Withering Bites

“‘Lucky Jim’ Goes to the Internet”

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.


Jane’s Early Reception January 31, 2009

Filed under: Jane Austen,Michelle,Pride & Prejudice,Theory — m. @ 11:09 am

I’m relatively well-versed in the early English novel, thanks to that class I took as an undergraduate where I read everything but Tom Jones (the lack of reading wasn’t due to the syllabus, but sheer laziness on my part). Let me try to explain something on the significance of Jane Austen and her little book, Pride and Prejudice.

I’ve noticed a few things in my researching Austen’s critical reception during the early years of the 19th century:

  1. To talk about one of her novels is to talk about all of them. Austen is a writer whose canon is what it is, but not in an interchangeable way. Critics genuinely appreciated her body of work as a whole — then again, that’s slightly easier when your ‘body of work’ is six novels and juvenilia.
  2. Critical writing on her works in periodicals wasn’t widespread until after her death. Things did move slower in Ye Olden Daeyes, but not reviewing Pride and Prejudice until 10 years after its initial publication? Seriously?
  3. The focus on gender in reviews of her work — men reviewing men could get away with polemic claims on their lack of breeding and education. In the dozen or so reviews I’ve read of her work, there came a point in each review (shortly before or after the summary of the novel which was about 80% of the review’s total text) in which the reviewer would take a moment to remark on Austen’s sweet character, gentle nature, talent with a pencil, lively disposition.
  4. Slightly related to the above: Everyone. Loves. Jane. Not in a polite way to be kind or (only) because she’s a lady, but adoration for her writing as well. (If you find a 19th century review or article where this isn’t the case, please let me know!)

Reviewers adored her novels for their attention to detail and her ability to turn the completely boring into the extraordinary, as seen in this extract:

You have actually met all her heroes and heroines before — not in novels, but in most unromantic and prosaic circumstances; you have talked with them, and never seen anything in them — anything, at least, worthy of three volumes, at half-a-guinea a volume. How could such folks find their way into a printed book? That is a marvel, a paradox, a practical solecism. But a greater marvel remains behind, and that is, how comes it that such folks, having got into the book, make it so interesting? (Jacox 18)

That’s from an 1852 article on Austen, part of a series on female novelists — 152 years later, I completely agree that this is why Austen’s novels appeal, except we would call “portraying prosaic characters in a dazzling manner” something like “exquisite social commentary for the win”. Austen’s characters are rather touched in the head, but more realistically and down-to-earth than, say, Charlotte Lennox’s eponymous protagonist of The Female Quixote (another terrifically funny novel from these early days of the genre).

Next week, I’ll work from the text of Pride and Prejudice, looking at the rather inventive way Austen uses time and events in her storytelling, using Erich Auerbach’s essay “Odysseus’ scar” from his book Mimesis. You may not know that I’m the one of this duo here at Withering Bites who writes the ‘now playing’ summaries — I hope next week, I’ll be able to show you how Austen and her writing are smarter and better built than most things I’ve yet to read.

I should also note that it was so very, very difficult to stop myself from simply calling our Author of the Week Jane throughout this piece. And for the slightly morbid among you — one of the articles I found in my research had printed a short account of Jane Austen’s last days, which I screencapped and uploaded here.


Jacox, Francis. “Female Novelists”. New Monthly Magazine and Humorist. 95.377 (1852). 17-23.


Jim Dixon as Marginalia January 21, 2009

Filed under: Kingsley Amis,Lucky Jim,Michelle,Theory — m. @ 12:01 am

It has taken me about a week to read the 11-page-long first chapter of James Longenbach’s The Resistance to Poetry, which is shameful and absurd (my procrastinating, not the chapter itself). It’s one of the pieces of theory that will be discussed in my graduate seminar tomorrow, so if I can make it make sense in relation to a novel, maybe it will transfer over to poetry and I won’t be shunned by my friends and classmates just yet.

This introductory chapter by the American critic Longenbach discusses the place of poetry in culture, using a third century BCE Greek poet by the name of Callimachus; Horace; Emily Dickinson; and the modernist poet Marianne Moore. The chapter claims that poets keep poets from reaching the cultural mainstream, and that isolation is something of a requisite for poetry, but I am particularly interested in one idea put forth on the first page: “…the marginality of poetry is in many ways the source of its power, a power contingent on poetry’s capacity to resist itself more strenuously than it is resisted by the culture at large” (1). Essentially, poetry is the ninja of literary forms.

