This is the really out of control paper I wrote in a rapid few hours for Wallace's Romantic British Novel class. It's bad. I don't have a disc to save it on. And so, I am saving it here. Nothing exciting to read. It's completely for my own purposes. So continue reading about people and their sex lives, or lack thereof.
Maria / Mary
When, in the Wrongs of Woman, Mary speaks of “the petty cares which obscured the morning of her heroine’s life; continual restraint in the most trivial matters; unconditional submission to orders, which, as a mere child, she soon discovered to be unreasonable, because inconsistent and contradictory; and the being often obliged to sit, in the presence of her parents, for three or four hours together, without daring to utter a word;” she is, I believe, to be considered as copying the outline of the first period of her own existence. (Godwin 45)
William Godwin wants us to know something. Us: you and I. Yep, me. That’s right, first person case in a paper. To hell with conventions. This is important, as important as it could possibly get. But more so than that, it is necessary. The subject of this paper is I, but it is also you. It is about us. It is about that relationship between the reader, the text, and maybe even the author. It is about why the author is peripheral to the reading of a text, if even that important. It is about that moment of intercourse when the printed words are recited by the reader, by me; where I engage with the text, and through a dialogue between myself and my interpretation of the words, of their combination, hash out meaning.
The something that William Godwin wants us to know is the biography of Mary Wollstonecraft, believing with all his heart that authorial intentions matter, that they are important, that they can help us further uncover the supposed inherent meaning of a text, that in fact, they are the meaning. Godwin leaves little room for the reader in his biography of Wollstonecraft, simply referring to readers in broad, almost patronizing terms as “the public at large” or “the human species at large” – terms that are not all that surprising, considering Godwin’s elitist view of history - that history is determined by individuals, an elite, rather than through broad, historical movements (43). Godwin thinks that this “public at large” (for our purposes, the reader) – that the reader’s role in a text is simply as someone who needs to be taught; that the text “teaches them to place their respect and affection, upon those qualities which best deserve to be esteemed and loved,” (43). Godwin believes that writing “teaches,” not that the reader “teaches themselves” or even that the reader “learns,” but that a text, and its author teach the reader something. The moral didacticism of Godwin leaves the reader with no agency in determining the meaning of the work, of contributing to the artistic process – there is no feedback loop with the reader doing anything to the text – but rather a one-way flow of meaning with the text telling the reader what’s what.
This paper will put aside Godwin’s biography of Wollstonecraft, will try to ignore its biographical details as much as possible, and will now look at the actual text of Maria, will examine the issues that it raised for me, the reader. Roland Barthes’ theories on the “death of the author” will be used to discuss what role the reader should play in the reading of a text, and will be used to further buttress the argument that histories and authorial intentions are really irrelevant to the reading of a text. In addition, it will be argued that Wollstonecraft herself, or at least her text that will be examined, Maria – that the text itself makes a similar argument. The actual structure of the novel will be looked at, examining the three different speakers in the story, Mary, Jemima, and Darnford, who each tell their own story, each of them essentially an author. Each of their narratives and their narratives’ receptions will be examined, showing that the author’s personal experiences do play a role in shaping the text, in fact, probably even determine it, but the marginalia scenes of the early part of the novel show that when a text is actually read, authorial intentions do not matter at all, that instead all that is important is the reader’s own dialogue with the text, and their own creation of meaning.
The author is a modern figure, a product of our society insofar as, emerging from the Middle Ages with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, of, as it is more nobly put, the ‘human person’. It is thus logical that in literature it should be this positivism, the epitome and culmination of capitalist ideology, which has attached the greatest importance to the ‘person’ of the author. The author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines, as in the very consciousness of men of letters anxious to unite their person and their work through diaries and memoirs. The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions, while criticism still consists for the most part in saying that Baudelaire’s work is the failure of Baudelaire the man, Van Gogh’s his madness, Tchaikovsky’s his vice. The explanation of a work is always sought in the man or woman who produced it, as if it were always in the end, through the more or less transparent allegory of the fiction, the voice of a single person, the author ‘confiding’ in us. (Barthes)
A reading of Maria that searches for parallels between Wollstonecraft’s life and that of Maria’s is one that should be guarded against. Barthes’ assertion that the field of literature has tended to be “tyrannically centred on the author” must be kept in mind when doing a reading of Maria. What purpose does it serve to say that Maria and Mary had similar childhoods? The “so what?” must be asked when parallels are attempted to be drawn between the two. What does that mean to say they had similar childhoods? It may mean that authors use their life experiences as the material of fiction. But, that tells us nothing about us, about me, you - we, the readers. Looking at authorial intent, or more accurately, trying to look at it, believing that you could ever know it does nothing to further the process of reading, of showing our relation to the text; what it does instead is merely tell us about the first step in the process of creating a text, it tells us nothing about the text itself. The desire to know about the author, to try to figure them out is another manifestation of the cult of the individual that Godwin is a proponent of, the same cult of the individual that has since spawned supermarket tabloids, tell-all biographies, and Britney Spears. It does seem a little hyperbolic to compare the manufacturing of teen pop stars to a concern with finding out events in an author’s life to further a reading of a text. But, in actuality, the two curious urges seem to have similar origins. Our desires to find parallels between the lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Maria stem from the same curiosity with the lives of others, it is a product of the cult of the individual - the belief that individuals, like Godwin argues, are in fact, the agents responsible for historical change, giving ourselves a perhaps inflated sense of self-worth, that individuals matter, thus being an individual, I matter. A reading that does this, that searches for how Maria is really Mary is problematic because it diverts attention away from issues that arise from the actual text, from our reading of it.
