Sense and Sensibility (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)
Sense and Sensibility
The following entry presents criticism of Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility (1811). See also, Pride and Prejudice Criticism, Mansfield Park Criticism, Northanger Abbey Criticism, and Jane Austen Criticism.
Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen's first published novel. Although similar to her other novels in plot, tone, and type of characters, Sense and Sensibility differs from the others in its representation of the courtship of two sisters; rather than one heroine, there are two. Elinor, the subdued, quiet one, and Marianne, the emotional, outgoing one, are contrasting character types Austen would use alternately in later novels. In addition, Sense and Sensibility brings to the fore issues of property, patronage, and gender that were prominent in the years following the French Revolution. Like Austen's other novels, Sense and Sensibility is regarded as a classic and is still widely read.
Austen began writing the story in 1795 at the age of twenty-one. At that time it was probably in epistolary form, and was titled "Elinor and Marianne." Austen began to revise it two years later in third-person narrative form, and in 1809 and 1810 worked the story into what is now known as Sense and Sensibility.
After Austen finished the novel, one of her brothers served as an intermediary between her and her publisher, Thomas Egerton. Expecting that the book would cost more than it returned, Austen had saved some money to pay for the printing of the book. She retained copyright and the publisher received a commission for distributing the book. Sense and Sensibility was published in the fall of 1811, the title page stating only that the novel was "By A Lady." Because "authoresses" at that time were regarded with hostility and "proper" women did not appear as public characters, Austen insisted on anonymity. The first edition sold out in less than two years. Austen's next publication would be Pride and Prejudice (1813), again a revision of an earlier work and also well received. Although this subsequent novel was also published anonymously, Austen's authorship became known publicly.
Plot and Major Characters
Sense and Sensibility begins with the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters—Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret—being ousted from their home when the new owner, John Dashwood and his wife, Fanny, move in. John Dashwood, Mr. Dashwood's eldest son from his first marriage, inherits his father's entire estate, under the laws of primogeniture. The Dashwood women are given a home, Barton Cottage, on the estate of Sir John Middleton, a distant relative. One visitor to the area, Colonel Brandon, is interested romantically in Marianne, but he does not fit her ideal of a romantic hero and she ignores him. However, another visitor to the area, Willoughby, matches her expectations and she falls in love with him. Meanwhile, Elinor becomes disappointed that the man in whom she is interested, Edward Ferrars (Fanny Dashwood's brother, a young clergyman), does not call on her as she had expected. Other guests at the Middletons' include the Palmers and the Misses Steele (who, like the Dashwood sisters, are dependent upon others to avoid slipping from gentility to poverty), the younger of whom, Lucy, reveals to Elinor that she is secretly engaged to Edward Ferrars. Although bitterly disappointed, Elinor promises to keep the secret and bears this news with fortitude. In London, Marianne discovers that Willoughby is going to marry for money and reject her entirely. When Lucy Steele reveals her secret engagement to Edward, he is disinherited in favor of his younger brother, Robert. Returning to Barton, Marianne falls ill at the Palmers' estate. Willoughby arrives, concerned about Marianne, and confesses to Elinor that he loves Marianne and must now suffer an unhappy marriage. At Barton, Marianne recovers and Elinor learns that Edward has been freed from his engagement. Upon learning of Edward's disinheritance, Lucy turns to his brother, Robert, as the better prospect. Edward, having accepted Colonel Brandon's offer of a position, proposes to Elinor, and Marianne comes to see the virtues of the colonel and marries him.
Critics agree that Sense and Sensibility reflects Austen's own experience in terms of her role as a woman in her family and in post-Revolutionary society. Austen's situation as a young woman mirrored that of the Dashwood sisters at the outset of the novel: after her father's death, Austen, along with her mother and sister, were forced to rely on the benevolence of relatives (in Austen's case, her brothers) for financial support. Although the novel is not autobiographical, Austen understood the position of women who were deprived of the means to earn an income but needed to maintain their social standing. This predicament was also reflected in the Steele sisters, who were without parents and were wards of their uncle, but who relied on coquetry and intrigue (considered vulgar in post-Revolutionary society) for social advancement. The worst of court culture (artificial politeness and social games) is demonstrated through the Dashwoods (John and Fanny) and old Mrs. Ferrars.
All of this accords with the post-Revolutionary society in which Austen lived. "Sensibility," the indulgence of personal absolutes regardless of social conventions and laws, was viewed widely as a major source of Revolutionary transgression; "sense" was often opposed to Revolutionary theory. The triumph of sense over sensibility in the novel establishes the value of conventional feminine virtues, a position also espoused by other writers in the aftermath of the Revolution. Elinor and Marianne's "sense" triumphs and suffering brings happiness in the end.
Much critical commentary on Sense and Sensibility deals with the terms referred to in the title—"sense" versus "sensibility." Some critics have concluded that Austen advocated a woman's possessing "sense," not "sensibility," while others have argued that Austen advocated possessing neither one nor the other, but a balance between the two. It is not surprising that a good deal of criticism on the novel revolved around comparisons of one type or another which harken back to the one Austen presents to readers in the title. Critics compare Elinor and Marianne, Willoughby and Edward Ferrars, and lesser characters such as Fanny Dashwood and Lucy Steele. One critic aligns the Dashwood sisters and Willoughby against the rest of the novel's characters. Commenting on other comparisons or "pairings," other critics note that Austen negotiates between actual and hypothetical language; private desire and public voice; epistolary and objective narration.
In addition, several critics have commented on the novel's position within feminist and gender studies. One critic finds the novel the most antifeminist of all Austen's books in its consideration of female authority and power, while another posits that feminist criticism is vital to evaluating Sense and Sensibility for the way in which it offers new ways of valuing the female experience. Yet another critic argues that Austen has created, through the character of Elinor, a female intellectual, signaling Austen's attempt to reshape ideas about gender through her novel.
Marilyn Butler (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "Sense and Sensibility," in Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, Clarendon Press, 1987, pp. 182–237.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1975, Butler discusses Austen's use of didactic comparison in Sense and Sensibility, focusing primarily on the Dashwood sisters, Willoughby, and Edward Ferrars.]
Of the novels Jane Austen completed, Sense and Sensibility appears to be the earliest in conception. An uncertain family tradition suggests that its original letter-version, 'Elinor and Marianne', may have been written in 1795:1 before the publication of Mrs. West's similar Gossip's Story, and in the same year as Maria Edgeworth's Letters of Julia and Caroline. The didactic novel which compares the beliefs and conduct of two protagonists—with the object of finding one invariably right and the other invariably wrong—seems to have been particularly fashionable during the years 1795–6. Most novelists, even the most purposeful, afterwards abandon it for a format using a single protagonist, whose experiences can be handled more flexibly and with much less repetition.2 On the whole, therefore, all Jane Austen's other novels are more sophisticated in conception, and they are capable of more interesting treatment of the central character in relation to her world. But there is a caveat. Catherine in North-anger Abbey is dealt with, as we have seen, in an inhibited manner. A rather mindless character, of somewhat undefined good principles, she matures in a curiously oblique process that the reader does not quite witness. The format of the contrast-novel, with all its drawbacks, at least obliges Jane Austen to chart the mental processes of her heroines directly, and to locate the drama in their minds.
By its very nature Sense and Sensibility is unremittingly didactic. All the novelists who choose the contrast format do so in order to make an explicit ideological point. Essentially they are taking part in the old argument between 'nature' and 'nurture': which is the more virtuous man, the sophisticated, or schooled individual, or the natural one? Obviously there is a total division on the issue between the type of traditional Christian who takes a gloomy view of man's unredeemed nature, and the various schools of eighteenth-century optimists, whether Christian or not. Although a Catholic, Mrs. Inchbald is also a progressive: of the two brothers in her Nature and Art, the sophisticated one stands for greed, self-seeking, worldly corruption, the 'natural' one for primal simplicity, honesty, sympathy, and innate virtue.3 Maria Edgeworth, although in a sense favouring 'nurture' in her Letters of Julia and Caroline, does so on idiosyncratic terms which take her out of rancorous current controversy. But Mrs. West, in preferring her disciplined, self-denying Louisa to her self-indulgent Marianne, is entirely relevant to the contemporary issue, and entirely conservative. So, too, is Jane Austen.4
Jane Austen conscientiously maintains the principle of a didactic comparison. Her novel advances on the assumption that what happens to one of the central characters must also happen to the other; at every turn the reader cannot avoid the appropriate conclusion. The motif of the first volume is the attitude of each girl towards the man she hopes to marry. When the novel opens Elinor already knows Edward Ferrars. Her views about him are developed in conversation with Mrs. Dashwood, and the reader is also given Marianne's rather qualified opinion. When Edward and Elinor have to separate, Mrs. Dash-wood invites him to visit them at Barton, but Edward seems reluctant. Thereafter Elinor's endurance of uncertainty about Edward's feelings becomes a factor in her character, and in our response to her.
Shortly after the family's arrival at Barton Cottage, Marianne's lover, Willoughby, enters the novel. His dramatic arrival is in keeping with his more flamboyant character; his appearance, too, is contrasted with Edward's; but the manner in which the sequence of his courtship is developed shows Jane Austen's concern to enforce a similarity of situation in order to bring out a dissimilarity of character. Again, Mrs. Dashwood gives her enthusiastic approval, while the other sister, in this case Elinor, expresses her reservations. When Willoughby leaves, Mrs. Dashwood once more issues her invitation, which is inexplicably not accepted, and Marianne, like Elinor, is left to a period of loneliness and anxiety.
When in the second volume the two heroines go to London they are placed, again, in a similar predicament. Both expect to meet the loved one there, both are obliged uneasily to wait; cards are left by each of the young men; each is lost, or seems lost, to a rival woman. In all the embarrassments and worries of the London visit, the reader's developing knowledge of the sisters is based on a substructure which demands that he adjudicate between them. And they leave London, as they entered it, still similarly placed, travelling towards the county, Somerset, where each believes her lover to be setting up house with his bride.
The parallels can be taken further, for example to the influence first of upbringing, later of idleness, on the characters of the two young men. The entire action is organized to represent Elinor and Marianne in terms of rival value-systems, which are seen directing their behaviour in the most crucial choices of their lives. It is an arrangement which necessarily directs the reader's attention not towards what they experience, but towards how they cope with experience, away from the experiential to the ethical.
In the two contrasted opening sequences the emphasis is on each girl's scale of values as she applies it to both young men. Edward Ferrars's attractions are not external. 'Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing.'5 But even Marianne, who has reservations about Edward as a lover, has 'the highest opinion in the world of his goodness and sense. I think him everything that is worthy and aimiable.'6 For Elinor, this is commendation so high that she does not know what more could be said. As for herself, she admits that she 'greatly esteems' and 'likes' him: words which define the state of her understanding rather than her feelings, and, as such, seem to Marianne inappropriate.
But Marianne hesitates because in addition to Edward's lack of physical grace (what we might call physical attractiveness), he does not act like a lover with Elinor. In Marianne's language, he wants fire and spirit. His passionless temperament is further illustrated in his attitude to literature and to matters of 'taste' generally. When set by Marianne to read Cowper, he was, as she complains to her mother, tame and spiritless:
'To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable coldness, such dreadful indifference!——' 'He would certainly have done more justice to simple and elegant prose. I thought so at the time; but you would give him Cowper.'
'Nay, Mama, if he is not to be animated by Cowper!—but we must allow for difference of taste. Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him. But it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility!'7
Marianne's objection is that Edward does not give free rein to the intuitive side of his nature. She equates lack of 'taste' with lack of response, an inability to enter subjectively into the emotions of a writer, or to attempt rapport with the spirit of a landscape. Again, as in Northanger Abbey, the reader is certainly not supposed to draw a moral distinction between characters concerned with literature, and characters concerned with life: for Elinor likes books and drawing, and Edward, who has views about both, and about landscape too, would do justice to 'simple and elegant prose'. But he, like Elinor, approaches the arts differently from Marianne. He would be likely to concern himself more than she with the intellectual content; when he looks at a landscape, he considers questions of utility—such as whether the terrain would be good for farming—and practicality—such as whether a lane would be too muddy for walking.
