Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Planning a Class - The Problem with Pamela

I'm still thinking about the novel for the end of the Masterpieces class, and I think it's not going to be Pamela. I love that's it's an epistolary novel, because I love epistolary novels. I just do. They're great. I love the sense that the thing I'm reading is an artifact of correspondence (or a journal, I love those, too). It's just so witty and creative.

But, Pamela. I don't mean to offend, but Pamela and Jane Eyre I detest for the fantasy they promulgate that a good woman can reform an a-hole. It's a popular fantasy, I know. It's all over modern "romances" (since they aren't medieval, they get quotation marks): bad boy reformed by good woman who is in turn introduced to the pleasures of rough sex.

The thing is, it's a horrid fantasy. It's vile.

I don't have a lot of relationship rules, but here's one: if someone is a jerk, don't have sex or be in a relationship with them. If they treat you or other people badly, they're a jerk so avoid them.

You're not going to suddenly make them into a kind and caring person by having sex with them. You're not going to suddenly make them not abusive by taking care of them and being obedient to them.

Now, maybe this makes me seem like a pessimist about people. Yes, it's true. I think that by the time someone's an adult, their basic character is in place, and while they can change if they really want to, most of us don't really want to change our basic character, so we don't.

And I don't want to teach a book that's focus is that fantasy. Yes, of course you can teach against the fantasy. You can discuss the fantasy. I just don't want to spend my energy that way.

I know that's sort of weird, because it's not like I teach "The Franklin's Tale" without discussing the trade in women at the base of that tale and critiquing it. It's not like I teach "The Wife of Bath's Tale" without discussing the rape and the elision of female voices. Heck, it's not like I teach Chaucer without asking students to think hard about how many of his tales center on rape and how that might inspire us to read his biographical information pretty darned carefully and think about how complex rape is in his world.

So, I'm thinking Robinson Crusoe it is. Yes, I'm happy to take on asking students to think critically about colonialism and such. That's a fantasy I have the energy to get students to think hard about.

Yet, I do feel a little like a whuss here, because I think the fantasy at the base of Pamela and Jane Eyre is a dangerous one, and certainly something our students should be pushed to think very critically about.


  1. I consider Jane Eyre to be the most powerful feminist work of fiction I have ever read.

    Jane Eyre does not "reform" Rochester. He gets crippled in a fire and loses his power as a result. he becomes dependent on her for absolutely everything. In their relationship, gender roles become reversed: he can barely move around without her support.

    There is, however, no indication that he has become a "good" guy or that he wouldn't have continued being a jerk if he had any choice in the matter. Thus, the lesson of the novel's end for me is that women in patriarchal societies have to pretend to be nice, kind and loving because they have no choice. Just like Rochester doesn't when he is crippled.

  2. Hmm.... I don't know that what you describe *is* the fantasy of Jane Eyre. Ultimately, Jane *does not* reform Rochester - she leaves him. His "reform" comes through being blinded and maimed - and their lasting relationship becomes possible only when it is equalized through her getting a family (the Rivers cousins) and money of her own. This is not to say that Rochester isn't a jerk - of course he's a jerk. But he certainly isn't reformed through the love of a good woman, and Jane certainly isn't, as far as the text indicates, introduced to or reformed through the "pleasures" of rough sex. Rather, he's horribly injured and then they're on an equal playing field (which, of course, is kind of screwed up, too, but not the screwed up thing that you're assigning to the novel).

  3. My grandfather went blind as he got older, and he became more abusive than ever. Being dependent doesn't mean someone can't be abusive.

    Again, yes, you can teach against the fantasy, but as long as she goes back to Rochester, there's still the fantasy that if she's just a good girl she'll get to marry a rich man and fit into upper class society and so on.

    But yes, you're right, Rochester isn't really "reformed" in any meaningful way. He'll be an abusive so and so until he hits the grave.

  4. It sounds like you've made a decision already, and you may not have had time anyway--but there's always the option of teaching Shamela along with Pamela. Of course it's problematic in its own way, but at least it troubles the narrative.

