March 30, 2008

Weekend Miscellany

A few things of interest I've come across while browsing this weekend:

Margaret Atwood on Anne of Green Gables in the Guardian:
"God's in his heaven, all's right with the world," Anne whispers in the very last lines of Anne of Green Gables. She's fond of Victorian poetry, so it's appropriate that she ends her story by quoting from a song sung by the optimistic heroine of Robert Browning's dramatic poem "Pippa Passes"; doubly appropriate because Anne Shirley herself acts a kind of Pippa throughout the book. Pippa is a poor Italian orphan girl who slaves away in a silk-spinning mill, yet manages to preserve a pure imagination and a love of nature despite her lowly status. Like Pippa, Anne is an unselfconscious innocent who, unbeknownst to herself, brings joy, imagination and the occasional epiphany to the citizenry of Avonlea, who are inclined to be practical but drear. (read the rest here)
Keith Oatley on Middlemarch for the Globe and Mail's '50 Greatest Books' Series (once again, a novelist scores the good gig in the book section):
Middlemarch is a generous book. It is one of the world's great books because, between the three streams of writing, George Eliot enables a space to grow: a space for the reader's emotions and thoughts. You feel things you have not felt, think things you have not thought. It's a book for grown-up people. (read the rest here)
Charles Nickerson proposes an obscure 'inspiration' for Miss Havisham in the TLS:
Much discussion has arisen over Miss Havisham’s genesis. The numerous sources proposed – including, most frequently, a theatrical skit by Charles Mathews, articles in Household Words and The Household Narrative of Current Events, and Wilkie Collins’s Woman in White – have been ably surveyed by both Peter Ackroyd and Harry Stone. Although a good case can be made for Miss Havisham’s evolution from a mix of these sources, none of them contains anything like the intense psychological dynamic that develops between Miss Havisham and Estella. One work in which Dickens might have found the germ of that dynamic is Disraeli’s seventh novel, Venetia (1837), a thinly disguised fictionalization of various episodes in the lives of Byron and Shelley. (read the rest here)
And one more knock against James Wood (keeping in mind that in many respects, I'm a fan!): he's a spoiler!
I like destroying the tyranny of plot. I always ask people who are recommending me a novel to tell me the entire story right out, and I make a point in my reviews of describing the entire book. I don't think I need a plot to sustain my enjoyment. Formally speaking, if you really did believe in plot you'd say, "I can't re-read Anna Karenina because I know what happens." But it's obvious that there are deeper, more sustaining beauties underneath. (emphasis added; read the rest here)
Of course, he's right about re-reading, and about the "beauties underneath" that sustain multiple readings, but I believe sometimes plot and the surprise, suspense, confusion, pleasure, and emotional and other reactions it can generate are more meaningful than he allows. Consider the ending of The Mill on the Floss, for instance (and no, I'm not going to give it away here!). Our shock and surprise provoke all kinds of important social and moral questions for us. Re-reading and re-thinking both help us answer them, but our demand that this result be accounted for motivates us to interpretation. Also, I encourage my students to question plot elements: after all, things could always have unfolded in some different way, so how is this plot element suitable for this project? What do we learn from it about the underlying ideas of the novel? (Useful classroom exercise: try tweaking the plot and see how fast the whole book begins to change its shape...or, for The Mill on the Floss, try coming up with an alternative ending that satisfies all the pressures developing from the beginning of the novel...) We read better in some ways once we know the book's whole shape, and knowing the plot helps us attend to other elements, but plot is often where the social, political, and moral aspects of the novels have their strongest presence. Further, there's a readerly experience (for lack of a better word) that is simply spoiled by spoilers.


Amateur Reader said...

A watched plot never spoils.

I've been thinking over what you've written - I have mixed feelings about Wood's idea. Here's a question: how much is the shock and surprise (of "The Mill on the Floss", say) actually lessened by knowing the ending? Does a skillful writer maintain most of the surprise regardless of outside knowledge?

I haven't read "Jane Eyre" but I pretty much know exactly how it ends, including the last line. What have I lost? I don't know the answer. You've suggested some intersting paths for thought.

I say this as someone who just today posted some notes on "The Old Curiosity Shop", including the plot and ending. Although blame Oscar Wilde for spoiling that one, not me.

NigelBeale said...

I believe Keith is a multi talented psychology prof at U of T, who happens to have written a couple of novels...

Rohan Maitzen said...

AR: I think many aspects of our reading of a rich and complex novel (such as The Mill on the Floss) are, indeed, enhanced by our full knowledge. Even the affective aspects (that is, how the story make us feel) may be intensified by knowing the ending (isn't Romeo and Juliet harder to bear because you know how it will end?). At the same time, there's a lot to be said for experiencing the story 'raw' at least once. Also, at least from a pedagogical perspective, I find that once endings are known, we focus on them at the expense of the endings that didn't happen, if you know what I mean: in working through a novel carefully, it is useful to be aware of the various possibilities that are raised and then rejected--it clarifies what the novel is making us think about. It's also motivating for students to be curious about what happens next! And they appreciate being given the opportunity to find out what happens next for themselves. I stage my reading assignments carefully and use a 'no spoilers' rule as an excuse, in part, to make sure we pay attention to how many aspects of the novel are developing along the way. I know many of my colleagues take a different approach, though, preferring to put the whole thing on the table at once.

Nigel: Yes, but I'm pretty sure his academic job is not why he was asked to write that column! (A Natural History is an interesting novel, to be sure.)

Rohan Maitzen said...

AR: I've been thinking more about that question of spoilers--and noticing that there are a goodly number in my own posts here, especially in my teaching posts, though they are not always completely explicit. It's true I wouldn't expect someone writing a critical article in an academic journal to avoid spoilers--but that kind of criticism is aimed at people who (a) already know a lot about the work in question and/or (b) are reading for a lot of other things besides 'readerly' pleasures. Does it matter whether Wood is a critic, then, or a reviewer? Somehow I feel (maybe without warrant) that a reviewer has a different kind of audience, or is serving a different purpose--but of course this distinction (especially in Wood's case) seems pretty flimsy.

Amateur Reader said...

Wood is in a sort of liminal space, as the litcritters say, isn't he?

I think I'll try to write about this more fully soon - you've helped me think about the issue more clearly for my own writing.