This Week in My Classes (December 3, 2009)

There’s less than one week of classes left in the term–amazing, because it seems like just a moment ago that I was printing off my introductory handouts, getting familiar with the A/V setups in new classrooms, and luring my students through our first readings. I think it’s the relentless need to keep looking towards the next thing (you walk out of your last lecture on North and South, say, and your mind is already buzzing with preparations for your first class on Great Expectations) that makes teaching terms go by so fast. It has felt like a fairly busy term, which is a bit nerve-wracking when I consider that I’m only teaching two classes, both of which are repeats and so I have quite a lot of notes and handouts I can reuse–but next term I have three classes, including one brand new one covering all kinds of material I have never taught before and one graduate seminar for which the expectations and demands are different and harder than u/g lecture courses. Pause for deep breaths . . . but before I get there, there’s still work to be done for this term.

In 19th-Century Fiction we’re working our dreary way through Jude the Obscure. For some reason I’m feeling more kindly towards Hardy’s prose this time. Usually I find him a fairly clunky stylists, blunt in his statements and awkward in his development of both plot and character. But this time I am appreciating the pithiness of his declarations, which gives the novel a polemical cast quite different from our other readings (even though, at heart, most of them have also been polemical, or at least didactic). Here he is describing Jude’s marriage to Arabella, for instance:

And so, standing before the aforesaid officiator, the two swore that at every other time of their lives till deathtook them, they would assuredly believe, feel, and desire precisely as they had believed, felt, and desired during the few preceding weeks. What was as remarkable as the undertaking itself was the fact that nobody seemed at all surprised at what they swore.

Of course, this intrusive commentary ensures that we have the opportunity to be surprised, to look at what is more typically treated as a culminating romantic moment (“I do!”) as a misguided attempt to fix in rigid form something that, as the novel will repeatedly emphasize, is naturally wayward–and to make compulsory feelings, and expressions of feeling, that ought to be (as Sue will later argue) wholly voluntary. That marriage itself is (at least potentially) immoral, rather than a solution to, or a guard against, immorality is one of the radical proposals of this novel. Thus, for instance, Jude’s reunion with Arabella near the end of Part Third has the feeling of an adulterous liaison, even though she is his legal wife; thus, too, Sue’s declaration to Phillotson, her legal spouse, that for her to live with him on “intimate terms” given her feelings for Jude “is adultery, in any circumstances, however legal.” It’s an argumentative book, pressuring us intellectually into emotional reactions that run contrary to a number of both literary and social conventions. Hardy’s language, if not especially elegant and only rarely poetic (in descriptions of landscape, for instance), is effective for that purpose. “Yet he perceived with despondency that, taken all round, he was a man of too many passions to make a good clergyman; the utmost he could hope for was that in a life of constant internal warfare between flesh and spirit the former might not always be victorious”–even if we read this as Jude’s language, it’s stilted, almost pedantic, and yet it makes perfectly clear that a central problem, for Jude and for the novel, is that ‘warfare between flesh and spirit,’ and there’s something to be said for clarity.

Yesterday we spent some time on stones and buildings. I came at this topic by way of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice and the idea that architecture can be “read” as expressing the spirit or values of an age (I tried an analogy also to Carlyle’s “Clothes Philosophy,” though I ended up feeling that trying to explain what he means by that makes things more, rather than less, confusing). This is not a subtle aspect of Jude (as I’ve already suggested, this is not a particularly subtle book in any respect): arriving in Christminster, which Jude has long dreamed of as an “ecclesiastical romance in stone,” he reads the “numberless architectural pages around him.” His work as a stone mason repairing the “rottenness of the stones” is at once practical and symbolic; we considered some of the ways it represents his attempts to realize his dreams even as he learns that the walls around him are keeping him out. We also considered the ways walls and stones and buildings come to represent the burdensome weight of the past, and I proposed some comparisons to the concept of history in Middlemarch, where success seems to lie more in acknowledging, understanding, and developing from the past, rather than rejecting it. Indeed, Eliot’s strongly organic view of history and society make the idea of escaping from the past not just illogical but dangerous (those who ignore their roots are bound to trip over them), whereas in Hardy, the wish seems to be to emerge somehow free from the coercive pressures of the overhanging ages. Mind you, Hardy too does not suggest that such an escape is possible–but for him, I think that’s a tragic impossibility.

In Victorian Sensations we’ve wrapped up our discussions of Fingersmith (such a smart book, as well as a thoroughly gripping read, even after multiple times through it). It really does provide an excellent conclusion to a course in which we have considered not just a series of primary texts in sensation fiction (the ‘inspiration’ or generic genealogy for Fingersmith) but a series of literary historical and critical questions about the genre, its subversive potential or ideological limits, its revisions (or not) of gender identities and class boundaries, its fears, threats, and promises, and its implications for questions of canonicity and literary merit. Waters seems clearly to have considered most of these things too, and to have written many of them into her own book. I don’t think it’s just a pastiche or a period piece, though: one of the reasons sensation fiction has become such a hot area of critical inquiry in recent years is surely that its issues remain ours, and Waters is also engaging in a very contemporary way with problems about writing, gender, and authority, about sexual identities, about eroticism and pornography and exploitation, and about distinctions between genre and ‘literary’ fiction. Every one of her novels has given me that satisfying sense of reading something that has ideas at its heart. I can’t wait to read The Little Stranger–it’s at the top of my Christmas wish list!

In Victorian Sensations Wednesday’s and Friday’s classes this week are devoted to student presentations. I’m using an assignment sequence I’ve used once before with (I thought) great success. I have some reservations about how it is going this year, and I can’t really put my finger on why it has seemed so much more difficult. I thought, in fact, that I had prepared for it better and provided clearer instructions this time around, and yet . . . But Wednesday’s presentations certainly included a lot of good material, and evidence of good thinking and research; I hope Friday’s will too.

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