by Morgan on August 10, 2011
“We tend to categorize novels by what they look like and whom they appeal to rather than by their structures, techniques, and functions.”
-- Ruth Persig Wood
Like many readers, I enjoy all kinds of books. I’m also a snob. I’ll scoff at someone reading Jennifer Weiner, even though I’ve never given her a chance. I’ll hide books I’m embarrassed to own, and regift novels I could never stoop to reading. In thinking about this as a self-identified “serious reader,” it horrifies me to consider how muchcontext I’ve let slip into my reading choices. And how unwilling I am to support “popular” or “unliterary” authors, whereas I’m totally okay with admitting that I like crappy pop music, and that my favorite movie has Nicolas Cage in it.
I’d like to change this. I’d like to get back to judging books on their own merits — like I did when I was twelve — rather than on mine.
So here’s my undertaking: I’d like to explore the topic of highbrow/lowbrow distinctions in literature in a number of ways. I have some more inchoate ideas for upcoming posts, but to kick this thing off, I’ve got a fun little (or not so little) showdown for you.
First, let’s define the terms. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll defer to Wikipedia for the general definitions of our distinctions, and say that Highbrow novels are intellectual, elite, and carry a connotation of high culture, while Lowbrow may be categorized as anything mass-market, with popular, common appeal. Generally, if it’s taught in an English literature program, or considered a “Classic,” it’s Highbrow. If there’s pink on the cover or is referred to as an “airport read,” it’s Lowbrow.
Now, for the showdown: I’ve completed a rigorous analysis of a Highbrow novel versus a Lowbrow one. The novels were judged as devoid of context as I could manage; that is to say, not taking into consideration the ethos of the author, critical reception of the novel, popularity, et al.
Let me outline, briefly, how the novels were judged. When I think about a book holistically, my criticism generally lands into one of four categories: narrative integrity, dialogue, story arc/readability, or fulfillment.
– Narrative integrity involves everything having to do with the writing: voice, control, tone, pacing, continuity, POV.
– Dialogue: is it appropriate?
– Story Arc/Readability: does the story carry you along on a natural trajectory, employing you toward active reading?
– Fulfillment: of the story’s goals, as defined by the story itself
I didn’t focus on these aspects explicitly in my analyses, but they are, essentially, what the reviews are based on.
With that out of the way, I give you Highbrow/Lowbrow Showdown Battle Royal Extravaganza! Or…yea. That sounds good.
Pride and Prejudice vs. Bridget Jones’s Diary
Pride and Prejudice is predominantly the story of Elizabeth Bennet, the second child of well-to-do parents, residing with them and her four sisters on an estate in rural England. In particular, it is the story of how she ends up married to a rich man named Mr. Darcy, whom she despises upon their first several interactions.
Jane Austen’s inclination toward allegory is all too apparent right from the beginning. Take the Bennet family. It’s just too easy: the exhausting, shrill wife, the miserly, disconnected husband, and one child for each disposition: the nice girl, the witty girl, the smartypants, the copycat and the ditz. And none of them are very likable. The author seems to treat them with tempered disdain at best, open mockery at worst.
As parents, the Bennets are abominable. Both actively dislike one or more of their daughters, while their reasons for favoring another are cynical and predictable: Mrs. Bennet prefers Lydia because she’s as fickle and flirtatious as herself, Mr. Bennet appreciates Elizabeth because she understands his mean-spirited sense of humor in a way that others do not, or rather, she understands the source of it: Mr. Bennet thinks his wife is an idiot, and is daily horrified to see her person being duplicated in his two youngest daughters.
“To his wife he was very little otherwise indebted, than as her ignorance and folly had contributed to his amusement.”
I can’t blame him here; Mrs. Bennet is truly one of the most annoying characters in all of English literature. But still, if we’re to believe them to be a family, if we’re to care about them as a family, there’s got to be something more to them, some nugget of warmth, or indication of love (if not like). With the exception of Elizabeth and Jane — relative allies in this family of weird discord — that is wholly absent here, and so I’m afraid the family is fairly two-dimensional, a group of caricatures stumbling around the house announcing their own clichés. (There will be those who wish to argue me on this point; in particular, I suspect, in defense of Mr. Bennet’s “love” for Elizabeth. But I dare anybody to find anything that the father truly loves about his daughter that does not serve simply to pacify his self, or bolster his own high self-esteem.)
