Feminism and Jane Austen

Was Jane Austen a Feminist?

becoming-janeThis has not been the traditional view.  Indeed it was not until the 1960’s that Austen’s name was associated with feminism in any widespread way.

Although there are as many faces of feminism as one cares to discover, if the works of Austen are to be fairly evaluated, it should be in terms of feminism as it was understood in her time.  To do otherwise (however tempting), would be anachronistic.

This essay evaluates Austen’s portrayal of three of her heroines in regards to the goals of ‘Enlightenment feminism’ which asserted that men and women should share the same moral code in regards to conduct, feelings, and responsibility.

In Emma, despite being ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, we find a heroine flawed.    In economic terms, Emma Woodhouse passes with flying colors; an heiress of £30,000 is not easily dismissed.  But the citizens of Highbury do not value money nearly as much as they do character and in this regard the imperious Miss Woodhouse must learn that she has ‘been used to despise (Highbury) rather too much’.   In other words, Emma’s moral code is lacking and requires remedial work.

But instead of undertaking to improve herself of her own violation, Emma is instructed by Mr Knightly who appears to believe himself the more morally capable of the two (‘I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.  Bear with the truths I would tell you now, dearest Emma, as well as you have borne with them.’)

Not surprisingly, it is only when Emma becomes all that Mr Knightly would have her be, that he realizes he is in love with her for we all know the story of Pygmalion, the ancient Greek sculptor who fell in love with (and married) the statue he carved.  We have only to look at how Mr Knightly’s view of Harriet changes (the former ‘fair lady’ become ‘the foolish girl’ and ‘a greater simpleton’) when by refusing Robert Martin’s marriage proposal, she fails to conform to Knightly’s norm.  Luckily for Emma, she had learned her lessons well and so ‘what did she say’ when Knightly declares himself?  ‘Just what she ought, of course’ for ‘a lady always does.’

In Emma, although women may have been portrayed as capable of moral equality, they were also portrayed as incapable of forging a moral code of their own.

Likewise, Fanny Price in Mansfield Park with ‘all her faults of ignorance and timidity’ must be carefully tutored to the standards of her cousin Edmund.

Although Miss Price is oft portrayed as a plucky feminist who finally has the courage to speak her own mind (by refusing to marry Henry Crawford as Sir Thomas Bertramwould have her do), we who have followed her long, steady progress with Edmund know she did not reach that pinnacle on her own.

The scene in the East room provides the perfect example.  One morning Fanny escapes to her ‘nest of comforts’ in order ‘to see if by looking at Edmund’s profile she could catch any of his counsel’.  When in the flesh Edmund arrives to obtain ‘her opinion’ on ‘an evil of such magnitude as must , if possible, be prevented’, he begins by voicing his own.  When finished with his soliloquy, he asks Fanny whether she sees ‘it in the same light’.  When she has the temerity to say ‘no’, he recommends that she ‘think it a little over’ for ‘perhaps you are not so much aware as I am, of the mischief that may’ arise.

When Edmund’s love interest, Mary Crawford, speaks her own mind by refusing to agree with him regarding her brother, Henry’s, adultrous behavior, Mary is out and Fanny is in.  ‘Loving, guiding, protecting her (Fanny), as he (Edmund) had been doing ever since her being ten years old, her mind so great a degree formed by his care’, it should be little surprise that by end of the story he’s fallen in love with her  and ‘acknowledged’ her mental superiority.

However, in Northanger Abby, Catherine Morland, arguably the most feminist of Austen’s heroines, receives a very different moral education – that of first-hand experience (as we might expect with a man).

As a child, Catherine is left largely to her own devices allowing her to early on rely on her own judgment.   Later she navigates Bath with little or no outside guidance and moves on to her next adventure afflicted only by her love of Gothic novels and vivid imagination.   Convinced that General Tilney has murdered his wife, like Pandora she finally commits the unpardonable sin and opens that ‘forbidden door’.

