By: Allyson Vaughan
Mistakes are a part of the basic human condition. No human walks this earth and doesn’t wish they never ate at the hole in the wall Mexican restaurant and got e-coli from a beef quesadilla their gut told them not to eat, but the Queso inside convinced them otherwise; speaking from experience here. Mistakes are a part of writing, life, and becoming an individual. Mistakes of all forms, professional, romantic, grammatical, etc,etc, it doesn’t really matter what mistakes a person is making because we’re all still making them. Too often people either push aside their mistakes and forget they ever happened, or they spend their lives never finding a way to forgive but not forget them. No writer understood the human condition and the necessity for mistakes and second chances better than Jane Austen.
There’s a lot of people who will say that Austen wrote happy endings to make it easy, to wrap all her love stories in a nice pretty bow so the public would buy into the idea that love triumphs always. Austen is often spoken about, due to her happy endings, as a brand of literary pop fiction. But those critics fail to see what the writer is saying about the human condition, overlooking the complexities buried in her writing. No two novels showcase Austen’s treatment of the concept of second chances better than Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice.
In Pride and Prejudice, as many know the main characters Elizabeth and Darcy are burdened with their reservations about who they are, and who the other is. Elizabeth makes the mistake of letting Darcy’s initial prejudice and insult totally color her idea of him to the point she’s willing to believe any terrible thing about him (Looking at you Wickham you dirty dog). She doesn’t look at Darcy when he confesses and understand that he’s a human capable of mistakes. And Darcy makes the mistake of assuming his position will make Elizabeth forgive him, and the mistake of ignoring her and allowing his fears of her rank cloud his judgement. Elizabeth never sees his confession coming. But Elizabeth and Darcy realize their mistakes, they realize they’ve failed each other and themselves, and once they recognize that they don’t forget their mistakes, the move forward from them. This ability to recognize mistakes, forgive, and learn is what allows them to move on. It allows for their happiness.
And in Persuasion, Anne Eliot makes the mistake of letting someone sway her away from her true feelings for Captain Wentworth, and because of that she spends years regretting her choice. But that regret shapes her, molds her into a kinder, wiser, more assured human being. She doesn’t pine away and waste her time, her mistakes don’t consume her, but they do weigh on her. And Wentworth makes the mistake of, once they are in each other’s presence again, letting his anger keep him from forgiving her youthful mistake, from seeing that Anne does in fact care for him and would like more than anything to go back and change her decision. But Anne and Wentworth do end up together, but only after they’ve both wised up to how their choices and behavior were keeping them from happiness.
In both cases, Austen writes her characters’ happy endings only after they’ve wrapped their heads around why they made the mistakes that they did. Austen’s characters can tell readers a lot about what it means to make mistakes. Sure, most of her characters’ dilemmas revolve around love and fortune (understand the time period, please). But what is literature if it can’t be applied to concepts beyond the vehicle the writer constructs for them. Austen tells us that mistakes are natural, human. She also tells us that mistakes, though they will happen, are not the heart of a person. They can define a person’s character in the most grotesque way, freezing the person in time and keeping them from living, or they can define a person in the loveliest of ways. Mistakes can show us our failings and make us want to be better, they can push us forward when we would only like to go back. But most importantly, Austen doesn’t write Anne or Elizabeth, Darcy or Captain Wentworth as narrowly self-focused. They all forgive others their mistakes without letting themselves be naive to allowing it again.
Anne doesn’t allow Lady Russell to change her mind a second time, and neither does Elizabeth let herself or Wickham off the hook for believing/telling lies about Darcy. They look upon others and see their mistakes reflected. They see the forgiveness and regret they too experienced. Austen gives her characters empathy. All of Austen’s characters recognize that others will makes mistakes as they have, and find the capacity to forgive. I learned from Austen that it’s possible to make a mistake, to receive the brunt of someone else’s, and still move on. She taught me to recognize that mistakes are as beautiful as they are tragic for what they do to people. That’s why it’s such a tragedy, and yet still human, to watch people make the same mistakes over and over. But as Austen writes in her novels, people’s tragedies, mistakes, hinder a person’s happiness only so far as they allow it. So their will always be critics who say Austen doesn’t know how to do tragedy. But I would have to argue that Austen captures the truest form of tragedy humans understand, that of the tragedies of mistakes that chip away at a person’s heart, and the hope of second chances.