Elizabeth, our main character, possesses a naiveté that is utterly perplexing. I recognize the taboo of calling one of literature’s most beloved heroines autistic, but there, I said it. At least inasmuch as her own feelings, and the feelings of her husband-to-be are concerned, I cannot understand what Austen was attempting to achieve with such frustrating opacity.
After informing Mr. Darcy that she enjoys walking along a particular route, Elizabeth is astonished that he should begin appearing there around the same time:
“She blushed again and again over the perverseness of the meeting. And his behavior, so strikingly altered – what could it mean?…She knew not what to think, nor how to account for it.”
Really? Nowhere in her mental-emotional capacities (she is portrayed as quite the deep thinker, at least in comparison to her contemporaries) can she entertain the notion that maybe the man who once proposed marriage to her is still interested?
She’s just as dim regarding her own feelings. When the decision is made that Elizabeth and others will visit Mr. Darcy and his sister at their estate:
“Elizabeth was pleased, though, when she asked herself the reason, she had very little to say in reply.”
All of this wouldn’t be so irritating were it not for the fact that some mutual recognition is required in order to build the suspense of a love story. If we’re to rejoice at the coming together of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth, we need a reason to do so. But there’s no pining here, none of the vital magnetism that would cause us to cheer for their reconciliation, no romantic thoughts or fantasies (nothing very romantic whatsoever); nothing that makes great love stories great. It’s rather like this:
– I love you. Marry me.
– I don’t love you back.
– Oh, you don’t? Okay. I’ll do some favors for you.
– Okay, I was wrong about you. If you still like me, then I’ll like you back this time.
That kind of storytelling earns very little payoff for the reader. This reader, at least.
So now let’s address what I see as the other issue with storytelling here. It’s a matter of cause and effect, actually. The main problem (the cause) is that the reader has no idea who’s telling the story.
Pride and Prejudice is told in free indirect style, but I’m not sure why.The author (and the morality of the novel) clearly favors Elizabeth, and so why not give us more access to her thoughts and spare us some of the diatribes and tangential information about the other characters? Again, the characters are less like characters and more like thinly veiled allegories for Austen’s ideas. By admitting us a more intimate audience with Elizabeth, at least one of the characters could have been allowed to become real. But we don’t really get Elizabeth’s perspective; we get the narrator’s.
So who is the narrator? We don’t know. Clearly, there is one. Pages of excruciatingly lengthy and banal description are peppered with perplexing omissions: using a long dash to indicate the name of some town or place that’s not of consequence, completing sentences with “&c” in order to skip ahead, and many other obvious moves that point to a distinct narrator, one who is making choices. Which is fine, except that in order to understand those choices, we need to know who’s making them. There is no first-person announcement, however.
That is, until the very last chapter, when this appears, regarding Mrs. Bennet:
“I wish I could say, for the sake of her family, that the accomplishment of her earnest desire in the establishment of so many of her children, produced so happy an effect as to make her a sensible, amiable, well-informed woman for the rest of her life…”
Who is I? This is the one and only time it appears, and it’s almost ludicrously ill-placed in the story.
And so now we get to the effect part: because of this ill-defined narration, and the peculiar choices about what to include (two-page-long descriptions of a garden) and what to breeze over (basically all of the climactic moments of the novel), the reader is left wondering what the book is even about.
Let’s look at a few “important” scenes, near the end of the novel. First, of course, is the climactic scene: Darcy’s confession of love, and Elizabeth’s reciprocation.
Darcy: “If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once, My affections and wishes are unchanged, but one word from you will silence me on this subject forever.”
So here it is! Here’s the big moment! Right?
Here’s what follows: “Elizabeth feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.”
That’s right. “Gave him to understand.” We don’t get to hear her profess her love. Austen doesn’t even let her heroine speak in the most important moment of her life.
Likewise, when Elizabeth must appeal to her father to allow the marriage: “Elizabeth, still more affected, was earnest and solemn in her reply; and at length, by repeated assurances that Mr. Darcy was really the object of her choice, by explaining the gradual change which her estimation of him had undergone, relating her absolute certainty that his affection was not the work of a day, but had stood the test of many months suspense, and enumerating with energy all his good qualities, did she conquer her father’s incredulity, and reconcile him to the match.”
This reads like a sketch of the scene Austen was going to write, presumably with dialogue and emotive language, but didn’t get around to.
