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Myth and the 'Now' Part Thirteen: Pride and Prejudice

Usually it is only in stories or dreams that we feel as though we have been journeying for a long time but realise that we are still in the same place. But this series of articles can have the same effect: we began by looking at Myth and the strange images and tales that spring from the hearts of cultures across the planet; then we examined Romance or Legend, the quests and superhuman accomplishments of larger-than-life figures, striding through magical landscapes. Shortly afterwards we inspected the grand Tragedies of what Northrop Frye called High Mimesis, the chronicles of the fall of some great half-historical figure in an almost-historical setting. But all the way through we glimpsed beneath the surface of all these stories the same skeleton that we first found in Myth: the polarities, the archetypes, the motion between them, the rising and falling that occurs between darkness and light. Macbeth’s fall from power was not unlike the fall of Lucifer, or that of Adam; the companions of the Round Table were not unlike those of Olympus; the brutal violence and storms of King Lear echo the dark and cold mythological forms upon which it is based.

Furthermore, as if that wasn’t enough, this whole progression paralleled our own development from a childlike participation in the world around us, to a maturing detachment, to an eventual mental and spiritual compartmentation and division. But even here, we found that we are haunted by the core or unable to escape the bones of things even when we feel at our most separated from the world: we go into orbit around the Light or the Dark, or are pulled towards both poles in the same way that the character-archetypes of fiction are.

In arriving at Frye’s Low Mimetic mode - supposedly the ‘realistic’ stories of ‘ordinary’ folk which accompanied the rise of the novel in the 19th century, a mode which parallels what we might call ‘early adolescence’ - we find that the same game is afoot: twin poles, archetypes in motion, pulling characters one way or the other, and with them, our attention as readers moves up and down.

When we say a good story is one which ‘moves’ readers, the term is not simply figurative.

If it is indeed true that there are two magnetic poles at the core of all stories, then we can presume that the archetypal ‘points’ that lie between them - the Wise Old Man, the Comic Companion, the Emerging Warrior King, the Aware Protagonist, the Submerging Female Companion, the Shadow Protagonist and the Antagonist - exert their own lesser or derivative ‘gravitational pull’ on other characters resulting in the sequences we call plots. In the Myth mode, for example, the Submerging Female Companion Eve pulls Adam down towards darkness in Genesis; we see this reflected in Romance, when Guinevere hauls the Round Table down into disarray with her illicit love for the Emerging Warrior Lancelot; and we see it again when Lady Macbeth persuades her husband into evil.

Any downward pull leads to the two basic genres of Tragedy (ending usually in death but leaving the world in relatively good order) and Irony (where the world itself is unravelled and an ultimate darkness is approached). The opposite upward pull creates the genres of Comedy (ending usually in marriage or reunion) and Epic (concluding with victory or transcendence). In these latter genres, it is usually the Emerging Warrior King who pulls the Submerging Female Companion up and out of her orbit around darkness - that is precisely the plotline for modern romances (which fit neatly into the Comedy genre). These are not the epic Romances defined by Frye, but the love stories that have grown into a sub-genre all their own.

This Emerging-Warrior-King-rescues-Submerging-Female-Companion plotline is exactly that of Jane Austen’s Low Mimetic masterpiece, Pride and Prejudice, one of the stories which initiated that whole ‘romance with a small “r”’ sub-genre.

It’s ‘Low Mimetic’ because, as the label suggests, it is set out as an imitation of the lives of ‘lower’ people. Unlike the mighty stories of legend in the Romance mode or the lofty tales of kings and generals in the High Mimetic mode, Pride and Prejudice, like most novels, strives to convey a fiction about ‘ordinary’ folk, people who possess no superhuman powers and aren’t particularly engaged in grand politics. These characters occupy a world created to resemble the ‘compartmented reality’ which we as adult readers most readily recognise as similar to our own: this is a world of social relationships (like family or neighbourly interactions), particular low-key events (like local dances or fairs) and emotions revealed through dialogue and author omniscience. In Myth, we never glimpsed inside a god’s head but saw what he or she was like implicitly, by image or pure archetype; in Romance we were occasionally told what a character felt but mainly understood it from action, like jousting or questing; in the High Mimetic mode we were told explicitly what a character was thinking through soliloquys, but these were delivered in iambic pentameter. Now in the Low Mimetic mode the language is tamer and more immediately comprehensible - prose rather than poetry - and the suggestions as to what is going on in the characters’ minds come from a source we haven’t yet seen as clearly as we do in the novel: the author.

It’s interesting to note that the emergence of the figure of the ‘author’ happens at around the time of the rise of the novel, during the so-called ‘Romantic period’. Viewed less historically but more as a psychic progression, the author emerges at the point when our adolescence as individuals begins to coalesce. Prior to that point, individuality - including the notion of copyright, attributing distinct ‘sources’ to anything, and all the legal rigmarole that comes with an author asserting his or her presence - was simply less important. Shakespeare, for example, took elements for his stories from earlier manuscripts by others without any qualms; Chaucer and the other mediaevals considered it to be a plus that their own tales were drawn from earlier sources. And, with regard to our growth into adults, when we are children we don’t have so many issues with ‘individuality’ - these develop as we become teenagers.

Irrespective of that, though, we can see in Austen’s novel the bones of Myth, now dressed in the flesh of ‘ordinariness’. The archetypes are all there in some form:

The Wise Old Man is Mr. Bennet, trapped in what is possibly a hopeless and loveless marriage, but sane and wise enough still to direct Lizzie away from danger and towards wisdom and happiness when he can.

The Comic Companion - Lizzie’s mother most closely fits this bill, but there are elements in Mr. Collins and others.

The Emerging Warrior King is obviously Darcy, who is at first shadowed with prejudice but manifests as a much more worthy gentleman as the tale progresses.

The Protagonist and Submerging Female Companion are blended, as they are in most stories of this type, into a single figure: in this case Elizabeth Bennet, a figure at risk of sinking either into the social ruin of spinsterhood by remaining unmarried, or being drawn along an even more ruinous path by the Shadow Protagonist, Wickham.

The Antagonist is revealed as the ‘wicked witch’ herself, Lady Catherine du Bergh, whose machinations are foiled at the last by the robust and brave defiance of the heroine.

What are the two poles of the story? Wealth, happiness, true love and possibly wisdom at one end, with poverty, misery and lust at the other. Wickham’s elopement with Lizzie’s wild sister Lydia, which threatens the destruction of the Bennet family’s reputation, is as close as the story gets to the dark pole; Lizzie’s acceptance of Darcy’s proposal takes the tale into orbit around the bright pole.

Arguably, the only thing separating this story from Myth is the clothes it wears: the dialogue, the fashion, the setting, the authorially provided detail. Strip them away and we have again witnessed a drama between Light and Dark.

But there is a further level: after adolescence comes adulthood; after ordinariness comes the sub-ordinary; after the modern novel comes the work of the 20th century and the post-moderns.

After the Low Mimetic comes the Ironic mode.

Stay tuned.


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