Persuasion, self-delusion, emotional labor

After a vigorous discussion on Emotional Labor, prompted by this MetaFilter discussion,  I found myself wanting to reread Persuasion by Jane Austen.  Now that I’m halfway through it, I realize why my subconscious made the connection.

I love Persuasion.  I love that it hasn’t been co-opted by Hollywood.  I love that it’s about a woman who was disappointed in love eight years ago and has had to fully accept the consequences of making a decision that ended all hope of happiness for her.

In all of her novels, but especially this one, Jane Austen does a fantastic job of describing the thoughts and feelings that grease social interactions.  Now that I’ve learned my new vocabulary words: “emotional labor” I can’t stop applying that lens to everything I observe.  Anne Elliott, in Persuasion, feels the burden of unseen emotional labor.  She doesn’t even realize it’s a burden, most of the time.  She considers it her responsibility to account for the feelings and desires of the (often selfish) people around her, to smooth their way without acknowledgment for her effort.

Books do shape us and I wonder if my love for Jane Austen gave me the wrong tools for modern social life.  There was a Facebook group called “Jane Austen gave me unrealistic expectations of men” and now I think I should belong to a group called “Jane Austen gave me outdated expectations of myself.”  I’m reading about Anne making herself amiable and disinterested and realize that I have tried doing that when around my own family.  In the past couple years, I realized that being so passive around my family was boring!  I would go stay with my grandmother and kill vacation days not doing much of anything.  I thought I was doing it to be easy on my grandmother, but I’ve slowly come to realize, that maybe she wouldn’t mind if I showed initiative and desire to go out and do things.  While we’re at it, why was I using my precious time off to just hang out instead of go to awesome places?  I have a friend living in Alaska that I’ve been wanting to visit, but never have time or money after my family trips.  I’ve been operating under these false obligations that a single woman has to put her family first– when I don’t think my family would have their feelings hurt if I decided to do something else.

I’m a bit worried that my new perspective on emotional labor might make me dislike Jane Austen.  That would be terrible!  But I have to say, while reading Persuasion, I’m a bit frustrated with Anne. I want her to speak up, claim what she wants, and stop caring about what her selfish family wants.  I know what happens in the story, but now I’m reading it with whole new eyes– is that what happens?  Does she grow into a self-determined woman, or does chance and circumstance lead her to a happy ending?

I thought that if I was considerate, good, self-sufficient, then all my dreams would come true.  Where did I get that idea? Austen? Disney? church?  Well, I’ve been waiting for years for things to fall in my lap, because I was considerate, good, and self-sufficient.  But the good things that have happened were a result of me identifying a goal and working toward the goal, claiming the reward.  It was not sitting back and waiting for someone to notice me. Anne Elliott is waiting for someone to notice her.  While some decent people do (and some indecent people), it doesn’t lead to her happiness.


Just this morning I read another obituary for my favorite author, Terry Pratchett.  I have been reading Wintersmith, the third Tiffany Aching story.  Tiffany is a witch-in-training, living with 113-year-old Miss Treason.  In Discworld, magical people like witches and wizards always know when they’re going to die.  Miss Treason  has time to plan a “Going Away Party” where she can give away her things and the witches decide who will take over her cottage.  The witches act like unofficial magistrates and country doctors.  They get their authority by being clever, odd, and even scary.  Tiffany learns that Miss Treason has made up most of the rumors about herself, e.g. that she has a demon living in her basement, that her heart died years ago and she replaced it with a clock that she wears around her belt, that she eats spiders.

This is where Terry Pratchett brilliantly illustrates those illusive things called human relationships.  The villagers are afraid of Miss Treason, but they’re also proud of her.  She keeps skulls on her mantle, but Tiffany discovered that they’re fake, from “Boffo Novelty and Joke Shop.”

Miss Treason sighed.  ‘Oh, my silly people.  Anything they don’t understand is magic.  They think I can see into their hearts, but no witch can do that. Not without surgery, at least.  No magic is needed to read their little minds, though.  I’ve known them since they were babies.  I remember when their grandparents were babes!  They think they’re so grown up!  But they’re still no better than babies in the sandpit, squabbling over mud pies.  I see their lies and excuses and fears.  They never grow up, not really.  They never look up and open their eyes.   They stay children their whole lives.’

It’s a witch’s job to care for the silly people, and also be smarter than them.  Witches can only be honest with other witches.  But witches have to keep an eye on each other, to keep them from going batty:

You had to deal every day with people who were foolish and lazy and untruthful and downright unpleasant, and you could certainly end up thinking that the world would be considerably improved if you gave them a slap.  But you didn’t because, as Miss Tick had once explained: a) it would only make the world a better place for a very short time; b) it would then make the world a slightly worse place; and c) you’re not supposed to be as stupid as they are.

