Monthly Archives: July 2012

Jane Austen’s romances with brains (part 3): The extraordinary fate of Marianne Dashwood

Jane Austen introduces the principal characters of Sense and Sensibility – Elinor and Marianne Dashwood – by telling us about them.

For a modern novelist this would be a major faux pas; the development of a character should be done by showing rather than telling.  And one might say that in this (as in other things) Pride and Prejudice is a novel superior to Sense and Sensibility.  But good rules have exceptions, and good authors know when the exceptions apply.  And if we grant that Jane Austen is a very good author, we may give her the benefit of the doubt for introducing her two heroines this way, and grant, further, that she does it thus for good reason.

I concluded the last post on the sense/sensibility dialectic that runs through the whole of Austen’s novel.  This dialectic accounts for Austen’s way of introducing Elinor and Marianne.  For she wants the reader to know, from the novel’s outset, that Elinor’s good sense and “coolness of judgment” proceeds, not from stupid insensibility, but rather from strong affection. She governs her feelings with a firm hand, not because her feelings are weak, but because such strong governance benefits those she loves.  Marianne, meanwhile, resolved “never to be taught” how to govern her feelings.  But Austen wants her reader to know also that this isn’t because Marianne is an airhead – her “abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s,” and Austen calls her “clever.”  Marianne’s resolve never to regulate her sensibility is, like her belief in the impossibility of second attachments, a principled one, resulting not so much from a deficiency of intellect as from a weird kink of the intellect.

Having thus told us about Elinor and Marianne, Austen proceeds immediately to show this difference between them by contrasting how they work through the grief of losing their father.  Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood “encouraged each other . . . in the violence of their affliction,” seeking to renew over and over again their first agony of grief, giving themselves up “wholly to their sorrow.”  Elinor, though also “deeply afflicted,” could “still struggle” to “exert herself” to do her duties to the world, and to rouse her family.  The contrast between the sisters’ responses repeats itself throughout the novel, most sharply in their respective responses to the failures of their first romances.

In telling us and then showing us the contrast between Elinor and Marianne, Austen, with startling economy, previews the entire story.  She also displays an uncannily subtle understanding of both sense and sensibility.  She does not identify the difference between them in the simple difference between heart and head.  Elinor’s sense is rooted as deeply in her bosom as in her brain.  Marianne’s flights of sensibility have at least as much to do with the considerable reach of her imagination as with the fluttering of her heart.

Having established the characters of her heroines, Austen proceeds to break Marianne and stretch Elinor to within an inch of her breaking point.

Adding sense to sensibility: The overcoming of Marianne’s romantic prejudices

. . . More witnesseth than fancy’s images,

And grows to something of great constancy;

But howsoever, strange and admirable.[1]

Verily, verily I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.[2]

I have noted Marianne’s principled opposition to regulating her sensibility by sense, and, more briefly, her principled opposition to second attachments.  Austen topples these prejudices one at a time – but in a way that does not leave in their place a cold, stupid insensibility.

The importance of what grows up after the demise of Marianne’s first opinions is recognized early in the story by Marianne’s first admirer, Colonel Brandon.  Marianne is indifferent to him, for “thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony,” and her attentions are wholly taken by the younger and more lively Willoughby, but Brandon’s insight is (as usual) spot on.[3]  After observing to Elinor, generally, that “there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to . . . more general opinions,” he tells Elinor not to desire “a total change of sentiments” for Marianne, “for when the romantic refinements of a young mind are obliged to give way, how frequently are they succeeded by such opinions as are but too common, and too dangerous!”[4]  In other words, today’s romantic is too often tomorrow’s cynic, or used-up moral indifferentist.  What marks Brandon as one of Austen’s most remarkable heroes is how constantly he works, with no encouragement and indeed in the face of shocking discouragement, to ensure that that isn’t Marianne’s fate – and that her sentiments, once vanquished by reality, give way to an outlook and temper more wise but no less amiable.

And so it proves, by the help of Elinor and Colonel Brandon, and the grace of God.  For after Willoughby is proved blackguard, once his own romantic outlook proves no defense against straight up gold-digging cynicism in running off to marry the wealthy Miss Grey, Marianne is plunged into an extended period of despair – here, as in the first chapter, giving herself up wholly to her sorrow.  But after this is ended, rather than clinging longer to the unbridled sensibilities by which she’d nearly destroyed herself, Marianne repents of them.  Perhaps the most significant statement in the entire book is Marianne’s declaration to Elinor that “my feelings shall be governed.”  And, of further, deeper significance, she repents of her ungoverned feelings precisely because she recognizes that strong feelings are no defense against hardness of heart and an unloving lack of consideration.  For, after running off a long list of people she’d wronged through her ungoverned sensibility, she says her feelings shall “no longer worry others, nor torture myself.”  As to Willoughby, Marianne says that though his remembrance cannot be overcome, “it shall be regulated . . . by religion, by reason, by constant employment.”[5]

Thus passed the greater of Marianne’s romantic prejudices.  But what of her lesser prejudices against second attachments and flannel waistcoats, or her belief that five and thirty has nothing to do with matrimony?

