Something Old & Something New: Classic Literature Remains Important to a Modern Audience

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

by Rachel Gross

The previous article illustrated how contemporary literature is presenting female characters as more empowered individuals. Modern authors such as Suzanne Collins are recognizing a stronger female role in the twenty first century, a role which readers can identify with in society. They are working to break down gender barriers and generate an animated female voice. However, as contemporary fiction takes over, what becomes of literature’s voice and message of past years? One concern is that while the Hunger Games of the new age become more popular the Middlemarches become less known. Yet, classic novels can still contribute to a modern society through the ever-present issues they depict. For example, Jane Austen was presenting her audiences with an empowered female voice long before Collins. Austen was a cutting edge author who was emboldening her audience to stand up for the oppressed and the discouraged. Her work to create stronger females is still seen today, making the classics relevant to a modern audience.  

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a work of classic literature written during the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century known as the Regency era, a time of strict gender roles and identities. Even so, Austen was writing to push exactly those boundaries, as Glennis Stephenson states, “Austen adopted a self-consciously ‘feminine’ perspective and created a distinctive female voice” through the character Elizabeth Bennet (Stephenson 10). Her bold female character outraged a society set in rigid gender roles and was labeled as a feminist, much like she herself was branded. Elizabeth is the female protagonist undergoing issues of upbringing and marriage in a society wholly dependent on these factors. For example, the relationship between Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy is one thoroughly bounded by societal forces. Elizabeth is first seen as too poor in social standing for Mr. Darcy’s hand, suggesting that love during this era was based on image and economic standing.

Austen presents a female character whose strength lies in the domestic sphere of society. This portrayal of power parallels that of Victorian female authors. Their literary domestic prose described “socially respectable women whose perspective was ‘private and familial’… a prose mostly of women who ‘were intimately involved with and derived their identity from the domestic sphere’” (Stephenson 14). The story follows Elizabeth and her family after the arrival of two eligible bachelors puts her family and the town in a tizzy over who is to marry and who is to go against society. Elizabeth lives in a fictional society concerned with family trees that mirrors the reality of women in the Regency era. She matures knowing that marriage is her ultimate goal as prescribed by gender roles, yet her strength in the domestic realm allows for her to choose Mr. Darcy over Mr. Collins.

Audrey Bilger, professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College, states that Austen uses a “full arsenal of comic weapons-satire, burlesque, parody” to defy male, female gender roles (Bilger 11). Elizabeth’s strong personality exposes issues of female oppression through a comedic veil. When Elizabeth arrives to Netherfield in muddied skirts, her companions are shocked by her ill-manners. Yet the audience, as opposed to agreeing, laughs at the snobbish behaviors caused by a bit of mud. Using comedy as a subtle shove against male dominance, Austen began to make some people question and laugh at the societal imbalance in gender roles. This depiction of female power was met with hostility from audiences, labeling both Austen and her fictional character as feminist. However, Austen “rejected conventional female roles” by portraying Elizabeth as assertive and powerful, a literary depiction of the “emergence of the New Woman” (Stephenson 17). She is seen as a strong female within the story’s portrayal of her love and marriage. Elizabeth decides to run her own life, marrying for true love at the conclusion of the novel against a hierarchical society calling out for marriage based on social and economic standing.

Though Elizabeth herself is fictional, the world Austen brings to life in Pride and Prejudice was far from imaginary. It is the reality of nineteenth century English women, a documentation of what Austen lived throughout and what women faced as domestic figures. As contemporary readers, we can find historical context and images of women’s real struggle for equality in Austen’s pieces. They are more than just classic reads: they are parts of history that women have developed from and struggled against. This fictional character presents empowering ideals for the female sex even in the new age. Though strong boundaries were placed on where female strength could reside, Elizabeth illustrates how females could have independence over their lives. Women could choose the course of their life if only they could speak up for themselves and exude the strength within them.

This image of female strength strongly appeals to a modern audience whose work for gender equality still remains an ongoing battle. Both Austen and Elizabeth are relevant to popular culture through their outcries of feminism and gender balance. The classic novel contains concepts very near and dear to a modern reader living within the rape culture. Rape culture is “an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture” (Marshall Univerity). Belittlement, objectification, sexual harassment, and violence create a fearful environment for females. For example, women are called “career destroyers” when speaking up about the athletes who sexually assaulted them. Even a simple pop song can demonstrate sexual violence, stating that men know women “want it” even through “blurred lines.” This environment can make it hard if not impossible for women to feel secure and powerful in society. Austen wrote to inspire her audience to have a voice in order to feel secure. Modern readers can use her message to identify as an empowered woman in society, which may be why her stories still resonate with modern audiences through text or adaptation. The female image grows stronger and louder with each passing decade as society sees women such as Malala Yousafzai and Oprah Winfrey stepping into the spotlight. Just as Austen used Elizabeth as a forerunner of feminism so too can modern society call upon Austen as their Katniss the Mockingjay.

Classic novels may be assumed as irrelevant to a contemporary reader. However, these novels can still contribute to the modern world through an exploration of societal concepts pertinent to today. Breaking gender boundaries through strong female action thoroughly inundates Austen’s many classic novels. These concepts remain important to the modern world still struggling against rigid gender roles. Women and men are continuously fighting for gender equality against the harshness of imbalance. Elizabeth is a fictional character who yearned for freedom outside of the domestic sphere. Austen is a classic author whose representation of female strength continues to provide inspiration for those who pick up her works. Indeed, readers must be willing to brush off the dust and open the pages of classic texts to find a society similar, yet different, even alien, in many ways to their own, something that allows readers to see a bigger picture through historical context, view growth or change as part of a whole, and begin to imagine a very real world potentially different from the here and now—a better place to live.  


Happy classic reading, everyone!


Works Cited

Bilger, Audrey. Laughing Feminism: Subversive comedy in Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth,and Jane Austen. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. Print.

“Rape Culture.” Marshall University. Marshall University, n.d. Web. 5 December 2015.

Stephenson, Glennis, ed. Nineteenth-Century Stories by Women. Peterborough: Broadview Press,1993. Print.

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