Sunday, December 20, 2009

What to do when an old friend disappoints you; or, Sense and Sensibility part II

I am having a really difficult time finishing Sense and Sensibility. Yes, I am busy. Yes, it is difficult to find a quiet spot in this current life. Yes, it is easier to watch TV; and on and on. But, I think the real reason that I am struggling to finish is that I don't like it that much. Gasp. What? I know, I know, I am supposed to like Jane Austen. I am supposed to love Sense and Elinor and the romance and all that. But, I don't.  I don't like how passiveness and suppression is rewarded, while honesty and emotion are punished. But, most of all, I don't like Edward or Colonel Brandon. Sigh.

I know that the girls end up with these two men. And I know that Austen wants us to approve of the matches. But, Edward is so bland. I hate that he picks fights with Marianne over her immature and overly romantic sensibilities. I understand that is done to highlight her flaws, but it makes him appear argumentative and peevish; traits that I am sure that I don't approve of. I am thinking of thes scene when Edward visits the Dashwoods in Devonshire and he and Marianne talk about the countryside.  He tells her how to use language to appreciate the countryside. My book was kind enough to have a note explaining that the actual target of his satire is a book by William Gilpin called On Picturesque Beauty in which the book explained how to use the language of the sublime to describe landscapes. This book was so popular that it created cliches like "rugged hills" and "twisted trees" and so on. Austen is using this moment to zing those who have fallen into this linguistic trap. But, the argument is so annoying. I would become overtired of anyone who took the time to tell me how wrong I was all the time. And yes, before you say it, it is in reaction to the fact that Marianne does this to people all the time. She points out their lack of romantic sesibilities as well. But for some reason, her passion seems to make it slightly more bearable.

The other target of Austen ridicule in this text is Mrs. Jennings. I am a little bit sensitive to this one, because, well,  I feel a kinship with her. I am fat and jolly, I like to tease, and have been known to play the matchmaker.  I don't know when to shutup. I will kick a dead joke long after I should. But, while the Dashwood girls, who let's face it, are kind of boring, cannot stand Mrs. Jenning, I like her. She is kind and merry. She is right about how people feel and forces them to acknowledge their attractions. If we all lived like Elinor we would sit silently and wait and hope that someone would notice us. Which brings me to my main gripe. The value of silence.

If you want to be a good person then talk of nothing but the roads and weather. Don't enjoy your children too much (Mrs. Middleton), or hunting (Mr. Middleton). Don't have a sense of humor (Mrs. Jennings). Don't be passionate about art, music, or love (Marianne). Don't love anything too deeply. Don't feel. And if you do feel anything for goodness sake if you do feel anything don't talk about it!

I think I am just a little frustrated right now. I know how this all ends, and I don't want it to go that way. Marianne is broken by love and only when she is beaten down into a spiritless lump does she get to marry another character who was beaten down by love and is now a spiritless lump. It reminds me of what I hate about Jane Eyre. Jane only gets her man after he has been broken. She can't have him whole and vital. And yes, I am sure there is a point here. I used to believe that Austen was critiquing this world that silenced women, but after taking a Satire class a few semesters ago, now I am not too sure. I am not convinced that this is a critique... I want to be sure that there is a lesson for me here,so that I can go somewhere beyond my frustrated and angry Jane-Austen-seems-to-be-anti-passion-rant (especially because I know this topic comes again in later books, and is treated much more favorably)... but for now. I am having touble getting through to the end. Ah well, and in the words of Nemo's friend Dorrie "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming."


  1. This might say more about me than it does about him, but I really like Edward, actually. I like his shy self-effacing awkwardness and his almost-handsomeness (unusual traits in a hero). I sympathize with his conflicts with his family, who want to live vicariously through him and whose values he does not share--and I kind of like how, while going along in his own quiet way and not appearing to actively resist, except when pressed, he nevertheless manages to end up with exactly what he wanted. And I enjoy his sense of humor. I can't claim a lack of bias here however, as some of these traits, and I won't say which, remind me a bit of my own favorite person. I'll just remark that Edward is in fact the sort of person I find rather appealing.

    I read the conversation with Marianne rather differently. When it takes place, he has just come in from a walk and she wants him to describe everything that he has seen to her, using the picturesque language with which she is far more conversant than he is. He declines to do so, and goes on to express his own, rather more conventional and less refined tastes. There are certainly some hints in the passage that the sort of romantic perspective that Marianne espouses glorifies the unhealthy and that she has too strong a tendency to take her opinions from books rather than her own experiences--though Edward specifically disclaims the latter meaning--but he is not attempting to attack her on those grounds and definitely not trying to change her opinions or how she talks about nature. Rather, it reads more as if he is defending himself from her expectations of him (something he likely has a lot of practice with given his family). He couches this in language disclaiming his own ignorance and lack of taste, which I think does a lot to dispel the sense that this is a criticism of her. And given Marianne's inability to conceal her dislike of people who irritate her, I think that we can take her own continued affection for Edward as a sign that she takes it in this same spirit.