Edward's tastes can be considered aesthetically, as Augustan and thus in terms of contemporary landscape art old-fashioned: he has more in common with Pope than would please Marianne. But, and this is more to the novel's purposes, they are also the tastes of a self-effacing man, who likes to apply objective criteria, independent of his own prejudices and the limitations of his knowledge. His objective approach to art resembles Elinor's way of evaluating him. She knows enough of his background to see beyond the defects of his manner to the enduring qualities of his mind and spirit, his 'sense' and 'goodness', and both these words imply that Edward's virtues are those of a given code of value, namely the Christian. Edward's character, Edward's aesthetic opinions, and Elinor's method of assessing Edward, all have this much in common—that they are based on prescribed standards, not on subjective impulse.
With all this Marianne's choice of Willoughby is carefully compared. His entrance, like that of the 'preserver' of the heroine in a romantic novel, at once gives him a superficial glamour. He is 'uncommonly handsome' and his manner 'frank and graceful', so that not merely Marianne, but Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor,8 are struck with admiration on his first appearance. His beauty encourages an intuitive response from Marianne, and receives it. She reacts to Willoughby with the same whole-hearteded impulsiveness with which she reacts to books, and indeed before long she is reacting to books and Willoughby together, in a style that suggests all feeling, little or no intellectual detachment:
The same books, the same passages were idolized by each—or, if any difference appeared, any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed. He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm; and long before his visit concluded, they conversed with the freedom of a long-established acquaintance.9
When Elinor teases Marianne for running so recklessly through the beauties of Cowper and Scott, Jane Austen clearly means no criticism of two poets who were among her own favourites. But she does mean to criticize, through Elinor, the way Willoughby and Marianne read, and to show that, when they abandon themselves to their reading together, the result is grossly self-indulgent. Everything they do follows the same pattern of shared selfishness. Wholly absorbed in one another and in their exclusive pursuits, they rudely ignore the rest of their social circle, and, on the day of the cancelled outing, drive off together to Allerton in Willoughby's phaeton. As it happens, Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings cheerfully tolerate the lovers. They in their turn are less tolerant; indeed, their self-sufficiency has an unattractive arrogance about it, which is displayed when they mount their unreasonable joint attack on Colonel Brandon. Willoughby's irrationality is as apparent here—'he has threatened me with rain when I wanted it to be fine'10—as it is later, when he begs that no lateration be made to Barton Cottage because he has pleasant associations with it as it is.11 That Marianne has gone far along the same subjective path is demonstrated after her visit to Allerton. Elinor argues that she has been guilty of serious impropriety in going there in Mrs. Smith's absence. Marianne relies on her usual criterion, intuition: "'If there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure."'12
She believes in the innate moral sense; and, since man is naturally good, his actions when he acts on impulse are likely to be good also. Just as Marianne has no doubts about herself, so she can have none about her alter ego, Willoughby. Neither can Mrs. Dashwood, who, proceeding according to the same intuitional method as her second daughter, is wholly convinced of the goodness of Willoughby. When Elinor tries to argue with her, and to check instinct with the objective test of Willoughby's behaviour, her mother protests. She rightly sees that a broader question is at issue: Elinor's sense (stemming from the Christian tradition that man's nature is fallible) has come into conflict with the sentimentalist's tendency to idealize human nature. From Elinor's caution, Mrs. Dashwood draws a universal inference. 'You had rather take evil upon credit than good.'13
So far, then, the issue between the two contrasted sisters is presented according to the view of the nature-nurture dichotomy usually adopted by conservatives. The contrast, as always, is between two modes of perception. On the one hand, Marianne's way is subjective, intuitive, implying confidence in the natural goodness of human nature when untrammelled by convention. Her view is corrected by the more cautious orthodoxy of Elinor, who mistrusts her own desires, and requires even her reason to seek the support of objective evidence.
It is in keeping with Elinor's objectivity (and also typical of the feminine variant of the anti-jacobin novel) that she should advocate a doctrine of civility in opposition to Marianne's individualism. Elinor restrains her own sorrow in order to shield her mother and sister. By her politeness to Mrs. Jennings she steadily makes up what Marianne has carelessly omitted. She respects Colonel Brandon for his activity in helping his friends long before Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne have seen his virtues. Civility is a favourite anti-jacobin theme, which does not appear in Northanger Abbey, although it is present in Jane Austen's later novels. Its objective correlative, the sketch given in Sense and Sensibility of society at large, is impoverished compared with the solid worlds of Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion: the Middletons and Colonel Brandon, even supported by Mrs. Jennings, hardly stand in for a whole community. Yet this is a judgement arrived at by a comparison with Jane Austen's later work. If Sense and Sensibility is compared with other novels of the same genre, and originating at the same time, it can be seen to move in innumerable small ways towards fullness and naturalness. A conception of civility illustrated by gratitude to Mrs. Jennings is more natural, for example, than portraying a similar concept in terms of prayers beside a dying father, or fidelity to the death-bed advice of an aunt.14
In fact, granted the rigidity imposed by the form, the second half of Sense and Sensibility is remarkably natural, flexible, and inventive. Both the sisters are presented as plausible individuals as well as professors of two opposing creeds. Another contemporary novelist—Mrs. West, Mrs. Hamilton, or the young Maria Edgeworth—would almost certainly have had Marianne seduced and killed off, after the errors of which she has been guilty. For during the first half of the novel Marianne has stood for a doctrine of complacency and self-sufficiency which Jane Austen as a Christian deplored:
Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of temper and every evil habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures, and the danger of our own souls…. Incline us to ask our hearts these questions oh! God, and save us from deceiving ourselves by pride or vanity….
Incline us oh God! to think humbly of ourselves, to be severe only in the examination of our own conduct, to consider our fellow-creatures with kindness, and to judge of all they say and do with that charity which we would desire from them ourselves.15
After Allerton, Marianne failed to examine her own conduct at all. She had none of the Christian's understanding of the sinfulness of her own heart; and she showed a notable lack of Christian charity towards Colonel Brandon, Mrs. Jennings, and the Middletons. Elinor alone had exercised the self-examination prescribed for the Christian, by questioning the state of her heart in relation to Edward, and, even more, her complex and disagreeable feelings about Lucy. Elinor never had the same certainty that Edward loved her which Marianne always felt about Willoughby. 'She was far from depending on that result of his preference of her, which her mother and sister still considered as certain.'16
The most interesting feature of the character of Elinor, and a real technical achievement of Sense and Sensibility, is that this crucial process of Christian self-examination is realized in literary terms. Elinor is the first character in an Austen novel consistently to reveal her inner life. The narrative mode of Sense and Sensibility is the first sustained example of 'free indirect speech', for the entire action is refracted through Elinor's consciousness as Northanger Abbey could not be through the simple-minded Catherine's. Other technical changes necessarily follow. Dialogue is far less important in Sense and Sensibility, since the heroine is not so much in doubt about the nature of external truth, as concerned with the knowledge of herself, her passions, and her duty. Judging by the narrative mode alone, Sense and Sensibility is, like Mansfield Park after it, an introspective novel. And yet it is clearly important to recognize that both are introspective only within closely defined limits. The inner life led by Elinor, and later by Fanny, is the dominant medium of the novel, but it is entirely distinct from the irrational and emotional states which the post-Romantic reader thinks of as 'consciousness'.
Technically, as well as intellectually, Elinor's scrupulous inner life has great importance in the novel, and Jane Austen brings it out by giving similar qualities to the two male characters who approach a moral ideal. Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon have the same wary scepticism about themselves. Rather to the detriment of their vitality, Jane Austen's characteristic word for both of them is 'diffident'. Diffidence helps to explain Edward's unwillingness to expatiate on matters of taste; and 'the epicurism, selfishness and conceit' of Mr. Palmer are contrasted with Edward's 'generous temper, simple tastes and diffident feelings'.17 Robert Ferrar's complacent comparison of himself with his brother Edward enforces a similar point.18 And diffidence, especially in relation to Marianne, is also the characteristic of Colonel Brandon as a lover.19
But it is Elinor alone who can be seen living through the moments of self-examination that are evidently typical of both men. The most interesting sequence in which she is shown doubting herself occurs after she has heard Willoughby's confession. Many modern critics interpret this passage as evidence that Jane Austen is qualifying her own case, in order to arrive at a compromise solution somewhere between 'Sense' and 'Sensibility'. According to Mr. Moler, for example, Elinor feels after she has heard Willoughby that her own 'Sense' has been inadequate: 'Elinor's rationality causes her to reach a less accurate estimate of Willoughby than Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood reach with their Sensibility.'20
Such interpretations are interesting as evidence of the difficulty the twentieth-century reader has with the notion of an objective morality. What happens in this episode is surely that Elinor is shaken by her feelings, for she finds both that she pities Willoughby and that she has a renewed sense of his 'grace', or personal attractiveness. Her judgment is assailed by involuntary sympathy: part of her wants to excuse his injuries to Marianne and Miss Smith. Yet the fact that Willoughby was tempted—by the two young women on the one hand, and by an education in worldliness on the other—does not in fact absolve the adult man, or not, at least, if one employs the objective ethical code rather than the relativist subjective one. The progressive supposedly sees the evil in individual men as social conditioning, the operation of impersonal forces which the individual cannot help. Elinor now considers Willoughby from this point of view—which is, of course, his own—and she finds it impossible to absolve him. 'Extravagance and vanity had made him coldhearted and selfish.'21 This is not Jane Austen qualifying Elinor's sense with a dash of Marianne's sensibility. On the contrary, she shows Elinor's judgement reasserting itself, with some difficulty, after a most effective and deeply felt appeal has been made to her sympathies:
… Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated for ever from her family with a tenderness, a regret, rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself—to his wishes than to his merits. She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge. But she felt that it was so long, long before she could feel his influence less.22
It is easy to mistake Elinor's sense for coldness. She is intended to be quite as loving and quite as accessible to 'feeling' as Marianne. The difference between them is one of ideology—Marianne optimistic, intuitive, unself-critical, and Elinor far more sceptical, always ready to study the evidence, to reopen a question, to doubt her own prior judgements. She can be ready to revise her opinion of Willoughby. She can admit her mistakes, as she does of her wrong estimate of Marianne's illness.23 The point about both episodes is that Elinor was never intended to be infallible, but to typify an active, struggling Christian in a difficult world. Indeed, Jane Austen clearly argues that we do not find the right path through the cold, static correctness of a Lady Middleton, but through a struggle waged daily with our natural predisposition to err.
It is the role of Marianne Dashwood, who begins with the wrong ideology, to learn the right one. After her illness she applies her naturally strong feelings to objects outside herself, and her intelligence to thorough self-criticism in the Christian spirit. In what for her is the crisis of the book, her confession of her errors to Elinor,24 Marianne resembles Jane Austen's other heroines Catherine, Elizabeth, and Emma, all of whom arrive at the same realization that (in the words of Jane Austen's prayer) 'pride' and 'vanity' have blinded them in relation both to themselves and to external reality.
It is quite false to assume that merely because Marianne is treated with relative gentleness, Jane Austen has no more than a qualified belief in the evils of sensibility. She spares Marianne, the individual, in order to have her recant from sensibility, the system. Even this is possible only because Marianne, with her naturally affectionate disposition and her intelligence, is never from the start a typical adherent of the doctrine of self: youth and impetuosity for a time blinded her, so that she acted against the real grain of her nature.25 Because Marianne is not representative, other characters are needed, especially in the second half of the novel, to show the system of self in full-blooded action. Jane Austen provides them in the group of characters who fawn upon and virtually worship that false idol compounded of materialism, status-seeking and self-interest, Mrs. Ferrars.
