I recently had my mind blown when I discovered a complete sub-culture in the Janeite community (fans of Jane Austen) and the idea of “shadow stories” hidden in plain site in her novels. Some of these are kind of obvious when you sit and think about the plots for just a few minutes, but to make this idea more clear, there is a line in Pride & Prejudice that lays the idea bare, although it is easily missed by most readers (including me!):

“This will not do,” said Elizabeth; “you never will be able to make both of them good for anything. Take your choice, but you must be satisfied with only one. There is but such a quantity of merit between them; just enough to make one good sort of man; and of late it has been shifting about pretty much. For my part, I am inclined to believe it all Darcy’s; but you shall do as you choose.” . . . “There certainly was some great mismanagement in the education of those two young men. One has got all the goodness, and the other all the appearance of it.”

Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice, Chapter 40

Up to this point in the novel, Wickham has had all the appearance of good and Darcy has had all the appearance of evil, but a letter from Darcy, outlining his own defense, changes our heroine’s perspective to a new belief that Wickham is evil but charming, while Darcy is good but *ahem* charmless or lacking in suave mannerism, different than he appears. The reader goes along with Elizabeth’s changed perspective and doesn’t really question it, but as Arnie Perlstein (who came up with the term “shadow stories”) would point out, the author explicitly refrains from making the assertion that Darcy is the good one, instead focusing on the fact that to interpret the story, you must decide which character is telling the truth: Wickham or Darcy. In fact, the word “appears” is used throughout this exchange between sisters Jane and Lizzy in reference to Darcy, as if it’s a clue that you could still read this story with a “shadow” interpretation, that Darcy only appears to be good, and that Lizzy’s original interpretation of these two men was correct. Bear in mind that Lizzy changes her mind about Darcy only after she learns that he’s a marital prospect who finds her attractive, unlike his sneering dismissive insult of her at the start of the novel. She’s suddenly motivated to believe he’s good. To paraphrase the Baroness in The Sound of Music: there’s nothing so attractive as a person who’s in love with you.

I’m sure that interpreting Darcy in this way would make 99% of Austen fans want to throw something. Fair enough.

His shadow interpretation of Emma is even worse for fans, but the stakes are lower since nobody is as invested in Emma and George Knightly in the way they are invested in Colin Firth, I mean Darcy. Read on, if you dare.

The “shadow story” of Emma is that Jane Fairfax is preggers (which totally seems obvious if you think about it), the ill-mannered but wealthy Mrs. Elton is literally trying to set her up as a prostitute (“governess” is slang for prostitute at the time, which is confusing since both things existed, and if you have read the book, Jane Fairfax talks at length about the flesh-peddling practice of making unmarriageable women become governesses which she equates with slavery), Frank Churchill is a murderer blackmailed into becoming engaged to Jane Fairfax to hide the scandal of her pregnancy, Mrs. Taylor-Weston marries in haste to adopt Jane Fairfax’s baby, Mrs. Bates is clearly Jane Fairfax’s mother (and Jane herself was born out of wedlock, not to an imaginary dead sister), John Knightly is the father (!) of Jane’s baby (they have an odd conversation by the post office that frankly is pretty convincing on this one, trust me), Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father) is dying of syphilis and is likely the father of many of these bastard children in Highbury (which symbolizes the immorality of the Royal Court, one of Austen’s favorite targets of criticism), George Knightly (even his name sounds like he’s at court) is a pedophile (fans of the Beckinsale Emma may find this one easy enough to believe) who orchestrates the whole thing to get Emma’s money. Whew! That’s quite a shadow story, one that is full of plausible theories when you think about it. It’s no wonder Amy Heckerling called her modern adaptation of Emma Clueless.

The gist of a “shadow story” is that there is an unreliable narrator, one who only gives an obstructed view of the truth or one with a prejudiced slant to it. We shouldn’t necessarily believe what we are told. We should ask questions about the details that in retrospect seem fishy or hint at hidden motives and plots that aren’t being told to us directly. While most literature is not constructed this way, some of the best, most enduring literature is.

I’ve never considered the Book of Mormon to be any sort of literary masterpiece. In my view the prose is so clunky and it came to pass it’s nearly unreadable! But there are several occurences in the book that hint at “shadow stories” or things happening off the page that might alter the straightforward reading. This doesn’t mean the author did these things deliberately. For example, any memoir, religious text or otherwise obviously biased text should be read with suspicion. Here are a few I could immediately think of:

The concept of Nephi as an unreliable narrator has become a common post-modern interpretation. This doesn’t mean that he is deliberately deceitful or says things that aren’t true, just that his portion of the Book of Mormon is very biased toward defending his youthful decisions. He casts himself as his father’s spiritual heir, his older brothers as faithless, lazy, and murderous. He even glosses over the murder he commits, justifying it as a religious imperative with the sanction of an actual heavenly messenger (!). He blames his brothers for passing to their children “the sins of their fathers,” without acknowledging that he has done the same in being unable to heal the breach in his own family caused at least in part by his own intolerant, arrogant, usurpation of power. He even hints that his parents think he’s gone too far, but doesn’t elaborate for fear of contradicting the narrative that he deserves to be in charge and to inherit the role of leader from his father.

