Reposted from my old blog which is broken. Try not to take this too seriously.
I have a vague memory of reading, sometime in my childhood, a comic account (Was it Calvin and Hobbes?)of father turning off the television, which is protested by his son who is watching some kind of science fiction show in the vein of Star Trek. I remember the dialogue being something like this:
"But I want to see what happens!"
"I can tell you what happens. Captain AwesomeGuy saves the day. The end."
"But I want to see _how_ he does it!"
I recall this to draw attention to something I think is interesting: The son admits, implicitly, that he agrees with the father about how the story is going to end. There is never any doubt that Captain AwesomeGuy is going to triumph. In fact, he triumphs every time a new episode is made, probably weekly, and for a fan it never gets old. It's formulaic and we love it.
If you think back to the disappointment and betrayal that many fans felt when DC Comics did the whole Death Of Superman gimmick, you can see that we revel in the formulaic episode. It's deeply satisfying, and if our enjoyment of the latest episode is interrupted, we feel a loss -- whether it is a father turning off the television in the middle of a show, or a writer who decides to deviate too much from what the fans expect.
Is it unsophisticated? Is it something we should be ashamed of? At the very least I can say that letting the knowledge of how predictable these stories are rise to the forefront of my consciousness can certainly deaden or even ruin the experience. But that may be simply to say that part of the "experience" is necessarily the suspension of disbelief.
This is all a prelude to my main intention, a book review! I have criticisms of a formulaic novel, whose intended fan base almost certainly does not include me, but I can't help feeling as if it is bad manners to express them. I'm talking about the book Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Let me get more quickly to the point by summing up my hesitations: I'm sure I could be made to feel pretty silly about myself if somebody made a keen and devastating deconstruction of the sort of stories I enjoy as a "fan". (I could probably watch the film adaptation of Iron Man once a year and never grow tired of it.) My main criticism of Pride and Prejudice is that it is almost certainly enjoyed by so many women because it appeals to their baser appetites such as the ego and encourages some prevalent forms of wishful thinking. In essence, instead of _revealing_ humanity with a penetrating eye of genius that we might attribute to the greatest writers, Austen conceals it, offering a comfortable lie.
So just remember, this isn't meant as an indictment of women. I am susceptible to the same kind of offerings when they are tuned instead to my own inclinations. Let's begin.
First, the good. Austen is obviously very talented. She has a great ear for dialogue, and she is generally enjoyable to read. On a scene-by-scene basis, she shows herself to be an apt observer of human beings. Although the style of speaking is by this time long out of date, (published: 1813) it retains a flavor of authenticity even to the twenty-first century English speaker. She is easily able to establish and distinguish an array of characters in the mind of the reader, sometimes by explaining but more often simply by the natural impressions that come through in the dialogue. No easy feat, to be sure.
One of the things that ensure the book's enduring popularity is Austen's laser-like focus on the human relationships between her characters. Although the plot is grounded firmly on the social structure of English society at that time, it is unchanging humanity that it is exclusively at the forefront of the reader's attention. No space is wasted on physical description of what turn of the (nineteenth) century looked like, which would only put cold distance between her characters and modern readers. We are left to fill in our own details, as simply or as complexly as we like, accurate to whatever degree of familiarity we have with that historical epoch.
And of course I can't praise the book without mentioning my giddy enjoyment of every word spoken by the character of Mr. Bennet, the protagonist's father. Although a retiring man and not a particularly effective parent, Mr. Bennet's witticisms hilariously betray the desperate attempt of one man not to drown in the sea of estrogen that is his household: a wife and five mostly grown daughters. Whenever I felt that I couldn't take any more _chatting_ from a bunch of women who seemed never to lift a finger to perform any chore or fill any responsibility, Mr. Bennet would pop his head out of his study and say something deliciously funny. He and I were in this together, you see.
So far, so good. But as I progressed through the novel, I began to have a strange feeling. Even though each particular scene was authentic enough, when I stepped back and looked at the arc of the narrative as a whole, there was something bizarrely unreal about the whole thing. I distinctly remember this beginning at the point at which all the set-up had been put in place and things started _happening_, with Mr. Darcy's failed marriage proposal to Elizabeth. From this point on, I began to develop a dark certainty: This story is a cleverly crafted lie. Far beyond the sense in which all fiction is untrue, the gradual and involved resolution of every obstacle that stood between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy seemed ... dishonest.
I even developed a tongue-in-cheek thesis that explained the whole thing:
As related in the text, after Elizabeth's refusal of the moderately well-off Mr. Collins' proposal, she sees her friend Charlotte instead be married to him in her place. She then visits the new Mrs. Collins in her new home, where she experiences the dramatic wealth of their neighbor and benefactor Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who as it turns out is Mr. Darcy's aunt. Mr. Darcy arrives and she is reminded that he is practically engaged to Lady Catherine's daughter (and his cousin) Anne, a quiet and sickly, unimpressive girl.
