Iris Murdoch’s Literary Wisdom

Tom Phillips, Iris Murdoch (in National Portrait Gallery)


Maria Popova, whose Brain Pickings is one of my favorite blogs, recently wrote about Iris Murdoch’s musings about literature. What Popova surfaces coincides so well with the book that I’m currently writing (Does Literature Make Us Better People? A 2500-Year-Old Debate) that I use today’s post just to marvel at some of Murdoch’s observations.

For instance, there’s this one about how literature helps give form to life’s shapelessness—and how it comes to us naturally because we are by nature storytellers:

Literary modes are very natural to us, very close to ordinary life and to the way we live as reflective beings. Not all literature is fiction, but the greater part of it is or involves fiction, invention, masks, playing roles, pretending, imagining, story-telling. When we return home and “tell our day,” we are artfully shaping material into story form. (These stories are very often funny, incidentally.) So in a way as word-users we all exist in a literary atmosphere, we live and breathe literature, we are all literary artists, we are constantly employing language to make interesting forms out of experience which perhaps originally seemed dull or incoherent. How far reshaping involves offences against truth is a problem any artist must face. A deep motive for making literature or art of any sort is the desire to defeat the formlessness of the world and cheer oneself up by constructing forms out of what might otherwise seem a mass of senseless rubble.

The issue of whether “reshaping involves offenses against truth” is a big one. Plato accuses poets of being liars, creating an imitation of an imitation of an imitation, but Aristotle is more in agreement with Murdoch, arguing that, poets look to the “law of probability and necessity” when they have their characters speak or act. “It is this universality,” Aristotle writes, “at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages.” 

About literature’s relationship to truth, Murdoch writes,

A poem, play or novel usually appears as a closed pattern. But it is also open in so far as it refers to a reality beyond itself, and such a reference raises… questions about truth… Art is truth as well as form, it is representational as well as autonomous. Of course the communication may be indirect, but the ambiguity of the great writer creates spaces which we can explore and enjoy because they are openings on to the real world and not formal language games or narrow crevices of personal fantasy; and we do not get tired of great writers, because what is true is interesting…

And elsewhere:

Beauty in art is the formal imaginative exhibition of something true….Training in an art is largely training in how to discover a touchstone of truth…

Some of the theorists whose ideas I explore in my book insist on literature’s truth-telling mission. These include Samuel Johnson (who lauds Shakespeare on this score), Percy Shelley, Friedrich Engels, and W. E. B. Du Bois. Although Engels wrote political pamphlets himself, he wants artists to stay away from politics and just tell the truth. He, Shelley, and Du Bois all believe that progressive aims will be fulfilled through such truth-telling because the arc of history bends towards truth and justice. Therefore, they don’t want artists to sacrifice their art to an agenda. Murdoch thinks along the same lines:

A citizen has a duty to society, and a writer might sometimes feel he ought to write persuasive newspaper articles or pamphlets, but this would be a different activity. The artist’s duty is to art, to truth-telling in his own medium, the writer’s duty is to produce the best literary work of which he is capable, and he must find out how this can be done.

And further:

A propaganda play which is indifferent to art is likely to be a misleading statement even if it is inspired by good principles….Any society contains propaganda, but it is important to distinguish this from art and to preserve the purity and independence of the practice of art.

Because truth is so important to the advancement of society, artistic freedom is absolutely vital—which explains why democracies are so much more vibrant, not to mention economically successful, than autocracies. Murdoch writes,

A good society contains many different artists doing many different things. A bad society coerces artists because it knows that they can reveal all kinds of truths.

Murdoch elaborates on what a bad society would not want to see. Her distinction between fantasy and imagination is important. Fantasy (by which she does not mean the genre of fantasy but shallow wish fulfillment) is preferred by autocracies because it feeds our smallness:

Good art is good for people precisely because it is not fantasy but imagination. It breaks the grip of our own dull fantasy life and stirs us to the effort of true vision. Most of the time we fail to see the big wide real world at all because we are blinded by obsession, anxiety, envy, resentment, fear. We make a small personal world in which we remain enclosed. Great art is liberating, it enables us to see and take pleasure in what is not ourselves. Literature stirs and satisfies our curiosity, it interests us in other people and other scenes, and helps us to be tolerant and generous.

Sounding somewhat like Shelley, but also Wayne Booth and Martha Nussbaum, Murdoch says that great literature encourages tolerance:

I would like to say that all great artists are tolerant in their art, but perhaps this cannot be argued. Was Dante tolerant? I think most great writers have a sort of calm merciful vision because they can see how different people are and why they are different. Tolerance is connected with being able to imagine centers of reality which are remote from oneself. There is a breath of tolerance and generosity and intelligent kindness which blows out of Homer and Shakespeare and the great novelists. The great artist sees the vast interesting collection of what is other than himself and does not picture the world in his own image.

