A few days ago, Jessica from Read React Review had a great post on the philosophy of sexual desire. In one part of the post, she talks about how sexual desire is dependent upon revulsion and disgust. To share a quote Jessica had in her post:
[S]exual desire depends on the idea of a prohibited domain of the disgusting. A person’s tongue in your mouth could be experienced as a pleasure or as a most repulsive and nauseating intrusion depending on the state of relations that exist or are being negotiated between you and the person. But someone else’s tongue in your mouth can be a sign of intimacy because it can also be a disgusting assault.1As Jessica pointed out, you see this played out metaphorically a lot in romance novels. But I would say it's really exemplified best in Pride & Prejudice, which is arguably the source for at least half of the romantic fiction plots ever written. I'm not referring only to Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy--their initial dislike for one another that eventually turns into admiration and (spoiler alert! Seriously, will you read the book already?) love has become a trope of literary romances--that's obvious. But take, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Bennett. Mr. Bennett supposedly can't stand his wife, yet he somehow managed to father five children with her? HMM. Or Charlotte and Mr. Collins, who seem to develop a relationship of mutual disgust fairly quickly. Or do they? Certainly Charlotte is attracted to Collins for the freedom from her parents he represents, if nothing else. Happiness in marriage may be entirely a matter of chance, as Charlotte proclaimed, but the major sexual relationships in the book appear to rely on a balance of attraction and repulsion, both on the part of the characters and the reader's impression of them.
Interestingly, I don't believe this dichotomy is present in Austen's other novels, definitely not to the degree of Pride & Prejudice. Marianne may eventually become disgusted with Willoughby, but they don't wind up together. Neither Elinor from Sense and Sensibility, or Anne from Persuasion, or Emma Woodhouse ever seem to work up more than annoyance for their various romantic other halfs.
Is the push-and-pull of revulsion and attraction what makes Pride & Prejudice Austen's most famous novel? I do think that it helps make the relationships seem more "real" to the reader. It's really surprising to me (though I don't know why) that Austen was able to intuit that dynamic and integrate it so seamlessly into the plot of her novel.
Can you think of any other Austen relationships that have a digust/desire component? Are there any writers who can beat Austen at her own game?
1William Ian Miller, An Anatomy of Disgust (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), p.137.