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. …