It is any surprise, then, that she says “[t]here is always more bad art around than good art, and more people like bad art than like good art.” That’s because good art challenges us rather than feeds what we already think. Great literature is hard.

But it’s also the biggest game in town.

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1984, the Novel That Never Gets Old


Tim O’Brien of Bloomberg had a perfect response to a threat the other day from Lindsey Graham, Trump sycophant and senator from South Carolina. He simply tweeted out a passage from George Orwell’s 1984:

Graham on Trump opponents, including in his own party:

The people who are trying to erase him are going to wind up getting erased.

O’Brien’s tweet:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.

Those who most loudly decry “cancel culture” are the most interested in canceling others.

While we’re on the subject of the novel, let’s remind ourselves of one of its most important observations: autocrats lie, not because they expect to be believed, but to test their followers’ loyalty. Donald Trump tested his followers with his 30,500+ lies while president, and now GOP politicians must sign on to the Big Lie about a stolen election (or at least not publicly dispute it) if they want to remain in the party. As Orwell puts it,

The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.

Orwell understands well while the GOP is currently attempting to don a populist mantle while, at the same time, opposing labor unions, a rise in the minimum wage, and higher taxes on the wealthy. Orwell has Stalin’s Soviet Union in mind as he describes the Party’s hypocrisy:

The official ideology abounds with contradictions even when there is no practical reason for them. Thus, the Party rejects and vilifies every principle for which the Socialist movement originally stood, and it chooses to do this in the name of Socialism. It preaches a contempt for the working class unexampled for centuries past, and it dresses its members in a uniform which was at one time peculiar to manual workers and was adopted for that reason. It systematically undermines the solidarity of the family, and it calls its leader by a name which is a direct appeal to the sentiment of family loyalty.

We’re getting such policy incoherence from the GOP across the board at the moment: they are for and against free trade, for and against big deficits, for and against a strong executive, for and against free speech, for and against law and order. It all makes sense, however, if their real aim is power. As Big Brother explains to Winston,

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.

I once remember contending, in a 1984 faculty panel on 1984, that Orwell’s dystopia was no longer relevant. It struck me at the time as hysterical and overly gloomy. I now consider it an indispensable account of how autocracies and autocratic thinking work. Orwell studied Hitler and Stalin and got it right.

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Diving into May Flowers


Here a very timely Mary Oliver poem—I’ve shared it in the past—that captures the green wave that is sweeping over Sewanee at the moment. Oliver has a thing about bees, which show up in multiple poems. I think the image of bees diving into flowers captures her own sense of immersing herself, and coating herself, in nature. As she writes in “Plum Trees, “There’s nothing so sensible as sensual inundation.” In other words, there is no dividing line between reason and passion.

This emphasis on poetry’s sensuality reminds me of an Iris Murdoch observation about poetry. When talking about how literature arouses the emotions, Murdoch mentions the importance of physical sensations:

Literature could be called a disciplined technique for arousing certain emotions….I would include the arousing of emotion in the definition of art, although not every occasion of experiencing art is an emotional occasion. The sensuous nature of art is involved here, the fact that it is concerned with visual and auditory sensations and bodily sensations. If nothing sensuous is present no art is present. This fact alone makes it quite different from “theoretical” activities…

I imagine Oliver wholeheartedly agreeing. While she derives spiritual sustenance from nature, she simultaneously emphasizes “the flourishing of the physical body.” For Oliver, there is no separation between the physical and the spiritual realms.


May, and among the
miles of leafing,

blossoms storm out of
the darkness—

windflowers and
moccasin flowers. The bees

dive into them and I
too, to gather

their spiritual
honey. Mute and meek, yet theirs

is the deepest
certainty that this existence too—

this sense of
well-being, the flourishing

of the physical

near the hub of the
miracle that everything

is a part of, is as

as a poem or a
prayer, can also make

luminous any dark
place on earth.

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Is a Fair Election Fight Still Possible?

Pauline Baynes, illus. from Prince Caspian


I normally steer clear of political predictions that the sky is falling—we are exposed to far too much hyperbole as it is—but I’m now convinced that the Republicans are in training to overturn future elections and establish minority rule. What we have witnessed since the 2020 election, I now fear, is just a practice run or dress rehearsal for such a move. Along with the January 6 insurrection to stop the certification, I have in mind the 147 members of Congress who voted not to certify the 2020 results; the wave of voter suppression bills introduced by Republican state legislators (250 in 43 states); the GOP purging its election officials who certified that the election was fair; Trump’s “Big Lie” about a stolen election as a litmus test for GOP membership; and the elevation of conspiracy-spouting fruitcakes (Marjorie Taylor Green, Matt Gaetz) and power hungry cynics (Elise Stefanik, Josh Hawley) over principled conservatives (Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney). I’m no longer confident that enough people will play fair to make the system work.