The leading characters who take over from Marianne the role of illustrating what worship of the self really means are Lucy Steele and Fanny Dashwood. It is clear, of course, that neither Lucy nor Fanny is a 'feeling' person at all. Both are motivated by ruthless self-interest, Lucy in grimly keeping Edward to his engagement, Fanny in consistently working for her immediate family's financial advantage. But both Lucy and Fanny, though in reality as hard-headed as they could well be, clothe their mercenariness decently in the garments of sensibility. Lucy flatters Lady Middleton by pretending to love her children. She acts the lovelorn damsel to Elinor. Her letters are filled with professions of sensibility. Similarly, in the successive shocks inflicted by Lucy's insinuation of herself into the family, 'poor Fanny had suffered agonies of sensibility'.26 It is no accident that at the end the marriages of the two model couples, Elinor and Marianne and their two diffident, withdrawing husbands, are contrasted with the establishments, far more glorious in worldly terms, of Lucy and Fanny and their complacent, mercenary husbands.27 Lucy and Fanny may quarrel, but it is suitable that they should end the novel together, the joint favourites of old Mrs. Ferrars, and forever in one another's orbit. However it begins, the novel ends by comparing the moral ideal represented by Sense with a new interpretation of 'individualism'. The intellectual position, originally held in good faith by Marianne, is abandoned; what takes its place is selfishness with merely a fashionable cover of idealism—and, particularly, the pursuit of self-interest in the economic sense. Willoughby's crime proves after all not to have been rank villainy, but expensive self-indulgence so habitual that he must sacrifice everything, including domestic happiness, to it. Lucy's behaviour is equally consistent, and it, too, is crowned with worldly success:
The whole of Lucy's behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest … will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.
Jane Austen's version of 'sensibility'—that is, individualism, or the worship of self, in various familiar guises—is as harshly dealt with here as anywhere in the anti-jacobin tradition. Even without the melodramatic political subplot of many anti-jacobin novels, Mrs. Ferrars's London is recognizably a sketch of the anarchy that follows the loss of all values but self-indulgence. In the opening chapters especially, where Marianne is the target of criticism, 'sensibility' means sentimental (or revolutionary) idealism, which Elinor counters with her sceptical or pessimistic view of man's nature. Where the issue is the choice of a husband, Jane Austen's criteria prove to be much the same as Mrs. West's: both advocate dispassionate assessment of a future husband's qualities, discounting both physical attractiveness, and the rapport that comes from shared tastes, while stressing objective evidence.29 Both reiterate the common conservative theme of the day, that a second attachment is likely to be more reliable than a first.30 By all these characteristic tests, Sense and Sensibility is an anti-jacobin novel just as surely as is A Gossip's Story.
The sole element of unorthodoxy in Sense and Sensibility lies in the execution, and especially in the skilful adjustment of detail which makes its story more natural. Sense and Sensibility is not natural compared with Jane Austen's later novels. Any reader will notice the stiffness of some of the dialogue, particularly perhaps those speeches early in the novel where Elinor sums up the character of Edward.31 And yet, especially in the second half of the novel, it is remarkable how the harsh outlines of the ideological scheme are softened. Often the changes are small ones, such as turning the jilted heroine's near-obligatory decline and death into a feverish cold caught, plausibly, from staying out to mope in the rain. Alternatively the difference may show in the born novelist's sense of occasion, her flair for a scene. Twice in the latter half of the novel, for example, there are theatrical entrances, consciously worked for: Edward's, when at last he calls on Elinor in London, only to find her with Lucy Steele; and Willoughby's, when he comes to Cleve-land in response to the news that Marianne is dying. Developments like this do more than rub away some of the angularities of the old nature-nurture dichotomy. They begin to make so many inroads on it (particularly in relation to Marianne) that many readers have had the impression Jane Austen was trying to break it down altogether. Certainly there is plenty of evidence in the second half of the novel that Jane Austen was impatient with the rigidity of her framework; and yet all the modifications she makes are a matter of technique, not ideology. Lucy Steele resembles Isabella Thorpe and Mary Crawford, George Wickham, Henry Crawford, Frank Churchill, and William Walter Elliott in that she does not come, like some other authors' representations, vociferously advocating free love, or revolution, or the reading of German novels. She is a harbinger of anarchy for all that.
Compared with the common run of anti-jacobin novels it is a considerable achievement, and yet it has never been found quite good enough. Sense and Sensibility is the most obviously tendentious of Jane Austen's novels, and the least attractive. The trouble is not merely that, for all the author's artistic tact, the cumbrous framework and enforced contrasts of the inherited structure remain. It matters far more that the most deeply disturbing aspect of all anti-jacobin novels, their inhumanity, affects this novel more than Jane Austen's skilled mature work. In a way Sense and Sensibility is worse affected than many clumsy works by lesser writers, because it is written naturally, and with more insight into at least some aspects of the inner life. The reader has far too much real sympathy with Marianne in her sufferings to refrain from valuing her precisely on their account. There is plenty of evidence that Jane Austen, anticipating this reaction, tried to forestall it. As far as possible she tries to keep us out of Marianne's consciousness: Marianne's unwonted secrecy, after Willoughby has left Barton, and after her arrival in London, functions quite as effectively in restricting the reader's sympathy as in restricting Elinor's. Merely to have Marianne's sufferings described after she has received Willoughby's letter is sufficient, however, to revive all the reader's will to identify himself with her. The effort to point up Elinor's feelings instead will not do: either we do not believe in them, and conclude her frigid, or the felt presence of suffering in the one sister helps us to supply imaginatively what we are not told about the inner life of the other. It is difficult, in short, to accept the way consciousness is presented in this novel. Marianne, and to some extent also Elinor, are drawn with strong feelings which the reader is accustomed to sympathize with, and actually to value for their own sake. But it is the argument of the novel that such feelings, like the individuals who experience them, are not innately good. Unfortunately, in flat opposition to the author's obvious intention, we tend to approach Marianne subjectively. Right or wrong, she has our sympathy: she, and our responses to her, are outside Jane Austen's control. The measure of Jane Austen's failure to get us to read her story with the necessary ethical detachment comes when she imposes her solution. What, innumerable critics have asked, if Marianne never brought herself to love Colonel Brandon? The fact that the question still occurs shows that in this most conscientiously didactic of all the novels the moral case remains unmade.
1 W. Austen Leigh and R. A. Austen Leigh, Jane Austen, her Life and Letters, A Family Record, London, 1913, p. 80.
2 Maria Edgeworth does not completely discard the contrast-novel, which recurs in one of the Popular Tales, The Contrast, 1804, and in Patronage, 1814. Jane Austen does not quite discard it either—for Mans-field Park is a contrast-novel, of the consecutive rather than the continuous type….
3Nature and Art appears to borrow its format from Thomas Day's Rousseauistic Sandford and Merton, 1783–9, with its spoilt little aristocrat Tommy Merton, and its robust, simple farmer's son, Harry Sandford.
4 The very terminology adopted by some of the titles is revealing. Mrs. Inchbald sees the issue in terms of 'nature' versus 'art', art in this context having the connotation of artificiality. 'Sense' gives nurture a very different bearing. By the mid-nineties sensibility is commonly a pejorative word. See E. Erämetsä, A Study of the Word 'Sentimental', etc., Helsinki, 1951.
5Sense and Sensibility, ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford, 1923, p. 15.
6 Ibid., p. 20.
7 Ibid., p. 18.
8Sense and Sensibility, p. 42. Elinor's involuntary admiration of Willoughby is important in the light of their last interview together….
9 Ibid., p. 47. Cf. the courtship in A Gossip's Story….
10 Ibid., p. 52.
11 Ibid., p. 73.
12 Ibid., p. 68.
13Sense and Sensibility, p. 78.
14 Tests of the heroine's virtue in, respectively, Mrs. West's Gossip's Story, and Mrs. Hamilton's Memoirs of Modern Philosophers.
15 Prayers composed by Jane Austen: Minor Works, ed. R. W. Chapman, Oxford, rev. ed., 1963, pp. 453–4 and 456.
16Sense and Sensibility, p. 22.
17Sense and Sensibility, p. 305.
18 Ibid., pp. 250–1.
19 Ibid., p. 338.
20Jane Austen's Art of Allusion, p. 70. For other expositions of the view that J A is 'ambivalent' between sense and sensibility, see Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen and her Art, p. 120; Andrew Wright, Jane Austen's Novels: A Study in Structure, pp. 30–1 and 92; and Lionel Trilling, 'A Portrait of Western Man', The Listener, 11 June 1953, 970.
21Sense and Sensibility, p. 331.
22Sense and Sensibility, p. 333.
23 For Mr. Moler, Elinor's complacent first opinion, that Marianne will soon recover, is further evidence that J A meant to show the limits of sense, and to strike a balance with sensibility. Jane Austen's Art of Allusion, pp. 62–73.
24Sense and Sensibility, pp. 345 ff.
25 Marianne's intelligence is of a kind which gives her moral stature within Jane Austen's system of belief. Although she begins the novel professing an erroneous system, it is always clear that she has the capacity for the searching self-analysis of the Christian. Simple, good characters like Mrs. Jennings are valued by Jane Austen, but she never leaves any doubt that individuals with active moral intelligence are a higher breed….
26Sense and Sensibility, p. 371.
27 Some critics have called Elinor's marriage 'romantic', Lucy's 'prudent', and the end another instance of J A's compromise between sense and sensibility. (Cf. Andrew Wright, Jane Austen's Novels, p. 92.) But this shows a continued misunderstanding of J A's interpretation of her two terms: her 'sense' approximates to the traditional Christian personal and social ethic, her 'sensibility' to a modern individualist ethic in two different manifestations, Marianne's and Lucy's.
28Sense and Sensibility, p. 376.
29 See above, pp. 97–101.
30 Marianne, Colonel Brandon, Edward Ferrars, the late Mr. Dashwood, and even perhaps Lucy Steele are better matched in their second choice than in their first.
31Sense and Sensibility, p. 20.
Zelda Boyd (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "The Language of Supposing: Modal Auxiliaries in Sense and Sensibility," in Jane Austen: New Perspectives, Vol. 3, edited by Janet Todd, Holmes & Meier, 1983, pp. 142–54.
[In the following essay, Boyd presents evidence of a new pairing in Sense and Sensibility—that of the actual and the hypothetical.]
Given Jane Austen's fondness for balanced verbal pairs—sense and sensibility, pride and prejudice—it is perhaps not inappropriate for me to propose another such set for discussion, namely, the actual and the hypothetical. The actual has to do with existing states of affairs, with the way the world in fact is as distinct from our wishes, desires, and suppositions. However much philosophers may argue about the external world, the actual is very real for Austen. Estates are unfairly entailed. Young men are engaged elsewhere. Uncles arrive unannounced to abort theatricals. Worse yet, uncles die (as in Sense and Sensibility) and leave their estates contrary to everyone's expectations. Every novel of hers turns at the beginning on a dislocation in the world, either a marriage or a death, an arrival or departure.
In addition, the books pulse with the small details of life. Think of the sides of pork and bushels of apples that go from Hartfield and Donwell Abbey to the Bateses. Think of the ribbons that are purchased, the wedding cake that is consumed. Consider Mrs. Allen's careful inventory of every new hat and gown that is to be seen in Bath, or Elizabeth Bennet's much remarked-upon muddy skirts. The sense of the circumstantial is so strong that critics have been tempted to see Jane Austen very much as the careful recorder of particulars, the acute historian of a world she knew so well. Caroline Mercer, for example, in the "Afterword" to the Signet edition of Sense and Sensibility, quotes from the Letters to underscore Austen's devotion to detail and desire to ground her fiction in fact:
If you could discover whether Northamptonshire is a country of Hedgerows, I should be glad again.1
This view is not wrong. At the same time we know there is another Jane Austen, who is as much concerned with how people ought to behave as she is with hedgerows. Presumably this is the Austen that F. R. Leavis had in mind when he cited her as the progenetrix of the Great Tradition, because of her "intensely moral preoccupation."2 Leavis, too, is right. Although he is maddeningly evasive about what a "moral preoccupation" would entail, we recognize intuitively what he means about Austen. The question is how to put it into words.
Maybe one way to begin is with the hypothetical, with the world of supposition and desire as opposed to the world of hedgerows and apples. In this world we find the comic figures—like Mr. Woodhouse or Mrs. Jennings or Sir John Middleton—who are comic precisely because they are always busily remaking the actual to suit their assumptions. For Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Weston is forever "poor Miss Taylor." Mrs. Jennings is forever assuming that possible engagements are real ones, and Sir John insists that events "must and shall" be as he wishes them. They are incorrigible. But even misguided heroines fall into the same temptation, and the happy endings present us not only with suitable marriages but with a presumably reformed Catherine Morland or Emma Woodhouse or Marianne Dashwood now prepared to deal with things as they are. Yet who has not harbored the suspicion that young girls, even heroines, are not so easily rehabilitated? And what of the multitude of other fiction-makers in the novels? Who can assume that human nature is so malleable, so easily subdued to the exigencies of the actual? Certainly not Jane Austen.
