- Asymptotes of Pleasure: Thoughts on the Nature of Roman Erotic Elegy
The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own.—“Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!—Selina would stare when she heard of it.”—But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.
Few would call Jane Austen a writer of erotica. Still, whether they constitute a sincere endorsement of the couple’s wedded bliss, a sardonic comment on the genre’s conventional happy ending, or some complicated mixture of the two, the closing lines of Emma conform to the traditional structure of erotic narrative. The union achieved, the narrative ends. This pattern is typical of Austen’s oeuvre and, in fact, as many readers have noted, of all sorts of works dealing with desire and the path of its gratification. Most of these texts devote the greater part of their energies not to the participants’ ultimate attainment of satisfaction but rather its expectation, its preparation, the imminence of its arrival. By this token, the denouement that arrives at the end of these narratives is causally related to the fact of its conclusion. It is not by chance, then, that the terms we apply to the development of narrative structure—climax, buildup, deflation, thrust, and others—derive from contemporary popular and scientific discourses of sexual activity. [End Page 71] Our critical language reflects the fact that even when the text is not explicitly concerned with erotic desire, its narrative structure remains the same. 1
Diverting, ignoring, or otherwise transgressing the conventional pattern usually introduces conspicuous difficulties for both author and reader. As it happens, Emma is good evidence of this. Austen must struggle to maintain narrative momentum throughout the last section of the book. For while the text does not end until the wedding celebration in the 55th chapter, Emma and Knightley acknowledge their love for one another, and become engaged, at the comparatively early stage of Chapter 49. At that point, the pair returns to her house, an important step in the stylistic routine that Austen regularly adopts at the very end of her novels, the final paragraphs of which generally feature the “removal” of the couple to the home in which they will spend their married lives (see Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and, more indirectly, Northanger Abbey). 2 Only with a perceptible effort does the narrative pick up again in the first paragraph of Chapter 50, with a redundant summary of the previous events (“What totally different feelings did Emma take back into the house from what she had brought out!—she had then been only daring to hope . . . she was now in a flutter”), followed by an abrupt transition to the minor matters of the final six chapters: “As long as Mr. Knightley remained with them, Emma’s fever continued, but when he was gone, she began to be a little tranquilized and subdued.” She is not the only one. Emma’s father lethargically approves the lovers’ plans, in the face of Austen’s earlier efforts to underscore his potential to obstruct them. The novel’s readers are similarly sedated, having long guessed the issue of the few remaining sub-plots. Finally, the wedding takes place—as Mrs. Elton notes, without much fanfare. [End Page 72]
The Pleasures of the Text
In his perceptive and lyrical work on the structure of narrative, Roland Barthes writes that “the pleasure of the text is like that untenable, impossible, purely novelistic instant so relished by Sade’s libertine when he manages to be hanged and then to cut the rope at the very moment of his orgasm, his bliss.” 3 In Barthes’ reading, bliss, or jouissance, represents fulfillment in both textual and sexual forms. It is an unstable phenomenon, he continues in The Pleasure of the Text, “unspeakable, inter-dicted . . . It cannot...