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Background and Foreground February 11, 2009

Filed under: Jane Austen,Michelle,Pride & Prejudice,Theory — m. @ 8:05 am

Erich Auerbach made my tiny heart flutter when I read him for the first time last semester — here was this man, a real, respected literary critic and in my syllabus, trapped between such towers of unreadable jackassery like Jacques Lacan and Michel Foucault, who was readable. Not only that, but he was one of the very few theorists I read that semester to do what David Richter, the editor of my critical theory anthology, calls “pure literary interpretation” (704) — not out of choice, but because he emigrated to Istanbul during World War II and was deprived of the resources he would have access to normally.

“Odysseus’ Scar” is one chapter from the book he wrote during his time in Istanbul, Mimesis. The title refers to the moment in Book XIX of Homer’s Odyssey when Eurycleia, Odysseus’ old nurse, washes a stranger’s feet and because of the scar on the stranger’s thigh, realizes it’s her master. Auerbach compares this scene to the sacrifice of Isaac from the Old Testament in order to illuminate the passage of time and disclosure of events by narrators.

With regards to these, Auerbach refers to the moment when Eurycleia actually touches Odysseus’ scar — at that moment, the narrative goes off on a tangent to Odysseus’ childhood and how he received the scar for more than 70 lines (19.393-466). On the 74th line after the beginning of the digression, the narration returns back to the present moment. Auerbach points out that Homer “knows no background. What he narrates is for the time being the only present, and fills both the stage and the reader’s mind completely” (705). Compare this to the beginning of the sacrifice of Isaac, which begins simply: “And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham and said to him, Abraham! and he said, Behold, here I am” (707; Genesis 22:1). Auerbach notes this scene and how “it serves to indicate thoughts which remain unexpressed…. Everything remains unexpressed” (709).

And how does Pride and Prejudice fit into this? For one thing, few works between the epics of the ancient world and Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness novels in the early 20th century fit into the Homeric category which “knows no background” (where the events being narrated are the foreground) as the narrative progresses; nor are narratives as thoroughly opaque as the Old Testament. However, Austen’s novel straddles (gosh, that seems wrong somehow) the line and leans towards one or the other with more totality than other works I can think of off the top of my head. To be sure, there is background — if Lydia’s elopement were written by Homer, it somehow would have been worked into the foreground narrative. There simply isn’t a division of space in a Homeric narrative — a reader probably knows Clytemnestra is back in Mycenae throughout the events of the Iliad, plotting revenge on Agamemnon, but that background is entirely reader-created and never, ever mentioned by Homer until its relevance in the Odyssey. With Lydia’s elopement, however, Austen first withholds the events of that narrative completely and shows only the effects on her family; later, she weaves it back in and discloses it (as graphically as an 18th century woman can describe a regimental officer running off with and boning a 15-year-old girl).

There is also the matter of Darcy and Austen inserting his mental processes into the narrative in Chapter 6 (15) during a visit to Netherfield. Austen notes that as Elizabeth watches Bingley and Jane, Darcy watches Elizabeth — in that one paragraph, Austen shares with her reader that Darcy has evaluated her eyes, her figure, and her manner, and found them to be overall imperfect but “he was caught by their easy playfulness”. He then reinserts himself into the scene. Time didn’t stop while Darcy watched — Bingley didn’t stop flirting with Jane and Elizabeth didn’t stop watching them or talking to Charlotte. No, the whole scope of the narrative was shifted from one small conversation after another to focus on the mind of one man and the view from his eyes for the only moment in the narrative (corrections welcome!)

It’s a simple thing I’ve brought up here, this creation of background and foreground, but something that struck me as noteworthy once Auerbach had pointed out that literature had to progress to something that simple. And yes, rest assured, this is the last Pride and Prejudice post for quite a while. I’ll try and cover The Real Thing sometime this weekend (Stoppard!!!!)


Auerbach, Erich. “Odysseus’ Scar”. The Critical Traditon: Claassic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd Ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007.

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951.


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