Saturday, June 19, 2010

Who needs subtext?

Book 3, Chapter 8 (Chapter 44 in some editions)
“The lamp of the body is the eye.
If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light;
but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness.
And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be.”

In my crueler moments, which happen far too often, I sometimes wonder if people who spend their time digging for subtexts have any idea how to enjoy reading. The surface, the text, of this chapter is so rich, so profound that I could spend a week blogging it and not come close to doing it justice.

Before beginning, let's stop and consider the sheer virtuosity that Willoughby lives his life with. One of the many things he has in common with Hamlet is is his ability to just do what he wants to do. No one wins duels with Willoughby. We see it here in his marriage. Consider what must have happened in the back-story for a moment. Willoughby, who has just been playing at life until now, suddenly finds himself in need of marrying a  woman of fortune. So he goes out and does it. Just like that.

You couldn't do that and neither could I. The problem with both men is that they don't want to do anything but wallow in their own feelings. Only in odd moments of necessity does either man actually stir himself up to actually accomplish anything. Otherwise, all they are good for is acts of desecration.

Also like Hamlet, this chapter opens with a dark hint of violence. Elinor encounters him alone and she is alarmed not just at the impropriety of his being there but also with the sense that she is encountering a wild man who might do who knows what. Again, think of Hamlet showing up at Ophelia's burial and jumping in her grave to confront her grieving brother. Think of how Hamlet treated Ophelia appallingly when he ought to have treated her well and then, when she was dead and the whole issue was moot because she was dead, suddenly speaking of his love for her.

And then remember that that "love" itself later turned out to be doubtful for Hamlet will tell Horatio that he jumped into the grave because he didn't like the way Laertes was expressing himself. As if life was some giant drama and the only thing that mattered was the tastefulness and delicacy of the performance.

And consider how people keep loving Hamlet no matter how worthless he proves himself to be. How Horatio wants to kill himself so he can die with this catastrophic failure of a human being. How generations of critics have killed trees trying to convince themselves and others that Hamlet is really a hero even though all the evidence suggests otherwise.

There you have Willoughby. No matter that he always proves himself to be a schnook, we want to trust and love him. Even Elinor feels this way about him.

And here we need to be honest with ourselves. We like to think that we hate vanity—or that we at least hate it in others. But we are very susceptible to the vanity of others especially if that vanity occurs in a beautiful person. In those cases it tends to produce something very like charisma.

Faith and honour
It seems to me that the key lines of the chapter are these:
I will not reason here -- nor will I stop for you to expatiate on the absurdity, and the worse than absurdity, of scrupling to engage my faith where my honour was already bound.
This is Willoughby explaining himself to Elinor. He is acknowledging that he initially allowed the relationship between he and Marianne to develop in directions it ought not to have been allowed to develop. And he is saying that when they were both in love with one another he still scrupled at the thought of declaring his love, a declaration that must lead to marriage. So he is saying, his honour required the move and yet he continued to hold back.

But, in typical fashion, he wants to have his cake and eat it too. He  is really only hinting at the apology he ought to make and then holding back. "I will not reason here ...." Willoughby, you never reason anywhere, you let your feelings justify pretty much anything you want to do.

It seems to me there are two things to note here. First, just how commonplace this is. Who has not fallen in love and known, or at least strongly suspected, that this love was returned and yet held back because .... Well, because what? Because we weren't ready for it? Because we might meet someone better later? Because we are too busy having fun to make a commitment?

As we read this chapter we get constant reminders of what a cold, calculating swine Willoughby is. Read this again slowly:
"My fortune was never large, and I had always been expensive, always in the habit of associating with people of better income than myself. Every year since my coming of age, or even before, I believe, had added to my debts; and though the death of my old cousin, Mrs. Smith, was to set me free, yet that event being uncertain, and possibly far distant ...."
Willoughby is not overcome with any great love for his cousin here.

[By the way, note the parallel between Willoughby and John Dashwood. As a writer, I am amazed at the incredible number of parallels like this Austen employs. You'd think it would feel artificial and contrived and yet it never does. Probably because our real lives are just as full of such parallels as Austen's fiction is. Also, she never explicitly draws the parallel she leaves it for us to discover. Not hidden in any subtext, but right on the surface.]

The second thing to note is how Elinor is in a situation that mirrors that of Willoughby. She is hesitant to let down her guard, to let Willoughby engage her confidence too far because she knows that her honour must follow what her faith has already allowed. If she turns him away, doesn't allow him to enter and explain himself, then she would not have been bound to honour his request that she apologize for him to Marianne.

In the end, though, she does let him explain, does allow his charm to affect her, so that, when he asks, she has no choice but to agree. And thus sets up the tension for the last few chapters.

Blurting it out
Here, by the way, I think we can see why Austen had to switch from epistolary to dramatic narrative. This scene could not have played out convincingly if this were a letter. Then Elinor could read the letter all the way to the end and still returned it with a note saying, "I must return this letter to you sir, unread ...." It is the human contact that makes it all possible by engaging her faith and thus her honour.

This sort of scene—a scene where a character suddenly enters into a more intimate bond with another by blurting out the thing that otherwise should not and therefore would not be said—is a regular feature in Austen novels from now on. She did not originate the device but she uses it brilliantly enough that all her predecessors seem irrelevant.

What's fascinating here in Sense and Sensibility, is that the scene is accomplished through an intermediary. Willoughby does not blurt to Marianne herself the way that Darcy will blurt out his first marriage proposal to Elizabeth or the way Elizabeth will later blurt out the desperate situation her sister's elopement has created to Darcy. Here we have Elinor in the middle and Elinor must decide whether to keep her promise or not. And Elinor's chief worry is to not rekindle any passion in Marianne when she does keep the promise.

