Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Book Report

Mom is getting pretty greedy with her Christmas list. This year, in addition to her regular gift under the tree, she's demanding a stocking stuffer. She always gives Dad and me stocking stuffers, but they tend to be amazingly lame gifts, like a box of staples or plastic forks, and then she's like, "But you can always use more staples!" That's just not true. Mom, they come in boxes of five thousand — if office supplies were currency, I'd be the richest person in Fanwood. So to go through one box of staples, you need to find at least ten thousand sheets of paper that have to be held together, and that's not going to happen in this lifetime. Enough with the damn staples, Mom!

Mom doesn't read my blog, so that whole rant was kind of pointless.

I already bought Mom the "Sudoku for Dummies" book because she's (a) convinced that Sudoku will keep her from going senile and she could use all the help she can get, and (b) she's not all that bright to begin with. ("You see, you actually figure out where the numbers are supposed to go," she once told me. "I just guess.") But she's got petite feet, so that book won't fit in her stocking and I need to think of something smaller to get her in addition.... Oh yeah, and I wanted it to be something they have in stock at Borders. (Barnes and Noble sucks monkey balls ever since they laid me off.) They keep sending me Christmas coupons and I'm a total cheapskate, so it's holiday symbiosis. My best idea — and I know it's not very good so you don't have to tell me that it's not very good — is that BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, although I don't really want to encourage Mom in any way. The problem is, of course, (a) she has some crazy female hormonal problems at the thought of Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy, which turn her brain into a swooning puddle of mush, and (b) she's not all that bright to begin with.

Thanks to my "liberal arts" education, I had to grow a vagina for a week and read Pride and Prejudice, so unlike many of my rants, here I actually know what the hell I'm talking about, and I can confidently say that everybody else's P&P opinions are blatantly retarded, so up yours, Core Curriculum! Oh, so many misconceptions! So many unnecessary commas and semicolons and interminable run-on sentences! Where to begin?

Here's a good place: Elizabeth Bennet is a total bitch. I know this is inconceivable to the sequacious minds who don't want to look hard enough to find a man so they develop a Romantic fixation on P&P. ("Sequacious," by the way, is my Word of the Day and I'm very proud that I used in context on its very day of honor.) The prevailing view, the one you're supposed to rehash mindlessly in your English 101 paper if you don't want to fail the course, is that Darcy's pride keeps him from that middle-class strumpet Elizabeth and Elizabeth's prejudice towards that "most disagreeable, horrid man, not at all worth pleasing," who didn't want to dance with her keeps her from ascending into Darcy's conveniently upper-class graces. Elizabeth, through the sheer power of her nagging, humbles Darcy to the point where he loves her for who she is and never stays out late with Mr. Bingley and the guys from work and always puts the toilet seat down. I heard Margaret Atwood give a lecture where she said, half-facetiously, that Pride and Prejudice was the worst book ever written for girls to read because it convinces them that they can change a man. Seriously, Margaret, that's why God gave us sitcoms.

Anyway, if you actually put P&P through a close reading, neither character changes or grows or evolves in any way at all. Jane Austen herself, breaking the rule of "show me, don't tell me" as if she's writing Felicity fanfics or something, screws this up: she spells out all of Darcy's so-called faults in the early chapters and then spells out his good qualities in the later ones, and somehow everybody fell for it. Darcy's actions, or lack thereof, are judged selectively and Elizabeth is never judged at all. (Compare her to trampy daughter Lydia, for example.) Let me re-write the ball scene in contemporary sloppy English for contemporary sloppy idiots, in a way that I probably should've done back when I actually was in college and would've counted for something.

Elizabeth and Darcy happen to be at the same party, because back in romanticized Victorian England, no one had an actual job or anything. We'll recall that Mrs. Bennet has nothing better to do than arrange marriages for her five daughters, although since this is supposedly a feminist novel, Austen gives the Bennett kids the appearance of choice as to who they're going to inevitably fall in love with and marry like the good Victorian baby factories they are. It may be "a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," but a single woman can be in want of whatever she wants, at least for now. At this party, we've got "good-looking and gentlemanlike" and second-richest guy in town Mr. Bingley, some dude named Mr. Hurst who we don't care about and only gets like half a sentence of description, and Mr. Darcy. I hate Mr. Darcy immediately: "Mr. Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien, and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having ten thousand a year." He's basically the next Donald Trump, only much more handsome. Austen is creaming herself writing this. You can tell.

Again, Darcy has done nothing at this point in the novel except exist, but the description continues: "The gentlemen pronounced him to be a fine figure of a man, the ladies declared he was much handsomer than Mr. Bingley, and he was looked at with great admiration for about half the evening..." But the comparisons to Mr. Five-Thousand-A-Year Bingley aren't all flattering. In way too many words, Austen tells us that Bingley is gregarious while Darcy is reserved. Actually, Austen, like many girls I went to high school with, doesn't quite use the non-judgmental word "reserved." Instead, she says, "he was discovered to be proud; to be above his company, and above being pleased; and not all his large estate in Derbyshire could then save him from having a most forbidding, disagreeable countenance, and being unworthy to be compared with his friend.... Mr. Darcy danced only once with Mrs. Hurst and once with Miss Bingley, declined being introduced to any other lady, and spent the rest of the evening in walking about the room, speaking occasionally to one of his own party. His character was decided. He was the proudest, most disagreeable man in the world, and everybody hoped that he would never come there again."

