Once A Slave…

Octavia Butler’s classic novel Kindred, published in 1979 with a graphic novel adaptation released just last year, uses a sci-fi time-travel frame to produce a powerful take on a historical narrative. The sections of the book are divided by each time Dana goes back in time from 1976 to 1815. Each time she goes back, she seems to stay longer, until after the midpoint, when her visits start to decrease in length. 

The book begins with the first-person narrator Dana noting that she lost an arm on her last trip home. She’s in the hospital being visited by her husband Kevin, whom the police suspect caused her injury, since neither Dana nor Kevin can offer a satisfactory explanation of what happened. 

In Part 1, “The River,” Dana notes that she and her husband Kevin have just moved into a new house the day after her twenty-sixth birthday when she suddenly vanishes from their living room and appears on a wooded riverbank, where she sees a boy, roughly five years old, drowning. She rescues him and gives him CPR despite the boy’s mother thinking she’s killing him. When the boy, Rufus, is resuscitated, a man suddenly appears and sticks a rifle in her face. Scared for her life, Dana suddenly returns home. Kevin says she vanished for only a few seconds, though she was gone for several minutes. 

In Part 2, “The Fire,” Dana is home later that same evening after explaining to Kevin what she experienced when she again vanishes from her house. This time she appears in a room where a boy about eight years old has just set some drapes on fire, and she throws the drapes out the window. Questioning the boy, she discovers that he’s Rufus, the boy she saved from the river, and realizes he’s apparently one of her ancestors–Alice is the mother of her ancestor Hagar–though she’d never realized one of her ancestors was white. She thinks she might have been called back to ensure Rufus’s safety so her ancestor Hagar is actually born (deciding to ignore the paradox that if Hagar failed to be born then Dana couldn’t be there trying to ensure that she could be born). When Rufus directs her to go to the cabin of a nearby free black woman for safety–the mother of his “friend” Alice–some white patrollers have gotten there first, and beat Alice’s father, who is a slave, for coming to visit them without a pass. Later one of the patrollers returns and tries to rape Dana, who suddenly returns home when she knocks him out with a fallen tree branch. Back home, Kevin, who says Dana was gone only for a couple of minutes when she experienced being gone for hours, surmises that Dana is drawn back in time to Rufus when his life is in danger, and returns when her own life is in danger. 

In Part 3, “The Fall,” Kevin ends up coming back with Dana because he’s physically touching her when she’s called back. Rufus, about twelve years old, has just fallen out of a tree and broken his leg. Kevin and Dana, after explaining where they’re really from, end up returning to the house with him, and Kevin is hired on as Rufus’s tutor while Dana helps out the slaves in the house and kitchen, struggling to deal with Rufus’s overbearing mother Margaret. Dana and Kevin live there for some time before Dana is whipped for teaching a slave how to read by Rufus’s sadistic father Tom, and suddenly returns home before Kevin can get to her. 

In Part 4, “The Fight,” Dana is called back after eight days at home when a black man is in the process of beating Rufus to death. The man is Alice’s husband Isaac, who’s beating him for raping Alice. While Alice is free, Isaac is a slave; Dana convinces him to leave Rufus alive to not make things worse for himself, and to flee with Alice while he still has time. Alice is eventually caught and Rufus buys her, her freedom forfeit since she helped a runaway slave. Alice was viciously beaten, but Dana manages to nurse her back to health. Rufus tries to get Dana to talk Alice into sleeping with him without having to be coerced by beating. Five years have passed there since Dana was there last, and she asks Rufus to write to Kevin, who wrote Rufus with his address after he moved north. When Dana eventually discovers that Rufus lied about mailing her letters to Kevin, she tries to run away, but another slave rats her out and Rufus and Tom immediately recapture her, at which point she’s viciously whipped again. Then Kevin shows back up because Tom wrote him to tell him Dana’s back, after finding out Rufus had promised and failed to do so. They try to leave immediately but run into Rufus, who pulls his rifle on them. Dana goads him into almost shooting her so he won’t shoot Kevin, and Kevin manages to fall on top of her when she’s sent back so that he makes it back too. He’s having a difficult time making the transition back home when Dana is sent back to Rufus the next day. 

