Readers often comment on the fact that in Pride and Prejudice there is no comeuppance or cosmic justice for the “bad” characters. Although Wickham is shackled to Lydia and is forced into a new job, he gets off very easily for someone who has behaved so despicably. Other characters who are deeply flawed end up no worse by the end of the book. Collins will still inherit Longbourn, and he gets a wife who is far better than he deserves. Miss Bingley and Lady Catherine continue on their merry ways, protected by their wealth and status.
Indeed, one of the fun things about Jane Austen Fan Fiction is that we can imagine some kind of justice for these characters in the form of imprisonment, death, or simple humiliation. They are so flawed that their comeuppance can serve as a great source of humor as well as providing the satisfaction of having the wicked punished. I have written such scenes; they are great fun and very emotionally satisfying.
Yet, even when I write them, I am aware that in some ways such scenes are not in keeping with Austen’s original intent. She clearly intends that the bad/flawed characters should not suffer an evil end. It would be easy enough for her to serve up some kind of cosmic justice to them. However, it is enough for her that good characters have loving marriages and find secure places for themselves. This is true in all her novels. Fanny Dashwood gets to live off her ill-gotten gains. Willoughby gets lots of money. Lucy Stone gets the rich guy. There is no justice meted out to Fanny Price’s relatives or Anne Elliott’s.
In some ways it is unsatisfying. Don’t you want someone to take Lady Catherine down a peg? Or tell Collins what a fool he is? But in other ways, it feels exactly right. It certainly makes Austen’s stories more true to life. Haven’t you ever met someone who doesn’t deserve the good fortune they enjoy? We struggle to earn a living while someone who is shallow or downright nasty glides along on inherited wealth—or is just in the right place at the right time. Or you meet a couple where you think, “he/she doesn’t deserve a spouse like that.” Or attended a wedding when you had reservations about the relationship? I believe, one of the reasons we don’t mind the absence of the kind of emotionally satisfying closure you get with other books is because it does feel familiar to us.
They also feel true to us in the way that the flawed characters cause trouble for the “good” ones. Some of her characters do scheme and deceive for the sake of their own ends. But in general, the wrongs they cause are a result of carelessness. Wickham ruins Lydia’s reputation because he’s fleeing creditors and wants some company on the road, not because of some evil master plot. And doesn’t that feel true to life? Haven’t you had a friend who was in a bad relationship with a guy who was just careless of her feelings—without any evil intent? They can cause just as much, if not more, damage as someone who actually intends harm.
Certainly characters like Lady Catherine or Collins or Miss Bingley or even Mrs. Bennet don’t rise to the Lord Voldemort—or even the Snidely Whiplash— level. Their biggest flaws tend to be excessive self-regard and lack of sympathy for others. Again, the wrongs they cause are mostly through carelessness (or in Collins’s case, excessive stupidity). Doesn’t that feel familiar? How often do friends and family cause deep wounds without intending to? You experience the pain while also understanding that it stems from the other person’s own flaws rather than malice. Austen’s characters remind us of people we know, albeit often exaggerated versions.
Ultimately, what sets the “good” characters apart from the “bad” ones is greater self-awareness—which is its own reward. All of Austen’s heroines don’t end up wealthy, although they all have secure homes. But they all benefit from an understanding of themselves, sympathy for those around them, and awareness of their own flaws. In fact, becoming aware of one’s flaws is part of the plot of many of Austen’s books. The reward for that journey of self-exploration is the ability to form a truly loving relationship with another person. And that, Austen demonstrates, is what the flawed characters miss out on.