I can’t help but smile when I think of the exquisite pleasure Austen must have taken in allowing Colonel Brandon, two years after first meeting Marianne, finally to vanquish the last of “her most favourite maxims” – to have Marianne admit that while thirty-five had nothing to do with matrimony, a man of thirty-seven[6] may be good marriage material.[7]

“Set me as a seal upon thine heart . . . : for love is strong as death”[8]: The fate of Elinor

Austen rightly calls Marianne’s fate “extraordinary,” but the same could equally be said of the fate of Marianne’s elder sister, Elinor.  For though she begins the story with no objection to second attachments in principle, she’s the only one of the four principal characters who could have maintained such a prejudice.

But since much has been said here already, and much remains yet to be said about Elinor, I shall (again) increase the number of posts I had designated to this series, and reserve comment on her story for the next post.


[1] William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream V.i.26-27.

[2] St. John 12:24.

[3] For more on disappointed lovers making the keenest observers of the objects of their affections, see here.

[4] S&S ch. 11.

[5] S&S ch. 46.

[6] Insert comment of Dennis the constitutional peasant from Monty Python and the Holy Grail – “I’m thirty-seven. I’m not old.”

[7] There are, of course, those who find Marianne’s end less than satisfactory – who think that she settled for Colonel Brandon.  To these I can only say: (1) read the story; and (2) if you have read the story and still think that Marianne settled, you are a blockhead.  May your blockheadedness prove as treatable as Marianne’s.

[8] Song of Solomon 8:6.

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Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Debunk Yourself and then Talk to Us

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

__________

A great many of those who ‘debunk’ traditional or (as they would say) sentimental values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process.

The Abolition of Man

Debunking values in general is a dangerous game, and it is one that most philosophers and educators undertake without giving proper thought to the possible outcomes.  They always seem to presume that when they are done there will some solid moral ground on which they will be left standing.  Unfortunately, as Lewis notes here, they always seem to cut their own feet from under them, and society as a whole is left to clean up the mess.

This is evident in the continuing spread of Lewis’s old enemy, naturalism, throughout western culture.  The idea that there are no moral absolutes but those which nature can provide has spread like an intellectual oil spill.  At first the idea was billed (and often still is) as freedom from the outdated mores of a dying religion that held back human development.  Over time, though, it became clear that what its adherents really meant was that we should believe in “only the morals we agree are pretty good.”  It hasn’t taken long for people to ask the next logical question, “Why stop there?”

Some fell into the belief that nature itself authors our moral code by imposing its own absolutes through evolution.  The highest and most important of these absolutes is often the struggle for improvement through natural selection.  As they began to re-evaluate human activity based on these standards, they took steps to act on their beliefs, leading to the eugenics movements of the first half of the twentieth century, and culminating with Adolf Hitler’s attempt to purge entire “unfit” races from the human gene pool.  Others, while not so drastic, still took the logical step of treating humans like the animals they believe we are.

A later group fell into what eventually became post modern relativism–the idea that since there is no truth imposed upon us, we define right and wrong entirely on our own.  That sounds attractive, until someone defines it as “moral” to lie to you, cheat you, steal from you, hurt you, murder you, etc.

In most cases, the moral debunkers do a far more effective job tearing down than they do building up.    Humans dethrone God and religion in morality, and they place themselves in the empty seat.  In the former example above, humanity takes control of its own evolution in the pursuit of natural moral law.  In the latter, they literally become god-like themselves; they are the final arbiters of their own reality.  In either case, can anyone give one convincing reason we should not commit any “crime” we like, as long as we can get away with it?  Their replacement morality cannot seem to survive even the most basic scrutiny, but they never seem to figure it out until after the fact.

It is therefore usually only a matter of time before someone calls the debunker’s moral bluff.  Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine High murderers, exhibited traits of both of the above approaches.  Both specifically called themselves gods in their private journals.  Harris even wore a shirt that read “NATURAL SELECTION” on the day of the massacre, and saw himself acting on behalf of evolution.  Defenders of the above positions often try to hide behind the pair’s obvious madness, but that falls far short of providing a full explanation of how and why it happened.

