Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible

EligibleMary Bennet and the Difficulties of Narrating Spinsterhood

by Shannon Draucker, Boston University

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible is the latest retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It takes place in present-day Cincinnati and features Mrs. Bennet as a Women’s League busybody, Kitty and Lydia as CrossFit devotees, and Chip Bingley as a reality television star. Jane is a forty-year-old yoga instructor trying to get pregnant via IVF, and Liz engages in a ten-year affair with the married Jasper Wick (the counterpart to Austen’s Mr. Wickham). Eligible has already elicited impassioned responses from Michiko Kakutani, Ursula K. Le Guin, and other critics, and I focus here on a minor yet puzzling character from both novels: the plain, withdrawn, and bookish Bennet sister, Mary.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mary does little but study, read, and futilely attempt to impress unwitting audiences with her mediocre piano skills. As Alex Woloch has argued, Mary serves largely as a foil to Elizabeth in Austen’s novel (71). In Sittenfeld’s novel, on the other hand, Mary occupies an expanded role that exposes the enduring difficulties of narrating those who refuse traditional marriage plots. Sittenfeld’s Mary is a thirty-year-old misanthrope who lives at home and chronically pursues online master’s degrees. While her sisters all marry or enter serious relationships, Mary bitterly refuses to pursue marriage. Her rejection of the marriage plot is consistent with her feminist rhetoric about the sexism of reality television shows such as “Eligible” (a thinly-veiled reference to “The Bachelor”) and the silliness of her sisters’ “elaborate fitness rituals and fakely scented lotions,” but this resistance grants her an awkward presence in the novel (487). While Jane deals with a surprise pregnancy and Liz enjoys “hate sex” with Darcy, the narrative explicitly refuses Mary any such dramatic storyline. Her family members speculate about her sexual orientation (Kitty and Lydia repeatedly tease her about being a lesbian), but we soon learn that Mary prefers to avoid all relationships. Though readers are briefly enticed by the prospect that Mary has a “secret,” this plotline ends with a flagrantly mundane resolution: she’s merely participating in a weekly bowling league.

Yet, the very awkwardness of Mary’s storyline in Eligible renders it worthy of attention. The minor role of the spinster sister–relegated to the piano bench and destined to remain at home after her sisters marry–likely sits more comfortably with readers of Austen’s novel, which offers a bitter critique of the limited options available to unwedded women in the nineteenth century. Mary’s uncomfortable presence in Eligible is more jarring. Surely we could imagine a more robust storyline for an unmarried, intellectual woman in the twenty-first century? But the end of the novel—in which Sittenfeld surprises readers with an entire chapter devoted to Mary—leaves us with a frustratingly brief glimpse into the story of a woman with distinctive feminist views, sexual desires, and approaches to personal fulfillment. We learn that Mary cares little for relationships, prefers her own company, and is “capable of satisfying her own [sexual] desires” (487).  The final sentences of the novel depict Mary as she scores a strike in her bowling league: “All the pins fell.  And when they did it was so, so satisfying… Her sisters, she thought, could have their crushes and courtships, their histrionics and reconciliations. For Mary, this was heaven” (487). What Eligible ultimately reminds us, then, is that women like Mary exist and often have the most exciting subjectivities of all – but we must learn how to narrate them.

Questions for Discussion

How does Sittenfeld “modernize” the other relationships in the novel?  What can these changes tell us about our present cultural moment?  For example, students might consider Lydia’s marriage to the transgender CrossFit trainer Ham in conversation with contemporary debates about transgender rights

How does Sittenfeld absorb and adapt Austen’s tone?  How might we reconcile her simultaneous use of terms like “suitor” and “courtship” with her inclusion of modern-day colloquial language from text messages and emails (such as Liz’s SMS exclamation to Charlotte, “Cousin Willie just kissed me eek!!!!!!” (127)).

How do Sittenfeld’s frank discussions of sexuality in Eligible alter Austen’s storyline?  How does Austen, in comparison, figure passion and desire?

Can you think of other books, films, or shows that imagine a more robust storyline for an unmarried, intellectual woman in the twenty-first century?

Further Reading

Brown, Julia Prewitt. “Review: The Feminist Depreciation of Austen: A Polemical Reading.” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 23:3 (Spring 1990): 303-313.

Burgan, Mary. “Heroines at the Piano: Women and Music in Nineteenth-Century Fiction.” Victorian Studies 30:1 (Autumn 1986): 51-76.

Corbett, Mary Jean. Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2010.

Dow, Gillian and Clare Hanson, eds. Uses of Austen: Jane’s Afterlives. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

Horwitz, Barbara Jane. Jane Austen and the Question of Women’s Education. New York: Peter Lang, 1991.

