Sunday, November 15, 2009

Austen's Irony: A Mode of Thoughtful Hypocrisy?

Twisted Sense?
(Image from WSJ)

One of my regular readers, Cynthia, offered an off-topic comment to yesterday's post and kindly provided a link to a thoughtful Wall Street Journal article by the novelist James Collins about Jane Austen's moralism: "What Would Jane Do?"

Collins argues that Austen's novels have moral relevance even in our own time and can teach us how to live our lives with integrity:
I find that reading Jane Austen helps me clarify ethical choices, helps me figure out a way to live with integrity in the corrupt world, even helps me adopt the proper tone and manner in dealing with others. Her moralism and the modern mind are not, in fact, in direct opposition, as is so often assumed.
I cannot say that I've learned that much from Austen, but I am impressed by the seriousness of her moral reflection and have recently written an article to be published in Persuasions, "Darcy's Ardent Love and Resentful Temper in Pride and Prejudice," which analyzes the moral development of Darcy as his love for Elizabeth overcomes his resentment toward her, for he feels both of these emotions. Let me turn to a remark by Collins for a brief elucidation of my meaning:
Austen's value system can be thought of as a sphere with layers. The innermost core might be called "morals," the next layer we could call "sentiments," and finally the surface "manners."
In this schema offered by Collins, I would say that Darcy's initially cold courtesy is at the outer layer of manners, and his resentment is obviously at the middle layer of sentiments, but his love -- though it might be thought of as also belonging to the sentiments -- goes deeper, to the layer of morals, for it extends its roots down into the core Christian ethic of charitas. Darcy's problem lies in finding a way to show through a kinder courtesy -- and through commmitted action -- that his love is true and thereby to win Elizabeth's disdainful heart, and he must do so without betraying his dignity.

That's Darcy's particular case, but what of more general cases? How does one reconcile the dilemmas that morals, sentiments, and manners present? Collins thinks that Austen recommends irony:
Irony is not just Austen's characteristic mode of expression: It is her characteristic mode of thought. Austen's irony reflects a perfect understanding of all the ways the world is wretched and the belief that although you can't really fight it, you can at least separate yourself from it. In her ironic sentences, there is movement with stability. She moves toward the object of criticism, then away from it, and then provides a gentle snap of closure at the end. This rhythmic motion serves as an ideal for both accepting and rejecting the ways of the wretched world while maintaining balance.

The irony of Austen's characters also gives those of us who believe in decorum a way to handle hypocrites. Sense and Sensibility's Elinor Dashwood is rarely ironic, but she provides a good example. Recall the conversation when the odious John Dashwood, who has reneged on the deathbed promise to his father to help his half-sisters, suggests to Elinor that Mrs. Jennings will leave them a bequest. Elinor replies, "Indeed, brother, your anxiety for our welfare and prosperity carries you too far." John Dashwood lacks generosity and integrity. Elinor insults him, but she does it in the politest possible way.
And that courteous slap is most gratifying to hear, but does Mr. John Dashwood feel it? Or does he rather feel somehow gratified at the superficial hint of praise without recognizing the deeper disdain? Irony perhaps works best when the one upon whom it is used fails to perceive the deeper truth. But doesn't that make irony a mode of hypocrisy? Isn't it pretending to be something that it isn't? Dashwood is a hypocrite because he pretends concern for his half-sisters' welfare despite having done nothing material to provide for their care even though it lay in his power to do so. Is Elinor a hypocrite for wrapping a stiff insult in apparent praise?

Perhaps not.

Irony covers the truth but leaves the form of that truth sufficiently visible for the hearer to ascertain what lies beneath, whereas hypocrisy hides the truth in hope of that truth never being uncovered.

But I'm not entirely persuaded that irony is commendable as a "characteristic mode of thought" if it leads one to conclude generally that "the world is wretched and . . . [that] you can't really fight it," for that would counsel inaction in the world and advise that you "separate yourself from it" even where something could be done.

Irony in such a sense as this would appear to end in bitter cynicism, and I can't see Jane Austen pointing us in that direction.

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At 1:29 PM, Blogger Sperwer said...

Very nice post!

My question: Why whenever I unleash a remark like Elinor Dashwood's does the target always understand perfectly what I (really) mean?

I think the answer is to be found in tone - of voice and physiognomy.

Irony is a kind of narrow ridge-like precipice from which one can easily fall one way into contempt and the other into hypocrisy.

At 1:40 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I think that irony is hard to achieve orally because our tone often turns the ironic expression into sarcasm.

Also, we're too American and thus better at being direct. Now the British, they're excellent at irony, for they're very good at being 'too kind'.

The only time that I can achieve effective irony is when I'm writing it, and it's often then merely self-irony . . . the safest kind since nobody gets cut on the ironic blade's razor-sharp edge.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I need to read Sense and Sensibility.
I feel that I have been "damned with faint praise" on occasion by comments on this blog.
Although I did appreciate the thought, though somewhat like the man that Abraham Lincoln spoke of who was being ridden out of town on a rail.
When asked what he thought of this action, he replied, "If it weren't for the honor of the thing, I had rather walk."
I waited until you likely would no longer read this delayed comment, thus avoiding snide repartee.


At 4:31 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

So that's why you've not been commenting, Uncle Cran? I thought that you'd been busy farming.

Jeffery Hodges

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