    Mrs. Jennings deserves more credit than Elinor and Marianne give her, and I like her too. Their dismissal of her seems to be mostly an adolescent reaction: OMG the neighbors are sooo embarrassing!! But Elinor at least (and maybe I'd argue Marianne to some extent--not completely sure here) does come to appreciate her more over the course of the novel. At any rate it becomes very clear by the end that she is a very kind person and a good friend to have around, even if she is a little embarrassing sometimes.

    And the emotion thing. I think it really comes down to empathy. There's one character in the book who seems to entirely lack passion and he is entirely unsympathetic and very off-putting: Robert Ferrars. He doesn't care about anyone or anything except perhaps making sure that he has a better toothpick-case than the neighbors. Accordingly, nobody cares for him either and he's regarded with disgust by just about everyone (except for his horrible doting mother, I suppose). So being passionless is not exactly held up as an ideal here. However, expressing emotion inappropriately--or in a way that is portrayed as inappropriate in the context of the novel--is a big theme and it seems to come down to either (perceived?) self-preservation or else (and this I think is really important) being considerate of others. I have a lot more to say about this, but I'm running out of time--more later.

  2. I didn't realize until I looked at it how long my comment was. Sorry for hogging your blog space. But I promised to write more later, so I hope you don't mind if I hog it some more....

    There's a lot in the book about expressing emotions, and whether it is possible to do so in a way that doesn't ruin your life and doesn't make the people you care about feel bad. Ruining your life is a question I'll set aside for the moment, but the caution/empathy/compassion of expression is also pretty important.

    Marianne's hysterics are condemned in the book on several levels. The one that is interesting to me here is its effect on Elinor. She comments at least once that Marianne is very unjust in assuming that she (Elinor) can be happy while Marianne is weeping upstairs. She isn't condemning Marianne for being upset--the reproach is for not consider the effect of her emotions on the rest of her family. Elinor being Elinor of course, she can hold herself up as an example of this (she is a little annoying, isn't she?), but the important realization for Marianne at that moment is that Elinor does have feelings. She is shocked, but it's emphasized throughout that Elinor's restraint couldn't be held up as an ideal if it didn't exist in spite of and not because of strong feelings on her part.

    Now I don't think I can personally support the point of view that it is best to keep everything that is going on in your internal life to yourself because you might otherwise make your family feel bad--in fact I think there is a lot to object to in the way these things are reprioritized, and especially when it's idealized in women particularly--but this is different from promoting the point of view that all passion is harmful.

    In any case the examples from other characters fall into a spectrum here. Lucy is sort of the opposite extreme, in so far as she only appears to have emotions that will help her to suck up to other people. Mrs. Jennings and Lady Middleton could be accused of being insensitive, saying what they think without considering who they are talking to, what the situation is, and so forth. In Mrs. Jennings's case, she is usually trying to help, but doesn't know what it is like to be in the situations of her interlocutors. Lady Middleton will bore you with stories about her children all day regardless of whether you are interested or not (and really, the novel as a whole gives me the idea that Austen was not particularly fond of children). Willoughby expresses himself in a way that works well to cover his own ass, but has absolutely no regard for what happens to, say, Eliza. Or Marianne.

    Marianne's fault is just that she considers her own feelings to be more interesting, powerful and important than those of anyone around her--something that one might be forgiven for thinking at seventeen. She learns to be more considerate over the course of the book, which is good, but I agree that she is punished too heavily.

    ...and now I'm out of space. To be continued....

  3. So the last thing, which I guess was kind of tangential anyway. I really can't reconcile myself to Marianne's marrying Brandon, for the simple reason that she does not, at any point, appear to care about him. In fact, it is pretty explicit that she marries him to make her family happy, which I think is really carrying this empathy thing to an unreasonable extreme. I did watch the movie again (though the DVD was damaged and I didn't actually get to see the end) in hopes that it would make me like the ending a little better, perhaps by fabricating some relationship between Marianne and Brandon, or making him a more appealing character generally. But if anything, it made him even less appealing, because he spent the whole movie doing nothing but pronouncing doom and looking ominous and slightly creepy. I don't know if that's the effect they were going for or if that's just all that Alan Rickman is good for. Either way, it didn't really help, and I'm still mad at him saying it was a good thing that the first Eliza, whom he supposedly loved, died of tuberculosis.

    Anyway. So that's what I meant when I said I didn't like the ending.

    Oh, two other things:

    1) Having looked back over my previous comment, I want to disclaim anything that sounds like a comparison between the Ferrars and my in-laws; there is no resemblance, and I have a good relationship with them, even if they have somewhat different ideas about what makes life worthwhile than I do.

    2) If you are getting bogged down and can't finish, we could move on to another book. It is better than getting stuck and abandoning the whole project.

  4. Anni- I have a lot to respond to here, but I am focusing on grading today and completing my UNR application tomorrow. So, please know that I have read your comments and I am mulling them.

    Oh, and I laughed so hard at the final two things in comment three that I have to respond to those.

    1. Isn't public writing fun? I sometimes forget how public this whole blog thing is.

    2. Yes, you know me well. There is a danger that I will get bogged down and give up. I will finish my grading and application then give S&S another go, and if I still don't feel like it, we'll move on.

  5. I suspected as much. Looking forward to it. :)

    ..and good luck with your application!