Sadoff, Dianne F. Victorian Vogue: British Novels on Screen. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl.” Critical Inquiry 17 (Summer 1991): 818-837.

Troost, Linda and Sayre Greenfield, eds. Jane Austen in Hollywood. 1998. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

Wells, Juliette. Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination. London: Continuum, 2011.

Woloch, Alex. The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

By Jen Cadwallader, Randolph-Macon College

graveyard-book-coverOne of the challenges facing any instructor of Victorian literature is helping students see how studying the concerns and values of the past helps them better understand their lives in the present. This same preoccupation engages Neil Gaiman in The Graveyard Book (2008), where Nobody “Bod” Owens must learn to negotiate between the values of the graveyard, where he is raised by ghosts long dead, and the contemporary world of the living, with which he must interact. Adaptation in multiple senses thus becomes a central focus of the novel. More specifically, The Graveyard Book adapts – although “resurrects” might be more fitting – the Mowgli stories from Rudyard Kipling’s two Jungle Books (1894, 1895). Major characters such as Mowgli, Bagheera, Baloo, and Shere Khan are recognizable in Gaiman’s Bod, Silas, Miss Lupescu, and the man Jack; readers of both works will see similarities between a number of minor characters as well. Gaiman’s episodic structure (each chapter is a story about Bod set roughly two years after the previous one) recalls the format of Kipling’s Jungle Books, though not all of Kipling’s stories focus on Mowgli. A difficulty in pairing The Graveyard Book with the Jungle Books are the number of stories in Kipling’s collections, some of which have not held up as well as others. Faculty interested in the stories most closely related to The Graveyard Book might want to limit the assigned readings to “Mowgli’s Brothers,” “Kaa’s Hunting,” “Tiger! Tiger!,” “Letting in the Jungle,” and “The King’s Ankus.”

TJunglebookCoverhe Graveyard Book, which won both the Carnegie and the Newbery Medals (notably the first novel to do so), is a richly layered narrative with much material for stimulating discussion. In addition to the issues of continuity and temporality that Gaiman’s novel raises through its juxtaposition of the past and present, the dead and living, pairing it with Kipling’s work may help students reflect on the nature of the Victorian bildungsroman. Kipling’s Mowgli famously helped inspire the creation of the Cub Scouts and embodies the “romanticized child” of the late-Victorian era. Bod’s journey toward adulthood reimagines the qualities of masculinity and innocence inherent in Victorian concepts of childhood. Alternatively, faculty may be interested in focusing on the Jungle Books’ participation in the boys’ adventure genre, with its stress on nationalism and empire. The Graveyard Book, as scholars have noted, steers clear of less palatable imperialistic ideology while still providing ample material for discussions of identity and community and cultural exchange.

Questions for Discussion

In The Graveyard Book, Bod is granted the “Freedom of the Graveyard.” How does this compare to the “Law of the Jungle” in Kipling’s stories? How do the behaviors associated with Gaiman’s “Freedom” and Kipling’s “Law” reflect shifting cultural perceptions of childhood?

Gaiman transforms the Indian jungle into a neglected graveyard and instead of wild animals peoples his novel with ghosts, ghouls, vampires and werewolves. How do both settings capture their eras’ ideas of fantasy worlds or spaces outside of their readers’ day-to-day lives?

Much contemporary debate on child-rearing focuses on the dangers of childhood: should children be allowed the freedoms of earlier generations, or do they need to be more protected in a world that has grown more dangerous? Should children be exposed to the idea of these dangers, or should we “sanitize” the material we place before them? The first sentence of The Graveyard Book – “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife” – which stands alone on a page illustrated by Dave McKean, immediately invites discussion of this controversy. Looking particularly at Bod and Scarlett’s adventures with the Sleer (and her parents’ reactions) how else does Gaiman challenge contemporary notions of what is suitable for children? Do Mowgli’s adventures reflect any of the same concerns about childhood?

Both Mowgli and Bod must make places for themselves in the world outside the jungle and graveyard. How do both protagonists navigate this transition? What particular values from their upbringings help them critically examine the societies they enter?

Further Reading

Carpenter, Humphrey. Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Boston: Houghton, 1985.

McBratney, John. “Imperial Subjects, Imperial Space in Kipling’s Jungle Book.” Victorian Studies 35.3 (1992): 277-293.

McStotts, Christine. “The Jungle, the Graveyard, and the Feral Child: Imitating and Transforming Kipling Beyond Pastiche.” Neil Gaiman in the 21st Century: Essays on the Novels, Children’s Stories, Online Writings, Comics, and Other Works. Ed. Tara Prescott. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. 65-82.

