Thursday, December 4, 2008

In which I fail to comprehend the religious ideas in Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice

So I have a problem understanding the religious ethics of 17th century Japanese fiction and 8th century Chinese poetry. I am ignorant of traditions, and I don’t know how to read all sorts of signals that would have guided contemporary readers. I’ll bet that some aspects of 8th century Chinese poetry looked pretty foreign to the 17th century Japanese reader, but I’m too distant from it all to guess which ones.

Adalbert Stifter’s novella Limestone stars a strange, saintly priest. Re-reading the story recently, I realized that part of the strangeness of the character was that he did not seem quite Catholic. There were oddities of dress and habit that made me think he belonged in a Bergman film. What a delight to later read that when the story was first published, the priest was actually a Lutheran minister. Stifter changed some of the details about the character, but not all of them. Perhaps it was an oversight, perhaps he valued the strange effect.

With Chinese or Japanese literature, I don’t recognize those signals. If Ihara Saikaku dressed his 17th century monk like an 8th century Chinese hermit, how would I know?

But I have the same problem, actually, with European and American literature. It’s worse in a way, more insidious, because it’s easier to assume that then is basically like now. In classical Japanese literature (or medieval European or Classical Greek) the foreignness, the strangeness, is hard to ignore. I can’t be as glib about what I don’t understand. When I read, I fill in the background with what I know, and in the 19th century, I am less likely to see when the background and foreground clash.

Even in European literature, religious content presents the greatest challenge to me. I want to denature religion too much. I don’t want to punish Clarissa Harlowe for the sin of disobeying her parents, or Jane Eyre for the sin of idolatry. And I don't have to. These books have plenty of strengths – they’re complex masterpieces, packed with meaning. But I know that I am missing a piece if I look away from ethical aspects with which I am uncomfortable.

Jane Austen puts a mortal sin right there in the title of Pride and Prejudice. Today, pride is as often thought of as a virtue as a sin, and it’s hardly appealing to think of Elizabeth Bennet as a sinner. She’s so wonderful. But maybe the clergyman’s daughter put some of this into her novel. It's worked into the ethics of the novel, I can see that much.

This would be a good place to link to The Little Professor, who makes her living with this sort of thing, and to My Life in Book’s headfirst dive into the religion of Jane Eyre.


  1. I fully agree that the problem is worse with European and American lit. Not least because it's even more likely to trigger a cascade of irritation: people do a bunch of things that seem nonsensical or even unethical but turn out to be moral in the universe of the novel and lead to a redemption I don't have emotional access to.

    And it's all so convoluted, too. What's with St. John being all Calvinist in Jane Eyre? Was this kosher in the Church of England and if so, when and when not? Was Bronte's father into this sort of thing? What kind of minister was he, and what would his daughter have thought of such things? I can handle knowing about various theologies as a necessary part of culture, but to get the same understanding as someone would have had historically is pretty hard and, of course, much more denatured than spiritual.

  2. your remarks on Asian Literature are very interesting to me-I just read Junichiro Tanizaki's The Reed Cutter which is full of references to 8 to 10th century Japanese literature (work was published 1932)-I have noticed in reading 29th century Japanese novels that post WWII there is a big drop off in lterary references in Japanese novels and I wonder if more Japanese are familiar with 9th century Japanese poetry than people from England are familiar with English litetature of the period-is the rate of change for the Japanese language the same as for English?-I think the same issues are faced in Japanese as in English from the 9th century as Tanizaki did take the trouble to translate into modern Japanese Tales of Genji. There are a lot of translations of classical Japanese works into modern Japanese

  3. I am posting this here as I wish to draw on your reading of the Jane Eyre-what are we to make of this exchange between Jane and Rochester (in a fight)

    "Utter it, Jane, was a wish for half my estate (Mr Rochester)
    (Jane Replies) " Now King Ahasuerus! What do I want with half your estate? Do you think I am
    a Jew usurer, seeking good investment in land?"

    was Jane an ant-semite-do we shrug this off and say well most all people were at the time-is Bronte exposing such views or is this to be considered and ok thing to say somehow?

    This is kind of related to your remarks on religion in Jane Eyre

    what do we make of the mocking of Gypsies -a POC with a history as old as the English-do we see the last two pages where Mr Rivers as a saint taking up the white man's burden in India litteraly or is this a deep irony as Mr River also wanted to make Jane as subservient as he wants his converts in India to be-

    are the anti-colonial-anti Jewish, anti POC tone to Jane Eyre meant as an ironical commentary on racism or is the book and Jane and Charlotte part of and limited by their time?-just wondering what you and your readers might think

  4. in my post on Asian Lit I meant 20th and 21th century-not 29th!

  5. mel, that's very interesting, that you see a change in the density of reference to classical Japanese literature. I know there's another strand - for example, the endless stream of retellings of The Tale of Heike - but what you see suggests that modernist novelists are working on other traditions or ideas.

    I don't know enough about C. Brontë to comment on her own beliefs. I doubt the stray references you pick up would have been regarded as particularly anti-Semitic or anti-Gypsy, but I could be wrong. The narrator of Villette is highly prejudiced - anti-Catholic, anti-Belgian, anti-foreign. None of which tells us much about C. Brontë.

    As for the novel, though, I'll make a couple of points. First, Jane is teasing Rochester. Jane is always teasing Rochester. Somebody or something is being mocked - the question is what?

    Second, St. John Rivers is a monster. Jane's portrayal of Rivers is an act of revenge. Everything she writes about him is ironic.