When I think back to works where I developed my belief that fair play will prevail over treachery, C. S. Lewis’s Prince Caspian comes to mind. Narnia’s rebel forces, led by Peter, are trying to regain the throne for Caspian from the evil usurper Miraz. Because the Narnians are outnumbered and out-armed, Peter proposes what Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani proposed to Trump supporters prior to their storming the Capitol: trial by combat.

The combat is suspenseful as Miraz is the better fighter, but it has a couple of twists that struck me as a child. One is that, when Miraz stumbles on a tree root, Peter acts according to chivalric principles and doesn’t take advantage:

A great shout arose from the Old Narnians. Miraz was down—not struck by Peter, but face downwards, having tripped on a tussock. Peter stepped back, waiting for him to rise.

“Oh bother, bother, bother,” said Edmund [Peter’s brother] to himself. “Need he be as gentlemanly as all that? I suppose he must. Comes of being a Knight and a High King. I suppose it is what Aslan would like. But that brute will be up again in a minute and then——”

Miraz, however, has treacherous subordinates who have been eyeing the throne and who, in fact, tricked him into fighting with Peter in the first place. When Miraz goes down, they break the rules:

But “that brute” never rose. The Lords Glozelle and Sopespian had their own plans ready. As soon as they saw their King down they leaped into the lists crying, “Treachery! Treachery! The Narnian traitor has stabbed him in the back while he lay helpless. To arms! To arms, Telmar!”

They are gaslighting, of course. While there’s no video footage of the fight, everyone has seen what actually happened. And then there’s Glozelle doing to Miraz what Stafanik is doing to Cheney for a House leadership position. (Cheney, while an arch conservative, is on the outs with the GOP for insisting that Biden’s election was legitimate):

Peter hardly understood what was happening. He saw two big men running towards him with drawn swords. Then the third Telmarine had leaped over the ropes on his left. “To arms, Narnia! Treachery!” Peter shouted. If all three had set upon him at once he would never have spoken again. But Glozelle stopped to stab his own King dead where he lay: “That’s for your insult, this morning,” he whispered as the blade went home. 

Glozelle and Sopespian have every reason to believe their treachery will work. After all, they have the superior forces. But because a higher principle governs Narnia, the good guys win. Aslan is “on the move” and has awakened the trees. In a scene very much like Tolkien’s Ents taking out the goblins in the Battle of Helm’s Deep, Narnia’s forces do the same to the Telmarines:

But almost before the old Narnians were really warmed to their work they found the enemy giving way. Tough-looking warriors turned white, gazed in terror not on the Old Narnians but on something behind them, and then flung down their weapons, shrieking, “The Wood! The Wood! The end of the world!”

But soon neither their cries nor the sound of weapons could be heard any more, for both were drowned in the ocean-like roar of the Awakened Trees as they plunged through the ranks of Peter’s army, and then on, in pursuit of the Telmarines. Have you ever stood at the edge of a great wood on a high ridge when a wild south-wester broke over it in full fury on an autumn evening? Imagine that sound. And then imagine that the wood, instead of being fixed to one place, was rushing at you; and was no longer trees but huge people; yet still like trees because their long arms waved like branches and their heads tossed and leaves fell round them in showers. It was like that for the Telmarines. It was a little alarming even for the Narnians. 

The hope here is that some deep dimension of the nation will save the day. For Lewis, a combination of Christianity, English decency, and a spiritualized nature come to the rescue. I’ll still put my hopes in The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution, an independency judiciary, and also common decency.

I’m just less sure than I used to be.

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O Virgin Mother, Daughter of the Sun

Andrea Solari, Virgin of the Green Pillow (1500)

Spiritual Sunday – Mother’s Day

Today being Mother’s Day, here’s Dante’s celebration of Jesus’s mother in the final canto of The Divine Comedy, which my Dante discussion group has just—well—discussed. Guided at this stage in his journey by St. Bernard, Dante is gazing at an enormous celestial rose, representing God’s love. Bernard offers up a prayer, asking Mary to intercede on Dante’s behalf.

Bernard mentions how God ennobled her, transforming her into one through whom He could “create Himself His creature.” The warmth of her womb, a “timeless peace,” quickened the seek of “this immortal bloom”:

O Virgin Mother, Daughter of thy Son
Lowliest and loftiest of created stature,
Fixed goal to which the eternal counsels run,

Thou art that She by whom our human nature
Was so ennobled that it might become
The Creator to create Himself His creature,

Thy side were made a shelter to relume [rekindle]
The Love whose warmth within the timeless peace
Quickened the seed of this immortal bloom;

High noon of charity to those in bliss,
And upon earth, to men in mortal plight
A living spring of hope, thy presence is.

Then comes Bernard’s intercession request for the pilgrim who has traveled all the way from the deepest pits of hell:

This man, who witnessed from the deepest pit
of all the universe, up to this height
The souls’ lives one by one, doth now entreat

That thou, by grace, may grant to him such might
That higher yet in vision he may rise
Towards the final source of bliss and light.

Bernard also asks Mary to cleanse Dante’s sight “till in the highest bliss it shares”:

And further do I pray thee, heavenly Queen
Who canst all that thou wilt, keep his heart pure
And meet when such great vision he has seen.

After gazing upon Bernard and Dante, Mary looks up to God. No other human can gaze so fixedly:

The eyes which God doth love and reverence,
Gazing on him [Bernard] who prayed, to us made plain
How prayers, devoutly prayed, her joy enhance.

Unto the eternal light she raised them then:
No eye of living creature could aspire
To penetrate so fixedly therein.

The mention of “prayers, devoutly prayed” reminds me of Milton’s Adam and Eve praying straight from the heart prior to bedtime in Book IV of Paradise Lost. Heartfelt prayers require no special ritual:

                    …other rites
Observing none, but adoration pure
Which God likes best, into their inmost bower
Handed they went.

Thanks to Mary’s intercession on his behalf, Dante discovers that he can look directly at the heavenly light:

For now my sight, clear and yet clearer grown,
Pierced through the ray of that exalted light,
Wherein, as in itself, the truth is known.

What he sees cannot be rendered into words or recalled by memory:

Henceforth my vision mounted to a height
Where speech is vanquished and must lag behind,
And memory surrenders in such a flight.

Conveying to his reader what he saw–the goal of Divine Comedy, is like recalling a dream:

As from a dream one may awake to find
Its passion yet imprinted on the heart,
Although all else in canceled from the mind,

So of my vision now but little part
Remains, yet in my inmost soul I know
The sweet instilling which it did impart.

Mary has enabled the pilgrim to see the love at the core of the universe:

In that abyss I saw how love held bound
Into one volume all the leaves whose flight
Is scattered through the universe around;

How substance, accident, and mode unite
Fused, so to speak, together, in such wise
That this I tell of is one simple light.

Yea, of this complex I believe mine eyes
Behind the universal form—in me,
Even as I speak, I feel such joy arise.

And further:

That light doth so transform a man’s whole bent
That never to another sight or thought
Would he surrender, with his own consent;

For everything the will has ever sought
Is gathered there, and there is every quest
Made perfect, which apart from it falls short.

The canto ends, along with The Divine Comedy, by Dante extolling one last time the great wheel of love that moves all things:

Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars,
My will and my desire were turned by love,

The love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Say it again: through mothers we gain access to the love that moves the sun and the other stars.

Further thought: Reading The Divine Comedy with other literature professors has alerted me to Dante’s influence on poets I know and love. I’ve mentioned Milton above and in previous blog posts (for instance, here). I’ll add here Dante’s influence on Percy Shelley, who identifies with Dante’s struggle to express what is beyond expressing. Both poets use the image of scattered pages, which are ultimately designed to come together in one book. Dante writes:

In that abyss I saw how love held bound
Into one volume all the leaves whose flight
Is scattered through the universe around

In “Ode to a West Wind,” meanwhile, Shelley puns on leaves, equating dead tree leaves with pages of poetry. Like Dante, he knows his words can’t fully capture his vision but hopes that they will “quicken” a spark in readers, causing them to momentarily glimpse the divine:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,
Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth
The trumpet of a prophecy!

Donne too picks up in the image in his famous “Meditation 17.” Just as “no man is an island” but inextricably bound up with the rest of humankind, so also are the leaves of God’s book:

[A]ll mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another;

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Built Out of Peasants & Pieces of Glass

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles


Here’s a random factoid that I report only because it gives me an excuse to share a poem by my father that I’ve always enjoyed. Apparently on this day in 1664, Louis XIV began constructing the Palais de Versailles.

The poem captures my father distaste for men who wave their—well—phalluses around while strutting their stuff. Sometimes they get the endorsement of the church in the process, and as always, it’s the working class that pays.

My father was a French professor who took multiple trips to Paris, which meant that I have been up the Eiffel Tower multiple times. When I was 13, I used to walk under it four times a day on my way to and from a French school. It was an impressive structure. But yes, very phallic.

Eiffel Tower
By Scott Bates

From the top of this phallus
You can see to the palace
With the blessing of Jesus
And plenty of class

King Louis Quatorze and his whores
Built for parties
Out of nothing but peasants
And pieces of glass.

Despite the seeming fragility of glass, Versailles is still standing. The partying monarchy, on the other hand, is long gone. When it came down to kings, parties and glass vs. peasants, the peasants won out.

