Deborah Yaffe

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Penguin of destiny

By Deborah Yaffe, Jan 14 2019 02:00PM

Literary critics turn up in the most unexpected places.


Last November, the Maryland Zoo, in Baltimore, asked the public whether this year’s crop of African penguin chicks should be named for shades of color, types of pasta, or literary characters. Literary characters won, and earlier this month the zoo announced names for the first four of its recent hatchlings.


Three of them – Zorro, Gatsby and Coraline – need not detain us here. No doubt those chicks will grow up into perfectly adequate penguins.


The fourth, however, has been named Knightley.



Knightley the penguin


No doubt you, like me, are wondering why the zookeepers of Baltimore feel that, when you contemplate Austen’s large gallery of characters, the hero of Emma is the one who says Penguin.


Alas, because the zoo has provided no explanation for its literary exegesis, we can only speculate. Perhaps it’s because Mr. Knightley looks good in formalwear. (“His tall, firm, upright figure, among the bulky forms and stooping shoulders of the elderly men, was such as Emma felt must draw every body's eyes” – ch. 38). Or because, like the monogamous African penguin, he’s a one-woman man. (“There is but one married woman in the world whom I can ever allow to invite what guests she pleases to Donwell” – ch. 42). Or because, like the members of this species, in which males and females share equally in egg-incubation duties, he’s good with kids. (“He was soon led on to. . . take the child out of her arms with all the unceremoniousness of perfect amity” – ch. 12).


Whatever the reason, I’m sure we Janeites can all agree that this name sets a high bar for its avian owner. He’s not a happy-go-lucky Bingley, a brooding Brandon, or even a kindly Croft. He evokes one of Jane Austen’s most grownup characters: responsible, mature, ethically rigorous, a good neighbor, a careful estate manager.


It’s a lot for one small penguin to live up to.


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