Saturday, May 2, 2009

Shades of The Prison House 2

Shades of the prison house most especially close in on the growing girl as well as the growing boy--in other words, on everyone. So let us expand the lines from Wordsworth's "Immortality Ode", (quoted in my last posting) turning them into a universal prophecy of a universal fate: "full soon the soul of every child shall take on its earthly freight, and custom lie upon it with a weight heavy as frost . . ." So society, it seems, forces us all into similar strait-jackets.

But now we are forced to think hard about a strangely puzzling question: if Wordsworth's prophecy is as truly universal as it seems to be--a deep truth about all societies at all times, a classical truth--why had no one ever noticed it before? Is it possible that this classic truth (if that's what it is) of civilization and the socialization of children could only have been discovered by a romantic poet? Or is this so-called truth merely a romantic idea--an extraordinarily powerful idea to be sure but not a universal truth?

Whatever we want to call it--universal truth or romantic idea--the idea of society as a prison house and custom or convention as a crushing, freezing, stultifying weight, especially for young women, had a profound influence on the 19th century novel. Think of the great novels that take as their subject the fate (generally tragic) of young women who try to escape the prisons, the stultifying conventions of systematic society, they had been born into: Jane Eyre, Middlemarch, Portrait of a Lady, Anna Karenina. Flaubert virtually invented the modern novel when he wrote Madame Bovary.

Jane Austen is not on this list, for a very interesting reason: in her novels, the best and brightest are not deadened or imprisoned by the customs and conventions of systematic society. Society, for Jane Austen presents opportunities for comic theater. Her heroines and heroes meet and, after a series of comic confusions and misunderstandings, marry. Some people might say that Jane Austen is a romantic; I think it would be truer to say that she, along with the framers of the U. S. constitution, took an optimistic view of human rationality and the pursuit of happiness. Which, considering the fact that she was born in 1775, is not surprising.

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