Posted tagged ‘Not handsome’

Sense and Sensibility 28-30: Letters Returned

January 18, 2009

Here are my notes from Chapters 28-30 of Sense and Sensibility.

Plot Points

Opening up Chapter 28, the Miss Dashwoods acompany Lady Middleton to a party, where they finally find Mr. Willoughby. At first, Willoughby does not make a big deal of the encounter, though Marianne is of course excited by this. Willoughby is embarassed when asked by Marianne why he hadn’t returned her letters sent while in town, and he seems to made uncomfortable by the short-lived conversation.

The next day, Marianne received a letter from Willoughby. He explains that he is engaged elsewhere, and apologizes for having misled her. Marianne tells Elinor that they were in fact not engaged, and that her impressions of Willoughby were based on his actions toward her, which had apparently been short of a formal verbal declaration of engagement. Along with Willoughby’s response comes the letters Marianne had sent him as well as the lock of her hair (as requested in one of Marianne’s letters). Marianne wishes to return home from the city.

Elinor and Marianne learn that Mr. (John) Willoughby is engaged to Miss Grey, who is somewhat rich, and Colonel Brandon arrives at the house after overhearing Mrs. Ellington—Grey’s guardian—discussing the imminent marriage.

Character Commentary

Though appearing only in reference, Miss Grey is said to be in possession of “fifty thousand pounds” and “a smart, stylish girl… but not handsome.” It is supposed by the Dashwoods that one (a main?) reason for Willoughby’s interest in Grey is her money.

We see a lighter and more serious side of Mrs. Jennings in Chapters 29 and 30. She sympathizes with Marianne’s condition and sides with her in the amonishment and criticism of Willoughby’s actions. She claims that her previous fun-making of Marianne & co. was mean to be light-hearted and can be expected of/by young people. Mrs. Jennings, though disappointed about Willoughby, immediately brings up the issue of Colonel Brandon’s better position, and praises Brandon’s residence—a topic Elinor is probably not as enthusiastic about (as she knows Marianne’s feeling about Brandon).

Themes and Threads

Austen overtly brings to light the comparison between Elinor and Marianne in Chapter 28. On commenting about Elinor’s reaction to the Willoughby sighting, she remarks that Marianne and Elinor find themselves in similar—though opposite—positions within their respective relationships:

“Her own situation gained in the comparison; for while she could esteem Edward as much as ever, however them might be divided in future, her mind might be always supported. But every circumstance that could embitter such an evil seemed uniting to heighten the misery of Marianne in a final separation from Willoughby — in an immediate and irreconcilable rupture with him.”

For Elinor, Marianne’s state offers reflection on her own situation.

Memorables

“—how am I to bear their pity? The pity of such a woman as Lady Middleton! …”

Sense and Sensibility 8-12: Chagrined and Surprised

January 6, 2009

I have just read through Chapters 8-12 of Sense and Sensibility.

Plot Points

The Dashwoods, now firmly established at Barton Park, continue to meet characters such as Mrs Jennings, who does no shorting of “railing” in her sarcastic poke-funnery at the sisters. Marianne enters into an affectionate—friendship?—with Mr. Willoughby, who charmes her (and her mother) in every way. Meanwhile, Elinor’s confidence in her own situation dwindles.

Character Commentary

Never in Marianne’s life has something so simple as a “false step” caused something so glorious. Her situation seems to have turned completely around: she is enthusiastic, confident, and enthralled by the entry of Mr. Willoughby. She seems to have found her perfect match, for “their tastes were strikingly alike.” At this opportunity, Elinor and Marianne exchange sarcastic remarks, which serve to solidify their respective positions on such things. Austen takes time here to give Marianne some physical description: “handsomer.”

Mr. Willoughby contrasts with Edward in every way: he is sensible and spirited, which is why Marianne is encouraged around him. He draws some level of contempt, I suspect, from Colonel Brandon and Elinor Dashwood.

Themes and Threads

The question of one’s actions being proper is challenged in these chapters. Marianne and Willoughby showing no restraint in their affection toward one another, Marianne and “her systems,” Marianne accepting a pony as a gift, and to some extent Margaret’s inadvertently encouraging Mrs. Jennings’s hurtful remarks.

