While discussing Pride and Prejudice in class, one of my male students piped up with, “Mr. Darcy’s a douche-bag.” My first instinct was to push him over, pummel his chest and cry, “Take it back! Take it back!” But because I’m the adult, I took three calming breaths and conceded that in the beginning of the novel Mr. Darcy is indeed a douche-bag. Not only that, Darcy’s douche-bagginess is one of the reasons why I enjoy teaching the novel, because by the end of the book Darcy catapults himself to the lofty rank of #1 Literary Crush (who is not-so distantly followed by Atticus Finch). Darcy doesn’t accomplish this feat with his good looks, money, or Pemberley, but through his character and his determination to make things right even with uncertain reward.
My school is very diverse (8% of students are white), represents 22 different languages, and has over 70% of students take part in the Free and Reduced Lunch program. On the surface this isn’t the ideal readership for a story that revolves around white British girls who spend their time shopping for ribbons, going to balls, and searching for husbands. But there are connections to be made. In both societies there is a huge emphasis on money and status. Both also focus on the traits of pride and, especially in high school, prejudice. Like Lizzie and Darcy, our students jump to conclusions about others whether it be for their race, accents, gang affiliation, whatever. However, today’s society seems to value the rash decision and get rich quick schemes, the cat-fight, and flying off the handle. Our students watch such quality entertainment such as Jersey Shore, The Housewives of Wherever, Keeping Up With The Kardashians and all their spin-offs. This is not a society that values reflection.
Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett both have the traits of reflection; it’s what allows them to get together at the end. Darcy struggles with his feelings for Elizabeth who is of inferior status and has a family that does not make one particularly keen to make in-laws. His struggles and his pride lead to serious blunders with Elizabeth, but when she calls him on them, he listens to her. He doesn’t blow her off and stomp away and say, “See, I told you I was too good for you!” He slowly begins to rectify his actions by owning up to them and then fixing them. He realizes that he behaved poorly and makes the changes his behavior to be a better man.
Elizabeth also displays reflection. In Volume One, she quick with her words and judgments. She jumps to conclusions about both Darcy and Wickham and ends up believing the wrong man. After Darcy’s proposal and letter in Volume Two, she thinks about her behavior and actions, and she begins to heed Charlotte’s advice to watch her tongue. She revises her feelings for Darcy and by Volume Three she has become a careful observer of Darcy’s character and questions what it all might mean. Her openness to accept others and come from a place of understanding prepares her for finally accepting Mr. Darcy at the end.
Wickham and Lydia lack reflection and are summarily punished for it through their marriage. Wickham, instead of raising himself up by his boot-straps, looks for ways into money by stringing along Darcy’s sister, becoming engaged to a wealthy woman, and finally, for who knows why, running off with Lydia. He is ultimately forced into what will most likely be an unhappy marriage and a life of humble means. Lydia’s impulsive behavior that threatens to bring ruin to her family saddles her with Wickham, and while she is oblivious to her future loneliness in faraway Newcastle with no friends, no sisters, and an indifferent husband, the reader knows she’s in for a shock.
So how does one use Pride and Prejudice to cultivate reflection? Here are some ideas:
1. Elizabeth’s Open Mind: Provide students with three “open minds’, one for each volume. As they read each volume, they need to write down her thoughts for each. This will allow them to keep track of her thoughts and thinking process. This can be followed up with an informal writing about what accounts for her change.
2. Darcy’s Diary: Darcy’s thoughts are not as transparent as Elizabeth’s, especially in Volume One. Have students write diary entries as Darcy using the clues from the text to determine what he really thinks.
3. Letter to a Character: Students can write a letter to a character advising them on the best way to handle the situation they’re in.
4. Personal Reflections and Connections: Throughout the unit students can write short reflections about both good and bad decisions they have made and how they came to those decisions; actions they have taken that they wish they could change; a time when they judged someone unfairly or vice versa; they can also make direct connections with characters; which character best represents their decision-making skills; the list can go on. The bottom line is to have students analyze and evaluate their own actions to promote strong self-assessment and awareness.
Readers, what ideas do you have for teaching Pride and Prejudice and/or reflection in teens?