Then my interpretation adds: Elizabeth is far too certain and justified in her dislike of Darcy to admit to herself any jealousy of Anne. Indeed she is perfectly correct that she wouldn't be happy with Darcy. However she is also growingly aware that her high standards make it fairly likely that she will never marry, especially to someone as rich and fabulous as Darcy, the grandness of whose life she is only beginning to suspect, and that even if she finds some poor but intelligent chap, she will have a very difficult life in any case. Then, in an uncharacteristic fit of subconscious desire, she ... daydreams the contents of the rest of the book, beginning with Mr. Darcy's proposal to her and her angry refusal, followed by a complicated dance of revelation and reality-augmentation wherein her impression of Mr. Darcy as a pompous ass is proved totally wrong, and a new, desirable Mr. Darcy emerges who is a misunderstood, shy man earnestly and quickly working to improve himself (driven by his love for her), transforming himself into her ideal mate, and ultimately resulting in a rich and privileged life for her, and the approval and admiration of her parents and sisters, above whom she is raised on a pedestal forever.
Then the daydream ends. She sighs and turns her attention back to real life.
Why is it, I wonder, that this interpretation is far more credible to me as a reader than the straightforward story Austen presents as (fictionally) true? Is it merely because as a man, I don't relate well enough to Elizabeth to get sucked into the narrative and heave great sighs of passion along with her as the story unfolds?
No, I'm afraid there is more to it. What I have playfully described as Elizabeth's subconscious desires is actually my perception of what is going on in Jane Austen's psyche as she maps out the storyline. (Although 38 when it was published, the first full draft of the novel was completed when she was fanciful young woman of 21.) And the resonance that the book achieves with her audience is (as always) because of two things: the universality of the human experience being treated and the skill of the author in encoding that experience in a recognizable form. In other words, Austen recognizes something that is common to human beings and manages to put it into words, with the result that her readers are able to both understand and identify with her subject matter.
Parenthetically, this is my way of summing up what makes any book popular - first that the audience is able to understand what the author is talking about, and second that they recognize or appreciate the ideas of the author as something they want to spend time thinking or reading about.
But what separates really good literature from everything else is that really good literature reveals (as I began to say before) something about humanity that increases the audience's understanding of reality and of themselves. The reader of a really good book should say to themselves, "Yes, people really ARE like that, aren't they?" And that is where I think Jane Austen fails, for the same reason that episodes of Superman and Star Trek are not great works of art: They show what we want to see, playing on our desires, not challenging us to notice something new about the world, but encouraging us to futilely long for what is impossible.
Should we talk about what is unrealistic in Pride and Prejudice? Let's start with a modern aphorism of the "gender wars":
Women get married thinking that their husband will change, and he doesn't. Men marry thinking that their wife will not change, and she does.
Now, hopefully I don't need to point out that many exceptions do not make a generalization false. It isn't controversial that women, much more than men, enjoy reading Pride and Prejudice. That is a generalization, and a true one. To explain why, we need to appeal to other generalizations, or else we are necessarily off track.
We can remove the idea of marriage from the saying just mentioned: Women, rather than men, begin romantic relationships with the expectation that their partner will change over time. In the optimism of love, they often imagine that men will change in ways that please themselves, with their encouragement and help.
And of course since we human beings are all flawed and ignorant, any "typical characteristic" of women (or men) is going to often manifest itself in unfortunate ways. The stereotype of a perfectly bewildered husband wondering how his wife transformed into a bitter nag didn't just spring out of nowhere. And nor did the idea of women settling for a "fixer-upper" man. I suppose the second stereotype mentioned often precedes the first.
Now it's not my intention to ask why women think and act this way or to judge whether it is men's laziness that is more often the cause of her disappointment than her own unrealistic expectations. The point is, this is a real phenomenon that occurs often enough to make a true generalization, and my criticism is that books like Pride and Prejudice only encourage the problem.
Mr. Darcy is nothing, after all, but the quintessential fixer-upper.
He's filthy rich. (Women are usually not _so_ good at lying to themselves that they think they can "encourage" a poor man into becoming rich.) He's tall. He's not an extremely handsome man, but he is passably good looking. He's been brought up well enough to converse quite politely when he can be bothered, which is not very often because he is also a conceited, arrogant jackass.
"Maybe I can work with this," she says.
Or rather she doesn't say it. She thinks it, deep in the half-conscious areas of ego and desire. And the audience is feeling the same sentiment. We're told outright near the beginning of the book that Mr. Darcy is attracted to Elizabeth. As her animosity towards Darcy grows, the readers sympathize with her high standards, but we can expect that they're also saying to themselves, "You know, if it weren't for the unfortunate matter of his personality, Mr. Darcy's adoration would be the luckiest thing that ever happened to Elizabeth Bennet. If only..."