The picture of Jane Austen as the judgmental narrator who delivers the main characters from error, leaving the minor ones forever mired in their delusions, and then steps in to tell us in a magisterial way how people ought to behave is no more adequate than the picture of her as an ironic miniaturist, simply sketching human foibles for our amusement. Yet, as everyone has noticed, her language is the language of judgment. There is scarcely a page that doesn't abound with "musts," "oughts," "shoulds," "coulds"—in fact, the whole range of modals, that peculiar set we were taught to call "helping verbs" in grammar school.3
If we begin, then, with her language and specifically with her use of modal auxiliaries, perhaps we can arrive at a more subtle, more modulated view of Austen. The etymology of the word "modal" is itself unclear but provocative. It comes either from the Old English mod for "mind" or from the Latin modus meaning "manner," or conceivably from both. The Old English and the Latin are not so different as to pose difficulties, for one could easily regard modals as reflecting the manner of the mind. They are the language of what I have called "the hypothetical"—of reflection, supposition, deliberation, judgment, in contrast to matters of fact.
The first question to consider is who uses modals in Austen. And the answer to that is easy: everyone uses modals,4 Mr. Knightley as well as Emma, Elinor Dashwood as well as Sir John. There is hardly a conversation anywhere in the novels that doesn't revolve around what someone believes might be, should be, must be. And conversely, there is surprisingly little talk of the actual, of what was or is,5 except as a point of departure for speculation, and that of course brings us back to the realm of the hypothetical (the modal).
Consider, for instance, the conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood in Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility. The actuality here is that John promised at his father's deathbed to take care of his stepmother and half-sisters. Now, at leisure, with the dead buried, Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood consider whether three thousand pounds would constitute reasonable care. Mrs. Dashwood is an expert at hypothetical deliberations of this sort.
How could he rob his child, and his only child, too, of so large a sum? And what possible claim could the Miss Dashwoods … have….6
John's answer—that it was his father's wish—is easily countered by her. He could not have meant them to give away half their fortune (which, needless to say, it is not). Yes, concedes John,
"Perhaps it would have been as well if he had left it wholly to myself. He could hardly suppose I should neglect them. But as he required thepromise, I could not do less than give it: at least I thought so at the time. The promise … must be performed. Something must be done." …
Mrs. Dashwood seizes the opportunity to remind him that money, once gone,
never can return…. Your sisters will marry … the time may come [when] it would be a very convenient addition.
"It would," John echoes.
The discussion goes on like this for five pages, full of "woulds," "coulds," and "mays" with which Mrs. Dashwood sketches various possible scenarios, all of which augur doom for them and prosperity for Marianne and Elinor, only to conclude with a series of "cans," "wills," and "musts" which assert a happy ending for all if they do nothing. John is easily turned around. He never needed much convincing—a paragraph would have sufficed to disinherit the women—but who could cut short such a delicious scene of self-interest masquerading as disinterested deliberation?
I have focused on this scene because it provides the clearest example of what modals can do—not to mention what people can do with modals. They allow us to talk about the nonliteral, for they constitute the world of possibility, in this particular case the unsavory world of self-justifying fictions. And we do find in Austen, in Sense and Sensibility and elsewhere, that the foolish, the selfish, the manipulative are those most prone to fall into modal language, since they are forever reshaping the facts to match their desires. Sir John Middleton, for example, while miles beyond the Dashwoods in generosity, is just as bent as they upon remaking the world to conform to his will. Consider his response when it appears that the trip to Whitwell must be canceled because of Colonel Brandon's sudden departure.
"We must go," said Sir John. "It shall not be put off when we are so near it. You cannot go to town till to-morrow, Brandon, that is all."
Here modals serve for what we surely read as imperatives. But whereas imperatives are direct expressions of will, the modals simply report that an imperative exists. Thus Sir John's "cannots" and "shall nots" and "musts" tend to mask (although very thinly in this case) the crudely willful nature of his outburst. They transform subjective desire into objective grounds, "I want you to stay" into "It is absolutely necessary that you stay." When Colonel Brandon proves recalcitrant, Sir John reluctantly assents to his going. Indeed, he could hardly do otherwise. But lest we should think that he has learned any lessons in submission, Sir John immediately begins planning the colonel's return. "He must and shall come back," he declares.
The covert willfulness expressed by modal language is not exclusively the mark of comic characters, however. We find even Elinor sounding very much like Sir John when, in reply to her mother's question about Willoughby, "Do you suppose him really indifferent to her?" she says, "No, I cannot think that. He must and does love her. I am sure." The certainty of that "I am sure" is illusory. We can be sure that there are or are not hedgerows in Northamptonshire, but our inferences about other minds are not similarly verifiable. Mrs. Dashwood is righter than she knows in asking "Do you suppose," for that is precisely what they are doing. And Elinor's answer is curiously evasive, for all its positiveness. After all, "I cannot think that" does not mean that she doesn't, and "He must love her" doesn't mean that he does. Binding as they are, "can" and "must" apply only to what is possible or necessary in an ideal world; they do not ensure the actual—in this case, the condition of Willoughby's heart. Finally, Elinor is invoking a hypothetical (and just) order in which lovers love where they ought, and appearances are not deceiving. She is as prone as Sir John or her contemptible brother- and sister-in-law to fictionalizing, creating scenarios in which events match her wishes.
The sensible characters, it turns out, are not much more immune to the charms of the hypothetical than the most self-indulgent wishful thinkers. One finds surprisingly little difference in the use or the frequency of their modals. Elinor, Edward, and Colonel Brandon use as many as Marianne or Sir John or Mrs. Jennings does, and all of them use modals to invoke nonactual worlds (some more pleasing or plausible than others) which instantiate and objectify their desires. Evidently, the distinction between Elinor and Marianne, or, for that matter, between Edward, the supposed literalist, and Marianne, the emotionalist, is less sharp than the contrastive "and" of the title suggests, at least insofar as their language is concerned.
Elinor is presumably the model of sense. She does none of the foolish things Marianne does in the name of love—no passionate letters or secret visits to ancestral houses for her. She never abandons herself to her feelings when her lover fails her, and, unlike Marianne, she is never publicly distraught. Moreover, Elinor doesn't seek out occasions for self-dramatization. She abjures poetical farewells and picturesque vistas, all opportunities for modal language. In contrast, Marianne savors such moments. "Oh! happy house," she exclaims on leaving Norland,
"could you know what I suffer … I may view you no more … but you will continue the same. No leaf will decay … although we can observe you no longer … but who will remain to enjoy you?"
Marianne's posturing here is closely akin to her love of the picturesque, as becomes clear in her exchange with Edward about the picturesqueness of Barton Valley.
"Look up at it and be tranquil if you can."
"It is a beautiful country," he replied; "but these bottoms must be dirty in winter."
"How can you think of dirt with such objects before you?"
"Because," replied he, smiling, "among the rest of the objects before me, I see a very dirty lane."
Although this exchange appears to set up a clear-cut opposition between the literal and the imaginative, there is something more subtle going on: Edward is revealed to be less wooden and more fallible than one might guess. He sees the dirty road only partly, as he claims, because it's there. In fact, he, too, selects, focusing on the dirt because Marianne doesn't, and because he is low in spirits and in no mood to be shown the splendors of anything. So he offers his own projection to counter hers. His answer that the bottoms "must" be dirty in winter is no more an account of the actual than is her poeticizing. It is, rather, another hypothetical version, as the inferential "must" indicates.
In a slightly less fractious mood, Edward continues:
"I shall call hills steep which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight which ought to be indistinct."
It is clear that Edward sees the picturesque as connected with a series of modal prescriptions, and the "oughts" of Marianne's doctrine offend him. What is less clear is the way in which Edward himself is using those same modals to argue unfairly. His characterization—hills that ought to be bold and surfaces that ought to be irregular—places the obligation squarely on the natural scene to behave as Marianne wishes, and although there is surely some truth in this parody, the "oughts" are, after all, Edward's misrepresentation and not hers.
Elinor herself is, in private, less sensible than one might expect. She is all too willing to construct arguments to rationalize Edward's behavior, which she continually contrasts favorably with Willoughby's. Looked at from the outside, it seems open to question whether there is so sharp a division between the two men as Elinor makes. If Willoughby makes love to Marianne and then drops her for a provident marriage, Edward too engages Elinor's affections although he cannot hope to wed her. Nor is he discreet. In his quiet way he makes his preference as public as Willoughby does his, with the additional consideration that Edward is engaged, while Willoughby is at least free. Yet rarely does Elinor seriously blame Edward. Quite the contrary. At the beginning of Book II, having heard Lucy's astonishing secret, she is "at liberty to think and be wretched." And liberty she takes. She cannot doubt the truth of the engagement, "supported as it was … by such probabilities and proofs, and contradicted by nothing but her own wishes." Nevertheless, she manages to envision a state of affairs very different from that described by Lucy. In a long introspective flight, full of hypotheses about how "it might have been," "it ought to be," she persuades herself that
his affection was all her own. She could not be deceived in that … the youthful infatuation of nineteen would naturally blind him … but the four succeeding years … must have opened his eyes….
Although Elinor tries hard to separate the reality from her own "wishes," she manages, against all internal warnings about persuasion, to persuade herself of what she wants to believe.
It appears that all of us, even Elinor, live rather more than we admit in modal rather than actual worlds. And one lesson of Sense and Sensibility, like that of North-anger Abbey or Emma, seems to be that we must give up these imaginary realms to take up firmer residence in the here and now. But Austen's view is not so simple, nor are modals so avoidable. Modals can be used to serve the ends of false reason precisely because they are fundamentally the language of all reasoning. And the most important lesson to be learned from Austen is not that some people are deluded, or even that all people are deluded, but that hypothesis, inference, supposition are what John Searle calls ground-floor properties of the human mind.
Almost everyone in Sense and Sensibility at some point considers the question of what would constitute right reasoning, even those least likely to act on that knowledge. The most amazing people invoke rationality. Marianne judges her mother's decision that they remain in London "to be entirely wrong, formed on mistaken grounds," and when Elinor assures Willoughby that Marianne "has long forgiven you," he objects, "Then she has forgiven me before she ought…. But she shall forgive me again, and on more reasonable grounds." Elinor criticizes her mother and Marianne because "with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect," only to have her own cautious skepticism called into question by Mrs. Dashwood, who asks, quite reasonably, "Are no probabilities to be accepted merely because they are not certainties?"
Accurate or not, the hypothetical is an inescapable mode (and inescapably modal) in a world where there are many more probabilities than certainities, and in actual life thought and discourse turn less on empirically verifiable statements like "The cat is on the mat" than on modal ones about unobservable things like causes, reasons, states of mind. Even as the talk ranges from trifling subjects like Mrs. Dashwood's intended remodeling to serious discussions of Edward's future, or Marianne's possible engagement, it involves the same processes of supposing and speculating about what someone might do, will do, ought to do. If Mr. and Mrs. Dashwood's vision of their own poverty on several thousands a year and their relations' affluence on several hundred serves as an ironic instance, other conversations equally full of modals need to be taken seriously. As an illustration, here is Colonel Brandon speculating about what Edward will do now that he has offered him a living. Brandon does not
suppose it possible that the Delaford living could supply such an income as any body in his style of life would venture to settle on …"This little rectory can do no more than make Mr. Ferrars comfortable … it cannot enable him to be married…. What I am now doing … can advance him so little toward what must be his principal … object of happiness. His marriage must still be … distant … it cannot take place very soon."
Brandon's assessment of the situation is not inaccurate, as Edward and Elinor later confirm when considering whether the income will suffice for them. (It won't.) Unlike the Dashwoods, Brandon is neither selfinterested nor rationalizing reluctance in saying he would do more if he could. About Edward's actual eagerness to marry, both the reader and the colonel may harbor some doubts. But Brandon is reasoning theoretically; his argument rests not on Edward's real feelings, but on a (not incorrect) supposition about what men of his class should feel and would do, what Edward himself would undoubtedly have done if Lucy had not conveniently defected. In other words, Brandon is not discussing what the facts are (for Edward could easily choose to ignore all of the supposed difficulties and marry); he is outlining what must be the case if Edward behaves as he ought.