In Part 5, “The Storm,” Dana appears in a rainstorm and finds Rufus drunk and facedown in a water-filled ditch. Six years have passed. After saving him, she has to nurse him back from an illness she eventually figures out is dengue fever. As soon as Rufus is out of mortal danger, Tom Weylin has a heart attack, and when Dana is unable to revive him, Rufus makes her work in the field as punishment. Rufus’ mother returns and he makes Dana take care of her. The other slaves, particularly Alice, mock her for being too submissive, but Dana still helps Alice with her plans to run away, despite being worried because she’s just had her second baby–Hagar. Rufus sells some slaves he insists are part of a sale his father set up before he died, but then later when a field hand takes an interest in Dana, Rufus sells him too. When Dana challenges him about this, Rufus hits her, breaking the unspoken code between them. Dana slits her wrists with the knife she brought with her to make it back home.  

In Part 6, fifteen days pass in the present before Dana’s called back again on July 4th, but only three months have passed in the past. She discovers that Alice has just hung herself and intuits she was called back to prevent Rufus from shooting himself. She finds out that Alice hung herself after Rufus sold her children, but it turns out Rufus lied about that to scare Alice after she tried to run away, and the children are really with his aunt in Baltimore. Dana convinces Rufus to write certificates of freedom for his and Alice’s two children. When Rufus implies Dana’s going to have to replace Alice and tries to rape her, Dana stabs and kills him. The place where Rufus was gripping her arm during the altercation turns into the wall of her house when she’s sent home, and when she tries to pull free, her arm rips off. 

After her arm heals, Dana and Kevin visit Maryland to search through historical records, discovering a record stating that Rufus died when the house burned down. Dana assumes that Nigel, the slave who she saw saw what she did before she was called back, burned it down to cover what she did. The End. 

Butler could have written a straight-up historical novel about slavery, but that would mean the main character would have to be someone from that time period. By framing her story with the time travel narrative, her protagonist has a different perspective than those around her–for Dana, slavery is even more horrific than it is for the slaves. While the novel is technically sci-fi due to the time-travel element, the time travel itself hardly dominates the story–rather the focus is what’s gained by it, the novel perspective. There is never any explanation offered about how the time travel works or what’s causing it, though Dana does note at the story’s beginning that she’s just moved into a new house; one could speculate that has something to do with it, though there’s no concrete confirmation. The fact that her arm fuses with the house at the end could perhaps be circumstantial evidence of this (literal) connection. Regardless, Butler has provided a powerful symbol that slavery takes something away from you, that you are no longer the whole person you once were once you’ve experienced it. She also provides a lesson in narrative tension and structure by starting the story with the fact that Dana’s lost her arm: she tells us the horrible thing that happens in the beginning, providing a hook to make the reader wonder what happened to cause such an incident that makes them want to keep reading. 

The explanation we do get about how time travel logistics is that Dana travels back to the past when Rufus’s life is in danger and returns to the present when her own life is in danger. These mechanics draw an implicit likeness between these two characters from the beginning, one underscored by the idea that Rufus’s being her ancestor is also part of the reason the time travel is happening. 

From the very first line, Butler plays with the theme of home: 

I lost an arm on my last trip home. 

Though on first read the reader doesn’t know her trip involves time travel, once you do know, the line still reads ambiguously, designating the time she’s traveling to in the past as home, or the time where she lives in the present as home. The word “home” appears in the book 183 times, and for the most part unequivocally refers to her home in the present, in Los Angeles in 1976 with Kevin. But as the book progresses things become muddier, starting with Kevin’s difficult adjustment to coming back after five years in the past: 

“Christ,” he muttered. “If I’m not home yet, maybe I don’t have a home.”

After several trips to the past, Dana notes a sense of relief in seeing the Weylin house: 

I could recall feeling relief at seeing the house, feeling that I had come home. And having to stop and correct myself, remind myself that I was in an alien, dangerous place. I could recall being surprised that I would come to think of such a place as home.

The complications of the home references underscore the difficult fact underlying the book’s whole premise: that without Rufus’s forced subjugation of Alice, Dana’s family would not exist. 

Another tie-in with the confusion-of-home theme is when the text draws likenesses between Kevin and Rufus: 

I was on my back when I came to and there was a white face floating just above me. For a wild moment, I thought it was Kevin, thought I was home. I said his name eagerly.