Randall, Don. Kipling’s Imperial Boy: Adolescence and Cultural Hybridity. New York: Palgrave, 2000.

Robertson, Christine. “‘I want to be like you:’ Riffs on Kipling in Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 36.2 (2011): 164-189.

The Ending of David Lean’s Great Expectations

By Joshua Gooch, D’Youville College

Great expectations.jpg

“Great expectations” poster. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

For all its critical plaudits, David Lean’s adaptation of Great Expectations ends on what can at best be called a ludicrous note for readers focused on an adaptation’s fidelity to its text.[i] In its published ending, the novel concludes years later with a mature and chastened Pip encountering a similarly mature and chastened Estella in the open ruins of what was once Satis House. Estella has endured a brutal marriage to the now-deceased Drummle, and Pip a life of clerical work in the east in Clarriker’s house. Estella describes her altered perception of life with phrases that Dickens retained in the published ending from his draft—“suffering had been stronger than all other [in draft: Miss Havisham’s] teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be” (3.20, 484). It is the conjunction of time, suffering, and reflection that connects these characters in the published ending’s rising mists of a new day.

By contrast, Lean’s film ends shortly after Magwitch’s death, with Pip’s discovery of Biddy’s marriage to Joe followed closely thereafter by his return to a still-standing Satis House. Inside, Estella sits in Miss Havisham’s vacant seat, abandoned at the altar by Drummle because of her low parentage—a fact never revealed to her in the novel—but newly enriched not only by Miss Havisham’s death but also by that of Magwitch, as the Crown has apportioned his property to her. Pip implores Estella to abandon her decision to embrace not only Miss Havisham’s ideology but also her position in Satis House, and pulls down the dusty drapes to let in the sunlight. This melodramatic turn has immediate effect: Estella embraces Pip, and the two depart Satis House to marry and enjoy Estella’s wealth.

A close reading of Lean’s ending can be particularly useful in teaching the novel. First and foremost, the divergence from the text—easily spotted by students—can be used to start a discussion about the novel’s central themes and values, most especially its focus on disinterest and selflessness (e.g., Pip’s request that Miss Havisham fund Herbert Pocket’s partnership and refusal of her offers of financial assistance) and its insistence on the power of suffering to build character over time. Some students will, of course, embrace Lean’s ending, and here too one can highlight what values and desires readers bring to texts, and the ways in which Dickens’s novel uses their desire to, in Peter Brooks’s language, read for the plot in order to manipulate their reactions.

Second, the Lean ending also reveals how authors and directors create a sense of unity and wholeness by returning to prior parts of a text. For Lean, the textual justification for his ending appears to be a line from Pip’s first encounter with Miss Havisham: “I have often thought since, that she must have looked as if the admission of the natural light of day would have struck her to dust” (1.8, 60). Pip’s shout to Estella in Lean’s film reiterates this idea (“I have come back Miss Havisham to let in the sunlight”),[ii] and the intrusion of sunlight in the frame signals a radical alteration of perspective from the film’s gray opening on the marshes.

Several scholars have discussed the endings to Great Expectations. Peter Brooks argues in favor of the draft ending while Hillary Schor reframes the apparent romance plot of the film adaptation by focusing on Pip’s desires. For discussions of the novel’s thematics, see Julian Moynahan, and F.R. and Q.D. Leavis. For discussions of Lean’s success as an adapter, see Brian McFarlane. In sum, an examination of divergences in the adaptation of the novel’s conclusion can underscore how Great Expectations reveals a key tension in the construction of any narrative conclusion between thematic consistency and aesthetic unity.

Discussion Questions

Dickens wrote two endings for the novel, the second at the urging of Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton. Read his draft and published endings (the Norton Critical and Broadview editions contain useful extracts from Dickens’s letters on the change). How do these endings highlight or downplay different themes? Which themes do Lean’s ending bring out? Which themes are underplayed?

In the published ending, Dickens returns to the image of rising mist. Examine the novel’s prior instances of this image (e.g., at the end of the first stage of Pip’s expectations [1.19, 160], during Pip’s discussion of Estella with Herbert [2.11, 250], and with the evaporation of his expectations [3.18, 470]). How does the published ending use this imagery? How does Lean’s ending respond to it?

In Reading for the Plot, Peter Brooks argues in favor of the draft ending because it shows Pip has overcome his attraction to Estella and his tendency to misread the world, while the published ending seems to restart Pip’s obsessions. Do you prefer one of the endings? Why? How do you want the novel to end? Do Dickens’s endings fulfill those desires? Does Lean’s? What do the different endings imply about what we as readers bring to a text? And what does the experience of reading multiple endings do to your interpretation of the novel?