The point that Austen isn't making is that being rich and attractive doesn't necessarily mitigate the serotonin imbalance in your brain that might (Heaven forbid in our prudish Victorian culture!) cause an actual human emotion, such as disinterest or anxiety. Whatever. Darcy's having a bad day, and hanging out with the insufferable Bennet clan probably ain't making it any better. I mean, they've decided he's a prick and HE HASN'T DONE ANYTHING!!!! Not he hasn't done anything bad, or he hasn't done anything to them, but he literally has done absolutely nothing in the story at this point. YOU CAN'T FREAKING GET PISSED AT SOMEONE FOR STANDING ON THE SIDELINES! Maybe he senses that he's hanging out with a bunch of totally vacuous losers. I don't know.

Meanwhile, Lizzie is whoring it up, bumping and grinding, dancing with everybody. It's my kind of party, cause not only is there are positive girl-to-guy ratio but there's some sort of weird reverse Sadie Hawkins rule where the girls can only dance with each guy once, and that would dramatically increase my chances of getting in some awkward shoulder touching. Since there's not enough guys in circulation, Elizabeth has to sit a couple of dances out and — although this isn't explicitly stated in the text — I assume she's yammering with her girlfriends about who she got to second base with or her tampons or where she got her dress or something equally inane. Here's the kicker: Darcy's standing near her, and HE DOESN'T ASK HER TO DANCE!!!!

This is a cause for Liz to lose her shit. What is she, Cordy?

So you know that misogynistic thing I said two sentences ago about how Elizabeth is talking with her friends about some stereotypically girly thing that I have no interest in whatsoever? If Elizabeth's quintessentially bitchy reaction to — not even being snubbed — simply not having the hottest guy at the party asking her, the hottest girl at the party, to dance doesn't explain my visceral response, then you really need to take a hammer and swing it, pointed side down, into your skull, because I have no use for you and you are merely sucking up resources that could go to a more worthy creature, like a fern. If I were to pre-emptively disdain every girl who didn't dance with me.... oh, wait a second. Bad example.

Here's what Darcy does say:

"Come, Darcy," said [Mr. Bingley, that jackass], "I must have you dance. I hate to see you standing about by yourself in this stupid manner. You had much better dance."

"I certainly shall not. You know how I detest it, unless I am particularly acquainted with my partner. At such an assembly as this it would be insupportable. Your sisters are engaged, and there is not another woman in the room whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with."

"I would not be so fastidious as you are," cried Mr. Bingley, "for a kingdom! Upon my honour, I never met with so many pleasant girls in my life as I have this evening; and there are several of them you see uncommonly pretty."

"YOU are dancing with the only handsome girl in the room," said Mr. Darcy, looking at the eldest Miss Bennet [i.e. Elizabeth].
So, he thinks Elizabeth is hot, but he thinks it would be improper to hit on her. Okay, women: next time you're at a bar, wearing a halter top and a short skirt, and some dude's selfishly throwing himself at you, remember Mr. Darcy! Either complain about getting hit on or complain about not getting hit on, but don't freaking complain about both! Anyway, Darcy says that unlike trampy-ass Elizabeth, he's not into dancing with every piece of tail at the party. He wants an emotional connection. Again, women! Next time you're bitching to Oprah or Dr. Phil about how your man won't talk to you, I don't want to fucking hear it. Hammer. Skull. Fern. In fact, right now, shut up, Elizabeth.

Of course, Liz is wrong about Darcy, but I don't recall her ever actually admitting that she's wrong. So whether she didn't admit or whether she did and I just forgot, that's typical. I get it: she judges Darcy before getting all the facts, and that's why it's called prejudice, but there'll be no growth and redemption for Elizabeth unless Austen has her fess up first. That's where I think the novel, or at least the classic feminist interpretation of the novel, falls flat. I don't want to jump on the causistry bandwagon, coming up with insane theories about anorexia and teen pregnancy here, but while modern feminism might be about choice and opportunity in theory, it's been co-opted by the feel-good let's-celebrate-ourselves dumbasses who've convinced themselves that there's absolutely nothing wrong with women. (Cough, cough, Oprah, ahem!) Attitudes like that make change pointless and make Elizabeth's change from fiesty bitch to fiesty yet subservient wife hollow to even the most chauvanistic interpretations.

By the end of the novel, Elizabeth isn't asserting herself. She's cheerfully and mindlessly accepting the fate that society, and Austen, have set up for her since the beginning of the novel. She's the eldest of the five Bennet daughters, the prettiest daughter, and what I can only describe as the most lady-like — that is, inasmuch as Victorian women's sole reason for existing was to amuse men with their fauning and witty banter, Elizabeth's the best at it. And it's just a coincidence that she's soulmates with the handsomest, manliest, and let's not forget richest man in town? It's maybe also a coincidence that the second-eldest, second-prettiest Bennet daughter winds up with the second-richest man in town, and also how juvenile, trampy, ugly daughter Lydia eventually marries Mr. Wickham, the town ne'er-do-well, and well-mannered Liz and Darcy have to bail them out from whatever criminal mischief they've gotten into in the last chapters.

Seriously, if Pride & Prejudice were an honest feminist novel, Darcy would be off finding the best hookers, and Elizabeth would've walked out of that ball, put on a pair of pants, and started her own billion dollar domestic goddess company specializing in making middle-class housewives feel like their half-assed decorating, baking, and sewing skills make them bad mothers. Maybe Liz could have a tawdry affair with Gloria Steinem. I'd read that book.