There goes the runaway bride

Posted: May 09, 2005 12:00 AM

The "runaway bride" is the perfect story for our time, a tale made in cable-TV heaven, with something for everybody, including me. Jennifer Wilbanks, who took a bus to Las Vegas on the eve of her wedding and called her fianc?rom Albuquerque with a tall tale of kidnapping, is a triumph of radical feminism: She escaped the conventional trappings of marriage. Or maybe she reflects the failure of feminism: the dithering poor thing who couldn't make up her mind.

Absolute moralists call for retribution, insisting that she pay her debt to society, literally, reimbursing the states for all the money the cops spent trying to find her. The psychological softies diagnose a narcissistic personality disorder and demand that she suffer only therapy.

Lefties rant over the excessive materialism of her wedding gifts. Does anyone really need a $250 ice bucket? Fashionistas deride the bridesmaid dresses in funereal black, the expression of the bride's unconscious connection of marriage to death. Friends and family frantic for her safety can transform their emotion into unforgiving anger. Or not. She'll find out who her real friends are.

What we really need is Charles Dickens redux to tell this tale. ("Jennifer Wilbanks" even has a Dickensonian sound to it.) Look at what Dickens did with Miss Havisham in "Great Expectations." He wrote that all the clocks in her house stopped the moment she was stood up at the altar by that creep Compeyson. Miss Havisham spends the rest of her life grooming Estella, the daughter she adopts, to exact revenge on men by breaking the heart of every man she can. The jilted bride's fury gets vicarious satisfaction at last.

But Miss Wilbanks' jilted bridegroom isn't lit up with barely contained fury or pent-up rage. As the scorned man, John Mason reflects the passion of a puppy, communicating in the touchy-feely language of fuzzy love for television. (Woof-woof, not bow-wow.) Inevitably interviewed by Hannity and Combs on Fox News, he describes his former fianc?s "in pain," and says, "she's a victim here." He characterizes her as Everywoman. "She's got some things that she's got to figure out. Ain't we all messed up? You know, haven't we all made mistakes?"

He's a chip off the block. Instead of venting anger, the bridegroom's father sees his son's commitment as steadfast chivalry. "Once he commits, it takes a lot to get him away from that commitment," he told NBC-TV's Today Show. Even the Rev. Dr. Tom Smiley (Dickens couldn't improve on the names in this opera), puts a happy face on it all. She needs someone "qualified" to help her, but not "anything out of the extreme ordinary. She is not a selfish person. She is not narcissistic . . . I'm confident that she's much in love with John, and she cares very much for him."

How this story turns out may depend on whether you're a student of the "they lived happily ever after" school of life, or follow the fatalistic philosophy that bad choices determine fate. This is not exactly Sophoclean tragedy here, and the Rev. Dr. Smiley may be right.

Dickens, in fact, didn't know how to end "Great Expectations" and after writing a sad ending he was persuaded to please his public with a happy ending. In the first version he suggests that Estella, the young woman whom Miss Havisham had poisoned against men and who had treated Pip, the Dickens hero, ever so badly, could never be reunited with the man who loved her. But in the version most of us read in high school, hero and heroine get back together in a triumph over suffering, never to part again. As we all know, life isn't fiction, and endings are not so easily contrived.

Cold feet are often symptomatic of a legitimate intuition that you may be heading for the wrong place at the wrong time. I knew a reluctant bridegroom who, driving to the church, saw a taxicab racing past a stop sign right at him. In a flash, he fantasized the crash, and said a silent prayer of gratitude that a broken leg would be a small price to pay for missing his wedding. The cabbie screeched to a halt, the wedding went on, and so, within six months, did the divorce.

In another time and place, I gave the bachelorette party for a friend who was to be wed the next day. When she confessed that she was not really in love and wanted out, I suggested that calling off the wedding would be the honorable way out. She demurred: "The caterer has already been paid." That wedding went on, too, and I got separate honeymoon postcards from each of them - mailed on the same day from different countries.