Not only that, but the text of Maria itself is evidence that the meaning of a narrative lies within the reader, that yes, obviously, personal events and tragedies are going to influence what a writer writes, but the author and their intentions are not important to the reader’s interpretation. A reading that searched for parallels between Maria and Mary is one that would ignore the message of the book – that the reader creates the meaning of a work. This is seen explicitly in one of the first scenes in the novel, in which Maria examines the marginalia left by Darnford.
Some marginal notes, in Dryden’s Fables, caught her attention: they were written with force and taste; and in one of the modern pamphlets, there was a fragment left, containing various observations on the present society and government, with a comparative view of the politics of Europe and America. These remarks were written with a degree of generous warmth, when alluding to the enslaved state of the labouring majority, perfectly in unison with Maria’s mode of thinking. (34)
The authors of these books are not important here at all, what instead is the subject of these sentences is the marginal notes left in the text by Darnford, which is in effect, Darnford’s (a reader’s) own interpretations of these texts. This is almost a proto- reader response theory with the reader of a text having an active engagement with the text, one in which they personally respond to the text, describing their own encounters with the text, hashing out meaning not dependent upon the author, but upon their own (the reader’s) interpretation of the text.
The reading of a text is essentially a dialogue between the reader and the text. From this dialogue, meaning is created. Wollstonecraft makes this point even more explicit a little bit later, by having Maria also actively engage with a text (as opposed to engaging just with Darnford’s marginalia concerning the text). “She took up a book on the powers of the human mind; but, her attention strayed from cold arguments on the nature of what she felt, while she was feeling, and she snapt the chain on the theory to read Dryden’s Guiscard and Sigismunda,” (35). Wollstonecraft has Maria read a book on the powers of the human mind, one which is supposed to tell her about her feelings, how she feels and why, but it does not jive with Maria, the text fails to connect with its reader, and Maria, being the powerful reader with agency that she is clips the chain of the theory, liberates herself from books that do not move her and instead reads books that do. It is such an empowering moment for the reader here, knowing that meaning is determined by us, that we have the ability to cut the chains of any books we don’t like, any ones that don’t move us, and read ones that do.
In none of the books she reads, the books Darnford has already read, is there a desire to find out information about the author, to question how the author’s past manifests itself in their works. What instead, we (the readers) see when we read and examine these two readers and their reading of texts are marginal notes that are expressions of their singular reading of the text, of their own reactions to it, and their own thoughts. The text is actually (re)created in their reading of it.
The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biography, psychology; he is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which the written text is constituted. (Barthes)
We also see this same reader-empowering idea in the three stories that are told in this novel, that of Darnford, Jemima, and Maria – the idea that the meaning of a narrative is determined by the reader, that all that matters is how the text affects the reader. In Jemima’s story, there is almost a cathartic telling of her biography, of just wanting to be heard, to share her pain with someone else, which would make it seem that the intentions of the writer are very important. But, then right after she finishes at the beginning of Chapter 6, we have Maria’s personal reaction to Jemima’s story, how it affected her.
Active as love was in the heart of Maria, the story she had just heard made her thoughts take a wider range... Thinking of Jemima’s peculiar fate and her own, she was led to consider the oppressed state of women, and to lament that she had given birth to a daughter. Sleep fled from her eyelids, while she dwelt on the wretchedness of unprotected infancy, till sympathy with Jemima changed to agony, when it seemed probable that her own babe might be in the very state she forcibly described. (70)
Jemima’s pain and suffering are without a doubt the juice of her story. The actual content of her narrative is the story of her life, events that have happened to her, horrible events that have happened to her, but then right after she finishes her story, in a transition that can seem almost callous or self-absorbed, we then have Maria personally responding to Jemima’s story. But she does not respond thinking about the injustices Jemima has suffered, instead Jemima’s story leads her to think about the injustices that she, herself has suffered from. And this does seem like a slightly self-absorbed moment, and it may very well be, but if that is the case, then the act of reading is a self-absorbed one. Maria actively engages with the story, relating it to her own life, and lets it lead her to wonder about the fate of her own child. This is what reading is supposed to do, it is supposed to conjure up personal reactions, responses that remind us that we are in fact human beings, and sometimes capable of being emotionally excited by things, words even. Maria does not concern herself with wondering how Jemima’s life affected the way in which her story was told, how some childhood events determined her narrative technique. No, that stuff is even more self-absorbed, and totally beside the point. That stuff is irrelevant. The meaning of the text, as argued by Barthes, and as demonstrated in Maria, lies within the reader, within you and I.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” (http://www.eiu.edu/~literary/4950/barthes.htm)
Godwin, William. Memoirs of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Ontario: Broadview, 2001.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975.