Sunday, December 9, 2012

Pride and Prejudice and the Friend Zone

cover for the Penguin Classics version of Pride and Prejudice
I'm veering a bit off-course of my usual blathering about writing and learning from books to share some thoughts about one book in particular. I recently decided to reread Pride and Prejudice, because I'd been reading commentary describing Jane Austen as the precursor to romance novels, and that it's her fault we have the attitude in fiction that women will come around if a guy is nice enough to them. They traced this back to Pride and Prejudice, and Lizzy Bennet's about-face regarding Mr. Darcy. I knew this wasn't the case, but I didn't remember the exact content of the book well enough to dispute this assertion.

I picked it up on audio, and I'm about 2/3rds of the way through it now. Luckily, I didn't have to read far to get the proof I needed.

In chapter 19, Elizabeth is approached with a proposal of marriage by Mr. Collins. She's done nothing to encourage him up to this point, and, the more time she spends around him, the less she likes him. Also, she's not the sort to hold back on her feelings. So, when he asks for her hand in marriage, she flat out but politely rejects him.

His answer is that he's heard it's customary, because of "female modesty," for a woman to reject a marriage proposal the first time, so he isn't discouraged. This goes back and forth several times, and she says, "You must give me leave to judge for myself, and pay me the compliment of believing what I say." When that fails to discourage him, she says that she doesn't know what she can say that will.

It was a surprise to hear this from a female character, even one as strong-willed and outspoken as Lizzy Bennet, during the Regency era. It's more direct than I'd expected, and it addresses exactly the point I was looking for to show that Austen didn't advise men to wait around for women to change their minds.

What makes Lizzy change her mind about Mr. Darcy is not that he changes, but that she finds out she's misjudged him. Within the book, she gets to see more sides of him. He's a textbook introvert, not the snobbish, cruel man she's been led to believe he is. He's a contrast to Mr. Collins, who really is that boorish and annoying, and who Lizzy was right to reject.

If readers are getting out of this that Austen wanted women to love the jerks who express interest, they didn't read very deeply, and they missed that line in chapter 19. She advocates, in this very book, for women knowing their own minds, and shows us how annoying it is to be pestered by someone they don't like.

I couldn't help but form parallels between Lizzy Bennet's predicament and that of the "friend zone" I've been reading a lot of commentary about lately. Mr. Collins feels entitled to Lizzy's affection, and won't hear otherwise, no matter how she feels, much like the "nice guys" who lament the attention their female friends lavish on "jerks."

It's interesting, that Jane Austen knew and wrote about something we still haven't grasped, almost 200 years later. I wish I read more modern stories that got it. Until then, I have my Pride and Prejudice rereads.

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