Beauty

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Mon Jan 17 16:39:13 EST 2000


On Mon, 17 Jan 2000 18:38:04 +0100, Hallie O'Donovan wrote:

>>>And you're certainly not obnoxious to voice a different opinion, Hallie!
>>>Sheesh.  You'd think Sally and I were scary or something....  :)

>I actually wasn't worrying that it was obnoxious to voice a different
>opinion, more that the manner in which I'd done it was obnoxious. 

Uh...no.  :)

Before I get further into this discussion, I want to make it clear that I am
not trying to convince you that you're wrong to read _Beauty_ the way you
do, Hallie.  Most of what I have to say is in trying to explain what I'm
seeing in it.  More on this later.

>  When her father returns and
>>first tells them that he's supposed to bring one of his daughters back, they
>>didn't have to do anything.  They could have just stayed put and never
>>returned to the forest.  It was Beauty's sense of honor, and that of her
>>family, that made Beauty's choice necessary;
>
>I'm fairly sure that I think this is inaccurate; when I checked, I found
>that the Beast tells the father "And do not imagine that you can hide from
>your doom, for if you do not return in a month, I will come and fetch you!"

It doesn't matter what threats he makes.  There is ALWAYS another choice.
Granted that they don't know it's an empty threat (the Beast is apparently
unable or unwilling to leave his castle, and it's only desperation that
leads him to make this threat), they still could have stayed home!  They
could have called his bluff--and the older sisters were actually ready to do
this.  They could have gotten the other villagers to help defend them; while
they've been portrayed as superstitious, they don't fall into the model of
cowardly stupid peasants at all.  In fact, given that most of them believe
there's some kind of danger within the woods, it seems more likely that
they'd be willing to face the terror as long as it was on their terms, which
it would have been if the Beast had left the woods.

But, as you say, it's really an irrelevant point.  I think the heart of the
matter is this:

>Where I've come around to in my thinking about all this now, is that I can
>all too easily imagine either one of my daughters, a close friend, myself
>even (though I am far too old to fit the fairy-tale, it's emotional
>response I'm talking about here, not circumstance) or Polly, for that
>matter,in the place of Beauty.  And that's frightening.

I wrote a nice little rational explanation of Why I Like This Book in that
first post.  But when I was reading _Beauty_ for the first time, I wasn't
thinking "wow, this really says a lot about what it means to have honor."
It seemed like a wonderfully fun adventure and romance.  But it's that gut
reaction that does more to affect our reading of a particular book than
almost anything else--and that gut reaction is often overlooked as a factor
in how we read things.  At least, I think it is.  It colors everything about
a book, so the scenes that I see as romantic, Hallie sees as manipulative
(for example, the bit near the end where the Beast tells Beauty he can't
live without her).  And as long as we don't get into a question of what the
author really meant--putting our own interpretations on the author's
intention--both of those reactions are perfectly logical and right.  (hmm,
does that sound pompous enough?)

This is what happened to me with _Wuthering Heights_.  EVERYONE describes it
as this wonderfully romantic book, but I was appalled and disgusted by how
Heathcliff and Cathy treated each other.  They're positively brutal.  (See,
Elise, you're not alone!)  I haven't ever discussed it with someone who
thought it was romantic, so I'm not sure how people can read it that way or
what elements contribute to that.  But even if someone convinced me that the
romantic thing is a logical, provable reading, I'd *still* never be able to
read it that way.

I got all of this from my college courses on criticism and postmodernism--it
was the one thing I internalized, because it made so much sense.  Instead of
looking at a book as a static thing that contains a finite and "true" set of
ideas, you can see a book as the intersection between the reader and the
author.  Each person brings to the--oh, ugh, the "reading experience" a set
or repertoire of knowledge:  everything you've ever read or experienced is
in that.  And the two meet in the middle, and how they match up determines
roughly how you're going to experience the book.  (It's been a long time,
and this is a very sketchy description and probably bears no resemblance to
actual postmodern literary theory.  But it makes sense to me.)  The reason
this makes sense is it allows more room for different but equally correct
interpretations.  You can't read a book wrong simply by disagreeing with the
most common reading of it, only by not having enough in your repertoire to
read a book fully.

The truth of this gets proven to me all the time--from this discussion, to
the recent critique of a story I wrote from a person who simply didn't get
what I was doing.  (If she'd been the only one who'd ever read it, I might
have assumed I was being unclear, but from other feedback I became aware
that she just doesn't do subtletly well.  Also she didn't know what a
"copse" was--wanted me to change it to "corpse" or something.)  There's
still room for people to be dead wrong about how they read a book--that
_Tess_ discussion, for example; the text of the book *directly* contradicts
much of what Elise's teacher said.  Not a matter of opinion--actual quotable
sections from the author's point of view.  But for the most part, anything
goes.  I don't know about y'all but it makes me feel pretty happy to think
that way.

>The tragedy thing was only a joke, BTW, Melissa.

I know.  I happen to think it's funny.  Makes me feel I should be dressing
in black turtlenecks or something.  :)  All through high school I had
friends who wrote poetry about suicide and death and the bleakness of their
upper-middle-class existence...now they all read happy books where terrible
things happen to people and the ending resolves it all perfectly, and I read
_King Lear_.  Well, not every day.  But you get the picture.

Melissa Proffitt
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