Thursday, December 27, 2007

Mrs. Gaskell and the Internet

And just what exactly could this Mrs. Gaskell, who wrote in the mid-1800s, have to do with the Internet? Thank you for asking, Dear Reader. The answer, in a word, is "communication."

I'd never heard of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell until my husband (also known as my favorite computer peripheral) downloaded Gaskell's final masterpiece, Wives and Daughters, onto my Sony Reader from Project Gutenberg. (Warning: This masterpiece was actually unfinished, although the intended ending of the story readily presents itself to the imagination.) Mrs. Gaskell's Wives and Daughters tells of the intertwined lives of a number of families in a British country village. Love, friendship, social position, and social responsibility are all dissected (think of a combination of Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Dickens). But most interesting is her exploration of both communication and the comic/tragic miscommunication of an era in which the very most difficult issues were not discussed directly. Communication and miscommunication--does the Internet come to mind?

Mrs. Gaskell observed her characters from inside and out. There are no villains in Wives and Daughters. Just as you begin to think of someone as a villain, she zeroes in on the possible villain's point of view, and suddenly that reprehensible point of view becomes reasonable, given the limitations of understanding and sensibilities of the particular character. The Internet moves in tune with Mrs. Gaskell. On the Internet, you can find the varying opinions of more people than you'd ever want to meet. Certain posters can make some of their otherwise goofy, malicious, or even villainous ideas seem, if not reasonable, at least understandable from their peculiar points of view. On the Internet, we see straight into the thoughts of those who would convince us of their ideas, just as Mrs. Gaskell saw straight into the thoughts of her fictional characters.

The power of false rumor is also grist for Mrs. Gaskell's mill. Small town gossip can be the ruin of anyone, especially a young woman, in her village. Even if it's only gossip, not actual truth, it harms. The Internet, in turn, often publishes whatever a poster wishes to say without an editorial guard at the gate to question truthfulness. And just as often, these unquestioned opinions are repeated as expertise by others on the Internet. Small towns no longer own the gossip mills. The Internet does.

And then, there's Mrs. Gaskell's consideration of the irrational belief in words spoken by those we consider above us in rank. In Mrs. Gaskell's village, the lords, ladies, and squires are expert by virtue of their positions. On the Internet, celebrities of all kinds expound on subjects of which they know little, but hold passionate opinions. And the higher they are in the ranks of celebrity, the more weight their words carry. Just pretend I'm a really, really famous author. Does my opinion seem more plausible to you now?

Okay, then I'll tell you what I think. I think I've found Mrs. Gaskell's village more than a century later, a village filled with communication and miscommunication. I think it's called the Internet.


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