David Hume argued earlier in the century that it is impossible to derive an "ought" from an "is," that "oughts" occupy a separate realm derived from nonempirical premises, and Austen, in describing the way we reason, supports this. What one does is very different from what one might do, could do, or even must do. Conversely, "can" asserts global possibility without entailing its enactment. "I can call you" doesn't mean that I do; nor does "I might call" mean that I will; not even "must" entails necessity in the actual world. "If that's the noon whistle, it must be twelve o'clock" is a reasonable supposition, although the whistle may have gone off at eleven-thirty. Only in the mental realm of pure deduction, which exists independent of the empirical world, do "musts" hold absolutely—two and two must be four because we have priorly defined them that way, but that a man who is engaged ought to be in love is true only if we assume as the major premise that men always engage themselves honorably. Of course, that premise is not only a supposition, but one open, especially in Austen, to the gravest doubts.
The hypothetical and the actual, then, do not simply exist side by side in discrete realms; although distinct, they intersect, and we are constantly being asked to consider the connection (and often the disconnection) between the two. While surmising that it must be twelve o'clock because the noon whistle went off is legitimate enough, we need also ask whether the whistle went off when it ought—that is, we need to check the "ought" against the empirical question of whether it did. Now, figures like Mrs. Bennet rarely move from their fictive worlds into the actual. She never gives way on the subject of the entail and is saved from her refusal to acknowledge it only through the kindly offices of the novelist, who provides the rich suitors Mrs. Bennet has no reasonable right to expect. No one is quite so recalcitrant in Sense and Sensibility but, on the other hand, everyone is caught to varying degrees within the circle of his or her suppositions.
Consider, for example, how everyone in Sense and Sensibility handles one of the central questions in the book: Is Marianne engaged to Willoughby? No one seems to find it legitimate to cut the Gordian knot by asking Marianne how things stand. Elinor believes it is her mother's place to ask; Mrs. Dashwood feels that to ask would be an intrusion; Mrs. Jennings and Sir John simply assume an engagement; and Colonel Brandon is far too tactful to inquire—although perhaps he prefers speculation to certain knowledge.
Elinor, for one, works hard to shape her limited bits of information into a reasonable hypothesis and is the first to suspect that Marianne is not assured of Willoughby. After Willoughby's public rebuff, Elinor ponders the affair.
That some kind of engagement has subsisted … she could not doubt … however Marianne might still feed her own wishes she could not…. Nothing but a … change of sentiment could account for it … absence might have weakened his regard, and convenience might have … overcome it, but that such a regard had … existed she could not bring herself to doubt.
As for Marianne on the pangs, which so unhappy a meeting must … have given her, and … on those … which might await her … she could not reflect without deepest concern.
Elinor is quite correct in her suppositions; a change has taken place, and Marianne's suffering is real enough. Nevertheless, Elinor clings to a mistaken assumption in order to judge her sister less harshly, and both her sympathy and her inferences are founded on a false premise—that there was an engagement—a premise she surely knows enough of her sister's impetuous nature to question. She doesn't because she is reasoning less about the real Marianne than about what ought to be the case, supposing Marianne's behavior to be justified.
Elinor is clever and, like Emma Woodhouse later, she reasons well, but reasoning well is not enough, as Austen makes patently clear in Emma and suggests even in this earlier novel. At some point hypothetical constructs must touch base with the actual. If the literalness of the inexperienced Catherine Morland, who never speculates about anything until she is seduced by Udolpho and abused by the world, is no model for wisdom, neither is Emma's willful disregard of the actual lest it fail to confirm her scenarios. Elinor in contrast tries hard to avoid either of these extremes, and it is less her error than a mark of the fundamental fugitiveness of human knowledge that she too comes to imperfect assessments.
That reasonable sequences often turn out to be wrong is one of the great sources of irony in Austen's work, but it is important to understand that the irony derives less from faulty reasoning than from the collision between the smooth logic of hypothetical scenarios and the unpredictability of the actual world. For example, Miss Steele's account of Lucy and Edward's conversation realizes all of Colonel Brandon's earlier assumptions about money and marriage. Lucy has told Edward that "she could live with him upon a trifle and how little soever he might have she should be very glad …" They (Lucy and Edward) "talked for some time about what they should do and they agreed that he should take orders directly, and they must wait to be married…. " But of course none of this comes to pass, for Lucy is not about to wait or to be poor if she can help it.
Perhaps the highest comic dissonance between the hypothetical and the actual is achieved in those scenes where Lucy and Elinor play at being confidantes in a language filled with the politest and most tentative of modals, while each is very much aware of the other's real motives.7 Elinor has surmised quite correctly that Lucy's revelations are directed at stinging her to jealousy while at the same time warning her to stay away from Edward. "What other reason for the disclosure … could there be but that Elinor might be informed … of Lucy's superior claims." Elinor on her part "could not deny herself the comfort of endeavoring to convince Lucy that her heart was unwounded." In a sequestered corner they chat. Lucy confesses that she feared she might have offended Elinor by her secret. "Offended me! How could you suppose so…. Could you have a motive for the trust that was not honourable and flattering to me?"—the answer to which, we all know, is yes, indeed, she can and does. Lucy proceeds to sketch a charming fictional version of her innocent and romantic attachment:
I could give up every prospect … and could struggle with any poverty for him … we must wait, it may be for many years. With almost any other man … it would be an alarming prospect; but Edward's affection and constancy nothing can deprive me of, I know.
"That conviction must be everything to you" is Elinor's sweetly acid reply, while thinking to herself, "All this … is very pretty but it can impose on neither of us." The delicacy of these modals hardly needs to be demonstrated. If we substitute indicatives for the modals, we can see at once how the archness is lost as the insinuation becomes an assertion. We also see how dangerously confrontational the game becomes.
There is more than comedy to be gained by the modal language of supposition and more than wisdom about human reasoning to be learned. Society moves on these smoothly greased modal rails, and while hypothesis needs to be checked against the empirical world, acknowledging the actual too directly risks bringing the whole machine to a grinding halt. For instance, when Mrs. Jennings commits the ultimate gaucherie of openly referring to pregnancy, asking Colonel Brandon, "How does Charlotte do? I warrant you she is a fine size by this time," the colonel as a gentleman can only change the subject, hoping desperately, no doubt, that the size of a woman's belly is never again made the topic of polite conversation. With Elinor, too, the literal borders on the obscene when she defends Colonel Brandon against Marianne's charge of "infirmity." Taking the word in its literal, i.e., etymological sense, she assures Marianne that, aged as he "may appear … you can hardly deceive yourself as to his having the use of his limbs." These embarrassments of frankness only underscore the need for decorum and reticence, and among other things the indirect language of modals provides the very means of comfortable social intercourse.
The point is that modal language is neither the mark of the foolish and the willful nor strictly the sign of the self-reflective, although it certainly serves both of these functions. Beyond that, however, it is the language that binds human society together, the language that creates, both in the best and the worst sense, the fictions we live by. While reasoning rightly about others is at its best difficult, given our imperfect knowledge both of other minds and of our own, nevertheless, as Austen recognizes, human beings do (and probably must) make suppositions, perhaps even fictions, about the world in order to live in it, and that process, unideal yet inescapable, is reflected in the modal language of Sense and Sensibility. The gossip, the endless examination of trivia, the possible scenarios are all subcategories of deliberation. And deliberation is at the center of the novels—people reflecting on their own situations and those of others. Finally, it is the nature of thinking itself, hypothetical, suppositious, sometimes confusing desire with certainty, that we are being asked to consider, and I suspect this is what Leavis was responding to when he praised Austen's "intensely moral preoccupation," for her preoccupation is with the moral, not in the prescriptive sense of telling us (or her characters) what to believe or do, but in the wider sense of showing us how we come to decide these issues.
1 Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, with an afterword by Caroline G. Mercer (New York: New American Library, 1961), pp. 307ff.
2 F. R. Leavis, The Great Tradition (Garden City: Doubleday, 1954), p. 16.
3 Grammatically, modal auxiliaries constitute a finite syntactic set: "can'/"could," "may"/"might," "will"/"would," "shall"/"should," "must" and, with qualifications, "ought." These operate like the main auxiliaries, "be," "do," "have," in that the negative is attached directly to them and in the interrogative they are simply moved from the second to the first place in the sentence. But modals differ from the main auxiliaries (and are unique in English) because they are oddly morphologically defective. They don't inflect in the third person ("He eats," "He does eat," but not "He cans eat"); they have neither a present nor a past participle, nor a passive, nor an infinitive. Modals also form a semantic set, sharing the feature of what I have called the hypothetical, or nonactual. Where the other auxiliaries mark tense and/or aspect, modal auxiliaries mark certain nonindicative moods: possibility, necessity, obligation, permission. This is where philosophers pick up modals. Their concern is with conceptual notions like possibility or necessity, and while there are other ways of expressing these ideas (notably through adverbs—"maybe," "probably"—or through catenatives like "have to," or through subjective complements like "is possible" or "is a possibility"), the analysis of these concepts usually involves, especially in ordinary language philosophy, a discussion of the modal auxiliaries per se. Although one could certainly follow the philosophers and consider all kinds of modalized sentences, I have chosen to follow the traditional grammarians and consider specifically those sentences containing modal auxiliaries, partly as a convenient way of delimiting the topic, but, more important, because such sentences from so large a part of Austen's language.
4 Any writer who is much concerned with deliberation and possibility can be expected to use a highly modalized language. Henry James is an example. Conversely, the marked absence of modals also tells us something important about a writer's preoccupations. Hemingway, especially in the short stories, is in full flight from reflection and deliberation, and if we look at the places (there are not many of them) where modals do occur in his stories, we find that they are always connected with uncertainty and discomfort.
5 Notice that "will be" has been omitted from the temporal series, since the division hypothetical/actual places the future in the hypothetical domain. The etymology of the word "future"—from Latin "futurus," meaning roughly "the about to be"—serves to corroborate this placement. Moreover, regarding the future as hypothetical is not only philosophically plausible it also allows us to avoid the difficulties in English between "shall" and "will," both of which are used for the future, sometimes to make predictions about what is to come, sometimes to make declarations of intention about bringing it about. The conceptual distinctions between "shall" and "will" are real enough, but for the purposes of this essay it is sufficient to see them both as expressions of the nonactual.
6 All quotations are from Jane Austen, The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R. W. Chapman, 5 vols., 3rd edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1932–34, 1966). The italics here and hereafter are mine unless otherwise indicated.
7 It is hard these days to avoid the question of "women's language" when dealing with a woman writer. The fact that modals are sometimes used as politeness forms and/or to express tentativeness rather than assertion has invited speculation about whether modal language is not peculiarly feminine (if we think in terms of the traditional stereotypes). I do not think Austen offers support for this view. In the standard case, modals characterize not the language of reticence but the language of anyone concerned with reflection and deliberation, with what is possible or necessary. And this is certainly Austen's primary use of them. Moreover, her characters are, at their worst, more willful than polite; at their best, more deliberative than decorous. Not one of them exhibits "feminine" deference, either in language or behavior. In fact, unctuousness, the mark of fools like Mr. Elton or Mr. Collins or Miss Steele, is remarkably free from modals, not surprisingly, since the people never stop to think.
Claudia L. Johnson (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "The 'Twilight of Probability': Uncertainty and Hope," Philological Quarterly, Vol. 62, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 171–86.
[In the following essay, Johnson discusses Austen's indebtedness to Samuel Johnson's "tradition of doubt" in Sense and Sensibility.]
Sense and Sensibility is Jane Austen's least loved and least respected novel. One reason why is that most readers believe that Sense and Sensibility is about its title. Critics typically explain the moral theory relevant to the novel, survey Elinor's and Marianne's predecessors in late eighteenth-century fiction and then almost invariably conclude that neither "sense" nor "sensibility" alone is adequate to human experience.1 The polarized abstractions in the novel's title, however, do not provide the most inclusive or penetrating terms for understanding Sense and Sensibility, and so critical preoccupation with them has produced readings that are simpler and more schematic than the novel itself.
