Controversies, #12 (Fall 1999)

"Literate Characters, Literate Audiences and Early (Post-) Modern Literature"

    Past students of English 211 have had many productive discussions in the course's public folder.  This is one I have reproduced because of its enduring importance to the study of literature.  Please feel free to cite these opinions in papers (using proper MLA style!) and to bring up these issues for further discussion in the public folder.  You may make a place for yourself in this discussion for future students to read.  The entries are presented, unedited, in the order in which they were posted.

    Arnie's Note on #12:   Yes, I know, those () Po-Mo Parentheses are an annoying stylistic affectation, but here I am in the middle of the summer thinking about this stuff so you can read it in the Fall, so cut me some slack!  In this case, they're at least defensible because there is something important about the emergence of literate characters on the stage and in the audience.  Non-class-dependent and non-trade-dependent literacy make social boundaries porous, advancing a servant to knighthood with the stroke of a pen, not a sword (i.e., Waitwell/"Sir Rowland").  Gendered literacy also disappears when the nearly all-male reading population of the previous centuries now must deal with contesting readings (and texts) by women. No sooner has the "Early Modern" period emerged than the Post-Modern appears to leap, fully armed, from its forehead. Participants: Corey Wronski and Heather Baron.

Congreve's literate servants, aristos, and status--Corey Wronski, 12/12/99

        While reading Act 4 scene 15 of the Way of the World (page 1958), I noticed that Waitwell ("Sir Rowland") takes the letter from Lady Wishfort and continues reading it: "A rascal and disguised, and suborned for that the contrivance of...". I assume this an indication of the increasing widespread literacy we've discussed, since even Waitwell, a servant, can read.

        I think Waitwell's action is especially interesting given the play's emphasis on literacy and knowledge of literature; Mrs. Marwood is told to entertain herself with books while waiting for Lady Wishfort (Act 3 scene 4), and the play includes quotations of poetry.

        We've discussed how Congreve may have been saying that anyone can be like those of the upper class - that it's just an act and even the servant Waitwell can play the role. Could the demonstration of his literacy also imply (intellectual) equality among the classes? If so, this makes an interesting contrast to Lady Wishfort's puts-downs of Foible and Peg while they are helping her dress.

Literate Characters, Literate Audiences and Early (Post-) Modern LiteratureThe Jonson connection--Heather Baron, 12/12/99

        I agree. It reminds me of Lady Politic Would-Be in Volpone.