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Valentine’s Week Romances: Pride & Prejudice

Wednesday, February 10, 2010 @ 12:02 AM  posted by Mark

Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice has been adapted for television, film and stage eleven times, and now a series of derivative novels adds vampires and zombies to the basic story. What fascinates us about this book?

The novel has endured because of its multiple layers of satire (largely downplayed in film adaptations); but the story holds our attention to this day because Austen did something revolutionary—she domesticated the Myth of Romance for the first time, and both the myth and the taming of it still speak to us. Pride and Prejudice exchanges the original myth’s Yearning for the Impossible for something much more modest: a Longing for a Not-too-Repulsive Guy with a Decent Income (still a commodity in short supply, and something we all can relate to).

The story of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s union has become a Just So Story for modern middle class girls who are sure that their boredom is unjust and not their fault: the Happily-Ever-After ending entices women of all attitudes—debs, riot grrrls and post-post-feminists alike. Austen takes the basic story of love—unbiddable, ungovernable, like a riot in the heart—and puts it into a quaint country drawing room. In the Bennets’ circle, among the nattering nabobs of nuptiality, romance is more calculation than consummation. The risk of romance is social humiliation, and failure means lifelong economic dependence on your own relatives; the reward, should you land your beau, is a settled life with a modest income. True Romance, on the other hand—the Romance of the original myth—carries the risk of immortal damnation, and failure means a prolonged death of a broken heart; the reward for success is also death, but a quicker, more violent one.

What? Death or Death? What kind of lame choice is that? That’s not a nice myth for genteel drawing room girls, to be sure, who prefer Matthew Macfadyen‘s tousled hair to the Grim Reaper‘s pitchfork.

Grim Reaper or Mr. Darcy? Which would you choose?

But wait. Exactly what is the Romantic Myth that Austen domesticates?

The basic story of Romance is: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back and then someone or everyone dies. Hooray!

The same pattern shows up in Tristan & Iseult, Romeo & Juliet, Guinevere & Launcelot, Don Giovanni, Faust & Gretchen, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, Catherine & Heathcliff, Gatsby & Daisy—the list goes on and on. The contexts of each love affair change with the times, but the setup is always the same. The love is uncontrollable; the lovers are unavailable to each other, often already married to someone else; and indulging love means defying God, the government and/or the lovers’ families. Nothing ends well for lovers in the classic myth, and that’s part of the point: Romance, at its heart, is the longing for something that we simply cannot have until we die—the enveloping embrace of eternal, unconditional love—which we taste through our beloved but consume fully only when we can no longer desire anything any more.

(This attitude of Romance is clearly a heresy against the Christian church, since in Christianity God is the One who offers eternal unconditional love, just for the asking—the problem is, He won’t make a Valentine’s Day reservation for two at your favorite restaurant. What’s a lonely girl to do, then, on all the days between Sunday and Sunday? Pray? Join a convent? But what about my. . . needs. . .? Chastity, family and duty? Oh where oh where did I put Romeo’s cell number?)

“In living I die and in dying I live. I hunger to be united with Love.”—Jacopone da Todi (a contemporary of Dante)

What then of Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies)? Why is it an enduring work of Romance?

Rachel McAdams, non-Wedding Crasher, longs for a man with £2000 a year and a cottage.

Pride and Prejudice endures because it personalizes the myth of Romance for the first time, makes it safe and attainable for your average Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams (and you!), makes it something we can relate to and long for and actually get in our own lives (maybe). The Romance of Romeo and Juliet is nothing you’d want, but Darcy and Elizabeth? Why not? Love, stability, a nice cottage, no real risk. . . who needs “Th’ exchange of thy love’s faithful vow for mine” (Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Scene 2), if all you really get in the end is a dagger in the gut?

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3 Responses to “Valentine’s Week Romances: Pride & Prejudice”

  1. Natalie says:

    Pride and Prejudice is not even trying to fit into a tragic Romantic mode, which is why it doesn’t. Actually, it fits perfectly well into the tradition of happily-ever-after comedies like Twelfth Night or even Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (the kind of novel Austen satirized). I think your emphasis on the tragic is misplaced.

  2. Mark says:

    I think P&P is an abortive tragedy and not a straight comedy, which is why I’m saying it’s a safe and domesticated version of the Romantic myth. The very realism that everyone (including me) loves about Austen’s characters and situations seems to argue against it as a traditional comedy—no farce, no bait and switch, no funny red herrings or wild goose chases—and the novel takes virtue, honor, chastity and the approval or censure of society very seriously, which are all the usual suspects of Romance. Also, Elizabeth disdains arranged marriages for “true love,” which is classic Romantic stuff, but in the classical ending of the plot, she or her suitor would die to show their commitment to transcendent love over the hollow marriages that society approves of. There are lots of comedic elements, I agree with that, but the whole novel seems to strain against the conventions of marriage and then gives into them at the end. I mean, I’m not sure how to take it: is it a comedy that approves of Elizabeth’s overall situation or is it a tragedy that wants to eat its cake and have it too?

  3. Raquelle says:

    Now that I’ve carefully read this, without jumping to conclusions like I did earlier, I realized that this is way over my head. And I was an English Major! ::shame::


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