A cursory review of the plot of Sense and Sensibility will disclose what this novel is really about. Marianne loves a man who has all the attributes of a devoted suitor but who is not, we later learn, a devoted suitor at all. He drops Marianne in favor of a more lucrative attachment, marries, but finally confesses that, to his own surprise, he had not been deceiving Marianne all along after all. Meanwhile, Elinor loves a man who is not demonstrative but who really is, we eventually discover, her ardent admirer. He likewise drops her because of another, mysterious attachment, and is on the brink of marriage, only to be unexpectedly released at the very last minute and left free to marry the woman he has always truly but almost covertly loved. Although the way each sister bears these utterly incalculable twists does reflect some of the competing claims of sense and sensibility, the logic that unifies and propels the plot does not depend on an opposition between sense and sensibility. Marvin Mudrick perceived this apparent discrepancy long ago: "Has it been Marianne's sensibility that was responsible for her mistake [about Willoughby]? Judgment, on the basis of partial evidence, is difficult for any one."2 Precisely. But because Mudrick believes that Marianne's mistakes ought to be causally related to the governing theme of sensibility, he, like many readers, concludes that Austen is willfully unfair to Marianne.
The fact is that both Elinor and Marianne consistently err because they must judge, as Mudrick puts it, "on the basis of partial evidence." Because both are confronted with suitors who are, as Elinor says specifically of Willoughby, "unfathomable,"3 both have difficulty in knowing what to believe and what to expect. Sense and Sensibility has as its starting point, then, epistemological problems—problems of knowing and assent—that baffle Elinor and Marianne alike. The characters themselves often formulate this problem explicitly. When Elinor argues with her mother about Willoughby's suspiciously abrupt departure and the possibility of his bad faith towards Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood, always anxious to make excuses, indignantly responds, "Are no probabilities to be accepted, merely because they are not certainties?" (pp. 78–79). This question pinpoints the problem the sisters face—though Marianne hardly suspects it—as they try to ascertain and anticipate the intentions of their extremely misunderstandable suitors.
The terms of Mrs. Dashwood's question, like so much else in this opaque and sceptical novel, place Sense and Sensibility in the eighteenth-century philosophical tradition, where the distinction between certainty and probability figures prominently. Locke, for example, argues that our understandings are so narrow and the world so complex that our certainty is limited to very few kinds of propositions and that we live in the "twilight … of probability" with respect to just about everything.4 Jane Austen's favorite moralist in prose, Dr. Johnson, shares many of Locke's philosophical assumptions, but insists even more strenuously and far more anxiously on "our ignorance of the most common objects and effects."5 Although Johnson most frequently dwells on our uncertainty about the future, our inability to have certain knowledge about the present also preoccupies him:
Such is the uncertainty, in which we are always likely to remain with regard to questions, wherein we have the most interest, and which every day affords opportunity to examine: we may examine indeed, but we never can decide, because our faculties are unequal to the subject. (Adventurer, no. 107)
This tradition of doubt what we can know bears very forcefully on Sense and Sensibility.) The stock terms of sensibility surface here only occasionally and somewhat vestigially. But, as I will show, terms such as "doubt," "belief," "conjecture," "certainty" and "probability" conspicuously dominate the novel as a whole. Such "philosophic words" testify to Austen's concern with the fallibility of our knowledge and serve to depict a dark and pervasive "twilight of probability."6 As Austen's most saliently Johnsonian novel, Sense and Sensibility dramatizes the danger of accepting even the most compelling of probabilities as certainties, and urges the need to govern what we allow ourselves to hope and to believe; for error and delusion "with regard to questions, wherein we have the most interest," and Johnson puts it, can be crushing and, in Marianne's case, almost deadly.
At the beginning of the novel, Elinor is differentiated from her family not so much in terms of the power of her feelings as in terms of the powers of her understanding. Whereas Elinor is noted for her "coolness of judgment" and "strength of understanding," Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood share "cleverness" and "eagerness of mind" (p. 6). "Judgment" here, of course, does not refer to a general sort of good sense, but to an ability to make distinctions and to discern differences and relations, an ability which, in Elinor's case, is cool and independent of her inclinations. "Eagerness of mind," on the other hand, suggests less measured, hastier and more passional mental activity. Furthermore, while "cleverness" signals adroit but not necessarily sound thinking, Elinor's "strength of understanding" alerts the reader to her steady and reliable use of the mind. Terms such as these merit serious attention because they are more than clichés used to introduce the characters. Indeed the ability to make distinctions soon becomes the very stuff of the plot.
Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne consistently fail to exercise judgment:
"Like him!" replied her [Elinor's] mother with a smile. "I can feel no sentiment of approbation inferior to love."
"You may esteem him,"
"I have never yet known what it was to separate esteem and love." (p. 16)
Marianne was afraid of offending, and said no more on the subject; but the kind of approbation which Elinor described as excited in him [Edward] by the drawings of other people, was very far from that rapturous delight, which, in her opinion, could alone be called taste. (p. 19)
These passages unquestionally exhibit the warm sensibility of Marianne and her mother, but they also demonstrate an eager tendency to compress distinctions between ideas, much as Marianne will later equate competence and wealth, or a touch of rheumatism with virtual decrepitude. In such cases, Marianne does not discriminate, and yet she believes her opinions so firmly that the discovery that they are not shared or borne out prompts her to exclaim ingenuously "How strange this is!" (p. 39)—as if the problem did not originate in her own hasty judgments. These are but small miscalculations compared to her more serious and more plausible mistake of believing Willoughby.
Elinor, of course, does make distinctions and, unlike Marianne, does not cherish her determinations too confidently. Elinor's scepticism is a persistent source of tension in her family. Mrs. Dashwood charges that Elinor ungraciously "love[s] to doubt where [she] can" (p. 78), while Elinor in turn regrets that she cannot "inspire her [mother] with distrust" (p. 155) of Willoughby. In addition to telling polite lies, Elinor's major activity throughout the novel is doubting—resisting eager or premature assent. She rarely by-passes distinctions for the sake of reaching attractive conclusions: proof of Willoughby's "affection," for example, must not be confounded with proof of his "engagement" (p. 78). Wary of misplaced credence, Elinor habitually distinguishes and deliberates.
By juxtaposing these differences between Elinor and Marianne, Austen examines the problem of making judgments. Though Austen has in many ways stacked the deck against Marianne, she still deals her a respectable hand. The same steep hill and sudden downpour that expose Marianne's absurd enthusiasm for nature also occasion an extravagant but nevertheless actual heroic rescue. Whatever the excesses of Marianne's sensibility, her opinions, about Willoughby in particular, are not deluded or far-fetched. If anything, they are excessively simple. To Marianne, the world is transparent and people are as they seem. If appearances are not partial or doubtful, then judgments can be formed every bit as confidently and conclusively as Marianne forms them. Thus Willoughby seems to be and therefore must be honorable and manly, and his manifest courtship of her unquestionably bespeaks an intention of marriage. In a similar way, Marianne infers from Mrs. Jennings' coarse humor that she has a callous heart, or from Colonel Brandon's reserve that he is dull and passionless. Because Marianne presumes that one can effortlessly know precisely whom one is dealing with, the painstaking discrimination Elinor routinely practices is simply superfluous, and the protectively decorous reserve she urges "a disgraceful subjection of reason to commonplace and mistaken notions" (p. 53) which needlessly complicates the whole business of knowing and dealing with others. Much more is at stake here than impetuous sensibility, for while Marianne is not altogether right, she is certainly not all wrong either. If she errs in inferring that Elinor is not in love because she is neither sleepless, antisocial nor starved, she is on the mark in observing Edward's coolness and in concluding it shamefully inappropriate for a suitor.7
The case of Willoughby proves that Austen is more interested in probing the fallibility of Marianne's judgments than in exposing the folly of her sensibility. Although Willoughby is everything Marianne's "fancy had delineated … as capable of attaching her" (p. 49), he is not a projection of her sensitive imagination. In fact, she has every apparent reason for believing in the sincerity of his suit because, as every one can attest, "his behaviour declared his wishes to be in that respect as earnest, as his abilities were strong" (p. 49). Only with the benefit of hindsight can anyone discover the discrepancy between behavior and wish, or learn that the wish itself changes. Confounding certainty with probability, Mrs. Dashwood believes that Willoughby and her family have "perfectly understood each other" (p. 80), that nothing "has passed to justify doubt" (pp. 80–81), and that nothing can challenge her "method of understanding" (p. 78) Willoughby's admittedly strange departure.
Elinor's is the only voice of cautionary dissent. She alone seems to recognize that all live in a "twilight of probability" and that judgments therefore must be formed tentatively. There is truth to Mrs. Dashwood's quip to Elinor, "If you were to see them [Marianne and Willoughby] at the altar, you would suppose they were going to be married" (p. 80, emphasis added), because Elinor rarely knows quite what to think. Indeed, when Mrs. Dashwood insists that Elinor declare exactly what she suspects of Willoughby, Elinor replies, "I can hardly tell you myself (p. 79). Her doubts about Willoughby as well as about Edward spring from a recognition that she knows so little, that, for example, the elaborate circumstances Mrs. Dashwood postulates to account for Willoughby's conduct quite simply "may, or may not have happened" (p. 78).
By subjecting what she perceives to be partial appearances to her judgment, Elinor avoids Marianne's stubbornness of opinion as well as her credulity. Elinor frequently practices the same kind of suspension of assent which Marianne wishes Willoughby had practiced when she supposes that a wicked woman has calumniated her name: "Whatever he might have heard against me—ought he not to have suspended his belief?" (p. 190). If Elinor candidly refuses to decide upon "imperfections so much in the mass" (51), she also declines to decide upon perfections in the mass. Alerted by Willoughby's inconsistency, Elinor suspends her belief in him, content instead to "acknowledge the probability of many, and hope for the justice of all" (p. 82) her mother's explanations. Elinor is just as wary about believing in Edward, though doubt and impartiality here require considerably more effort. Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood eagerly await her imminent marriage to Edward, but Elinor resists. She "required greater certainty of it to make Marianne's conviction of their attachment agreeable to her" (p. 21). Aware that Edward's affection for her is "doubtful" and not yet "fully known," Elinor resolves "to avoid any encouragement of [her] own partiality, by believing or calling it [Edward's regard] more than it is" (p. 21). Elinor's concern with the control of assent itself is made even more explicit when, after allowing Marianne to believe whatever she pleases about the extent of her own affection for Edward, she insists that Marianne refrain from deciding upon Edward's affection: " … farther than this you must not believe" (p. 21).
Yet for all Elinor's cautious discernment, she is just as error-prone as Marianne, and both often make mistakes which good judgment could hardly avoid. The pronouncement "Mrs. Dashwood could find explanations whenever she wanted them" (p. 84)—a statement which encapsulates so much of the drama in this novel—applies just as aptly to Elinor. Mrs. Jennings unwittingly articulates the central problem in Sense and Sensibility when, impatient with Elinor's denials that Marianne and Willoughby are engaged, she protests, "Did I not see them together in Devonshire every day, and all day long; and did I not know that your sister came to town with me on purpose to buy wedding clothes?" (p. 182, emphasis added). Mrs. Jennings may be vulgar, but she is not imperceptive, and her explanation for what she sees is all too credible. In Sense and Sensibility, however, there is a chasm between seeing and knowing that no one, not even the judicious Elinor, can bridge. While Mrs. Dashwood explains away Willoughby's inconsistency by supposing him dependent on a capricious aunt, Elinor rationalizes Edward's puzzling conduct by attributing it to "fettered inclination" (p. 102) in the form of parental tyranny, little suspecting that his inclination is fettered in quite another way. Similarly, when Elinor sees a lock of hair around Edward's finger, she is "instantaneously" (p. 98) satisfied, "beyond all doubt" (p. 99), that the hair is her own. But, needless to say, Elinor has no idea that a Lucy Steele exists, just as she and Marianne could not possibly have suspected anything about Willoughby's libertine past. By consistently striving to place her characters in the "twilight of probability," Austen dramatizes the fallibility of the inferential process itself—and she does not let the reader in on the irony, as she does in Pride and Prejudice and even in Emma.
If Elinor with all her scrupulous judgment is just as error-prone as Marianne with all her intrepid credulity, what then do the differences between them amount to and how are they consequential? Austen's concern with the management of the mind is not limited to judgment or assent in any dryly intellectual sense. She is also concerned with how beliefs are complicated by wishes, hopes or fears. Austen's subject matter is particularly well-suited to this set of psychological concerns, for the passivity and circumscription of women's lives give rise to intense situations of hope, fear or—later perhaps—regret. Because they do not have what Henry Tilney terms "the advantage of choice" (NA, p. 77), women can only wait for and conjecture about the possibility of proposals. They must observe their suitors' gestures, review their encouraging words, speculate about their intentions, and then wait. As bold and active as they are in every other respect, even Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse must finally wait in doubtful suspense, and this is practically all that Fanny Price and Anne Elliot ever do.
Elinor and Marianne too do little else than wait for Edward and Willoughby to disclose their intentions. While they wait, however, hopeful and fearful anticipations operate on their understandings and their beliefs in very different and very telling ways. Austen carefully specifies these differences early in the novel:
[Elinor] knew that what Marianne and her mother conjectured at one moment, they believed in the next—that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect, (p. 21)
[Marianne's] mother too, in whose mind not one speculative thought of their marriage had been raised, by his [Willoughby's] prospect of riches, was led before the end of a week to hope and expect it; and secretly to congratulate herself on having gained two such sons-in-law as Edward and Willoughby. (p. 49)
As usual, the judicious Elinor observes that conjecture is tenuous knowledge indeed, and that wishing, hoping and expecting are related but distinct activities which imply different degrees of assent. To wish is to express a desire, to hope is to desire with some confidence, and to expect is to anticipate something as a virtual certainty. The way Marianne and her mother eagerly and carelessly pass from wishful speculation to cherished and certain conviction recalls Johnson's observation, "what men allow themselves to hope, they will soon believe" (Rambler, no. 8). This path towards delusion which Johnson so often delineates is difficult to avoid, for the "natural flights of the human mind" are and should be "from hope to hope" (Rambler, no. 2). At thex same time, however, hopes tend to take violent and unshakable possession of the mind as they are admitted and believed in as actualities. The astronomer's madness, for instance, begins with no more than a wish. Austen's debt to Johnson is usually assessed stylistically or normatively.8 But the most dynamic and suggestive aspect of Johnson's legacy to Austen is his distinctive conception of psychology, his emphasis on the operations of hope and anticipation or, conversely, regret and memory, and his conviction that these activities must be properly regulated.9 While later novels such as Mansfield Park and Emma explore the need to regulate such mental activities as wit and memory within an explicitly moral context, Sense and Sensibility explores how the limitation of what we can know for certain requires us to regulate what we hope in the interest of preserving sanity. Austen's concern here is to show how the mind animated by hope is later shackled by expectation and finally despondently arrested by disappointment, and how any hope or sorrow can become what Johnson calls a "pertinacious adhesion" (Idler, no. 72).
Marianne is particularly reckless about the management of her mind. Willoughby's departure creates a vacuum in her life which she endeavors to fill first by recollection and then by anticipation, thus dramatizing Johnson's formula for the mind's behavior when the present is "unable to fill desire or imagination with immediate enjoyment" (Rambler, no. 203). Marianne indulges sorrowful recollections as a "duty" (p. 77). Such behavior is typical of countless heroines of sensibility, but the basis of Austen's critique of it can best be traced to Johnson, for whom the indulgence of sorrow is an invitation to obsession:
[M]ournful ideas, first violently impressed and afterwards willingly received, so much engross the attention, as to predominate in every thought, to darken gayety, and perplex ratiocination. An habitual sadness seizes the soul, and the faculties are chained to a single object, which can never be contemplated but with hopeless uneasiness. (Rambler, no. 47)
Johnson also treats this process in the chapters devoted to Nekayah's grief in Rasselas. Like Marianne, Nekayah resists consolation, ritualizes her sorrow as a duty, feels ashamed when her thoughts stray elsewhere and exploits memory in order, as Johnson elsewhere puts it, to renovate "the impression which time is always wearing away, and which new images are striving to obliterate" (Idler, no. 72). By courting "the misery which a contrast between the past and present was certain of giving" (p. 83), both women attempt to arrest their minds. Austen explicitly presents Marianne's behavior not merely as an excess of sensibility, but more fundamentally as a misuse of the mind itself. Elinor can walk with Marianne in order to protect her from the dangers of seclusion, but she realizes that she cannot force Marianne to turn her thoughts elsewhere: "Marianne's mind could not be controuled" (p. 85, emphasis Austen's).
Marianne is just as careless about indulging anticipations, likewise in order to fix Willoughby in her mind. As she is walking with Elinor, focusing her inward attention on him alone, she and Elinor notice a gentleman in the distance galloping towards them—whereupon Marianne rapturously cries, "It is he; it is indeed;—I know it is! … I knew how soon he would come" (p. 86). An abrupt dis-illusionment follows. The gentleman is not Willoughby—"The person is not tall enough for him, and has not his air" (p. 86), as Elinor could discern—but rather Edward, whose unprepossessing appearance Austen has already contrasted with Willoughby's dashing air. Marianne's eager indulgence of hope has prompted her in an almost hallucinatory fashion to project her inward wish upon outward fact. Austen's attitude to the pathetically ardent hope that gives rise to Marianne's delusion is complex. Until learning of Willoughby's engagement, Marianne is in a persistent state of expectation, and Elinor, for one, views this "rapture of delightful expectation which fill[s] the whole soul and beam[s] in the eyes of Marianne" (p. 159) quite positively. Having just learned of Edward's engagement, Elinor, like Anne Elliot later, must live without having anything to look forward to, and so she envies Marianne for having an "animating object in view," a "possibility of hope," a "prospect" (p. 159).
The basis of Elinor's respect is again Johnsonian. Johnson's caution that the "understanding of a man, naturally sanguine, may, indeed, be easily vitiated by the luxurious indulgence of hope" must be balanced by his assertion that hope is "necessary to the production of every thing great or excellent" (Rambler, no. 2). Hope must be admitted as an animating incentive to purposeful action, a blessing happily holding forth the possibility of some future good, without which we could never bestir ourselves: "[I]t is necessary to hope, tho' hope should always be deluded, for hope itself is happiness, and its frustrations, however frequent, are yet less dreadful than its extinction" (Idler, no. 58).10 Hope becomes vitiating to the mind when its demands, like those of any desire, become imperious, when "by long indulgence it becomes ascendent in the mind" (Rambler, no. 207)."11
Austen dramatizes this process of ascendancy in the London episode, where Marianne's expectations become progressively more frantic, even manic. Here (again) Marianne's ecstatic conviction that Willoughby is approaching—"[I]t is Willoughby, indeed it is!" (p. 161)—is abruptly undercut, this time by Colonel Brandon's appearance. This reversal only reinforces Marianne's hope: the "disappointment of the evening before seemed forgotten in the expectation of what was to happen that day" (p. 164). Wherever Marianne goes, she expects to see him: "[H]er eyes were in constant inquiry … her mind was … abstracted from every thing actually before them" (p. 164). Because her thoughts are filled with the urgent anticipation of a future so unaccountably delayed, her present is crowded out and she passes her time between "the anxiety of expectation and the pain of disappointment" (p. 166), watching from the window and awaiting the "longexpected rap" (p. 166). When she eventually does see Willoughby, only to be chilled by his distant civility, she must "feed her own wishes" (p. 178). Finally, after receiving his letter, Marianne still must hope that he will write, rescue and reassure her of his enduring devotion. As Elinor observes, Marianne's "endeavours to acquit" Willoughby irritate her mind "more than a perfect conviction of his unworthiness" (p. 211) could, because these efforts maintain the punishing turbulence of hope and disappointment that has buffetted her ever since Willoughby left Barton.
Once Marianne's "mind [is] no longer supported by the fever of suspense" (p. 185), Marianne has a new torment to undergo: desolating sorrow about the past, this time suffered in earnest rather than voluntarily indulged as a matter of duty. For Marianne, to whom the faculty of memory had been so dear, recollection is now a source of anguish which calls her entire manner of judging and behaving, her "happy ardour of youth" (p. 159), into question. Once again, Johnson can illuminate Marianne's painful discovery:
Hope will predominate in every mind, till it has been suppressed by frequent disappointments. The youth has not yet discovered how many evils are continually hovering about us … his care is rather to accumulate good, than to shun evil. (Rambler, no. 196)
Reproaching herself in particular for her "unguarded affection" (p. 345), Marianne acquires an awareness that the world abounds in hovering, incalculable evils and obstacles to which her sanguine and unsuspecting ardor render her especially vulnerable. Significantly, Marianne feels the "loss of Willoughby's character" more acutely than the "loss of his heart" (p. 212), because it obliges her to doubt everything she formerly believed in and depended upon so confidently. Oppressed by this disappointment, Marianne's mind "settle[s] in a gloomy dejection" (p. 212), and her immovable despondency is later reinforced by the "pain of continual self-reproach" which deprives her even of the "hope of amendment" (p. 279).
Elinor always guards herself against possible evils. Indeed Mrs. Dashwood charges that she would "rather take evil upon credit than good" (p. 78). The truth is that Elinor prefers to take nothing on credit at all. Consequently, she makes it a point to restrain speculative activity. When Colonel Brandon speaks too feelingly about a young lady much like Marianne, Elinor fancifully connects his present emotion with the recollection of a past love affair, but "attempted no more" (p. 57). Elinor extends this same restraint to her personal, but equally speculative, hopes. During Marianne's illness, for example, she begins "to fancy, to hope she could perceive a slight amendment in her sister's pulse" (p. 314). But Elinor "wait[s], watchefs], and examine[s]" before yielding to her hope. Once "hope had already entered," Elinor feels "all its anxious flutter" as intensely as Marianne herself would. But here and everywhere else, Elinor "con[s] over every injunction of distrust" (p. 314). Later, hearing the approach of a carriage, Elinor cannot believe that Colonel Brandon and her mother have arrived, even though she has wished for and envisioned their arrival all evening. Instead, she considers the "almost impossibility of their being already come." She opens a window "to be satisfied of the truth." And when she sees that the carriage is drawn by four horses, she at last has "some explanation" for "such rapidity" (p. 316). Of course, Elinor is wrong, despite all her efforts to be right. As she rushes into the drawing room to greet her eagerly awaited mother, she sees "only Willoughby" (p. 316). But what is significant here is that Elinor does not behave as Marianne does in identical situations. Elinor is not disposed to credit hopes with the status of actualities. Like everyone else, Elinor sees by "uncertain light" (p. 316). But she does not assume that everything she sees is what she wishes: she does not cry out in visionary rapture, "It is she! Indeed I knew how soon she would come!"
Unlike Marianne, then, Elinor respects the differences between wishing, hoping, and expecting just as judiciously as she distinguishes between wealth and competence. Not only does she refuse to call or believe Edward's affection more than it might really be, but she refuses as well to "depend[ … ] on that result of his preference of her, which her mother and sister still considered as certain" (p. 22). Having erroneously concluded that Mrs. Ferrars is the "general excuse for every thing strange" (p. 101) in Edward's behavior, Elinor sagely reflects on the age-old opposition of duty and will and even permits herself a fanciful Marianne-like vision of that felicitous time when all such conflict will cease. But if Elinor's judgment is helpless to keep her free from error, it can and does oblige her to turn away from these "vain wishes" (p. 102) about a future too uncertain to be expected or depended upon.
After Edward leaves Barton, Elinor aims to control her mind. Unlike Marianne, she does not "augment and fix her sorrow, by seeking silence, solitude and idleness" (p. 104). In Rambler, no. 85, Johnson, citing Locke, singles out idleness and solitude as two primary threats to the well-being of the understanding because an "empty and unoccupied" mind is more vulnerable to the incursions of "any wild wish or vain imagination." Anticipating the terms of Anne Elliot's debate with Captain Harville about the durability of women's affections, Johnson continues by arguing that the confined and undiversified quality of women's lives makes them more likely to be "cankered by the rust of their own thoughts" and therefore more in need of occupations which provide "security against the most dangerous ensnarers of the soul, by enabling them to exclude idleness from their solitary moments, and with idleness her attendant train of passions, fancies, and chimeras, fears, sorrows and desires." Elinor resorts to employment and social activity in order to avoid the snares Johnson describes, yet finds that her thoughts perforce return to Edward:
Her mind was inevitably at liberty, her thoughts could not be chained elsewhere; and the past and the future, on a subject so interesting, must be before her, must force her attention, and engross her memory, her reflection, and her fancy, (p. 105)
The language of this passage is strikingly Johnsonian. The words "chained," "forced" and "engross" convey the irresistible power with which ideas can usurp the mind.12 Austen's implicit point here is that Elinor endeavors to resist the kind of violent fixation Marianne actually invites.
