Thursday, January 31, 2008

Marxism, Schmarxism

Yes, this is another Austen-related post, but I'm annoyed, so bear with me. It's also extraordinarily long, so unless you're as nuts about Jane as I am, you'll probably be lost pretty quickly.

I'm taking a class this semester focusing on 19th century British novels. Naturally, the first thing we read was a Jane Austen novel. Emma was what the professor picked as the most appropriate to our overall discussions, so for the last 3 weeks we've been working our way through the book. Wednesday brought us to the end of the book, Jane married Frank, Harriet married her farmer, Emma married Mr. Knightley, and there was much rejoicing.....

....or not. This is where my annoyance comes in. My professor (who admits to being a Marxist critic) finds the end of Emma, "depressing" and "creepy." He feels that, in marrying, Emma completely loses her identity and is "subsumed" by Mr. Knightley. She no longer has the ability to function on her own, her wonderful feminist autonomy is lost, and she becomes, "the good little wife." ('Cuz, you know being a good wife is such a horrifying fate.) On top of this, as he stated, this was a loveless marriage and contracted for purely economic reasons. Mr. Knightley marries Emma to enlarge his estates, and Emma marries Mr. Knightley to secure her place as the queen of the neighborhood.

Now, this morning as I was brooding on the disagreeable sensation of Marxist criticism being perpetrated on Jane Austen, another "proof" against this particular theory came to me. It's actually part of the text that the prof used to prove his own point, but I think it makes much more sense in terms of the way Jane Austen actually seems to have thought and wrote.

The Prof pointed out a line in which Hartfield (Emma's home) is described as, "inconsiderable, being but a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate, to which all the rest of Highbury belonged." The prof took this as meaning that, in allying himself with the Woodhouse family, Mr. Knightley (the wicked wealthy white male....slightly paraphrased for the sake of aliteration....) is completing his "takeover" and enriching himself, while simultaneously overcoming the only person who ever argued with him-- Emma.

So, I'm a silly, slightly flightly, romantic chick, but I take this passage to mean something completely different. Emma, like Hartfield, is independent and not in a bad position. She is happy as a single girl and, believes that her situation, "cannot really change for the better." However, she is also deeply flawed and she has a penchant for messing things up. She needs Knightley's judgment and advice to keep her in check. Like Hartfield, she is not meant to exist on her own.

Donwell, on the other hand, is a great estate, encompassing the entirety of the neighborhood, excepting only Hartfield- the missing "notch." Likewise, Mr. Knightley seems to be doing just fine on his own. He has many friend, business to keep him occupied, and more money than ANYONE could know what to do with. Despite loving his home, however, he is constantly to be found at Hartfield visiting Mr. Woodhouse and Emma. Like Donwell, Mr. Knightley is incomplete. He is also not meant to be alone.

It is only with their marriage that Emma and Mr. Knightley are made whole, no longer missing any pieces or attempting to stand on their own. At the same time, the Hartfield and Donwell properties are rejoined, completing the property. There are so many directions in which this idea could be taken.... Personally, I think all of those potential directions make far more sense than the anachronistic Marxist reading we were given in class.

It should not come as a surprise that we disagree on this. Everytime I speak in this particular class, the professor disagrees with me. NOTHING I say seems to make any sense to him. I get the feeling that I've already exposed myself as a sexist, bourgeois, conservative, pro-marriage type. (Ooops, I think I said in class that being married was preferable to working as a governess. Bad, bad emancipated female.)


Emily said...

Well. . . Austen certainly did go out of her way to persuade one that married life is far superior to single life. Does your professor realize how frequently exploited single women were compared to married women? Look at Mrs. Elton; she can pretty much get away with anything. Whereas poor Jane Fairfax, who is far superior in intelligence and talent, gets pretty badly abused by her male friend. Married women, far from being "subsumed" had much more power after marriage than before.

So I would definitely vote for marriage over governesshood, on pure feminist principles. =)

Anonymous said...

Hi there
Wonder if you're still cross about this. My son is reading Emma (so I have to, too).
What I found creepy about George Knightley is that he fell in love with Emma when she was 13. Thirteen! He would have been 29. Uggh!
Anyway, getting back to the issue at hand:
Remember when Emma goes to the Cole's. When she arrives Knightley has just arrived too. This is Vol II, Ch VII. (p199 in my copy). It is noted there that Mr Knightley has "little spare money".
Maybe he is marrying her for her 30,000 pound legacy (dowry)!
She certainy (and quickly) forgets about her nephew Henry inheriting the estate (which she says when she thinks Jane Fairfax may get Knightley) and only discovers she "loves" Knightley when she thinks he has fallen for Harriet (as if! God Emma's a freak)
Maybe she's marrying him to get her hands on his estate.
And it's not clear to me that George Knightley would get the Woodhouse estate. Wouldn't that go to Henry - just as Donwell Abbey would if George doesn't have any male children?
Do you reply to the comments?
Will look again in a couple of days