Friday, February 19, 2016

The Irreconcilable Difference

Often movies begin well—lay out an intriguing conflict, create tension among interesting characters, complicate a promising situation; however, once they have completed constructing the problem, they deteriorate into a facile resolution. That may be because problems are more satisfying than solutions, or maybe more believable. Since everything, in being alive, is connected and temporary, every resolution of a problem requires a frame of reference, literally something that surrounds problem and crops off all the messy complications. At the end of the classic romantic comedy, in which the boy and girl connect and get married, the assumption is that they will live happily ever after, but such living will take place outside the story’s frame.

C. E. Brock Illustration for 1895 
edition of Pride and Prejudice 
(public domain)
After Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy have been happily united and professed their mutual love, Elizabeth risks opening up the plot that brought them together and look at the clockwork inside. He was attracted to her, she tells him, because, unlike all other women, she did not faun all over him; her behavior had been “bordering on the uncivil.” She notes, “To be sure, you knew no actual good of me -- but nobody thinks of that when they fall in love." But that daring move by both Elizabeth and Jane Austen is a clue to why Pride and Prejudice works so well.

Such deconstruction is consistent with what Austen has done throughout the novel (for example, of all the marriages that Jane and Elizabeth can look to, only one is a happy one), and it is also consistent with Elizabeth’s character. And while Austen implies that their suitability means that Elizabeth and Darcy will live happily together, in the last chapter Austen also makes clear that all the other disagreeable characters in their lives will remain consistently disagreeable, though manageable. Austen steps outside the frame of reference of the happy couple to remind us of some of the open questions, but Austen frames the story’s resolution in terms of family and relationships; she excludes those real threats that could destroy the frame itself: disease, death in childbirth, murder, and, of course, zombies.

Life’s problems usually involve more than one frame of reference, perhaps even overlapping frames of reference that like a carpet of Venn diagrams stretch to the horizon. Even if we go to stories for escape, we must find the resolution convincing. The willing suspension of disbelief can hold off the disruptions of daily life for only so long before they flood our minds again. Perhaps questions are more convincing than answers because they stand up better when hit with a bucket of cold water. It should not surprise us that the interlocked complexity of questions creates a stronger tool for dealing with problems than an answer useful only so long as we don’t move. 

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