Fighting The (Good?) Fight

My blood is still boiling.  My breath seethes. I may look like I am smiling, but really my teeth are on edge. For over a week, the conversation– that began innocently enough– has run an endless loop in my brain.  With each new loop comes a swift kick to my butt.  I had had a rebuttal, but I didn’t give it.  Now it jabs, bobs, and weaves in my mind, waiting to be let loose on my opponent.  It screams for justice, for victory, for the declaration of “I AM RIGHT!”.

What was this conversation that got my panties in a bunch?  That has had me on edge all week?  Alright, I’ll tell you.  It will be a relief to declare my evidence– so unwillfully withheld and stewing in my cranium: “Of course Charles Dickens had class consciousness!  His dad was sent to a debtor’s prison, and he was pulled out of school to work in a factory to pay off his dad’s debt!  Dickens would have to be a complete knucklehead to NOT have class consciousness!  AND it was this experience that drove him to be rich and successful!  Jane Austen lived a life of relative comfort and wanted for nothing!  It’s not like there was an Occupy Steventon or Occupy Bath when she was growing up!”

Whew!  That was like cutting open an infected wound and letting all of the puss slide out.  Oh, the relief!  And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is what my friends and I argue about.

Why didn’t I give my rebuttal when I had the chance?  A variety of factors: I haven’t thought of Dicken’s childhood in a very long time and didn’t have that information right at the tip of my tongue; I was exhausted and recovering from a headache; the conversation moved quickly; I think associatively, and my rebuttal at the time was, “Comparing Austen to Dickens is like comparing Dickinson to Whitman: both lived during the Civil War, but one wrote about it and the other didn’t.  Should we fault Dickinson for not writing about soldiers and battles?  She wrote about private stuff and her home life, as did Austen.”  I think, also, I felt a bit personally on the defensive.  In defending Austen for not being class-conscious, I was defending myself for liking her novels and gleefully watching Downton Abbey.  So the class structure was awful in England.  People were butlers and second lady’s maids.  There were rich people and middling rich people.  It’s how it was. Should I not watch Gone With The Wind because it has slaves?  Should I not watch Dead Poets’ Society because the prep school didn’t admit girls?

How did Dickens get in the mix?  I was agreeing to the fact that Austen is not very class-conscious in regards to the lower class, but was for people who were just below her station, at her station, or above her station.  However, her way of life didn’t really call on her to be aware of those far beneath her.  My friend retorted, “Dickens did, and he lived at that same time.  This is just as bad as saying the Founding Fathers didn’t know that slavery was bad.  They knew.”  You can imagine how that got steam coming out of my ears.  This is why I wish I had said what I wanted to about Dickens.  It would have nipped that line  of thought in the bud.

But I am serious when I say that I’ve been stewing over this for a week.  It has become my internal soundtrack.  All it does is make me mad.  And frustrated. Why is it so important that I get the last word on this one? Why have I been unable to let it go? Why do I have to rehash all of this all of the time?  I have tried to end the discussion in my head, letting myself know that I can take quiet joy in the fact that I am right and that she doesn’t know that much about Dickens’s life if she’s going to make that hasty comparison.  I have killed many negative conversations in my head before, because, really, there’s nothing that can be done about them.  The conversation is done and over with.  To go back and say, “Um, Dickens grew up in poverty…” makes me petty, holding onto something that has fallen off everyone else’s radar.  This conversation, however, will not die.

Part of the reason I think it remains on life-support is that my friend is very intelligent and confident.  I constantly feel like I need to prove myself. She is also very quick with a retort, while I need time to process my information, to weigh the validity and veracity of my response. She has passed start and collected her $200 a few times while I’m still on St. James Place.  I kind of feel like a dunce.  The thing is, I don’t think she realizes she does this.  I also think that she probably doesn’t see me as a dunce, but it’s how I feel.  My little nugget about Dickens is my redemption, my “Get-Out-Of-Jail Free” card, but unlike that card, Dickens’s childhood will not get played.

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26 thoughts on “Fighting The (Good?) Fight

  1. I, too, suffer from a brain-tongue disconnect, so I feel your pain. Francine Prose addresses this type of discussion so eloquently in her book, Reading Like a Writer:

    “Only once did my passion for reading steer me in the wrong direction, and that was when I let it persuade me to go to graduate school. There, I soon realized that my love for books was unshared by many of my classmates and professors. I found it hard to understand what they DID love, exactly, and this gave me an anxious quiver that would later seem like a warning about what would happen to the teaching of literature over the decade or so after I dropped out of my Ph.D. program. That was when literary academia split into warring camps of deconstructionists, Marxists, feminists, and so forth, all battling for the right to tell students that they were reading “texts” in which ideas and politics trumped what the writer had actually written.

    I left graduate school and became a writer.”

    Hilarious.

    You must do one of two things: confront your friend soon with this revelation, or stop wasting all your psychic energy on something she’s probably long forgotten. I have a feeling that if you confront her, she’ll find some other slick way of gaining the upper hand, leaving you grasping at straws. Perhaps you should minimize your contact with this person if this happens frequently. It’s not good for you.

    1. I love literary criticism for what it can reveal about texts, but when it becomes first and the text becomes secondary, I tune out. Sometimes people lose sight of the story and the reasons why the author wrote it. As for my friend, I am not going to tell her about my thoughts about Dickens, and I don’t see her that often. It was frustrating because I enter conversations to discuss and explore ideas and possibilities, not out of a need to one-up someone or be smarter, but she needs to turn a lot of topics into debates. Writing about my frustration helped alleviate my mind. I appreciate your advice. 🙂

  2. Whoa! If you ever want to feel like you’re not a dunce just have a conversation with ME about literature. Because, yeah, this is all WAY beyond me. I can relate to coming up with the perfect rebuttal after the fact. Truthfully, I don’t think many people have the perfect response in the moment.

    1. I’m still holding onto a response that I wish I gave a woman over ten years ago (she was horrid!). It would be awesome if just once in our lives we could have the perfect response– followed by cheering people picking us up and carrying us on their shoulders. You know, I can return the favor, you can talk to me about engineering and math.

  3. I know what it feels like to revise debates and discussions later on in my head and thinking “if only i had said that”…. “the if only” constantly keeps nagging me at the back of my head. And it does make you petty to go back and tell them that they were wrong the other day!
    About Dickens and Austen, I like them both so no comments there. 😉

    1. I’m glad I don’t have to duke it out with you over Dickens and Austen! The thing about our “if onlys”… I wonder how often they would really change the course or tenor of the conversation. I’ve had some conversations with some people who had unreasonable positions on a topic, tried to persuade them to a more moderate position, and then failed. Some people want to be stubborn for the sake of being stubborn.

  4. I usually have my best replies–much later to my mirror reflection also. Great post and I didn’t know about Charles Dickens childhood–wow I think of his quote Christmas Carol–Aren’t there enough workhouses? for the orphans. I have an idea for next meeting with girlfriend–just take your phone in bathroom to google fact check then let your retort fly! 🙂

    1. That was my problem! I left my phone home that night and couldn’t fact check! Note to self: never leave phone at home. What a funny image: asking, “Can you hold that thought?”, scurrying to the loo, and scurrying back to give the deposition. Ha! This ranks right up there with giving popsicles to religious people who knock on my door. 🙂

  5. Yeah, it might seem trivial, but it’s really tough to let that stuff go sometimes.

    But comparing Dickens and Austen that way–and saying essentially that Dickens was “better” because he had more class consciousness–is: a) irrelevant, since there really is no real basis for this particular comparison between them; b) a matter of taste, anyway; and c) kind of sexist, since it denigrates the feminine POV and experience that Austen writes about by saying that Dickens’ male experience of the world was more valid, nuanced, and aware.

    There. I’ve just added my two cents to an argument I’m not even involved in. That should tell you something about me. I also don’t like Dickens very much.

