Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen, Revolution, Socialist Realism, and Reception: A Response to Helong Zhang's "Jane Austen: 100 Years in China"

Academic journal article Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal

Jane Austen, Revolution, Socialist Realism, and Reception: A Response to Helong Zhang's "Jane Austen: 100 Years in China"

Article excerpt

CHINA MAY SEEM to be a special case when it comes to the reception of Jane Austen; it was, as Dr. Zhang has pointed out in his essay in this volume, isolated from most Western literary trends until the big push to translate began at the start of the twentieth century. This moment of openness was followed by self-imposed isolation after the revolution as the preeminence of the Gang of Four eventually caused even greater restrictions on the importation of Western literature. As more translations of her work appeared, Jane Austen gained the hearts of the populace and came to be taken seriously in China's academic circles. Dr. Zhang clearly indicates the power of political ideologies in shaping the reception of Austen, but he nonetheless suggests that Austen's themes and characters have a deep universal appeal that transcends political theory.

To amplify Dr. Zhang's observations and to modify their tenor soinewhat, I would like to turn to two countries that shared some of China's early lack of exposure to and later disregard for Austen: Russia and Poland. I would argue from this comparison that the heroic aesthetic that Socialist Realism embraced and that blinded audiences to Austen's greatness did not belong solely to Marxist ideology but arose in part from a Romantic sensibility that popular audiences of the nineteenth century tended to share, especially when political turmoil seemed to necessitate encouragement of the heroic.

For Socialist realists, like those for whom the grand historical sweep alone is capable of granting significance, the lack of action in the field, of attention to the fate of the polls, condemns Austen to triviality. Socialist realism was the only accepted artistic style in most Communist countries: abstract impressionism, the bourgeois novel, love stories, domestic comedy--all were considered decadent if not counter-revolutionary. Socialist realism is a kind of resurgence of an epic imagination.

To talk about the West's move from the epic to the novel is to tell a story of reducing magnitude or scope (pace Melville and Tolstoy). This reduction was due in great part to the death of the ideal of epic heroism with the advent of Christianity and other forces, forces upon which Margaret Doody has elaborated in The True Story of the Novel. These include the medieval foregrounding of personal relationships and the navigation of the complexities of amour courtois (187) as well as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries' focus on politics and civic virtue (262-63). One could say that the final blow was dealt to the epic by two great epic writers themselves, Dante and Milton, whose heroes, unlike Achilles, Aeneas, Hektor, Beowulf, and countless others from the age of martial heroism, never lift a sword or spill an entrail. To such writers, reducing the epic scope to the individual and the human did not represent a loss: the depiction of warrior deeds was the inferior task; Dante's and Milton's focus was the human soul and the destiny of man.

The advent of printing and more general education also ended the civilization that relied on poetry to pass on the tales of the culture's past and its greatness. Prose was elevated to a status it had never before enjoyed. After the great star of Cervantes appeared on the horizon at the end of the sixteenth century, martial eminence and poetic splendor did not provide fodder for the novel's rise. Don Quixote's almost hopeless entrapment in the knightly past is comic, and the novel that bears his name cambers toward his realizing that he is an ordinary man in need of mercy, and away from his battles against windmills and sheep, in and of themselves a mockery of epic.

What does this development of the novel have to do with Marxism? The revolutionary ideal that arose from the philosophies of Marx and Engels and others was a renewal of the martial ideal. Once again, the advancement of a whole class, indeed a whole civilization, by the sword if need be, was the goal, and the individual and his spiritual development were irrelevant. …

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