Tuesday, April 17, 2012

All I Needed to Know About Men I Learned from Jane Austen, Part 5: Mr. Darcy

"May I ask to what these questions tend?"
"Merely to the illustration of your character," said she, endeavouring to shake off her gravity. "I am trying to make it out."
"And what is your success?"
She shook her head. "I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly." 
-Pride and Prejudice, Ch. 18

My Dear Reader,

When you get to the end of Pride and Prejudice, you want nothing more than to find your own Mr. Darcy and live happily ever after. But when Elizabeth Bennett first met her Mr. Darcy, she wanted nothing more than to watch him take a long walk off a short pier.

Love can be a complex situation.

For example, you can meet a guy and completely misjudge him. To make it worse, he can simultaneously misjudge you. And as a consequence, each of you can paint a picture of the other that is absolute fiction. You have made the time-honored mistake of basing your entire opinion of a person off of one short meeting, without realizing that you're probably missing something crucial.

It kind of reminds me of a few times in my childhood when I would come across people who would set themselves apart from a group, and I'd always assume that they were snobs. Why else would they be looking down their noses at the rest of us? It took a very wise church youth leader to point out the possibility that those snobs could actually be acting that way out of shyness.

And that's something like what Darcy is going through. At the beginning of the book, he's helping his best friend settle into a new place with different, unfamiliar customs and attitudes. Not surprisingly, he likes home a lot better. I think it's because at home, Darcy knows who he is and what he needs to do. But in Meryton, he's a stranger in a strange land.

Add to that the fact that Darcy doesn't seem to be the kind of person who flourishes in big group settings. He prefers small, intimate events. But the first time he is immersed in this new community of people, it's at a crowded dance, where there will be a lot of people who will expect a great deal out of him. As a wealthy man from out of town, he knows he'll be in the spotlight and something of social target.

Lovely.

So, Darcy ends up on the defensive at that first dance, using pride to mask the insecurity he feels. And when his friend tries to throw him headfirst at some country girl, he is automatically and violently opposed. He even says some very unkind things. Unfortunately for him, Darcy is overheard, and country girl, Elizabeth, ends up basing her entire opinion of him on those words. From that moment forward, every move he makes is colored by this view that she has of him, which leads her to a lot of unfair conclusions. It takes the entire rest of the book for Elizabeth to realize that Darcy is not a really big jerk. He's just a guy that did one very jerky thing.

The genius in this dynamic is that neither party is free from blame. Darcy did say some pretty harsh things that he would later deeply regret, and while her sarcasm hides it well, Elizabeth is probably very deeply embarrassed. Humiliated, really. She exacts revenge by taking a little too much joy in Darcy's flaws. She even clings to them when she is presented with evidence of his good character. It's almost as if she prefers it if he's not good enough for her. But considering all of the flawed men that come Elizabeth's way, I think that's pretty understandable.

Because sometimes, I think we are just afraid. I think we're getting ready to take a chance, and we can only think about all of the other chances we've tried to take and how it has all gone horribly, horribly wrong. You remember what it was like go in confident and full of hope, and come out a failure. So, you see one thing you don't like, and you get scared that it's all going to happen again. I mean, you're not crazy. You know that doing the same thing over and over again will most likely produce the same, painful results.

And after all that, it's easy to start believing that failure is inevitable.

Elizabeth isn't going to get anywhere with that mindset, just as Darcy won't get anywhere with his. To move forward, they will both have to change. In a way, you can look at the romance of Elizabeth and Darcy as two journeys of repentance that happen to converge at the end.

But I think Jane Austen is trying to teach us something about what love is supposed to be.

Perhaps it is this journey Elizabeth goes on that distinguishes Darcy from Wickham, Collins, and Bingley. Perhaps Darcy and Elizabeth are good for each other because they challenge each other in the right way. As much as Elizabeth is hurt by Darcy, she is also intrigued by him. As much as she wants to hate him, she has this constant, nagging feeling that there is something she's missing. She's smart enough to see that the facts aren't lining up with her opinions, but she has to overcome her hatred of being wrong and her fear of being right before she can see things as they really are, and before she can see that Darcy is a complex individual.

And it's when she starts to unravel the complexity of Darcy that Elizabeth starts falling in love with him. It's when she has to stop seeing things from her perspective and look through his eyes that she really understands why he acts the way he does, and something changes in her. She doesn't stop being the intelligent, compassionate, fiery character that we love. If anything, her new understanding of human nature makes her more intelligent and compassionate, and her passion for Darcy intensifies her inner flame. She's even brave enough to know what she wants, and fight for it.

So, while Wickham would use her, Collins would diminish her, and Bingley would stagnate her, Darcy makes Elizabeth . . . Elizabether. Without compromising the integrity of who she is, he has motivated her to be a better person. After falling in love with Darcy, Elizabeth becomes the kind of person who would be pretty good at being in a lifelong romantic relationship.

And that's only fair, because she's doing the very same thing to him. She is drawing him far, far out of his comfort zone and forcing him to look at things and at people that he thought were far beneath his notice. She makes him swallow his pride and be very, very brave. She makes him brave enough to be, like Elizabeth, a fighter.

And maybe that's what love is supposed to be. Not two perfect people with a perfect relationship, but two imperfect people who are just trying to understand each other. Maybe love isn't just about the butterflies and picnics, but that there's some kind of purpose to it.

Maybe we don't need to just be looking for love. Maybe we need to be looking for love that makes us better than we are. Maybe we need to be looking for love that makes us smarter, kinder, and braver.

Jane Austen wrote Pride and Prejudice while she was about the age Elizabeth is in the novel, and I imagine that she was going through similar romantic trials and tribulations. I wonder how much of her personal journey is reflected in the life of Elizabeth. I wonder if she was inspired to write about Elizabeth's romantic struggles in order to warn us of the frustrations ahead and encourage us to avoid the dangers of settling for the wrong person. I wonder if she's telling us that if we can't find our Darcy, it's better not to find anyone at all.

Jane Austen never found the kind of love that Elizabeth did. She never married, even though she had the opportunity*. Perhaps she chose a life of solitude because she had bouquets full of Wickhams, Collinses, and Bingleys, and that just wasn't enough for her.  Maybe she's trying to tell us that that it shouldn't be enough for anyone.

And if that's what Jane Austen says, then really, it's good enough for me.

Regards, best wishes, and your very own Darcy,

-Cecily Jane

*Jane Austen once accepted a marriage proposal, then changed her mind the next day. My guess is that he was a Collins.

1 comment:

MissCasey said...

Very insightful. :) My favorite part was "Darcy makes Elizabeth . . . Elizabether." Fills me with confidence!