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Parr Center Presents: Adelle Waldman, “Reading Austen and Eliot in the #MeToo Era”

Adelle Waldman, author of the acclaimed novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, discusses the moral orientation of the Victorian novel of manners in the context of the #MeToo movement. 19th century novelists are frequently associated with prudish sexual mores, but Waldman argues that their approach to the analysis of romantic life was far more concerned with serious ethical issues than it was about the enforcement of arbitrary notions of correct behavior. Against the background of the individualist thinking of the great 20th century novelists—particularly in the Bellow-Roth tradition, in which sex is seen primarily as a means of self-expression and fulfillment—the refusal, in the #MeToo era, to give certain individuals a pass for egregious personal behavior because those individuals are brilliant, creative, or successful, feels like uncharted territory. But, in many ways, this is a return to an older, more relational mode of thinking familiar to the readers of the great 19th century novels. Waldman discusses the approach these novelists—Austen and Eliot, especially—took to analyzing personal behavior, noting the relevance of this approach to the current moment.

Parr Center Associate Director Rob Willison began the event by introducing the Center and the work it does, as well as its new Director, Professor Sarah Stroud. He continued with a quick summary of the next events coming up at the Parr Center, the October 15th lecture by Justin Erlich on autonomous vehicles and the November 13th lecture by Jennifer Morton on upward mobility. While introducing that night’s speaker, Adelle Waldman, Dr. Willison listed several of her debut novel’s many achievements. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. has been listed as one of 2013’s best books in various publications, and Waldman’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, Salon, and more.

Waldman’s lecture was centered around what she sees as the fundamental differences between the portrayal of interpersonal relationships in the realist novels of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. Before speaking about the trends as a whole, she began her discussion by focusing in on two very telling passages, one from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and one from Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again. Waldman pointed out the ways in which these passages treat the same topic, that of an unsatisfying marriage, differently. In Austen’s novel, Mr. Bennet resents his wife and daughters for their foolishness and superficial nature, traits he views as inherently feminine. Wolfe’s character, Fox, deals with the exact same situation. He finds no way to relate to them and sees himself as entirely apart, superior. The difference comes in the tone of their authors. Austen does not criticize Mr. Bennet for disparaging his family; the women are foolish. However, she argues that this does not excuse him from his duties to them as a patriarch. The qualities of a person’s intellect, appearance, or skill do not change whether or not they are entitled to respect and care in Austen’s world, and this is where Mr. Bennet has failed and is worthy of criticism. However, in Wolfe’s novel, the readers are made to sympathize with Fox; we feel his isolation rather than the abandonment of his family.

Waldman then extended this dynamic to other prominent writers of the two eras in order to argue that they reflect a society-wide perspective on the moral obligations of personal relationships. In particular, she discussed nineteenth-century writers such as George Eliot, the Brontës, and Thomas Hardy, and twentieth-century writers like John Updike, J.D. Salinger, and Philip Roth. These novelists present consistent moral landscapes in their respective eras and Waldman chose to highlight them in light of her analysis of the Austen/Wolfe dynamic. The nineteenth-century writers prize beauty, intelligence, and talent in their heroes (and numerous heroines), but above all else is the importance of decency. There are moral obligations implicit in the Victorian world that have far more to do with kindness and respect than with the sexual taboos normally associated with regency society. Diametrically opposed are the protagonists of early twentieth-century novels, nearly always men whose exceptionality, genius, greatness, and massive complexity leaves no room for any other characters, typically female love interests, to be of significance. Their prerogatives are easily shrunk into triviality when placed up against the brilliantly portrayed consciousness of a “great man.” Men like this are excused by the narrative for their socially condemnable behavior because the epic proportions of their internal life make external interaction irrelevant. Although they are always lonely, they cannot believe that anyone else could have anything to offer them.

In the final section of her lecture, Waldman claimed that in the contemporary age we are finally turning away from the emphasis on individuality so present in American culture of the twentieth century. She argued that the #MeToo movement represents a return to the morality of the nineteenth century, when the behavior of an individual in and amongst society was more important than any virtue of that individual. In the modern day, “great” men, men whose behavior was once excused by their extraordinary success in artistic or political fields, are now liable to be held accountable for the way that they treat those around them, despite any other achievements.

September 26, 2018
Marina Greenfeld