Can Lit Also Be a Force for Evil? A Debate

"Napoleon Reading"

“Napoleon Reading”


In today’s post I summarize a debate I had earlier in the week with novelist Rachel Kranz, my best friend from college (aside from my wife). I had shared my view with Rachel about how literature liberates us by giving voice to worlds and possibilities that we don’t have words for. Rachel didn’t disagree that literature plays this role, but she accused me of underestimating literature’s negative dimension: stories are so powerful that they can also blind us to possibilities.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a work we frequently disagree about. Whereas I see the novel, especially the figure of Elizabeth Bennet, as a boost to female empowerment, Rachel sees it as reinforcing the age-old story that a young woman’s major purpose in life is to land a highly desirable man. The very fact that a strong and self-assured woman like Elizabeth would buy into this drama—in the novel’s final pages she’s even apologizing for her previous assertiveness and censoring her satiric tongue—makes it even worse. Because of romances like Pride and Prejudice, we feel that our lives are failures if they end up differently.

My counterargument was one that I use for virtually all of the classics: we should minimize the local prejudices of the time when we judge a work and focus rather on the vision of liberation that shines through. Thus, in my view, Austen’s vision of a strong woman far outweighs her conventional marriage plot. Or to cite another example that Rachel and I discussed, Shakespeare’s momentary vision of same sex partnerships in Twelfth Night far outweighs the play’s conventional ending, where heterosexual relationships are restored while the homosexual Antonio is marginalized.

In my defense of Pride and Prejudice, I cited Azar Nafisi’s students in Reading Lolita in Tehran, where the figure of Elizabeth Bennet deciding her own fate helped them maintain a sense of self as they were forced to don the veil. With Twelfth Night, I could have mentioned a once-closeted friend who, during her childhood, felt affirmed by Viola talking about how she would make love to a woman.

Again, Rachel didn’t entirely disagree. But she noted how suffocated she feels, as a writer, in creating women characters who can’t leave the marriage plot behind or venture out into the world with their own mission. In past discussions she has noted that she’s not the only one. Why did George Eliot, as independent a woman as one will find in the 19th century, create in Middlemarch’s Dorothea Brooks a figure who looks always looks to men to achieve a higher destiny. Why does Ursula LeGuin, a self-aware feminist, have a male protagonist in the Earth Sea Trilogy? Why is Harry Potter rather than Hermione Granger the protagonist in J. K. Rowling’s books?

For that matter, Rachel asks, why, in her own first novel Leaps of Faith and in the sequel that she is on the verge of completing, can she create quest stories for her male characters but not for her female characters? As much as she loves literature, she says, she feels stymied by a tradition that seems to close off certain futures.

I mention as an aside a student of mine who is currently grappling with exactly this issue. Allison Riehl is writing about young adult literature that addresses death, and she is discovering that the death of girls often serves as a launching pad for male identity quests. One can see this dynamic working itself out in little Nell (Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop), Annabel Lee (Poe’s poem), and Little Eva (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). I’ll write in more detail about Allison’s project later, but, to cite one modern example, in Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia Leslie seems to be put on earth just in order to help Jesse grow up. Once she has set him on his way, she dies and he must put into practice the lessons she has taught him. She doesn’t appear to have a journey of her own.

I tend to approach life with a glass-half-full attitude, perhaps the result of privilege, but am willing to reexamine my assumptions here. Should I be more sympathetic to Plato’s critique of Homer’s bad influence and more critical of Aristotle’s uncritical praise of catharsis? Should I be suspicious of Sir Philip Sidney’s assumption that literature automatically engenders virtue in its readers? And how about Shelley’s assertion that the greatest poets are the unacknowledged legislators of civilization’s great advances?

Perhaps I should be looking at literary power the way I look at spirituality—in the right hands capable of doing great good but also susceptible to corruption by evil minds.

In short, can even a great classic have ill effects? You’ll be hearing more from me on this.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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