Two Classics

I read two classics this past summer: Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey and Dostoevsky’s Devils. I was maybe two hundred pages into Devils when I realized, with a measure of surprise, that the book reminded me of Jane Austen. Not the political revolution, of course, or the atheism and murder; the book’s conclusion, in which Dostoevsky briskly mowed down half his cast, shows everything that Dostoevsky is and Jane Austen is not. But even after that bitter end, I am sure: Dostoevsky and Austen are like each other.

The characterization in their novels has a similar texture: at once sharp and deep. Both Dostoevsky and Austen stand outside their characters in their narration, taking the tone of an observer of rare acuity and no inclination to cover over anything. Neither ever saw a fool without observing and declaring the fact. They are unsparing. At the same time, they draw so comprehensive a sketch of their characters that it feels a little like empathy. The fools may have been lampooned, but they were at least understood.

A broader similarity also plays into this likeness in characterization. Austen and Dostoevsky share a keen awareness of the foibles that seam human nature. The ordinary foolishness and common weaknesses of humanity are fully understood by both writers, and finely displayed. Dostoevsky is amused by people behaving absurdly, and Austen is positively delighted. They catch the comedy of foolishness. They catch, with even greater skill, its darkness. In this Dostoevsky is stronger, but Austen captures the same truth, that workaday follies can be both laughable and destructive. They carry, sometimes, a surprising cost.

Most strikingly, Austen and Dostoevsky root their stories in society. In many novels, society – the broader community, with its rules and workings – exists as little www.healthsupportyou.com/cialis-tadalafil/ more than background. Events play out, and characters live, at a distant remove from the community. There is no sense of what ordinary life might be like. But to read Austen and Dostoevsky is to enter a society. The shibboleths are different than our own, but the organism is the same: the requirements and prohibitions, the expectations and interactions, all the self-conscious fussiness. Austen and Dostoevsky make use of the broad conventions of society, such as who shall marry whom. Their mastery is in how they use the minor conventions. They bring forward the weight of trivialities. It doesn’t matter, really, whether you dance or don’t dance. What matters is what other people make of you for either one.

In Dostoevsky, all these things are shaded more darkly. His psychological portraits sketch the reasons of murderers, his fools descend into wickedness and ruin, his grand ball dissolves in panic as the city catches fire. The similarities between his works and Austen’s are subtle and fascinating. The differences are obvious, and ultimately more important. So profound is the divide that one cannot imagine Austen even touching the subjects that Dostoevsky wrestled. Dickens might have taken up Dostoevsky’s themes, though with far more sentiment and optimism. But if Jane Austen had written about revolution, or moral anarchy, or the psychology of suicide, she would not have been Jane Austen.

And the world would have lost something. One may prefer Jane Austen; one may prefer Fyodor Dostoevsky. Either position is fair. But it is good that Austen was herself, and not Dostoevsky, just as it is good that Dostoevsky was himself, and not Austen. Such is the diversity that makes the world rich.

Good Character(s)

This summer I made my first foray into Jane Austen, reading Mansfield Park. I found the novel more thought-provoking than enjoyable, and one of the issues it raised for me was the relationship between moral goodness and good characters. Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, is probably the most emphatically good (in the moral sense) character I have ever experienced, and also a bad character in the sense of not being compelling or enjoyable. She is, in fact, one of the reasons the book drags as it does (the other is that the simple plot takes far too long to unfold). I began to find her tiresome; Jane Austen’s own mother called her insipid.

I call Fanny Price emphatically good not because she is the most moral character I have ever read but because the whole book emphasizes her goodness. Austen’s admirable theme is that the meek shall inherit the earth, and her intriguing purpose is to cross-examine the true value of the witty, vivacious belle who was (is) the ideal of high society. Fanny exists as a kind of living counterpoint to all the defects of the upper classes – lack of principle, lack of kindness, form over substance, glitter over gold. Her goodness, as central to the novel’s ideas, is inescapable, but it does not do her many favors.

Yet I am sure that it is not due to excess goodness that Fanny Price is (to be kind) unengaging or (to be like Jane Austen’s mother) insipid. Fanny would be both a more enjoyable character and a more accurate representation of goodness if Austen had not mishandled the virtue of humility. She portrays it quite badly – though, in fairness, most authors do. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is humble; this means that she has a pathetically low, and generally false, valuation of herself and accepts other people’s negative opinions of who she is and what she deserves to a point that seems almost weak-minded.

Nor is Fanny a moral paragon in all respects. The narrator repeatedly reminds us that she is anxious and timid, and it’s certain that she has almost no courage at all. It is to Austen’s credit as a writer that she created such limitations in her character, and if you stop to consider it, Fanny’s timidity lends a poignant note to her climactic resistance to an unwanted marriage. Ironically, though, Fanny would have been better company for four hundred pages if her virtues had extended a little farther, and that would have done more for the novel than a little poignancy.

Additionally, Austen – who excelled in creating sharp, lively portraits of female characters – failed to do so with Fanny Price. Fanny gives little impression of anything except strong moral convictions and a puddle of weakness besides. Details such as her physical grace and her love of reading are barely seen and certainly not felt. Her passivity is the stuff of legend; her only contribution to her own destiny is to reject Henry Crawford – in other words, manage to do nothing when someone else is trying to get her to do something (usually she is just carried along when other people do things).

What makes a good character is ultimately disconnected from what makes a good person. White knights and black villains have alike succeeded as characters, and have alike failed. Even the case of Fanny Price proves that what matters is not the amount of goodness a character possesses but how it is used, and what the character possesses besides.