And now for something completely different. Spoiler alert: This post has spoilers about “Pride and Prejudice”.
In movies, books, TV shows, etc. aimed at women, there’s a common trope, a fantasy that gets trotted out a lot: Reforming the Bad Boy. In the trope/ fantasy, the heroine is so amazingly awesome — so beautiful, so sexy, so brilliant, so charismatic, so noble — that the bad boy reforms his bad boy ways in order to be with her. Think Spike on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or George Clooney on E.R. (Please feel free to cite other examples in the comments. Ideally with links to pictures. No, I’m not immune to this fantasy, even though I know how ridiculous it is.)
This trope even got poked fun at in The Simpsons, when Bart’s babysitter Laura is dating Jimbo Jones: Bart asks her, “What do you like about him? He’s just a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules” — and Laura, Lisa, and Maggie all sigh wistfully.
And I was thinking: Does Pride and Prejudice fit this category?
In the most obvious sense, of course it does. Mr. Darcy is a handsome, not-very-nice man who initially dismisses the heroine, but is quickly struck by her fine eyes; becomes increasingly taken with her intelligence and wit and spirit; falls in love with her; courts her; is spurned by her; is initially enraged by her spurning; takes her chiding to heart; and betters himself to win her over. Yup, that sure sounds like the “I Can Reform Him” trope.
But I think in the larger sense, Pride and Prejudice doesn’t fit this trope at all.
For one thing: Mr. Darcy is anything but your standard Bad Boy. He’s not a rake or a bounder or a ramblin’ man. He’s a stuck-up snob who’s way too full of himself. In order to earn Elizabeth Bennet’s love, he has to get over his priggish superiority, stop worrying so much about propriety, and let go of some of his rigidity about social class. (Some of it, I said.) Yes, he reforms to be worthy of Elizabeth, but her influence doesn’t tame him — if anything, she loosens him up. He’s not a good-looking rebel who plays by his own rules. He’s a good-looking tight-ass who plays by society’s rules.
And perhaps more importantly: Mr. Darcy doesn’t just reform to be worthy of Elizabeth Bennet. Elizabeth reforms to be worthy of Mr. Darcy.
This is one of my favorite things about the novel — the two parallel character arcs. Yes, Mr. Darcy changes to earn Elizabeth’s love — and since we see the story primarily through her eyes, we see those changes through her eyes as well. But we also see — much more uncomfortably, much more painfully — her own changes, and her own growth. Yes, we see Elizabeth’s pleasure in realizing how much Mr. Darcy has been willing to change for her. We also see her pain in realizing how much of a jerk she’s been: how quickly she’s willing to dislike people, how attached she is to being right about that dislike, how easily her judgments of people are shaped by whether those people flatter her. The scenes where she realizes how much she misjudged both Mr. Darcy and Mr. Wickham — they’re not fantasy wish-fulfillment at all. They are extremely uncomfortable scenes, vividly depicting the dark night of her soul. (Or, if you prefer more secular phraseology: They are extremely uncomfortable scenes, vividly depicting her cognitive dissonance collapsing in on her with a thud.) Her story arc isn’t, “He is inspired to change by his love for me, because I am so awesome!” Her story arc is, “He is inspired to change by his love for me — but I need to change too, because I’m not quite as awesome as I thought I was.”
This isn’t a story about a good woman reforming a bad boy. This is a story about two complicated people, each with good qualities and bad qualities, inspiring each other to be better.