But even then when she receives a dressing down from her love interest,  Henry Tilney (‘consider the dreadful nature of the suspicions you have entertained’ and ‘remember that we are English’ and ‘Christians’), she is asked by him to not to do or think as he would ,but instead to ‘consult your own understanding’ (which she does to her shame).

Once her ‘visions of romance were over’,  she ‘was completely awakened.’  Catherine goes on to win the heart of the man she loves and to ‘begin perfect happiness at’ the age of eighteen, which as Austen reminds us is ‘to do pretty well.’

If the only goal of Enlightenment feminism was that men and women should share the same moral code, then Austen can be said to have wholeheartedly supported this through her fictional characterizations.

However if we look to the basic premise underlying Enlightenment feminism – that women, not having been denied powers of reason, must have the moral status appropriate to ‘rational beings’, formed in the image of a rational God – we must reach a different conclusion.  At least two of the three of Austen’s heroines examined were apparently presumed by the men in their lives as capable not of forging their own moral code, but only of regurgitating that of their lovers.

Lightness of Being/ Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal return’

The Ouroboros, a dragon that bites its tail, i...

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Milan Kundera opens his celebrated novel, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by examining Nietzsche’s idea of ‘eternal return’.

What, asks Kundera, might it mean if everything we do, think, and say recurs ad infinitum – ad nauseum – throughout the eternal black holes of time and space?

What if, contrary to the dogma of most religions, life weren’t a dress rehearsal?  What if the mistakes we make in the here and now were never going to be made ‘right’ on some dim, distant redemption day?

Would the knowledge that you had no second chance weigh you down like a butterfly pinned to a collector’s board?  Or would it make you savor life, like Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche believed, as if it were a precious, precocious art form?

I’m a firm believer that what one says about something (especially if it’s controversial in any way) tells more about them than about that which they have commented upon.

Keeping that in mind, on the question of ‘eternal return’ I throw in my towel with Existentialism.   I accept that the question Kundera and Nietzsche have raised is not whether God (in whatever shape or form) really exists, but why it is that one chooses to believe either way.

To me, the need for any form of escapism from the joys and sorrows of life as experienced is rooted in fear, resentment, and bad conscience.  Be honest.  How far wrong can anyone go if he or she is prepared to live with the result of his or her choices throughout eternity?  In my view, to take action as if you’ve anything less than total commitment to life as experienced is a cop-out to the fullest degree.

Kundera reminds us that Nietzsche believed the idea of ‘eternal return’ to be the heaviest of burdens.  If we can’t or won’t carry that burden, then it only makes sense we’ll invent some way to cast off the significance of our lives leaving us light as a bird, free to fly straight to heaven.  Do not pass ‘Go’ – do not collect $200.  Who cares?  It’s only a game…

“The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.  Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.”

Isn’t the real question then not as Hamlet suggests ‘to be or not to be’, but instead ‘when and where are we committed to being’?

Kundera frames our dilemma nicely.

“What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?  Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ.  He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being.  One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative.  We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness?”

I choose weight.  Which do you choose and more revealing – why?

“Our Tragic Universe” & the Fiction of Perfection – The Self-Help Industry Exposed

In Scarlett Thomas’ new novel, Our Tragic Universe, heroine Meg concludes that self-help books succeed by first making us feel bad about ourselves and then giving us the perfect fix.   It’s rather like Humpty Dumpty being pushed off a wall and broken so someone can make a fast buck putting him back together again.  According to Meg, the arenas in which we need help are endless:

“You could learn, from a book, how to snare someone with an ‘exclusive smile’, how to set the agenda for any conversation you wanted to have, how to be the ‘chooser’ rather than the ‘choosee’, how to become ‘magnetic’ and attract the people and objects you want, how to harness the power of ‘Screw you!”, how to read other people’s minds via their body language and also use your own body to communicate, and how to use ancient secrets of creativity to give your PowerPoint presentations more ‘zing’.”