And again, after much ado is made of informing Mrs. Bennet, it’s all taken care of like so: “When her mother went up to her dressing-room at night, she followed her, and made the important communication.”
The important communication? Is this supposed to be coy? If Austen felt it necessary to include all those dull conversations about social convention, and then withhold (virtually skip over) the details, immediacy and dialogue of the pivotal moments, we can only assume that it was more important for her to get those ideas across than to tell the story of her characters, and in this way, again, she negates the story, ignores her characters, and cheats the reader. Not to exaggerate, but I find this rather egregious.
To end, let’s look at the very last paragraph. All the main characters have been married off, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are happy at last, and all’s well with the world. Here’s the last word:
“With the Gardiners, they were always on the most intimate terms. Darcy, as well as Elizabeth, really loved them; and they were both ever sensible of the warmest gratitude towards the persons who, by bringing them her into Derbyshire, had been the means of uniting them.”
What? Who cares about the Gardiners?! We want to hear about Elizabeth and Darcy finally being together, or at the very least, what life is like in that ginormous castle of his!
Okay, so it’s difficult to ascertain the goals of this novel. As a love story, it fails: its resolution is hardly one, and when it comes it hasn’t even been earned. As the story of a family, it succeeds only inasmuch as the characters are driven apart by those aspects named in the title of the book. If the goal is to depict the social norms of early 19th-century English gentry, we can consider it a success. But I can’t help but feel that such could have been achieved in a way that enriched a story about people, not superseded it.
The novel, no doubt, is aptly named, but it’s the pride and prejudice shown by the author that ultimately, and regrettably, shine through.
Bridget Jones’s Diary is, in fact, a diary. It chronicles a year in the life of 30-something Bridget Jones, a single, self-deprecating working woman, living in late-90’s London. The diary opens with an exhaustive and typical list of new year’s resolutions, serving as both a narrative directive, and introduction to the main character’s voice:
“Will not: Sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend.”
“Will: Go to gym three times a week not merely to buy sandwich.”
Then, January 1st’s entry asserts: “Ugh. First day of New Year has been day of horror.”
I think this encapsulates the novel pretty aptly: Bridget means to improve her life, makes commitments in order to do so (if, perhaps, expecting a little too much from herself) and then things explode in her face. Dating, dieting, maintaining a neutral relationship with her parents, advancing in her career; at every step of the way, Bridget thwarts herself in becoming the person she wants to be.
This may sound trite, but Fielding pulls it off by giving the reader a wholly real and truly hilarious character. Because the novel is in diary format, we only ever know what Bridget knows, and this allows the minutiae of her life to have suspense and develop in a way that adds up to more than a sum of its parts.
Bridget’s desire to find love is paramount. All her attempts at self-improvement are obviously geared towards this goal. Her friend Sharon remarks:
“We women are only vulnerable because we are a pioneer generation daring to refuse to compromise in love and relying on our own economic power. In twenty years’ time men won’t even dare start with fuckwittage because we will just laugh in their faces.”
But of course, they all compromise. But do so the men, even asshole Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s hot, womanizing boss. Fielding has a keen ear for the things we tell ourselves, and then shows us, again and again, how we chronically betray those things; but more importantly, she reminds us why we need those betrayals. Bridget’s booze-soaked affirmation-fests with her friends are what keep her going when nothing else will.
Another advantage of the diary format is that it allows Bridget to wax poetic about those times of the year that are so fraught with potential misery and human folly, but are, of course, always funny.
On Christmas: “It seems wrong and unfair that Christmas, with its stressful and unmanageable financial and emotional challenges, should first be forced upon one wholly against one’s will, and then rudely snatched away just when one is starting to get into it. Was really beginning to enjoy the feeling that normal service was suspended and it was OK to lie in bed as long as you want, put anything you fancy into your mouth, and drink alcohol it should chance to pass your way, even in the mornings. Now suddenly we are all supposed to snap into self-discipline like lean teenage greyhounds.”
“What is the point of entire nation rushing round for six weeks in a bad mood preparing for utterly pointless Taste-of-Others exam which entire nation then fails and gets stuck with hideous unwanted merchandise as fallout?”
