Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Compulsory Narration, Sentimental Interface: Going through the Motions of Emotion

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

Compulsory Narration, Sentimental Interface: Going through the Motions of Emotion

Article excerpt

An example from Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (1811) gives us a brief primer on the rhetorical limits of a closed circuit of emotion - its look, its contours, and its tone. In what should be a pivotal moment of disclosure, when we might expect the Dashwoods finally to expose the contents of their hearts to one another, the two sisters have difficulty calibrating their level of "openness" to each other. Elinor frets about Marianne's unusually secretive behavior in scribbling notes to Willoughby and pining away for him. Unused to this wall of privacy, Elinor charges Marianne with having no confidence in her. When Marianne retorts that Elinor opens up to "no one," Elinor's flat response is that she has "nothing to tell."1 Here, Marianne icily corrects her:

"Our situations then are alike. We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing."

Elinor, distressed by this charge of reserve in herself, which she was not at liberty to do away, knew not how, under such circumstances, to press for greater openness in Marianne.2

Marianne derogates the actual "communication" that goes on between them. Brimming with frustration, each sister wants to extract information about the other's emotional state without sharing any of her own. Elinor says nothing. Marianne holds nothing back. In the end, the stubborn reserve of one looks indistinguishable from the wholesale emotiveness of the other. The scene flattens its own energies in the way that so many narrative discussions of feeling in the romantic period do: they press for emotional openness, they drum out feeling, only to say that there is, in the end, "nothing to tell."

Marianne's charge sounds like an indictment of the kind that reviewers of the period brought against novel writers who made a business out of promising - in entirely predictable ways - secrecy, oddity, and mystery.3 The generic but titillating titles of their novels include the likes of Concealment, Dangerous Secrets, There is a Secret: Find it Out!, Any Thing But What You Expect, Singularity: a Novel, More Odd Moments, Mystery Upon Mystery, and, my favorite, Prodigious!!! They typify a larger cultural phenomenon of demonstrating psychological depth or complex singularity by promising to thwart expectations. Prodigious things, they tell us, can be found under layers, secrets, and mysteries ripe for the peeling. Yet all of the talk surrounding this hunt for the singular - starting with nothing less than the titles - bares the tense machinery needed to deliver the false surprise of a convention called depth.

One prominent reader of these novels, William Hazlitt, would complain of the kind of "very woman" novel that Frances Bumey introduced into the mainstream of literary production; for these writers, "the whole is a question of form, whether that form is adhered to or infringed upon."4 Hazlitt identifies a tactic of postponement in these novels in which characters seem to stand stock still in their even reliance on reserve and disclosure, withdrawal and minimal action: "[Bumey's] ladies 'stand so upon the order of their going/ that they do not go at all."5 It is not that characters fail to make up their minds, but that the narrative makes a disproportionately large fuss about their sensitivity to conventional demands on proper actions and thoughts. While authors succeed in presenting heightened emotions, in other words, these emotions do not go; emotions seem to be delineated solely for the sake of protracting them to excruciating lengths, only to reach no satisfying endpoint. As a result, such characters display psychologies so closely tied to form, they end up forfeiting content. Neither able to hold nor deliver realistic psychological content, as Hazlitt suggests, they instead produce deafening white noise. As they endlessly fret about conjuring up the proper feelings for the proper situations - where and when to share, withhold, squelch, or deny feelings? …

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