Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Loser Like Jane Austen

Many times over the years as I’ve taught parts of Tristan und Isolde, I’ve told students that only two love plots exist. When you go to see a show with a title in the form Boy’s-name and Girl’s-name, there are only two possibilities: either boy and girl will despise each other at first and end up married, or boy and girl will love each other at first and end up dead. I offer that oversimplification as an attention grabber, but it helps a lot when I play the first ten seconds of the Prelude and ask the class, “So, how do Tristan and Isolde end up?” And the two-part division holds true for the most part. All’s Well that Ends Well and Romeo and Juliet offer quintessential examples of the two plots.

But in the last few years, I’ve had to change my theory. I’ve noticed a variation on plot no. 1 that’s both more appealing and more common. In the new model I have in mind, boy and girl don’t have to overcome hatred for each other but the stigma of marrying someone society deems odd. Girl especially has to look odd in the eyes of the world for this plot to work. And no one makes it work better than Jane Austen. First of all, her heroines aren’t generally known for either their beauty or their wealth, so of course society won’t view them as marriageable material. Darcy, for example, makes it explicit at first that Elizabeth isn’t pretty enough for him. More importantly, all Austen’s heroines are intelligent, or “clever” as she usually puts it. Catherine and Fanny even read books! What in the world is a girl supposed to do with an education, society asks? She’s a funny girl, that Belle.

Of course this plot appeals to people. Ironically, people love losers. Calling someone a loser often comes only as a defense against admiring someone we can’t be. But in a book or a show, we can drop our guard and love the lovable loser freely. Who wouldn’t want to know Norm Peterson or even be Norm Peterson? He may be overweight. He may not be happy in his marriage. But every night he goes to a place where “everybody knows his name.” The “kids” on Glee call themselves “Lima Losers.” They may get slushees in the face, but the insight they set to music near the end of season 2 runs deep: “Hit me with the worst you got and knock me down. Soon enough you’ll figure out you want to be a loser like me.”

(OK, prepare for understatement.) Jane Austen knows what to do with the lovable loser better than Ryan Murphy – even better than James Burrows and the Charles brothers. Making her girls intelligent means that the reader, who must be intelligent to read the books, automatically identifies with the heroines. Austen even explicitly makes avid reading a part of the oddness of Catherine (Northanger Abbey) and Fanny (Mansfield Park). How clever is that? Readers of both genders will immediately see themselves in these adventurers on the sea of paper and ink, no matter what the other characters think, and they will love them.

But here’s where Jane Austen gets really smart. Not every character in a Jane Austen novel sees the heroine as a social misfit; one fellow has to figure it out, or there’s no ending to the book. And that means that every reader of either gender, having seen the appeal of the heroine from the beginning, will identify with the hero as well.

Jane’s girls are all special in a good way, and every reader needs assurance that he, too, is special in a good way and not just a weirdo. He gets that assurance from seeing a young person of underappreciated intelligence painted in a favorable light. He gets that assurance from the appreciation the heroine receives from one other special character by the end of the book. He gets that assurance from the happiness that the perceptive hero finds in the intelligent girl. And he gets that assurance from the knowledge that enough other readers have seen the point to keep these books in print for two-hundred years. Thanks, Jane Austen, for letting me be a loser like you.

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