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Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Flaubert and passion

http://www.thegloss.com/2010/07/26/odds-and-ends/i-hate-jane-austen/

"Jane Austen’s characters? I can never help feeling that the provincial life is all they have. The provincial life, and a huge dollop of middle class restraint."
Uh huh.
"Madame Bovary found herself trapped in a dull marriage in a small town so she went on wild shopping sprees, had affairs, read romance novels and eventually (spoiler!) drank poison. Anna Karenina fled her family to be with her dashing lover only to throw herself under a train. These aren’t happy endings, but they do seem to indicate that the characters are too full of passion to ever accept a provincial life."
What do you think Flaubert and Tolstoy feel about them, my dear? Hail them as heroic? Praise them for their "great deal of passion and defiance of convention"? Flaubert depicts Emma Bovary as a woman with such a shallow mind that she must constantly have excitement, a bad reader who identifies with fictional characters and expects life to resemble romance novels, a philistine who wants to rise above the banality of the world around her and does it in the most banal way possible- through adultery. Anna Karenina is a woman who mistakenly thinks living for passion can bring her happiness, she can be selfish, unstable, irrational, paranoid. Flaubert clearly despises Emma, though later he pities her. Tolstoy doesn't judge Anna as a person, he sympathises with her and wants us to understand her, but it can still be felt that he doesn't approve of her actions- the 2 strands of the novel represent 2 kinds of love, intimate love (Levin- Kitty) brings understanding, happiness and harmony; romantic, passionate love (Anna- Vronsky) brings destruction. 
It's not the job of the writer to create likeable characters or to offer role models, which is not the purpose of literature and which shouldn't be a criterion of literary merits. Emma and Bovary are described, depicted, dissected, and that's that. But to read them as heroines, "too full of passion to ever accept a provincial life"
Jane Austen disapproves of Lydia's "passion" and elopement. But, you see, my dear, Flaubert and Tolstoy aren't very different from her as you think. 
(You may mention Natasha, who is indeed an image of vivacity. All right, please look at Marya and Sonya. And see what Tolstoy does to Natasha in the epilogue). 
"The only Jane Austen character I ever felt I really liked was Lydia, Lizzie Bennett’s younger sister who ran away with her soldier lover (she was brought back and married him, so was not ruined). Now she had the potential to have a really interesting story, there. If only Jane Austen had followed her!"
So you pick 1 of the silliest, most impulsive, most shallow characters to like? No wonder you don't like Jane Austen! As Gilbert and Gubar put it in The Madwoman in the Attic, Jane Austen makes fun of "such novelistic clichés as love at first sight, the primacy of passion over all other emotions and/or duties, the chivalric exploits of the hero, the vulnerable sensitivity of the heroine, the lovers' proclaimed indifference to financial considerations, and the cruel crudity of parents". 
"And I do love Flaubert and Tolstoy, both of whom came only a little while after Jane Austen." 
Oh do you really? 

23 comments:

  1. Di,

    I'll bet those who like Lydia are also great admirers of Mary Crawford.

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    Replies
    1. Oh yeah I concur.
      Have you read Andrew Lang's Letters to Dead Authors? There's a letter to Jane Austen that has more or less the same arguments.

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    2. Di,

      I haven't heard about it. Sounds interesting. Who are some of the other authors?

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    3. You can check it out here: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3319/3319-h/3319-h.htm

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    4. Di,

      Fascinating. Thanks for the link. This looks like something one should settle down with in an easy chair, with one's favorite libation, and with purring cat, rather than on a vertical screen, sitting at attention.

      Thanks for the reference.

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    5. Hahaha. Do you have an iPad?

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    6. Di,

      No, but I have a tablet. However, I prefer books when I have a choice.

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    7. Of course. Of course.

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  2. "Madame Bovary" is a strange one though, isn't it? Emma Bovary is everything you say. But then again, the society she is trying to escape from really *is* soul-destroying. The terrible irony is that Emma's rebellion is as stupid as the society it is rebelling against. And I can't help feeling that old Gustave liked Emma Bovary - that he wasn't being entirely ironical when he said "Madame Bovary - c'est moi!"

    Isn't it interesting though how different authors have such fascinatingly different ways of looking at life? The quiet, provincial life that Austen depicted with such affection in "Emma" is the same life that Flaubert found unutterably dull and stupid!

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    1. I have always wondered about that line "Madame Bovary - c'est moi!". And still do.

