Bringing Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility into the 21st Century (and into your classroom)
Jane Austen’s life, when compared with those of other famous novelists, was relatively quiet. She preferred a life far from the city and successfully banished fame from her door. Yet her work is celebrated for its unsurpassed knowledge of human behavior. At the core of Austen’s work is her ability to create compelling human relationships, personal motivations, and actions with consequences. These themes, along with her humor and ability to craft satire, have made her one of the most beloved authors throughout the world.
While the world in which Austen wrote feels very far from the one we live in today, the basis of her work, human relationships, still rings true to a modern audience, especially youth. Through her books and the numerous adaptations of her work, students can learn ideas on class, marriage, etiquette, money, and more, and connect them to current ideas. Below are ways to tie in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility into your classroom.
Have your students form two circles, one inside circle and one outside circle. Each student on the inside is paired with a student on the outside facing each other. Pose a question to the whole group and have the pairs discuss their responses with each other. After some time, have the students rotate so that they are talking to someone new. Once everyone is seated, another question can be offered, or you can continue with the same question.
Communication in the 1800s
The fastest and most common way people in Austen’s time kept in touch with each other is through letters. The written word kept people up to date on the day-to-day lives of family members or popular gossip happening around town. Similar to letter writing, most of us today communicate via email or text, using these as a way to connect with those around us.
In an activity, students should take passages from Sense and Sensibility and translate them into text message conversations. Divide the students into different groups and have them each work on part of the story. Students should be encouraged to modernize the text into their own words – how would they tell their friends about what’s happening? Once the groups are done, they should share what they wrote with the class. Students should be encouraged to express how they feel about each other’s work. Do they have a better understanding about what is happening between the characters? Did anyone gain insights or new perspectives?
Core to Sense and Sensibility is the interconnection between all of the characters within the story. Reading stories with these complex relationships helps develop what cognitive psychologists call our “theory of mind.” Theory of mind is what allows us to assess the mental states (thoughts, feelings, beliefs) of others and use that assessment to predict and explain what people are thinking. Theory of mind allows us to strategize in a business context and navigate the unspoken steps of building romantic relationships. Austen’s novels are filled with dozens of characters who constantly guess at the thoughts and intentions of the other characters; each interacts with the others in complex ways that influence the relationships of nearly everyone in the book.
In the link below is a drawn out map that displays all of the characters within Sense and Sensibility and how they connect to one another. At first glance, this fictional network can seem very complicated, but in our own lives we are used to managing such complex connections every day. After studying this map with your students, instruct them to create their own relationship map using a story they’ve read or television show they are currently watching (Grey's Anatomy, KUWTK, etc.). Once students are done, have them compare what they created to the Sense and Sensibility map. What similarities do you notice?
Continue your engagement with one of Austen’s beloved novels by viewing our study guide, coming online soon!
Student matinees for Sense & Sensibility at the IRT are available in April (10:00AM on April 21, 22, 23, 24, 28, 29, 30). For more information, please visit irtlive.com/studentmatinees or contact Kristen Carter, Youth Program Coordinator, at email@example.com.
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