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What I Learned from Pride and Prejudice: Maximizing Potential for Happiness

Outlining Rainie Day Mystery #2, in which the murder takes place at the Sea Breeze Jane Austen Society's Annual Regency Ball, has given me the happy excuse to revisit Austen's works. I've been spending my evenings reading the novels on Project Gutenberg and watching the movie adaptations on Amazon...all for the sake of "research," of course.

My opinion of this literary great, and particularly of her most popular novel, Pride and Prejudice, has vacillated over the years. I adored Austen as a teenager. Then I derided her in my early twenties, when I discovered her imperfections. Now I can enjoy her stories despite their flaws.

As I reflect on the novels and read what other people say about them, I've been thinking about what makes Pride and Prejudice (henceforth "P&P") so much more popular than the others. I've proposed theories on this blog before: P&P has the most likeable heroine, and the story focuses on romance while Austen's other novels are primarily coming of age stories.

But there's something magical about P&P that sucks a reader in more than the others. It's not the brilliance of the characters—the cast of Emma is much more interesting. It's not the wittiness of the writing—the satire in Northanger Abbey is much more amusing. And it's not the pacing or originality of the plot—Elizabeth Bennet is completely reactive, and the plot points of P&P are tame compared to the scandalous secrets, betrayals, and brushes with death in Sense and Sensibility.

No, that special something is not in either the idea or the execution of the novel. The magic of P&P is in its basic story structure.

1. Of all Jane Austen's novels, P&P has the happiest ending.

As I wrote in my March 2016 post, "Thoughts on Conflict and Tension," conflict creates narrative tension because it takes the characters farther away from happiness. This means the potential for happiness has to exist in the first place. "There's no tension when a character sits around moping about the pointlessness of life," I said. "There is tension when a character wants very much to live happily ever after with his college sweetheart, but she disappears without a trace, and he's desperate to find her."

There are two ways to add tension to a story. One is to make the characters' situation worse. Inflict greater and greater misfortunes upon the poor cast until their accumulated misery explodes in the climax and fizzles away in the resolution. This does make for an exciting read—however, overdoing it will inflict misery on the poor readers as well. I've read several dark novels in which every character was a jerk and every scene was a humiliation or a heartbreak for the hero. By the time the hero was facing mortal danger to save the world, I was thinking, "Who cares? This world isn't worth saving."

The other way to add tension is to attack from the other end. Make the promised resolution of the story happier.

Here's a boring movie: An alcoholic former athlete must clean himself up to recover his health.

Here's a better movie: An alcoholic former athlete must clean himself up and lead the high school soccer team to victory to regain the respect of the community.

Here's a poignant movie: An alcoholic former athlete must clean himself up, mend broken friendships, and lead the high school soccer team to victory to regain the affections of his long-suffering wife and their adorable young son.

Each successive hypothetical movie above raises the stakes, not by making the situation more dire, but by making the rewards more desirable. The first movie would make an audience go, "So what?" The third would make them go, "Aww..." The greater the potential happiness, the more tragic the obstacles standing in the way, especially if those obstacles are the characters' own doing.

Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy are an ideal couple. Austen shows us how perfect they are for each other through their sparkling conversations, which are disagreements on the surface but hold the promise of harmony in the future. Elizabeth attempts to tease Darcy, and he thwarts her with gallant responses. They get so absorbed in their playful duels of wit that other characters feel the need to cut in and yank them out. And though they claim to dislike each other, Darcy defends Elizabeth against the nasty Miss Bingley, and Elizabeth defends Darcy against her vulgar mother.

Readers can see almost immediately that these two are on the same wavelength. They're equally matched in brains, in humor, and in vanity and stubbornness. Once they conquer their misunderstandings, they'll be the best of friends. We keep turning the pages because we desperately want to see these two likeable characters resolve their problems and live happily ever after.

The incentive to turn the pages isn't as great in any other Austen novel because the happily-ever-afters aren't quite as happy. Every other romantic pairing is subdued or flawed in some way—the heroines are much younger and less mature than the heroes (as in Emma and Northanger Abbey), or the characters just aren't very interesting (as in Mansfield Park and Persuasion), or both (as in Sense and Sensibility). All of these novels have conflict aplenty, some even more than P&P, and yet readers who make it to the marriage proposals at the end will say, "That's nice," not "Yes! Finally!"

