January 26, 2011

Stupid comparison makes stupid writer look stupid


Sebastian Faulks, literary critic

In her most recent column for Salon, MobyLives heroine hero Laura Miller, never one to shy from calling a spade a spade, zeroes in on some serious and sexist misreading by Sebastian Faulks of Charlotte Bronte‘s classic, Jane Eyre.

As Miller details the background,the great novel …

… has endured more than its fair share of misguided, condescending misinterpretations, but none quite so extravagant as an essay published in the British newspaper the Telegraph last week by novelist Sebastian Faulks. “Jane Eyre is a heroine,” he announces in the opening sentence, while “Becky Sharp, the main character of Thackeray’s ‘Vanity Fair’ (1847-48), is a hero.” Furthermore, “No one seems to question the distinction: it’s obvious.”

In explaining this curious formulation, Faulks acknowledges Jane’s “resilience” and “moral calibre” but qualifies this praise by claiming that “her happiness, and her psychological ‘completion,’ seem to depend on her securing the love and companionship of another, Mr Rochester.” This need, he maintains, is incompatible with heroism.

By contrast, Becky Sharp — a conscience-free climber and high-society con artist — may be widely viewed as the anti-heroine of “Vanity Fair,” but Faulks believes that her “resourcefulness and skill,” combined with her refusal to regard her “feelings for a man as a fixed point or priority,” add up to a form of heroism. That’s because, in Faulks’ view, “pairing off is not the goal or completion of the heroic trajectory. The hero imprints his or her qualities on society and by doing so overcomes false or smothering social restrictions.”

But Miller skewers the argument by pointing out that Faulks misses the numerous scenes in the book “that describe not Jane’s quest for love but her assertion of her autonomy in a world that regards her as entitled to none. In the past, Jane rebelled against authority figures to defend the legitimacy of her feelings, but when she leaves Rochester, it is her own desires that she defies, this time on behalf of her principles.”

As Miller goes on,

For Faulks, placing emotional connections at the center of one’s life is a form of “surrender” that female protagonists — with the exception of the wicked yet thrilling Becky — too often make. Only by triumphing over others, by treating them as instruments of her will, does Becky transcend this fatal (presumably feminine) weakness and show the “independence” of a true hero. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Faulks was chosen to write the continuing adventures of a less amoral but equally self-contained protagonist, James Bond — a man, it must be noted, who does not have a single friend. He can call that heroism if he likes, but I can think of better words.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives