Saturday, February 25, 2006

La littérature dangereuse: Lifestyles of the rich and literate

From some of the great classics of the literary canon, we learn that when a community or class of people have nothing more important to do all day than get dressed up and receive visitors in the drawing room, they tend to develop an elaborate web of intricate rules of etiquette and then spend way too much of their time jockeying for position by worrying about how well their friends and neighbors are following those rules.

Leisure class novels don't necessarily represent the typical human experience, although they are probably pretty representative of the experiences of the sorts of people who have plenty of time on their hands to write whole books fictionalizing all their romantic adventures and intrigues they like to fill up their lazy afternoons with.

I'm not complaining here. Our literary world of imagination would be that much less rich if people like Choderlos de Laclos, Edith Wharton, and Jane Austen had had to get a job or take care of their own households without the help of servants. And it's fun to read along and play pretend.

I know there are tons of books that fall into the category of leisure class novels, but I'm just going to focus on three of them here representing the high, middle, and low leisure class: Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons), The Age of Innocence, and Pride and Prejudice. Fortunately all of these have been made into popular films for the non-reader's convenience.

On the high end, we have the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. They're born into the highest level of nobility, and feel no insecurity about their position. Consequently they feel themselves to be above the social rules of their society, and essentially have nothing but contempt for such rules. Their entire novel (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) is about how they make a game of putting on a proper façade while seducing everyone and doing whatever else they please on the sly.

Representing the middle, we have Newland Archer from The Age of Innocence. He's well established in his position in the late 19th century New York aristocracy, however throughout the novel it is constantly present in the minds of the characters that the Manhattan social scene is the little country cousin of the courts of Europe. Newland starts out seeing the customs and values of his community as being self-evident, and through the course of the first half of the novel becomes disillusioned as he comes to understand more clearly how his social world is constructed and how it works.

On the low end, the Bennet girls of Pride and Prejudice are in the leisure class, but just barely hanging onto it with the tips of their fingers. Their family is in a position to slip down to the merchant or working class within a generation if they don't get an infusion of new money fast. They can't afford to go around questioning their society's conventions and practices, so they don't. Not one person in the entire novel questions why things work the way they do.

In some ways The Age of Innocence is the most interesting of the three because of the way the reader gets to see Newland's awareness and comprehension increasing. Even as the novel opens, he's already something of a player, recognizing the socio-political importance of announcing his engagement (and hence family alliance) at the same time as his fiance's family is taking the risky step of welcoming back a cousin, the Countess Olenska, who had married a nobleman in Europe and then moved back to New York without her husband. Still, at that point he sees the social hierarchy and the types of pursuits befitting a gentleman as obvious, and it doesn't seem to occur to him that things could be any other way.

The Countess Olenska turns Newland's world on its side by showing him alternate possibilities. She sets up a house for herself in an unfashionable part of town. She frequents and befriends people who are interesting but are looked down on by the polite society (old money families) of Manhattan. Worst of all -- those top aristocrats that are revered by all of New York -- she dares to find them dull.

The closing segment of part one is beautifully poignant as Newland sees his cage for what it is just as he is in the process of locking himself into it for good.

I honestly wish the novel had stopped right there. Part two isn't bad, but it really doesn't deserve to be in the same novel with part one, which is a masterpiece. Part two is essentially a long, tedious lament as Newland slowly resigns himself to an unhappy life of attending an endless stream of dinner parties that he now sees as empty and pointless while trying to forget his true love.

In part two, the author develops the theme that there is beauty and value in the innocence and provincial, small-town atmosphere of old-money New York, where everyone knows everyone else's business and no one seems to have anything better to do than throw fancy dinners and gossip and sully one another's reputations. Compared to the author's masterful treatment of the mask of innocence being pulled off this society in part one, her description of why Newland and the countess should love their innocent home country anyway seems clumsy and unconvincing.

The explanation repeatedly given for why the Countess Olenska should prefer to mill around Washington, D.C. -- apparently doing nothing -- rather than going back to her glamorously exciting yet decadent life in Europe is simply "because she's an American." The reader is expected to accept this answer and say "Oh, of course." Still, it's a bit confusing since the cosmopolitan world-view that made her so attractive in the first place was clearly described in part one as having been the result of her rich and varied experiences in Europe.

