Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible and Entitlement

I’ll tell you up front: here be spoilers. On the other hand, Eligible is a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, so there won’t be many major surprises for a Janeite.


Let me start by saying Eligible is really funny, and compulsively readable. It hews very closely to the original, which is itself no small feat. I love Curtis Sittenfeld’s dryly funny observations, and particularly her Sisterlandso as an Austen devotee, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this adaptation for months.

Some characters’ updates are spot-on. Mr. Bennet, who I find both amusing and upsetting in the original, retains the same slightly cruel hilarity in Eligible — as when, in the face of downsizing, he quips, “If your mother and I lived somewhere smaller, we might have to actually see each other.” Of Liz’s “wastrel sisters,” the younger ones work better than do Jane and Liz, I think. Mary, who could easily be valorized as an intellectual in an update, mooches off her parents and racks up online master’s degrees, remaining “proof, Liz had concluded, of how easy it was to be unattractive and unpleasant.”

As with most modern takes on Pride and Prejudice, however, Sittenfeld neglects to address the moral framework that informs Austen’s original. While she cleverly imports and updates the humor and romance of Pride and Prejudice, she loses sight of its integral justice, in which brave and good characters like Elizabeth are rewarded with their moral equals, like Mr. Darcy, and self-centered, headstrong, immoral characters like Lydia suffer their just desserts with an unhappy match to the villainous Mr. Wickham. Here, for instance, Lydia is much more sympathetic, and her actions approved of by Liz: “Lydia and Ham are living their truth. […] More power to them.”

In Eligible‘s world, the central place of marriage in Pride and Prejudice is more or less deposed in favor of the pursuit of parenthood. The most striking and uncomfortable aspect of this retelling is how divorced child-bearing is from marriage and even love — and no one cares.

In this story, nearly-40-year-old Jane undergoes an IUI with donor sperm to become a single mother, and when the pregnancy is revealed, she and Chip Bingley break up (temporarily, of course). Social climbing Mrs. Bennet, hearing the news of the breakup but unaware of the pregnancy, “sounded so bereft. ‘Now you’ll never have children.'” By making ridiculous Mrs. Bennet the champion of traditional families in the novel, Sittenfeld throws into doubt the desirability of such a goal. (Indeed, the Bennets are the only intact family in the story, and they are, as in Pride and Prejudice, kind of a train wreck.)

Charlotte, practical as ever in Eligible, muses, when facing dissatisfaction over her rash decision to move in with Willie (Mr. Collins), “Maybe instead of taking the job, I should get pregnant now, and that way, even if Willie and I break up, I’ll still be a mom.” It’s a shocking proposal, and yet Liz offers no censure, even mentally. Men are a means to an end here, and that end is usually, but not always, motherhood on the woman’s own terms. (I was reminded here again of Simcha Fisher’s excellent piece, “The Earth Is a Nursery” about our contemporary longing for children.)

Liz, and presumably the novel itself, suggest that biological children are just one among any equally acceptable options, not the natural consequence of marriage. When Mrs. Bennet complains that Lydia, having chosen a transgender husband, will never give birth, Liz points to alternate means. By placing the argument in snobbish, racist Mrs. Bennet’s mouth, we are meant to see any sense of the fitness of biological children to be as silly and behind the times as she is. (She is, after all, the same woman who says, “Liz, I don’t know if Kitty and Shane are serious, but life can be very hard for mulatto children.”)

“Lydia will never be able to have babies.” Mrs. Bennet scowled at Liz. “And at the rate you’re going, neither will you.”

“Lydia and Ham can adopt. Or”—it was impossible not to think of Jane—”there are other options.”

Mrs. Bennet shook her head. “When people adopt, God only knows what’s in those genes.”

“God only knows what’s in any of our genes,” Liz said, and Mrs. Bennet drew herself up into a haughty posture.

“I beg your pardon,” she said. “Your father and I both come from very distinguished families.”

At 38 years old, Liz, who strongly wishes to avoid motherhood, nonetheless confronts its specter everywhere in her “rapidly approaching expiration date,” much as an old maid might be constantly reminded of her unmarried state in Jane Austen’s era. She initially bonds with Darcy, in part, because in a discussion following hate sex (!!!), it is revealed neither wants to be a parent: “When I went into neurosurgery, I was making a choice that either I’d be the kind of person who lets his partner do ninety-five percent of the parenting or I wouldn’t be a parent, period. […] Any man with a viable sperm count can become a dad, whereas only some people can perform a decompressive craniectomy.” This Darcy is articulate and honorable as ever, but the prospect of a intentionally sterile marriage for Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy is nonetheless depressing to contemplate.

There is no indication that either shifts position upon falling in love and getting engaged; on the contrary, when Liz finally meets her new niece, she finds her, “a miraculous and tiny human whom Liz felt immediate devotion toward and was relieved not to be the mother of.” While this attitude toward motherhood may be designed by Sittenfeld to demonstrate that Liz, like Elizabeth in P&P, is not interested in the ruthless pursuit of goals, it reads somehow off to me.

Maybe I need to say that I believe strongly in adoption, and sympathize with infertility, and appreciate when people recognize they shouldn’t be parents. Still, the modern landscape presented by Eligible suggests a wasteland of desperate people (women, mainly): desperate to become parents at all costs or else desperate to avoid the consequences of love and marriage.

Jane Austen’s masterpiece argues compellingly for a marriage of equals, founded in love. In Pride and Prejudice, we are not meant to approve of Charlotte marrying for financial security, or Lydia marrying for lust. In the same way, an update of Austen, if it is to substitute motherhood for marriage, should not approve all paths to parenthood no matter how flippantly or selfishly followed. In Austen’s world, virtue leads to flourishing, and there are no shortcuts; otherwise Elizabeth might have married Mr. Collins, or Lydia would have ended up happily married after her irresponsible elopement. Though Charlotte’s resigned pragmatism might translate from mercenary marriage to, in this version, contemplating intentional single motherhood, and Lydia in this case might seek motherhood flippantly (“If Jane’s baby turns out cute […] maybe Ham and I will use the same sperm donor she did”), we cannot be meant to cheer on Jane Bennet settling for motherhood without the loving support of a father, or Liz choosing an intentionally barren marriage just so she can keep having fun. (Her reasons are fuzzier and less heroic than Darcy’s.) That we are meant to laugh fondly in the epilogue at self-centered, masturbating Mary, determinedly single, left unchanged by the events of the novel, is the final insult to Austen’s legacy — none of the characters grow (with possibly the exception of Liz and Darcy), yet they all end up happily ever after.

We all of us want to claim Austen as a card-carrying member of our pet causes, but I can’t think she’d approve of the ruthlessness so richly rewarded in Eligible. In Eligible, as in our world, love and reproduction have been severed and the results aren’t pretty.  Then again — it’s possible that I’m on a fool’s errand, forever on the search for a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, unaware that I’m not modern enough myself to appreciate one.

 

 

Advertisements

Author: Katherine Grimm Bowers

Babies. Books. Fledgling housewifery. Once and future librarian. Catholic. Always thinking about chocolate ice cream.

11 thoughts on “Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible and Entitlement”

  1. Great review. I started reading it and was immediately put off by some of the “modern” elements you’ve noted. Your point about the epilogue is right on, and why I think the author is really missing out on the genius of Jane Austen.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think both Curtis Sittenfeld and Jane Austen had more compassion and respect for people and the difficult choices that they make in life than you are showing in this review. A choice to not have children is not selfish. I am sick of women who believe that their choice to have children makes them morally superior to me. It’s not true. It’s hurtful and unkind. The words “intentionally barren” are particularly antediluvian and nasty. My worth, my contribution to the world is not defined by whether or not I make the same decisions you did. In fact, I believe that having children is an incredibly selfish thing. It’s not a selfless act. As Liz says in this book, if you truly wanted to selflessly help a child, you could adopt one of the millions of unwanted children in the world. But even adoption is about wanting to have a little person who you can tell what to do and who must love you and who you expect to grow up and continue to love and care for you as you age. (If this seems like a dismissive, one-dimensional judgement, imagine being a single woman who is told that she doesn’t want to have children because she “just doesn’t want to stop having fun”). If Sittenfeld is commenting on motherhood, she’s commenting on tension between the harmful societal pressure on women to have a certain idealized family at all costs, and the ideal of following your romantic desires at all costs. I think this is just like Austen commenting on harmful societal pressure on women to marry for money and security at all costs (Charlotte, Mrs. Bennet), versus the ideal of following your desire at all cost (Lydia, Wickham). Austen wrote compassionately as Elizabeth makes peace with Charlotte’s decision to marry Mr. Collins for security, even though she believed that this was not the right choice for her heroine. Austen acknowledged that people’s choices are complex, and are affected by lots of different pressures and personal motivations all at the same time. There’s a reason why she mentions that Elizabeth is friendlier to Darcy after seeing Pemberley – money did play a part in Elizabeth’s thoughts, but it wasn’t the only thing she weighed. What is beautiful about Austen, and what Sittenfeld does succeed in capturing, are multi-dimensional, complex characters. Liz is not all good, and Lydia’s not all bad. While you seem to think that Elizabeth and Darcy were morally perfect and superior, I think that the whole point of the book was that they weren’t. In fact, the title of the book “Pride and Prejudice” shows us that the characters we’re supposed to like the most, through the events of the book, move from premature judgement of other people, and a false and pompous sense of superiority, to a more understanding, compassionate, and loving place. Eligible has lots of problems (see the love declaration while filming The Bachelor wedding special), but the fact that the heroine wrestles with complex pressures and ideals and ends up making her own decisions, and finds a way to make peace with the decisions others have made that she disagrees with, or would not have made for herself, is right on. If you’ve missed that point in both the original Pride and Prejudice as well as Eligible, I suggest you read them again, with a different perspective.

    Like

    1. Rachel! Good to hear from you! With Emily posting, too, it’s like a little Oxford reunion.

      Hmm. I definitely don’t think I’m morally superior to you and I’m sorry to have given that impression. Single ladies and ladies without babies live unselfish lives all the time, I know.

      I think there are unselfish reasons not to want children (Darcy articulates some in the book), but Liz, if I remember correctly, just had undefined things she wanted to do with her life that precluded her from having kids — I’d look up the passage but I had to return my copy to the library. Maybe she’ll be a really active and involved aunt and sister now that she’s moving back to Cincinnati, but her old life in NYC seems to have been mostly work, Jasper and Jane — not much in the way of a benevolent contribution to the world.

      It certainly doesn’t feel like having kids is a selfish thing, for what it’s worth, when I’m waking hourly with a sick baby or throwing up constantly in pregnancy. Do you mean selfish because I then get love out of them, or selfish from an environmental perspective? Someone or other having children certainly seems pretty important if we want to have someone care for our world after we’re gone, and I don’t buy that argument that humanity is a parasite; it just seems incompatible with Christianity. Also, I’m definitely grateful for adoption, to which I owe the entire family of my husband, and, by extension, my biological children.

      In the original book, I get the impression that the newlywed Darcys will take financial care of the Wickhams, but they aren’t going to be buddies congratulating Mr. Wickham on every gambling loss or Lydia on each irresponsible purchase. In Eligible, Liz’s approval seems more wholesale, though admittedly Lydia’s actions are less reckless and selfish here. I agree Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth learn to be less quick to draw conclusions in P&P, but I don’t really see the same shift in Eligible: they start off very nonjudgmental (except concerning each other) and end the same, for better and for worse. (I would argue that Lydia is, pretty much, all bad in the original, if pitiably naive and ill-educated; here is she definitely more nuanced.)

      At the end of Austen books, most of the characters change: Darcy and Elizabeth as you mentioned, and Mary and Kitty are mellowed and saved by being forced into each other’s company. (No such luck here, even if they are roomies.) I think Austen sympathizes with characters who make poor choices and won’t mend their ways, but she doesn’t shy away from the consequences of their actions: Mrs. Rush worth ending up irritable and alone with Mrs. Norris after her vain lust, for instance, to wander into Mansfield Park.

      It didn’t seem like Liz censured Charlotte’s (contemplated) choice to use Willy for his sperm, and that shocked me — perhaps if she had found it reprehensible but then dismissed it as not her call, I’d have found it more in keeping with the Austen original. People treat each other like baby vending machines in this book, and it freaks me out.

      Sorry for the novel-length response — I’m glad to have found someone else who’s read this book. I’ve been thinking about it a lot!

      Like

  3. I think motherhood is selfish the same way a career is selfish – you seem to dismiss her work life in New York above, but it’s something that Liz believes in. When she interviews the Lady Catherine stand-in, she finds a great deal of satisfaction in writing about someone whose career she believes will be an inspiration to other women. Liz, and lots of career women, make personal sacrifices to build a lifetime’s body of work that they can look back on and find satisfaction with. I’m speculating, but I’d think that Liz would like to look back and think that she had shaped the way that people look at the world, through her writing (not unlike your blog.) Her writing career is also one of the ways that she defines her self and self-worth.

    I think that you probably make sacrifices, which as you mention above, don’t feel selfish, because you love the little project you’re working on (your children) and you’d like at the end of your life, to look back and think that you raised strong, capable, loving children that have made the world a little better. I think, based on tag line to your blog, and tags to post, one of the ways that you define yourself and your self-worth is through your motherhood.

    Liz in Eligible is super, super judgmental. She thinks poorly of her parents, her sisters, her boyfriend, just about everyone she meets. She judges everyone pretty harshly, even if her words are sometimes more neutral or diplomatic. In fact, that might be part of the problem. She’s passive-aggressive about other people and isn’t able to build any sort of relationship with them until she let’s go her anger. That doesn’t mean that she approves of everyone’s choices in the end, she just finds a way to live with people in a less judgmental way. I think that’s the same in Pride and Prejudice, they don’t approve of Wickham, but let go of their anger, and try and provide a way for everyone to live in peace.

    And I totally agree with you about the sperm vending machine problem. But, if family is the stand-in for money, then it totally translates. People in Jane Austen’s book treated each other as ATM machines.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s