Narratology Notes

In Chapter 8, Elinor and Marianne’s discussion of age and male virility as a component of the male-female relationship offers a curious, if potent, look at Austen’s writing at a heightened pace. Marianne is convinced that an older women (in her eyes, 27 years of age) has very little to offer a mate, and that the joining by such a women with an older-aged male would be one of convenience—less in sincerity than what it would be were they younger. Elinor objects: “Confess, Marianne, is not there something interesting to you in the flushed cheek, hollow eye, and quick pulse of a fever?”

In the text that follows, Marianne approaches her mother about an issue which she “cannot conceal from [her]”: Edward Ferrars hasn’t visited yet. And this fact, to Marianne, equates to their relationship being an impassionate one. So readily did Elinor defend Colonel Brandon and his future wife, and defend the validity of their union, that the comparison in Marianne’s mind is made: Elinor and Edward are each a Colonel, older, slower, not as attentive as they should be: “How cold, how composed were their last adieus! How languid their conversation the last evening of their being together!” And though Elinor, Marianne, and thier mother had discussed the evolved relationship that would come in time (“You will gain a brother…”), the opinion that Edward’s actions were “as an affectionate brother to both” is now used against him.

The diction used here, “cold” and “languid” is a reflection back to previous talks of Colonel Brandon’s sickly behavior on “a very cold, damp day” and of the fever to which Elinor sarcastically refers. But why is Marianne acting naive at best—with malice at worst—in taking the topic to her mother? In the text directly after Elinor and Marianne’s conversation, a strange (in my view) transition takes place: “Soon after this, upon Elinor’s leaving the room, ‘Mama,’ said Marianne, ‘I have an alarm on the subject of illness…” Perhaps this direct-to-dialogue approach to explaining the action jumps out because so much of the narrative up to this point had been told in third person (as if a summary), but the quickened turning from Elinor to her mother seemes conspicuous. At least, it makes me wonder what thoughts (malice or misunderstanding?) go through Marianne’s head as she turns.

Style Points

I think that Austen has thus far (I’ve read through chapter 12, remember) been successful at creating sympathetic, engaging characters. There are some whose potential feels unfulfilled—caricatures (as was used to describe Fanny Dashwood) of some extreme. These have their purpose, no doubt. But, I am thinking of Elinor and Marianne, who are various points in the story have had their ups and downs. This is successful in getting me, the reader, through the text. That being said…

Shame on Jane

Yes, it’s that time. By now, I’m used to the “handsomes” and “not handsomes.” I get it: readers have to project whatever they prefer—or need—to imagine these characters as real variables seeking their function in a real world. But here Austen has gone to far, in my opinion. In describing Willoughby: “… his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and expression. Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of Mrs Dashwood would have been secured by any act of attention to her child; but the influence of youth, beauty, and elegance, gave an interest to the action which came home to her feelings.”

Why describe his personality and activity through his having a gun, in possesion of two dogs, and the courage to assist Marianne, if you, in the next paragraph, qualify his beauties with such broad—and frankly utterly uncreative—strokes as NOT old, NOT ugly, NOT vulgar? In my view it lessens Willoughby as a character. Sure, he goes on to play a vital part in the story of Marianne, but he will be looked back upon as the one who fit the bill—not only perfectly, but not unperfectly, in a just-in-case-you-need-further-convincing sort of way.

“… and he then departed, to make himself still more interesting, in the midst of a heavy rain.” That’s a beautiful image! Too bad it occurs after such assuming writing as to make me feel like a three-year-old in trying to imagine how Willoughby posseses such “manly beauty.”

Memorables

“But Marianne could no more satisfy him as to the color of Mr Willoughby’s pointer than he could describe to her the shades of his mind.”

“It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy: it is disposition alone.” – Marianne Dashwood.

Looking Ahead

Elinor looks to be in bad shape; where’s Edward been all this time?

Sense and Sensibility 5-7: A Tale of Two Pianofortes

January 4, 2009

I have just read Chapters 5-7 of Sense and Sensibility.

Plot Points

The Mrs Dashwoods leave Norland for their new home at Barton Park, and become engaged in the social scene there, largely at the request of Sir John Middleton, who had arranged the living space. Barton Cottage is not as luxurious as their previous home, but it will do for now, and there exists the possibility of upgrades, as season and monies allow. Enter Sir John, Lady Middleton, Colonel Brandon, and Mrs. Jennings.