Or should be, in the case of poetry in the United States, according to Longenbach, who cites several examples of how poetry is revered in contemporary American society, ranging from number of Web site hits to front page poetry-related headlines (6). While former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is quoted as claiming that “poetry is part of our shared, communal life” (qtd. in Longenbach 6), Longenbach claims that there are some elements in American life that don’t quite measure up to that ideal:

…We can never quite be sure what constitutes our communal life, especially as it changes over time. The fact that football, Beanie Babies, or even novels are part of that life does not mean that poetry will preoccupy us in similarly meaningful ways…. Culture has expected poems to fulfill prescribed functions rather than discover their relevance (6).

I write this hours after the Inaugural Poem was read for millions of people in Washington, D.C. and surrounding television and computer screens around the world — what effect does that have on this idea of poetry’s marginality? I can only judge from my own experience, and that experience closely mirrors Longenbach’s diagnosis that poems “fulfill prescribed functions rather than discover their relevance”. As the Inaugural Poem streamed on CNN.com, I listened for 10 seconds, opened another tab to check NBC.com for some sign of my beloved Brian Williams, folded some laundry, then returned in time to hear the (fairly awesome) benediction by Joseph Lowery. I think in this case, any poem — as Stephen Fry called it, the careful arranging of language and structure into a form that evokes meaning and emotion from a reader — would have been better served up privately to each individual audience member, rather than presenting something so careful and almost delicate to millions of fidgety, anxious, and impatient people.

Lucky Jim comes into play because though it is a novel, it’s not widely considered a great novel. It’s one of my personal favorites, but I have only heard of it on one syllabus (where I first heard of it and read it as an undergraduate). It still hasn’t been adapted into a film starring James McAvoy; it hasn’t been voted The Greatest Story Ever Told by Every Important Magazine Ever (one exception); and David Lodge is far more well-known for his academic comedies than Kingsley Amis. Yet I can’t imagine Jim Dixon as a figure like Troy Bolton or Indiana Jones. In a very possessive, teenage kind of way — much like the way Longenbach describes poetry as “resist[s] itself more strenuously than it is resisted by the culture at large” — Lucky Jim reveals its strength and charm as the Jim Halpert (though decidedly angrier) of the 20th century novel.


Longenbach, James. The Resistance to Poetry. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2004.


Language in Comedy January 14, 2009

Filed under: Kingsley Amis,Lucky Jim,Michelle,Theory — m. @ 12:01 am

First, I should note that for the time being, I’m not working from complete critical texts: if I were a better scholar, I should go out and read all of Bakhtin (or, at least, all of Discourse in the Novel) before reporting back with my findings on his theories of dialogue and its effect on a reading of Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. However, as this is strictly a ‘hobby’, I’ll be limiting myself to using the excerpts of works in my anthology of critical texts, David Richter’s The Critical Reader.

That aside: Bakhtin, Amis, and comic style. The particular excerpt of Discourse in the Novel I will be examining in relation to Lucky Jim is one on heteroglossia – a term coined by Bakhtin to describe the multiple kinds of language present in a work. My simple aim for this post will be to adopt Bakhtin’s observations of the styles used in 19th century novels to Amis’ 1954 novel.

Of the ‘multiple kinds of language’ Bakhtin discusses in this short excerpt, Amis’ prose in Lucky Jim most resembles what Bakhtin calls a “pseudo-objective motivation”. Bakhtin describes pseudo-objective motivation as “one of the forms for concealing another’s speech” within a text. He goes on to explain that in an example of this style “the logic motivating the sentence seems to belong to the author… but in actual fact, the motivation lies within the subjective belief system of his characters” (590). Amis showcases a form of this language in the following quote from Lucky Jim: “Dixon looked over and saw that the two performers… were hanging about smoking and chatting. Welch was nowhere to be seen; he must be displaying his rather terrifying expertise as an evader” (Amis 49; emphasis mine).

The undergraduate creative writing workshops I participated in particularly disliked this kind of writing where an omniscient narrator appeared to be biased in the telling of a story; if only I had Bakhtin there to legitimize the occasional slip into pseudo-objectivity! However, Amis’ style resembles Bakhtin’s idea of pseudo-objective motivation, but doesn’t quite emulate it. Bakhtin notes that 19th century novels had either a first person narrator or a third person omniscient, and attempts to diagnose the slips of one style into another. Amis uses the relatively new third person limited narrative, which allows the reader to have the cake of knowing (nearly) everything while also eating it via the protagonist’s wry observations and extremely personal bias.

Amis, Kingsley. Lucky Jim. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Heteroglossia in the Novel”. The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 3rd Ed. Ed. David H. Richter. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2007. 588-94.