Why Jane Austen is relevant today

“There is, I believe, in every disposition a tendency to some particular evil, a natural defect, which not even the best education can overcome.’ ‘And your defect is a propensity to hate everybody.’ ‘And yours,’ he replied with a smile, ‘is wilfully to misunderstand them.”

Most will recognize this exchange between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett in Jane Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. The novel was published in 1813, although Austen began writing it when she was just twenty-one years old in 1796. Originally titled, “First Impressions,” the novel centers around the love story of Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy, two prideful individuals who differ in both wealth and rank; however, both overcome their strong dislike for each other, but only after they begin to fully understand the other’s character.  

Pride and Prejudice is a romance, yet Austen’s witty and satiric prose forces the reader to pause and reflect on the myriad of misunderstandings between characters. Darcy and Elizabeth cannot see past their first impressions and refuse to acknowledge differences in character. Austen weaves together a compelling web of relationships complicated by the dishonesty and stubborn pride of several individuals.

But why does this make her novels relevant for us today? I often ask myself why Austen’s novels have remained popular, why there have been so many film adaptations and book spinoffs. While part of the answer is the general obsession with Darcy and Elizabeth’s relationship, I think Austen’s ability to tap into the mind of so many different types of characters illuminates our understanding of those in our lives who share similar traits to her characters—even ourselves. Like a psychologist, Austen presents the complexity of human relationships and the dynamism of emotions. Each of her characters possesses a distinct personality, yet these characters can and do change drastically.

At one point in the novel, Darcy describes his character to Elizabeth in this way: “I have faults enough, but they are not, I hope, of understanding. My temper I dare not vouch for. It is, I believe, too little yielding—certainly too little for the convenience of the world. I cannot forget the follies and vices of other so soon as I ought, nor their offenses against myself. My feelings are not puffed about with every attempt to move them. My temper would perhaps be called resentful. My good opinion once lost, is lost forever.”

Here Darcy proclaims a deep self-awareness of his strengths and weaknesses, but what he misses—as the reader comes to realize—is the very thing he thinks he has: understanding of Elizabeth. Darcy and Elizabeth change not in isolation from everyone else, but rather because of everyone else’s influence. Austen brings to light the importance of all our interactions with others. Jane, Elizabeth’s sister, plays an integral role in advising and listening to Elizabeth while she too experiences her own misunderstandings and disappointments in life. Jane herself is an intriguing character because she assumes the best of everybody, but this blinds her to the cruelty of others.

The root of each dilemma in the novel can be traced to the characters’ respective dispositions and personalities. Growing up reading Austen’s novels has helped me appreciate more fully the differences in temperaments and personalities of those around me. This, I believe, is due to Austen’s skill at unfolding the inner-workings of her characters’ minds. How these characters respond to each other is central to character development and plot arcs.

I am not saying we should only read Jane Austen to understand ourselves and others better, but rather that her novels offer the reader a way to approach everyday interactions with others. Once we understand someone’s character more fully, we can learn how to love and forgive them better in accord with their particular traits. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy does not know that Jane is shy and modest and so would have trouble expressing her affection for his friend Bingley. This almost ruins her future happiness, as Elizabeth sternly points out.

Reading novels in general improves one’s ability to empathize because we have in a sense “lived” through the character we are reading about, and so know how it might be to experience something we’ve never actually experienced. But Austen especially builds up our empathy because of her focus on the complexity of human relationships, which she approaches from the minds of her characters.

“Till this moment I never knew myself.” Elizabeth says these words later on in the novel, and therefore reveals her growth in self-knowledge. As college students we are struggling to understand ourselves better and discover how we are called to live in the world. Not all of us are like Elizabeth or Darcy or Jane. In fact, maybe none of are completely like these characters because they are, after all, fictional characters. But Austen helps us see pieces of ourselves within her characters and this offers valuable insights into human temperaments.

Austen’s novels are therefore relevant at any stage of life: whether you first read it in high school, or just picked it up later in life after you’ve had a family or an established job. She approaches society from the particular viewpoints of her characters, picking up on the psychological, emotional reasons behind her characters’ thoughts and actions.

Pride and Prejudice does examine the beauty as well as the trials in family life, the struggle for women whose only option for security was marriage, the division of class, etc. But what’s so amazing is that her “commentary” on society doesn’t end there, it touches the heart of human behavior in her analysis of character.

Personality and temperament tests today are useful ways to grasp one’s natural tendencies. The Myers-Briggs test gives a very detailed account of introversion versus extroversion, judging versus perceiving and so on. But we shouldn’t use our personalities or temperaments as excuses for our behavior. That is exactly what Austen reveals in the story of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth tells Darcy that if he finds conversing with those he doesn’t know difficult then he should practice. Both characters undergo change, which entails accepting their particularly strong-willed dispositions and working from there.

This is my second time reading Pride and Prejudice for a class, and I’m convinced that Austen can help us relate to ourselves and those around us in a fuller way. Her novels are not just romances for young girls obsessed with Mr. Darcy. As with all great literature, they have stood the test of time and are still speaking relevant truths. So the next time your end up reading Austen, ask yourself: What is she really saying and why are we so fascinated with her stories?

Sarah Ortiz is a junior majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and classics, and living in Lewis Hall. She could talk about Jane Austen’s novels all day. Contact her at sortiz2@nd.edu.