“It’s me, Dana.”

Rufus’s voice. I was still in hell. I closed my eyes, not caring what would happen next.

“Dana, get up. You’ll be hurt more if I carry you than if you walk.”

The words echoed strangely in my head. Kevin had said something like that to me once. I opened my eyes again to be sure it was Rufus.

Kevin is clearly characterized as a loving husband, but he inadvertently hurts Dana several times. After the very first time Dana disappears, he’s impatient for her to explain what happened: 

“Tell me!” he demanded.

“I would if I knew what to tell you. Stop hurting me.”

Contrast this with Rufus overtly hurting her but still doing so in a way that from his perspective is for her own good: 

Rufus caught me easily and held me, cursing me, hurting me. “You take your whipping!” he hissed. “The more you fight, the more he’ll hurt you.”

Then there’s when Kevin and Dana are finally reunited after having been separated five years: 

And he was off the horse and over the laundry yard fence, pulling me to him before I could take another breath.

The dull ache in my back and shoulders roared to life. Suddenly, I was struggling to get away from him. He let me go, confused.

“What the …?”

I went to him again because I couldn’t keep away, but I caught his arms before he could get them around me. “Don’t. My back is sore.”

“Sore from what?”

“From running away to find you. Oh, Kevin …”

Kevin then wants to enact vengeance on the one who hurt her–Weylin–but Dana discourages him from doing so because she believes that in the long run, such an action would hurt her worse, a repeat of a debate they had from early on in their coming to the past together. Kevin’s potentially making things worse for her with the good intention of defending her underscores the fundamental rift in their experiences of life due to their races.

Then, when Dana and Kevin make it home shortly after that, Dana insists they make love, though Kevin’s afraid to: 

He was so careful, so fearful of hurting me. He did hurt me, of course. I had known he would, but it didn’t matter. 

Rufus’s capacity to hurt is shown to be a product of her resistance in the book’s climax: 

He took my other hand, held it between his own in a grip that I knew would only be gentle until I tried to pull away. … He was not hurting me, would not hurt me if I remained as I was.

This underscores that Rufus’s violence toward Alice and to a lesser degree Dana stem from feelings of love. 

The characterization of Rufus is probably one of the strongest aspects of the book for me. 

And Rufus was Rufus—erratic, alternately generous and vicious. 

Rufus is not an outright monster–his father is much closer to that, though this is also complicated by Tom’s characterization of being “fair,” manifest when he writes to Kevin about her when Rufus doesn’t–but Rufus seems a perpetual child. The fact that we get three episodes of her with him when he’s still literally a child, at ages 5, 8, and 12, help underscore this feeling of perpetual childishness. When we first meet him as a man (though at roughly 17, that term is debatable), he’s just raped Alice, a brutal gesture that’s complicated by the fact that he’s done it out of actual feelings for her: 

“I didn’t want to just drag her off into the bushes,” said Rufus. “I never wanted it to be like that. But she kept saying no. I could have had her in the bushes years ago if that was all I wanted.”

“I know,” I said.

“If I lived in your time, I would have married her. Or tried to.”

The logic that Rufus uses to manipulate Dana is infuriating, like when he tries to convince Dana to talk Alice into not resisting his advances, because if Dana doesn’t, he’ll beat Alice, and why would she do that to her friend? As if Dana is the one responsible for the harm to Alice rather than Rufus. This logic returns powerfully in the climax, when Rufus is about to rape Dana. She has long intimated that they’ve had an unspoken understanding that if he harms her, she’ll harm him in return by not saving his life the next time she’s called back to–this is in large part also why Dana’s experience of slavery is so different from her fellow slaves–she actually has some form of power over Rufus, though this is complicated by her knowledge that if she lets him die, she’ll be doing harm to all the slaves on the property, because they’ll be sold and separated. 

In the climax, when Rufus intimates he’s about to violate their unspoken understanding, she brings up his kids, as if to say, watch what you do, or you’ll kids will end up fatherless: 

[] He took my other hand, held it between his own in a grip that I knew would only be gentle until I tried to pull away.

“Rufe,” I said, “your children …”

“They’re free.”

“But they’re young. They need you to protect their freedom.”

“Then it’s up to you, isn’t it?”

