This Week in My Classes (November 14, 2008)

(cross-posted, slightly expanded, at The Valve)

This is a great week for me because in both of my classes I am teaching books I am really passionate about. In Introduction to Prose and Fiction, we have started Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and in 19th-Century Fiction, we are just finishing up Bleak House. It’s hard to imagine books more stylistically different: Dickens offers a teeming overabundance of words, characters, and plots, while Ishiguro at once models and thematizes restraint and understatement. Yet both are immensely moving and humane; their artistry is both intellectually and emotionally demanding, and their beauties are at once aesthetic and ethical. If, as Leslie Stephen said, we “measure the worth of a book by the worth of the friend it reveals to [us],” both offer us companionship of an inspiring kind. Wayne Booth proposes we consider what “kind of desirer” we become if we cooperate with the implied author of a text: “Is the pattern of life that this would-be friend offers one that friends might well pursue together?” The best literary “friends” are identified by “the irresistable invitation they extend to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than I could manage on my own.” (All quotations from from Booth’s The Company We Keep: an Ethics of Fiction, the only critical work I’ve read in a decade or more that I know has had a profound impact on how I imagine and articulate the task of criticism.)

By these standards, I think both The Remains of the Day and Bleak House are among the very best.

Still, the devil is always in the details. So here’s what I tried to get done this week.

In Intro to Prose and Fiction, the topic today was first-person narration–again, since we have already spent two classes talking about that. A major interest of mine is helping them work with the concept of unreliability so that they can talk about it with some precision. For instance, it is important to control the urge, once you recognize that a narrator is not altogether to be trusted, to assume that you can’t believe anything they say and can just speculate wildly about what really happens. Point A: there is no “really happens”–there’s only what’s in the novel. Point B: unreliability works as a fictional device because there are limits to it. In “The Yellow Wallpaper,” for instance, we believe in the basic elements of the story: there is a house, there is a husband, there is a room with hideous patterned wallpaper. What we don’t believe is that there are women trapped in the wallpaper, or crawling in the garden, etc. I’m fascinated by the artistic feat of presenting two (at least) very different versions of one story with just one set of words, so I usually spend a lot of time on this issue. More specifically, we have been talking about Stevens’s ‘butlerspeak’ and how the tone and diction of his language helps us understand his character, including its problems and limits. We have begun making connections between the inadequacy of his language for expressing the human qualities of his life and the inadequacy of his values more generally. We’ve watched some excerpts of an interview with Ishiguro in which he remarks that he had an idea, working on the book, that “most of us [are] butlers–politically, and morally, perhaps, too.” This idea about what it means to be a metaphorical butler will be important to our discussions next week, when we will have moved further along in the book.

In 19th-Century Fiction, we spent Monday’s class and part of Wednesday’s considering the novel’s two narrators–Bleak House is unique among Dickens’s novels (as far as I know, among Victorian novels) in dividing our attention in quite this way, and the dramatic differences between the prophetic sage-like voice of the 3rd-person narrator and Esther’s almost excessively self-effacing and evasive voice invite careful consideration about why both approaches are necessary to achieve the novel’s goals. (One theory we worked on: to solve the social problems he focuses on, you need both breadth of analysis and perspective, and depth–sensitivity to the personal implications.) On Wednesday I also talked about the theme of infection, about ways we can read Jo’s illness metaphorically, for instance, as a symptom of the broader spiritual disease Dickens sees plaguing his society. It’s illuminating to compare the depiction of poverty and social decay in a more literal novel, like Gaskell’s Mary Barton, to Dickens’s handling of Tom-All-Alone’s. It rapidly becomes clear that literal, material, social, or economic causes are not Dickens’s primary interest. Like his philosophical mentor (and the dedicatee of Hard Times), Thomas Carlyle, Dickens tends to present the tangible aspects of poverty as manifestations of an underlying spiritual malaise or failure–of human fellowship or compassion. We looked at the ‘Irish Widow’ excerpt from “Past and Present” and discussed the ways in which infection literalizes the premise of Bleak House that everything, and everyone, is connected, even if you can’t see or anticipate how.

