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|At auction in Chapter 2 (long--sorry!)
Written by Ivonne
(9/7/2009 2:01 p.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Is Ch.2 for real?, penned by Anselm
I admit that I am perpetually entranced by the choreographic quality of Chapter 2 (which I have always, without overmuch thought, assumed to have taken place in a single sitting). Were a prize for graceful evil even possible, Fanny would surely be a contender!
I’m intrigued by the process of it all. Fanny does not simply override John’s conviction in what he should do for his father’s family. Rather, she progressively erodes it. By my tally, she talks John down, stepwise, from giving his stepmother and her daughters: (1) three thousand pounds; (2) fifteen hundred pounds; (3) 100 pound annuity for Mrs Dashwood; (4) fifty pounds from time to time; and (5) finally, random acts of “assistance and kindness,” presumably subject to his wife’s veto power. She does so, variously, by: (1) engaging in the cagey calculus by the financial futures of three stepsisters and their mother are worth less than a slice of the fortune of John's only son; (2) diminishing the significance of John’s promise by questioning his father’s state of mind; (3) instilling the fear of loss of independence over his fortune should he provide Mrs Dashwood with an annuity; (4) painting an unrealistically rosy picture of the financial status of the women; (5) momentarily agreeing (or nearly agreeing) with each step downwards, only to undermine it again in the next breath; and finally (6) attacking the value of the obligation to John’s father directly. By chapter's end, Fanny has succeeded in wholly subverting John's initial impulse, virtually pirouetting around every successive battle in her march to victory in the war!
To me this reads like an auction of John’s honor in complying with his deathbed promise to his father, and I have never resolved to my own liking the following question: why does Austen have John and Fanny engage in this incremental march, dedicating an entire chapter to it? It certainly provides a vivid, enduring picture of their selfishness and insularity, and says much about Fanny, John, and their relationship to each other. But why have Fanny go through all this rather than put her foot down from the start? Is she just the Cruella de Ville of Austen novels, so caught up in the rapt enjoyment of skinning the Dashwood women’s financial prospects that she draws out the pleasure as much as she can? Or does she wear away John’s resolve in stages because she knows she would not do as well in a head-on attack when duty is at stake?
Although we are told that John is “rather cold hearted and rather selfish,” we also know that “he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties.” Despite his selfishness, the promise to his father and his own glowing financial situation “warmed his heart, and made him feel capable of generosity,” so much so that he contemplates a gift of three thousand pounds to his stepsisters “all day long, and for many days successively, and he did not repent.” He is obliged by honor implicitly and by promise explicitly, and is not averse to thus fulfilling his obligation (whether even this sum would have met his father's wishes is a whole other question, as noted by BarbJA in this thread). Later, in the midst of the exchange with Fanny, he initially affirms that the promise to his dying father “was given, and must be performed,” which to me hearkens back to the description of him as acting properly in discharging his duties. In the end, it is Fanny’s attack on the gratitude owed his father, who “would have left almost everything in the world” to his wife and daughters, that deals the final blow in overcoming John’s initial resolve.
On this read, at least, it seems to me that Fanny, knowing that John is inclined to act honorably (as he sees it), waits for the opportune moment to undo his resolve by incrementally easing him into comfort with a position he would not take to readily in one go. (This is where I waver, because I cannot imagine what John standing his ground against his wife would look like, however ham-fisted her approach.) This spinelessness in John would make him putty in any wife’s hands. His honor in fulfilling a deathbed promise to his father is available to the highest (or in this case, lowest) bidder. Had he “married a more amiable woman,” rather than the hard-hearted Fanny, would his wife have made him not only “still more respectable than he was,” even “amiable,” but content to part with, say, six thousand pounds, instead of nothing at all?
Any thoughts? (And thanks for your patience with my lengthy post).
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