October 1, 2007

This Week in My Classes

1. 19th-Century Novel. We're still on Great Expectations this week, moving through the phase that I lecture on as "Great Revelations." While I tend to emphasize the moral pressures of the novel in class, while re-reading it this weekend I found myself pleasurably reminded of what an emotionally powerful and intensely literary book it is. Here's Pip confronting Estella and, indirectly, Miss Havisham, after he has learned the truth about his benefactor and been forced to reconsider the kind of 'gentleman' he has become:
'You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then. You have been in every prospect I have ever seen since--on the river, on the sails of the ships, on the marshes, in the clouds, in the light, in the darkness, in the wind, in the woods, in the sea, in the streets. You have been the embodiment of every graceful fancy that my mind has ever become acquainted with. The stones of which the strongest London buildings are made, are not more real, or more impossible to be displaced by your hands, than your presence and influence have been to me, there and everywhere, and will be. Estella, to the last hour of my life, you cannot choose but remain part of my character, part of the little good in me, part of the evil. But, in this separation I associate you only with the good, and I will faithfully hold you to that always, for you must have done me far more good than harm, let me feel now what sharp distress I may. O God bless you, God forgive you!'
In what ecstasy of unhappiness I got those broken words out of myself, I don't know. The rhapsody welled up within me, like blood from a wound, and gushed out. I held her hand to my lips some lingering moments, and so I left her. But ever afterwards, I remembered--and soon afterwards with stronger reason--that while Estella looked at me merely with incredulous wonder, the spectral figure of Miss Havisham, her hand still covering her heart, seemed all resolved into a ghastly stare of pity and remorse. (Vol. 3 Chapter V)
Of the many things that could be said about this passage, I'll just point to the way Pip's impassioned speech associates Estella with the evocative landscape he describes to us much earlier in the novel, the horizontal lines broken only by the beacon and the gibbet--symbols that seemed to oppose hope and death, beauty and despair, love and crime, Estella and Magwitch--oppositions that by Volume 3 have proved not just illusory but dangerously so, as Pip now sees. Contemporary novelists are often described as "Dickensian," usually for writing long, diffuse novels with lots of plots and characters and a bit more emotional exhibitionism than is the norm in 'serious' fiction. I rarely think they deserve the label, because to me it's moments such as this one, combining dense symbolic allusiveness, rhythmic and evocative language, high sentiment, and urgent moral appeal--all bordering on the excessive, even ridiculous, but, at their best, not collapsing into it--that distinguish Dickens from other novelists. I'm not sure any modern novelist takes such risks.

2. Victorian Women Writers. Here it's week 1 of Jane Eyre. Perhaps the greatest challenge here is trying to approach the novel in any fresh way, given not just how familiar it is to me after many readings, but also how dense is the accretion of criticism around it. Just selecting a handful of critical articles to assign was an incredibly fraught process: at this point, what are the most important things to be known or said about it? So much of the discussion, too, is ultimately all about us, the critics, and how what we have seen in this novel, how we have read it, reflects our own assumptions or desires about literature, feminism, romance, realism, narration. And how to find something new to say? Find something that others have neglected or misunderstood, point out what this tells us about those other readings, and posit your own, corrective analysis. You thought it was a happy ending? Think again! Rochester's still a patriarch, Ferndean is unhealthy, Adele is exiled, it's really a revenge story, Jane's narrative strategies undermine what she appears to be saying about living 'happily ever after.' The key to the novel's themes or politics is not Jane but Bertha, or Grace Poole, or Bessie. Miss Temple is barely an improvement on Brocklehurst. Bertha is Jane's repressed double, or is she the oppressed Other? You thought the novel was a woman's (or a woman writer's) declaration of independence--look how you failed to see that version of feminism as complicit with racist exclusion, or reliant on imperialism. Or, look how you have subjugated the novel to your own theory about race or empire. And on and on it goes. It's not that I don't find some of these readings interest or compelling, but after a while, it starts to seem odd that one book should attract such a weight of other people's ideas, should stand for so many things. While recognizing that there can be no such thing as "just" reading the novel (any more than what I've said above is "just" about Great Expectations "itself" in some transparent way), I do find myself thinking that, especially in some of the more 'suspicious' readings, those that go most determinedly against the grain, we have left the novel behind, refusing, as Denis Donoghue says about another text, to let it have its theme.

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