The possibilities are terrifying, but these are completely “reasonable” conclusions to reach when we begin an assault on traditional values assuming that we will stop somewhere “moral” by default, as Lewis noted.  In the end, if a moral system has no sufficient answer to two little words (“Why not?”) then perhaps we would all be better off if it kept its debunking ways to itself.

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 Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.  Interested in more about C. S. Lewis?  Check out Passing Through the Shadowlands–an extended project where I am blogging through his life in letters, essays, and books.

More of the Mirror

Last week I talked about Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman.  I talked about the failings of Snow White and the Huntsman and my general dislike for how Snow was portrayed.  However, I was struck but Don’s comment concerning Theron and Stewart.  It is commonly acknowledged that Theron is the more beautiful of the two.  And if the point of pitting Stewart against Theron in the beauty contest was to prove the quality of inner beauty, Snow White and the Huntsman was pursuing an ancient, noble goal.

But they failed.

They had the perfect opportunity and I think they meant it to be that moment that showed her inner qualities.  However, there was no context for the scene. Snow White, the Huntsman, and dwarfs are in the Fairy’s Sanctuary.  It is a beautiful place full of magic and good things.  It radiates life.  For people who are living in a kingdom that is dying at the edge of a cursed forest, they do not appear to appreciate or grasp the novelty of this sanctuary.  The dwarfs act annoyed with the fairies and somehow suspicious.  I cannot remember the Huntsman having any particular response other than mild interest.  As in: “What is this place? Oh, just a Sanctuary?  That is nice.” (not his words…I am filling in from my bad memory).  Snow White should have offered the best acknowledgement that this place was different or special.  This was one of those moments that was going to prove that she was special.  I have already ranted that Stewart did not offer the right facial expressions or acting to pull it off, but maybe it wasn’t just her.  Perhaps the director gave bad instructions.

But the failure of the scene in the Sanctuary was the lack of explanation of follow through.  What is the great white stag?  Why is it so important?  I have seen the use of the stag in Eastern mythology to represent life, the life of the forest or land. The film Princess Mononoke comes to mind.  But Snow White is traditionally a Western fairytale and there was no precedent for the white stag.  Also, the Sanctuary was a sanctuary with a secret entrance.  How did the bad guys get in?  Why did the stag turn to butterflies?  Is it ok?  How is this significant to Snow White and her ability to heal the land and break the curse?  All of these things seem to pointing to her ability/mission but there is no explanation.  The connections between these events don’t add up.

I like the idea of the inner beauty, the thought that it is a person’s character that makes that person beautiful.  There are several movies/stories/books that have explored this theme (some are better than others in their delivery). The most notable movie that comes to mind is Beauty and the Beast.  Belle saw kindness in the Beast and that is why she loved him. There is the Jack Black film Shallow Hal.  Funny and ridiculous but the point was to see beyond the physical to the character of the people.

A friend and I were watching the 2006 version of Jane Eyre. Jane is ever commenting on the fact that it is the character of a person that makes them handsome. Charlotte Bronte also drives this point home throughout her novel. Another version of the beauty and the beast story is Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis.  Beauty is immaterial to the character and nature of a person.  Orual suffers the fate of being an ugly woman but she learns that her heart is more ugly than her face (this is a particularly simplified explanation).

But for all these good examples of how the heart and nature of a man is more important than physical appearance it is sad to say that appearance normally wins out. Even though Snow White wins in the end, defeating the beautiful but evil Queen, something was missing.  The Queen turns on Snow with a knife crying, “by fairest blood it is done.”  Snow kills the Queen saying, “by fairest blood it is undone.”  But how is Snow fairest?  There were many more nobler women in the movie.  The village of women who scarred themselves to make themselves “ugly” so the Queen would not consume them, were brave and strong and embodied the goodness of heart that they wanted Snow to have. But if it is only by fair blood, aka fair heart, why was the Queen still able to destroy and kill all of those girls?   The movie leaves the viewer wondering what it really was that made Snow White special, other than the fact she is Snow White.

Well, I do believe this is my last post for the month of July and hopefully my last rant on Snow White and the Huntsman.

Happy movie watching, reading and writing!

XLVII

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.”  I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

Take as many walks like this as you can.

The Walk

“You’re sure you know the way back to the car?”

“Of course.  We simply have to go down the hill

Until we hit the river, then turn right,

And follow it upstream.  It can’t be far.”

“It better not be.”

“Well, it isn’t.  Still,

The sun is setting quickly–not that night

Would be unpleasant if it caught us here.

The air’s–but wait a minute–here we are!”

The river suddenly shimmered in the light

Of half a red sun and one pure white star.

