Female Fantasy, and Some New Thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice”

And now for something completely different. Spoiler alert: This post has spoilers about “Pride and Prejudice”.

Pride and Prejudice BBC
No, this isn’t about how hot Colin Firth was in the BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice. Although… well, yes. Damn. Day-um. But this isn’t about that.

In movies, books, TV shows, etc. aimed at women, there’s a common trope, a fantasy that gets trotted out a lot: Reforming the Bad Boy. In the trope/ fantasy, the heroine is so amazingly awesome — so beautiful, so sexy, so brilliant, so charismatic, so noble — that the bad boy reforms his bad boy ways in order to be with her. Think Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or George Clooney on E.R. (Please feel free to cite other examples in the comments. Ideally with links to pictures. No, I’m not immune to this fantasy, even though I know how ridiculous it is.)

This trope even got poked fun at in The Simpsons, when Bart’s babysitter Laura is dating Jimbo Jones: Bart asks her, “What do you like about him? He’s just a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules” — and Laura, Lisa, and Maggie all sigh wistfully.

And I was thinking: Does Pride and Prejudice fit this category?

In the most obvious sense, of course it does. Mr. Darcy is a handsome, not-very-nice man who initially dismisses the heroine, but is quickly struck by her fine eyes; becomes increasingly taken with her intelligence and wit and spirit; falls in love with her; courts her; is spurned by her; is initially enraged by her spurning; takes her chiding to heart; and betters himself to win her over. Yup, that sure sounds like the “I Can Reform Him” trope.

But I think in the larger sense, Pride and Prejudice doesn’t fit this trope at all.

For one thing: Mr. Darcy is anything but your standard Bad Boy. He’s not a rake or a bounder or a ramblin’ man. He’s a stuck-up snob who’s way too full of himself. In order to earn Elizabeth Bennet’s love, he has to get over his priggish superiority, stop worrying so much about propriety, and let go of some of his rigidity about social class. (Some of it, I said.) Yes, he reforms to be worthy of Elizabeth, but her influence doesn’t tame him — if anything, she loosens him up. He’s not a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules. He’s a good-looking tight-ass who plays by society’s rules.

And perhaps more importantly: Mr. Darcy doesn’t just reform to be worthy of Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth reforms to be worthy of Mr. Darcy.

pride and prejudice penguin
This is one of my favorite things about the novel — the two parallel character arcs. Yes, Mr. Darcy changes to earn Elizabeth’s love — and since we see the story primarily through her eyes, we see those changes through her eyes as well. But we also see — much more uncomfortably, much more painfully — her own changes, and her own growth. Yes, we see Elizabeth’s pleasure in realizing how much Mr. Darcy has been willing to change for her. We also see her pain in realizing how much of a jerk she’s been: how quickly she’s willing to dislike people, how attached she is to being right about that dislike, how easily her judgments of people are shaped by whether those people flatter her. The scenes where she realizes how much she misjudged both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham — they’re not fantasy wish-fulfillment at all. They are extremely uncomfortable scenes, vividly depicting the dark night of her soul. (Or, if you prefer more secular phraseology: They are extremely uncomfortable scenes, vividly depicting her cognitive dissonance collapsing in on her with a thud.) Her story arc isn’t, “He is inspired to change by his love for me, because I am so awesome!” Her story arc is, “He is inspired to change by his love for me — but I need to change too, because I’m not quite as awesome as I thought I was.”

This isn’t a story about a good woman reforming a bad boy. This is a story about two complicated people, each with good qualities and bad qualities, inspiring each other to be better.

Thoughts?

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Female Fantasy, and Some New Thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice”
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13 thoughts on “Female Fantasy, and Some New Thoughts on “Pride and Prejudice”

  1. 1

    “He’s not a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules. He’s a good-looking tight-ass who plays by society’s rules.”

    Never thought of him that way, but you are right.

    Elizabeth, being in the squirearchy, has her own set of rules … definitely an annoying little jerk until she has to deal with her sister, that cousin the heir, and the rest of the plot.

  2. 2

    I think it’s noteworthy, though, that most of Austen’s novels have one of those “Oh, what a fool I was” moments for the heroines. (I’m thinking here of Emma and Northanger Abbey, as those are the ones I’m most familiar with.) Not all of them have the equivalent for the guy. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than that’s probably one of several reasons why P&P has eclipsed the others in popularity.

    I teach P&P every year in British Lit, prior to introducing Romanticism. I think it’s far more entrenched in Enlightenment values than the work of most of her contemporaries — the head definitely needs to lead, and it brings the heart along later.

  3. 3

    Northanger Abbey has another interesting case: Austen explicitly says that Henry did not fall in love with Catherine until after he realised she was interested in him. No thunderbolts.

  4. 4

    I know nothing about Austen. The last romance that really struck me with its themes of two complicated characters — if not “inspiring each other to be better” per se — at least showing each other how to overcome what they had to overcome to be together — was Secretary.

  5. 5

    The scholar Marilyn Butler makes a very interesting case – not 100% convincing to me – that all the Austen novels fit (while being spectacularly better than the others) a pattern of anti-Jacobean (i.e. reactionary) post-French Revolution novels. They’re all about young girls thinking they know more than they do and getting schooled.

    It’s probably obvious why this doesn’t 100% convince me: it doesn’t fit. Elizabeth is wrong but not silly…it just doesn’t feel like that. But Butler’s case is that that’s Austen’s art: making it not feel like that.

