February 22, 2011

DISTRESS WITHOUT ALTERATION:

Lady Mary, Downton Abbey, and the Conflicted Will (Jessica Brown, 2/22/11, Image)

A final example can be seen in the way she treats Matthew after they are engaged. As Lady Mary’s conversations with her aunt and grandmother reveal, she is not cavalier in breaking their engagement.

But is she as distraught with the act of dumping him as she is by the fact that this is what she must do? In questioning if she loves Matthew enough to stay with him even if he is not Downton’s heir, to answer ‘yes’ is unthinkable.

The sincere connection she made with Matthew is not enough to trump the desire to be the Lady Mary she has always been.

In many ways she is like literature’s most spirited, and trapped, heroines—Thackeray’s Rebecca Sharp, James’ Isabel Archer, and Wharton’s Lily Bart—whose ill desires, and self-knowledge of those ill desires, cause distress, but not alteration.

Is this just pride? Perhaps—but it could also be that these desires have become so defining that to alter them is to forfeit too much.

We have little reason to give Mary sympathy—but we do have reason for empathy. She shows us the tragedy of being caught in a certain version of ourselves, a version that we may not even like.

Given the choice to change, we prefer to preserve the desires that we imagine give us a place, a standing, in the world. These desires set us apart (make us feel special) and help us fit in, just as we’d like to.

Thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, King David, and Dallas Willard have helped us understand the conflicting will. But to see it fleshed out so minutely, even glamorously, in Downton Abbey, has yielded an unusual opportunity for self-examination.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at February 22, 2011 6:53 AM
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