Outstanding Essay: 2012

Books: Revealing Readers’ Inner Natures One Page at a Time

by Jan Jones

Walking through the literature section at any Wal-mart, one will find a grand selection of romance novels featuring half-dressed Highlanders with rippling muscles and fainting maidens with ripped bodices gracing their glossy covers.  People of all socio-economic backgrounds are welcome at Wal-mart, but the majority of its patrons are middle and lower middle class people.  It would stand to reason that Wal-mart stocks merchandise which appeals to its customers and thus, that those glossy-covered books are targeted to the middle and lower middle classes.  Even though this example of consumer marketing belongs in contemporary time, the same “targeting” applies to the worlds of Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, and Gustave Flaubert.  Each of these works either speaks directly to the middle and lower middle class, such as Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, or they depict middle and lower middle class life, such as Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.

One of Wollstonecraft’s goals in her work is to differentiate between educational books and books that only serve as sentimental drivel.  In Pride and Prejudice, Austen presents a myriad of female characters, but shows how books and educational reading specifically affects Elizabeth, Mary and Lydia Bennet.  Much like Pride and Prejudice, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary shows how reading affects Emma Bovary’s character; the only difference between the two works being that the Bennets’ reading material improves their minds and Emma’s causes her to have unrealistic expectations for her life.  All of these works speak of the effects reading has on women.  However, the works present different results—some positive and some negative.  In each instance of negative influence, the reader already possessed some inclination towards the extremely passionate and sentimental.  Thus, these “evil,” sentimental books did not cause the reader to become overly sentimental; they only revealed the reader’s already present nature.

In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft only references “bad” books near the end of her work, and she devotes only a brief section to the subject.  She introduces the topic, stating, “Another instance of that feminine weakness of character, often produced by a confined education, is a romantic twist of the mind, which has been very properly termed sentimental” (Wollstonecraft 228).  It is interesting to note that Wollstonecraft deems sentimentality as a result of “feminine weakness of character,” not of the woman’s reading material.  According to this statement, women already have inclinations towards the sentimental without any aid from the written word. 

Wollstonecraft goes on to state, “Women subjected by ignorance to their sensations, and only taught to look for happiness in love, refine on sensual feelings, and to adopt metaphysical notions respecting that passion, which lead them shamefully to neglect the duties of life, and frequently in the midst of these sublime refinements they plump into actual vice” (Wollstonecraft 228-229).  She clarifies that “These are the women who are amused by the reveries of the stupid novelists” (Wollstonecraft 229).  Thus, the “stupid” books feed women’s natural sentimentality and encourage women towards ignorance and lack of refinement.  Because these novelists “know little of human nature” (Wollstonecraft 229), it would stand to reason that the people reading their novels would have a skewed perception of the world and other people.  These books offer nothing that encourages intelligence and instead, only give women unrealistic expectations of love and happiness. 

However much she blames “stupid” novels for women’s heightened senses of the romantic, Wollstonecraft does not seem to place much blame on the actual women.  She states, “Unable to grasp any thing great, is it surprising that they [women] find the reading of history a very dry task, and disquisitions addressed to the understanding intolerably tedious, and almost unintelligible?” (Wollstonecraft 229).  It is important to note that Wollstonecraft is not speaking of all women; she is speaking of those who read sentimental novels.  Because these women have read extremely passionate and emotional novels, it is little wonder that they do not want to read a dry, staid historical text.  Wollstonecraft continues, “Thus are they necessarily dependent on the novelist for amusement” (229).

Even though Wollstonecraft does not encourage women to read sentimental novels, she would much rather have women read those books than none at all.  She states, “Yet, when I exclaim against novels, I mean when contrasted with those works which exercise the understanding and regulate the imagination” (Wollstonecraft 229).  She continues: "For any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers; besides, even the productions that are only addressed to the imagination, raise the reader a little above the gross gratification of appetites, to which the mind has not given a shade of delicacy." (Wollstonecraft 229). Thus, those great novels that exercise and expand the mind are the best options for reading material, but “stupid” novels are acceptable only because any reading is preferential to illiteracy. 

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen presents her readers with many female characters, all with differing degrees of reading proficiency.  The three characters who exhibit these degrees most clearly are Elizabeth, Mary, and Lydia Bennet.  Even though reading, or lack thereof, affects each of these characters, Austen does not state that any of them read the sentimental types of texts of which Wollstonecraft warns women.  Instead, Austen shows how a complete lack of reading affects her characters, namely Lydia.  Both Elizabeth and Mary read, and both are presented as intelligent women.  However, in Austen’s fictional world, education for women is largely dependent on the individual woman’s desire to learn and to read. 

