Jane Austen was a load of re that I snipped off

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Fri Jun 15 18:03:45 EDT 2001

On Mon, 11 Jun 2001 01:49:09 +0100, Ven wrote:

>and Paul said
>> I don't know the book of which you speak well enough to make
>> deliberate comment, but this doesn't make sense to me: surely, if Mary
>> is a malingerer and a social climber, then she should be treated as
>> such? 

>Interesting. One of the things my English teacher used yto 
>complain about was my tendency to ask why the author hadn't 
>written a character differently or turned the plot another way. I'm 
>still doing it which is how this bit of the argument got started. If an 
>author wrote it that way is there anything more to be said? 

It's not that there's nothing to be said, it's that the question "Why didn't
the author write the book differently?" can be a dead end.  It goes to
motive, which is unknowable.  Anything we might say about why Jane Austen
made Mary a whiny hypochondriac rather than a genuine sufferer is pure
guesswork.  Guesswork, moreover, that usually supports our own theses at the
expense of the author, who isn't around to defend herself.

One aspect of postmodern criticism--a mainstay of feminist criticism as I
was taught it--is the strong reading.  A strong reading is one that denies
the obvious things the author "intended" you to understand or believe.  It
means not taking the text at face value, not accepting the overt
conclusions.  It's important to feminist criticism because it's how you look
for hidden or subjugated voices (though I hate using that word).  It's like
reading Conrad's _Heart of Darkness_ from the woman's point of view (either
the native or the fiancee).

Anyway, you can ask those questions, but I don't think you can draw any
conclusions about the author from the answers you come up with:

>Well, this brings me to a bit of argument I've been meaning to bring 
>up, concerning author's predjudices. Suppose a character in a 
>nineteenth century novel is presented as stupid, comically ugly and 
>irredeemably vulgar mannered. It's designed to arouse sympathy 
>for the young man  whose father wants him to marry this fright for 
>her money.  But suppose this character is black, and we know 
>from other sources that the author was actively racist, does this 
>not change the picture we have of her and of the author's intent? 
>Can we still treat her as the author depicts her? The author in 
>question is Thackeray, the book Vanity Fair.

Again, the author's intent is problematic--and I don't know what other
sources you cite as evidence of Thackeray's racism.  (I also haven't read
the book.  It's on my to do list, okay?)  If you've got an author who always
depicts black characters as stupid, ugly, and vulgar, then you can probably
not trust that depiction.  But his intent doesn't matter.  He could be
maliciously racist.  He could be ignorant.  He could be completely
misinformed.  All of those are still just GUESSES.

Besides, I really don't think it matters.  Reading isn't about illuminating
the mind of the author.  It's self-revelatory, as I think I said before.
You might be passionate about discrediting racism, and criticize _Vanity
Fair_ with that end in mind, but continuing along that line to draw
conclusions about the author is just a dead end.  You're reading the text,
not its writer.

Melissa Proffitt
(interested in a strong reading of _Aunt Maria_ with Maria as the victim,
but I think it might be impossible or simply distasteful)
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