Thursday, November 23, 2006

Rounding out the semester with Austen's Sense and Sensibility

Hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving, with an appropriately Dickensian feast at mid-day, and without any Pumblechookian elbows being thrown. (Orwell once made a crack about Dickens' endings, which simply imagined the future as a endless succession of enormous meals).

This is the second to last week of the semester, the time when I really start feeling regrets over what I haven't said or discussed or elaborated properly during the semester.

[Incidentally, A colleague of mine in Anthro just told me that he uses Web CT to deal with this issue in his undergrad classes, since he can post whatever portion of his lectures he failed to deliver during the allotted time. I must say this is intriguing, though I wonder whether my undergrad students would follow those kinds of readings up, when it's hard enough to get them through the required readings. I suppose it would work best if one lectured from fairly finished notes, which I generally don't do.]

In any case, I've been thinking this week of what I haven't really taken up in the Austen grad seminar, largely because during the give and take of discussion, it just never seemed the right moment. Maybe I'll do an "Unfinished Business" segment in our next and final meeting, asking everyone to think of an issue that they'd wished had been followed up during discussion.

Here's my unfinished business, anyway:

1. The literary status of the novel, as signified by the famous defense in Northanger Abbey. I've never bought the notion that NA represented a purely destructive parody of the gothic, for the same reason that the Juvenilia for me never represented simply the annihilation of sentimental paradigms.

I always thought that there was some kind of criticism--displacement--recuperation process going on there, with new forms of distinction developed for fiction and fiction-readers, with the result being a certain "psychological" realism being equated with literariness, at the expense of bodily displays of sentiment, exotic location, "melodramatic" plot, and the broader view of society and the social order fostered by novelists between Richardson and Wollstonecraft. So I think that the refunctioning of the sentimental novel (and the sentimental heroine) that occurs in Austen must entail a new sense of what the novel as a genre can and cannot, should and should not, attempt to accomplish. For me, this is the big literary-historical significance of Austen: she helps redefine the function of the novel "after" the sentimental novel has run its course (a demise, of course, that she helped to hasten)

This brings me to my other unfinished business:

2. Austen's relation to the prudential narratives and conduct-book morality that we can still sense in, say, Evelina's struggles with propriety and delicacy, seems really strategic, if not inconsistent. I suppose this is where I agree with Marilyn Butler, though I'm not sure it represents an aesthetic fault in the way that Butler assumes.

Sense and Sensibility to me has the classic didactic structure of the comparison of the respective fates of parallel characters, and features a not-quite-punitive lesson for its imprudent "sensible" Marianne, and a not-quite-satisfying reward for its prudent, quietly stoic and "sensible" [in the other sense, right?] Elinor. One might say that the point of the novel is to question whether lives as arbitrarily determined as E and M's can be described as "lessons to be learned." But the prudence of E does not really seem to guarantee much happiness, and the imprudence of M, though certainly dangerous and self-indulgent at times, does not seem inferior to the calculation and self-seeking of the Steeles. So my guess is that the real issue in S&S lies in the viability of the didactic structure that she has nonetheless retained for this novel.

So there you go. Two unfinished thoughts that somehow never came up in discussion, with only three more hours of classtime before this semester comes to an end.



Postscript: Though the Web CT option might work fine for an undergrad class, I'm still thinking about ways to make the relatively limited number of hours in a grad seminar work more effectively.

I'm seriously considering adding some type of blogging or online writing component (possibly Web CT, but maybe just a regular public blog) to the seminar to deal with this problem of my own sense of unfinished business, though I'm very conscious of the limited number of hours grad students have available to prep their classes, and whether going through my afterthoughts in this manner would be productive for anyone. I also wonder how formal my own presentations would have to become to work in this format. And, lastly, I should note one thing: when I wondered aloud about students bothering to make it through such notes, I was thinking about my undergrads, not my grads. (Thanks to SD for helping me clarify this point)

Best wishes,