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    2. Di,

      Perhaps the frustrated woman trapped in that so-called dull village represents him as a frustrated writer trapped in the dull literary village of his time, dreaming as a writer of a brighter more interesting more romantic literary world.

      The irony, of course, is that that village is filled with interesting and exciting people with interesting stories but she/he can't see it. To cut herself from that village life off by those dreams is as deadly to her as it is to a writer.

      Many 19th century writers, such as Austen and the Russians, discovered the life in those small villages,

      Just a thought, of course--it's barely 6 AM and it's too early for any serious and in-depth musings. .

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    3. I think that sounds more like Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. Because of the scandal, Anna leaves with Vronsky to spend some time abroad and finds some happiness at 1st, but after a while she can't bear it any more and, in spite of everything, has to go back, just like Tolstoy saw many things wrong with Russia but couldn't belong anywhere else, or criticised the class system, renounced his property and wore peasant's clothes but was still an aristocrat.
      But you probably have a point there.

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  3. PS I agree with what you said in your post, by the way. My comment above was an addendum, not a disagreement!

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  4. Di,

    Madame Bovary, published in 1856

    Anna Karenina, serial publication 1873-1877, book publ. in 1878

    Anna Karenina lived the life that Madame Bovary passionately desired--large city, upper class life, socially prominent, and well-loved by family and friends.

    Both married to dull but decent husbands who do not mistreat them but get involved in an extra-marital affair(s)--one only for AK.

    Do you think it a coincidence that both Anna and Emma B die by their own hand?

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    Replies
    1. Di,

      Sorry about that pronoun reference problem. That should read: "Both married to dull but decent husbands who do not mistreat them, but both Emma and Anna get involved in extra-marital affair(s)--one only for Anna.

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    2. Oh my badness. No idea what I was thinking. Lesson to learn: don't discuss anything when exhausted.
      I was focusing mostly on the feeling of being trapped, and missed the village part, but you're right, of course.
      Regarding the coincidence question, you may find this essay interesting:
      http://wesscholar.wesleyan.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1043&context=div1facpubs

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    3. Di,

      Thanks for providing the link--a fascinating article. Meyer has done a massive amount of research and written a very interesting paper.

      I am impressed.

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    4. Tolstoy never mentioned Flaubert though, except once, I think. And Flaubert's not in the list of people/ books that influenced him. But George Eliot was.

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    5. Di,

      According to the article, Tolstoy was in Paris when MB came out with considerable publicity.

      "But Tolstoy says nothing about all this in his diaries. In fact, he who says so much about so many things over so many decades says
      almost nothing about Flaubert's novel. When G. A. Rusanov spent two days talking about literature with him in August 1883, Flaubert is mentioned: "Madame Bovary T. had forgotten, but he remembers that when he read it, he had 'liked it.' Forgotten it! Tolstoy did, however, express his admiration for Flaubert years later. In an interview with a French journalist in 1904, he said: One of my most favorite writers is your incomparable Flaubert. There is a truly magnificent artist, strong, exact, harmonious, full-blooded, perfect. His style is filled with the purest beauty.
      Can one say this of many writers?" Furthermore, Tolstoy's library
      contained a copy of the Russian translation of Madame Bovary published in Biblioteka dliachteniia in 1858. Interestingly, it had been torn out of the
      journal and bound together with Shakespeare's Othello, suggesting that
      Tolstoy did indeed read Flaubert's novel in the context of the adultery question that so occupied him in the early 1870s.

      Interesting that Tolstoy says so little and yet thinks so highly of Flaubert and goes to the effort of removing the translation of MB and binding it with Othello.

      The tricks one's memories plays on one.

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    6. Yeah, there. That essay I read a while ago.
      I also read a paper about Anna Karenina and Adam Bede.
      I have always intended to write a post about an idea that can be expressed as something like this:
      Flaubert+ George Eliot= Tolstoy
      [not (Flaubert+ George Eliot)/ 2= Tolstoy]
      But that's too crazy perhaps. And I have to read more.

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    7. Di,

      chuckle. . .

      I get the first line of your formula, but the second expression is beyond the limits of my knowledge of math.

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    8. Haha.
      I mean, it's more like a combination, a "sum", like Tolstoy has the qualities of Flaubert plus the qualities of George Eliot.
      Whereas the 2nd formula is like he's something in between, like Flaubert and George Eliot have 2 different ways, 2 different approaches, and Tolstoy's the middle way.
      But if I have to elaborate, that would be quite difficult. Hahahhaa. Never mind. I'm nuts.

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