August 08, 2013

Jane Austen's Sense of Duty and Obligation Has Been Lost in Modern Literature, Study Reveals



I cannot recall how many times I have read and watched “Pride and Prejudice”, as well as other Jane Austen novels. I rarely tire of them. 

My preferred versions of the film depictions are the Greer Garson/ Sir Laurence Olivier version, and the BBC’s Colin Firth/ Jennifer Ehle version.

Part of the charm of these stories lies in the fact that language, and times, have changed so enormously as the following article suggests. 

It is not only ‘a sense of duty and obligation’, although that is very true, but the etiquette as well.(Perhaps etiquette was indeed a duty and obligation?)

It is also learning an appreciation of how things were in a relatively isolated community many years ago. 

No 24-hour graphic news cycle to worry about!

Although “Pride and Prejudice’ is set during the Napoleonic wars one gets the sense of some ongoing conflict but never the full impact of this situation, much less the social aftermath of the French Revolution, and the living conditions in Great Britain at that time.

Maybe Jane Austen herself was not fully conversant with such matters

Perhaps she didn’t need to be.

I suspect she probably was, but preferred to write about people and the society she lived in, and the human condition. A lot of these societal characteristics haven't changed  that much. Found love, lost love,,,it's still happening to this day.

Imagine how many other great novels she would have written had we not lost her at the young age of 41.

I think ‘a sense of duty and obligation’ has disappeared from many parts of our lives, not just from literature.

As the research has shown today’s world and words are very different indeed.

I really enjoyed the “Bridget Jones” films. They are not quite literary giants; who knows if they will become classics in 200 years’ time, but they are certainly something many of us can relate to on so many levels whether it is Bridget herself, her friends or even her parents.

What these two stories have in common are mothers trying to marry off their daughters and very eager-to-marry daughters, but most of my friends’ favourite common thread is the fact that Colin Firth is in both of the movies!

‘Feeling’ about something does seem to trump things rather than ‘acting’ on them.



By Hannah Devlin

IN Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet fends off an unwelcome invitation from the self-important Lady Catherine de Bourgh with classic tact, citing pressing family commitments. "I am much obliged to your ladyship for your kind invitation," she replies. "But it is not in my power to accept it. I must be in town next Saturday." 
To most, this exchange may simply serve as further evidence of the ability of Jane Austen's favourite heroine to dispatch hectoring superiors and appalling suitors with efficiency and style.

However, according to an analysis of about 1.5 million British and American books, such references to family obligations - a common theme in Regency and Victorian fiction - have dramatically decreased in literature during the past two centuries.

The use of words linked to duty and obligation have become far less frequent, while words linked to individualism and materialism have risen in frequency, the study of books published between 1800 and 2000 has revealed. The words "choose" and "get", for example, have increased significantly while the use of "obliged" and "give" have fallen.

As readers of everything from Bridget Jones to Julian Barnes's novels might confirm, books today are decidedly more "feely".

While 19th-century protagonists were frequently found galloping across fields or dancing at balls, today's spend much more of their time pondering their internal worlds. This turn towards inner mental life and away from outward behaviour is reflected the gradual rise in the use of the word "feel" and a decline in the use of "act".

Professor Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of California Los Angeles, who carried out the research, believes that this reflects a shift in society away from living in small communities in a rural environment towards materialistic urban living.

"The currently discussed rise in individualism is not something recent but has been going on for centuries as we moved from a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, high-tech society," she said, suggesting that a trend towards individualism was established well before Thatcherism or celebrity culture made an impact. Rather than reading a selection of books and laboriously interpreting their themes, Professor Greenfield relied on a more efficient, if less literary, method of teasing out the preoccupations and attitudes of the day.

Using Google's word count tool, the Ngram Viewer, which can count word frequencies in millions of books in less than a second, she analysed how the usage of various words has waxed and waned since 1800.

The investigation, published in the journal Psychological Science, involved more than 1 million books published between 1800 and 2000 in the US and about 350,000 books published in Britain during the same period. The body of literature included popular fiction, text books and academic works.

The study showed that the word "duty" declined between 1800 and 2000 to less than one third of its initial level, whereas "decision" showed a five-fold increase. The usage of "get" underwent a temporary decline between 1940 and the 1960s before rising again in the 1970s, which was attributed to a decline in self-interest during the Second World War and the Civil Rights movement.

Gordon Rudd, a computer scientist at the Keele University who has analysed plot structures in work by Shakespeare, Austen and Arthur Conan Doyle, said traditional scholars might not be impressed by Professor Greenfield's method. 

But he added: "That's a shame, because the underlying idea is a good one."

With many thanks to The Australian

Pictures Credits: FanPop, Handbag and Laredso.


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