I twisted my hand, tried to get it away from him in sudden anger. At once, his hold went from caressing to imprisoning. My right hand had become wet and slippery on the knife.

“It’s up to you,” he repeated.

“No, Goddamnit, it isn’t! …”

Their complicated relationship is symbolic of the slave’s relationship to their master, of how it’s not just one of pure simple hatred, that there will be moments where each recognizes the other’s humanity–however fleeting these moments may be–and the irony that these fleeting moments of such recognition actually make existence with such an institution more painful, not less.


Men v. Women, Part 1: Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping Beauties, co-written by Stephen King and his son Owen King, is a doorstop of a book with an ensemble cast that seems designed for a television series–and in fact was optioned for one before it was even published last fall.

In the small Appalachian town of Dooling, a naked woman mysteriously appears from the woods with a bunch of moths trailing her and proceeds to swiftly destroy the trailer of a nearby meth-head. She’s shortly picked up by the town sheriff, Lila Norcross, who along with her husband Clint, the psychiatrist at the town’s correctional facility for women, come the closest to constituting main characters and whose conflict comes the closest to constituting chronic tension: Clint has just realized that Lila has lied about where she spent the previous night; Lila spent it out after watching the basketball game of a girl she’s recently discovered to be Clint’s apparent daughter. Clint has to check the moth woman in to the prison; she says her name is Evie, and her self-inflicted wounds heal much faster than they should. 

The same morning Evie appears, women who fall asleep worldwide start to grow cocoons over their faces and bodies and won’t wake up. If the cocoon is forcibly removed from a sleeping woman, she will fly into a violent rage and likely kill whoever removed it, as several people learn the hard way. The sleeping sickness is dubbed “Aurora.” 

Across the wide cast of the townspeople, a couple are straight-up evil, including a prison guard, Don Peters, who abuses the inmates, and a group of classmates of Lila and Clint’s son Jared who are going to pee in a cocooned homeless woman’s ear before Jared intervenes. Another prominent character is animal controller Frank Geary, whose problem controlling his temper has cost him his marriage. 

Chaos descends as women try to stay awake and men are left increasingly to their own rudimentary devices. Lila discovers a giant supernatural tree with a tiger, snake, and lots of moths in the field where Evie came from, though she might be hallucinating from sleep deprivation. Right before Lila falls asleep, she confronts Clint about his alleged daughter and finds out that while a woman from his past gave the girl Clint’s last name, the girl is not actually his and he’s never been unfaithful. Clint grew up being shuttled between foster homes and has kept much of his violent past from Lila, who despite the fact that he didn’t cheat is still fed up with how closed off he’s been and how he always had to do things his way.

When we get to Part Two after Lila falls asleep, we finally get to see what the cocooned women are experiencing: they’ve gone to a version of the town where its dilapidation makes it seem like a lot of time has passed. They confirm time is moving more slowly there when new women show up months later telling them that only a couple of days have passed in the other world since Aurora started. Despite lacking a lot of comforts and amenities from the other world, they build a nice life for themselves. A former meth addict, Tiffany, who came in pregnant, is particularly better off, until she dies giving birth to a son. 

Meanwhile, Evie, who’s being kept in a jail cell and has demonstrated her supernatural abilities by getting rats to do things for her, by knowing things about people that she shouldn’t, and, most importantly, by being the only woman able to wake up after going to sleep, tells Clint that some of the men are going to try to kill her and that he can’t let them do that, or all of the sleeping women will die for real instead of having a chance to come back. The tension builds until Clint and his recruits have to defend the prison from an assault by a faction led by Frank Geary, who wants to take Evie and get her examined by a doctor to see if she’s the key to a cure for Aurora. Even though Clint and Frank want the same thing–for the women to wake up–they descend into a bloody battle in which several people are killed. When Frank and the few men he has left finally make it to Evie’s cell, defended by Clint and the few people he has left (which include a couple of women Evie has breathed new life into so they can stay awake), Evie tells Frank that if he kills her the women will wake up, but Clint says she’s lying as a test to see if they’ll continue to resort to violence, and she actually has to leave through the supernatural tree. 