    Emma fits the pattern way better, since Emma really does blunder and cause harm, and Knightley is barely wrong at all about anything. Patriarchal hierarchy vindicated! And yet, it still doesn’t feel like that. If it doesn’t feel like that it isn’t really part of the genre, in my view. But then this isn’t 1820, so what do I know.

  6. 6

    One thing I love about Austen’s novels is how smart she is about using the social constraints of the time to drive tension. Young women in that age could spend so little time with single men, so acting with prejudice based on first impressions makes a good deal of sense. Elizabeth’s story is contrasted with Jane’s – Jane, who was agreeable to everyone and did not show favorites, nearly loses Mr. Bingley.

    I’m a grumpy introvert so I also love that the whole novel kicks off with a party guest who’s in a bad mood.

  7. 7

    I think it’s noteworthy, though, that most of Austen’s novels have one of those “Oh, what a fool I was” moments for the heroines. (I’m thinking here of Emma and Northanger Abbey, as those are the ones I’m most familiar with.) Not all of them have the equivalent for the guy. I’m not sure what to make of that, other than that’s probably one of several reasons why P&P has eclipsed the others in popularity.

    The scholar Marilyn Butler makes a very interesting case – not 100% convincing to me – that all the Austen novels fit (while being spectacularly better than the others) a pattern of anti-Jacobean (i.e. reactionary) post-French Revolution novels. They’re all about young girls thinking they know more than they do and getting schooled.

    brucegee1962 @ #2 and Ophelia Benson @ #5: Actually, “Persuasion” has a similar arc to “P&P” — both the hero and the heroine have to accept that they made mistakes in order to come together. Maybe that’s why “Persuasion” is my second-favorite of Austen’s novels. And in “Sense and Sensibility,” Marianne definitely has an “Oh, what a fool I was” moment — but does Elinor? It’s been a while since I’ve read it, I don’t like it as much as P&P and Persuasion — but I mostly remember Elinor being pretty much perfect and right from beginning to end. Ditty Fanny in “Mansfield Park”: she’s WAY too insipid for me to care much about, but Austen clearly sees her as totally virtuous. Very much agreed about “Emma” — one of the reasons I don’t care for it. The arc is all about how awful she is and how she has to improve: Mr. Knightley is just super perfect throughout (I don’t actually see him that way, I see him as a stuck-up superior prig who never gets over himself the way Mr. Darcy does, but clearly Austen sees him as awesome.)

  8. 8

    I think what saves P&P from the trope is that Knightley doesn’t get Lizzy who thinks she can change him within their marriage/relationship, but that he has to walk the walk before they get married. It’s not Elizabean taking the “bad boy” thinking that she can change him through her love and virtousness. It’s him (and her) having to change before they can get together.

  9. 9

    It is pretty easy to forget from the text that the book is over 200 years old. In fact with the exception of Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote, it is hard to think of an older book that is still popular and has lasted so well.

    At the time it was written, epistolary novels were the norm and the reader had to mentally switch perspectives from page to page. Or they would be narrated by one of the minor characters in the novel. Austen was arguably of the first to really figure out how to make use of an omnipresent narrator.

    It is a bit like seeing a Guttenberg bible for the first time and realizing that they were not as you might imagine like the mass produced books that come later, each one is a work of art.

  10. 10

    I think the other thing we forget is that P&P is more a comedy of manners than a romance per se. Austen is commenting on the social conventions of the day while also entertaining us and her view of them is quite scathing. I admit I’m somewhat disappointed that she gets seen as a romance writer more often than a social critic nowadays because we get distracted by the fact that Lizzie and Darcy end up together. Of course marriage and courting were paramount but that’s because women had no other (respectable) means of economic security. And her point was that being forced to marry someone who was not your equal morally or intellectually (also that women were in fact moral, intellectual beings *gasp*) because of financial considerations sucked and was best avoided if at all possible. So no, Darcy doesn’t fall into the classic romance trope, because P&P was never a romance.

  11. 11

    I greatly prefer Sense and Sensibility to P&P. Marianne is the only one who “reforms” during the book -the others remain their true selves from beginning to end. Willoughby is a rake, and remains a rake until the end. Yes, Elinor is pretty much perfect, but so is Col. Brandon.

  12. 12

    Well, Elizabeth and Darcy each radically alter their views of the other. Elizabeth registers that some of what she reads as Darcy’s snobbery, is his recoiling from her family’s gaucherie and dysfunction.

    Darcy is stung when he learns that Elizabeth is NOT going to jump when he proposes seemingly out of the blue.

    Wickham really does match the ‘bad boy’ pattern. But in a sharply realistic manner. Shallow, unreliable, self-dramatizing, dishonest, reckless of the lives around him.

    And well beyond any fantasy of ‘reformation.’

  13. 13

    The difference between the Bad Guy trope and what happens in Pride and Prejudice is that the characters seem to want to change for their own sake, not just to win over the other in a romantic way.

    I think the heart of the trope is that the sole aim of the attitude modification is to win a mate, as if it’s a game or a dance. In the case of Pride and Prejudice, even if the romantic feelings between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy had eventually dissolved after their self reflection, the characters would have learned a valuable lesson about themselves and been better people because of it anyway. It’s more a matter of personal growth than wooing; that they end up together is just the icing on the wedding cake.

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