Jane Austen's novels are particularly appropriate for adolescents. These classics deal with topics of high interest to young people: money, family relationships and obligations, headstrong behavior, and society's rules, all combined in the romantic interplay between the sexes. Indeed, some critics have accused Austen of writing the same book over and over again, in that they deal exhaustively with finding appropriate partners for young people. Yet, each is concerned with personal integrity in different circumstances. Austen grapples with the question of what the individual owes to society and what he or she is obliged to tolerate in the way of strictures on behavior, a question that is especially relevant for adolescents.
In a world where social stability is increasingly rare, Jane Austen remains a refreshing voice against societal dissolution. Austen, however, has been criticized for upholding the mores of her day, which limited opportunities for women, accepted social restrictions and class distinctions, and put great emphasis on conformity. While that criticism undoubtedly has merit, it is also true that Austen emphasizes the ideals of societal and individual responsibility. Each of her finest characters either has or develops a strong conscience and sense of personal accountability. Thus, her work should be more widely read in high school literature classes, at least in part to support the idea of an interconnected society in which people fulfill their responsibilities.
Austen's novels are full of wit and grace. However, it is not widely acknowledged that her characters can act as useful models for students, who are themselves faced with serious choices regarding behavior. The two novels that lend themselves best to student analysis and identification are Pride and Prejudice and Emma.
It is, for example, almost impossible for students to read about the man-chasing of Lydia and Kitty Bennet in Pride and Prejudice without being aware of this behavior in their own lives. The embarrassment Lydia and Kitty cause for their more polite sisters, and the ridicule to which they subject themselves, is not easily forgotten by students who may find themselves in similar situations. Students become indignant at Mr. Bennet's statement that Lydia is bound to humiliate the family sooner or later, so it might as well be sooner and at the least expense or trouble to the family. They often rail, as does Elizabeth Bennet, against her father's cynicism and indifference to Lydia. However, students may also find Lydia's actions reprehensible, given the risk her family faces when she pursues Wickham, and lives with him without benefit of marriage. It is impossible to read the passages of the sisters' grief without feeling that Lydia has jeopardized her family's place in society. Students may feel that Kitty shoul d not repeat Lydia's foolishness, thereby demonstrating that they understand the responsibilities of a young woman in that society.
Pride and Prejudice lends itself to classroom discussion of what one owes family and society. Must one always follow family advice, even when that advice is harmful, such as when Mrs. Bennet tries to push Elizabeth into a loveless marriage with Mr. Collins? Does Darcy's aunt, for example, have the right to demand that Elizabeth abjure any relationship with Darcy? High school students resoundingly say no, just as they overwhelmingly reject the notion that Bingley should take the advice of his two sisters. Deciding one's own fate versus heeding society's strictures is a major issue for students, and they will gain valuable insight into the repercussions of behavior by seeing how Austen's characters respond to this dilemma.
Students may reject even good characters' behavior, such as Jane's extremely meek response to Bingley's equivocal handling of their relationship. Although they often feel Jane is too submissive, they are also critical of Bingley's indecisiveness and his being too easily influenced by others against his better judgment. These are extremely relevant situations for students, and the issues involved are presented without preaching by Austen.
Students may come to admire Elizabeth's spirit, although acknowledging her original bias, just as they may admire Darcy's later gallantry and kindness, especially when compared with his earlier frostiness. Interestingly, many young readers find Mr. Collins the most compelling character in the novel: they reach great heights of righteous indignation when the servile Collins presumes to be worthy of Elizabeth. His smarmy behavior often arouses student ire, especially his proposing to Charlotte so soon after his rejection by Elizabeth, and his brutal advice to reject Lydia after her transgression. Students who understand the historical context of the novel comprehend the concern about Lydia's behavior, which would not be nearly so problematic in today's more liberated environment. Yet, as appalled as they are by Collins' advice, they are equally disdainful of his obsequious behavior with Catherine de Bourgh. These elements of the story can provide the basis for lively classroom discussions about false humility and the cruelty of convention.
It is also useful for students to consider the Bingley sisters' mockery of the absent Elizabeth and Jane in the presence of Bingley and Darcy. There are few students who do not respond negatively to their behavior, yet most admit to being guilty at times of similar actions. Again, Austen does not comment on their behavior, but simply shows it through Darcy's observant eyes.
Emma is not as well-liked by high school classes, perhaps because Emma herself is not as appealing as Elizabeth Bennet. Additionally, in terms of romance, Knightley does not descend from such great heights when he marries Emma as does Darcy when he marries Elizabeth. Nor is there a character as contemptible as Mr. Collins. However, its strength lies in the maturation of Emma, whose growth parallels that which students experience themselves, just as her interest in, and plans for, those around her may reflect students' interests and plans. The fact that most of those plans do not work out, and she is forced to change her view of the world, becoming a finer, more worthy person, captivates many students. The most notable element of her growth is her response to Knightley's reprimand about her treatment of Miss Bates: Emma recognizes her own shabby behavior and vows never to be guilty of gratuitous cruelty again.
Students usually find Harriet Martin too malleable, while rushing to the defense of Robert Martin, whom they perceive as being mistreated by snobbish Emma. The democratic instinct comes to the fore, with students being in high dudgeon, as is Knightley, over the fact that Robert's fine character takes so long to be recognized.
Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill arouse a different response. She exemplifies the dilemma of educated women of that time who, though of good birth, had no money. Few options are available to her and she is patronized by many. Frank, the heir of a wealthy woman, thoughtlessly jeopardizes Jane's good name. Their breach of propriety could lead to ostracism. Knightley (the repository of tradition, representing the best that society has to offer) recognizes that danger and counsels acceptance and kindness. Classroom discussion of the value of tradition and the desirability and difficulty of change flows naturally from Knightley's behavior.
There are myriad such examples in all of Austen's novels, but students seem to find Pride and Prejudice and Emma most accessible. Austen's books, for the most part, are admirably free of moralizing, beautifully written, and full of wit. To find work of that caliber that is also appropriate for students, and provides relevant situations in which characters model decision-making skills, is exceptional. Thus, Jane Austen's novels should be more widely used in the classroom.
Reprint requests to Penelope Fritzer, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, College of Education, Florida Atlantic University, 2912 College Avenue, Davie, Florida 33314.…