(There was an altercation with the supernatural tree on the other side when the women figured out it might be the key to returning, and Frank Geary’s estranged wife Elaine decided they had better lives on their side of the tree and resolved to burn it down so they couldn’t return. Evie sends back a prison inmate, Jeanette Sorley, who’d managed to stay awake until then, to defend the tree, and just after Jeanette stops Elaine from burning it down, Lila Norcross shows up and shoots and kills Jeanette, thinking she was the one trying to burn down the tree. (Jeanette is black, btw.) Jeanette laments that she has a son as she dies.)

Frank is going to kill Evie, but then one of the men on Clint’s side has a heart attack, and when Frank wants to help him, Clint says he won’t unless they let Evie go. Evie then saves the man herself by breathing life back into him, and Frank agrees to let her go back through the tree. Once she does, she tells the women they can choose whether to stay on that side of the tree or to return, but that they have to come to a unanimous decision. The women all agree to go back, and go through the tree, and wake up. 

In Part Three, we get a very short resolution telling us about Aurora’s aftermath; some people are better off than others, naturally. Notably, Lila and Clint’s marriage dissolves after Lila, burdened by having killed Jeanette, adopts Tiffany’s son against Clint’s wishes. The End. 

The premise of juxtaposing a world without men and a world without women initially sounds promising, but in this case becomes reductive. The two men writing the book definitely got a little heavy-handed in pushing a moral that men are responsible for all the violent problems of the world. It feels like they’re trying to be like, “Hey, we’re on the women’s side!” But this is undermined by the basic fact of how little time they spend on the women’s side of the tree: the book is probably seven-eighths describing the world without women and one-eighth describing the world without men; it almost feels like the supernatural tree gets more description than the women’s world. The women get some airtime before they fall asleep and go to the other world, but still. 

There’s an interesting possible redemption of the disproportionate structure when Frank Geary’s estranged wife ends up being as hard-headed as he is in thinking she knows what’s best for everyone and trying to burn down the supernatural tree, which is an act of violence. Then there’s Lila shooting Jeanette further underscoring that women are capable of violence, despite the repeated lip service paid to how much better off the women are in their world without the horribly violent men. Then there’s the fact that women ripped manually from their cocoons turn into mindless killing machines, a seeming symbol of the violence necessary to survive in the world on this side of the tree. 

And then there’s the fact that all the women choose to come back pretty unequivocally, despite it supposedly being so much better off in their world without the men (though to be fair it seems a lot of them just want to come back so they can watch Netflix). This climax of the women all choosing to come back felt very anticlimactic. Not necessarily because it didn’t seem like a choice the women might conceivably make, but because there was no conflict in their decision. Lila and Elaine were two possible wild cards, women who might not want to go back, but when it’s their turn to vote, they both immediately decide that yes, fine, they’ll go back. The only one who was significantly focused on as being better off in the new world was Tiffany, and she’s dead, so. There was just no conflict in the decision, perhaps underscoring the point that women don’t have conflict, despite Lila and Elaine having just complicated that, temporarily. There was such a buildup to the climax in the men’s world that again it just felt like the implicit point was that men were more important, or at least more interesting. The lesson is that violence is more interesting, at least. 

One of the major female characters, Michaela Morgan, a Dooling native turned celebrity news anchor who returns to Dooling during Aurora and one of the women Evie breathes life into to keep awake, gets a lot of setup that pretty much goes nowhere. She’s around for the climactic confrontation over Evie, but contributes nothing to it but some throwaway statements of the obvious. 

Michaela turned to Evie. “Whoever sent you here thinks this is how men solve all their problems. Isn’t that right?”

Evie made no reply. Michaela had an idea that the remarkable creature in the soft cell was being torn in ways she had never expected when she appeared in the woods above that rusted trailer.

She turned back to the armed men, now halfway down the corridor. Their guns were pointed. At this range, their bullets would shred the little group in front of the strange woman.

Michaela raised her weapon. “It doesn’t have to go this way. Show her it doesn’t have to.”

One of the only extended passages that takes place in the women’s world seemed to have little importance in terms of impacting the overall plot. A group of women goes exploring and only one comes back after the men’s prison they stayed the night in slid down the unstable mountain it was at the top of (due to coal mining). The women thought they saw a woman inside the prison, but after Lila explores the ruins it turns out to be a blowup doll. This episode further cements Lila’s relationship with Tiffany, who went with her but, being pregnant, did nothing to help during the actual exploration, and it seems to somehow resonate thematically with further inverting the structure of the real world they came from (men’s prison in women’s world a counterpoint to the women’s prison in the men’s world), but no plot impact, making it feel like unnecessary baggage. The Author’s Note notes that there was originally a draft of the novel that was much longer, but it still feels like the book is significantly longer than it needs to be. 

