a bit complicated, I’m a bit late posting on this week in my classes. In fact, as I don’t teach Thursdays and Friday’s a holiday, for this week, my classes are now over! But it was a good week, an interesting week, I thought.

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we wrapped up our discussions of P. D. James’s An Unsuitable Job for a Woman with some discussion of the novel as a kind of Bildungsroman, with Cordelia’s development as a detective coinciding with her moral and emotional development. For me, one sign that the novel is not “just” a mystery is simply that it is not over when the mystery is solved: in particular, it seems to be important that Cordelia be brought face to face with Dalgliesh, who has served as both mentor and antagonist throughout the novel. So we looked pretty closely at the interview they have and considered what is at stake, not just for her, but also for him–I think it’s interesting, for example, that he is shown to have learned from her to regret not having taken more care over Bernie’s fate. The other scene we focused on was the climactic encounter between Cordelia and Sir Ronald, in which his utilitarian (rational, scientific) outlook is explicitly pitted against her more ‘humane’ (sentimental, perhaps aesthetic) one: “what is the use of making the world more beautiful if the people who live in it can’t love one another?” Can you tell James sees herself as working in the tradition of the 19thC novelists?

Today (in the spirit of “and now for something completely different!”) we started on Sue Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi. I played an excerpt from the interesting documentary “Women of Mystery,” which features interviews with Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, and Grafton. The clip I played puts women’s detective fiction in the context of sensation fiction; the other highly relevant context for this novel is clearly hard-boiled detective fiction, so I spent some time recapping some of the features of that subgenre with special attention to its gendered aspects. I also began some discussion of the relationship of these feminist PI novels to the feminist movement; both Grafton and Paretsky began their series novels in 1982, and the influence of first-wave feminism is pretty obvious (Grafton says her goal was to “play hardball with the boys”). In ‘A’ is for Alibi, the plot itself highlights changes in women’s roles: it features one marriage that begins, by my calculations, in the late 1950s, and another that begins in 1970. I put some general questions to the class to consider as we work our way through the novel, particularly about possible problems with women rewriting hard-boiled conventions–for one thing, many of them change a lot when you reverse the genders, as Sara Paretsky has pointed out, and for another, well, is it necessarily progress to show women too can be tough, rude, and emotionally detached? Grafton begins her novel with Kinsey’s discomfort at having just killed someone, so she is clearly problematizing the conventions even as she adopts and adapts them.

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question, it’s week 2 on Middlemarch. It does seem to be true that coming to it right after reading He Knew He Was Right makes some of its features really stand out. For instance, comparing the power struggles between Dorothea and Casaubon to those between Emily and Louis Trevelyan proves quite interesting, not least because I haven’t been in the habit of seeing Dorothea’s struggles as being quite about power–but what is his attempt to get her to promise total compliance even after his death but as extreme an attempt to usurp her moral (and economic, and intellectual, and sexual) agency as Louis’s persecution of his wife? The Garths stand out on this reading because of the healthy balance of respect and love so evident in their relationship–though it’s clear that Mrs Garth has a very traditional theory of marital hierarchy! I think the class is doing pretty well with it, though it comes at a hard time of term when they are swamped with work in all of their courses: the discussion has been not just lively but empathetic towards the characters in a way that does not always happen in my ‘lecture’ classes. Maybe my tendency to emphasize the novel’s formal properties and philosophical abstractions gets in the way of people responding emotionally to the story–next time I teach the novel in a lecture/discussion format instead of a seminar, I’ll keep this in mind, as GE herself was urgent that fiction should not ‘lapse from picture to diagram.’ I’m quite excited that the group doing the presentation is, among other things, working up some kind of class activity involving string that will get across the giant hairball effect of the novel’s structure…

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