Shelley’s “Ozymandias” comes to mind. Maybe my father is informing the Eiffel Tower that, despite the power it exudes, it too may go the way of the Sun King’s monarchy. Even steel beams don’t last forever.

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Great Teachers Inspire Great Teachers

Fritz Eichenberg, Jane Eyre’s class


This being Teacher Appreciation Week, I’ve been thinking of my favorite teachers in literature. Miss Temple from Jane Eyre ranks near the top.

Jane is an orphan, frightened and abused, when the Reids ship her off to Lowood School, run by the execrable Rev. Brocklehurst. One sees the importance of a good teacher when Miss Temple comes to Jane’s rescue.

Let’s start with a description:

 I suppose I have a considerable organ of veneration, for I retain yet the sense of admiring awe with which my eyes traced her steps. Seen now, in broad daylight, she looked tall, fair, and shapely; brown eyes with a benignant light in their irids, and a fine penciling of long lashes round, relieved the whiteness of her large front; on each of her temples her hair, of a very dark brown, was clustered in round curls, according to the fashion of those times, when neither smooth bands nor long ringlets were in vogue; her dress, also in the mode of the day, was of purple cloth, relieved by a sort of Spanish trimming of black velvet; a gold watch (watches were not so common then as now) shone at her girdle. Let the reader add, to complete the picture, refined features; a complexion, if pale, clear; and a stately air and carriage, and he will have, at least, as clearly as words can give it, a correct idea of the exterior of Miss Temple—Maria Temple, as I afterwards saw the name written in a prayer-book entrusted to me to carry to church.

Miss Temple knows how to get the best out of her students. The mind of Jane’s friend Helen Burns tends to wander under the instruction of the doltish Miss Scatcherd, who punishes her with various humiliations. Helen’s mind doesn’t wander when Miss Temple teaches her, however:

“And when Miss Temple teaches you, do your thoughts wander then?”

“No, certainly, not often; because Miss Temple has generally something to say which is newer than my own reflections; her language is singularly agreeable to me, and the information she communicates is often just what I wished to gain.”

“Well, then, with Miss Temple you are good?”

“Yes, in a passive way: I make no effort; I follow as inclination guides me. There is no merit in such goodness.”

“A great deal: you are good to those who are good to you.”

Following her arrival at Lowood, Jane is publicly punished by Brocklehurst for (supposedly) having been a disobedient liar while with the Reids. Jane insists she was innocent and Temple, after researching the case, concurs. Jane’s name is cleared, with one result being that she becomes an exemplary student:

About a week subsequently to the incidents above narrated, Miss Temple, who had written to Mr. Lloyd, received his answer: it appeared that what he said went to corroborate my account. Miss Temple, having assembled the whole school, announced that inquiry had been made into the charges alleged against Jane Eyre, and that she was most happy to be able to pronounce her completely cleared from every imputation. The teachers then shook hands with me and kissed me, and a murmur of pleasure ran through the ranks of my companions.

Thus relieved of a grievous load, I from that hour set to work afresh, resolved to pioneer my way through every difficulty: I toiled hard, and my success was proportionate to my efforts; my memory, not naturally tenacious, improved with practice; exercise sharpened my wits; in a few weeks I was promoted to a higher class; in less than two months I was allowed to commence French and drawing. I learned the first two tenses of the verb Etre, and sketched my first cottage (whose walls, by-the-bye, outrivalled in slope those of the leaning tower of Pisa), on the same day. That night, on going to bed, I forgot to prepare in imagination the Barmecide supper of hot roast potatoes, or white bread and new milk, with which I was wont to amuse my inward cravings: I feasted instead on the spectacle of ideal drawings, which I saw in the dark; all the work of my own hands: freely pencilled houses and trees, picturesque rocks and ruins, Cuyp-like groups of cattle, sweet paintings of butterflies hovering over unblown roses, of birds picking at ripe cherries, of wren’s nests enclosing pearl-like eggs, wreathed about with young ivy sprays. I examined, too, in thought, the possibility of my ever being able to translate currently a certain little French story which Madame Pierrot had that day shown me; nor was that problem solved to my satisfaction ere I fell sweetly asleep.

Well has Solomon said—“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”

I would not now have exchanged Lowood with all its privations for Gateshead and its daily luxuries.

Just as gifted teachers will inspire students to go into the profession, so Miss Temple inspires Jane. Jane’s first job, when she becomes an adult, is to become Miss Temple’s colleague. Then, after various trials and tribulations, she jumps at the chance to run her own school. As Jane sees it, teaching ignorant country girls is better than being a governess on a rich estate:

In truth it was humble—but then it was sheltered, and I wanted a safe asylum: it was plodding—but then, compared with that of a governess in a rich house, it was independent; and the fear of servitude with strangers entered my soul like iron: it was not ignoble—not unworthy—not mentally degrading, I made my decision.

