Jane Austen’s mean girls : a biocultural approach to shared female experience in literature and life

Makowski, Sarah Jane; Schneider, Ralf (Thesis advisor); Strasen, Sven-Knut (Thesis advisor)

Aachen : RWTH Aachen University (2021)
Dissertation / PhD Thesis

Dissertation, Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen, 2021


A biocultural approach to the phenomenon of indirect female aggression in the work of Jane Austen offers insight into the author’s continued relevancy to millions of readers worldwide. Despite significant cultural changes between her world and our own, contemporary female readers report knowing – or even being – her characters in their everyday lives. Reader-response theorists, Cognitive Narratologists, and Literary Darwinists suggest that this phenomenon stems from Austen’s remarkable ability to trigger shared experiences between readers and texts. This biocultural investigation, applying qualitative and quantitative findings from anthropology, psychology, and sociology to Austen’s oeuvre, shows clear parallels between the comportment of Austen’s female characters and modern Western female experience. It demonstrates that by reaching outside of the humanities, a biocultural approach enables the inclusion of hundreds – if not thousands – of test subjects at all age levels both within the ivory tower and beyond. Applying these diverse approaches to Austen’s portrayals of women’s lives highlights the author’s skill at capturing changing aspects of indirect female aggression from adolescence to widowhood. Various models, including anthropologist Donald Brown’s Human Universals, Joyce Benenson’s evolutionary psychological stratagems, Rosalind Wiseman’s teenage hierarchy framework, or recognized occupational phenomena, indicate clear correlations between the comportment of Austen’s female characters and contemporary lives. This study suggests that the very ordinariness of Austen’s characters’ experience makes the author unique. A biocultural examination opens new avenues for research as humanities departments face increasing scrutiny in favour of STEM subjects. A natural progression of this work would be a replication of its findings through a different lens or a long-term investigation of resonance evolution according to lifespan development. Further research on the sense of pleasure and connection Janeites experience in the act of reading could advance understanding of the effectiveness of Austen as self-administered or formal bibliotherapy.