One possible point to the above episode is to show that the women of Dooling are the only women who appear to have gone to this other world after falling asleep. Evie mentions toward the end that the women of Dooling represent all women, and that if they choose to stay on the other side of the tree, then all the other women in the world will wake up there instead of the world they went to sleep in. This begs the question of why the women of Dooling are the representative of all women. This question goes unanswered, as does the question of where exactly Evie came from–she says she was sent by a higher power and that she’s just an emissary, but that’s all we get. I’m fine for that level of explanation for this point–it doesn’t matter where Evie came from, per se, or how exactly Aurora works–what’s really interesting is to explore its possible consequences, exploring what a possible world without women, and on the other side a world without men, would look like. Though the nature of Evie’s actual connection to Aurora feels tenuous, she’s definitely necessary as a plot device, otherwise the men have nothing to fight over. But the explanation of why Dooling felt like it could have been shored up a wee bit more. Same for Evie as a general character. Same for why Clint is “the one who stands for all mankind.” 

While the writers excel on the level of vivid physical descriptors–the recurrence of the moths became an especially creepy detail–many characters felt more like a body-holder for a particular trait than actual people, like the alcoholic Magda who lives with her son and sits at home drinking all day, yelling at the television and slopping her drink all over herself. 

Though the novel attempts to complicate its neat, happy ending of the women all getting to wake up by showing that some women regret their decision to return, and by having Lila and Clint’s marriage dissolve, these efforts felt more heavy-handed than true-to-life. Lila and Clint’s failed relationship was a nice theory–that Lila gets fixated on something (the alleged daughter) that seems like a concrete manifestation of him being a bad husband that then turns out to be untrue, but still reveals her dissatisfaction with him anyway, but I was as dissatisfied with the actual execution of it as Lila was supposed to be with Clint. Their failed relationship was underscored by one of their son Jared’s that was even more two-dimensional. Jared had a crush on a girl named Mary who liked the totally evil asshole Eric Blass, but then Jared and Mary bond while she fights falling asleep. But when she wakes up at the end, she starts dating another guy (who had not appeared previously) for no apparent reason. Tough luck for Jared. Them’s the (undeveloped) breaks.  

Mary couldn’t have dated Eric Blass when she came back because, being a totally evil asshole, he was marked for authorial destruction, as was our other totally evil asshole, prison officer Don Peters. Of course, after Aurora hits, our two evil assholes team up, both volunteering to shore up the police force (and together they burn the homeless woman whose ear Eric tried to pee in earlier). Peters ends up accidentally shooting and killing Blass once the assault on the prison starts, and then Peters is violently and graphically killed by a female prison inmate Evie’s breathed life back into. Cue audience cheers for the triumph of good.      


Know Thyself

The initiating incident of Jane Austen’s classic Pride and Prejudice (1813) is when a young rich man, Mr. Bingly, buys an estate (Netherfield) near the Bennets, who have five daughters between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three, all roughly marriage-eligibility age. Mrs. Bennet wants her eldest, Jane, to marry Bingly. (Jane and the second eldest, Elizabeth, seem to be the daughters with the most sense.) They go to balls at Netherfield and everyone is generally appalled by the cold manner of Mr. Bingly’s good friend, Mr. Darcy, while a relationship seems to be developing between Jane and Bingly. Meanwhile, the girls also go visit the town nearby, where there are many officers to socialize with because a regiment is stationed there. Elizabeth meets Mr. Wickham, whom she considers much nicer than Darcy and who tells her a story about how Darcy cheated him out of his inheritance. Then, after one ball where the impending engagement between Bingly and Jane seems almost certain, Bingly leaves for London for business and ends up not returning for months. 