Tiffany stays up with Miss Treason the night before she is supposed to die.  Miss Treason teaches her how to play cards.  Then they get up and discover the whole town is waiting out front to say good-bye to their witch.  Miss Treason has had a grave dug already, and Tiffany is horrified when she realizes that Miss Treason is going to march into her own grave.

Miss Treason had stopped to organize the crowd.  “The custom is to give that one to the owner of the dog.  You should have kept the bitch in, after all, and minded your fences.  And your question, Mister Blinkhorn?”

Tiffany stood up straight.  They were bothering her!  Even this morning!  But she … wanted to be bothered.  Being bothered was her life.

So despite all the pettiness and annoyance, a witch needs her people, like a shepherd needs his sheep.  Even in the last moments before death, you can imagine even a witch as old as Miss Treason is scared of what happens next, but she spends those minutes caring for her people, taking full advantage of their small-mindedness.

I thought writing this blog post would help me articulate what I find so fascinating about the Discworld witches.  I don’t know what it is, but I feel this moral is vitally important.  I certainly have my interactions foolish, lazy, and untruthful people– we all do.  So why is it vitally important that we don’t simply slap them?  It has something to do with love and need and community.

Pratchett touches on this concept again in my favorite Discworld novel: Night Watch:

People on the side of The People always ended up disapointed, in any case. They found that The People tended not to be grateful or appreciative or forward-thinking or obedient. The People tended to be small-minded and conservative and not very clever and were even distrustful of cleverness. And so the children of the revolution were faced with the age-old problem: it wasn’t that you had the wrong kind of government, which was obvious, but that you had the wrong kind of people.
As soon as you saw people as things to be measured, they didn’t measure up.

Perhaps it’s a simple as, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

Laws and the lawless

Swing, though, started in the wrong place.  He didn’t look around, and watch, and learn, and then say, “This is how people are, how do we deal with it?”  No, he sat and thought: “This is how people ought to be, how do we change them?”  And that was a good enough thought for a priest but not for a copper, because Swing’s patient, pedantic way of operating had turned policing on its head.

There had been that Weapons Law, for a start.  Weapons were involved in so many crimes that, Swing reasoned, reducing the number of weapons had to reduce the crime rate.

Vimes wondered if he’d sat up in bed in the middle of the night and hugged himself when he’d dreamed that one up.  Confiscate all weapons, and crime would go down.  It made sense.  It would have worked, too, if only there had been enough coppers– say, three per citizen.

Amazingly, quite a few weapons were handed in.  The flaw, though, was one that somehow managed to escape Swing, and it was this: criminals don’t obey the law.  It’s more or less a requirement for the job…

Some citizens took the not-unreasonable view that something had gone a bit askew if only naughty people were carrying arms.  And they got arrested in large numbers…

It wasn’t that the city was lawless.  It had plenty of laws.  It just didn’t offer many opportunities not to break them.  Swing didn’t seem to have grasped the idea that they system was supposed to take criminals and, in some rough-and-ready fashion, force them into becoming honest men.  Instead, he’d taken honest men and turned them into criminals.  And the Watch, by and large, into just another gang.

–Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Eric Garner was harassed by the police for selling cigarettes, thus skirting tobacco taxes.  Walter Scott was pulled over for a traffic violation and owed child support.  Were they virtuous men?  Who can say?  Did they deserve to die?  Would they have been killed if we didn’t have so many victim-less “crimes”?  I hypothesize, not.  The police officers are culpable, to an extent.  The larger problem is that our laws have turned them, like the Watch, into just another gang.

Sometimes I wonder if Terry Pratchett is completely responsible for shaping my moral view of the world.


Tiffany asked, “Is it… hard, being a goddess?”

‘It has its good days,’ said Anoia.  She stood with her cigarette cupped at the elbow by her other hand, holding the flaming, sparking thing close to her face.  Now she took a sharp pull, raised her head and blew a cloud of smoke out to join the smog on the ceiling.  Sparks fell out of it like rain.  ‘I haven’t been doing drawers long.  I used to be a volcano goddess.’

‘Really?’ said Tiffany.  ‘I’d never have guessed.’

‘Oh, yes.  It was good work, apart from the screaming,’ said Anoia, and then added, in a bitter tone of voice: ‘Ha! And the god of storms was always raining on my lava.  That’s men for you dear. They rain on your lava.’

Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett