Sometimes, when I’m reading or watching a story whose problems and conflicts would be, theoretically, virtually non-existent with today’s technological innovations, I find myself throwing up my arms in frustration. This is a very stupid reason to get frustrated. I’m expending a lot of energy getting irritated by something that doesn’t matter, and yet, I still want to throw cell phones at Jane Bennet and Charles Bingley and scream: “TECHNOLOGY IS THE ANSWER TO YOUR PROBLEMS. JUST TALK TO EACH OTHER. SWIPE RIGHT. SWIPE RIGHT!”
Modern technology makes dating – and life in general – more complicated and more nuanced. In the wise words of my personal hero, Liz Lemon:
What I think we take for granted sometimes, especially when reading a book that takes place before widespread instant communication, is that the contemporary frustrations we feel about technology exist only because technology itself solved so many bigger problems. When modern problems often amount to “Why hasn’t he texted me back?” it’s strange to read a story that centers on something like “I haven’t gotten a letter in months. Hopefully my fiancé hasn’t died of malaria in India.” To think, if they had cell phones with an international plan, or even a dodgy wifi connection, nary would young woman would lie in wait for her paramour to return.
With stories like that of Jane Bennet, who must physically go to London in an attempt to win Bingley back, or Anne Elliot, who waits the better part of a decade to reunite with her Captain Wentworth, or Lydia Bennet’s, whose elopement could have been easily prevented with GPS–how do novels whose conflicts might have been easily solved or even prevented by a quick phone call or a text remain relevant in our world of instantaneous communication? How is it that despite my desire to pull out my hair, I persist in reading stories that frustrate my modern sensibilities?
The evolution of technology demonstrates in the extreme the importance of communication – or lack thereof – in creating compelling stories. It reveals, in short, that communication is a fundamentally difficult thing. It’s easy to think “Wow, this book would be totally different with modern technology” – and maybe that’s true. The Bennets probably could have found Lydia by pinging her phone, she and Wickham might not have needed to get married, and Darcy would have had one less opportunity to put things right – maybe getting to the end of the novel would have taken a little longer as a result. But what about Jane? What about Anne? Their problems extend past the plot that develops between the delivery of letters. Theirs are stories that aren’t about the ability to communicate, but the will to do so in the first place. Would Jane have texted Bingley to ask why on Earth he’d suddenly made off to London? Probably not. She could have sent him a letter and cleared the whole thing up, but she didn’t. (Technically, sending Bingley a letter without him asking if he could correspond with her would likely have been inappropriate. Usually unmarried people of the opposite sex corresponded only if they were engaged or practically so.) Would Wentworth have “vague-booked” his heartbreak until Anne took him back? Unlikely. The entire point of the story is that they both have pretty stubborn principles, despite–ahem— persuasion.
Stories like these remain relevant because they speak to the universality of how difficult it is to communicate the things that make us most vulnerable. Texting, Twitter, and Tinder don’t make it easier to share essential parts of ourselves with others, nor, though, do they make it harder. They just, perhaps, make us more aware of how we communicate: aware of our capacity to communicate, aware of how many platforms are now available to us though we still avoid saying what we really mean to say.
As much as I would like to chuck technology into the laps of my favorite characters, to tell them to just take control of the situation, shoot their paramours a text, I also realize that wouldn’t simplify their problems, and in the end, it’s not even the point.
Stories exist because of humanity’s struggle to express our most intimate thoughts. Stories exist to facilitate our desire to express our individualities on a universal level that encourages connection and weaves our individualities into something more cohesive and inclusive. In short, we can still relate to stories without mass instant communication because they still broach the same anxieties and problems that we face even with smartphones at our disposal. No matter how good your 4G is or how speedy the courier, if you don’t want to say something, you won’t say it until you’re ready. It’s part of being human, and it makes for great stories because they make you want to tear your hair out.