Dwight Longenecker writes about why he thinks Jane Austen continues to appeal to readers today.
Beneath Austen’s humor is humility. She satirizes the vain, silly, pompous, proud, and prejudiced, but she does so with good nature and an underlying kindness. She is often cutting, but never cruel. She laughs, but she doesn’t mock. She understands that humor and humility are rooted in humus—the earth. She knows that we are but dust and to dust we shall return—and that knowledge makes her kind.
Like all great writers, she has an innate understanding of human psychology, and she teaches that the more one knows, the more one can forgive.
…. If humility and humor are linked with humus, then it follows that the humble are down to earth. They are full of common sense. Her heroines (like Elinor Dashwood or Anne Elliot) either see through the vanity, foolishness, and pride of their family and friends, or (like Emma Woodhouse, Marianne Dashwood, and Elizabeth Bennet) they grow up through their trials, see through the vanity, and learn the virtue of humility.
The humility Austen displays is not the false obsequiousness of the social climber or the false piety of the self-consciously religious. Instead true humility is linked with a clear vision of reality. Austen’s heroes are the men and women who see and accept themselves and others with clarity and charity. They accept that good manners and good morals dictate the way to behave towards others, and that such manners and morals must always be genuine and from the heart—not simply a display of outward artifice or the result of social accomplishment.
The continued appeal of Austen’s work is therefore not simply in the comic moments and the enjoyable sighs of a love story well told. Instead the audience is intrigued and inspired by the discovery of true simplicity and humility hidden within the complex, deceitful web of human pride and prejudice.