On Academics: Scholarly or Witty?

Prompt, Notes, Rough Draft (A. Montgomery 2014)

Prompt, Notes, Rough Draft (A. Montgomery 2014)

English has always been one of my favorite subjects. I had perfected my audience–the freest when journaling, slightly freer when blogging and not at all when writing for school. Until I started college.

All of a sudden, there was much more pressure. They were students younger than I whose writing was constantly praised and professors who asked for “more me” in my work.

This past week (when I had eight essays due), one of the essays I wrote was on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. After my second rough draft, I discussed my paper, which definitely had “me” but still was academically focused, with my professor. He did not like it. He hated my use of the word “boring.” Then asked me if I was a freshmen, if his course was the first English course I had taken at the college, if I had taken critical English classes in high school.

After the meeting, I immediately thought of David Foster Wallace, a brilliant, sarcastic, tragic alum of my school. I wondered if his professors ever criticized his writing–his clever footnotes or sarcastic cursing. I’m no David Foster Wallace (yet).

Writing for English classes shouldn’t have to be funny or scholastic. I think it’s quite possible to be both, and if it’s not, don’t penalize the purely scholastic. Does it answer the prompt? Yes.

Why should my use of “boring” matter? Why should my dislike of the book really matter if I am able to back up my assertions? The entire point of English essays is to make a claim then find examples that support said claim. Therefore, the only way you could be “wrong”, the only way that writing could be “weak “is if your examples do not support your claim. Otherwise, you can make any claim you want. Right?

I’d like your thoughts. My second rough draft (it’s pretty rough) is below.

“If Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price were a real person, she and I would probably be friends. I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing since I’m boring and that means that Fanny is boring as well. In regards to Kingsley Amis’s comment about the Crawfords being more social in comparison to Edmund and Fanny, I would have to loosely agree. Jane Austen supplies plenty of examples of this, but allow me to review a few that are rich in indirect style and sensory imagery to prove that while Fanny and Edmund may not be exciting, they certainly aren’t worthy of “detest.”

“On one hand, I can understand Amis’s comment. It’s true that Edmund and Fanny are very boring, inside and out. There’s nothing about them to excite the reader, unlike the Crawfords. Just look at this description of the Crawford siblings.

“Miss Crawford’s beauty did her no disservice with the Miss Bertrams. They were too handsome themselves to dislike any woman for being so too, and were almost as much charmed as their brothers, with her lively dark eye, clear brown complexion, and general prettiness. Had she been tall, full formed, and fair, it might have been more of a trial; but as it was, there could be no comparison, and she was allowably a sweet pretty girl, while they were the finest young women in the county.

“Her brother was not handsome; no, when they first saw him, he was absolutely plain, black and plain, but still he was the gentleman, with a pleasing address. The second meeting proved him not so very plain; he was plain, to be sure, but then he had so much countenance, and his teeth were so good, and he was so well made, that one soon forgot he was plain; and after a third interview, after dining in company with him at the parsonage, he was no longer allowed to be called so by any body. He was, in fact, the most agreeable young man the sisters had ever known, and they were equally delighted with him” (Austen 38,9).

“As readers, we get a glimpse of a gorgeous woman–the imagery of darkness–“dark eye”,“brown complexion”–that may foreshadow an impending misfortune involving her but we’re mostly fascinated by the color contrast to the Bertrams. Like the Miss Bertrams, we think she’s pretty but not enough to be concerned with her character (which, coincidentally, is a fantastic attribute of Austen’s free indirect style, which we see more in Henry’s description).

“Henry is perhaps more spectacular than Mary in that he seems ordinary. If Mary is darkness against a “fair” background–striking at first glance–then Henry is black on black. He is “plain” and, as Austen emphasizes, “not handsome.” He obviously doesn’t have advantage that Mary does, but what’s remarkable about him is that after only three meetings, he wins the Bertrams over. Through free indirect style, we also see that Henry’s enchanting personality seems supernatural–it figuratively transcends to his outsides with each meeting, making him seem almost as good-looking as his sister. He goes from “plain” and “not handsome” to “hav[ing] good teeth”, being “well made” and “not so plain” until he is “no longer allowed to be called” plain.

