Jane Austen Has Destroyed Us All

Since it comes free with my new nook, I’ve been re-reading Pride and Prejudice (pay no attention to that print version on my shelf). Now, before I explain the title of this post, let me just say that this book is easily one of the best written of all time. Anyone who says otherwise is just trying to be different. It proves its timelessness in its prose and plot. Its characters remain complex and familiar and, let’s face it, perfectly constructed. Along with The Great Gatsby and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Pride and Prejudice would be put on my imaginary syllabus to my imaginary class called “This Is Everything a Novel Should Be!”

OK, now let’s trash it.

I first fell in love with Ms. Austen in college. I had never read her before, but through some turn of events, I ended up in a seminar devoted entirely to her. We read all six novels, some of her letters, and (get ready to swoon, ladies!) watched the Pride and Prejudice mini-series with Colin Firth. Before taking this class, I assumed that Jane Austen wrote the fluffy chick lit of her time. In fact, one might even say I had a prejudice against her for this reason.

But, even before her actual writing proved me wrong, I learned that Jane was a huge cynic when it came to love and hated being around children. Surprised and sympathetic, I respected her even more. In knowing her real-life feelings on marriage and children and “what’s expected,” I could see her winking at me from behind the pages when her characters inevitably got their “happy” ending.

Again, I say all of this about her with love and admiration. However, it wasn’t until reading Pride and Prejudice again that I realized the true extent of her cynicism. She is downright cruel in a way that I bet she didn’t even anticipate.

While I’m sure this has been pointed out before in the thesis papers of English and Film majors alike, Pride and Prejudice has been arguably the template for almost every piece of women’s fiction/chick lit novel and romantic comedy ever produced. Not all, but a lot of them. Man meets woman; woman hates man; man hates woman; both find each other attractive; both resist; they keep running into each other; sexual tension builds; man and woman get married.

By creating this formula, Jane Austen was inadvertently responsible for today’s stereotype (reality?) that women fall for jerks. In essence, she’s been ruining the lives of women for 200 years. Sure, it’s paid off in some ways. She is, after all, responsible for Sam and Diane’s banter on Cheers and the careers of Meg Ryan, Julia Roberts, and Sandra Bullock. But she’s also responsible for Bridget Jones’ diary, for all of our diaries that lament over the man who just won’t change his ways. She’s why Carrie ends up with Big!
Even in my favorite Austen novel, Emma, Emma plays the role of the jerk who needs changing, while Mr. Knightly, oh perfect, love-of-my-life that he is, plays the role of the wise outsider, disdaining Emma’s superficiality while falling in love with her. Perhaps Jane was trying to explore the question, “Why do the hot, kinda bitchy girls always win?” But that’s a topic for the men to analyze. I’ll stick with women and our Darcy-complex.

As I’ve said before, sometimes people just suck. In reality, unless something particularly profound happens to them, these people rarely change, so why should we expect anything more in our books or films? I know, I know. Now, I’m sounding like the cynic. So I’ll clarify by admitting that I do see the value of the hope Jane’s formula provides and I believe that love sometimes can be that profound thing that happens to the aforementioned “jerks.” However, these constant, poorly executed remakes are making women appear dumb. I think this needs to stop. If reality reflects entertainment which reflects reality, then one of these things needs to change.

I’m left with two questions:

1) Why has this notion – that is, the notion that we will be the one to change him because deep down, he’s really just Mr. Darcy – been perpetuated for as long as it has?

2) Which came first – literature influencing our relationships, or our relationships influencing literature?

Maybe it’s both, but one thing is for sure – We can drop all the zombies we want into Jane’s work. We can even allow Anne Hathaway to make Jane fall in love on screen and let the malnourished Keira Knightley destroy everything holy about Lizzie Bennett. And no matter how many times we roll her over in her grave, she is clearly getting the last laugh.
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