This Week in My Classes (November 19, 2008)

We’ll be working on The Remains of the Day until the end of term in Introduction to Prose and Fiction. Today I highlighted the problem of politics in the novel, looking at the many moments in the novel when Stevens expresses pride in his own indirect contribution to society through his service to Lord Darlington. One of the most comic, yet piognant, examples is the long section on how his finely polished silver “made a small, but significant contribution towards the easing of relations between Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop” during a meeting at Darlington Hall: “Lord Darlington himself suggested that the silver might have been at least a small factor in the change in his guest’s mood that evening, and it is perhaps not absurd to think back to such instances with a glow of satisfaction.” Perhaps. Stevens’s insistence that he reflects on these moments with pride and satisfaction is clearly in tension with his repressed awareness that Lord Darlington’s commitments during this period are problematic, to put it mildly, and thus his own belief in the dignity of his life of loyal service is severely compromised.

We also looked at the links between Stevens’s own political self-effacement–his frequent admissions that international affairs are “over [his] head” or not for “the likes of us”–and the anti-democratic arguments of Lord Darlington and his cronies. In particularly painful scene, Stevens called on, ostensibly to answer a series of questions about current affairs, but really (as he and we quickly see) to demonstrate his own limitations as a political participant. His only response to each question, that he is “unable to be of assistance on this matter,” is wholly in keeping, of course, with his identity as a butler, and thus Ishiguro is able to draw us along from the inadequacies of that role on a personal level to its inadequacies as a model for a democratic citizen. Lord Darlington and his friends use Stevens’s subservience and ignorance as arguments against democracy; as Lord Darlington explains, “Democracy is something for a bygone era. . . Germany and Italy have set their houses in order by acting. . . . Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it’s allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense there. . . . The man in the street can’t be expected to know enough about politics, economics, world commerce and what have you.” Translated, that is, from a household to a nation, Stevens’s idea of dignity as defined by submission and service to the will and needs of another leads direct to fascist dictatorship.

The proclamations of Harry Smith about “the privileges of being born English” including the right to “express your opinion freely, and vote in your member of parliament or vote him out” set up the grounds for resistance to tyranny and a very different standard of dignity. I’m interested in the relationship of this conflict between repression and self-expression, service and independence, fascism and democratic liberty, and the novel’s narration. On the one hand, the first-person narration is in a way a direct counter to Stevens’s own reluctance to accept his role as the main character in his own life. He has seen himself as a secondary character, telling Miss Kenton,”my vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship through the great tasks he has set himself.” In telling his own story here in the novel, he is forced to see his life a different way, with himself, rather than his master, at the “hub” of things; one result of this shift in perspective is, of course, his realization (or acknowledgment) of his own failures. But he does at least, and at last, speak for himself. Isn’t a fundamental principle of democracy that each voice deserves to be heard, as each vote deserves to be cast? And yet Stevens is hardly a poster child for democracy, precisely because of how badly he has lived his life, how flawed his judgment has been, how unreliable he is. How can we feel good about trusting our wellbeing as a collectivity to individuals as flawed, self-deceived, and ignorant as Stevens’s own voice shows him to be? This is a good conversation starter, anyway, and as a classroom question, it helpfully draws our attention to relationships between the form of the the novel and the ideas it is so clearly but complexly engaged with about what dignity really means and what democracy really requires and entails.

In 19th-Century Fiction, we’ve just started our work on The Mill on the Floss. I always begin a George Eliot ‘unit’ with a survey of her life and philosophical and fictional principles, with an emphasis on her interest in providing a secular alternative to Christianity as a framework for morality, on the relationship she theorizes between realism, sympathy, and morality, and on her interest in and ideas about determinism–so that’s what I did on Monday. Today, though, we will get going on the particulars of this remarkable novel. It’s an enormous shift, stylistically, from Bleak House: the prose is so balanced and philosophicaly, the story so overtly grounded in historical and social analysis, the characters so psychologically complex. I’m loving the humour of it especially, this time. The first couple of chapters, with Mr Tulliver puzzling over how to set Tom up for an education that will serve Mr Tulliver’s desire to get the better of rascally lawyers are hilarious: “I want him to know figures, and write like print, and see into things quick, and know what folks mean, and how to wrap things up in words as aren’t actionable. It’s an uncommon fine thing, that is, . . . when you can let a man know what you think of him without paying for it.” He’s just as unintentionally funny about the great mystery of breeding, which has led him to the puzzling situation of having a daughter who is far more ” ‘cute” (accute) than her brother:

“It’s a pity but what she’d been the lad–she’d ha’ been a match for the lawyers, she would. It’s the wonderful’st thing”–here he lowered his voice–“as I picked the mother because she wasn’t o’er ‘cute–bein’ a good-looking woman too, an’ come of a rare family for managing; but I picked her from her sisters o’ purpose, ’cause she was a bit weak, like; for I wasn’t agoin’ to be told the rights of things by my own fireside. But you see when a man’s got brains himself, there’s no knowing where they’ll run to; an’ a pleasant sort o’ soft woman may go on breeding you stupid lads and ‘cute wenches, till it’s like as if the world was turned topsy-turvy. It’s an uncommon puzzlin’ thing.”

Like his listener Mr Riley, we may find our “gravity [give] way” here! And yet of course there’s nothing really funny about Maggie’s experience of being a “small mistake of nature” in this way, and much of the first few chapters is also devoted to showing her painful encounters with the limits set on her development because she is, as Tom points out, “only a girl.” There are many memorable incidents in the first volume: Maggie smashing the head of her doll, for instance (into which in the past, we’re told, Maggie has often hammered nails to “commemorat[e] . . . crises in Maggie’s nine years of earthly struggle); Maggie trying, and failing, to share the jam puff with Tom in a way that will meet his perverse but rigid standard of what’s right; Maggie chopping off her recalcitrant hair to free herself from the censure of her carping relatives–only to repent; Maggie pushing Lucy in the mud and then running away to the gypsies in hope of finally being “in harmony with circumstances.” Eliot is particularly good at evoking the “bitter sorrows of childhood,” the “strangely perspectiveless conception of life” that gives childhood suffering its special “intensity.” She also writes beautifully about the special relationship we have to the landscapes of our childhood, where the scenery is infused with memories and so speaks to us of who we once were and who we might have been:

We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it, – if it were not the earth where the same flowers come up again every spring that we used to gather with our tiny fingers as we sat lisping to ourselves on the grass – the same hips and haws on the autumn hedgerows – the same redbreasts that we used to call ‘God’s birds’ because they did no harm to the precious crops. What novelty is worth that sweet monotony where everything is known and loved because it is known?

The wood I walk in on this mild May day, with the young yellow-brown foliage of the oaks between me and the blue sky, the white star-flowers and the blue-eyed speedwell and the ground ivy at my feet – what grove of tropic palms, what strange ferns or splendid broad-petalled blossoms, could ever thrill such deep and delicate fibres within me as this home-scene? These familiar flowers, these well-remembered bird-notes, this sky with its fitful brightness, these furrowed and grassy fields, each with a sort of personality given to it by the capricious hedgerows – such things as these are the mother tongue of our imagination, the language that is laden with all the subtle inextricable associations the fleeting hours of our childhood left behind them. Our delight in the sunshine on the deep bladed grass today, might be no more than the faint perception of wearied souls, if it were not for the sunshine and the grass in the far-off years, which still live in us and transform our perception into love.

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