Mimesis in Austen and Cather

Every novel presents a world to the reader. The building of a narrative world doesn’t have to happen all at once, though it’s common for at least some world building to occur at the beginning. If the world of a narrative is close to something we can, for the moment, call normal reality, then the novelist may assume this world as given without much explicit world building.

Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, as I discussed in an earlier post, begins with a detailed description of Dr. Archie’s offices, and there are many similarly detailed descriptions throughout. Here, as a reminder, are a few sentences from the beginning of the novel; Dr. Archie has just returned to his offices after a game of pool with a local merchant and a couple of traveling salesmen:

“Larry, the doctor’s man, had lit the overhead light in the waiting-room and the double student’s lamp on the desk in the study. The isinglass sides of the hard-coal burner were aglow, and the air in the study was so hot that as he came in the doctor opened the door to his little operating room, where there was no stove. The waiting-room was carpeted and stiffly furnished, something like a country parlor. The study had worn, unpainted floors. . . . The doctor’s flat-top desk was large and well made; the papers were in orderly piles, under glass weights.” (p. 7)

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, however, has no physical description at the beginning, and not much later on. The first chapter begins with a conversation between Mrs. Bennet and her husband. In the first few paragraphs we learn from their conversation that a young bachelor has moved into Netherfield Park, which we can guess is a large property, but we get no description of it. We learn (from Mrs. Bennet’s rambling remarks to her husband) that this young man came to inspect the property in a chaise and four, but again there is no description. We learn that this young man is named Mr. Bingley, that he has an income of four or five thousand a year, and that Mrs. Bennet intends that one of her five daughters should marry him. All this helps build the social world of the novel, but the physical world is assumed. We don’t know in what room of their house Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are talking; we don’t know if they are sitting or standing; we are not given any description of any physical objects or furniture in the room. At the beginning of Chapter II we find that Elizabeth, the Bennet’s second daughter, is trimming a hat, but there is no description of the hat, which is only the occasion for a little more banter between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet about Mr. Bingley. Austen isn’t much interested in the details of the physical world of her story, except insofar as they tell us something about the social or psychological world she is depicting.

Nor is Austen interested in detailed physical descriptions of her characters. Here are the people in Mr. Bingley’s party at the first ball:

“Mr. Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion. His brother-in-law, Mr. Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year. The gentlemen pronounced him a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening, till his manners gave a disgust which turned the tide of his popularity; for he was discovered to be proud, to be above his company, and above being pleased, and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.” (p. 8)

Austen is making a point here—appearance is not something objective, just the same at all times and in all circumstances to every observer. The appearance of a person depends on the attitudes of the person observing. In Chapter Six, Mr. Darcy begins to find Elizabeth attractive:

“Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he had looked at her only to criticise. But no sooner had he made it clear to himself and his friends that she had hardly a good feature in her face, than he began to find it was rendered uncommonly intelligent by the beautiful expression of her dark eyes. To this discovery succeeded some others equally mortifying. Though he had detected with a critical eye more than one failure of perfect symmetry in her form, he was forced to acknowledge her figure to be light and pleasing; and in spite of his asserting that her manners were not those of the fashionable world, he was caught by their easy playfulness.”

From this description we learn that Elizabeth has dark eyes and that her figure is light and pleasing, but nothing more. What matters to Austen is not how Elizabeth looks, but how she looks to Mr. Darcy.

Again we can compare Cather’s manner. Here, in the second paragraph of The Song of the Lark, is a description of Dr. Archie:

“As the doctor in New England villages is proverbially old, so the doctor in small Colorado towns twenty-five years ago was generally young. Dr. Archie was barely thirty. He was tall, with massive shoulders which he held stiffly, and a large, well-shaped head. He was a distinguished looking man, for that part of the world, at least. There was something individual in the way in which his reddish-brown hair, parted cleanly at the side, bushed over his high forehead. His nose was straight and thick, and his eyes were intelligent. He wore a curly, reddish mustache and an imperial, cut trimly, which made him look a little like the pictures of Napoleon III. His hands were large and well kept, but ruggedly formed, and the backs were shaded with crinkly reddish hair. He wore a blue suit of woolly, wide-waled serge; the traveling men had known at a glance that it was made by a Denver tailor. The doctor was always well dressed.”

Similarly detailed descriptions can be found throughout The Song of the Lark. Both Austen and Cather are realists, but Cather’s reality is different from Austen’s. Critics sometimes suggest that the experience of realistic writing, the kind of writing most typical of the realistic novel, is like the experience of looking through a transparent windowpane. But what Cather sees through her windowpane is not what Austen sees through hers. In my next post I plan to look at another realistic novel, Doris Lessing’s The Good Neighbour, which has still a different view through the realistic window.

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