“I thank you for the proposal, Mr. Rivers, and I accept it with all my heart.”

“But you comprehend me?” he said. “It is a village school: your scholars will be only poor girls—cottagers’ children—at the best, farmers’ daughters. Knitting, sewing, reading, writing, ciphering, will be all you will have to teach. What will you do with your accomplishments? What, with the largest portion of your mind—sentiments—tastes?”

“Save them till they are wanted. They will keep.”

“You know what you undertake, then?”

“I do.”

The job proves to be rewarding:

I continued the labors of the village-school as actively and faithfully as I could. It was truly hard work at first. Some time elapsed before, with all my efforts, I could comprehend my scholars and their nature. Wholly untaught, with faculties quite torpid, they seemed to me hopelessly dull; and, at first sight, all dull alike: but I soon found I was mistaken. There was a difference amongst them as amongst the educated; and when I got to know them, and they me, this difference rapidly developed itself. Their amazement at me, my language, my rules, and ways, once subsided, I found some of these heavy-looking, gaping rustics wake up into sharp-witted girls enough. Many showed themselves obliging, and amiable too; and I discovered amongst them not a few examples of natural politeness, and innate self-respect, as well as of excellent capacity, that won both my goodwill and my admiration. These soon took a pleasure in doing their work well, in keeping their persons neat, in learning their tasks regularly, in acquiring quiet and orderly manners. The rapidity of their progress, in some instances, was even surprising; and an honest and happy pride I took in it…

Jane also finds herself, through her students, integrated into the community:

I felt I became a favorite in the neighborhood. Whenever I went out, I heard on all sides cordial salutations, and was welcomed with friendly smiles. To live amidst general regard, though it be but the regard of working people, is like “sitting in sunshine, calm and sweet;” serene inward feelings bud and bloom under the ray.

As it turns out, Jane chooses marriage over teaching at the end of the novel, but Bronte doesn’t make this mistake twice. At the end of her next novel (Villette), she kills off the heroine’s fiancé so that Lucy can run her school by herself without male interference.. Victorian-era readers didn’t appreciate the ending but it doesn’t seem so bad today.  

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Lord, How This World Is Given to Lying

Robert Smike, Falstaff and the Dead Body of Hotspur


Michael Gerson, the former George W. Bush speechwriter responsible for the “compassionate conservative” label, has just reminded me of Shakespeare episode that captures only too well how Trumpism dominates today’s GOP. In a Washington Post column, Gerson describes how Republicans must sign on to Trump’s “Big Lie” that he won the 2020 election to prove themselves faithful party members. “Knowingly repeating a lie,” Gerson says, “…is now the evidence of Republican fidelity.”

Elaborating on the dangerous terrain into which Republicans have ventured, Gerson writes,

[T]he lie of a stolen election is the foundational falsehood of a political worldview. Believing it requires Trump’s followers to affirm the existence of a nationwide plot against him and his supporters — a plot led by ruthless Democrats and traitorous Republicans, and ignored or endorsed by useless courts and a complicit media. The claim’splausibility is not the point.

Or as Falstaff puts it, “Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying!”

It so happens that Falstaff here is pulling a Trumpian move, accusing others of what he himself is doing. His lie, furthermore, is just as outrageous as Trump’s. He claims that he has killed Hotspur when in fact he ran away and played dead. It has actually been Prince Hal who courageously and skillfully dispatched the leader of the enemy forces. Here’s their interchange:

Falstaff: There is Percy:
(Throwing the body down)
if your father will do me any honor, so; if not, let him kill the next Percy himself. I look to be either earl or duke, I can assure you.
Prince Hal: Why, Percy I killed myself and saw thee dead.
Falstaff: Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying! I grant you I was down and out of breath; and so was he: but we rose both at an instant and fought a long hour by Shrewsbury clock. If I may be believed, so; if not, let them that should reward valor bear the sin upon their own heads. I’ll take it upon my death, I gave him this wound in the thigh: if the man were alive and would deny it, ‘zounds, I would make him eat a piece of my sword.

I once had a chance encounter with a vet (in Union Square, New York City) who, after learning I was an English professor, mentioned to me that he hated Falstaff for this incident. (For him, Falstaff is guilty of “stolen valor,” which often takes the form of wearing unmerited medals.) For our present purposes, however, it’s an instance of how someone can brazen out an outright falsehood when everyone around knows it’s a lie.

In the play, Hal just laughs the incident off, which is a sign of his new-found maturity, not to mention his strong sense of self. Unlike Trump, he doesn’t need to pump himself up with undeserved honors:

Lancaster: This is the strangest tale that ever I heard.
Hal: This is the strangest fellow, brother John.
[To Falstaff] Come, bring your luggage nobly on your back:
For my part, if a lie may do thee grace,
I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have.

