Thoughts on Teaching Jane Austen

I am currently teaching a class with the very long title The Modern Self in the World: Literature and Art across Modernity, from Donne and Dürer to Baldwin and Cool Hand Luke. As with my other class (on American literature), I’ve used my teaching opportunities as a graduate student to escape the burden of academic and professional decorum. My classes, in other words, might be retitled, “books I like to read, want to read, and think you should read.” They are not lectures or surveys, but rather reading groups where my students and I try and make sense of the various texts we confront. My course description clarifies these aims:

This course will ask how creative individuals respond to the demands of the modern world as we investigate the relationship between art and society. By turning to movies, paintings, and literature we will examine how these cultural artifacts embody a particular trajectory of artistic response that evolves from the early modern period through the twentieth century. The work of John Donne and Albrecht Dürer will orient our quest, laying the foundation for a number of topics and themes that will resurface across the long nineteenth century as it transforms from the Romantic period into the Victorian age before culminating in high Modernism. We will read short novels and stories by Goethe, Dostoevsky, Wilde, Conrad, Joyce, Mann, and Baldwin while sampling poems by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, Hemans, E. Browning, R. Browning, Tennyson, Arnold, Dickinson, Yeats, and Eliot. Finally, we will place this body of literature in the context of paintings by Titian, Friedrich, Egg, Courbet, Monet, Munch, and Schiele as well as the films Taxi Driver, Cool Hand Luke, Network, and Rebel Without A Cause.

Spanning over two hundred years, the terrain we will cover is vast and variegated. Thus, our exploration will make a gesture toward, but sadly subordinate, much of the context that helps inspire the art under consideration. Instead, we will seek to draw continuities between the various strategies of self-expression and question their effectiveness for our current moment. To this end, this class will center on your response to the works we read and whether or not they can, in turn, enable you to interrogate whatever context or category plays a crucial role in the formation of your own unique identity.

As with all my classes I view literary history as the history of the present. While I try to give some “context” – in terms of things such as genre (the novelty of the romantic lyric) and historical context (Romanticism and the French Revolution) – I can really care less whether or not my students leave class with a thorough knowledge of Wilde’s theory of masks or can properly identify and define a metaphysical conceit. My only goal is gradually to take otherwise completely bewildering works of art and transform them into resources that my students can draw on, once they leave class, to shape any facet of their life. Teaching an undergraduate class is not professional training, it is, at least for me, training for a life marked only by the indeterminacy of its future.

In this particular class, however, I am lucky enough to have 15 students, 11 female and 4 male. Like all self-conscious academics growing up in the wake of the culture wars, I am keenly aware and sensitive to the canon that my syllabus constructs. In this case, excluding the painters, we have literature from 15 men and 3 women, the exact opposite of the class’s gender ratio. Not to mention the fact that the four movies we watch all involve male heroes. On the one hand, I chose these texts for particular reasons. They are short (the longest is actually Aurora Leigh). They are representative of certain forms of artistic expression. More importantly, they’ve all deeply affected me and thus I feel I can teach and speak about them with more passion than I could, say, transcendentalist writings. Of course, issues of practicality shaped my syllabus more than anything. Making this rather large constellation of figures fit into the restricted economy of a thirteen-week syllabus led to many painful cuts. Teaching Joyce’s “The Dead,” Mann’s Death in Venice, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kierkegaard’s Sickness Until Death, and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych seemed like one too many books with the word dead in the title. Likewise, Kierkegaard had to go, along with Nietzsche, Freud, and Camus, since I thought that the philosophical contexts could emerge strictly through our discussion of what were already very dense works of literature. But of all the losses my syllabus suffered the most difficult to accept was Jane Austen.

When I discussed these issues with my class – I want my students to know why I’ve asked them to read what is assigned and, considering their makeup, we focused on the extent to which the visions put forth by my chosen texts are circumscribed by gender – I lamented that none of Austen’s novels were able to fit: either because of length or because placing them in the right order would overwhelm me considering the other class I teach (when one class reads poems the other prose). During this conversation one student raised her hand in angst: “I am an English major and I’ve never had the opportunity to study Jane Austen.” What was worse, she explained, was the fact that she actively sought Austen: enrolling in “Women in Literature,” the “Victorian Novel,” and similar classes. One of the problems this student faced, which is institutionally specific, is that over half the classes in our course catalogue do not have specific descriptions. The description cited above was not included in the catalogue because by the time us scholar gypsies receive our assignments the catalogue is already finalized. Students enrolled in a class entitled “Social Issues in Literature” with a description that reads “this class will explore social issues in literature” walk the plank blindfolded. Putting aside the deleterious consequences of the modern university’s willful lack of a comprehensive and stable faculty, I told my students, as the semester proceeded, that I signed up to teach “Women in Literature” in the Spring and that we’d do nothing but Jane Austen: all six novels, letters, and possibly the shorter fiction and movies.

