The Jane Austen Craze

    Two main schools of literary interpretation have arisen in this century.  One is the Formalist school and the other is the Interactionist (also known as Social Constructionist or New Historicist) School.  In order to simplify the bases of the two kinds of reading of literary texts, I have compiled some key terms that could be applied to either school.  In addition, I hope that a list of links to other online essays will help students to get the tools they need to read texts with some degree of confidence in their own abilities to look at, understand, and critique literary texts.

    Note that the Formalist school allows no excursion beyond the boundaries of the text, whereas the Interactionist school, being rhetorically-based,  allows for various 'exomorphic' elements to be analyzed as well as those stylistic formations lying within the text. After each keyword or phrase below, I shall give an example of an essay thesis coming from this understanding of how to read a text.

Formalist keywords:

==> Text is independent of context.

======> Thesis example:  "Emma uses wit and charm to master the circumstances into which life has placed her.  Using illustrations of Emma's dialogue, I will show that she skilfully turns each situation in her desired direction.  Austen's heroines' judicious use of words, irony, and understatement are all hallmarks of her fluid dialogue."

==> The written artifact has "textual autonomy."

======> Thesis example:  "Austen's use of surplus words in the speech of her frivolous characters can be shown by a computer analysis of speeches in several of her novels. Such elements as excessive use of qualifyong or temporizing words (actually, undoubtedly, extremely, etc.) or strings of conjunctions (and...and...and) are limited to 'frivolous' characters.  Using word frequency counts of the 40 most commonly-used words, as well as others, I shall show that Austen built her characters from their speech habits."

==> Meaning resides in a decontextualized written product.

======>  Thesis example:  "The author's ingenuity in creating her fictive worlds owes nothing to the extrinsic life of Austen's day.  In fact, my illustrations from Austen's diaries and correspondance show how these 'factual data' hamper our understanding Austen by forcing a correlation between the 'facts' of her life and her characters or situations."

==> Meaning is found in the text; meaning preexists any reader.

=======> Thesis example:  "A close reading of her narrative passages reveals the exquisite detail of Austen's many transitional scenes.  In fact, transitional scenes may be a central part of Austen's mastery of plot sequence.
In comparing the transitional scenes from Northanger Abbey, Mansield Park, and Pride and Prejudice, I discovered a pattern of elegant foreshadowings that not only advanced these novels' respective plots, but also set up a leit motif in a muscial sense."

Interactionist keywords:

==> Text is socially constructed.

=======> Thesis example:  "How did Austen's situation as the devalued maiden aunt in the Austen household condition her selection of details of family ritual and day-to-day behavior? Using a comparison of descriptive passages of the fictional households and the Austen household (via diaries), I intend to show that Austen's subject position influenced the limits of her characters' vision."

==> Text is inseparable from the material conditions of its production.

=======> Thesis example:  "The traces of exploitation evident in the Austen family's fortune, largely built upon the slave trade and piracy at an earlier time, leave absolutely no trace in Austen's writing. This curious gap comes from a writer whose microscopic eye for the detailing of behavior is otherwise well-known, so what can be the cause?  I will show from the textual lacunae that Austen resisted all self-reflective behavior regarding the foundation of her family's prosperity."

==> Values of features in text and author are social constructions, having meaning jointly constructed by the author and the reader of the text.

=======> Thesis example:  "Critics have often 'found' evidence of 'wit' in speeches whereby an Austen character chides someone for failing to conform to one or another of said character's set of presciptive behaviors.  How else could such speeches be viewed by contemporary characters who do not share the mores of an Austen heroine?  Is the 'wit' actually in the Austen character's speech or in the mind and preconceptions of the critic? I shall cast this paper as a dialogue between the characters who were admired by Austen and those who were satirized, showing that other social positions may have held their own had the dialogue been more evenly distributed."

==> Text features are made, not found in text by the reader's process of making meaning.

=======> Thesis example:  "That women are being presented with socially unchallenging role models in Austen's characters seems to bother few critics, who largely reflect admiration for her 'wit' and 'delicacy of style.'  Are these critics finding orconstructing the values that they find in Austen, according to their own and their society's biases?  Using quotations from Austen's dialogue often given as examples of 'wit,' I shall show that these statements are, in fact, socially constructed, and that, as socially-constructed values change, so do the values placed upon historic writers."

Exercises for Pairs:

1) Do you like to compare film versions?  Use a formal study of print text and then evaluate which
film captures the text better and why.  Outline your strategy for making this comparison.  //OR//  Use an Interactionist method and compare details of Austen's family with a film of one of her novels. Outline your strategy.

2) Using the Formalist technique, explain what sources you would use to illustrate three examples of 'wit' from the first five chapters of Mansfield Park. Just explain what types of sources you would use. //OR//   Using the Interactionist technique, illustrate how Austen glosses over Fanny's uncle's slave plantation in Mansfield Park.  What types of sources would you use?

3)  Using the Formalist technique, explain what sources and methods you could use to compare the heroines in Emma and in Henrik Ibsen's The Doll's House.  //OR//  Using the Interactionist technique, examine the range of vision of the major characters in Emma. What sources could you use to examine the social issues of the day and to compare with the inclusion or omission of a social perspective in Emma?

4)  Tom Stoppard's play Rosenkranz and Guildenstern are Dead revolutionized British theatre by letting two minor characters comment upon the actions of Prince Hamlet.  Using the Formalist technique, outline your strategy to find instances of critics who agree with Austen's foregrounding of certain characters.  //OR// Using the interactionist technique,  choose which minor characters in any Austen novel who might be interesting to explore further and outline how that conversation might go.

5)  Using the Formalist technique, make a comparison between the skill at dialogue in Dickens and in Austen (for this exercise, you only need to decide what sources you will use).  //OR// Using the interactionist technique, analyze the range of characters and the range of vision in Dickens and in Austen (again, for this exercise, you only need to determine what kinds of sources you will use...)

6)  Using the Formalist technique, what sources would you use to find elements of Austen's style that show her skill at depicting life in the society of her day?  What elements of style might you zero in on?  //OR// Using the Interactionist technique, what sources would you use to show what elements were simply not on the horizon for Austen? For this exercise, explain generally how she may have mentally tailored her prose to the expectations of her readers. What aspects of Austen's prose might she have considered most important to impress her desired target readership?

7)   Using Formalist techniques, trace the shift in meaning between what a keyword (grace, manner, sense, etc.) meant in Austen's day and what it means today. How might this shift cause confusion in critics? For this exercise, just decide what sources you would use.  //OR//  Using Interactionist techniques, explain how certain keywords words marked one off as being of one class or another in Austen's day and evaluate Austen's reasoning in leaving out the voices of all people beneath her social class.   For this exercise, just explain what sources you would use.

Links and References:

NOTE:  This list contains Project Gutenberg (PG).  After you select a US download or 'ftp' site, select 'author' index and look for Austen.  Use PG online texts with your "find in page' option to find keywords of interest in a text. The critical articles site is a main index. Scroll down to find links to articles.

1)  Project Gutenberg (Austen novels online)
2)  Critical Articles on Jane Austen (a HUGE list)
3)  Austen and the Slave Trade (use FIND in page with word 'slave')

4)  Ferguson, Moira. "Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender", The Oxford Literary Review. 1991, 13:1-2, 118-39. (Not a link. You will have to go to the library for this one...)
NOTE: for the link below, you must type in the region of globe you are in first.  Then search keyword
              Mansfield Park, then click on 'literary context.'

5)   Penguin promo about Austen's 'exquisite' touch on the slave trade
6)  History Austen Ignored (or did she?)