Apparently this approach works because we’re all so eager to be ‘perfect’.   Just like a character’s situation at the end of a novel, we insist on our lives being as emotionally, aesthetically and psychologically neat and tidy as a ball of virgin yarn.

“The whole of Western society seemed to be turning itself into a reality TV show in which everyone was supposed to want to be the most popular, the most talented, the biggest celebrity.”

But what if this wasn’t what you really wanted?

What if instead of being a cultural King Midas, you wanted to be an anti-hero?  What if you did not desire riches, success, and syrupy romance straight from a fairy tale?   What if you just wanted to be a nice person – a good friend?  What if instead of spending your time making zingy PowerPoint presentations, you took up bird watching or knitting?

“…people who wanted to reject these ideas of perfection and individualistic heroism should get a pile of books that help them learn a new skill, or perhaps another language, not in order to become successful or fit or better, but just for the hell of it.”

If you did this, undoubtedly societal movers and shakers would write you off as hopeless – just not ‘with the program.’

But might some want more from  life than to be ‘programmed”?

I suggest that underneath our glossy exteriors a good many of us do.  Indeed fiction writers know their heroes and heroines can’t be too ‘perfect’.  Some flaw or weakness is mandatory for them to be lovable – to be someone with whom readers wish to relate.

So why do we want  fictional heroes to be imperfect while at the same time insisting on perfection for ourselves?

I suggest we give this paradox serious consideration or as Meg suggests, we run the serious risk of becoming little more than a fictional character for the entertainment – and profit –  of someone else.

When is Fiction Art and Why Does it Matter?

Art commands special status and support from states, corporations, and the public at large. Art is not just a matter of profits – indeed some art is extremely unprofitable.  Art is of enduring cultural esteem and concern.

Yet given its importance, surprisingly there is no accepted definition of art.

Most philosophers believe that simply being entertaining is not enough. Similarly defining ‘art’ in terms of the emotions it evokes won’t do. There is nothing valuable in the arousal of emotion for it’s own sake (unless you’re willing to agree that – for example – pornography is art). Even if we acknowledge some emotions are more valuable than others, we’d still need a yardstick by which to measure their  relative worth.  This would lead to impossible questions about morality and  religion.

Instead, some philosophers suggest that art should be defined by whether or not it promotes knowledge and understanding – most particularly self-knowledge because according to Hegel (1170-1831) it is only self-knowledge that frees us from fate (i.e. the forces of causality that binds lesser creatures to their animal nature).  This would seem a particularly appropriate theory for contemporary Westerners who are in large part,  psychologically defined.

If we accept this last thesis, then how might we ascribe value in the literary arts, where by definition (through the use of language) some knowledge is always conveyed?  Some philosophers suggest the answer lies in the fact that authors create images (character, scene, events, ideas) that  enhance understanding of the human condition.  But is this enough?

I suggest that to be considered art, fiction must go beyond simply creating images that help us reflect on our lives.  Instead to be classified as art, I believe fiction must create images that become paradigms for our lives.

Take for example Shakespeare’s Othello. Othello is not only the image, but the archetype of destructive jealousy.  He is not merely a distillation of the characteristics commonly found in jealous persons (i.e. a stereotype), but instead he taps directly into the very patterns that structure our experience of the world.

To accomplish this is a tall order.  It requires more than gimmicks, theatrics or even good writing.   It requires a style of narration that draws readers into to a character’s experience in such a way that as the result of reading, in his heart the reader knows the subjective joys and sorrows of a different way of being.  Only in this way, can fiction be said to provide us not only with understanding, but with self-understanding.

I further suggest that although a particular work of fiction falling short of this mark may be profitable and enjoyable, it is not art.  Conversely, although a particular work of fiction that does meet the mark is neither profitable nor enjoyable, it deserves the special status and support given by society to art.