On sunny days: “The more the sun shines the more obvious it seems that others are making fuller, better use of it elsewhere: possibly at some giant softball game to which everyone is invited except me; possibly alone with their lover in a rustic glade by waterfalls where Bambis graze…”
On VE Day: “None of my friends are organizing anything. It would seem embarrassingly enthusiastic and all wrong, somehow, suggesting a positive approach to life or that we were trying creepily to annex something that was nothing to do with us.”
While the novel is obviously Bridget’s story, we get a pretty round portrayal of the peripheral characters, as well. Her mother, in particular, is rendered with sharp skill: through her ridiculous affair with Julio, the Portuguese man-baby, and her frantic, loaded telephone calls to Bridget, we know more about her than any amount of character sketching we’d get in more a traditional prose form, or from an omniscient point of view.
Prose would make it difficult, too, for Bridget to be able to expose us to the frenzy of her mind, how swiftly she jumps from astute philosophical musings, to detailed cataloging of calories consumed.
Speaking of calories, Bridget’s Jones’s Diary will most certainly be more appealing to women than to men.
“I realized that I have spent so many years being on a diet that the idea that you might actually need calories to survive has been completely wiped out of my consciousness. Have reached point where believe nutritional ideal is to eat nothing at all and that the only reason people eat is because they are so greedy they cannot stop themselves from breaking out and ruining their diets.”
I hasten to say that I don’t think this is a weakness. I think it’s appropriate. Somehow, to make Bridget less of a single woman cliché, to attempt to have her sympathize with a more “male” perspective, Fielding would only fail to make Bridget believable. She is a stereotype, but since we hear her own voice, since we are treated to the sometimes minute-to-minute life-assertions and fall-outs that Bridget feels and experiences, she is very real. Also, while the content may be more feminine, I don’t think Fielding’s general sense of humor is:
“On way home in end-of-Christmas denial I bought a packet of cut-price chocolate tree decorations and a $3.69 bottle of sparkling wine from Norway, Pakistan or similar…”
…Now, though, I feel ashamed and repulsive. I can actually feel the fat splurging out from my body. Never mind. Sometimes you have to sink to a nadir of toxic fat envelopment in order to emerge, phoenix-like, from the chemical wasteland as a purged and beautiful Michelle Pfeiffer figure. Tomorrow new Spartan health and beauty regime will begin.”
There are problems with the diary format, of course — would she really remember exactly how many calories she consumed the night before, given that she was so drunk that she derails, in her journal, into gibberish? — but they are minor. And actually, when I think twice about it, they work. Bridget probably doesn’t remember all the calories she consumed, but she’s obsessed with cataloguing them, so she writes down a number anyway. That’s what I would do. She often goes back and forth between using the first-person pronoun and dropping it completely, but again: my diary, were I to have one, would probably do the same. (That’s not to say that by choosing the diary format, Fielding gets to be lazy, but you can’t deny that laziness is endemic to personal journalling.)
So, as a warts-and-all look at a woman struggling through life in her 30’s, told in her own voice, Fielding nails it. Where she fails, I think, is in the love story aspect.
Bridget’s Mr. Darcy is Mark Darcy, an imposing, wealthy human-rights lawyer with a very dry wit. I know I’m not supposed to be comparing (each on their own merits, etc. &c) but I can’t help it. In updating Pride and Prejudice, Fielding makes the same grave mistake with her lovers as Austen: she introduces the thread far too late, and with far too little emotion. In fact, Bridget doesn’t even like Mark Darcy until the last thirty pages of the novel. Or at least, we assume she doesn’t, because she would have included it her diary, which is nothing if not cringingly honest.
And that leads us to the real problem — if scoring Mark Darcy isn’t all that exciting or fulfilling, what else did Bridget achieve over her year of self-improvement? Not much. She doesn’t seem to have any more self-esteem than she did this time last year. Nor has she quit smoking, cut down on her drinking, started to read more, found a truly empowering job (at least, this is not portrayed effectively), found inner poise or started going to the gym. All she did was get a boyfriend who may or may not be a good guy, and this feels like victory.
Okay, I guess that is pretty realistic. But I wonder if total slice-of-life realism is what Fielding is going for. If the novel’s goal is to depict, in a humorous, relatable way, the pitfalls of single 30-something urban females, she wins; but if she truly means to empower Bridget, I have to concede that I wasn’t convinced. There is a sequel, though.
Winner: Bridget Jones’s Diary*
*Holy crap. Bring on the hate mail.