2017 is the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, and people are celebrating her life, work, and legacy.
After 200+ years, you’d think her stories are outdated and irrelevant to those not coming from a Western background. Why are we still celebrating her today and how exactly has she come to be regarded as a classic? How is it that her stories are not thought of as shallow chick flicks?
I’ve heard these sentiments a lot, and I’m here to tell you that I, a 21st century Arab-American, can identify with her work so much, it’s a little frightening.
First of all, remove the images of the Jane Austen movie adaptations you have in your mind because, though they are good, they do not do her books justice. She packs romance, humor, drama, introspection, wit, and social criticism all into one vivid and entertaining story.
To dismiss her work as “just another romance for girls” is a problem, when there is so much to learn about people and society from her.
Anyway, Shakespeare wrote dramatic romances, and we don’t dismiss his work as lesser and more shallow.
My own journey in discovering Austen was in high school when I read Pride and Prejudice. Just the first line struck me: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
This sentence is followed by a scene with a marriage-obsessed mother freaking out about the upper-end Mr. Bingley coming into town with her aloof husband exasperated by her.
But come on. It’s the 21st century. We would never see a scene like this happening today.
Bring the modern Mr. Bingley equivalent (handsome, rich, down-to-earth doctor) to either an Arab gathering or a small city in middle America, and you’ll see a very similar scene unfold before you.
We might think of ourselves today as living in a more advanced era where we are independent individuals who may or may not find love, but will worry about it once it happens. Though that is true for several people, the reality is that the obsession with marriage is still very prominent culturally today.
I find this obsession at Arab gatherings, where phrases anticipating my marriage are thrown around as compliments. I also find it in the larger American community, present on Pinterest boards and TLC shows obsessed with the perfect dress and party for marrying the perfect person.
Austen must have seen the timelessness of the matter, because how else is the humor she brings to it so relevant, regardless of time and place? The mother character freaking out about her daughters marrying the high-standing man and selling them off? How on point is that to the realities of so many women today?
Reading Pride and Prejudice my senior year of high school prepared me for all the marriage talk I heard going into college.
Austen’s strength lies not in the relevance of the subject matter, but in the complexity of the characters and their interactions with one another. Specifically, the way she addresses social etiquette and judgment is impactful to young adults fitting themselves into the adult world, regardless of gender.
To be more specific, it was the contrast between Wickham and Darcy that taught me about what fitting into society meant. When you come from cultures with heightened social sensitivity and extra kindness, regardless of how you really feel, it’s easy to dismiss the social etiquette as fake and wrong.
Both Arab and Midwestern American have that trend going for them, and I was completely against it.
Austen quickly flipped that.
When I first read Pride and Prejudice, I viewed this etiquette as what Darcy calls with disgust Wickham’s “happy manners.” Wickham was a horrible person who knew how to navigate social settings and people loved him, as opposed to the more reserved and blunt Darcy who people didn’t like. I took that as a sign of having to change the system and forget social rules, but it was the end of the novel that changed my way of thinking. When Elizabeth visits with her aunt and uncle, Darcy makes an effort to be kinder beyond his initial instinct and be more sociable while still maintaining genuineness. Elizabeth appreciates that effort and begins to fall for him.
This scene taught me that perhaps it is not fake to put in this effort into socializing or monitoring your bluntness; perhaps that is what leads to trust. First impressions matter, as evidenced by Elizabeth’s initial disgust with Darcy. Though we shouldn’t obsess over what people think about us, maintaining that more collectivist notion of caring about social rules might not be much of a bad thing.
But most importantly out of all this, I learned that even the most sensible people can be prone to judging. Elizabeth criticizes Darcy for being judgmental when she herself is judging Darcy and Wickham on their outward characters. She even judges her best friend Charlotte for getting married.
While she thinks she is being completely rational, she loses sight of herself and has to put her own prejudices in check.
In a world where judgment is still very prominent, this is an important takeaway.
There are still several more takeaways, but her talk of marriage culture, social politeness, and judgment are what really grabbed me. They’re ever present in guiding me into the world of adulthood where, guess what, marriage, social politeness, and judgment are all very present – even in the 21st century, even in the Middle East.
While Austen’s books don’t fit into the typical “coming of age” genre, I think her stories speak a lot towards the young person’s struggle of dealing with people – wild sisters, best friends, potential spouses, weird cousins…you name it.
As we remember her this year, let’s remember her legacy as far beyond just good love stories.