Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Dumbing-down or Dressing-up?

As a high school senior, I was voted as "Most Intellectual" for the yearbook. I always had a sneaking suspicion people had a misinformed impression of my intellectual abilities that caused them to vote the way they did, and today I suppose I'm going to prove it, ha ha.

I just finished Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Now, I am not unaware of the immense popularity of this book, and in fact, I'm a little concerned I will bring down the fury of a devoted Janeite by the comments that are to follow. But so be it.  Here goes nothing!

While I enjoyed the book, and while I appreciate Austen's skill, I couldn't help wishing the book followed some of the rules of current fiction writing. I'm speaking from a strictly personal reader response - I think I could have felt even more engaged in the story had it had less telling and more showing. 

Without a doubt, Austen created some wonderful characters. Elizabeth is a heroine every reader can identify with, and Darcy is delightful as he moves from being a jerk to being the perfect guy. But I found myself feeling frustrated at times as I read their scenes together, especially when Austen chose to summarize what they were saying rather than letting them act it out. I'll compare a couple of scenes to illustrate what I mean.

The first is when Mr. Darcy makes his ill-fated proposal of marriage:

After a silence of several minutes he came towards her in an agitated manner, and thus began,
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you."
Elizabeth's astonishment was beyond expression. She stared, colored, doubted, and was silent. This he considered sufficient encouragement, and the avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her, immediately followed. He spoke well, but there were feelings besides those of the heart to be detailed, and he was not more eloquent on the subject of tenderness than of pride. His sense of her inferiority -- of its being a degradation -- of the family obstacles which judgment had always opposed to inclination, were dwelt upon with a warmth which seemed due to the consequence he was wounding, but was very unlikely to recommend his suit."
Now, this is highly satisfying as a plot development - this man (this VERY handsome, VERY rich man) who has always been the picture of snobbery suddenly is proposing marriage to our saucy little heroine. But the way it is told is completely unsatisfying, to me at least. I want to know what, exactly, he said!!! What was this "avowal of all that he felt and had long felt for her"? But even more importantly, what is it he said as he "dwelt upon" "his sense of her inferiority"? Call me intellectually lazy if you must, but this seems to be a point in the story at which we as readers really need to hear Darcy speaking to get a sense of just who he is as a character.

Contrast that section with a section near the end of the book:

Elizabeth's spirits soon rising to playfulness again, she wanted Mr. Darcy to account for his having ever fallen in love with her.
"How could you begin?" said she. "I can comprehend your going on charmingly, when you had once made a beginning, but what could set you off in the first place?"
"I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun."
(skip a little here)
"What made you so shy of me, when you first called, and afterwards dined here? Why, especially, when you called, did you look as if you did not care about me?"
"Because you were grave and silent, and gave me no encouragement."
"But I was embarrassed."
"And so was I."
"You might have talked to me more when you came to dinner."
"A man who had felt less, might."
I love that chapter. The first part of it is a conversation between Elizabeth and Darcy, and the dialogue tells us a great deal about what their relationship is going to be. Elizabeth is teasing and impertinent; Darcy is serious and concise, but very steady and honest in his statements. I can know and love those characters! I just wish there had been more of that in the book. That's actually one of the few sections in which we see the two of them interacting without a heavy dose of Austen's narration telling us what's going on. I know, I know, I can't hold her to the writing style that's popular 200 years after she wrote the book. But, gosh, I would love to read Pride and Prejudice in today's style.

So, does that mean I want the classic to be "dumbed-down"? I'll admit, there were times when I had to think rather hard to understand just what Austen was saying (it would certainly be helpful, for example, if she had been a bit more specific with her pronoun-antecedent issues....). Is wishing I could read the story in a more modern, dialogue- and action-heavy style simple intellectual laziness on my part? I don't really think so (of course, I wouldn't, ha ha). I think it means we are reading the story in a different way. When I'm reading the second passage above, I'm still engaging intellectually in the story - but it's a different kind of engagement. Instead of trying to supply the missing dialogue, as in the first section (which I don't even know that I can do, since I'm no expert on the distinction between British social classes in the Regency period), I am making suppositions about the characters and their relationship, I'm predicting the kind of life they are going to have together, I'm putting together the pieces of the puzzle that was their history. All that's going on in my mind at the same time that I am engaging with the story emotionally and thrilling to their relationship. I don't see that as cheapening the story, I see that as fulfilling the story.

I guess my lot is cast. I just really prefer a more theatrical style of storytelling. Maybe that does make me less intellectual. Sorry, class of '80!


MarikoMS said...

I agree with you. I found myself skimming the first passage and reading/seeing the characters speaking in the second.

Ann Turnbull said...

I haven't read this book for many years. I loved it, but comparing these two passages, I see what you mean. One of the films (either the BBC one, or the one with Keira Knightley - can't remember which) gives you Darcy's opinion of Elizabeth's family in dialogue, and it's so outrageous and embarrasing for her that it makes you gasp with shock! This is what the book needed. But I still love it!

Ann Turnbull said...

Whoops! I meant "embarrassing" of course.

Augustina Peach said...

Yes, I loved the book too. This post doesn't begin to delve into everything the book made me think about, like women's lives in the past and the "inevitability" of marriage. Charlotte Lucas's decision to marry Mr. Collins is especially interesting. (Maybe I will have to do that post--if I get all these speeches graded. Sigh.)

Speaking of the video versions of Pride and Prejudice, I often thought as I was reading that seeing it acted out might enhance my understanding and enjoyment of the text. I've seen people say the BBC version is the most faithful, but gosh! Six hours' worth?!! Don't know when I'd fit that in. I read some reviews that said the version with Kiera Knightley was rather Hollywood-ized, but if it's not TOO bad, I can bear that. Which would you recommend?

Ann Turnbull said...

I prefer the BBC version. It's more faithful to the original and is gloriously funny at times, as well as very romantic. You could watch one hour once a week - that's how we watched it when it came out on TV. It's a superb production. The other film is of course large-screen and has some lovely photography, particularly in the dance scenes, that give you a really physical sense of being there. But the ending is dire!

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