“I only point out Henry’s three meetings (which span between a few days/weeks) in order to compare them to Fanny’s duration of years in the Bertam’s residence. While reading the following description of Fanny, keep in mind the first “lively” portrait of Mary and the final not-allowed-to-be-plain personality of Henry.

“Fanny Price was at this time just ten years old, and though there might not be much in her first appearance to captivate, there was, at least, nothing to disgust her relations. She was small of her age, with no glow of complexion, nor any other striking beauty; exceedingly timid and shy, and shrinking from notice; but her air, though awkward, was not vulgar, her voice was sweet, and when she spoke, her countenance was pretty” (Austen 9).

“We get some great imagery here. It’s different from Mary’s description in that instead of colorful images, we blankness. If we were to make a scale of physical noticeability, Fanny would be one extreme– pale and small like a snowflake falling on a cloudy day– Henry would be the other extreme and Mary would be in the middle. I particularly prefer to compare Fanny to snowflakes instead of snow because not only is she hard to see depending on the background, she is also very “small” and “timid” and the longer you look at her, the more she seems to “shrink” like a snowflake melting away in the palm of your hand.

“She is not able to win us over like Henry. Remember how Henry’s personality began to cover his outside, making him seem more appealing? In this way, Fanny is similar except that the channel between her personality and her outside is, like her body, small. Her “air” is akin to breath being blown through a straw except that her straw is too small and while we get a hint of the aural imagery employed through her “pretty countenance” and “sweet” voice, we aren’t offered to experience more of her form or teeth (like Henry). Fanny is closed off, which makes her seem unapproachable and boring.

“The only time Fanny seems open is when she’s with her cousin, Edmund. Like Fanny, Edmund is boring as well. This makes sense because Edmund influences Fanny’s personality through book recommendations and general guidance. However, a glimpse at the two of them together shows two very social beings equipped with kindness, thoughtfulness, and, sometimes, jokes. We a get a shift in point of view as Austen, through indirect style, describes Fanny through Edmund’s eyes:

“’As to your foolishness and awkwardness, my dear Fanny, believe me, you never have a shadow of either, but in using the words so improperly. There is no reason in the world why you should not be important where you are known. You have good sense, and a sweet temper, and I am sure you have a grateful heart, that could never receive kindness without wishing it to return it. I do not know any better qualifications for a friend and companion’” (Austen 22).

“Edmund’s description has so much perspective on Fanny. In the first introduction, Austen tells us how Fanny sounds but not what she says. Edmund is close enough to Fanny to describe both and even recommend improvement to help Fanny be more open. I find the descriptive diction of “shadow” interesting because in the previous excerpt, we are told that Fanny has “no glow.” According to Edmund though, she must have some sort of glow or light because she has no “shadow”, no darkness. On our spectrum, Fanny, Mary, and Henry are still in the same places as before (with the addition of Edmund as Fanny’s compass), but instead of focusing on their colorings as a scale of social interaction, let us relate their colorings to a sense of morality. In this case, Fanny is the purest of all with Mary being in the middle by trying to entice both Bertram brothers, and Henry as the darkest of all by running off with the married Maria. Fanny’s (and by extension, Edmund’s) morality is emphasized further by Edmund’s appreciation of Fanny’s internal qualities by using words like “sweet temper” and “grateful heart.” These are the inner qualities Fanny struggles to release, but also, the sensory adjectives give the reader a sensation to hold onto; they are sensations we can taste (“sweet”) or see (“heart”) in our heads, thus proving that Fanny is truly open with Edmund because he sets these sensations within her free.

“Because of their exclusive inner qualities, Edmund and Fanny are not entertaining for us to read. They exist to entertain each other, while the Crawfords exist to amuse us and the rest of the Bertrams. Therefore, I’d have to agree with Amis that the Crawfords are the more “social beings”–Austen provides more than enough evidence of this comparison through sensory imagery and indirect style–but disagree that Mr. and Mrs. Edmund Bertram are “morally detestable.” That just seems a little extreme since they’re pretty much what we should strive to be–tactful, thoughtful, and kind–with the exception of marrying your cousin.”

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