Jane Austen behind bars: Teaching the humanities to increase humanity.

Author:Law, Molly

"But people themselves alter so much, that there is something new to be observed in them forever." -- Elizabeth Bennet in "Pride and Prejudice." Jane Austen has made new friends in the most unlikely of places, as is her nature. However, it came as quite a surprise to Devoney Looser, Arizona State University's (ASU) Foundation Professor of English and author of "The Making of Jane Austen," as she entered Florence State Prison in Florence, Arizona. According to The State Press, "Devoney Looser said she was nervous and didn't know what to expect from her newest pupils: a group of men imprisoned for sexual offenses. But what Looser said she found was a classroom of men eager to learn about the writings of 18th-century writer Jane Austen." Austen has always had an uncanny ability to find a place amongst the modern reader, no matter who or where they are. Her writings hold a transcendent power to entertain as well as to educate readers not only on society, but on their own personal lives. Iseult Gillespie, in the TED-Ed presentation, "An Animated Lesson on Jane Austen," describes Austen's special effect on her readers, "It is even been said that some readers feel like the author's secret confidant, trading letters with their delightfully wicked friend, Jane." Austen's works also offer a beautiful and authoritative blend of individuality and societal responsibility. This unique combination in a prison educational program provides offenders with the ability to learn, imagine and critique their own lives and behaviors, and evaluate how that will ultimately affect the society in which they will eventually return.

"Investigate and learn to name those mixed and complex feelings that arise out of genuine response to common feelings of common life. Such feelings aren't overly dramatic or go by exaggerated names, to name them and know them is to cultivate a mature understanding of human nature."

According to Lorraine Murphy, associate professor of English at Hillsdale College, this is Austen's underlining message to her readers and fellow writers in the novel "Northanger Abbey." Austen wrote during the highly popular age of gothic and romantic novels. While entertaining, Austen believed they did very little to convey real-life situations, and they often created unrealistic expectations for the reader. According to Murphy, Austen presented fiction as a reminder that "there is a proper relationship between fiction and life..." that it is "most valuable when it deepens our fascination with the reading of real life." However, Austen's belief for the much-needed pragmatism in fiction did not diminish the entertaining and, at times, audacious characters, plots and themes that have "kept Austen prominent on stage and screen and have made her work easily adaptable for modern sensibility," Gillespie said. According to Elizabeth Langland in "Society and the Novel," "Austen keeps her characters' conflicts with their social milieu within a comic framework, not by presenting a benign picture of society, but by including narrative summaries that stress those aspects of behavior and conventions that assure us society will not stand in the way of individual...

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