This Week in My Classes (March 27, 2008)

We finished up Grafton’s ‘A’ is for Alibi in Mystery and Detective Fiction yesterday. Drawing on ideas from sources such as Peter Rabinowitz’s very smart essay “Reader, I Blew Him Away: Convention and Transgression in Sue Grafton,” I invited the class to consider Charlie Scorsone not just as a male Brigid O’Shaughnessy but also a version of the Byronic hero, who is tempting to our heroine in part because he is masterful and domineering. Although the novel emphasizes women’s desire and struggle for autonomy, especially in marriage, through Kinsey, Grafton clarifies that autonomy is valuable and (politically and personally) essential, but also exhausting. What a relief, perhaps, not to have to stand alone but to give yourself over to someone whose power, after all, may simply be greater! We puzzled over why the final chase sequence is so unheroic for Kinsey, who ends up partly undressed and hiding in a garbage can…leading me eventually to one of those classroom questions you can’t quite believe you’ve asked, but there you are anyway: “How is her sleeping with Charlie like her hiding from him in a trash can–besides that both situations involve taking her pants off?” Hmmm. Tomorrow we are working with a cluster of rather quirky stories, all by women authors: Amanda Cross’s “Arrie and Jasper,” Sue Grafton’s “A Little Missionary Work,” and Sarah Caudwell’s “An Acquaintance with Mr Collins”–the last of which, delightfully, proves the practicality of a degree in English and a specialization in the Victorian novel…if you want to commit murder. Hmmm again. Maybe this is not the way to make our departmental pitch for more of the university’s resources. On the other hand, if we sounded menacing enough…

In The Victorian ‘Woman Question’ we dealt with murder and sex as well, as we reached the end of Middlemarch. Especially as we read East Lynne earlier this term, it is interesting to consider the ‘sensational’ elements that permeate the final sections of this famous example of realism: while in He Knew He Was Right, Trollope relegates his sensational elements to the comic margins of his unfolding Shakespearian tragedy (Camilla and her carving knife–wonderful!), here with Will and Rosamond we have an adultery plot that is never realized–two, I suppose, if we consider Casaubon’s suspicions of Will and Dorothea. And the Raffles plot brings us close to an actual sensation case, except that here the suspicious death is ambiguous in every possible way. As for sex, well, I began our work on the novel with some consideration of the famous Bernini sculpture of the ecstasy of Saint Teresa, and of course we have paid attention throughout to Dorothea’s struggles to reconcile her spiritual yearnings with her other passions, beginning with the ‘jewel scene’ in Chapter I. Asserting your own will is important to finding the necessary balance between altruism and egotism (without a candle, after all, the scratches on the pier glass remain wholly random, rendering interpretation and thus action impossible). At the same time, willfully declaring your own desire seems necessary to embracing a fully human life: your ardour needs outlets both philosophical and physical. There’s never enough time to talk about everything, but I did bring up some of the critical objections that have been made to Will so that we could debate how suitable a partner he seems for Dorothea and what relation their marriage bears to the novel’s larger themes, especially regarding reform, vocation, and women’s roles in society. A couple of times this week we worried about Rosamond and Casaubon as possible limit cases for the narrator’s theory of sympathy. I’ve become increasingly worried about a line from The Mill on the Floss: “the responsibility of tolerance lies with those who have the wider vision.” Both Dorothea’s and Lydgate’s marriages proceed to some extent according to this principle, and the moral beauty of Dorothea’s efforts to subdue her own needs in generous response to Casuabon–in the wonderful conclusion of Chapter 42, for instance–is certainly made apparent. At the same time, Lydgate’s submission to Rosamond is unquestionably shown as a tragedy, for him and perhaps for medicine, so even as we can’t wish him a more selfish or cruel person, one who could put his parasitic wife aside in pursuit of his own higher aims, we can hardly applaud the result. And Dorothea is rescued by the novelist from a similarly dismal fate: as my students pointed out, Casaubon’s death is altogether too convenient to be realistic, and we therefore have to consider its effects in other ways. Perhaps that near-death experience for Dorothea is meant to sharpen our own awareness, for instance, of the extraordinary risks of submission and renunciation–or of marriage, if undertaken on those terms.

