I started this essay very unlike a third-person narrator. I didn’t know what was about to happen and how everyone would feel about it. I was just settling into “pandemic normal”—figuring out “remote teaching,” substituting Netflix for social life—when “pandemic normal” decided it was already time for a reset.
First came news from afar: My grandmother passed away with a priest and a nurse at her bedside but, because of pandemic policy, no family. Then came some extremely local news: The next day I was rudely awoken before sunrise with a pain I need a thesaurus to describe without profanity. I called the doctor, and I was told to go straight to the emergency room.
It was a kidney stone, mostly harmless—though the ER physician told me, with enough sympathy in her eyebrows and forehead to make up for the opacity of her facial covering, that the primary symptom of passing a kidney stone was pain, which the medical community describes as “an eight to ten out of ten.” What does the medical community know about pain, I thought in earnest? Probably a lot.
I’m a reasonable person, so I might have welcomed this kidney stone to crash with me for a few days, provided the courtesy of advance notice. I think we can all agree, however, that 54 days was really an abuse of my hospitality.
Over the phone, I told my urologist that I should’ve started charging my kidney stone rent after the first month; she laughed (politely I think). I now have the stone (renal calculus) in a small plastic container on my desk, not for sentimental reasons but because I can get it analyzed in a lab so they can tell me which kind it is and if I should avoid certain foods to prevent another one. A third-person narrator might relate that it’s been sitting here for two weeks now, and perhaps some suspicion of merely clinical motives is justified.
I still haven’t processed my grandmother’s death, and I wonder if the psyche has a statute of limitations for these things. Did I miss the moment to grieve while I was preoccupied with my temporary pain?
A third-person narrator: Will he ever be able to inhabit that moment when he learned that because of SARS-CoV-2 protocol, only a small number of people could attend his grandmother’s funeral, half of whom were the essential funeral service personnel? How many funerals could he inadvertently have caused as a potential disease vector flying from Maine to Pittsburgh during a pandemic? And what is the etiquette for observing a funeral or other somber occasion when suddenly you feel a wrenching sensation in the flank that builds to a stab? “What does one do with the face?” he wondered.
Columbia (Connie) Mancini Hanlon was born December 20, 1920, in Barisciano, Italy and died on April 17, 2020 in western Pennsylvania. The nurse said she was extraordinarily peaceful that morning; the priest said she passed immediately upon completion of the anointment. Her parents moved to Bentleyville, a Pennsylvania town of about 3600 (closer to 2500 today), when she was young. The family had a small grocery where she worked during high school, moving on eventually to work as a waitress and then telephone operator in Coraopolis, PA. From my earliest memories I recall people stopping by my grandmother’s house—not just family, but neighbors, priests, the ladies from St. Malachy’s who worked with her (it seemed more like for her) at the popular Italian Food Booth at the church International Festival—because everybody loved being around her. Into her nineties she was still bowling with the girls. It was difficult to keep up with her social calendar.
My grandmother was charismatic, but—and here’s where I get to Jane Austen—it wasn’t simply that she compelled all of these people toward her as lodestone attracts iron or Emma Woodhouse attracts Mr. Knightley. No, grandma had a demonstrably keen sense of character judgment. Even in her last years, even in the special care unit for advanced dementia, she was surrounded by people who liked spending time with her because she was so good at treating everyone with kindness—and knowing in particular who needed it most.
A third-person narrator observes that he is compliant with the timeframe prescribed by the statute of limitations and that something within the psyche has begun to give way. He experiences loss and pain mainly through mediation, as if they are being narrated from without. How could he have known when the medium would break down, and why, and to what end? This was meant to be an essay on Jane Austen, after all. What is happening now, and what proofs can we observe of the veracity of this development?
Everyone knows (or has been annoyed by) someone who loves to say out loud what they think will happen next while watching a movie or TV show with someone else. Maybe that person is you. Maybe even you do this while watching alone. At the beginning of the quarantine, I was doing two things with consistency: watching Netflix alone and reading Jane Austen’s Emma. Regardless of the show—sometimes it was All-American, a high school football drama about a Black kid from Crenshaw recruited to play football at Beverly Hills High; sometimes it was Inspector Morse, a detective show—reading Emma was doing something to me, compelling me to speculate about what would happen next on my television and why.
Variations of the word “proof” appear about thirty times in Emma; the word “judgment” about the same; the words “error” and “evidence” not far behind. The word “probability” is not to be missed either. Emma fancies herself a matchmaker and an incisive judge of character, yet her judgments, even about her own relationships, usually go awry.
Austen is the greatest social epistemologist of her time, invoking the language of probability, inference, deduction, and evidence-based speculation about characters’ motives, impressions, perceptions, and complications, and showing the profound difficulty of figuring out what it means to know someone or explain their actions when the situation demands precisely a degree of knowledge only available to a third-person narrator. Emma, in particular, relies on the gap between Emma’s good-natured and not-quite unreasonable speculations about amorous possibility and Knightley’s measured way of somehow being correct about things. We get more of Emma’s thought process, so she is the novel’s trial and error mechanism. When it comes to Knightley, Emma is correct. It seems for a moment that Knightley has taken interest in Jane Fairfax, but actually, according to Emma:
You take up an idea, Mrs. Weston, and run away with it; as you have many a time reproached me with doing. I see no sign of attachment—I believe nothing of the pianoforte—and proof only shall convince me that Mr. Knightley has any thought of marrying Jane Fairfax.
“Proof only shall convince me” is characteristic Austen. In Emma (as in the other novels), the stakes of social knowing are typically higher than those of, say, me on the couch practicing Emma and Knightley’s powers of deduction to solve a fictional crime before Inspector Morse reveals all. When Emma gets things wrong—particularly when she convinces Harriet Smith to refuse a marriage proposal from the amiable farmer Robert Martin—people get hurt. Similarly, when Marianne Dashwood embarrasses herself with ill-considered social judgments in Sense and Sensibility, it’s the kind of thing that could cause real problems for women who weren’t in novels and didn’t have the benefit of a redemptive ending.
It occurs to me now, months later, that sitting on the couch watching Netflix with Emma, walking through Emma’s procedures of social knowing in a low-stakes scenario, was a way of responding to what was happening inside and around me, uncertainty within and without. Among the many things I value and miss about my grandmother was how good she was at knowing people, what she taught me about how to know someone in a moment: in the inevitable absence of perfect information, in short trips to the store or brief conversations with neighbors or parishioners. That is, my grandmother taught me to proceed with openness and grace and acceptance, at least until someone gives you reason to proceed otherwise. Leave open the aperture for long enough to let in the minute particulars of an encounter.
The question Emma leaves me with this time is how much of our error in judgment is down to prematurely closing the aperture, and how much is down to wanting so badly to know the situationally unknowable. On what date will I be rid of this pain? At what point will this pandemic end, and what will it be like then? What would my grandmother have said to me at the bedside on April 17, 2020, before she was gone, had I been there?
Aaron R. Hanlon is an assistant professor of English at Colby College and author of A World of Disorderly Notions: Quixote and the Logic of Exceptionalism (University of Virginia Press, 2019). [https://www.upress.virginia.edu/title/5267]His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The LA Review of Books, and others.
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