For some reason, on this reading I found the work Dickens does with Sir Leicester especially moving. It’s interesting to consider that in his own way, Sir Leicester becomes a charity case in the novel, as much in need of our compassion and sympathy as Jo ever is, and deserving of them, too, because he proves capable of a moral transformation through love. Here are the affecting descriptions of him after the discovery of Lady Dedlock’s guilty secret:

Sir Leicester, left alone, remains in the same attitude, as though he were still listening and his attention were still occupied. At length he gazes round the empty room, and finding it deserted, rises unsteadily to his feet, pushes back his chair, and walks a few steps, supporting himself by the table. Then he stops, and with more of those inarticulate sounds, lifts up his eyes and seems to stare at something.

Heaven knows what he sees. The green, green woods of Chesney Wold, the noble house, the pictures of his forefathers, strangers defacing them, officers of police coarsely handling his most precious heirlooms, thousands of fingers pointing at him, thousands of faces sneering at him. But if such shadows flit before him to his bewilderment, there is one other shadow which he can name with something like distinctness even yet and to which alone he addresses his tearing of his white hair and his extended arms.

It is she in association with whom, saving that she has been for years a main fibre of the root of his dignity and pride, he has never had a selfish thought. It is she whom he has loved, admired, honoured, and set up for the world to respect. It is she who, at the core of all the constrained formalities and conventionalities of his life, has been a stock of living tenderness and love, susceptible as nothing else is of being struck with the agony he feels. He sees her, almost to the exclusion of himself, and cannot bear to look upon her cast down from the high place she has graced so well.

And even to the point of his sinking on the ground, oblivious of his suffering, he can yet pronounce her name with something like distinctness in the midst of those intrusive sounds, and in a tone of mourning and compassion rather than reproach.

And just a bit later,

“My Lady is too high in position, too handsome, too accomplished, too superior in most respects to the best of those by whom she is surrounded, not to have her enemies and traducers, I dare say. Let it be known to them, as I make it known to you, that being of sound mind, memory, and understanding, I revoke no disposition I have made in her favour. I abridge nothing I have ever bestowed upon her. I am on unaltered terms with her, and I recall—having the full power to do it if I were so disposed, as you see—no act I have done for her advantage and happiness.”

His formal array of words might have at any other time, as it has often had, something ludicrous in it, but at this time it is serious and affecting. His noble earnestness, his fidelity, his gallant shielding of her, his generous conquest of his own wrong and his own pride for her sake, are simply honourable, manly, and true. Nothing less worthy can be seen through the lustre of such qualities in the commonest mechanic, nothing less worthy can be seen in the best–born gentleman. In such a light both aspire alike, both rise alike, both children of the dust shine equally.

Today, as we wrapped up our too-short time for the novel, I emphasized the importance of affect, pathos, and sentimentality in Dickens’s project of fiction as an agent of social reform. Though there are many respects in which I think Bleak House exemplifies self-contained aesthetic possibilities, in its formal structure and thematic coherence, its unifying metaphors, and so on, there’s no mistaking Dickens’s intention to shake us out of our complacence about the state of our world and our own responsibility for those who suffer. I can’t think of a novelist today who could do this and not sound ridiculous:

The light is come upon the dark benighted way. Dead!

Dead, your Majesty. Dead, my lords and gentlemen. Dead, right reverends and wrong reverends of every order. Dead, men and women, born with heavenly compassion in your hearts. And dying thus around us every day.

What makes this an impossible move today? Many things, I suppose, from the fragmentation of our sense of audience, or of readers (who is included in “you” or “us” these days?), to changing theories about the role of art in society. But for Dickens, there’s nothing inartistic about reaching out from his text in this way. His novels have nothing in common with the kind of literary artefacts meant to sit, like golden bowls on a mantlepiece, and be admired. At the end of Hard Times, he’s even more direct:

Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn gray and cold.

And here is where I feel the two novels I’m teaching converging. Both inspire reflections on how we might look at what remains of our own days and how we will judge our contributions to a wider world, as well as to ourselves.

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