2. Every conflict in P&P directly threatens the happy ending.

I didn't realize how tightly plotted P&P really is until last weekend, when I read a modern retelling of this beloved novel that had the same basic characters, and the same basic events, but no story. In the author's eagerness to stuff the story into the 21st century by erasing all traces of sexism, she also erased all the interesting and relevant conflicts.

  • The initiation, temporary demise, and restoration of Jane's relationship with Mr. Bingley occur completely independently of Mrs. Bennet's scheming, and nearly independently of Mr. Darcy's meddling.
  • The dastardly Wickham is an overgrown frat boy who strings Elizabeth along, but he never touched Darcy's sister Georgianna and never meets Elizabeth's sister Lydia. Elizabeth wises up and ends her relationship with Wickham before she gets involved with Darcy, and Wickham has no part in the story thereafter.
  • Lydia elopes with a trans man she's been dating since the beginning of the novel. But though the conservative Mrs. Bennet flies into hysterics, everyone else points out that Lydia really did nothing wrong. So there's no need for Darcy to win Elizabeth's heart by saving her family from social and financial ruin—she merely realizes she's in love with him after spending more time with him at holiday barbecues.
  • The powerful Lady Catherine de Bourgh is a famous second-wave feminist who has no relation to Darcy, no objections to to Elizabeth, and really no purpose for being in the story at all.

So this "retelling" ended up being a collection of events that relate to each other only sequentially: scene A comes before scene B, but scene A doesn't cause scene B. Mere bickering and flimsy misunderstandings separate the lovers, and mere happenstance brings them back together.

Every time I read the original P&P or watch the faithful movie adaptations, I cringe when Mr. Darcy explains why he doubted Jane's affections for Bingley, because Mrs. Bingley's manipulative schemes are finally coming back to bite her. I tear up when Elizabeth receives Jane's letter about Lydia's elopement and realizes she'll never see Mr. Darcy again, because she could have prevented the disaster by telling her family about Wickham's history of seducing fifteen-year-old girls. I chortle when Lady Catherine de Bourgh huffs off to tell Mr. Darcy all about the impudence of Miss Bennet, because she's only bringing about the very union she's trying to prevent.

But when I read the modernization, I never once cringed, teared up, or chortled over the plot events. I didn't delight in the ups or despair in the downs of the main couple's relationship. None of the plot points were the consequence of the main couple's previous decisions, and very few of the conflicts affected their ultimate happiness.

Let us return to our alcoholic former athlete, who'll we'll presume is in the poignant version of the movie. Here's a series of conflicts that he might face in a boring plot.

  • The assistant coach of the high school soccer team doesn't respect him and undermines his authority in front of the kids.
  • The president of the PTA objects to him and starts a petition to get him fired.
  • The rival soccer team plays mean pranks on the kids and lowers their morale.

Are these conflicts? Yes, they are. Will anyone care? No, because these conflicts have very little to do with the protagonist's ultimate goal of living happily ever after with his wife and child.

Now here's a series of conflicts that would make for a much more interesting movie.

  • The athlete gets off on the wrong foot with the soccer team by arriving late to the first practice with a hangover and no training plan. He treats the kids with contempt. Half of the team doesn't come back, and the remaining players don't respect him.
  • One of the kids he insulted is the son of the PTA president, who starts a petition to get him fired.
  • After a disastrous PTA meeting, the athlete has a relapse and comes home drunk. His little son wants to play, and the athlete shouts at him. Terrified, the boy begins to cry. The long-suffering wife packs up and leaves with the child.

Now to earn his happily ever after, the athlete will have to sober up, bond with the kids by getting sweet revenge on the rival team, and show his wife he's changed by being responsible and winning the championship game.

These interesting events are not materially different from the boring versions, but (a) they're related causally and (b) at every step, you can feel the pain the protagonist is causing to himself and to others. When you watch him botch the soccer practice, you know he's going to regret it later. When you watch him shout at his little son, you know he's breaking his own heart as well as his wife's. These events aren't just random occurrences that leave you asking, "So what?"

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