    1. The next time I’m in an argument, will you please have the courtesy to be there for when my mind goes blank? I’m with you on all of your points– especially your third one. I don’t think my friend intended to be sexist, but it is implied in the comparison. Dickens’s gender gave him a lot more leeway in London society than Austen ever would have had. The comparison also implied that since they lived in the same country, that they should have the same concerns. Since Dickens was a kid at the time Austen died, I’m sure the England he knew, one in the full swing of the Industrial Revolution, looked a lot different from Austen’s. But as you said, it’s irrelevant since we’re not comparing apples to apples. Thank you for your two cents!

      1. Should I give you me number so you can call anytime, day or night?

        I’ve long held the belief that someday they’re going to find out which gene causes people to be argumentative and name it after my family. We’re a bunch of arguers that don’t seem to be happy unless we’re disagreeing–quite loudly–over something.

  6. I’m sure you could find a lot of literary criticism showing Dickens was class-conscious.

    And Austen was pretty radical considering where she came from. What with her plots insinuating that marrying a man in the navy should be respectable. And “Persuasion”? I think that main character was about 29, and it was kind of liberal for her to show that someone can get married at 29. I know, I know, marriage isn’t traditional, but everything requires context.

    1. We all agreed that Dickens was class-conscious; the argument was that since Dickens was class-conscious, Austen should be, too. It was a criticism against her for not recognizing the lower class in her novels– which is a valid point– she doesn’t. However, unlike Dickens, writing about the lower class was not on her agenda. Instead it was to explore women’s roles in society and marriage as you point out. She clearly saw the inequities of women’s stations in life and all of the things that can affect their livelihoods. It’s been a long time since I read Persuasion– I will have to reread it.

      1. Oh, I see. Sorry, I guess I misunderstood that.

        Austen lived at an earlier time period than Dickens. She also comes from a totally different background. So arguing that she should do something because Dickens did is silly, in my opinion. That’s like saying Jack Kerouac and Flannery O’Connor should’ve recognized the same things in their writing because they wrote in the 1950s. OR am I misunderstanding the argument again?

      2. No, you hit it right on the head! My point exactly. It is a totally unreasonable expectation to think Austen would have the same concerns as a man who lived– in a different class, city, way of life– after she had died. You can see why I was exasperated when my mind drew a blank and I couldn’t state one fact about all of this. Kerouac and O’Connor is a great analogy.

      3. Thanks. I understand drawing a blank though and not coming up with how to explain something until later. It happens to me all the time, and it’s aggravating because I can’t just go and say, well, that casual discussion we were having five hours earlier–I’ve got a retort for that.

      4. Yeah, that five hours kind of takes the wind out of it. This is why having a blog is so great– I can share my retort with all the world. Aren’t you all just so darn lucky to have the privilege to read it or what?! ;)(On another note, don’t answer that…)

  7. I can understand the feeling of helplessness when you don’t have the immediate winning rebuttal in hand.
    But take heart…..you have won hands-down!!!
    I totally agree about the Jane Austen part.
    This situation has happened to me quite a few times….

    1. I didn’t realize that I had a blog-army of supporters! When I am in that position of helplessness, I want to state, “I KNOW this, really I do! I will remember it shortly– like tomorrow.” : )

      1. We are always here for you Amy!
        Believe me…it happens!
        And i feel really irritated with myself when i remember the winning points afterwards…lol 🙂 🙂 🙂

  8. Oh it happens all d time, dear Amy 🙂 And it feels stupid when we cant remember it at d required moment of question.. but its all part of embarrassing n fun category of our life 😉

  9. Ah…I see the literature folks have the same white-hot debates that classical musicians do. Did Tchaikovsky actually commit suicide? If he did, was it due to latent homosexual tendencies and the societal structures of the time? Why did Chopin keep company with Georges Sands, and WHY did she name herself Georges? Is Steve Reich’s “……………………………” as socially provocative as Phillip Glass’s “……………………………….”? And no, the answer you’re looking for will almost NEVER be there when you’re looking for it! Yet, we’ll beat ourselves up forever once we have the perfect rejoinder… 6 hours after the argument is over… Take heart! It’ll happen again! 🙂

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