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Going Bro with Jane Austen

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

A friend once told me that he majored in English only to meet girls. My AP® English classes might be something like the courses he took, in that they mostly consist of female students. So when the female majority begged and pleaded to read Pride and Prejudice, I thought it was only fair. Female protagonists their own age with whom they could relate, not to mention a relatively happy ending, were nice for a change, especially for them.

But how does one deal with grumpy young men who agree with Mark Twain that Austen is just glorified “chick lit”? Although in class we discussed abstract concepts like the difference between being and seeming—or in Austen’s terms “pride” (what you think of yourself),  versus “prejudice” (what others think of you)—there wasn’t anything that obviously appealed to male teenage students. That is, until a student’s blog offered me the “bro” approach to Austen.  (Note: Blogs in my class are part of the informal writing component suggested by the College Board.)

My student Daniel Paredes’s first entry describes our AP® Literature course thus far much differently than I had conceived it: “Okay so here we were reading about incest, family murders, apocalyptic cannibals, satanic music, prostitutes, and alcohol and suddenly now we begin to read about some poofy-dressed, fancy-speaking, English women?”

He’s referring to Hamlet, The Road, and Coming Through Slaughter, which we followed with Pride and Prejudice. After reading the first few chapters, he titles the following night’s blog entry, “Men Men Menly Manly Men Men Men...,” the first of a few posts that focus on the suitors in Pride and Prejudice, as seen from a modern male perspective:

“Should I wear a ‘thug life’ t-shirt and be a straight up gangsta-homie with everyone I meet? Should I wear a nicely trimmed tailor made three-piece suit with a bowler hat and use big fancy words? Or how about I just wear a nice tie-dye shirt with some rice-picking purple pants with a big-ass peace sign hanging around my neck and give out only peace and love?

Men have always been evolving. I don't understand, but it seems to be that we have gone through hundreds of fashions and mannerisms in the past century. Why has it gone from talking about ‘fancy looking madams in quaint carriages’ to ‘get'n me sum bOaTz & hOezz’?

As a male member of society, it's difficult to know what it is exactly I am supposed to do in order to fit in.”

Following this line of thought, Daniel analyzes the male character, Mr. Darcy. He compares his own open, easy-going personality with that of Mr. Darcy’s, whom he characterizes as aloof and facetious. After some analysis of Mr. Darcy he concludes that his personality is a defense mechanism.

“He uses this shell to protect himself and not let anyone near him sentimentally except the people that have always been there for him (Mr. Bingley). He has suffered from the things that his good friend Wickham did to him and his sister and he has created this shield in order to protect himself and his family from getting hurt again.

Should I, like Darcy, become an introverted person because of all the pain that I've had to deal with? Or should I just take out my umbrella and protect myself and my smile from all the world's crap that just keeps tumbling down on me?”

All of this again leads Daniel back to his original question, What is a man supposed to be like? Unfortunately, it only brings him to lament a time when men were expected to be eloquent:

“Reading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice honestly makes me sort of sad. I would absolutely love to be alive during this epoch where it is the norm to be a nicely dressed, gentlemanlike person...Characters like Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bingley, Mr. Collins, and Mr. Bennet all make me extremely jealous because I would be more than happy to live like them without getting shot today.

No, but really...I find it really interesting that people have changed so much and it really makes me wonder where we're all going as a people? How might we look in two centuries?”

Next year when we read Pride and Prejudice—in part because of its seemingly happy ending that the students often complain is absent in other great works of literature—I’ll certainly keep this male perspective in mind. I’ll organize reading groups based on themes, one of which will be masculinity. Why women like Mr. Darcy is an interesting question. What are women looking for in romantic relationships is a relevant question for today’s young men—and perhaps men in other age groups as well—who might otherwise dismiss Austen as “chick lit”?

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