Austen presents Elizabeth as a witty, well-read woman.  Several times throughout the novel, Elizabeth is shown reading or holding a book while her sisters and others around her engage in some other activity.  For instance, during her stay at Netherfield Hall, Elizabeth joins the Bingleys and Mr. Darcy after checking on her sister’s welfare.  She states that “she would amuse herself…with a book” (Austen 30).  Some of the others remark upon Elizabeth’s preference of reading rather than playing cards, and Caroline Bingley states, “Miss Eliza Bennet…despises cards.  She is a great reader and has no pleasure in anything else” (Austen 30).
Even though Elizabeth assures Caroline and the others that she takes pleasure in reading as well as in many other things, Caroline’s comment still negatively marks her as an oddity, a bookworm.

Whereas Elizabeth has only one real instance of being the odd one in the group, Mary has several.  Austen often juxtaposes her against the rest of the Bennet family and the rest of the community.  At the very beginning of the novel, Mr. Bennet asks her, “What say you Mary? for you are a young lady of deep reflection, I know, and read great books, and make extracts” (Austen 5).  Austen writes, “Mary wished to say something very sensible, but knew not how” (Austen 5).  This instance is the first of many in which Mary’s knowledge and intelligence is remarked upon and then mocked.  She is a great reader and reads many serious, thought-provoking texts as evidenced by her remarks to her sisters and family, but neither they nor anyone else respects or even listens to her.

An example of this lack of relationship and connection is after Lydia recounts her day in Meryton to Mary.  To Lydia’s lengthy, grandiose account, Mary states, “Far be it from me, my dear sister, to depreciate such pleasures.  They would doubtless be congenial with the generality of female minds.  But I confess they would have no charms for me.  I should infinitely prefer a book” (Austen 190).  Just as Caroline Bingley set Elizabeth apart from the rest of the group because of her desire to read, Mary sets herself apart from the “generality of female minds.”  Mary admits that she is an oddity, and she casts all other women in with Lydia and her love of shopping and gossip. 

The only character with whom Mary feels any kind of connection is Mr. Collins, one of the other laughable characters in the novel.  After Mr. Collins has tried to propose to both of Mary’s older sisters, Austen writes, “She [Mary] rated his abilities much higher than any of the others [her sisters]” (Austen 109).  She continues, “there was a solidity in his reflections which often struck her, and though by no means so clever as herself, she thought that if encouraged to read and improve himself by such an examples as hers, he might become a very agreeable companion” (Austen 109).  Even though she has read many books and has supposedly expanded her mind, Mary cannot differentiate between actual intelligence and verbal pomposity, a trait that she and Mr. Collins seem to share.  Thus, through Mary, Austen adds another layer to Wollstonecraft’s discussion on the effects of “good” books and “bad” books by observing that even though some women do read the “good” books, they still lack real intelligence and discernment. 

Elizabeth and Mary are the only Bennet sisters that Austen repeatedly depicts reading or with a book in their hands.  She juxtaposes Elizabeth’s and Mary’s reading with Lydia’s flightiness and silliness.  Whereas reading might make Elizabeth and Mary peculiarities amongst others, Lydia’s complete and utter lack of reading and any kind of education only serves to exacerbate her “high animal spirits” (Austen 38).  Even though she does not read any of the sentimental books Wollstonecraft speaks of, she does not read anything that opens her mind or tempers her flighty nature. 

One of the reasons each of the Bennet sisters are so very different from each other is that they were individually responsible for their respective educations.  Elizabeth reads whatever books appealed to her, Mary reads those that she wanted, and Lydia chooses not to read any.  This issue comes to light at Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s dinner table.  After Lady Catherine asks about Elizabeth’s family and her and her sister’s educations, Elizabeth informs Lady Catherine that she and her sisters were neither taught by a governess nor by their mother.  Lady Catherine questions, “Then, who taught you?  Who attended you? Without a governess you must have been neglected” (Austen 142).  Elizabeth responds, “Compared with some families, I believe we were; but such of us as wished to learn never wanted the means.  We were always encouraged to read, and had all the masters that were necessary.  Those who chose to be idle, certainly might” (Austen 142).  For the Bennets and by extension, Austen, education is intrinsically tied to books and reading.  However, the education these books bring only reflects the nature that is already present in the person reading them, just as in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  This relationship between books and the nature of the reader is what differentiates Elizabeth, Mary, and Lydia.

In Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert presents a character that exactly echoes Wollstonecraft’s argument: Emma Bovary.  He recounts Emma’s childhood experiences and education in a convent and introduces her as an extremely passionate and sensual person.  Note that this characterization comes before any mention of sentimental books.  Flaubert reports that “Instead of following the mass, she [Emma] would gaze in her book at the pious vignettes with their azure borders, and she loved the sick lamb, the Sacred Heart pierced by sharp arrows, or poor Jesus, sinking beneath the weight of his cross” (Flaubert 33).  Emma is not pious.  The only religion she loves is the passionate religion.  The verses without death, suffering, or extreme emotion are boring to her.  Flaubert further defines Emma’s character, stating, “Familiar with the tranquil she inclined, instead, towards the tumultuous…From everything she had to extract some kind of personal profit; and she discarded as useless anything that did not lend itself to her heart’s immediate satisfaction—preferring emotions rather than landscapes” (Flaubert 34).  Emma can only take pleasure in something that allows her to feel or sense an emotion; everything else she ignores. 

Emma’s fascination with religious suffering and beauty ends when a maid at the convent supplies her with romantic love-songs, stories, and books.  This maid “knew by heart the love-songs of the last century…She would tell stories…and lend the big girls, clandestinely, one of the novels she always kept in the pocket of her apron, from which the good lady herself devoured long chapters, in the intervals of her task” (Flaubert 34).  These novels "were about love, lovers, loving, martyred maidens swooning in secluded lodges, postilions slain every other mile, horses ridden to death on every page, dark forests, aching hearts, promising, sobbing, kisses and tears, little boats by moonlight, nightingales in the grove, gentlemen brave as lions, tender as lambs, virtuous as a dream, always well dressed, and weeping pints." (Flaubert 34-35) In other words, the maid’s novels are the archetypes to those Scottish Highlander books at Wal-mart.  These books breathe a new life to Emma’s already well-developed sense of passion.  Whereas before, she had to flip through the Bible to find the passionate verses, these new books seem to feature a new emotion on every page. 

However, these are not the only books Emma reads while at the convent.  Flaubert writes, “From Walter Scott, subsequently, she conceived a passion for things historical, dreamed about coffers, guard-rooms and minstrels” (Flaubert 35).  He continues, “In those months she made a cult of Mary Stuart, and had an enthusiastic veneration for illustrious ill-fated women…for her they shone out like comets against the black immensity of history” (Flaubert 35).  While Wollstonecraft might argue that these texts count as “good” works that expand the reader’s mind, Emma does not read these texts for their educational purposes; she reads them for the passions and emotions they give her.  Flaubert even insinuates that Emma radically moves from one genre to the next.  First, Emma has a passion for Scott, then a “cult” to Marry Stuart, and finally, moves on to all ill-fated women.  The actual material Emma reads is passionate, but Emma brings her own passionate nature to the texts when she reads them.  While reading and learning about these texts is a good use of Emma’s time, they have the same effect on Emma as the maid’s romance novels did.

The only time Emma reads is when she wants to feel some kind of emotion or when she wants to learn something that will advance her hope to belong to the upper classes of society.  After she and her husband attend a ball at the Marquis d’ Andervilliers’ chateau, Emma “took out a subscription to La Corbeille (a paper for women) and to Le Sylphe des Salons.  She devoured every single word of all of the reviews of first nights, race-meetings and dinner-parties, took an interest in the debut of a singer, the opening of a shop.” (Flaubert 54).  With these subscriptions, Emma voraciously studies everything from furniture to maps of Paris, even going so far as to read at the table during a meal (Flaubert 54).  Although Emma does learn from these subscriptions, one could argue that they do not benefit her state of mind any more than the other texts she reads and instead, only exacerbate her gluttonous desire to learn a lifestyle she has no hope of living.  These subscriptions, like the texts before them, only teach Emma to be discontent with her life and herself.

Although each of these writers addresses the issue of women and books, they do so differently.  Wollstonecraft neatly categorizes books into two categories: those that expand the reader’s mind and those that do not.  Austen never addresses the issue of “bad” books, but through Lydia Bennet, she shows how not reading negatively effects a character’s education. Austen adds to the discussion of women and books the idea that a woman can read “good” books and still lack common intelligence as in Mary Bennet’s case.  For Austen, books serve as means for further characterization of a person’s personality.  Austen’s characters each read (or do not read) whatever they like, and their choices reflect their natures.  Flaubert’s Emma Bovary proves Wollstonecraft’s assessment of the effects “bad” books have on a woman’s mind and view of the world around her.  The books and texts Emma chooses to read do not expand her mind; they only teach her to have unrealistic views of love and happiness and to be discontent with her life.  In each scenario, women choose to read books that reflect the nature they already possess.  Thus, books do not make women sentimental, flighty, passionate, emotional, etc.; they only intensify whatever nature is already present. 

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Bantam, 2003. Print.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. London: Penguin, 2003. Print.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Ed. Miriam Brody. London: Penguin, 2004. Print.