Lean’s film was released in 1946, just after World War II. The German aerial bombardment of Britain led to the widespread use of blackout curtains to prevent night time lights from guiding planes to bomb targets. How might that historical context inform our interpretation of Lean’s choice of an ending?

Further Reading

Brooks, Peter. Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Dickens, Charles. Great Expectations. 1860-1. Ed. Charlotte Mitchell. New York: Penguin Classics, 1996.

Great Expectations. Dir. David Lean. 1946. Criterion Collection, 1998.

Leavis, F.R., & Q.D. Leavis, Dickens: The Novelist. New York: Pantheon, 1970.

McFarlane, Brian. “David Lean’s Great Expectations—Meeting Two Challenges.” Literature and Film Quarterly 20.1 (1992): 68-76.

Moynahan, Julian. “The Hero’s Guilt: The Case of Great Expectations.” Essays in Criticism 10 (1960): 60-79.

Schor, Hillary. Dickens and the Daughter of the House. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

[i] The sequence occupies two chapters on the Criterion Collection DVD reissue of the film, and runs from 01:52:40-01:57:45. McFarlane offers a useful instance of the film’s critical celebration.

[ii] Great Expectations 01:56:15-20

Dickens World

By Patrick C. Fleming

Dickens World is a Charles Dickens-themed attraction located in Chatham, Kent, where Dickens lived as a young child. The area, and nearby Rochester, feature prominently in many of his novels. The site opened in 2007, and featured:

  • A Great Expectations-themed boat ride through a Victorian sewer. The ride features Magwitch and a host of other criminal characters from Dickens’s oeuvre;
  • A haunted house, initially advertised as Scrooge’s but changed, before opening, to “the haunted house of 1859.” The house features a “Pepper’s Ghost” illusion, a trick using mirrors that first debuted in a production of Dickens’s story, “The Haunted Man”;
  • A 4D movie at Peggotty’s boathouse, providing a brief biography of Dickens;
  • Dotheboys Schoolhouse, featuring an actor who plays a scolding schoolmaster and interactive screens with a test on Dickens’s life and works;
  • Fagin’s den, a play area for children;
  • A restaurant, The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters;
  • And a gift shop, The Olde Curiosity Shoppe.

Dickens World closed briefly in early 2013, reopening in March. The boat ride was removed, and the attraction now features “an interactive guided tour experience that takes visitors back in time to Victorian/Dickensian England” which the website bills as “a fun and educational experience for all ages.”

Scholars have written about Dickens World in relation to postmodernity, mass culture, literary tourism, and adaptation theory. Faculty who lead study abroad trips might consider a side trip to Chatham, or might include an article about Dickens World alongside a visit to more accessible Dickensian sites in London.

Questions for Discussion

As expressed in his letters, novels, and newspaper writings, what were Dickens’s views on popular entertainment, tourism, profit, and/or intellectual property? How would Dickens have reacted to Dickens World?

Compare Dickens World, as discussed in reviews and publicity materials, to Mr. Sleary’s insistence, in Hard Times, that “the people mutht be amuthed.”

Read the descriptions of the individual attractions in Dickens World. (You can supplement the short descriptions above with Marty Gould and Rebecca N. Mitchell’s “It Was the Worst of Times: A Visit to Dickens World”). Do the attractions change the way you think about Dickens’s novels or characters? What do these choices tell us about Dickens World’s vision? To whom are they intended to appeal?

If you were to design an attraction for Dickens World, what would you choose? How would your attraction develop an interpretation of Dickens and his works? Or, could you imagine a similar attraction for another Victorian writer? What might be featured at a “Bronte World” or “Browning World”?

Further Reading

Anderson, Sam. “The World of Charles Dickens, Complete with Pizza Hut.The New York Times, February 7th 2012.

Booth, Alison. “Time Travel in Dickens’ World.” Literary Tourism and Nineteenth-Century Culture. Nicola J. Watson, ed. Palgrave, 2009.

Easley, Alexis. Literary Celebrity, Gender, and Victorian Authorship, 1850-1914. University of Delaware, 2011.

Gould, Marty and Rebecca N. Mitchell. “It Was the Worst of Times: A Visit to Dickens World.” Victorian Literature and Culture 38 (2010), 287-318.

Gould, Marty and Rebecca N. Mitchell. “Understanding the Literary Theme Park: Dickens World as Adaptation.” Neo-Victorian Studies 3.2 (2010), pages 145-171.

Hughes, Kathryn. “Dickens World and Dickens’s World.” Journal of Victorian Culture 15.3 (December 2010), 388-393.

Huntley, Dana. “Visiting in Dickens World.” British Heritage 29.4 (Sep. 2008), pp. 42-5.

John, Juliet. Dickens and Mass Culture. Oxford University Press, 2010.