At this point in my review, fans of the book are already furious at me, so I have to argue my case carefully. "You've got it all wrong," they will protest. What we sympathize with is the rightness of Elizabeth's distain for Mr. Darcy. We admire her for NOT being swayed by his riches and his self-confidence. In a world where women's options were severely limited by society, she is a hero for restraining herself from the gold-digging tendency of her fellow young women! And on top of that, much of her dislike for Mr. Darcy was built on innocent misunderstandings that eventually get cleared up."
There is some truth to that last bit. Mr. Darcy broke up a blossoming romance between Elizabeth's sister and Darcy's good friend, but as it turns out he did so with the best of intentions. He honestly thought Jane Bennet didn't give a hoot about his friend, and he was trying to prevent his unhappiness. And then there were some lies told about Darcy's past by the charming Mr. Wickham, who ends up being revealed a scoundrel. So far so good. But what about the man's personality?
Early on, before any of the real misunderstandings begin, Darcy's friend is trying to get him to dance at a ball. This conversation is overheard by Elizabeth:
"Come, Darcy," said he, "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."
"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."
"I would not be so fastidious as you are," cried Mr. Bingley, "for a kingdom! Upon my honour, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty."
"_You_ are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet. [meaning Jane]
"Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."
"Which do you mean?" and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt _me_; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."
Ladies, there is scarcely a guy around who could sympathize more with Mr. Darcy's desire not to dance in this scene, but I think I could manage to beg off without insulting the looks of Ms Bennet, to say nothing of doing so within earshot of her!
Somehow, for all the admiration her high standards win her, Elizabeth overlooks Mr. Darcy's personality when he finally decides to turn on the charm, three quarters of the way through the book. The resolutions of the various misunderstandings that occurred is plausible, if a little contrived. But what possible justification could she have for believing that the charming attitude he takes up isn't a complete lie that will be abandoned as soon as they tie the knot? In any case, I don't think she asks herself that question. It's as if the resolution of the more material misunderstandings are _running interference_, drawing our attention away from the issue of his character in order to hide Austen's narrative sleight-of-hand. If it works, as it seems to, I can only conclude that on some level her readers are wishing to be deceived.
And I worry that for the more impressionable of her young readers, Austen is presenting a really bad example. It is all too common for young people in love to overlook the glaring faults of their beau. If Elizabeth were really so independent of mind as she is given credit for, she ought to at least grapple with the idea that Mr. Darcy's best efforts to impress her don't mean that he has become a completely different person from the one who was so willing to insult her when they first met. (And it's worth mentioning that the whole thing takes place over the course of about a year.) The _role_ that Austen intends for Elizabeth is one of exceptional intelligence and good judgment. But when good judgment ultimately conflicts with the need to move the plot along, she relies on the sympathetic reader to overlook astonishingly poor judgment.
Something needs to be said also of another way that Elizabeth is a poor example for young women: She is too willing to overlook and even sympathize with Mr. Darcy's confession of his distain for her family members. How familiar this part of their relationship must seem to many adolescents -- a boyfriend that gets annoyed (unreasonably by adult standards) at some offense given by a girl's mother, and doesn't want to be around her family. Should an intelligent role model be going along with that kind of thing, or challenging him get to know her in her place as a family member? Maybe young women are relating to Elizabeth's situation in ways that are unhealthy. Why is she accepting behavior from a 28 year old man that we would instantly recognize as immature if he was 16 instead?
In the end, we're not turning the pages to find out what happens next, whether they end up together and whether they find happiness. Instead we are playing the roll of fans. Like a boy watching Star Trek, we're not wondering whether the protagonist is going to triumph. The obstacles in her way are only bit players. We're reading because we know she's going to win, and we want to revel in it. And like fans watching another formulaic episode, we can't stop at the mere suspension of disbelief: We are required to have a fan's willingness to overlook the stretches. In order to really enjoy the story, you have to _want_ them to end up together.
I don't condemn anybody for _liking_ Pride and Prejudice, for the same reason I don't feel ashamed for liking movies like The Matrix or Iron Man. There ought to be no guilt in enjoying the kind of stories that we tend to describe as "guilty pleasures". But I hope we can move past the pretense that men don't enjoy these kinds of books because men are uncultured or shallow. Monday Night Football has an _appeal_ to men: it has striving, excellence, a narrative of triumph and defeat, and unexpected twists and turns. Caring about it means mentally putting yourself in the place of those on the field. Those who find it empty, whether men or women, (and I confess I'm no sports fan,) are those that for whatever reason can't get emotionally involved in the conflict in that way. I think the same is quite true for Pride and Prejudice. Its conflicts and dangers have a direct appeal, and those that are drawn into sympathizing with Elizabeth enough to be really putting themselves in her place will enjoy it immensely.
But this is different from a work of really great literature. You don't need to be rooting for a murderer to _appreciate_ Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. The account of Raskolnikov simply rings true in a way that Elizabeth Bennet does not.
This essay is much too long already, so that is all.