After Bingly leaves, a cousin of the family, Mr. Collins, who’s been estranged because the Bennet estate has been “entailed” to him instead of the Bennet daughters, attempts a reconciliation with the family and proposes marriage to Elizabeth, but she turns him down, since he’s rather pompous and obnoxious, going on and on about his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Collins then immediately proposes to the daughter of the Bennets’ neighbor, Charlotte Lucas, who accepts. Elizabeth eventually goes to visit them at Charlotte’s insistence, and they have several dinners with the even more pompous Lady Catherine, who turns out to be Darcy’s aunt. Darcy eventually comes to visit Lady Catherine with his cousin, Colonel Fitzwilliam, who lets it slip to Elizabeth how good a friend Darcy’s been to Bingly by saving him “from the inconveniences of a most imprudent marriage,” confirming Elizabeth’s suspicions that Bingly’s disappearance was due to Darcy’s influence. Later that same night, Darcy ends up confessing he’s in love with her and proposing, acknowledging he’s doing so in spite of her family’s lack of merit. Elizabeth does not react well to this and rejects him on the grounds of his rudeness, his interference with Bingly and Jane, and what he did to Wickham. He leaves, but the next day gives her a letter rebutting her accusations. He reveals Wickham to have been a liar so successfully–Wickham tried to elope with Darcy’s sister to get at their family fortune–that Elizabeth even starts to forgive his interference in Jane’s engagement, and she becomes ashamed of the way she treated him. 

Later, she goes to visit an aunt and uncle who want to tour Darcy’s estate, not knowing her connection to him. She agrees once she finds out he’s not there, and they listen to the housekeeper sing his praises. Then Darcy unexpectedly shows up and meets them. Elizabeth is shocked at how cordially he treats her aunt and uncle, people she expects him to consider beneath him. He introduces her to his sister. Then Elizabeth gets bad news from home: her youngest sister, the high-spirited Lydia, has run off with Wickham, and if they don’t actually get married this will be something that indelibly scars the family reputation. Since Wickham generally needs money and Elizabeth’s family doesn’t have it, things don’t look promising. Darcy comes in right after Elizabeth gets the letter and she ends up telling him what happened before she goes home. 

After some time, Elizabeht’s uncle locate Lydia and Wickham and arrange a marriage between them that Elizabeth’s father has to pay so little of an allowance for that everyone assumes their uncle must have put a lot of money in himself to get Wickham to agree to it. Elizabeth eventually finds out from her aunt that it was actually Darcy who located them and put up the necessary money to get Wickham to marry. 

Bingly eventually returns to Netherfield, and he and Jane are soon engaged. Lady Catherine comes to visit after hearing a rumor that Darcy and Elizabeth will also soon be engaged and is greatly upset because she believes that Darcy should marry her daughter. Elizabeth refuses not to accept a proposal from Darcy, should one be offered. Darcy eventually visits with Bingly, and when Elizabeth thanks him for what he did for their family, they confess their feelings to each other and get engaged. Though Lydia and Wickham sometimes hit them up for money, they all pretty much live happily ever after. The End. 

The plot of this novel is perhaps frequently characterized as about the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy, but it’s also about the development of Elizabeth’s character, the development of which influences the development of the relationship. The development of the relationship influences the development of her character, and vice versa. Elizabeth misperceives the true characters of both Darcy and Wickham, and at about the novel’s midpoint this misperception is brought to her attention, and Darcy and Wickham shift places in her esteem. Darcy’s letter after his rejected proposal is the turning point, and Elizabeth herself describes the turning point, out loud to herself, thus: 

“How despicably I have acted!” she cried; “I, who have prided myself on my discernment! I, who have valued myself on my abilities! who have often disdained the generous candour of my sister, and gratified my vanity in useless or blameable mistrust! How humiliating is this discovery! Yet, how just a humiliation! Had I been in love, I could not have been more wretchedly blind! But vanity, not love, has been my folly. Pleased with the preference of one, and offended by the neglect of the other, on the very beginning of our acquaintance, I have courted prepossession and ignorance, and driven reason away, where either were concerned. Till this moment I never knew myself.”

Now that she knows who Darcy and Wickham really are, she knows who she really is: someone capable of misperceptions because of her own vanity. But you can say this for Elizabeth before she has her character-revealing epiphany: she does not care about money or appearances, as so many of the women around her seem to, as much as she cares about principle. She does not seem to even momentarily entertain the idea of marrying Collins, despite the fact that it would return the house her family lives in to its rightful ownership and would ensure her family’s security (it would not have actually been that damaging to her character had she at least considered that reason). And she won’t entertain the idea of marrying upward if it’s someone she thinks is a jerk, even if he is super rich and handsome.  

