Getting Unstuck

Much of my time lately has been spent figuring out ways to the writer’s block that has been keeping me from working on my dissertation. I’ve tried free writing, writing in different genres, reading, free writing again, editing, reading … but inevitably I come back to where I started. The ideas are coming much slower now that I’m trying to think of how the chapters will work together to form one argument. It’s like my brain is moving in smaller and smaller circles that tighten around each other and choke off forward progress.

I had a brilliant week mid-September when I felt like I couldn’t write enough, but now my well is dry and I’m struggling to get started again. Thankfully, this particular dry spell has happened at the same time that I’m teaching Jane Austen’s Emma. I’m not writing on this particular book per se, but my fourth chapter, “Revising Sympathetic Silence: Jane Austen and the Domestic Novel,” tackles themes that occur across Austen’s oeuvre. I thought I would test out some of the ideas from my chapter on my students to see 1) if I could articulate them out loud, and 2) if they have any legs. 

I chose a section from the first volume. Emma has just left an evening gathering and is accidentally placed in a carriage with Mr. Elton without a chaperon. Mr. Elton, who has been drinking far too much, takes the opportunity to begin professing his undying love for her. Emma, thinking that his affection for her stems from his love of her friend, Harriet Smith, rejects him, and, mortified, stops speaking:

“It would be impossible to say what Emma felt on hearing this—which of all her unpleasant sensations was uppermost. She was too completely overpowered to be immediately able to reply: and two moments of silence being ample encouragement for Mr. Elton’s sanguine state of mind, he tried to take her hand again, and joyously exclaimed—

‘Charming Miss Woodhouse! allow me to interpret this interesting silence. It confesses that you have long understood me.’

‘No, sir,’ cried Emma, ‘it confesses no such thing. So far from having long understood you, I have been in a most complete error with respect to your views, till this moment.'”

(Broadview edition, ed. Kristin Flieger Samuelian, p. 150).

We began working through this section by discussing the conditions in which this conversation occurs: how Mr. Elton is not bound to uphold social rules of propriety because no one is present who can contradict him; how Emma’s protests go unheard because her voice is worth less than his; and what it means to truly “understand” someone. It’s a fairly straightforward moment, full of awkwardness and the types of social anxiety that make Austen’s novels so witty and enjoyable, but one that nevertheless touches on the themes and concerns of my dissertation.

I felt the conversation went fairly well until I tried to articulate more specifically why this scene is symptomatic of contemporary debates on female conduct and the particular ways Emma tries to resist Mr. Elton’s advances given the ineffectiveness of the conversational tools available to her. I noticed that my students’ eyes began to glaze at that point, and I knew I would lose them if we continued along that path. On further reflection, I think that if I provided the students with excerpts from conduct literature on female speech that shows how young women were expected to be not only courteous and delightful in conversation, but also bow to the expectations of fathers and husbands, they would have been better equipped to discuss why Mr. Elton takes it upon himself to “interpret this interesting silence” for Emma. Furthermore, I would have liked to utilize J. L. Austin’s speech act theory to investigate why the power of refusal is denied Emma (i.e., she does not have a witness that can validate or substantiate her rejection, and is instead placed at the whimsy of Mr. Elton).

Though the pedagogical utility of my theories are still shaky and underdeveloped, the experiment helps me to better see what scaffolding I need in place for my ideas to work. Plus, we’ve got two more days of Emma, so I may try another tactic in the next few days that may be more effective.


As I mentioned in my last post, I am moving my Blog to its own website, hopefully this week. I’m not sure how this will turn out, but I’ll let you know when to start updating your bookmarks/links. Stay tuned!


One thought on “Getting Unstuck

  1. Neurotic Workaholic says:

    I know how it feels to get stuck on your dissertation; trust me, I know. I hope that things will flow more easily for you soon. If your other chapters are about literature, maybe you could think of something that the main characters have in common and work from there? Or if you're looking at a specific time period, maybe you could make a specific claim about it and then see which books support your claim and which ones don't. Sorry if this doesn't make sense; I've been reading a bunch of books with way too many footnotes, so it's hard to sound coherent right now.

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