Why I loved Pride and Prejudice

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There are, of course, a thousand reasons to love Jane Austen novels. They’ve been documented over centuries, by people from all over the planet. So here’s why I loved Pride and Prejudice: the characters.

They were just so incredibly real. Changing before my eyes. They acted and reacted throughout the book, in ways that were somehow both unpredictable and absolutely logical.

A great story is about people becoming different people, and oh is Pride and Prejudice a story like that. Elizabeth, the fantastic protagonist, is utterly altered as the story changes. She becomes aware of herself and the people she knows in entirely new ways. Darcy, of course, comes to view himself in a new light. And all the minor characters, who surface in the narrative and make ripples.

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The Secret Garden, Moralizing, and Going Off The Rails

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The first two thirds or so of this book are amazing. There’s a magic in them, like the moments of magic in “A Little Princess.” There’s beauty in the moors, there’s the captivating idea of a garden whose door is hidden, rusted shut. And I’m a sucker for Gothic manors with mysterious crying echoing through the halls by night.

Mary, the original protagonist, is everything you could want that Sara Crewe was not. Mary is flawed–deeply so. She’s scarred, and she shows those scars. She’s a child who lived without love, and that changes the way she views the world. But, slowly, she changes. She grows.

It is, truly, a magical book. Up until a point between the 2/3 and 3/4 mark where it goes off the rails. Then it’s just terrible. It becomes super moralistic as the protagonist role shifts from Mary to an annoying little boy.

It’s also really hard to enjoy a children’s book after it pins domestic abuse on the wife. There’s a bit near the end where an old man says to this boy (whose identity I won’t spoil) that a woman in town yelled at her husband, then he beat her and went off to get drunk. The boy tells the old man that, to fix it, he’d recommend telling the wife to be nicer to her husband. That’s a digression from the main story, but it’s still horrific from the perspective of “it’s not the fault of the woman who was beaten” that people (sometimes) recognize now.

Quite apart from digressions into victim-blaming, the book is just plain boring by the end. The boy character is just the goody-two-shoes without development or complication, Mary’s role in the narrative evaporates, and the whole book shudders to a long overdue halt.

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Mr. Darcy and Indonesia

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Mr. Darcy’s sin is pride. He holds himself back. He isn’t interested in making new acquaintances. His aspect is reserved and unhappy.

If I had not lived in Indonesia, I could never have understood Mr Darcy to the degree I did reading Pride and Prejudice here. Because in Indonesia, they have the same opinion of introverts as they did in Austenian England.

Yes, Mr. Darcy is proud–but he is mostly just an introvert in a society where being social is the default position. At one point, someone even says that Darcy may seem arrogant, but he is very friendly and loyal among his close friends. But, after all, at that time in that society half the human race had little to occupy themselves with but gossip–someone who held back from that gossip would of course be stigmatized. Thus, Mr. Darcy is taken to be arrogant.

In Indonesia, being introverted had the exact same result. I was labeled as somboh (arrogant) because I would sit quietly at my desk in the teachers room and read, or seek a cool and place to be alone between classes. I would shut my door at night to rest, rather than settling on the porch with my neighbors. And language kept me from participating in gossip.

That’s not to say that I was shunned. I made many friends in Indonesia–many wonderful friends. My neighbors eventually adapted to my ways, and I don’t think they thought ill of me. But I was not popular. The teachers at my school did not like me. The immigration officials hated me and my arrogance. I left many good impressions–but most of these were with a hundred minor acquaintances, rather than in the communities I lived in.

Like Mr. Darcy, my discomfort manifested through a particular cultural lens and pride. And maybe, like Mr. Darcy, there was some truth to the accusation. Nonetheless, it is very difficult to be an introvert in a society of gossip and chatter.

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“A Little Princess” and Mary Sue

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Sara Crewe, the protagonist of “A Little Princess,” is a Mary Sue.

A Mary Sue is when the author inserts his or herself into the narrative. The resulting character has a host of good qualities and no faults. Everyone loves her–except the villain, whose villainy is proved by how much they dislike the heroine.

That’s Sara Crewe. The only people in the book who don’t like her are the villains. A lot of the characters almost literally worship her. The narrative becomes dark when Sara is robbed of her rightful high position and honor in the world.

There’s some great moments in the book. Sara may be a Mary Sue, but she is there is still something magical about her. Her stories, her imagination–these have power, a power that influences both the characters and the reader. But that doesn’t make her a good protagonist, or “A Little Princess” a good book.

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Reading Austen in Asia

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Westerners tend to be pretty baffled by the whole idea of “guanxi,” or relationships, in China (where I live now). In Indonesia, where I lived last year, unraveling exactly how anyone was related to anyone else (by blood or otherwise) was hard to grasp. Coming from America, we see this as an alien and strange way to go about life.

That is stupid of us. We are barely a hundred years removed from the Victorians, and only two hundred from Jane Austen. Our grandparents’ grandparents were only born in the mid 1800s–PRE Victorian. And anyone reading literature from the 1800s comes to realize that that time period was saturated with the question of relationship and reputation. Our own culture is merely an outgrowth of a culture that bore much in common with the web of relationships that hold so much sway in Asia today.

That’s not to suggest that Asian cultures are just running “behind” Western culture. In fact, many of the things that we tend to idolize in our own past are alive and well in Asian culture to day. Respect for family, knowledge of obligation to one another, circumspection in conversation–these are often mourned absences in America, but are a part of everyday life in Asia.

Reading Jane Austen from China, so much that was previously alien to me has been illuminated, my own goofiness revealed. There was a time when the behavior of each member of a family effected the entire family’s success in the world. When everyone talked around the topics. When the timing of marriage was the most important question of just about everyone’s life. When everyone kept track of who they were friends with, evaluated their level of acquaintance and corresponding obligation, and followed their friends’ lives closely. When the world was veiled in words. That time is now. It’s just not in pastoral England anymore.

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Kira-Kira And Perception

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The world is what we see. It has an objective existence (probably), but it is filtered through our eyes, our ears, our memories. Our love.

“Kira-Kira” is about that fluidness of perception. Things have their objective existence, and the characters apply their own meanings. The sound of grasshoppers. A sun setting on the day of a death. A bear trap. A cheap watch. A Japanese man.

It may be a little, deceptively simple book. But it’s not about the objective reality. It’s all about what you see.

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The Book Thief

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It’s hard to believe there can be anything more to say about Nazi Germany. There are very few time periods that have been written about as much as World War II. Every genre has swathes of books devoted to it. The “definitive” WWII novel has probably been written a dozen times. Every Western country has its own WWII genre.

And yet, the books keep coming. But nothing quite like “The Book Thief” has ever come along.

A young adult novel, narrated by Death, chronicling his exhaustion as the Holocaust and the War rage around him, is not a very likely novel. A young girl who learns to read among this madness, who falls in love with words–that isn’t something one would expect to find. But of course, it’s a big old world. Anything that can happen, will happen.

The question of why we keep being drawn to this period is pretty easily answered: authors are constantly trying to answer the question of what it means to be human, after the human race committed sins so unspeakable? We read to find each author’s answer to that terrible question. Hope and dread suffuse the genre.

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In the end, this book is about one young woman’s love affair with words–which are, after all, just another expression of life. And in WWII, life became a thing which gave birth to terrors, just as words became the weapons of that terror.

Maybe it’s a good thing that we keep being drawn back to this period. There’s always been something else to be said, some new story that can be told. Writers find them because they just can’t stop digging. They can’t stop looking for the answers to the questions of that now generations-old war. And as that impossible answer is sought, we get works like The Book Thief. So let the writers keep writing, as long as we can keep reading.