Jane Austen's Novels as a Guide to Social and Individual Responsibility for High School Students

By Fritzer, Penelope | Adolescence, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

Jane Austen's Novels as a Guide to Social and Individual Responsibility for High School Students

Fritzer, Penelope, Adolescence

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 should 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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Jane Austen's Novels as a Guide to Social and Individual Responsibility for High School Students


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?