- Amy MacKinnon
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, and Christian Stories
Updated: Sep 7, 2021
Stories can have powerful effects on us, but are those effects good?
Real stories affect us because we know that the events in the story truly happened, so a good “real” story means that it:
Was something that actually happened
Was told in a way that kept the audience's attention
Had a satisfying outcome
But what makes a fictional story a good story?
Do we read fiction or watch movies just because we agree with, or like, the outcome in the end? Is that really what makes a story a good story?
Stories can definitely have a powerful effect on us, but what is it that makes a story not just powerful, but good?
Does having Christian elements in a story automatically make it a good story? Or even a specifically Christian story?
Christianity in Stories
A story where the hero is about a practicing Christian who does nothing wrong and everything works out because the character is a Christian is a really boring story.
That is a story where the character that isn’t really challenged by anything so there’s very little change, and if there is, then the change is obvious and simplistic.
That kind of story is really just giving the Christian readers a pat on the back and affirming what they already believe to be true and good.
That’s not what we need in a story
Do we always choose what is truly good? Do we always know the full truth?
Anyone who is pursuing the truth knows that the answer to those questions is definitely “no.”
That’s why we need to be challenged in ways that will make us better.
When we read a story, we identify with one of the characters in that story. We do this in every story we read or watch—we become that character in a way. We go through the struggle and face the adversities that character faces, and we share the reward or punishment that character receives in the end.
The changes that character goes through are the same changes that take place within us as we go through the story, even though we're just the audience: we're still emotionally participating in the actions as that character and emotionally celebrating (or suffering) the consequences of the actions and choices of that character.
This is what good stories can do.
They allow us to see others who are challenged in various ways, and to emotionally experience the choices and consequences of those choices without having to go through those trials in real life.
That's great as long as the character is a virtuous hero, but sometimes when kids (or adults) watch or read stories they say that the villain is their favorite character. When we've aligned ourselves with a character who fails to choose goodness or truth in the end, that affects us as well.
Those characters can still help us grow in virtue and holiness.
Darth Vader from Star Wars and Gollum from The Lord of the Rings are characters that some young boys are drawn to, and they'll sometimes play-act those characters after the story is over. Usually it's not that big of a deal since they're just acting out the dynamics in the story, but if you're familiar with those characters then you can also see why their parents may be concerned.
When the story is over, helping them to think through the actions, choices, and consequences for the character can be really beneficial. They can end up seeing that Gollum didn't have to end up dying in a fiery pit as a consequence of his actions the way that he did in The Lord of the Rings, and that Darth Vader repented and saved his son from being killed by the Emperor.
I've noticed this tendency among some women with some of Jane Austen's characters in particular like Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility or Mr. Wickham in Pride and Prejudice. Both of those characters are very charming, and it seems to me that Austen is warning women about the dangers of charming men. That kind of charm comes from developing a habit of covering up wrongdoing rather than repenting and trying to be better in the future.
These characters are more complex and not just a simplistic good or evil. That leaves room for readers (or viewers) to see the good in them and latch onto that instead of seeing the evil outcomes which they either cause directly or are a result of their actions.
Adult readers can consider the ideas behind those actions and consequences, and think about them more objectively. Some questions to consider are:
Were they right or wrong, and how do you know?
Were they always right or wrong?
How did they affect the other characters?
What should the actions and effects have been?
What could have changed that?
Was the idea at the heart of the problem a bad idea?
Was the idea a good idea, but either distorted or ignored/neglected by any of the characters?
This is part of what a good story should inspire us to do.
That's also something we can do with every story, no matter how good or bad it is, and no matter what religious or philosophical view the authors of the stories subscribe to, and it's part of what can help us to see whether the story is truly good or not.
There’s nothing inherently Christian in that idea; in fact, that idea came from a pagan philosopher: Aristotle (read his Poetics for more on how stories work).
How Do You Read Stories Through a Christian Lens?
My primary interest in writing about fiction, is showing Catholic teachers and parents how to read and evaluate stories to see the potential effects those stories may have on their children.
Not every story is a specifically Christian story.
Some that are, aren’t very good stories.
Some that aren’t obviously Christian are still very good stories.
As a Catholic, I’ve learned to see the world as something that God created and as its Creator, He leaves His fingerprints on everything that He has created.
At the very least, the fact that something exists in the world (and the world itself), points to the existence of a creator, because nothing can create itself.
So when I read or watch a story, the first thing I do is read it as just a story, and immerse myself in that story.
No analysis, no comparisons—just the story as a story. I try not to do any real analysis of the story until after I’ve read through to the end. If I find myself analyzing the story before that, then it’s often because the story itself hasn’t captured my attention. It might be because:
I’m too distracted by other things
I don’t like the characters or the story
The story itself isn’t really a story, it’s a lecture
I’ve learned that if I just can’t get into a story or really don’t like it, then I shouldn’t read it at that time. I put it aside, and may try to read or watch it later.
This is what happened when I first tried to read Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice
It was boring, I couldn’t get into it, and I was reading it because it was supposed to be “good” and “literary.” All I got from it was that “good” and “literary” meant “difficult” and “boring.”
A couple of years later, I thought I should try to read it again because it was “good” and “literary.” This time I had a very different reaction.
I LOVED IT!
It is one of my favorite stories, and not because it’s literary, or difficult, or elite.
I loved it because it’s truly a great story.
It wasn’t a lecture, or a persuasive essay disguised as a story that was trying to lecture me on religion or politics, although those elements are certainly present in her stories. Now that I’m a Catholic, I especially appreciate that because Austen was not at all a fan of Catholics!
And yet, I would say that this story, as well as each of her other stories, are deeply and inherently Christian stories.
I’ll show you a little bit of what I see in Pride and Prejudice that makes me say that.
Jane Austen has a character, a minister, who is a metaphor for the devil in the story: Mr. Collins.
Does that mean that she hates Christians? Or that she thinks all ministers are evil? Her father was an Anglican minister, so does that mean that she had “daddy issues?”
In Sense and Sensibility, the Anglican minster is the hero, so does that mean instead that she’s actually conflicted about the role of ministers?
I have no idea what “issues” she did or did not have, but I don’t think that’s why she had characters who were ministers symolizing the devil in one story and the hero in another.
I think that she was using Mr. Collins to show what a minister should not be, and Edward to show what a minister should be. In both stories, she does more with that aspect of those characters than they show in the movies. I’m not panning the movies, but there are always some differences when books are adapted to film and/or stage.
In the series on fairy tales, I showed some of the Christian elements and symbols in seven fairy tales, but those symbols and elements are in many stories.
The questions to think about are how to interpret the character's choices and final end, and how the author uses those characters within a story.
This is how I read stories, and this is how we can find the Christianity even in a story that is not:
Written by a Christian
An explicitly Christian story
A story that even mentions religion (like Lord of the Rings)
For more on seeing the Christianity hidden (in plain sight) within stories, I have an overview of that topic with a lot of links to additional resources in the blog post, Beginner’s Guide to Finding the Christianity Hidden in Fairy Tales and Fiction.