Pride and Prejudice, by contrast, portrays a society of innocence in which the innocence is never lost, and where we are treated to a light, straight-forward fairy tale. It's a fun read with plenty of entertaining characters and dialog.

My biggest problem with Pride and Prejudice is that it just seems almost too convenient that Mr. Darcy is at once so lovable and so rich. Unlike most people's lives in reality universe, there is not a single hint of a dark shadow on Elizabeth's happily ever after, which makes the story vaguely unsatisfying, like candy or porn.

My favorite way of analyzing Pride and Prejudice is to look at in terms of evolutionary biology and reproductive strategy. In their society, maintaining or increasing one's social position was absolutely vital for the long-term survival and success of one's progeny. It was so important to them that the people there were routinely marrying their own cousins to keep money in the family, showing that social advantage trumped even genetic advantage.

Now consider the choice that Mr. Darcy is presented with in the story: his own very rich but dull and sickly cousin or the lively and clever Elizabeth Bennet. The overall values of the society at the time might have given the advantage to the cousin, but -- keeping in mind that he's loaded -- it is clear that increasing his wealth at the expense of seeing his future children sickly and inbred is not in his reproductive best interests. The author's alignment of her tale's conclusion with universal constants of human nature helps make the ending feel right, and not just because Elizabeth is the protagonist.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the universe of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is not even remotely innocent. It is unabashedly cynical, and for that reason it is in some ways the most fun of the three.

Right from the start, the Marquise de Merteuil describes how she analyzes her society and plays it to her advantage. The book is chock-full of cynical love wisdom, such as the following:

"It's a law of nature that only love changes; and love -- do you have it when you want it? Yet you always need it, and that would be a big problem if one didn't notice that fortunately it's sufficient for it to exist in one direction. That cuts the difficulty in half without losing much. One enjoys the happiness of loving, the other that of pleasing someone -- in truth a bit less intense, but to which is joined the pleasure of cheating, which evens everything out in the end." (translation mine)

It's interesting how the trajectory of all three novels tends to go towards balancing out the lot of the main characters. Elizabeth Bennet starts at a position of disadvantage and ends up fabulously wealthy and happy. Newland Archer starts in kind of a middle position and more or less stays there. So since the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont start at the top, they must obviously must suffer a terrible downfall.

I would imagine that if the author of Les Liaisons Dangereuses based his characters on real people, they were probably chuckling together about their exploits to a ripe old age. But in novel-land it's not okay to entertain oneself at the expense of others without getting some sort of comeuppance, particularly since in this case it would just inspire people to hate the nobility even more than they already hate the nobility.

Another interesting thing to note is that Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the only one of the three novels in which there are servants who are characters that play a role in the action. The Age of Innocence includes some small scenes of speaking to servants. In Pride and Prejudice it was important for the Bennets to emphasize the distinction between themselves and the servant class by treating the servants as invisible or as robots. The difference in rank of the protagonists is inversely proportional to how threatened they feel by the possibility of acknowledging that the servants are human.

Of course, while all three of these novels describe a lifestyle that is perhaps unfamiliar to the average reader, they at least are grounded in the familiar trappings of western culture. If you enjoy these sorts of leisure class novels, but are ready to taste one with a completely different flavor, a great choice is The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki, which describes the exploits of the courtesans of the imperial court of 11th century Japan.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor February 07, 2006.


Sideon said...

Where where where do you come up with this?

You threw a curve ball. For some reason I had you "pegged" as a programmer/mathematics person, and here you come up with a wonderful essay on literature and social systems!

Excellent writing. I'm having blog and writing envy!

C. L. Hanson said...


That's not the half of it -- I even wrote a whole damn novel as you'll discover very soon if you keep following my blog....

Yes, I am a silly person of many and varied interests... ;-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey J.L.O.,


And thanks for the tip -- I'll ad those to my reading list. :D

Anonymous said...

You lost me at Pride and Prejudice.
I found the characters to be so stereotyped, one-dimentional and shallow that I just couldn't bear to read even a discussion about them.
Love YOUR work though. Much more interesting and well-thought out.

C. L. Hanson said...

You're way too sweet to tiny little me!!! ;-)