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Independent vs. Collective Thought in Our Protagonists (Or, The Elizabeth Bennet Archetype vs. the Universally-Acknowledged)



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As writers we know there is an explicit relationship between the stories we craft and the perspectives of our audience. And we can manipulate this relationship to convey a delicious subtext or to hint at (and when I say hint, I don't mean preach) a social comment to an open-minded audience who are looking to learn, to enjoy an intellectual pursuit, and have their growing perspectives challenged and further developed.

Take Austen. In Pride and Prejudice, she endorses the value of independent thought in a society which enforces collective thought, of a "truth universally acknowledged".

Think about it. Transformation stories, novels and films reminiscent of Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady, or Pretty Woman, are about the movement from independence and ostracism into collective thought, a common role. Pride and Prejudice, however, documents a fantasy in a classist society - 19th century England. Elizabeth and Darcy would never have happened. Never.

I'm not saying that Bella and Edward are indicative of independence because of their "forbidden love", and I'm not saying that Elizabeth and Darcy's is why they do represent independence. Austen promotes her values, her idea of a successful woman - who is well-read and capable of revision of her prejudices - in contrast to her society's idea - one who is well versed in singing, dancing, piano, art and languages and has memorised manuals on how to behave and what to say. To Austen's society, Elizabeth's sister Mary is successful. To us, we see that Elizabeth is the one who warrants success.

Here is a clip from the 2005 film version, a discussion between Elizabeth, Darcy, Miss Caroline Bingley and Bingley about an accomplished woman.

Didacticism is prominent in Pride and Prejudice. Lady Catherine De Bourg (You know, Judi Dench played her), acts superior, represents the upper gentry, and, in her own way, tells us that we need to think for ourselves, that doing what is the norm breeds an oppressive and stilted environment. The scene below, where Elizabeth tells her about her unconventional upbringing, her "lower" family, and offends her by "giving her opinion decidedly" - It encompasses an aspect of YA which I find absolutely thrilling.



You see, when YA presents us with a great female role model, they really hit it on the head. It is very much an Elizabeth archetype, who we grow to love, and who encourages us to take her example and embrace our own beliefs, our own thoughts and ideas, and to not let the confines of the social norm limit our ability to succeed and find satisfaction.

If you're unfamiliar with the inflexible conventions of Elizabeth and Austen's time, further research into their marriage, education and success values will breed a greater respect from this book beyond Matthew MacFayden in the lake scene, Rosamund Pike proposal acceptance, and Donald Sutherland's "You really do love him".

Sometimes, I think that the publishing industry must forget about the audience they're catering to. These young people are more than their parents' wallets, more than their obsessive enthusiasm, more than their loyalty to characters and authors - They are impressionable, and they are seeking out knowledge, they are wanting to stimulate their minds. That's why they're reading.

That's why values such as those expressed in Twilight and its reincarnations have caused such concern. Especially when your audience is as young as twelve, you need to be conscious of what you're teaching them, whether on purpose or not.

Perfection can be an ugly thing. It's an unreasonable bar to set, it's a disorder waiting to happen, it is torment and self-loathing waiting in the wings. Our media already bombards our audience with values of physical perfection, why do you need to encourage it further? Swim against the stream, please! Don't just let it take you into a deep, dark abyss where there is no light, no hope and eons of sadness and me yelling at you.

I know you're thinking hang on, isn't Darcy the perfect man? Well, not really. That's society's label for him. Darcy starts out as arrogant, elitist, a symbol of the upper class who looks down on Elizabeth and the rest of her community...

Elizabeth: From the first moment I met you, your arrogance and conceit, your selfish disdain for the feelings of others made me realise that you were the last man in the world I could ever be prevailed upon to marry.

He is regarded as perfect by this community because he is a young man in possession of a large fortune, and he is unmarried. Austen shows the appeal of Darcy through his ability to think independently, to let his values and attitude stray from the norm of his class, and to love Elizabeth, a girl whose family is "lesser". He is capable of discarding pride and revising his prejudices, just like Elizabeth.

I'd like to think that dystopia is the recruiting phase for freedom fighters, pulling independent thought from the ruins of the last few years of mainstream YA, that they're pulling this to the forefront, and encouraging not rebellion per se, but for the Elizabeth archetype and for self-made success and the embracing of difference and (I say this in an un-Glee and un-Gaga way) the fact that people are born how they are, and there is no "exorcism" of uniqueness.

"Perhaps it is our imperfections that make us so perfect for one another". (Pride and Prejudice)

I'd like to see a step away from characters of physical perfection. If you've spent any time on tumblr, or any time with fans of certain TV shows, etc., you'll know that people are attracted to completely different things, and that someone whose physical appearance doesn't draw you to them can do exactly that with their mannerisms, their character. The growth of love is something that I want to see, not teenage lust that breeds someone's "forever" and is probably going to result in a lot of young marriages and early divorces. Independent thought, remember?

So, over to you. Comment below, I love hearing your thoughts! Remember, "Laugh as much as you choose, but you will not laugh me out of my opinion".  What's more useful to a writer, the promotion of or opposition to collective thought? Have you been drawn to the "Elizabeth archetype", or do you think it's a ploy that is overrated in fiction? What do you think of the independent thinker in YA, are they there, will they make their appearance greater soon, or are they sorely lacking? 

2 comments:

Anonymous at: March 4, 2012 at 6:39 PM said...

Very cool Nina.

Sage at: March 5, 2012 at 12:02 PM said...

Teenagers are a conundrum. They think they know better than anyone else, so there's an element of independence, and yet there's such a focus on conformity. I prefer my teen MCs to be independent thinkers

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