01 November 2008

Confronting the uncanny

[This is my second post in the Emily of New Moon discussion over at Blogging Anne of Green Gables.]

I'm up to Chapter 14 ("Fancy Fed") and have so many notes I'm going to try to group them by theme. I think this is also pretty telling of my sense of the differences between Anne and Emily. The former had me merely keeping track of her literary allusions, the latter is leading me into slightly darker territory and urging me to do a little more than simply copy quotations. All is not "sweetness and light" here. Perhaps that is one of the reasons Anne has so many more readers?

In reading about "the flash" I'm reminded of the sudden stabs of "joy" that C.S. Lewis described as beginning in his early childhood. Without going too deeply into it, he later linked it to the German idea of Sehnsucht (or "longing") that was an aspect of German Romanticism and a key part of the work of Novalis (particularly, the "blue flower"), who (incidently) hugely influenced George MacDonald (the Scottish author of At the Back of the North Wind and many many other things (Tori Amos is said to be currently working on the music to a stage adaptation of The Light Princess)--Lewis Carroll credits him with giving him the courage to have Alice's Adventures in Wonderland published). Of course, Lewis was heavily influenced by MacDonald as well.

Anyway, what's important for now is just to keep in mind this sense of something "other" that illuminates and inspires Emily at unexpected times.

Now. Aside from the trauma of the death of her father and sudden changes in her life, the first glimpse Emily gets of something truly strange is when Cousin Jimmy is showing her around his garden (in Chapter 7, "The Book of Yesterday"):
Emily's heart swelled with pride.

"It's a noble house," she said.

"And what about my garden?" demanded Cousin Jimmy jealousy [sic].

"It's fit for a queen," said Emily, gravely and sincerely.

Cousin Jimmy nodded, well pleased, and then a strange sound crept into his voice and an odd look into his eyes.

"There is a spell woven round this garden. The blight shall spare it and the green worm pass it by. Drought dares not invade it and the rain comes here most gently."

Emily took an involuntary step backward--she almost felt like running away. But now Cousin Jimmy was himself again.
This happens throughout the books--Cousin Jimmy's "spells" are attributed to the fact that he nearly died after being accidentally knocked into a well as a child (by Aunt Elizabeth). He's never been the same since...and also composes poetry, which he keeps "in his head" and will recite only "when the spirit moves him."

And then we come to Chapter 10 ("Growing Pains"). I don't want to describe too much of the story for those who have not yet read it, but Emily is about to have her hair cut off against her will:
Aunt Elizabeth returned with the scissors; they clicked suggestively as she opened them; that click, as if by magic, seemed to loosen something--some strange formidable power in Emily's soul. She turned deliberately around and faced her aunt. She felt her brows drawing together in an unaccustomed way--she felt an uprush as from unknown depths of some irresistible surge of energy.

"Aunt Elizabeth," she said, looking straight at the lady with the scissors, "my hair is not going to be cut off. Let me hear no more of this."

An amazing thing happened to Aunt Elizabeth. She turned pale--she laid the scissors down--she looked aghast for one moment at the transformed or possessed child before her--and then for the first time in her life Elizabeth Murray turned tail and fled--literally fled--to the kitchen.

"What is the matter, Elizabeth?" cried Laura, coming in from the cook-house.

"I saw--father--looking from her face," gasped Elizabeth, trembling. "And she said, 'Let me hear no more of this'--just as he always said it--his very words."

Emily overheard her and ran to the sideboard mirror. She had had, while she was speaking, an uncanny feeling of wearing somebody else's face instead of her own.
She is also frightened of what has happened, especially since it's completely involuntary. She can't assume "the Murray look" when she wants to.

Of course, something else happens that enables Aunt Elizabeth to get back at Emily, and she is "locked in the spare room and told that she must stay there till bedtime."

It's really interesting to do a parallel reading of this scene with the famous one in Jane Eyre. There are a lot of similarities: the dark room, the large bed, the fact that people have died there, the type of fear that invades the souls of these two young girls, etc. But where Jane passes out, Emily climbs out the window.

What I want to point out is that in describing the room, Montgomery adds something else:
Worst of all, right across the room from her, high up on top of the black wardrobe, was a huge, stuffed, white Arctic owl, staring at her with uncanny eyes.
There's that word again. I've checked with this handy "search" feature and Montgomery uses the word "uncanny" at least eight times--the first two within three or four pages of each other. (Also, you can find "possessed" at least five times and "possess" three. But this search tool is not perfect because it misses all of the uses of these words. For example, it says that there are no instances of "possession," although it's right there in Chapter 13.)

This part of Emily's story strongly reminds me of one of the better digressions in Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves (or at least, one of the few I still remember, having read the book about seven years ago). It begins with the contemplation of the word "uncanny" and extends into a long quotation from Martin Heidegger's Being and Time:
In anxiety one feels uncanny. Here the peculiar indefiniteness of that which Dasein finds itself alongside in anxiety, comes proximally to expression: "the nothing and nowhere". But here "uncanniness" also means "not-being-at home."
The narrator quoting Heidegger then picks up the thread and says,
Nevertheless regardless of how extensive his analysis is here, Heidegger still fails to point out that unheimlich when used as an adverb means "dreadfully," "awfully," "heaps of," and "an awful lot of." Largeness has always been a condition of the weird and unsafe; it is overwhelming, too much or too big. Thus that which is uncanny or unheimlich is neither homey nor protective, nor comforting nor familiar. It is alien, exposed, and unsettling [...].
I also came across another exploration of this word in my academic reading. This is from J. Hillis Miller's essay, "The Critic as Host" (in specifically referring to work by Thackeray and Hardy):
These sad love stories of a domestic affection which nevertheless introduces the uncanny, the alien, the parasitical into the closed economy of the home, the Unheimlich into the Heimlich, no doubt describe well enough the way some people may feel about the relation of a 'deconstructive' interpretation to 'the obvious or univocal meaning'. The parasite is destroying the host. The alien has invaded the house [...].
The editors added a footnote to "Unheimlich" and explain that it's "the German word for 'uncanny'. Miller implies that Heimlich means 'homely'. Heim is indeed the German word for 'home', but heimlich means 'secret'. For once Miller seems to have underestimated the duplicity of language."

Wheels within wheels...

And I suddenly remember that both the Emily books and Jane Eyre each contain decidedly uncanny events that help resolve their respective plots.

It may seem that I'm exaggerating these darker themes and a "normal" reader wouldn't really notice them so much. But as a girl reading these books, I remember being creeped out a lot...especially as the series progressed. I can't separate this current reading of the first Emily book from my knowledge of the last two, and I particularly notice how skilfully Montgomery has set the stage for what comes later. Forgive the comparison, but an example is what Rowling has done with the world of Harry Potter. People, places, and objects are present in the first book that take on greater (and darker) significance as the books progress, but because of the protagonists' age and the newness of everything, the unsuspecting reader takes it all as a matter of course. All the more reason why the subsequent unfolding of events seems so revelatory.

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