Pride, Prejudice and Empowerment on ‘World Day of Social Justice’

A decade ago, the United Nations General Assembly promoted the need to address pressing issues in society by creating “World Day of Social Justice,” observed annually on Feb. 20.

According to the U.N., social justice helps create and maintain peaceful existence in and among all nations. It is advanced through the removal of barriers that individuals face on the basis on “gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, or disability.” The U.N. hopes that their pursuit of social justice will foster both “development and human dignity.”

“World Day of Social Justice” is more than just a simple celebration. Rather, it is a reminder that society has come far, and yet, still has further to go in terms of fairness and equality for all individuals. If we are able to advance the pillars of social justice, we can enable the creation of a more equitable world for all.

Now, how exactly does this share any relation to Jane Austen?

Well, let’s examine Elizabeth Bennet’s late-night conversation with the “Right Honourable Lady Catherine de Bourgh,” upon her hearing that Mr. Darcy has made an “offering of marriage” to Lizzy. Namely, let’s examine a certain assertion and response between the pair:

“Miss Bennet, do you know who I am? I have not been accustomed to such language as this. I am almost the nearest relation he has in the world, and am entitled to know all his dearest concerns.” “But you are not entitled to know mine; nor will such behaviour as this, ever induce me to be explicit.”

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At face value, one could claim that Lady Catherine simply wants to know the potential actions of Mr. Darcy because she is, indeed, his “nearest relation.” However, Austen is sure to throw in the age-old question “Do you know who I am?” We see it time and time again, whether in books, movies, television shows — or live and in person.

It’s a declaration of social status. It is a claim that — given her social standing and position of wealth — Lady Catherine is somehow above Elizabeth, and in that sense, somehow more entitled to know matters of perceived importance. Lady Catherine even goes so far as to say that she is not “accustomed to such language as this.”

That language? It’s the ability to say no. It is the language of speaking on equal ground —putting one’s foot down and declaring that wealth, class and social standing do not equate to the power of maintaining unkind behavior and holding authority over someone else. In telling Lady Catherine that she is not “entitled to know” her concerns, Elizabeth stands up for herself, and Austen shows that fairness and equality should reach beyond the bounds of one’s social class.

If we wanted to, we could examine this same sort of empowerment and breaking of social norms in Elizabeth’s rejection of Mr. Collins’ proposal, or in many of her interactions with Mr. Darcy.

This is not to hail Austen as a proponent of social justice by today’s standards, or by those declared by the United Nations. However, it is to say that, over 200 years ago, Austen was able to weave words of social inequalities into her writing. She was able to show that women can stand up for themselves — that they have the power to go against social norms and assert their own values in situations of inequitable treatment, or simply situations they do not agree with.

If Austen was able to show women going against the grain and standing up for their values in her time, however subtly, then we as a society should be able to address timely issues of even greater consequence today.

Taking a look back at the statement of the United Nations, it is to say that we should all do what we can to break down barriers, go against the grain in the name of our own values, and foster the pursuit of both “development and human dignity.”

Ashley Oldham is the publicity intern for the Jane Austen Summer Program.

Six swoon-worthy sentences in ‘Pride and Prejudice’

Tomorrow’s Valentine’s Day, so we’re celebrating with six swoony lines by and about Mr. Darcy from “Pride and Prejudice.” What sentences set your heart aflutter? Let us know!

You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”

Oh, Mr. Darcy. You were never going to get a “yes” from Elizabeth at this point in the novel, especially not after she found out about you nipping Bingley and Jane’s romance in the bud. But who wouldn’t want to hear someone say this? Well, this and not the your-family-is-terrible bit.

Darcy had never been so bewitched by any woman as he was by her.


He just keeps falling for her despite of himself.

She attracted him more than he liked.

Yup, he’s got it bad.

“I have been meditating on the very great pleasure which a pair of fine eyes in the face of a pretty woman can bestow.”

That fact that he’d mention Lizzy’s eyes to Caroline (of all people) must say something about the burgeoning affection he feels. But Caroline isn’t about to let him get away without a fight, beginning with snide remarks about Lizzy’s family.

“I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.”

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When Caroline asks Lizzy to take a turn about the room, she also invites Darcy to join them. His reply: “You either choose this method of passing the evening because you are in each other’s confidence, and have secret affairs to discuss, or because you are conscious that your figures appear to the greatest advantage in walking; if the first, I would be completely in your way, and if the second, I can admire you much better as I sit by the fire.” Compared with the understated language in the rest of the novel, the last line of Darcy’s reply is practically flirty.

“I cannot fix on the hour, or the spot, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”

This admission to Lizzy has her heart — and ours.

Happy Valentine’s Day from the Jane Austen Summer Program! Want to celebrate 206 years of “Pride and Prejudice”? Register for our program (“Pride and Prejudice and Its Afterlives”) today!


How you can donate to our silent auction

Help us help teachers by donating new or gently used items to our silent auction, which benefits our scholarship fund.

Donations can either be shipped to Terri O’Quin [contact: toquin (at) mindspring (dot) com for details] or brought to the meeting. If items are brought to the meeting, please provide photos and/or detailed descriptions in advance.