How many stories do you know where a woman ends up alone?
I don’t mean happily fulfilled, with a garden and a dog but no man. I mean truly alone. Outcast, and heartbroken, and without peer. What story have you known that looks like staring into the abyss?
That story for me is Pirates of the Caribbean.
I hear you all laughing, but bear with me here.
We all know the jaunty tunes and slapstick humor of Captain Jack Sparrow, the nervous comedy of Will Turner, and the fiery deviousness of Elizabeth Swann. When the first movie, Legend of the Black Pearl, came out, I was in love. Head over heels. It was everything I wanted from a nautical tale. Undead pirates, thrilling escapes, canon-fire. I was a kid and it took me hook, line, and sinker.
And then I got to the end of the original trilogy, and I witnessed the fate of Elizabeth Swann.
I think it’s fair to say that one of the reasons I loved Pirates so much is because Elizabeth went from being a pampered, settled princess to following her heart with the flip of a coin. Now, admittedly, it was a magical coin, and there was some kidnap involved, but she was not interested in the life of what was essentially royalty, out there in the New World. She was in love with Will Turner, and then she was in love with being a pirate, and a little bit with Jack – though Will always came first. Elizabeth Swann gave up her corsets and took up a sword and never looked back. It should have been enough.
Somehow, it wasn’t. Somehow, Elizabeth was left on dry land.
I think it’s notable the kinds of tales we tell about women. Elizabeth is shown to clearly be capable of surviving on her own. Yet, when she and Will make love at last on the shore and he gives in to his curse, Elizabeth, to all appearances, gives up her dreams. She is pregnant with his child, and that’s the end of her story. It is consolation, that she has a miniature Will Turner to raise and keep. Some piece of him. That’s what we are told.
What was it like, for Elizabeth Turner to return, pregnant and still an outlaw, to her father’s house? To endure the scandal as her belly grew great with the spawn of her undead lover? To give up on her dreams forever – the dream of love, yes, because one visit every eight years is not a substitute for a true relationship. Her husband is not dead. She can take no other lover, can find no other love with his face staring up at her from the crib she rocks day by day. He does not age either. He cannot help her raise their child, he cannot grow old with her. He cannot hold her at night when she cries. But also the dream of adventure. She was a pirate, and it lit her up from the inside. She was a pirate.
Never once does Will offer her the choice of a berth on The Flying Dutchman, to reign eternal as his queen. No, she must keep his heart safe in its chest. She must ensure his eternal absence. She must birth his child, alone, raise that child, alone, bring the boy to see him, for whom time has stopped, and spend their one day together giving this absent father a chance to know his progeny. Surely, she loves the boy. But love can break us.
Never once does the narrative offer her a different life.
Elizabeth Swann was a pirate, and a respected one. In my dreams, Elizabeth takes her child with her and strikes out to sea, hunting The Flying Dutchman. Hunting Will Turner, who cannot step foot on land – but who has no such restrictions on water. She doesn’t mortgage all of her dreams and hopes in the world for a child gotten cruelly on her, wages of one night and one day spent in the arms of the love of her life.
Better, their single coupling doesn’t result in a child at all. She says goodbye to Will, though she loves him, and he to her because, if he will not have her with him in undeath, she deserves to live her life.
Instead, this half-life, this heartbreak, this ending that cannot end with aught but Elizabeth Swann, old and used up and dying alone, while Will Turner sails the seas forever.
I don’t think I’ll ever forgive those movies that ending for her.