Thursday, December 18, 2008

Heroes and perfection

Yesterday was Jane Austen's birthday. For all those of us out there who identify as Janeites, this is a cause for much rejoicing.

Unfortunately, I think it should also be a cause for some soul-searching.

Rebecca wrote a great piece the other day about our high expectations for men. One of the ways I think we do this is by comparing the young men we see around us to our favorite Romantic* heroes. If I had a nickel for every time I've heard someone say, "If only there were more guys like ______." Jane Austen's heroes are definitely favorites for this kind of wish especially, for some strange reason, Mr. Darcy.

You're probably wondering why I think that's strange. Well, I know he was played by Colin Firth in the miniseries. However, if you read the novel closely, you suddenly realize that for much of the story, he's not all that nice a character. He insults Elizabeth multiple times including while proposing to her, breaks her sister's heart, and is generally fairly proud and somewhat annoying.

Which is to say he's human. Sure, he's not the really rotten character we might think he is at certain points. He's not guilty of cheating Wickham out of his inheritance. On the other hand, he himself admits that he has great faults. Even at the end of the novel Elizabeth notes that "he had yet to learn to be laught at" (Chapter XVI). The strength of Darcy is not that he's a perfect character but precisely that he's not perfect. He, like Elizabeth, has to recognize his own faults and begin to change before their story can reach a happy resolution. We can certainly love Mr. Darcy. But if we love him, we should love him as another human being who struggles along and we should recognize that making him into a pinnacle of perfection does a disservice to ourselves, to the young men around us, and to Austen's story.

*For you literature types out there, yes Romantic is deliberately capitalized.


Mac December 18, 2008 at 10:10 AM  

GREAT post Maureen!!! I completely agree! Personally I always thought Elizabeth Bennet was to perfect. I'm not saying she didn't have faults, just that I've never meet another women like her... While we're at it "I wish more girls were like Elizabeth" ;)

R.J. Anderson December 18, 2008 at 1:17 PM  

What you say about Darcy is quite true. It is actually Mr. Knightley who is perfect. :)

When I was in my teens my father (a wise and godly man) recommended that I make up a "shopping" list of the qualities I felt were most important in a husband, from most important to least, and refer to them whenever I was seriously interested in a young man. It's amazing how that list, made in sober judgment when I was not romantically involved with anyone, helped me to assess the various boys I met and also to recognize the right one when I found him. My "shopping list" really helped me to realize what my priorities were in a relationship -- but also what was realistic to expect or hope for in a partner (i.e. "Is a serious, committed Christian with a compassionate heart and a good knowledge of the Bible") as opposed to what was mere selfish dreaming (i.e. "Gives me flowers and writes me love poetry on a regular basis").

MaureenE December 18, 2008 at 2:28 PM  

R.J. Anderson, I had a feeling someone was going to bring up Mr. Knightley. :) Actually, that's the reason I like Darcy better--Knightley is just a little TOO perfect.

Mac, I think Elizabeth's faults are more of understanding. She's too quick to make snap judgements about people. Her realization of how prejudiced she's been towards Darcy leads her to realize that her own perception is always flawed.

Becca, thanks! :)

Sarah Dee December 20, 2008 at 10:41 AM  

Great post!

Though I must say that I think that though Mr. Knightley might seem perfect at a cursory glance he is DEFINATELY flawed. He is a critical, jealous, teasing, know-it-all. A man used to having his own way... Just how elizabeth doesn't seem BLATENTLY flawed... she surely is. Emma is still my favorite novel... simply because I love the flaws and that despite the flaws lovve can grow. Love growing out of friendship and knowledge... knowing the flaws they still chose to love. *sigh*

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