Although we have talked a lot about fictional form in this seminar, I am starting to feel as if the other thing we are doing, indirectly, is a tutorial on men, women, courtship, relationships, marriage, domination, autonomy…. So many of the books we are reading are designed to provoke thought on just these issues, after all, and they adapt their forms in part as coaching strategies (the incessant shifting of point of view, or interruptions of chronology, in Middlemarch, for example, which force us to re-consider people and events from other perspectives, as parts of other stories). Some of my students have admitted that they are looking differently at their own relationships as a result of the stories we’ve been analyzing. Well, as far as that goes, they are only doing as the authors expected or hoped. Here’s Trollope on ‘Novel Reading,’ for instance:

There it is, unconcealed, whether for good or bad, patent to all and established, the recognised amusement of our lighter hours, too often our mainstay in literature, the former of our morals, the code by which we rule ourselves, the mirror in which we dress ourselves, the index expurgatorius of things held to be allowable in the ordinary affairs of life. No man actually turns to a novel for a definition of honour, nor a woman for that of modesty; but it is from the pages of novels that men and women obtain guidance both as to honour and modesty.

He goes on to consider particularly the potential value of the novel as a training ground for young lovers. “There used to be many,” he remarks, “who thought, and probably there are some who still think, that a girl should hear nothing of love till the time comes in which she is to be married.” But “While human nature talks of love so forcibly, it can hardly serve our turn to be silent on the subject,” and novels, for better or for worse, provide necessary as well as pleasant guidance:

We do not dare to say openly to those dear ones, but we confess it to ourselves, that the one thing of most importance to them is whether they shall love rightly or wrongly. . . . It suits us to speak of love as a soft, sweet, flowery pastime, with many roses and some thorns, in which youth is apt to disport itself; but there is no father, no mother, no daughter, and should be no son, blind to the fact that, of all matters concerning life, it is the most important. That Ovid’s Art of Love was nothing, much worse than nothing, we admit. But nevertheless the art is taught. Before the moment comes in which heart is given to heart, the imagination has been instructed as to what should accompany the gift, and what should be expected in accompaniment; in what way the gift should be made, and after what assurance; for how long a period silence should be held, and then how far speech should be unguarded.

By those who do not habitually read at all, the work is done somewhat roughly,–we will not say thoughtlessly, but with little of those precautions which education demands. With those who do read, all that literature gives them helps them somewhat in the operation of which we are speaking. History tells us much of love’s efficacy, and much of the evil that comes from the want of it. Biography is of course full of it. Philosophy deals with it. Poetry is hardly poetry without it. The drama is built on it almost as exclusively as are the novels. But it is from novels that the crowd of expectant and ready pupils obtain that constant flow of easy teaching which fills the mind of all readers with continual thoughts of love.

Though I would not want our class hours to be taken up with personal reflections, I can’t say I think it’s a bad thing if our readings are encouraging them to think more deliberately about their own lives! Marriage may be a very different institution today than it was in the 19th century (and we have certainly talked at length about the specific political, economic, and social contexts that made marriage such a momentous step for women especially), but even so, there may still be “something even awful in the nearness it brings.” One thing it seems to me we are all certain to take away from reading Middlemarch is precisely how demanding it is to live in close physical and mental proximity to someone who is not ourselves, for whom “the lights and shadows must always fall with a certain difference.” In a world in which Wuthering Heights (Wuthering Height?!) has recently been voted the greatest love story of all time, it seems like a little corrective realism tinged with pessimism is called for. And to ward off despair, we can always think of Fred and Mary, whose “solid mutual happiness” starts to seem anything but middling after all we’ve been through.

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