I remember one of my first class discussions in literature studies. We had to discuss reader perspectives and the dichotomy of reader expectations: identification or estrangement? To put things simply, readers who love science-fiction novels or reading about magical realms tend to seek estrangement. Readers who want realistic plots and flawed protagonists read for identification. In my literary life I found that escapism is common for both readers. You can just as easily get lost in an intensely realistic reading experience as you can in fantasy.
One of my latest reads was Charlotte Brontë’s The Professor, which became a strange series of identification. The Professor relates the story of a young man finding his way in the professional world after becoming financially independent from his guardians. After a failed attempt in trade, he has the opportunity to try teaching and that’s when I felt my felt moment of identification.
My very first job as a graduate was as a substitute English teacher. Without any experience or training, I had to teach classes of 15 to 20-year olds. Much like the protagonist William Crimsworth, I had to convince a class of 35 students that they should listen to me and be quiet. When William teaches his first class of girls, his experience is so similar to mine that I was shocked by how little has changed over time. A few girls sitting at the front pretend like he doesn’t exist and can’t hear him while they give their undiluted opinion about him. When a dictation follows (easiest way to test students’ knowledge in a calm way), they interrupt every second with exclamations like “What did you say?”, “You’re going too fast”, “I don’t understand any of this” and “What do you call a dot with a comma in English?”, all the while looking around at anything but their paper.
This I remember all too vividly from my own experience, together with the frustrating thought that if they would just stop talking and interrupting they would hear what I said. But that was just too much logic to handle. In sum, I understand the disappointment William felt when he realised their will to learn was not as strong as he hoped, and that respect given is not always respect received. (I tried to be the ‘cool teacher’ for about ten seconds until I found that being that bitch was a lot more effective.)
Now, where I had expected to feel identification in this novel, all I found was estrangement. William Crimsworth travels to Belgium to try his luck there. But his account of the Belgians (my own nationality) was unexpected, to say the least. Let’s begin with the first misconception: all Flemish people are stupid and coarse. Hm. Can’t say I agree. His contempt for the inhabitants of the northern half of Belgium was really astounding at times. Actually, the narrator goes even further to insist that Belgians are intrinsically egotistical, hypocritical and amoral, as all Catholics are. Being an atheist myself, as most young people in Belgium are (or so I tell myself), I didn’t quite know how I felt about this statement.
Normally, when I am confronted with a biographical analysis, I am the first to quote Roland Barthes and shout “THE AUTHOR IS DEAD, YOU FOOL!!” However, in this case I feel that an exploration of Charlotte Brontë’s life might be useful. She had in fact spent a while in Belgium, working as a teacher. You can’t help but wonder whether the protagonist’s opinion about the Flemish reflect the author’s own feelings.
As someone who grew up under atheist parents, I myself can’t comment on the Flemish Catholic mindset, nor can I provide much insight into 19th century Catholicism in Belgium. However, anyone can tell you that the word “hypocrisy” is often thrown around in heated debates about the institution of the Roman-Catholic church. And let’s be honest: Great Britain is known for its eventful past in relation to Catholicism (and especially Rome).
Perhaps these opinions reflect the actual view of our protestant writer, or perhaps she is just reflecting on the complex European interrelations of her time, or even tensions among the different peoples of Belgium themselves. To truly investigate this part of the novel, I’d have to explore the concepts of New Historicism … and that would mean I’d have to relive some university traumas I swore I would never revisit. I promise my next post will be a close reading that would make even my most conservative professors proud! (Yeah…no)
So did this reader feel identification or estrangement? We will have to settle on a strange mixture of both. On the surface, there were many elements I felt exactly corresponded with my own experiences. On the other hand, it was a different time then and the historical context of this book was very far from my own world. Nevertheless, I would argue that reading this book reminded me yet again that we treat the past as a strange place with strange customs. We often believe the people from the past don’t really have that same complex emotional life as we do: they toiled, they married, and they died. They were oppressed by the age they lived in in that they wouldn’t even have understood the concept of the notion of freedom.
To me, the biggest anachronism is this odd belief that the past didn’t have the same feelings and experiences as our present day. As if people in the past were somehow underdeveloped in their emotions and thoughts by simply being born in an earlier time. Literary identification helps fight this type of anachronistic prejudice. On that note, let’s end with one my new favourite quotes by L.P. Hartley:
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.