You would think teaching Austen and Brontë at an all-boys Catholic high school in the South would be mission impossible, right? Think again. These boys eat it up. Some are quite candid in their praise of the fiction, while others try to conceal their secret delight. There are, of course, a few supercilious students who bombastically scoff at these writers and smugly refer to their stories as trite period pieces unworthy of their serious attention. However, I think even these students are really just afraid to admit to themselves that they like the novels because to do so, they falsely believe, would render them -- poof -- effeminate on the spot. I stand before you (figuratively, of course) as living, breathing evidence that you can be a hot-blooded heterosexual male and treasure these women’s words.
I love Austen's and Brontë’s stories precisely because I love women. You can’t really understand women if you do not get what Austen and Brontë are about. In class, we can and do get blissfully lost in discussions of irony in Pride and Prejudice and the richness of the diction, imagery, and symbolism and Jane Eyre, but that’s not the beating heart of these novels. It’s just icing on the cake that we love to lick off our hands after we have consumed the thing itself. What really makes Austen’s and Brontë’s stories memorable are character and theme.
Character. There isn’t a man out there that would not jump at the chance to marry an Elizabeth. She is the archetypal perfect woman; she is perfect, not because she has the sculpted athletic body that our culture so idolizes above all else, but because she is a fiery tempest of personality and will. Elizabeth possesses a vitality that men crave. It’s a testament to Austen’s genius that she could carve such a life-like character out of words. The boys, future husbands, intuitively recognize something noble and meaningful about the relationship, and ultimately marriage, of Elizabeth and Darcy. They are not some highly polished ideal of a couple, but they arrive at love despite their initial individual hang-ups, pride and prejudice. The boys can certainly identify with this sort of relationship in their own personal lives. As I tell the boys in class, all men want an Elizabeth, but few strive to be a Darcy. In fact, most settle to be a Wickham in our own day and age. I just love how Wickham’s very name almost suggests wickedness, for we do live in wicked, or Wickham, times, don’t we?
Theme. Jane Eyre’s trial and tribulations are the stuff of life. We all suffer in life in our pursuit of happiness. Jane’s triumphant conquest of Rochester, and that’s what it is, a conquest, strikes a chord in the boys because of where she began her life: Gateshead. Boys, too, like Jane, often struggle to over come mental barriers to their growth, whether these be self-imposed or thrust upon them. Jane daily struggles to define herself by her choices. She really is not just a romantic hero, but an existential hero. Ironically, Jane is just the right kind of hero for boys today who feel boxed in by society's expectations and are often understimated and misunderstood. Her quest for freedom and self-definition speaks to every fiber and every chord of women AND men. The theme of independence really dominates the varied settings of Jane’s memories. In the final analysis, Brontë's heroine powerfully communicates a fundamental truth about the relationship between love and identity: love cannot properly flourish without a developed personhood that recognizes its own worth and demands respect and devotion from the beloved. What a delightful theme, and it’s no wonder then that the boys clandestinely or openly adore these stories, as they should.