The girl released her small, half pleasant fear,

And dropped it in the stream without a sound;

It just as silently floated out of sight.

“See, there’s the path back to the road, as clear

As day.”  His whispered words were almost drowned

Out by a cricket and a timid wave

That flirted with the shore and with the ear.

“I wish I’d known before that you were bound

To cut cross-country, so I could have saved

These silly shoes from all the scuffs and mud

And worn my walking boots.”

He looked around

And saw her teasing smile.  “You see, the paved

Roads couldn’t satisfy my roving blood.

I didn’t foresee, either, that the ground

Untrod beneath those trees would have the pull

It did.  My feet were helpless to resist

The call.”

She laughed, “And have you ever found

It otherwise?”  “

I hope I never do.

Why, think of all the things we would have missed.”

“Like blisters, scratches, aching feet . . .”

“And you

And me alone with leaves, and clouds, and sun,

And evening flowing, like the river, slow . . .”

She took his hand, and sighed, and said, “I know.”

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://www.createspace.com/3562314 and order Stars Through the Clouds!  Also look for Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest book from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.  https://www.createspace.com/3767346.

            Donald T. Williams, PhD

Short Story Slump: Writer-Cafe Symbiosis

The end has come.  Sort of.  Mostly.  Almost.

What I mean is, I have most of a dissertation put together into some semblance of coherency.  It’s stuffed full of footnotes and overbrimming with Welsh and Irish quotes and even has thoughts and ideas and things I learned this year worked into it. I’m just that brilliant.

For this last post on sharing ways to turn yourself into a short story writing machine, I am going to talk about something that is partially responsible for me surviving the dissertation and something I plan to continue whenever I hit a writing snag.  Most of you have probably done it before, but maybe you’ve forgotten how useful it can be.

  • Adopt a Cafe

Many writers, when they hit a roadblock, will pack up their laptop, or paper and pen, or typewriter, or whatever it is that they use to transfer idea to written form (reverse osmosis, anyone?), and head to a favorite coffee shop, whether it’s a little hole in the wall that serves oddly named beverages and plays funky music, or a big old Starbucks with the familiar, complicated drinks and free Wi-Fi and bustling, unending crowd.

You know those days when climbing into your wardrobe seems like the best solution for your current writing woes?

Shutting yourself up in your room while you write can work, but for a lot of us, the cabin fever can do weird things to a story.  Suddenly, the characters are acting twitchy and bipolar or the plot is taking dramatically unpredictable turns.  Or you just mysteriously find yourself on YouTube watching cat videos with no idea how you got there…

Something about a cafe makes writing start happening and, for me, the words begin to flow all on their own.  Maybe it’s the mingling smells of hot drinks or the people filtering in and out in the background or the views from the windows or a particularly welcoming chair that had better be empty when I get there.

A cafe feels like an indulgence, rather than work.  I order a pot of my favorite tea and maybe a croissant or a scone if I’m feeling particularly deserving.  I allot myself a certain amount of time to write (which adds a sense of urgency and down-to-business-ness), put my own music on (a special playlist that is perfectly constructed to feed my muse) and get writing.

How could this NOT be inspiring?

It has worked quite well for my dissertation, in fact.  When my room gets too small and quiet and distracting or the library gets too schoolish, I head to a cafe.  One of my favorite places is called The Elephant House, famous in Edinburgh as the ‘Birthplace of Harry Potter’ since JK Rowling supposedly all but lived in a corner of the cafe and wrote the first book there.  Anyone who lives here knows that’s utter nonsense and she only wrote there occasionally.  However, the bright red exterior with its golden sign in the window proclaiming its association to Rowling has drawn crowds of tourists to the place.

Why do I like it?  Because their tea is delicious and the atmosphere is wonderful.  Do I also cherish the dream of one day seeing The Elephant House bragging about how once wrote there?  Oh, not at all.  Really.

The Elephant House is full of… wait for it… elephants! They lurk in pretty much every corner… kind of creepily…

If you’re stuck in your story or you want to start one up, try treating yourself to an afternoon in a cafe that suits your tastes.  Order your favorite drink and maybe a sugary snack.  Settle into a comfy chair or find that perfect table by the window and set to work.  The cafe gets your business (and possibly fame by association – let’s be optimistic!) and you get the inspiration of a warm, richly scented atmosphere that simply begs for a story to be composed on its premises.

Do you have a favorite cafe that makes all your writing dreams come true?  And also has an epic, tried and true beverage? Where do you go when you need to get out and write somewhere else?

(And am I the only one who thinks it would be gloriously funny if people took a picture of a random cafe one day just because I was in it?)