  5. Bardiac - look, I'm not saying you've got to like Jane Eyre, or that you have to teach it. To each her own.

    But while it's true that Rochester may be abusive after his injuries, nothing in the actual text supports that assertion. The novel infantilizes him at the end. I don't see that as teaching against the fantasy - I see that as teaching what is actually written in the novel. Now, we can talk about the rhetoric of that, and we can talk about the marriage plot in the history of the novel, and we can talk about all sorts of other things that interrogate how this novel works, but unless you're willing to do away with any novel that adheres to the conventional marriage plot - which, incidentally, means doing away with the vast majority of women writers pre-1900, and doing away with much women's fiction post-1900, too - then I'm not sure what the answer is to the issue that you raise here. And I'm not sure that excluding women writers sends a more "feminist" message than including women writers whose plots are offensive to our contemporary gender politics.

  6. You're right, Dr. C. I do tend to resist marriage plots. That may be part of what I like about my period--there ARE marriage plots, of course, but they're different, somehow. Or maybe I feel some distance and can deal with them?

    (I must admit, that I haven't read JE for many years. Maybe I should reread it? Or maybe I should reread PL, since I'm going to be teaching that soon.)

  7. My two cents about teaching Robinson Crusoe (or Pamela, for that matter) is that students carry on without realizing he significant of a role women writers played in the c18. I happen to love Defoe, but It would be nice to at least include some women's fiction as well. Maybe something like Elixa Haywood's "Fantomina" since it's very short. Or perhaps you've already got some early women's fiction planned? (I might have missed some details in an earlier post.) I say all of this because I made it through undergrad and my M.A. without knowing about popular fiction writers like Haywood, and, as a result, my understanding of the c18 was highly flawed.

  8. Wow. Please excuse the ridiculous typos. Frickin' autocorrect on my iPad. I meant Eliza, of course. And I hope you can get the gist of the rest of it.

  9. Bardiac, I think that the marriage plot from the 18th c. onward is different, and particularly the marriage plot in the context of the development of the novel is quite specific. This has a lot to do with the feminization of literacy and the rise of the middle class, and the vexed position of the novel as a genre that is "popular" while at the same time a genre that performs a socializing function for all those angels in the house keeping the home-fires burning. In other words, the marriage plot isn't just about marriage - it's about how to be properly middle-class and to adhere to proper gender roles as a member of the middle class. Going along with that, I'd link the marriage plot as it develops to the emergence of the "modern" subject, too.

    I really like Good Enough Woman's suggestion to include some women's fiction - something like Haywood would be great - because it's really important to understanding the development of the novel as a genre. Ultimately, in looking at the history of the novel, you can't leave out women authors, and you can't leave out the marriage plot altogether - if you do, then you're not really understanding the genre's development. Look at it this way: it would be like teaching poetry but saying, "Oh, I really prefer free verse so I'm just not going to do anything with consistent rhyme and meter." Can you understand poetry if you've never looked at metrical verse?

    (Oh, and fwiw, I teach JE regularly, and you should have more faith in your students: the vast majority do not love Rochester, and most find the ending highly unsatisfactory, and for good reasons, too.)

  10. I think teaching RC will be great. Don't know if this would suit your purposes but the Coetzee revision is very interesting to consider (even just introducing a brief excerpt is enough to prompt lively discussion).

    Also, someone shared this link with me when it came out--might be a good read? Bookmarked it mentally as something to return to if I teach RC again. I don't subscribe so couldn't get in but perhaps you do.

    Anyway, huzzah!

  11. Clearly, I'm not a long 18th c person, or any sort of 18th c person.

    I've put a request in for Fantomina from another university in the state. It's not available at my school, nor at any public library in our system.

    I've also emailed my colleagues, on the off chance that someone will have it.

    Welcome to the hinterlands. (No one here does 18th c nowadays. The person who did decided he didn't anymore, and so he doesn't.)

  12. As a reminder, this is a class that starts with Beowulf; I can't add a lot without dropping something else.

    I have Anon (Beowulf, Gawain) who may be women or not.

    I also have Marie de France and Aphra Behn (Oroonoko) on the syllabus as planned. So not a lot of women, but it's a crowded near 1000 years of lit.

  13. Bardiac, If you've got the recent Norton, you should find "Fantomina" included. It's basically a longish short story.

  14. Thanks for the hint, Good Enough Woman! I'll see if I can get hold of a later Norton.