Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Holding Out for a Hero

"You're supposed to be the heroine of your own life!" -Kate Winslet, "The Holiday"

A hero is a man who is afraid to run away. -English proverb

I read Jane Austen's Emma for the first time when I was 14 and promptly fell head-over-heels in love with Regency-era and Victorian literature. In fact, it was the genre I studied almost exclusively as a long-skirt-and-sweater-coat-wearing English major in college. I love the stories, and not just the romance part - because everyone knows, they only get together right at the very end! - but even more so, the story of growth and maturity and self-realization that the heroine ultimately has to go through in order to get to her happily-ever-after ending. (My I-Sound-Smart moment of the day: this type of story is called a bildungsroman in literary theory. Look at me making good use of that tuition money, Mom & Dad!)

There are many female characters in Jane Austen's books, but only one is the heroine (with the arguable exception of Sense & Sensibility). What is it that makes her different from the others? Is she the most beautiful? The most graceful? The richest? The most talented?

Nope. In fact, never.

What makes her different is that she changes. All the other female characters pretty much stay the same throughout the story. None of them are perfect, but for that matter, neither is the heroine - not by a long shot. But it's her story, and to get to the end of it, she has to grow up. Jane Austen spends hundreds of pages pounding on Elizabeth and Emma and Elinor (and Marianne) until they become women of substance - the women they need to be to step into their futures.

She humbles them. She smacks them around. She pulls the rug out from under them multiple times. She keeps on hurling things at the general vicinity of their heads until they learn to react in ways that they wouldn't have in the beginning of the book: with grace, and humility, and forgiveness, and gratefulness. Until they learn. Until they become heroines.

When I think about , oh, the last five years or so of my own life, I have to admit, that sounds pretty familiar. And I'm sure God's not done with me yet. Living like a heroine is often a minute-by-minute process at which it's so easy to fail in any one of those minutes...and in which I do fail, quite frequently. Praise God, with Him, it's the effort that counts, because otherwise, I'd be sunk.

Here's something I just recently realized, though - in Jane Austen's novels, it's not just the heroine's story - it's the hero's, too.

None of the heroes in Jane Austen's novels were perfect, either. They weren't knights in shining armor who galloped onto the scene and swept the heroine off of her feet once she was worthy of his attentions - heavens, no! In fact, all of them were downright non-heroic in the beginning. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon were both passive and gutless. Mr. Knightley was a condescending lecturer. Darcy was perhaps the worst - pompous and emotionally unavailable. And these men were the heroes of their love stories.

There's always a moment in Jane Austen's novels when we're not quite sure who the hero is actually going to be. We think we know, but we keep reading because we're not positive. It's up in the air because the title of hero is not absolutely nailed down from the beginning of the story - it's up for grabs by the man who is willing to swallow his pride, to be vulnerable to the heroine, and to admit his faults and grow up. And there's a moment in each of the books when it could be either of the men in the heroine's life, because the hero is simply going to be the man who steps up when the other runs away.

Wickham could have easily been the hero of Pride and Prejudice. He had the wit and charisma that women love in men, but he was also selfish and immature and only out for what he could get - ultimately, validation. Now, honestly, those are not uncommon nor insurmountable flaws. The reason he's not the hero is because he stayed that way. Darcy could easily have been the villain, lost in his own pride and trapped behind his (also quite common, and, ahem, maddening) emotional walls. Frankly, he wasn't very likable throughout the whole book - who could forget his scathing line of, "She is tolerable, I suppose, but not handsome enough to tempt me."? Ouch. That's practically unforgivable (and part of Elizabeth's lessons in becoming a heroine was to learn how to forgive him). But he did change. He made a choice - he chose to sacrifice that pride and be the hero.

Stepping into the role of hero can't be easy. Neither Elizabeth nor Emma nor Marianne were quiet, demure, shrinking wallflowers. They weren't Jane Bennets or Harriet Smiths. It would have certainly been a more peaceful existence for Darcy if he had married his boring cousin, or easier for Knightley if he'd just stayed a brother-like figure to Emma. They could have kept their distance and not gotten involved in the depth and the mess that is the heroine. But for them, that mess was worth it. Stepping up was worth it. Sacrificing their pride was worth it. All of it was worth it, in the end, because now they would get to spend the rest of their lives with the heroine, and because she's the heroine, she's worth the effort.

At the beginning of the books, it wouldn't have been worth it and they wouldn't have done it. She wasn't ready and neither was he. But then they were molded and shaped and pounded on by the author of their story, and by the end, they both had to make the choice. Without that choice, she wouldn't have been the heroine and he wouldn't have been the hero. But because they did, they are.

You're supposed to be the heroine of your own life. I won't scruple to say that I'm still learning, every day, what that really means. And because I believe in the Author of my own story, I have faith that He is teaching both me and the future hero of my life, too, how to fulfill the destiny that He has written for us together.

I can promise one thing - he'll never be bored!


Anonymous said...

Great entry. You know I love me some Jane Austen too. I married a Mr. Knightley. He is exactly what I needed (not that I am much like Emma - more like Marianne).

Elisse said...

I used to be a lot more like Emma, and I suppose I'll always be a bit like Marianne. As I get older, I find myself becoming less like Emma and more & more like Elizabeth. It's an interesting process. I can't help but wonder if my hero will be like Darcy.

The ironic thing is, my ex was definitely a cross between Knightley and Wickham. It's fascinating to me to look back now and be able to see all that more clearly.