Today in my theory class I tried to confront the pretty much universal initial reaction my students to the novel Emma. Among the nine students (yes, I'm down to nine), not one of them claimed to really enjoy it. Perhaps my own love of Austen has blinded me to her faults, but c'mon, not one? In an effort to find something to convince them that the novel has literary merit, I did a search on J-Stor. What did I find? Some woman scholar criticizing the novel for being "light" and "of no consequence." As a reaction of my male students, I can (sort of) understand their inability to relate to Emma or Knightley and any of their decidely upper-class dilemmas. But a woman scholar? Why the Austen bashing?
Still looking for some comfort, I turned to my friends Gilbert and Gubar. There's a reason Madwoman in the Attic is still in print, still required reading for so many scholars. It's refreshingly clear and direct. What did I find there? A feminist defense of Austen, to be sure. And some humorous, and infuriating quotes from male (and female) writers about how Austen's novels are "perfect as far as they go-- that's certain. Only they don't go very far" (that's Elizabeth Barrett Browning).
Here are a few more:
Mark Twain, "I could read his [Poe's] prose on a salary, but not Jane's. Jane is entirely impossible. It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death."
Henry James, ". . .she sometimes, over her work basket, her tapestry flowers, in the spare, cool drawing-room of other days, fell amusing, lapsed too metaphorically, as one may say, into wool gathering, and her dropped stitches, of these pardonable, of these precious moments, were afterwards picked up as little touches of human truth, little glimpses of steady vision, little master-strokes of imagination" (qtd. in Gilbert & Gubar).
What's striking about these criticisms, aside from their belittling her art as mere "dropped stitches" is their overwhelming sexism. At the base of these criticisms, and at my students' inability to "relate" (as they said), is a dislike of female stories. I don't mean merely a dislike of stories by and about women (though I mean that too), but a dislike of a focus on the domestic, on the private, on intimacy, on conversation. This criticism is couched as a lack of plot. "Nothing happens," my students said. I then proceeded to list all the things that happened in the text. It's not that nothing happens, I countered, but that you don't like what does happen. Why? They say it's only about "relationships" and "marriage." Yes, I said, on some level it's a marriage plot. (I've always disliked this term: it reminds me of a plot of land, as in where the woman will be buried when she is married. Ha!) But it's also about class and status, about manners, about obligation and family, about language and textuality.
As a response to their initial reactions to the text, today in class I had my students list books they were required to read in English classes. Then on the other side of the board, we listed books they had read for fun. We talked about which required texts were part of the new canon (Morrison, Momaday, Cisneros) and which were part of the old canon (Shakespeare, Conrad, Homer, Dickens, etc.). And then we talked about how many were by women (very few) and how many had a female narrator or protagonist (even fewer). Only one that most people had read, To Kill A Mockingbird, was both written by a woman and featured a main character who was also female. But, I went on to say, it's not even wholly Scout's story; it's the community's story. Plus, one of my students added, Scout's kind of a tomboy.
Then I tried to get them to see how what they expect of a novel has been shaped by the novels they've read. What's more, their assessment of a text's literary worth has been influenced by the texts they were required to read. There's literature, and then there's the light books, the guilty pleasures, the indulgences. We know which are which.
As this is a theory course, I said, I'm just trying to get you to have some kind of critical awareness of why you like what you like and why most of you don't like Emma. They seemed to get it. The two women even seemed to have liked the book once they got into it.
Ultimately, I told them, I don't think it's just a book about marriage. I made my case for why the book is about Emma's inability to read other characters; in theory-speak, Emma is about the unstable signifiers of gesture and intention. As the text states, "She had taken up the idea, she supposed, and made every thing bend to it." Finally, then, the book is about pre-conceptions, and how we interpret the world through the lense of our firmly held beliefs about what things mean, how they signify. Even if they don't seem to mean what we want them to mean, we bend the signs to fit our ideas. We don't interpret, we project.
I'm not sure they bought it, but seeing as how most of them hadn't finished the book, I think they just took my word for it.