Sunday, 24 January 2016

Jane Austen: Overhyped and Undeserving

Unpopular opinion: Jane Austen does not deserve nearly as much praise and reverence as she always has.

When I pick up a new literary novel, say, The Picture of Dorian Gray or The Beautiful and Damned, I expect to be wowed. Of course, I don't expect to be wowed in the same way I'm wowed when I read such novels as The Hunger Games or the like. Books of the fantasy or young adult genre I read when I'm craving a quick distraction, something to fully engross my mind in for a few quick seconds and be done with within a day. With most literature I anticipate the painfully slow beginnings, the arguably redundant and sluggish nature of setting descriptions, etc. 

But I still read literature because after reading a literary masterpiece (a relative term), I am astounded. Dumbfounded, flabbergasted, left breathless. Good literature makes me feel things and think things I have always thought before but never held to examine. Anyone can relate to this: that feeling of amazement as you retrace the final words of a life changing novel, that feeling of awe that gushes all around you after you've watched an incredible movie. In much of the literature I have read, the authors have always clutched the core of some profound, universal feeling or thought and crafted it into something personal. If not, I have nevertheless closed good novels shut knowing that it would haunt me for the rest of the month, and that I would itch to find the "deeper meaning".

But Jane Austen's novels seem so superficial. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson: "I am at a loss to understand why people hold Miss Austen’s novels at so high a rate, which seem to me vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.  Never was life so pinched & narrow.  The one problem in the mind of the writer in both the stories I have read, “Persuasion”, and “Pride & Prejudice”, is marriageableness; all that interests any character introduced is still this one, has he or she money to marry with, & conditions conforming? ‘Tis “the nympholepsy of a fond despair”, say rather, of an English boarding-house.  Suicide is more respectable."

I have given myself so many chances time and time again to like Austen's novels simply because she was always so highly regarded as the 'feminist writer we should all aspire to become'. When I read reviews of any one of her novels, the most prominent opinion seems to be that her plots are intricate and that the characters are well crafted. But these are solely what Austen's novels depend on. The characters and the plots are the only things that make up Austen's novels. Even then, the plots are agonisingly dry and petty. 

My problem with Jane Austen is that as a result of all this, she has been carved into some literary mastermind whom we should all idolise and consider in the same pool of writers as Tolstoy, Fitzgerald, Brontë, Flaubert etc.

Having forced myself to read her novels Emma and Pride and Prejudice, I realised that the plots themselves weren't enough for me to even pretend to like her novels. Let's take Flaubert's most renowned work - Madame Bovary. Madame Bovary found herself bored to death in a dull and dry marriage, trapped in a town no different to a bird cage. So she tore that all down and ran wildly down a road of frisky affairs, plunged herself in a plush sea of lavish shopping sprees and to top it off, drank poison. Tolstoy's Anna Karenina tells a ravishing story of a woman whose debonair lover has pushed her into the fathomless depths of a blinding love and passion - which ends when she tragically flings herself under a train. Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita paints out the mind of a compulsive, intellectual, disgusting, sophisticated man whose pedophilia gets the better of him, and a thrilling tale ensues. 

In stark contrast, Austen's novels vomit the static and lethargic setting of a simply uninteresting provincial life. The highlight of each of her novels comes when the protagonist, usually a damsel-in-distress, has to decide whether she loves a man enough to actually continue some sort of relationship with him or run away with him perhaps. Her novels even end uninterestingly. Everyone gets what they want, the protagonist is happy, her lover is happy, the cat is happy, the sun shines on and the breeze blows on. As Emerson explains, her novels indeed portray a very narrow aspect of life upon which I struggle to find an insightful thought or a profound meaning. I mean, if you're going to make your novels purely superficial, at least make that superficiality engrossing.

I will end this with a delightful quote from Mark Twain, that truly encapsulates my feelings for Jane Austen: “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin bone.”

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