For most of the novel Elizabeth’s actions are all reactions. The novel is a skipping stone of episodes across time, the stone hitting the water every time Elizabeth meets Darcy. She meets him by chance when she visits Charlotte Lucas and Collins, which is when he proposes, then after that by chance when her aunt and uncle want to visit his estate. The novel is bookended by her meetings with him when he comes to visit Netherfield.

There’s an amalgamation of events that raise Darcy in her esteem from his low point, the low point being when Colonel Fitzwilliam confirms her suspicions of his interference in Jane’s engagement, right before Darcy proposes (bad timing on Darcy’s part, good dramatic timing on Austen’s part). There’s his letter of rational explanations that makes Jane re-see Wickham, then the housekeeper going on about how great Darcy is when they visit his estate (coupled with his cordial treatment of her aunt and uncle, which he later tells her he did specifically to redeem himself), and then what he does to save the family’s reputation in the wake of Lydia absconding with Wickham, which Elizabeth only finds out about from somebody else. Saving the family’s reputation is especially fitting since one of his initial problems was his treating her family like they were beneath him.

The use of Wickham is in large part what makes the novel’s plot feel so tightly woven. He and Darcy are foils; as one rises (in Elizabeth’s esteem and/or financial matters) the other must fall (or at least pay out). One wonders (if one is me) if Wickham was for Austen a narrative spandrel–someone she put in initially for Elizabeth to realize how badly she’d misjudged someone(s), but who then was able to be used in the plot in an unexpected way to complete the trajectory Austen had started in her initial use of him. It’s the detail in Darcy’s letter about how Wickham tried to elope with his sister that made me wonder if this gave Austen the idea later to have Wickham abscond with one of Elizabeth’s sisters, providing the perfect opportunity for Darcy’s ultimate redemption. It felt too perfect to be pre-planned. 

The characterization is also a somewhat famous aspect of this novel–the ones that stick out the most are the ones of the worst characters: Lady Catherine, Lydia, and Elizabeth’s mother. Lady Catherine in conversation demonstrates how she considers herself more significant than everyone else: 

“What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is.”

“We are speaking of music, madam,” said he, when no longer able to avoid a reply.

“Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient….”

My favorite characterizations of Mrs. Bennet and Lydia occur in both of their reactions to Lydia’s marrying Wickham. Even coming from a time when the idea of living with a man out of wedlock damaging that entire woman’s family’s reputations is, to say the least, absurd, I felt through the story what a terrible and selfish and significant thing it was Lydia had done. Elizabeth and her father immediately feel indebted to Elizabeth’s uncle when they think he must have put money up for the marriage, but when Jane raises this issue with her mother after she’s overjoyed at the prospect of Lydia’s marrying Wickham just because she’ll finally have a daughter married, her mother brushes it off: 

“For we must attribute this happy conclusion,” [Jane] added, “in a great measure to his kindness. We are persuaded that he has pledged himself to assist Mr. Wickham with money.”

“Well,” cried her mother, “it is all very right; who should do it but her own uncle? If he had not had a family of his own, I and my children must have had all his money, you know; and it is the first time we have ever had anything from him, except a few presents. Well! I am so happy!…”

Then there’s Lydia’s behavior when she finally returns to the house with her husband. 

“Oh! mamma, do the people hereabouts know I am married to-day? I was afraid they might not; and we overtook William Goulding in his curricle, so I was determined he should know it, and so I let down the side-glass next to him, and took off my glove, and let my hand just rest upon the window frame, so that he might see the ring, and then I bowed and smiled like anything.”

Elizabeth could bear it no longer. She got up, and ran out of the room; and returned no more, till she heard them passing through the hall to the dining parlour. She then joined them soon enough to see Lydia, with anxious parade, walk up to her mother’s right hand, and hear her say to her eldest sister, “Ah! Jane, I take your place now, and you must go lower, because I am a married woman.”

It really is an amazing feat that Austen can make a modern reader feel invested in circumstances fairly far removed from life now, but the stakes are clearly set, as are the emotions they invoke.