Hal laughs off Falstaff as many, for years, laughed off Trump—say, for his Obama birth lie or his large inauguration lie. When a major political party chains itself to your falsehoods, however, it’s no longer a laughing matter. As Gerson concludes,

[I]t is the elected Republicans who are lying with open eyes, out of fear or cynicism, who have the most to atone for. With the health of U.S. democracy at stake, their excuses are disgraceful.

If Falstaff were to claim the throne based on his having killed Hotspur, Hal would take him a bit more seriously.

Posted in Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Johnson: Read the Bard, Not Tom Jones

Joshua Reynolds, Samuel Johnson


I am so deeply ensconced in revising my book Does Literature Make Us Better People? that I’m having difficulty breaking free to write my regular daily essays. Today, therefore, you get another of the many short chapters from the book. The chapter on Samuel Johnson follows chapters on Plato, Aristotle, Horace, and Sir Philip Sidney. Enjoy yourself while I return back to my chapters on Marx and Freud.

Although middle class readership skyrocketed in 18th century Britain, not all of the new encounters with print were seen as beneficial. As in previous eras, there were concerns about literature leading young people astray. And not only young people. Scholar J. Paul Hunter, my dissertation director, recounts how husbands were unnerved when their wives would disappear for days into Samuel Richardson’s million-word melodrama Clarissa, neglecting household duties and other responsibilities.

Given how we ourselves have been thrown off stride by globalization and social media, we can relate to what the British were undergoing at the time. The country was rapidly changing from a landed to a mercantile society, with power shifting from the gentry to the middle class. International trade and technical innovations were ushering in a new prosperity that was at once exhilarating and disorienting. A need arose for social observers who could guide parents and the public generally through this confusing morass.

Into that vacuum strode Samuel Johnson (1709-84), who was there to (among other things) teach people how to read correctly, what to do with what they read, and what to avoid. As Johnson saw it, Shakespeare was must reading because he shows us the truth of our condition. Comedies of romance, on the other hand, tickle our baser instincts and should be shunned.

The last third of the 18th century is sometimes known as “the Age of Johnson” and it’s not hard to see why.  A man of vast intelligence, Johnson, working virtually alone, created the first comprehensive English dictionary, an achievement that (in the words of biographer Walter Jackson Bate) “easily ranks as one of the greatest single achievements of scholarship.” Johnson was also the author of a magnificent long poem (“The Vanity of Human Wishes”), a dazzling philosophical novel (The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia), a important critical edition of Shakespeare, an in-depth survey of England’s contemporary poets, and two sets of groundbreaking essays (the Rambler essays, published twice a week from 1750-52, and the Idler essays, published weekly from 1758-60).  In addition, he presided over regular gatherings of the leading lights of the day. Meeting with him in coffee houses and over bowls of rum punch to discuss everything from art to science to politics were figures like painter Joshua Reynolds, actor David Garrick, political theorist Edmund Burke, historian Edward Gibbon (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), author Oliver Goldsmith (Vicar of Wakefield, She Stoops to Conquer), and James Boswell, whose account of Johnson’s life is one of the world’s great biographies.

According to Bate, Johnson considered himself above all as a moralist. Whether he was a Tory conservative is another matter as Bate says he is more complicated than such a label suggests. Johnson was certainly suspicious of grandiose claims of progress being made by the mercantile classes, not to mention by America’s founding fathers. He was well aware of how humans fall short of their ideals and so was unwilling to jettison time-honored traditions, including class hierarchy and colonial rule. His Shakespearean dedication to capturing the truth about human beings, however, led him to reject facile political bromides from any party. People cannot be reduced to ideological pigeonholes.

Echoing Aristotle, Johnson believes the poet, in contrast to the historian, expresses the universal rather than the particular. As he sees it, no modern poet does this better than Shakespeare. In his “Preface to Shakespeare,” which Bates describes as “one of the landmarks in the history of literary criticism,” Johnson tells us, to operate more effectively in the world, we must read Shakespeare:

Shakespeare is above all writers, at least above all modern writers, the poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life…His persons act and speak by the influence of those general passions and principles by which all minds are agitated, and the whole system of life is continued in motion. In the writings of other poets a character is too often an individual; in those of Shakespeare it is commonly a species.

In Johnson’s formulation, Shakespeare is a rich treasure trove that is to be mined for his salutary insights. Quoting Horace that “the end of poetry is to instruct by pleasing,” Johnson says that Shakespeare’s plays provide “much instruction”:

It is from this wide extension of design that so much instruction is derived. It is this which fills the plays of Shakespeare with practical axioms and domestic wisdom. It was said of Euripides, that every verse was a precept; and it may be said of Shakespeare, that from his works may be collected a system of civil and economical prudence.

Like Aristotle, Johnson thinks that literature’s profound understanding of human nature will provide moral guidance. Or as he says of Shakespeare later in the preface, “From his writings indeed a system of social duty may be selected.”

