Thursday, January 16, 2014

Altered readings of Persuasion, and a surprising connection

Persuasion was my first read of 2014, mostly because it was the subject of my monthly book club. This marked my third book club attendance, and the first where I found my perceptions of the book very much changed.

I went into the meeting with a relatively simplistic view: Anne the clear-eyed heroine stands in for the voice of Austen who is presenting a coherent social critique of this silly class system.  The characters are set pieces and the fall in Lyme is clearly contrived, and all of this is because Austen just wants to get everyone together and contrast the productive navy with the wastrels that are the gentry.  It's pretty easy to pluck out examples that support this narrative, so I was a bit surprised that one of the first questions at book club was exactly about this: does there seem to be a coherent social critique here, or specific humorous episodes?

The more I think about this, and about the critiques that came up at book club, the more suspicious I am of my first reading that there's a single overarching critique in Persuasion. On further discussion, I found myself more drawn to a reading that sees various episodes tracking different themes including -

  • The value of the Navy (and the Navy's ability to reveal true character)
  • The superficial and ridiculous values of the gentry
  • The disconnect between worldly fortunes and internal happiness
  • The relative importance of happiness, financial security, and status in marriage
  • The characteristics of an ideal wife
Smarter people than I have spent a lot more time thinking about and researching Persuasion.  I'm sure that there are other themes to be picked out of the text, and perhaps other overarching narratives I've missed.  I'd recommend reading Persuasion, and also discussing it or reading critiques.

What interested me about my initial reading of Persuasion compared to my reading after the discussion is that my reading essentially changed from an overarching single narrative with occasional tangents to a series of interrelated set pieces and characters/caricatures combining entertainment, insightful social commentary, and somewhat contrived plot elements.  So basically Americanah.  As mentioned in my first post on Americanah, I just don't know how to read this.  Individual scenes and chapters may stand or fall on their own (one of the members of book club confessed that he had a hard time with the opening of Persuasion, while I found the opening some of the most charming & delightful writing I've encountered recently), but ideally they're probably more than the sum of their parts.  (The contrast in Americanah between whites who view Africa as an interchangeable country and the the African immigrants who can both acknowledge the different countries and also find a common bond in their status on the margins of society springs to mind).  

When preparing for book club, I asked my wife what she thought was worth talking about in Persuasion.  One of her answers was "Who is a modern writer comparable to Austen?"  I hadn't expected to be answering "Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie", but maybe?  (Or maybe I still don't understand the conventions of novels.  That's always the thought that springs to my mind as I stretch my reading muscles.)

There's no conclusion here.  If you've got resources to point me towards conventions of the modern literary novel, I'd certainly love to see them.  Similarly, if you've got thoughts about how to read long fiction using models other than episodic vs. overarching narrative structures, I'd love to hear those as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment