Friday, June 02, 2006

Mr. Darcy in the Fields of Bethlehem: A Shavuot Post

Last night we celebrated Shavuot, a much-repurposed harvest festival. Proving, yet again, that I should no longer be allowed anywhere near a synagogue, I found my mind wandering to strange places during the traditional reading of the book of Ruth. Specifically, to the similarities between this ancient family drama and the novels of Jane Austen (waits to be struck by lightning. No? OK then). Like Austen's novels, the book of Ruth is a celebration of the way in which a careful adherence to social conventions and customs, when coupled with wisdom and generosity, safeguards both the happiness and security of individuals and the continuity of society as a whole. As expressed through the device of a romance between two incredibly sexy people.

The book of Ruth is short (barely four chapters) and worth reading. You can find an English translation here. The story in brief, however: having lost her husband and two sons in Moab, the Israelite Naomi returns to her clan with her two widowed Moabite daughters-in-law. The first, Orpah (whose name literally means "She who turns her back") returns to her own people. The second, Ruth, remains with Naomi. While gathering leftover grain in order to feed herself and Naomi, Ruth catches the eye of Boaz, the owner of the field, who is impressed by her devotion to Naomi and, presumably, by the fact that she is incredibly hot, and gives orders to his men to show her special consideration. Like a good Jewish mother--or a Biblical Mrs. Bennet--Naomi responds to the news of Boaz's generosity by making marriage plans. She sends Ruth, all dressed up, to lie at Boaz's feet in the manger at the end of the day's work. The text gracefully elides over whatever it is that happens after Boaz discovers Ruth, but the next thing we know, he's promising to marry her. The book ends with the birth of Boaz and Ruth's son, and with the revelation that he is the ancestor of David, and therefore the Solomonic dynasty.

Like Austen, the Biblical author sees marriage as the most desirable state for his female protagonist--it ensures both her financial and physical security and her dynastic continuity. In order for the marriage to be a good one, however--something beyond the mercenary or the expedient--it has to take place between two moral individuals. Nearly all of Austen's characters act in accordance with societal conventions and within the guidelines that manners and morality lay out for them. Only the best of them, however, act with a full understanding of the importance of manners. Whereas other characters act unthinkingly, accepting the customs of their society because to do so is easier than to buck the trend, and others still believe that the appearance of propriety is all that matters and ignore its substance, Austen's heros and heroines--her Darcys and Elinors--have a deeper understanding of the importance of morality to the preservation of the fabric of society. They therefore go beyond the requirements of convention--Darcy bribing Wickham to marry Lydia, Elinor securing a living for Edward Ferrars from Colonel Brandon--and are rewarded for their generosity by having that quality recognized by others who possess it, and by the privilege of teaching the importance of tradition and goodness to the next generation.

The book of Ruth seems to offer the same moral tale. Ruth and Orpah both discharge their duty towards Naomi by escorting her safely to her own clan's lands. Naomi sends the two women home because, as she says, she has no more sons to marry them to (which would fulfill her responsibility towards these two young women who have tied their fates with that of her family). Orpah's actions in returning to her family, who will find her another husband, are entirely correct. Ruth, however, goes beyond correctness, and remains with Naomi because of her love and concern for the older woman. In doing so she essentially seals her own fate--she has no property to tempt a new husband, no dowry, and no male relatives to protect her. In spite of the fact that they are not related by blood, Naomi takes on the responsibility of finding Ruth a husband. Ruth gathers grain in Boaz's field in accordance with the cutsom of gleaning, which states that stalks of grain dropped by the harvesters should be left on the ground for the poor to gather. Boaz goes further than custom requires when he orders his men to intentionally leave more grain on the ground for Ruth. Boaz promises to marry Ruth because he is related to Naomi's clan, and therefore has the responsibility of 'redeeming' the lands of Naomi's husband--buying them back from an outsider who has bought them and keeping them in the family. There exists, however, another relative with a greater claim to both the lands and Ruth, but he begs off. Boaz, therefore, steps up, and ensures both Ruth and Naomi's security. As the book's coda is careful to inform us, the union between these two excellent people is the source of a line of Israelite kings.

It occurred to me last night that Austen is almost alone in the history of the novel in writing about conformity as the path to happiness. Her contemporaries wrote about characters who defied convention and were heavily punished for it (with the possible exception of Anne Bronte in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, in which the main character acts shockingly by leaving her husband, and is rewarded with a better one). Modern novels frequently deal with conformity as a burden, crushing and stunting the individual. Their plots are often concerned with an individual's escape from the stifling bonds of tradition, or with a failure to escape which damns the individual to a lifetime of misery. The reason for this, of course, is that conformity does crush the individual--that's practically what it was intended to do. The laws that govern the lives of the Biblical characters in the book of Ruth, or the ones that rule the lives of Austen's characters, were never intended to safeguard the individual's happiness. Their purpose was to protect the community, the clan, and the family--for instance, the tradition of leaving the family's entire property to the eldest son, with the youngest sons forced to go into some sort of profession, which forms the foundation of so many of Austen's and her contemporaries' plots. It sounds cruel, and it is, but there is no other way to ensure that the family's lands aren't split up, and its power increasingly diminished.

The underlying fantasy of Austen's novels--and of the book of Ruth--is that the protagonists' happiness just happens to be secured by laws which, objectively, have no regard for it. Lucy Steele conveniently runs off with Robert Ferrars, thus removing the obstacle to Edward and Elinor's marriage without requiring that Edward act immorally. The relative with a greater claim to Ruth's hand declines to marry her, thus leaving the stage clear for Boaz (who, conveniently enough, is related to Naomi's husband's family) to make his move. Through these romances, Austen and the Biblical author make the strict adherence to tradition palatable even to readers who aren't accustomed to thinking of themselves as members of a group first and individuals second. The same laws, however, which in Biblical times were enacted to ensure, if not the individual's happiness than at least the security of the weaker members of society, have become, in modern times, a crippling burden. The tradition of yibum, for instance, in which a childless widow is married to her husband's brother in order to ensure both her security and her husband's continuity, has become a cruel joke.

Shavuot, as I said, is a much-repurposed holiday. It started out as a harvest festival, probably with pagan origins, in which farmers would make an offering of the first crops of the season. It was later folded into the tradition of ritual sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem. After the destruction of the second temple, the tradition arose that Shavuot was the date on which Moses brought the Torah to the Israelites, and the holiday was celebrated with a night-long study session. In the years that followed Israel's inception, the holiday came full circle and became a harvest festival again--agricultural settlements and kibbutzim appropriated it and transformed into a socialist- and communist-tinged celebration of their self-sufficiency, a demonstration of their success in rejecting the urban lifestyle of 19th century European Jewry and transforming themselves into tillers of the land. By the time I was growing up, the kibbutzim were mostly bankrupt, and the dream of an agrarian Israel, the home of the Hebrew worker, had given way to capitalism and a flourishing high-tech industry. Nevertheless, we'd grab a couple of cucumbers and a tomato out of the vegetable crisper, plop them in a wicker basket, dress in white and go to school to offer the first of our crops.

Last night I sat with bankers, human resource managers, and computer programmers, and read a tale about farmers living thousands of years ago, punctuated by 50-year-old songs about the joys of working the land and watching this nation bloom. A celebration of tradition embraced by middle-class individualists, because the former is intertwined with a love story and the latter have catchy tunes and evocative lyrics. It's a testament, I think, both to the skill of the Biblical author and to the human desire to belong to something greater than ourselves that this tale of tradition triumphant still resonates even with modern Israelis, who for decades have been forced to watch helpless as a thoughtless adherence to the letter of the law, coupled with venality and foolishness, have all but severed the ties between Israelis and their rich cultural heritage. When greedy, unthinking religious institutions force secular Israelis to jump through hoops in order to be granted to right to marry, divorce, adopt children, or even assert their Jewish identity, is it any wonder that ordinary Israelis recoil from the merest whiff of religion? Is it any wonder that the Jewish holidays dwindle into nothing more than an accumulation of tropes and empty gestures, with nothing to support them? I am gratified, therefore, that there still exist groups like the one I attended last night, whose members are willing to let themselves be conned by a story like the one in the book of Ruth, who are willing to consider the lesson that Jane Austen offers in her novels--that tradition, when tempered by generosity and by the understanding of the inevitability of change, can be a force for good, both for the community and the individual.


ca said...

Great post. I've always loved the story of Ruth.

It also made me think of Catherine, Called Birdy, which is a kid's book but which I loved partially because the storyline stayed within the confines of realistic medieval society. Now that I think about it, the rules about manners and morality that you put forth also are used in that book, to a certain extent.

Jonquil said...

What an intelligent essay. Thanks.

nbm said...

Thoughtful and bright. Thanks, Abigail. (Do you read the "Velveteen Rabbi" blog? I think she'd like this piece.)

Paul Brown said...

One story that sprung to mind reading this was "Keep the Aspidistra Flying" by Orwell; a man fighting against the tradition around him is made miserable by the fight (mostly, I feel, because he never mentally escapes the expectations and requirements of the tradition he claims to oppose). When he finally succmubs to tradition he becomes deleriously happy and even dismissive of his former self and his "ridiculous" fight against the world.

The thing that struck me the most about the whole book, though, is that the ending is dischordant with the rest of the book, almost like it is the end of another, similar, story mysteriously tacked onto the end.

I have often wondered if this was brought about by a shift in Orwell's worldview whilst writing the book, but such things are notoriously easy to find when you look for them whether they truly exist or not.

JaneFan said...

What an interesting perspective! I'm going to come back and re-read it thoroughly when I'm more alert and can process it all intellectually...

My only comment at this point is to say that the closest Austen's heroine's come to defying convention is by insisting on marrying for love as well as(though not instead of!) socio-economic stability.

Pia said...

I'm very sorry to have to disagree; but as a JaneAusten adorer of long standing let me please point out that

a) Anne Bronte was no contemporary of Jane Austen. In fact, when Anne Bronte was born in 1820, Jane Austen had been dead for two and a half years! Also, while Anne Bronte belongs to a literary style and epoch that is generally called romanticism (where I live, at least), Jane Austen is still rooted in the age of enlightment and classicism. Her works, therefore, are less concerned with morals than with reason.

b) Elinor, in "Sense & Sensibility", *does not* procure a living for Edward from Colonel Brandon. It's Colonel Brandon's own idea to offer that living to Edward. He choses Elinor as his messenger, and Elinor is embarrassed and pained by Edward's belief that she has had a hand in Brandon's decision.

c) I can't recall any instance where Austen celebrates the laws of primogeniture. Nor were they so universal at those times in England, as the public implies, after watching several Hollywood movies, which greatly simplified Austen's plotlines and their historical context. The best example is Edward Ferrars, who, though being an eldest son, is next to disinherited by his mother: she transfers the parental fortune on his morally questionable younger brother Robert.

d) If Elinor owes her happiness to Robert Ferrars running away with Lucy Steele, this happiness is achieved through an act of immorality, though committed by a third party. And Lucy Steele's amorality is richly rewarded: she gains what she has always craved for, e.g. wealth and consequence. On a byeline, in "Emma", Mr. Knightley's and Emma's happiness is brought about by Jane Fairfax' and Frank Churchill's dishonesty.

e)Jane Austen neither glories in nor rebels against the laws and morals of her age. She takes them as they come. And her novels are far more concerned with human nature than with society, morals, laws etc. that may change ever so often. Nor can her plots be reduced to simplified patterns like "good rewarded, evil punished".

f) I can't help begging that before you join in with the actual fashion of proving your point by quoting Jane Austen, you might consider that she didn't write her novels to prove your point. You owe her that bit of respect.

I'm sorry if my comment sounds a bit acrimonious, but I've read so many Austen-reinforced statements of late, I just can't take any more.

Best regards,

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hello Pia,

You make some valid points in your comment in that I have made mistakes of detail or of insufficient clarity in my essay. I will address these points later in this comment. Before I do so, however, I must respond to this final point:

I can't help begging that before you join in with the actual fashion of proving your point by quoting Jane Austen, you might consider that she didn't write her novels to prove your point. You owe her that bit of respect.

I'm well aware of the fashion you refer to, and I'm willing to take into account that you've become over-sensitive to Austen references as a result of it. That said, this has got to be one of the most ill-considered, arrogant statements I have ever had addressed to me.

It would have been perfectly acceptable for you to say that you disagreed with my reading of Austen's novels and their themes. It is even acceptable to do as you actually did, and state categorically that my reading is wrong and here is the correct one. It's not a rhetorical trick that I care for when dealing with these kinds of nuances, but seeing as I have used it myself in response to grosser misapprehensions of Austen's novels, I suppose I have no right to complain when it is directed at me.

What you seem to be saying, however, is that of course I am completely aware of the fact that Austen's novels do not say the things that I claim they do, and that I have trotted out her name as an attention-grabbing measure, perhaps under the delusion (which, if such were the case, would surely mark me out as a psychotic) that the novels were written with the express purpose of providing rhetorical fodder for a 21st century blogger.

The genesis of my essay is exactly as I describe it in its first paragraph. I am not aware of having tried to make any point, much less of having enlisted Austen in that point's support. It is a free-form meditation, sparked by a connection I drew between Austen's novels and the Biblical book of Ruth, on the value of conformity and tradition, my country's mishandling of its religious heritage, and my own ambivalent relationship with my religion. The opinions about Austen's novels that I express in this essay are ones that I came to after thought and discussion. I would be only too happy to debate them with you, but before we do so you will please do me the courtesy of assuming the existence of my integrity until such time as I have given you reason to doubt it. I think you owe me that much respect.

As to your specific points:

a) You're right that I should have been more specific in that paragraph. I was drawing a distinction between 19th century novels, in which a failure to conform is usually punished, and 20th century novels, in which such a failure is often rewarded. The word 'contemporaries' was inappropriate.

b) You're right, of course, but I will point out that Elinor does act as the messenger, promoting Lucy's interests at the expense of her own as she has done throughout the novel, which is surely noteworthy.

c) I did not say that Austen "celebrates" primogeniture, merely that it often acts as a driving element in her plots, and that she is rarely more than faintly critical of this patently unfair practice.

d) I'm not sure what your point here is. My argument was that Austen often resorts to contrivances in order to secure a happy ending for her main characters. Getting rid of Lucy by hitching her up to Robert is surely such a contrivance, and I don't believe I ever suggested that all characters in Austen's novels act morally.

e) Here I disagree, as I have already said in my essay. Austen by no means takes manners and morality 'as they come'. She is a staunch moralist, and a true believer in the necessity of morality. To say that Austen's novels are concerned with human nature - which is patently true - is by no means to refute my statement.

Anonymous said...

>c) I did not say that Austen >"celebrates" primogeniture, merely >that it often acts as a driving >element in her plots, and that she >is rarely more than faintly critical >of this patently unfair practice.

uh...Mr. Collins??

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Is a perfect example of such criticism being both rare and faint. Austen is deeply critical of Mr. Collins's personality, but she leaves criticism of his standing next in line to inherit the Bennet estate to such luminaries as Mrs. Bennet and Lady Catherine.

tkdavies said...

I came across your post while researching a paper I am writing on the topic of the kinsman redeemer theme in Mansfield Park and its connection to Austen's religious influences/upbringing. Have you found any published sources that would support your theories? It would be very helpful to me if you could refer me to some helpful works!

Anonymous said...

Very thoughtful. I've never read Austen that way, but I think it's a fair assessment.

While I'll agree that the nation of Israel is getting in the way of its people, I'd like to point out that many American secular Jews embrace the holidays meaningfully. Some, like your Austen heroes, put them to more consideration and appreciation than those who simply accept them as required.

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