Drama doesn’t offer up axioms and systems the way that a text of moral philosophy does, however, and Johnson instructs us not to look at individual quotes. The real wisdom comes from what is communicated through the unfolding of the stories and through dialogue:

Yet his real power is not shown in the splendor of particular passages, but by the progress of his fable, and, the tenor of his dialogue; and he that tries to recommend him by select quotations, will succeed like the pedant in Hierocles, who, when he offered his house to sale, carried a brick in his pocket as a specimen.

In other words, don’t quote Polonius’s “to thine own self be true” advice to Laertes if you want to do justice to Shakespeare’s insights. Rather, watch how Polonius and Laertes and Hamlet and others respond to the pressures of the moment and how they talk to others. Johnson could well have Aristotle’s observation in mind—that a tragedian knows how a person will speak or act “according to the law of probability or necessity”— when he writes,

Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion: Even where the agency is supernatural the dialogue is level with life… Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful; the event which he represents will not happen, but if it were possible, its effects would be probably such as he has assigned; and it may be said, that he has not only shown human nature as it acts in real exigencies, but as it would be found in trials, to which it cannot be exposed.

According to Johnson, by reading Shakespeare’s “human sentiments in human language,” a hermit would be able to figure out what is going on in the world and a confessor would be able to predict where the human passions will lead. Figuring out such things will, in turn, allow us to operate more effectively in the world.

Something altogether different happens when one reads a novel like Tom Jones, however,especially if one is a young person. Johnson may sound like Aristotle when discussing Shakespeare, but when it comes to teens reading “comedies of romance” he sounds like Plato worrying that military auxiliaries will be corrupted by Homeric accounts of misbehaving gods and goddesses. These novels, Johnson says, target

the young, the ignorant, and the idle, to whom they serve as lectures of conduct, and introductions into life. They are the entertainment of minds unfurnished with ideas, and therefore easily susceptible of impressions; not fixed by principles, and therefore easily following the current of fancy; not informed by experience, and consequently open to every false suggestion and partial account.

The danger, Johnson says, is that young people are eager to learn by imitation (Aristotle), so that when they choose bad models, they will turn out badly.

Johnson makes one distinction that doesn’t hold up: he thinks that young people will be more swayed by realistic than by fantasy fiction, whereas we know that conservative parents today worry equally about their children reading the realism of Judy Blume and the fantasy of J. K. Rowling. Otherwise, however, Johnson’s observations about the imitation process have a point:

But when an adventurer is leveled with the rest of the world, and acts in such scenes of the universal drama, as may be the lot of any other man; young spectators fix their eyes upon him with closer attention, and hope, by observing his behavior and success, to regulate their own practices, when they shall be engaged in the like part.

Given this psychological truth, Johnson says that parents and society’s moral guardians must intervene to protect young people from dangerous content. Citing Horace’s concerns about young people, he writes that “nothing indecent should be suffered to approach their eyes or ears.” Parents must exercise caution in everything that is laid before young people in order “to secure them from unjust prejudices, perverse opinions, and incongruous combinations of images.”

Literature is particularly dangerous because it is so insidious. Johnson fears that dubious fictional characters will “take possession of the memory by a kind of violence, and produce effects almost without the intervention of the will.” Once again, because of fiction’s power, “the best examples only should be exhibited…”

Johnson is not entirely adverse to readers’ minds being so seized—he is different from Plato in this regard—and indeed, like Horace and Sidney, he sees the delight we get from literature as a powerful tool to inculcate virtue. For instance, he describes Richardson’s Clarissa, where one cries for the virtuous heroine when she dies following her escape from her abductor and rapist, as “the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart.” The right tools are needed if the right ends are to be achieved, however.

Unfortunately, he believes that the realistic comedies of romance of the time will lead young people astray. When Johnson writes about novels that corrupt, his leading culprit is Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a runaway sensation among the young the previous year. That Fielding gives his hard-drinking, hard-loving protagonist a good heart and a noble spirit makes the novel all the more dangerous in Johnson’s eyes:

Many writers, for the sake of following nature, so mingle good and bad qualities in their principal personages, that they are both equally conspicuous; and as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favor, we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness, for being united with so much merit.”

In other words, Tom’s good qualities lure us into overlooking his faults. We may lose our abhorrence of drinking and womanizing.

Johnson is not entirely consistent here. What he says about characters like Tom could just as easily be said about Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, whose depiction Johnson praises. Johnson’s inconsistency may lie in fears about how the young people of his day were gripped by novels as they were not by Shakespeare. As always, when the young become engrossed in fictional worlds, their elders become concerned.

Posted in Fielding (Henry), Johnson (Samuel), Plato, Richardson (Samuel), Shakespeare (William) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


  • 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.

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