That may seem like a bad thing. Oh how we crave the moment when a Darcy or Elizabeth forgets themselves so completely that they cannot help but let their feeling spill out. There is something erotic about such a moment and there should be.

But let's stop and read it the right way. Austen is still discovering the power of such intimate moments. Remember that the blurt out moment in Northanger Abbey is one of pure shame, where Catherine is humiliated when she lets out what her feelings have led her to think. She is not more intimate with Henry as a consequence. Austen is easing herself into the moment. She is not ready to let her heroine let go. It will be a little easier every time after this but let's give our full appreciation to that first time.

Do you believe him?
There are three things that Willoughby gets away with in this chapter that he ought not to. Three ways he charms even the supposedly cold-hearted Elinor and probably fooled you too. He certainly fooled me the first time through.

The first is with regard to the character of Brandon's ward.

First, consider how he describes his falling for Marianne:
"To have resisted such attractions, to have withstood such tenderness! -- Is there a man on earth who could have done it!"
But Willoughby,  honey, "resisting attractions" isn't exactly your strong suit. You did, after all, if you'll pardon me putting it so crudely, nail Brandon's daughter before coming here. Willoughby's excuse here is that he he didn't know she was pregnant as a consequence of what he'd done. How exactly does that make a difference? You committed the crime, what matter that you didn't know you left your DNA at the scene of the crime?

And what possible difference could it make that your partner was a willing participant? Is the fact that the other person also wants to do this too all the justification that an act as intimate as sex needs?

Again, the Hamlet comparison is relevant here. Everything Hamlet does feels absolutely legitimate to him when he does it because it is in line with his feelings. Where he is a miserable failure is at hiding his feelings. When he should hide them during the play within the play, for example, he cannot, thereby alerting Claudius to the danger he represents to him.

A cheap seducer like Wickham has nothing on Willoughby. Willoughby will go through life seducing one person after another and be all the more deadly because he will genuinely feel himself to be in love every time he makes the other person fall in love with him.

So his account of what happened between he and Eliza should ring hollow. The thing that troubles us Willoughby, is not that the suspicion that you behaved like a libertine towards her but the suspicion that you fell deeply in love and felt that sex was justified by this love. Someone who just wanted to get some has potential for reform, someone who falls in love too easily does not.

The second thing we ought not to believe is his claim that it was his failure to see how Marianne's love could have made up for a life of relative poverty that stood in his way.
My affection for Marianne, my thorough conviction of her attachment to me -- it was all insufficient to outweigh that dread of poverty, or get the better of those false ideas of the necessity of riches, which I was naturally inclined to feel, and expensive society had increased. I had reason to believe myself secure of my present wife, if I chose to address her, and I persuaded myself to think that nothing else in common prudence remained for me to do.
Actually Willoughby, there was a bigger problem here that you must have been aware of even if you deny it now. And it is this: Marianne shared exactly the same character failings. Married, she would only have encouraged you in your lack of restraint. It would be no act of love to marry such a woman unless you really meant to reform yourself as part of your vow to her. And you have no intention of changing. (And his attempt at atonement now fails for the same reason, any genuine act of atonement must include a promise to attempt reform. He makes no such vow anywhere in this chapter.)

The third thing we ought not to believe is his claim that he has suffered because of his strong feelings and therefore ought to be forgiven. He has already used these feelings as an excuse to forgive himself:
"Thank Heaven! it did torture me. I was miserable. Miss Dashwood, you cannot have an idea of the comfort it gives me to look back on my own misery. I owe such a grudge to myself for the stupid, rascally folly of my own heart, that all my past sufferings under it are only triumph and exultation to me now. Well, I went, left all that I loved, and went to those to whom, at best, I was only indifferent. My journey to town -- travelling with my own horses, and therefore so tediously -- no creature to speak to -- my own reflections so cheerful -- when I looked forward everything so inviting! -- when I looked back at Barton, the picture so soothing! -- oh! -- it was a blessed journey!" 
As Willoughby sees it, he has already atoned in his mind. All that remains to be done is to convince others to see this. Again, this is purely a matter of feelings. He has suffered in his feelings and now it's all over except the moment of seducing others to feel the same things.That there might be moral requirements on Willoughby to forever act differently from now on doesn't occur to him.

The answer he deserves is, "You'll get over it Willoughby, you always do. And how can you comfort yourself when you have done nothing to comfort your victims?"

By the way, all the proof we need is right here in the chapter. At the outset, Willoughby is so overcome with feeling of his own guilt, he doesn't feel entitled to use Marianne's name.
"I mean," said he, with serious energy, "if I can, to make you hate me one degree less than you do now. I mean to offer some kind of explanation, some kind of apology, for the past -- to open my whole heart to you, and by convincing you, that though I have been always a blockhead, I have not been always a rascal, to obtain something like forgiveness from Ma -- from your sister." 
But, oh, how quickly he gets over this scruple. Just like he gets over everything else; like he always will get over his own sins.

Final shot at this moral midget. He blames—of course he does—the hurtful letter he earlier wrote to Marianne on his wife Sophia. That is bad enough, but notice how he manages to do the honourable thing and not do it at the same time:
'I am ruined for ever in their opinion,' said I to myself; 'I am shut out for ever from their society; they already think me an unprincipled fellow, this letter will only make them think me a blackguard one.'
A real man would have left it there Willoughby. He would have had the decency to  have left his victims the comfort of thinking him the vile one. Only a disgusting piece of wimpcrap like you would want to be forgiven for being what you are and somehow tried to imply your feelings lifted you above your actions.

Just like Hamlet that.

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