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Nina Pelikan Straus EMMA, ANNA, TESS: SKEPTICISM, BETRAYAL, AND DISPLACEMENT The philosopher Donald Davidson, arguing against certain claims that radical skeptics make, offers us a way to describe what Flaubert, Hardy, and Tolstoy are doing with their adulterous heroines. Davidson suggests that a radically revised view of the relation of mind and world, of subject/object dualism, "is occurring in philosophy today," and that "the very possibility of thought demands shared standards of truth and objectivity."1 Although Davidson does not discuss how debates about the woman question and feminism have contributed to this change, three works of nineteenth-century literature expose the contribution. Skepticism about conventions and traditions, a relativistic reevaluating of values regarding men's and women's relations: this philosophical crisis vitalizes the fictions ofFlaubert, Tolstoy, and Hardy. It also brings up the question of why the crisis is associated with a certain plot the three novels share: the-betrayal in love of a beautiful young woman and her death. The relation of the heroine's "mind" to the "world" is dramatized in Madame Bovary through Flaubert's contrasts between the "silver-gold atmosphere" of Emma's dreaming mind and her "flat as a sidewalk" reality with Charles (pp. 60, 85) .2 Skepticism is explored in Anna Karenina3 through comparisons between Levin's resolutions of it and Anna's nihilistic struggles with it.4 It is the subject of Hardy's Tess ofthe d'Urbervilles,5 a novel in which the narrator cannot decide if "the world is a psychological phenomenon" (p. 120) or the creation of a "President of the Immortals" beyond human comprehension (p. 449). Although each novel is about certain philosophical, ethical, and sexual doubts and the way that "society" punishes women who experience or Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 72-90 Nina Pelikan Straus73 act upon them, we do not have a sense that the writer shares a "standard of truth" with his heroine. A woman's mind can be sympathized with and the mind's experience can serve as the author's mirror: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," says Flaubert, but does he mean it? Certainly the male author's attempt to grasp the ambiguous "world," to finalize some meaning within its perceived shifting boundaries, takes place through women. Yet women, it seems, do not learn what they need to learn from fictional or authorial men. If the narrator and reader grasp some bit of the world's reality through each novel, it is also clear by each novel's end that the woman character loses her grip on the world and falls. This bothers some readers who will ask why the three novelists chose women figures as carriers of a skeptical world view in the first place. Stanley Cavell notes that in his "Conjectural Beginning of Human History" Kant speaks of the origin of reason as "a kind of 'refusal,' a power of opposition."6 In what way does a woman's adultery work as a symbol of refusal in a novel's plot, but also as a kind of reason and power? Whose "shared standards of truth" are disrupted by Emma, Anna, and Tess so that they must be cast out of each novel's world? Discussing all three authors, Elizabeth Ermarth argues that "neither Flaubert nor Hardy is unaware of the implications for formal consensus of the social failures they represent." But she also suggests that "to the extent that each narrator maintains a homogenous, neutral temporal medium the formal consensus stands," and "the heroine participates in this common system as a sacrifice not a survivor." Each heroine becomes the novel's casualty because "the gaze of others does not confirm these women by corroborating their own views and linking them with others."7 The feminist notion that the women may possess alternate views, but that "the gaze" of others undermines those views, goes some way towards an explanation that itself provokes other questions. If each woman becomes a casualty, is this because the threat of skepticism exposed in each novel is associated with tremendous anxiety, and not only about women's emancipation? What seems to be at stake for each nineteenth-century novelist is "ontological terror of the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 72-90
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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