16 November 2011

nearer to an understanding

“The pattern of a novelist’s work is formed by his attitude to life and by his point of view, neither of which need amount to anything so portentous as a ‘philosophy,’ even in the case of a great novelist; all that is necessary is that the writer should have considered the human state and done something to bring us nearer to an understanding of it.”

-Michael Swan in Henry James


I may begin each high school literature course with this quotation from now on. My eager students, some of whom strive to discover alternative spiritualities and social commentaries in every line of Tennyson, could benefit from the reminder that greatness is often in simplicity. Perhaps all the writer intended to do was to say: Here, gentle reader, look at this facet of life, more closely than you've ever looked before. Isn't it strange? Isn't it beautiful? Isn't it terrible? Now-- what do you think? Perhaps the writer didn't even have a philosophy to express. Perhaps he was less a social activist than an observer and storyteller.

Then I can stop fielding questions like "Is Jane Eyre's initial refusal to marry Rochester a criticism of Victorian women who married for money?" Well . . . I suppose. But I suspect that Charlotte Bronte had broader themes in mind and was more interested in demonstrating the difficulty of pursuing one's ideals of purity, the heart-wrenching lengths to which that pursuit may take you. The whole marrying-for-money issue is worth mention but, taking the entire novel into consideration, it's not really the point. In my opinion. :)


  1. Since all of our beloved heroines, though not marrying for money, successfully married into a great deal of it in spite of their idealistic scruples, perhaps the real human problem these novels face is how a girl might convince herself that she's marrying for love and goodness when she finds herself falling for a man of ten thousand a year.

    Tennyson is eminently Victorian. You won't find a scrap of alternative philosophy anywhere in him. (I think the finest expression of that grand melancholic doom-dread that permeates his poetry he actually seizes on best in the otherwise mundane Idylls of the King, the section where Vivian seduces Merlin to give up his powers.)

    The human state. That's a pregnant phrase (so to speak), and a favourite idea of a contemporary bioethicist named Leon Kass. You'd like him, a lot. Among other things, he has written a book entitled, "The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature."

  2. This is an excellent point. Jane Austen, while praising the virtues of romance, also seems rather practical in recalling that one can't live on romance alone. (Some of her happy marriages aren't particularly wealthy, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin for example. But such less-genteel matches are never the focal point.)

    I think most of my students are accustomed to looking at literature, particularly poetry, as inherently revolutionary. Bright young things writing manifestoes for the new generation, and all that. So they expect every author we study to be protesting and pontificating... never simply expressing.