Character Commentary

Chapter 5 contains, I believe, the first words spoken by Edward. These, not surprisingly, supplement his status as an admirer of Elinor: “Devonshire! Are you indeed going there? So far from hence!” Marianne’s overly sentimental scene of angst at finally leaving the house in which she’d grown up likewise cements her personality. I am curious about Marianne’s view of Colonel Brandon, who contrasts with the over-enthusiastic (and drunk-like?) Sir John during her pianoforte recital: “He paid her only the compliment of attention; and she felt a respect for him on the occasion which the others had reasonably forfeited by their shameless want of taste. His pleasure in music, though it amounted not to that ecstatic delight which alone could sympathise with her own, was estimable when contrasted against the horrible insensibility of the others;”.

Sir John Middleton is described as “a good-looking man of about forty. He thrives as a socialite, engaging in revelry whenever possible, seeks new personalities (especially the Dashwoods), and is a hunter. His wife, Lady Middleton, is about 27 years of age (“her face was handsome, her figure tall and striking, and her address graceful”), but is not as much of a conversationalist as Sir John. She concerns herself mainly with their six-year-old son. To quote Austen, “Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children…”

Colonel Brandon, by contrast, is reserved, older, and, to quote Austen again, “but though his face was not handsome, his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike.” Also brought to the Dashwoods’ acquaintance through the Middletons is Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother. She is “merry, fat, elderly … who talked a great deal … and rather vulgar.” I suspect her brash personality and crude jokes might stir the pot a bit for Elinor.

Themes and Threads

The introduction of the Middletons into the story seems to portend Austen’s desire to provide a challenge to the ideals held by the various parties, mainly those of Marianne. The ideal relationship in her eyes seems to be one in which the man is young, attentive to the wife for sincere reasons, and knowledgeable in the arts. Oh, and handsome. In the Middletons exists a formula in which—though the man indeed generally fits these physical requirements—his picture highlights a subversion in Marianne’s understanding. He is too loudly attentive to Marianne’s music as to negate the sincerity of his interest.

Lady Middleton, consumed with childrearing and ignited not by music but by the noise of children, and herself gave up music, has a “cold insipidity.” Giving up her pianoforte is said to have been a celebration of her ladyship. These two extremes (too attentive, not at all attentive) are for Marianne a “horrible insensibility.”

Memorables

“… and she was reasonable enough to allow that a man of five-and-thirty might well have outlived all acuteness of feeling and every exquisite power of enjoyment.” – Marianne, on Colonel Brandon.

Looking Ahead

I predict that Elinor will continue to be annoyed by Mrs. Jennings, and that Marianne’s identity crisis will have reached a climax by the middle of the book.

For those who are interested, I’m keeping a running tally of Austen’s “handsomes” and “not handsomes” in my tags…

Sense and Sensibility 2-4: Arguing the “Minuter Propensities,” Changing Perceptions

January 3, 2009

This is my log for Chapters 2-4 of Sense and Sensibility. From now on, my posts will certainly cover multiple chapters at a time.

Plot Points

Continuing from the background given in Chapter 1, the Mrs. Dashwoods are now living with the Mr. John Dashwoods at the Norland estate, having not yet found a reasonable alternative. Mrs. John Dashwood convinces her husband that the amount of money given to his step-mother and step-sisters be diminished to almost nothing. Edward Ferrars enters the story, providing Elinor, Marianne, and Mrs. Dashwood something to discuss and adding to the complexity of the relationships between all parties. After antagonizing comments by Fanny Dashwood, the Mrs. Dashwoods finally decide move out of Norland after receiving a reasonable offer which leaves even Elinor with “no right of objection.”

Character Commentary

The face of Mrs. John Dashwood (now given the first name of Fanny) is clearly shown in Chapter 1; she is manipulative. In a seemingly calculated argument, she convinces her husband to nullify his father’s wishes that the Mrs. Dashwoods be looked after financially, at one point even saying that they would be in a position to transfer wealth to him. Who is the manipulated, then? Mr. John Dashwood. In this scenario he does not resemble the person who, in the opening chapter, was said to conduct his duties with “propriety.” Add to this her using the Elinor-Edward relationship as leverage against Mrs. Dashwood, and Fanny’s position as the antagonist seems clear.

