BY SHREYA VARDHAN
“Well, my comfort is, I am sure Jane will die of a broken heart, and then he will be sorry for what he has done.”
-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Mrs. Bennet’s hopes in this regard were to remain unfulfilled — her daughter Jane did not die of a broken heart after Mr. Bingley’s inexplicable abandonment. Another of Austen’s characters, however, did come dangerously close to such a fate — Marianne Dashwood of Sense and Sensibility, whose hopes regarding one charming John Willoughby were cruelly dashed, spent the greatest part of the book in a state of escalating illness caused supposedly by her grief. Marianne’s illness is reminiscent of that of Kitty Scherbatsky in Anna Karenina: when it becomes clear that her love for Count Vronsky, which has all through been encouraged and callously humored by him, is in fact unrequited, a mixture of shock, grief and shame puts Kitty in a state of terrible physical suffering — something very like tuberculosis. After a frightening spell, the illness goes away when she discovers anew the greater things in life, such as religion, service, and Konstantin Levin, the inelegant but kind-hearted admirer she had turned down in her former infatuation.
Tolstoy and Austen, with their keen skills of observation, must have seen how impossible or rare it is for emotional anguish to lead so directly to recognizable physical illnesses — indeed, this rarely seems to happen outside of classical writers’ romanticism or Douglas Adams’s wit (Of Ford Prefect, a resident of the planet Betelgeuse in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Adams tells us: “Because Ford never learned to say his original name, his father eventually died of shame, which is still a terminal disease in some parts of the Galaxy.”). Neither of the writers described these illnesses with tongue in cheek; Kitty and Marianne are not like (for instance) Mrs. Bennet with her nervous troubles, who would imagine a sentimentally aroused illness for herself and be perfectly convinced of it; they are characters we are expected to empathize with, and their illnesses are sincere. Why, then, did they choose to have their characters’ anguish manifest itself in such a way? And why, where Austen is concerned, must this happen in Marianne’s case but not in Jane’s?
All stories involve, and to a great extent are shaped by, challenges or tragic circumstances of one kind or another, but there is decidedly a line that can be drawn somewhere between relatively happier books and sadder ones. Nor would the distinction be made purely, or even majorly, on the basis of the end: it is more about the tone of the book through the middle, the emotional responses of the characters to their situations — the net amount of suffering. In both Kitty’s and Marianne’s cases, the intensity of the anguish and despair is shown to be deeper than the ordinary; there is an absolute detachment from happiness.
Their frames of mind are also amorphous. In both cases, there is an element of confusion mixed in with the sadness that makes it all the more tormenting: they are unaware of the exact nature of their grief. It would not do for the narrator to tell the reader at the outset that the real cause of Kitty’s pain is the injury to her vanity or that Willoughby’s despicable self-centeredness lies at the core of Marianne’s unhappiness; we must arrive at these conclusions later, when they precipitate from the character’s analyses or epiphanies. For instance, such a moment of clarity occurs when Marianne hears the details of Willoughby’s eventual apology, sees that he is preoccupied even here with his own unhappiness rather than hers, and understands that he has never cared about much more than his own selfish desires.
The challenge before the writer is then this: they must describe grief of unusual intensity without ever defining the precise nature of the grief. Illness — a state of simply not being well, being removed in a definite way from happiness, health, and general wellness — presents a solution to this. By employing disease in this way, the writer can have something more vivid than the word sadness or devastation to show for internal suffering, and he or she can leave the causes mysterious and unresolved. It is the kind of illness of spirit that Hamlet speaks of when he says to Horatio, “Thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart.” In Hamlet, also, the inner misery finds outward display in illness: madness.
There is and has always been an ambiguity as to whether Hamlet was truly mad or only shrewdly pretending to be so, and in a number of instances we find characters who wish for sickness or death to replace the ambiguity of their situations with the definite recognition of their suffering. Anna of Anna Karenina, for instance, is wholly convinced that she will die in childbirth, and looks forward to the event with a morbid excitement. Her motivation here is then similar to that of Tolstoy and Austen when they make their characters fall physically sick somewhat inexplicably: to create a physical manifestation of mental suffering.
The characters’ desire for sickness seems to be as much for others‘ sake as for themselves, as a form of either revenge or atonement. Mrs. Bennet, for instance, manages to take others‘ feelings into consideration before her own: the changeful Bingley’s repentance on seeing the damage he had caused was clearly more important than the claims of her own maternal affection. Likewise, Anna Karenina’s death during her confinement would have redeemed her in the eyes of both her husband and her lover, and her own life would evidently be a reasonable price to pay.
Physical disintegration is, however, certainly not the only way in which chaotic emotional suffering has been represented in literature. Moses Herzog in Saul Bellow’s Herzog is the epitome of suffering — he apparently “once had the makings of a clever character,” but in middle age is trying to recover from a humiliating marriage which ended when his wife, Madeleine, abandoned him for his best friend. Moreover, his youthful dream of becoming a great social philosopher has over the years lost all its value, and he can safely be called a failure in both professional and personal life. It is interesting that despite all this, Herzog’s physical health is excellent, and that this fact is not merely mentioned in passing but emphasized, as the man “had done his best to be sick.” The lack of physical pain corresponding to the mental trauma seems, if anything, to add to his torment.
Herzog’s suffering is made known to us through a narration of his thoughts — a brilliant narration in which the chaotic, half-formed, and occasionally fluent character of thoughts is retained — and through spontaneous, rambling letters that he is seized by the urge to write to everyone, including the dead. He never mails these, of course, and writes with fascinating frankness. The sad, stirred state of his mind is reflected by both the contents of these letters and their very existence. This is a strange, beautiful, and very effective evocation.
In Jane Bennet of Pride and Prejudice we see yet another alternative. Perhaps the answer to why Jane’s broken heart did not affect her other physiological functions lies in the fact that her grief, while equally or more intense, did not have the amorphous, incompletely understood character of Marianne’s or Kitty’s. The injustice she is faced with is clearly defined yet deeply felt, there are no faults of attitude or perception that she herself can be faulted with in this case, and the silence with which she bears it (not complaining even through her health) is moving.
At the same time, it is hard to say if this silence of both the character and the narrator (Austen never really described Jane’s thoughts as she did Elizabeth’s) lets the reader be sufficiently mindful of the character’s sorrow. An objective look would suggest that Jane suffered more than Elizabeth over the course of the book, but closer contact with Elizabeth’s feelings led to a far more acute sense of her travails. The most effective way of showing internal conflict, then, is probably to provide in some way an account of the thoughts that are in conflict — the things we channel our thoughts into, such as letters or even conversations, can clearly be used in interesting ways in aid of this account — and describe the difficult details of the search for harmony.
Shreya Vardhan ’17 ([email protected]) wonders if she should be upset that the word suffering appeared eight times in this article despite diligent efforts to use other synonyms- nine now.