If Jane Austen Used Facebook . . .

Grant, Thompson communicating indirectly

What would Sense and Sensibility look like if Jane Austen’s characters used Facebook?

My freshman seminar on Jane Austen took the opportunity to find out last week. The occasion was our college’s “Fall Festival,” a time when all of our first year students gather to present things learned in their courses. We all try to be imaginative.  There were King Lear personality surveys, a video of students performing mathematical concepts on musical instruments, charts on the impact of global warming, original lyrics of social change, and a host of other presentations. My class created Facebook pages for eight Austen characters, using actors from various film versions of Sense and Sensibility for their photos.

The characters we chose were the reserved and stoical Elinor, the passionate Marianne, the quiet and honorable Edward, the irresponsible Willoughby, the conniving Lucy Steele, the noble Colonel Brandon, and the execrable John and Fanny Dashwood. Two students were assigned to each character and we reserved one of our final class periods to have conversations amongst our characters.

The students brought their lap tops and Melanie Kokolios, our peer mentor, moved us through the book, telling us when Willoughby has rescued Marianne, when Lucy reveals to Elinor that she is secretly engaged to the man Elinor is in love with, when Marianne learns of Willoughby’s betrayal, when Lucy’s and Edward’s secret comes out, and so on. At each stage, the students reacted as Facebook acquaintances do.  They friended each other, changed their relationship status, announced events (Brandon’s picnic), made sly underhanded remarks, were catty and sometimes downright rude, and so forth.

If you know the novel, you will appreciate the creativity that went into the interchanges.  Here are some examples:

–Elinor was constantly trying to smooth over the disturbances caused by Marianne’s passionate remarks.  She was also very cautious. (As Austen writes of her interactions with Lucy, “Elinor was careful in guarding her countenance from every expression that could give her words a suspicious tendency.”)

–Edward was very quiet and non-committal, especially in response to Lucy’s hints.

–Lucy sucked up to everyone (lots of smiley faces) but at the same time made sly digs at Elinor.

–Marianne became desperate as Willoughby ignored her posts.

–Along the same lines, Brandon kept sending posts to Marianne but received only “like” in reply.

–Fanny Dashwood was wonderfully obnoxious, complaining at one point that the Dashwood sisters had run off with all the best china (even though it is theirs).  Upon learning that Lucy is secretly engaged to Edward, she unloaded with “Get out of my house you nasty b____!”

–John Dashwood seconded everything that Fanny said.

The students thoroughly inhabited the characters and typed madly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a class so engaged for 75 straight minutes. The room periodically exploded with laughter as the participants appreciated a particularly witty or revealing response. The novel came alive in a new way.

I also learned that, while we are not as bound by social etiquette as the early 19th century, Facebook has its own set of conventions and protocols.  Here are a few, which Melanie had to explain to me:

–It is in bad taste to use tweet hashtags.  Lucy used them all the time.

–It is also rude simply to hit “like” when responding to someone.  Until their “relationship status” changes at the end of the book, this is always how Marianne responded to Brandon.

–Speaking of “relationship status,” it is as big a deal today as it was in Austen’s time. The wonderful Facebook category “It’s complicated” sums up Marianne and Willoughby very well and the students used it. Edward’s status did some wild swings towards the end of the novel.

–While we may think, like Marianne, that we are far more open than Regency England, we still often say one thing while meaning another. (“Very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure,” Austen writes in Emma.)  To cite an instance from the exercise, the students playing Elinor knew that the students playing Lucy were being hypocritical and “Lucy” knew that “Elinor” knew. (At one point Austen shows us what Elinor is thinking: “All this is very pretty; but it can impose upon neither of us.”) Engaging in that dance made them more attuned to Austen’s sophisticated use of irony.

In looking at the entangled conversations, one can understand why Marianne longs for upfront conversations and straightforward from-the-heart relationships.  (Exasperated by Elinor’s reserve at one point, she bursts out, “Neither of us have anything to tell. I because I conceal nothing and you because you communicate nothing.”) But she learns to her sorrow that the dream of open and honest communication is an illusion.  It was an illusion in Austen’s time and it is an illusion today.  Language and human relationships are always shifting.

The class came to understand these complexities in a deep way.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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