Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Jane Austen Fan Club -- Smyrna Branch

First of all I feel the need to apologize for the delay in posting our latest blog installment. All I can say is that I've been having technical difficulties. I have a love/hate relationship with computers, and this week has been heavy on the hating side. Maybe I'm taking some liberties with the posting title for our most recent read, but I want to say love, hate, or ambivalence last week's meeting to discuss Austen's Pride and Prejudice had great attendance. I hope to see all you back for subsequent books. Also, thanks to all who have read and posted responses to past posts, keep them coming, and keep me truthful. I take notes at our gatherings, but putting it all together here forces me to do some condensing and synthesizing. If I goof, misquote, or misrepresent something, call me on it. Now on to P&P.

One facet of the novel that we spent quite a bit of time discussing was Austen's use of exaggeration in her portrayl of characters and relationships. Some of us may have felt this exaggeration was a bit over the top to the point of being a distraction. Others saw it as Austen's tongue in cheek commentary on the idea of romantic relationships, more of which I'll get into later. Myself, I kept thinking that the novel was just like high school, and as a high school teacher, I feel somewhat qualified in my assessment of high school melodramas. I think what lead me to this conclusion was a mixture of the way romantic relationships are idealized by some characters to the exclusion of practicality, think Mrs. Bennett, Lydia, and even Mr. Collins and the importance of witty banter in the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy. Now I want to go back to the analysis of Austen's exaggeration as commentary. Bob pointed out that this over the top style is played out with stunning regularity in our modern day romantic comedies, particulary in those movies where the characters seem to intially hate on another but end up falling in love at the end. It struck me as funny how we accept this arrangement somewhat blindly in our films but find it problematic when it shows up in our literature, particularly since Austen had a corner on the market far in advance of the advent of film. I wonder if our dismay comes from the fact we are more critical when we read than when we watch a movie, or if we've become so accustomed to seeing this played out in movies that we have become sort of immune to it. Bob made good case for the novel as a satire of the romance because it's seemingly too perfect. Everything wraps up a bit too neatly in the end, so the question becomes is Austen trying to remind us that real life and love don't always work in this way. Even Lydia, whose reckless behavior could have resulted in lasting shame for her family, is saved, though we are left to wonder about the possibility for true happiness in her somewhat arranged marriage.

Another interesting element of the Elizabeth/Darcy union that was discussed was the fact that their marriage is one of both love and money, whereas other unions in the novel are guided purely by one or the other. Jane's relationship seems to be based purely on love while Charlotte Lucas's marriage is portrayed as almost a business transaction. Mr. and Mrs. Bennett's marriage was based on what amounts to lust, and Lydia's marriage is arranged to prevent dishonor. Is one reason that readers support Elizabeth and Darcy because their marriage serves as an optimistic reminder that one really can have it all when it comes to romantic unions? Or, as someone suggeted, is Austen offering the novel up as a cautionary tale on marriage, which doesn't always have a happy ending like Elizabeth and Darcy's?

An interesting topic Nick introduced was the fact that Austen doesn't rely on descriptions of her characters or scenes to carry the novel. We discussed whether Austen left out the effusive detail prevalent in many other romantic novels because she didn't feel that these descriptions were important, of did she perhaps have an ulterior motive. Is this lack of feeding us information a veiled attempt to engage us as readers more fully in the text as we must visualize these things for ourselves? During this discussion Bob raised the important question, "What can we learn about ourselves and others based upon reactions to literature?". If I can be so bold as to state my own conclusions here, I have learned that we are if nothing else a thinking group. Our discussions never remain at the superficial level where we simply discuss what went on in the book. Instead, we seek to peel away the layers of our onion to uncover possible social commentaries or motives of the author while looking for relevance in today's society.

Another interesting element of the text that we offered up for discussion is the role that money plays in establishing power. The two characters who best exemplify this realtionship between power and money are Darcy and Lady Catherine. Each has enough money and enough social clout to do what they please; yet, they behave in a completely different manner due to this freedom. Lady Catherine uses her money and accompanying social position to put herself into a position of power over the other characters. This is best exemplified in her encounter with Elizabeth in which she orders her to refuse Darcy's advances. The isolated sphere she has constructed around herself through her wealth and power allows her to interact with those outside her realm in what can only be described as a condescending manner, and I'm using our modern day connotation of the word not that used in the novel itself. Darcy, on the other hand, is able to change and undergoes such a transformation while Lady Catherine remains stagnant. Perhaps the greatest evidence of Darcy's ability for change can be seen through his instrumental role in arranging for the marriage between Wickham and Lydia in spite of his distaste for both these characters.

While I am certain I have left out something someone may deem critical in our discussion of the novel, that's where your responses and posts come in. I look forward to reading them, so get to blogging.


bob said...

Maybe I am so demanding about Austen's exaggerated story line because I don't want to categorize her with the films which have taken her themes.

"Maid in Manhattan" features the class conflict of Bennett and Darcy with the ever photgenic JLo and Ralph Fiennes.

"My Best Friend's Wedding" is a snapshot of Jane and Bingley (Janey go get your man . . . )

"Cutting Edge" is so successful with the "I hate you/Ilove you" plot that it deserved (yes, it's true) TWO sequels.

So, why don't I rate Jane Austen with these even though P&P is just as over the top?

Because I have to believe that these movies (while endearing) are candy and Austen's novel offers something more substantial to my palate.

And while these exaggerations are necessary to the success of RC film, Austen's enduring status compels readers to look beyond the hyperbole.

Nancy said...

" what can only be described as a condescending manner, and I'm using our modern day connotation of the word not that used in the novel itself." --Great line, Nancy.

Something else we did talk about was how words and phrases change meaning over time. For example, within the novel's context, being 'condescending' would've been a good thing.

Also, we discussed how the concept of a gentleman was much more than an abstract ideal but a very real thing for people to aspire to rather than a somewhat opaque notion used to describe nice gestures.

The ways in which words & ideas take on different meanings over time is something that I don't think we discussed in the book club before we read P & P.

Still not a huge fan of the book, but I loved our discussion.

Nancy said...

Wait a minute! I just noticed something...Did Bob just reference the 1992 ice skating film "Cutting Edge" starring D.B. Sweeney? I don't know how I feel about that.

Oh, everyone btw, this is Nick signed in under Nancy's name. I'm getting ready to post the next blog that's why this and the comment above is under her name. But rest assured it's me--not Nancy--bashing Bob's movie taste.