Speaking of Nephi’s family, there’s something hinky about the ages of Lehi and Sariah’s kids. When they leave Jerusalem, they have 4 sons: Laman, Lemuel, Nephi and Sam. While in the desert, Sariah gives birth to two more sons. (They also have 4 daughters, both unnamed and completely unimportant to Nephi’s Bechdel-failing narrative). Additionally, throughout ancient history, infant mortality rates were roughly 50%, which means that to have 10 children survive into adulthood, you would on average have at least 20 full-term pregnancy terms that take up roughly one year of fertility (this doesn’t include miscarriages which weren’t counted in infant mortality as they didn’t involve a birth, and breastfeeing curttails pregnancy to a degree). So, given a fertility span for women that starts at menarche (around 12 or 13 at earliest) and ends at menopause (roughly 50), but declines sharply at age 35 (successful pregnancy after age 40, particularly in ancient times was almost unheard of), the pregnancy time period for Sariah would probably be around twenty years at very least. If she bore Laman at age 15, she would have been leaving Jerusalem around age 30, giving her time (just barely, given fertility odds) to bear two more sons (Jacob & Joseph) in the wilderness where they roamed for 8 years (until she was around 38). Nephi mentions his parents’ “gray hairs” which seems a little early for people in their 30s / 40s, but life was hard back then and life spans shorter, so that’s possible.[1] No matter how you do the math, Nephi and his three brothers had to be teenagers when they left Jerusalem. That is a totally different view of his “leadership” claim as well as murdering Laban and so forth than the Arnold Frieberg vision of jacked up 40 year olds sailing around the world with their aged parents. It also hints at Nephi being an even more unreliable narrator. Have you ever heard some of the justifications people put out there for their adolescent behavior? [2]

We are told that Jesus sets up a new Church among the people of the Book of Mormon, using a military-sounding formula to form congregations and leaders in same sized groups, which begs the obvious question–why is his ministry in the Book of Mormon so different from what happens in the New Testament? Are we to believe that he did the same in Jerusalem, but it wasn’t recorded or was altered for the record? It’s a very simple method of organizing his believers, but it must have had some of the same practical problems they had in the Old World (e.g. geographical distances). Why would it be so different from the clues we are given later by Paul for Church organization in the early Christian church?

Korihor is referred to as “anti-Christ” which is a very powerful religious slur in our modern Christian era, but why would it be taken in the same way in a pre-Christian culture? There’s got to be a big difference in how one perceives a theoretical savior who is expected to come to earth but hasn’t yet, and one whose life and ministry comprise our teachings. Also, how do Korihor’s views make any sense at all when he explains his actions? He doesn’t believe in God, because a heavenly being told him not to? Isn’t that like not believing in leprechauns because your Lucky Charms cereal told you they aren’t real?

Mormon, as abridger, repeatedly apologizes for the mistakes made in the book, claiming they are the mistakes of men, but he fails to point out any errors specifically, despite his role in selecting what he thinks are the best stories (don’t quit your day job, buddy) [3]. This is incredibly similar to Joseph’s own apologetic statements about his “foibles” without actually claiming anything worse than joking around with his buddies over card games (paraphrase). He neglects to include more egregious actions like Fanny Alger and lying to Emma constantly about marrying other women, including teens and those already married to his friends he’s sent abroad. That’s kind of like apologizing for not emptying the dishwasher after you’ve accidentally parked your car in the living room.

We are told Captain Moroni is a great guy, someone worthy of emulation, but he’s a short-sighted, militaristic hothead who nearly topples the government because of his lack of interpersonal skills.

Speaking of this, the story pitting the “freemen” against the “kingmen” is also quite interesting. The “kingmen” are cast as the baddies, but the “freemen” whose name literally contains the word “free” are the ones who are willing to kill the “kingmen” to get their way. How is that freedom? Which thing is really being critiqued here?

These are just a handful of possible “shadow stories” in the scripture. There is another example from the Bible that I found that discusses why Job is an unreliable narrator whose story can’t be taken at face value, and is potentially critiquing what it claims to uphold.

  • Do you find the idea of shadow stories intriguing in the scriptures or do you prefer to read them at face value for their metaphorical meaning?
  • Do you think it’s wrong to be skeptical of scriptural accounts?
  • Are there any scriptural stories that strike you as odd?
  • Do you find Gospel Doctrine discussions to be open to these types of questions?


[1] Steve Martin, for example, had white hair at age 29.

[2] *cough* Brett Kavanaugh *cough, cough*

[3] The war chapters were really the best things in these records? Really??