Edward Ferrars is the brother of Fanny Dashwood, and there is something of an intimate relationship developing between him and Elinor. Austen describes him as “not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing.” Elinor and Marianne discuss in detail the merits of his affection toward Elinor; is affection enough when it is not coupled with ideal artistic qualities and social ranking? I’m not sure if we’ve yet seen any true view of Edward in these early chapters, as what I can describe about him is only through hearsay on the part of the sisters’ wavering opinions, or the broad-stroke descriptions given by the narrator. Even then, “handsome” is an expression of opinion, hardly an objective description of one’s features, in my opinion.

Rhetorical question: could Austen have (effectively) achieved describing Edward’s less-than-ideal appearance by saying that he “had a wart on his face” or “didn’t bother to brush his hair or teeth”? Saying he is “not handsome” is effective, but only so by default. I’m not sure if the narrator is being fair to Edward; in other words, I view this way of describing a character to be a bit tacky. See my Out of Context lead below for a continuation of this discussion.

Themes and Threads

Austen seems to be driving home the existence of two distinct worldviews in the sensibilities of the characters. For certain unfortunate souls, their temperament can know no moderation: Mrs. Dashwood: ‘I can feel no sentiment of approbation inferior to love.” Elinor: “You may esteem him.” Mrs. Dashwood: “I have never yet known what it wa to separate esteem and love.” Marianne similarly gives in to the extremes of expectation in her critique of Edward: “… to hear him read with so little sensibility.”

These chapters show a change in perception on the part of several characters: Mr. John Dashwood and the fate of the inheritance previously dedicated to his step-sisters; Mrs. Dashwood’s view of Edward upon Elinor’s remark that he is simply “unlike Fanny”; a dissolving of Marianne’s troubled view of Edward upon discussion and argument with Elinor; doubt developing in even in Elinor’s mind about the possible future with Edward; and Mrs. Dashwood’s change in mood about staying at Norland, to finally move away. It seems that a deadly brew is being mixed in the lives of these characters. In which of the above is there change caused by an actionable event, or even conjecture based on an action? John Dashwood is connived by his wife, the elder Mrs. Dashwood makes judgements based on the opinion of someone else—as does Marianne—both in the case of their view of the potential for Edward in their lives, and Elinor has a moment of doubt despite her effective argument in the opposite direction (granted, a victory against the easily convinced Marianne). At least when the decision is made to leave Norland, it comes as a result of the offer to enter Barton Cottage.

I think this passage adequately describes the change of the end of those months, and the mood at the time: “To quit the neighborhood of Norland was no longer an evil; it was an object of desire; it was a blessing in comparison of the misery of continuing her daughter-in-law’s guest: and to remove for ever from that beloved place would be less painful than to inhabit or visit it while such a woman was her mistress.”

Out of Context

How do writers describe physical traits today? First of all, I think an important de facto rule about fiction needs to be understood. Unfortunately, because stories are not meant (or preferred?) to be a one-time event—authors, filmmakers, and artists want their work to proliferate—the story is attached to market forces. That is, a story must be marketable, and characters are an essential part of a story. Therefore, characters must be marketable. I perceive that in every way, the characters around me are created to appeal to my senses: they are smart, funny, storied with interesting pasts, and most of all, beautiful. Surely, if the story weren’t fiction, ie, a reflection of real life, all of the characters contained therein wouldn’t be among (all) of these traits?

And so, in reading a story given by words, where the visual sense is reliant upon description by words, the author (or narrator) must tread the line between making his/her character appealing (which throws a proverbial wrench into the allegedly/ideally independent process of creating art) and maintaining the aesthetic of words as art. I perceive that, at least in this case, a default solution is sometimes put into practice by authors. For example—and keep in mind that this is anecdotal and by no means a solid survey—I seem to have read many books (usually they are related to the science fiction genre) in which the narrator achieves character ideal by using a catch phrase such as, “she had a slender body” or “he had a square jaw”; and every time I read this phrase and other like it, I think, “just say it”: “imagine Kate Moss in The Matrix, you know, the one with the tight-fitting latex. Yeah, that’s what my character looks like.”

At least Austen doesn’t insult my imagination in this way; she just goes straight in with “not handsome”; incredible!

Memorables

“… but in the meanwhile, till one of these superior blessings could be attained, it would have quieted her ambitions to see him driving a barouche. But Edward had no turn for great men or barouches.”

“I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own.” – Marianne

Looking Ahead

The Mrs. Dashwoods are moving out; the girls will have to adjust to the new lifestyle, and Elinor will have to adjust to physical and relational divides between herself and Edward.