Aiming for the ideal

Every text we’ve encountered has dealt, implicitly or explicitly, with the concept of the ideal. Whether it is the ideal family, the ideal man, the ideal wife (and the list goes on), all the characters are compared to it, and inevitably, they almost always fall flat. In the cases where they don’t, they’re held up as an example for others, perpetuating the concept of the “ideal.”

For example, in Moynihan, the discussion of the “absent father” and the lack of masculinity implies a deviance from some sort of ideal. Stack describes kinship in comparison to some implicit ideal. This ideal is present in Tuesday’s readings in a variety of ways. Darcy initially appears as an ideal character, given his appearance and his wealth, but that idea is quickly overturned by his personality. Jane is ideal in her gentle demeanor and beauty, but she lacks Elizabeth’s wit. Characters are compared to the ideal, but they always fall short.

The concept of ideal also plays a role in the relationships found in the book. Chapter XIX of Volume II begins:

Had Elizabeth’s opinion been all drawn from her own family, she could not have formed a very pleasing picture of conjugal felicity or domestic comfort. (180)

Within that line, there seems to be an implication that there is something a family should be, and whatever it is, her family is not. She accepts her father’s shortcomings (or, rather, “endeavour[s] to forget what she could not overlook”), but she is aware of “the disadvantages which must attend the children of so unsuitable a marriage” (181). This deviance from the ideal carries consequences beyond the present. The ideal is also present in the reasons for marriage: love is not the right reason, neither is an economic motive. The question of what the ideal reason for marriage is is never actually answered, but the romanticism of the book lies in the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy. It is held up as an ideal, which is, perhaps, part of the reason for its enduring popularity.

I want to mention “Polygyny” briefly because in some senses, Gateefa is held up as the ideal. However, Azza is the one who is favored the most (in the beginning at least). In addition, despite this “ideal” quality, Gateefa seems unhappy in her role. (This is debatable.)

Finally, returning to last Tuesday’s readings, Ruilang/Ruiniang’s role as a mother to Chengxian can be considered exemplary, but there is the added tension of the role of biological sex in motherhood. Can a man be a mother? The critique at the end holds the relationship between Ruilang and Jifang as ideal, but also one-of-a-kind. This raises even more questions about the nature of the “ideal.” Is it something that is attainable? Is it supposed to be attainable? Does it actually exist?

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4 thoughts on “Aiming for the ideal

  1. By virtue of being an ideal, it cannot exist in the real world. It is something abstract that people can point to and say “that is what that is” but the truth is, the ideal, although in many cases and cultures, it is a shared view, but amongst all of the millions of different people, the ideal is a concept of their own invention, with outside influences from society. An example I’ve always heard, there exists in some abstract realm a perfect chair. This chair is a concept that to everyone in society will have four legs, perhaps a back rest, and a seat cushion. Yet, everyone’s ideal chair is something different. Everyone’s ideal relationship and partner is different to everyone. Society instructs us that they must be morally sound, physically attractive, charming and sociable, and have a great interest in both the inner and the outer world. Yet everyone has their own ideal based off these traits. No one’s ideal is the same and no one really exists to fulfill that ideal. It’s a mold in which no one can fit. Someone can fill some parts of the mold really well, while lacking in others, and when one falls in love, even though that person doesn’t fill out their mold completely, they accept them for the parts that they do have. Because we’re all human and therefore flawed, no ideal family, man, woman, relationship, etc. can really exist. But we hold these ideals as an example and as a mold in which we try to fit ourselves and others.

  2. What’s so interesting to me about Pride and Prejudice in particular is that Lizzie and Darcy’s romance has been upheld as an ideal for generations. Although they are both flawed characters, their love is somehow redeeming; it grants them almost an immortality in how romanticized their love has become. In this way, I do think the ideal is defined in the novel, perhaps even magnified by the awareness that these two characters are imperfect. This ideal has functioned in our culture ever since- I talked a little bit about Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey in class, and how this construction of romance is perpetuated in different forms through time.
    It’s also interesting to note that these ideals are, of course, fictional. I agree with Margeaux in that these ideals are “an example in which we try to fit ourselves and others”, and this ideal of heterosexual romance can be read as a way in which gender is constructed and performed (to tie back to our first unit).

  3. Hi Sonia, I really liked that you brought in the concept of ‘the ideal’ to the readings. In hindsight, all our readings seem to be colored by this idea; maybe ‘the ideal’ can be used for a generalized application.

    For example, Mrs. Bennet has a particularly vocal version of the happy family ideal she’d like to have in the future that often clashes with Mr. Bennet’s and Lizzy’s. Very much of her need to advertise her daughters for marriage stems from her need to achieve this idyllic family future. Could it be argued that this ideal exists as the torchbearer of her identity since Mrs. Bennet’s view of a happy family shapes who she is and the decisions she makes. And what’s the relationship between the “ideal,” the “reality,” and identity? Furthermore, what’s the role of kinship in shaping ideals for the Bennets or the Bedouins?

    On another note, your example of Lizzy’s family falling flat from this ideal definitely reminded me of that one Anna Karenina quote, “Happy families are all alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

    Alice

  4. I agree with all of the above comments, as they point out the necessary mutability of the ideal and its impossibility. But it seems like, from your examples, the ideal is more of a political construct than it is a real and unchanging object. The characters in Pride and Prejudice construct their relationship to others and their opinions of them based upon an ideal. However, it seems like the ideal often goes unstated or assumed. We only really get a picture of it through the character arcs in Pride and Prejudice, and through Gateefa’s narratives. In both cases, the ideal becomes a kind of argument with reality.

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