I should probably report that the class discussed above was inspired by a similar course taught by Lionel Trilling, whose criticism exerts a tremendous influence. In his essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” Trilling discusses how Columbia students expressed their frustration to a dean concerning the lack of any course on literature beyond the late nineteenth century. “The students wanted a course in modern literature,” he writes, “very likely, in the way of students, they said it was a scandal that no such course was being offered in the College. There was no argument that could stand against this expressed desire: we could only capitulate, and then, with pretty good grace, muster the arguments that justified our doing so” (383-384). To be alive in a time when students demanded that they be taught Proust and Joyce! This, however, was the very problem for Trilling. Because he believes “that the characteristic element of modern literature … is the bitter line of hostility to civilization which runs through it” (381), how could an institution profess that which seeks to undermine its authority? Forget teaching Pink Floyd in a college, try Dostoevsky or Foucault. “These doubts persist,” Trilling writes:

Even though I wholly understand that the relation of our collegiate education to modernity is no longer an open question. The unargued assumption of most curriculums is that the real subject of all study is the modern world; that the justification of all study is its immediate and presumably practical relevance to modernity; that the true purpose of all study is to lead the young person to be at home in, and in control of, the modern world. There is really no way of quarreling with the assumption or with what follows upon it, the instituting of courses of which the substance is chiefly contemporary or at least makes ultimate reference to what is contemporary. (382)

This remark, and this entire essay, shaped my idea of what teaching literature means since I share in Trilling’s belief that the “subject of all study is the modern world.” In this regard, when we read Donne as a poet speaking in the present to us, his audience, we are reading a contemporary Donne. When we transforms his poem’s subject into our own, we rewrite it, through our reading, against the backdrop of our world. To this end, we seem to establish a continuity between his “modernity” and our own. With this wholly unsubstantiated and incipient belief in mind, and with my decision to want to teach Austen because I both want to read her (having yet to read all six novels) and know students share in that want, it might come as no surprise that I turned to Trilling’s late unfinished essay “Why We Read Jane Austen.” This essay, however, posed a peculiar challenge to my understanding of the pedagogy of literary history.

In his characteristic style, Trilling laments the usual reasons we read Austen and attempts to give her corpus the intellectual qualification it deserves. After recalling his decision to teach an all-Austen course, the hundred plus students who showed up, his need to teach a “class” not a lecture” and thus interview students to select those worthy of reading Austen for the right reasons, Trilling writes:

How, then, did I want my students to think of Jane Austen? Was she perhaps to be thought of as nothing more than a good read? I do not accept that my purpose can be thus described, though now that we have before us that British locution, which Americans have lately taken to using, the question might be asked why the phrase should have come to express so much force of irony and condescension, why a good read should necessarily imply a descent into mere creature-comfort, into downright coziness. As my case stood, I would have granted that we must get beyond the unexamined pleasure with which we read in childhood and be prepared to say why and how it is that pleasure comes to us from stories. (520)

The “downright coziness” that Trilling discusses and his critical remarks about the “good read” should not come across as condescending. What Trilling implies, and what readers reading him under the auspices of the critique of the liberal bourgeoisie subject might overlook, is that Austen attracts study and readership because she makes us feel at home. In other words, she “presented [to Trilling’s students] a mode of life which brought into question the life they lived and because it offered itself to their fantasy as an alterative to their own mode of life … the young men and women who so much wanted to study Jane Austen [he learned from his interviews] believed that by doing so they could in some way transcend our sad contemporary existence” (521).

When we teach literature today, especially in survey classes (my own institution has a Brit Lit I and II and American Lit I and II), and when we write about literature today, we tend to inundate the text with so many contexts that we leave open the possibility of cutting it off from our “contemporary existence.” Let me explain this by way of some remarks by Edward Said:

Even the skillfully wrought novels of Jane Austen, for instance, are affiliated with the circumstances of their time; this is why she makes elaborate references to such sordid practices as slavery and fights over property. Yet, to repeat, her novels can never be reduced only to social, political, historical, and economic forces but rather, are, antithetically, in an unresolved dialectical relationship with them, in a position that obviously depends on history but is not reducible to it. (64)

Strictly exhuming repressed discourses in a Jane Austen novel is an act of circumscription that reduces her potency. In the act of clarifying a particular issue – slavery – we attempt to clarify the text: make it graspable, easy to metabolize, less foreign. What Trilling seems to want his students to experience, however, is the bewildering quality of Austen.

Not because her novels alienate the reader, but because the desires that they engender in us, desires to escape our “sad contemporary existence,” somehow make us more acutely aware of that existence. In other words, the hallmark of Austen as a modern “figure” [Trilling places great emphasis on our rationale for literary monumentalization] is that in being the “presiding genius of measure, decorum, and irony” (522) she makes us long for a world that, because of its stark difference from our own, we find soothing.

As I write my Austen syllabus I am conflicted over using the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen which contains two chapters on the novels, one on the short fiction, one on the letters, and several on the profession of writing, class, money, religion and politics, literary tradition, the cult of Austen, and style. What will be the effect if my students become experts in Austen’s early 19th century culture? Will it serve to explain and clarify her work? Will she become more familiar to them? Will they link the struggle of a female author in a male-dominated profession to contemporary gender biases? This might go a long way to help them identity with Austen and her characters which is admittedly one of the goals of my course. But, as Trilling suggests, the genius of her irony is that in the world she represents she shocks us in and out of our own modern existence. He writes:

We should never take it for granted that young people inevitably respond affirmatively to what is innovative and antitraditional in the high artistic culture of their time; there is the distinct possibility that the students with whom I was dealing saw the contemporary novel as being of a piece with those elements of the modern dispensation which they judged to be maleficent, such as industrialization, urbanization, the multiversity. This maleficence would have to do with the reduction of their selfhood, and presumably it could be neutralized by acquaintance with the characters of Jane Austen’s novels, an association that was indeed licensed by the aesthetic of the works. That is, these fictive persons would be experienced as if they had actual existence, as if their ‘values’ were available to assessment, as if their destinies bore upon one’s own, and as if their styles of behavior and feeling must inevitably have a consequence in one’s own behavior and feeling. (523)

As I read him, Austen is an escape from modern existence because of the fact that her novels are so unlike it. She is strange and bewildering because her world is pure fantasy. The Underground Man is modern man, not the familial home of Elizabeth Bennet. Of course after teaching Dostoevsky my students were at a loss. The alienation of the modern novel results from its attempt to make its readers feel and experience the alienation of its character or author. The alienation of the Austenian novel is, conversely, a result of difference. “If this [disillusion with their own culture] was really what students felt in reading Jane Austen,” Trilling continues, “they were of course fulfilling the aim of traditional humanistic education. In reading about the conduct of other people as presented by a writer highly endowed moral imagination and in consenting to see this conduct as relevant to their own, they had undertaken an activity which humanism holds to be precious, in that it redeems the individual from moral torpor” (523-524). Some critics argue that this essay marks Trilling’s disenchantment with humanism, but I believe, by contrast, that what we see is a challenge to that doctrine’s ideal of self-making. The students in Trilling’s class on modern literature were meant to identify with Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, they were asked – in the case of my own course – to become Howard Beale and feel “mad as hell” that their university lacked a faculty and a thorough course catalogue. This created a problem for the teacher representing the university (I of course am mere standing reserve). While students turned to Austen to overcome the knowledge that that other course offered, the utter “dissimilarity between [Austen’s world] and us” (526) makes her work relevant by negation. Dostoevsky might redeem us by making us feel, Austen by making us aware. But, when we take into account, all the movies, knock-off books, action figures and so forth, isn’t Austen already quite familiar?

Reading the Cambridge Companion alongside the novels and letters might explain the class structure of an Austen’s word, but I fear that this might familiarize my students with what should be an alienating world. I want the opposite – yet the opposite might occur by calling attention to the stark difference between the early 19th century and the 21st . Do I overwhelm them with context to the point that they see themselves as nothing like Emma? Trilling indicts humanism because it cannot account for the “dissimilarity” between her Austen’s world and ours. This, he believes, enabled his students to misread the “moral significance” (524) of her work because of false identification: “You really aren’t like Emma!” Yet the Jane Austen fanfare seems to rectify “the great range of existential differences” (522) that exist between Austen’s past moment and our present occasion. Usually this is what I aim to demonstrate when teaching literature. When reading Donne’s “Canonization,” for example, I hope my students feel the pressure of the professional world and its repudiation of excess – whether erotic or otherwise. Such a poem, with its structure, imagery, and use of language, is already befuddling to my students. With Austen I want to push back against the possible motivations for reading her. I imagine my students, three of the current ones have already signed up, wanting to read this “figure” because she represents the escape that they love in literature. But although I hope that I can transform that impetus so as to call attention to the very thing from which they are escaping, I think I’ll choose which direction to go by asking them a simple question: why do you want to read Jane Austen?


Said, Edward W. Humanism and Democratic Criticism. (New York: Columbia UP, 2003).

Trilling, Lionel. The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent: Selected Essays. Ed. Leon Wieseltier. (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2000).

One thought on “Thoughts on Teaching Jane Austen”

  1. A wonderful post! Thank you for these insights. I am so fascinated by the connections you draw between sympathetic engagement and critical commentary on the state of the modern university.

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