500 Days of Marianne & Willoughby

Deschanel, Gordon-Levitt in "500 Days of Summer"

Deschanel, Gordon-Levitt in “500 Days of Summer”

In a recent post I discussed how, in my Restoration and 18th Century Couples Comedy class, I encourage my students to compare the works we read with modern romantic comedies. Windy Vorwick discovered exciting new things, both about Jane Austen and sibling dynamics, when she compared Sense and Sensibility with Disney’s Frozen. For her part Jane Harkness, another student, made a fruitful comparison between Sense and Sensibility and 500 Days of Summer.

500 Days has become a cult classic amongst college students and twenty-somethings. That may be because (spoiler alert) it invites us to expect the classic romantic ending, only to deviate. What one expects to be a boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl drama becomes instead boy meets girl, boy loses girl but can’t admit it, boy finally admits to losing girl. Tom’s denial of losing Summer is shared by the audience, who keep expecting a traditional romantic comedy. In the end, we finally acknowledge that Tom—and we ourselves—must move on past Summer. As the title indicates, the season of this love affair should have ended long ago. In the movie’s final scene, Tom meets a possible new girlfriend, an architect like himself, named Autumn.

The thematic point is also made by Tom’s departure from a job churning out clichés for a greeting card company for an architectural career where he will build things that matter. The movie strikes my students as profound because it guides them to a more mature view of the world.

Marianne Dashwood also has her generic expectations dashed in Sense and Sensibility. For a while, her life conforms to the plot of a romance as the handsome Willoughby rescues her when she sprains her ankle. He plays along with her fantasy for several months but then leaves her for someone with the money to support the lifestyle he desires. It takes Marianne a long time and a serious illness before she can face up to this reality.

In 500 Days we only gradually realize that we are seeing the relationship through Tom’s eyes, not the way it really is. We are left in no doubt, however, when the screen splits, showing us simultaneously what Tom thinks is going on and what is actually happening. Marianne is in as much denial as Tom is and her illness is the equivalent of his depression. Her mother, meanwhile, acts like a 500 Days spectator, participating in the delusion. Of those who are witnessing the relationship, only the observant Elinor has doubts.

Comparing Sense and Sensibility with 500 Days gave my student a new respect for Jane Austen’s novel. Having herself identified with Tom’s denial and his difficulty with letting go, she could understand her reluctance to embrace the Marianne-Colonel Brandon marriage. After all, part of us wants summer to last forever.

But the satisfaction that Jane derived from maturely accepting the ending of 500 Days made her appreciate why Austen ends Sense and Sensibility as she does. Willoughby, dashing though he is, represents a state of arrested development. A life with him, like a life with Summer, means that we will always be stuck in romantic novels and clichéd greeting cards. It is far more exciting to marry a mature partner who shares our intellectual and creative passions. Or in Marianne’s case, to marry someone with substance and to take on meaningful responsibilities. Here’s Austen on Marianne’s future:

Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting,—instead of remaining even for ever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement and study, as afterwards in her more calm and sober judgment she had determined on,—she found herself at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village.

When I look at my students, my heart is stirred by images of them graduating and using their gifts in the world. That’s the most romantic ending of all.

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