Elinor is maintaining equipoise between hope and doubt when Lucy Steele presents her with a "body of evidence" consisting of "probabilities and proofs" that can be contradicted only by her own "wishes" (p. 139). Lucy's surprising disclosure about her engagement to Edward accomplishes "the extinction of all her [Elinor's] dearest hopes" (p. 141). But compared to Marianne's reflections on a similar occasion, Elinor's reflections are remarkable for what they do not include. She never wishes his engagement away, never fancies that he will fly to her feet and never gives way to sorrow. Johnson defines sorrow as
that state of mind in which our desires are fixed upon the past, without looking forward to the future, an incessant wish that something were otherwise than it has been, a tormenting and harassing want of some enjoyment or possession which we have lost, and which no endeavours can possibly regain. (Rambler, no. 47)
Johnson's definition perfectly describes Marianne's paralyzing sense of irretrievable loss, but it never applies to Elinor. In fact, she seems implicitly to practice Johnson's "art of forgetting" as she puts aside "useless and afflictive" remembrances so that the "past may no longer encroach upon the present" (Idler, no. 72). Elinor avoids talking with Marianne about Edward's engagement "upon principle, as tending to fix still more upon her thoughts, by the too warm, too positive assurances of Marianne, that belief in Edward's continued affection for herself which she rather wished to do away" (p. 270). All of Elinor's exertions are aimed at achieving "composure of mind" (p. 264)—what Johnson calls "intellectual domination" (Idler, no. 72)—by resisting the predominance of painful ideas, vain wishes and possibly delusive expectations.
When the Dashwoods hear of Lucy Steele's marriage, everyone reasonably concludes what they expected, that is, that Edward and not Robert Ferrars is her husband. Only now does Elinor discover that "in spite of herself, she had always admitted a hope" (p. 357) that Edward would extricate himself. Now definitively deprived of her prospect, Elinor experiences an impatient need for "something to look forward to" (p. 358) and resolves to expect Colonel Brandon's informative visit, when Edward arrives instead to claim her hand.
Viewed in isolation, Lucy's marriage to Robert Ferrars seems mere literary sleight-of-hand which Austen employs only to bring her novel to a close. Its preposterousness even stumps Elinor:
To her own heart it was a delightful affair, to her imagination it was even a ridiculous one, but to her reason, her judgment, it was completely a puzzle. (p. 364)
Lucy's marriage is a puzzle, but one which is of a piece with all the other unforeseeable twists in this novel that baffle the reason and judgment. The rationale for Austen's persistent use of surprise can be found earlier in the novel when, describing Mrs. John Dashwood's incivility to her sisters-in-law, Austen writes,
But while the imaginations of other people will carry them away to form wrong judgments of our conduct, and to decide on it by slight appearances, one's happiness must in some measure be always at the mercy of chance. (p. 248)
Austen gets more specific by relating how a random visitor "allowed her fancy so far to outrun truth and probability" (p. 248) as to infer that the Dashwood sisters were staying with their brother. Of course, the visitor's inference is hardly implausible, and all this talk about outstripping truth and probability is ironic. But Austen's generalization nevertheless stands and points to the fallibility of even the most peripheral, modest and probable determinations in the novel. In an essay on chance, Johnson poses the problem this way:
[Let the reader] enquire how he was placed in his present condition. He will find that of the good or ill which he has experienced, a great part came unexpected, without any visible gradations of approach; that every event has been influenced by causes acting without his intervention, and that whenever he pretended to the prerogative of foresight, he was mortified with a new conviction of the shortness of his views. (Rambler, no. 184)
Chance plays an important role in Austen's fiction. But Sense and Sensibility is most patently a novel of surprises. Here, unobservable causes continually reverse expectations and unfold misleading prospects or doubtful retrospects in order to demonstrate the "shortness of our views" and what Lady Russell later calls "the uncertainty of all human events and calculations" (P, p. 159). Only when we recognize that the most reasonable judgments are eluded by the unseen and unforeseen can we evaluate the conduct of each sister. In her principled ardor, Marianne has allowed her hope for Willoughby to exceed a dearly desired wish and to become a radical dependency on something which, after all, might not be. Marianne may think she is devoting herself to the ideal of a single attachment, but she is actually cultivating a "pertinacious adhesion." Johnson aptly describes the monomania Marianne cultivates:
We represent to ourselves the pleasures of some future possession, and suffer the thoughts to dwell attentively upon it, till it has wholly ingrossed the imagination, and permits us not to conceive any happiness but its attainment, or any misery but its loss. (Rambler, no. 17)
Austen chastizes Marianne's single-minded ardor not because it fosters unseemly emotionality, but because it is not the appropriate response to a world where "one's happiness must in some measure be always at the mercy of chance" (p. 248). It is the disappointment of an entirely plausible but obsessively cherished hope that debilitates and almost destroys Marianne.
The circumspect Elinor would seem to be the one who, in Johnson's words, "too scrupulously balances probabilities, and too perspicaciously foresees obstacles" (Rambler, no. 43) and so ventures nothing in order to lose nothing. Mrs. Dashwood senses this possibility when she censures Elinor's unwillingness to go to London: "[I]f Elinor would ever condescend to anticipate enjoyment, she would foresee it there from a variety of sources" (p. 157). But Elinor does not anticipate desolation either. When she must teach herself to expect Edward's marriage to Lucy, she still quietly and patiently admits a hope. In this respect Elinor resembles Johnson's wise man:
He never considered things not yet existing as the proper objects of his attention; he never indulged dreams till he was deceived by their phantoms; nor ever realized non-entities into his mind. (Rambler, no. 29)
Elinor's "strength of understanding" (p. 6) keeps her from realizing "non-entities" into her mind. And given the mind's tendency to live obsessively "in idea"—as Johnson puts it in Rambler, no. 2—Elinor's effort to be animated but not deluded by hope is genuinely heroic. Knowing that hopes are only probable, she does not allow them to engross her mind, and instead cultivates a lucid readiness for any eventuality which enables her to go forward—the activity which Johnson insists is "the business of life" (Idler, no. 72).
Sense and Sensibility closes with a prospect of muted felicity: Elinor and Marianne will be happy principally because they and their husbands do not quarrel. The destinies of the other characters are described in similarly negative ways: Lucy and Robert Ferrars are granted "harmony" (p. 377) despite frequent eruptions of family bickering; Willoughby enjoys "no small degree of domestic felicity" because his wife is "not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable" (p. 379). The anti-climactic quality of this conclusion is especially significant because Austen's aim has been not so much to expose the folly of intense feeling as to show the danger of hoping too intensely for so much, given a world that cannot be penetrated by our understandings, much less conjured by our wishes. Austen circumscribes her heroines' felicity, then, to show that this is the most which may safely be hoped for. And, ironically, it is only in comparison to the confidently high-wrought expectations that Marianne once nurtured that the prospect of an ordinary but everlastingly happy marriage seems like such a severe comedown. Sense and Sensibility is not as bleak as "The Vanity of Human Wishes." But it does express a concern to restrain wishes as well as the act of wishing itself, precisely in order to achieve one of the few salutary wishes Johnson allows for in that poem: "a healthful mind."13
1 For the literary heritage of Sense and Sensibility see Alan McKillop, "The Context of Sense and Sensibility," Rice Institute Pamphlets, 44 (April, 1957), 65–78; and relevant chapters in Kenneth Moler's Jane Austen's Art of Allusions (U. of Nebraska Press, 1957) and Henrietta Ten Harmsel's Jane Austen: A Study in Fictional Conventions (The Hague: Mouton, 1964). Studies stressing moral theory include Everett Zimmerman, "Admiring Pope No More Than Is Proper," in Jane Austen: Bicentenary Essays, ed. John Halperin (Cambridge U. Press, 1975), pp. 229–42; Ian Watt, "On Sense and Sensibility," in Sense and Sensibility, ed. Ian Watt (New York: Harper, 1961), pp. 229–42; and Alistair Duckworth's chapter on this novel in The Improvement of the Estate (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 1971).
2Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (Princeton U. Press, 1952), p. 82.
3Sense and Sensibility, ed. R. W. Chapman (London: Oxford U. Press, 1953), p. 199. Subsequent citations from Chapman's edition of Austen's novels will be noted parenthetically.
4Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. John W. Yolton (New York: Dutton, 1961), IV.xiv.2.
5Idler, no. 32 in The Adventurer and the Idler, ed. W. J. Bate, John M. Bullitt and L. F. Powell (Yale U. Press, 1963), p. 98. The numbers of Johnson's periodical essays cited subsequently are based on The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (Yale U. Press, 1958–). II-V, and will be noted parenthetically.
6 Several critics have noted Locke's relevance to Austen's novels. Considering the matter generically, Sheridan Baker remarks that "how the mind will generate its cloudy expectations, and how the event will inevitably differ" is the "center of Jane Austen's comedy" and her "legacy from Locke by Sterne." See "The Idea of Romance in the Eighteenth-Century Novel," Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters, 49 (1964), 519–20. In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice, Tony Tanner uses the works of Locke and Hume to illuminate Elizabeth Bennet's assent to first impressions. Tanner does not, however, allow for the bearing of these epistemologists on the problems of Elinor and Marianne; see Sense and Sensibility, ed. Tony Tanner (Baltimore: Penguin Press, 1969), p. 26. Lloyd Brown has discussed the pervasive importance of "reasoned assent" in Austen's fiction and has isolated the significance of Locke's Essay, IV.xiv.3–4; see Bits of Ivory: Narrative Technique in Jane Austen's Fiction (Louisiana State U. Press, 1973), pp. 40–41.
7 In the best recent discussion of Sense and Sensibility, Stuart Tave argues that Marianne is excessively bound to the "rigid forms" of sensibility; see Some Words of Jane Austen (U. of Chicago Press, 1973), p. 80. Tave's point is well taken, but it is worth noting that Marianne bases her argument on an appeal to reason. Marianne's objections to concealment seem more compelling and less merely conventional when we consider them within the context of the problem of knowing. This is how the issue of concealment is canvassed in Pride and Prejudice.
8 The best discussions of Austen's debt to Johnson's style include Mary Lascelles, Jane Austen's Art (London: Oxford U. Press, 1939), pp. 107–09; A. W. Litz, Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1965), pp. 49–51; and Norman Page, The Language of Jane Austen (Oxford: Blackwell, 1972). Studies which argue that Johnson supplied Austen with moral norms often imply a Johnson more prescriptive, conservative and commonsensical than he really is. These include C. S. Lewis, "A Note on Jane Austen," Essays in Criticism, 4 (October, 1954), 359–71; rpt. in Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Ian Watt (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963); Frank W. Bradbrook, Jane Austen and Her Predecessors (Cambridge U. Press, 1966), pp. 12–15; and Robert Scholes, "Dr. Johnson and Jane Austen," PQ, 54 (1975), 380–90. More recently, Peter L. De Rose has claimed that Johnsonian norms of common sense, experience, reason and discipline govern Austen's novels; see Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson (Washington, D.C.: U. Press of America, 1980).
9 See W. Jackson Bate's discussion of hoping, wishing and "the hunger of the imagination" in The Achievement of Samuel Johnson (New York: Oxford U. Press, 1955), pp. 63–91. In an excellent recent book on Austen, Susan Morgan also discusses such activities as waiting and remembering. But Morgan turns to the Romantic poets to illuminate Austen's treatment of the mind's existence in time, having previously asserted that Johnson and Locke are not relevant to Austen's work. See In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen's Novels (U. of Chicago Press, 1980).
10 The following description of Mrs. Dashwood shows how closely Jane Austen follows Johnson in her treatment of hope: "In seasons of cheerfulness, no temper could be more cheerful than hers, or possess, in a greater degree, that sanguine expectation of happiness which is happiness itself (p. 8).
11 See Johnson's development of this same view in Boswell's Life of Johnson, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, rev. L. F. Powell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), I. 368.
12 W. Jackson Bate highlights Johnson's use of these metaphors: "The imagery of being dragged down and shackled or enchained is a recurring figurative expression of dread on Johnson's part when he is speaking of something he fears," in particular, the fear of losing the ability "to be a free agent." See Samuel Johnson (New York: Harcourt, c. 1977), pp. 386–87.
13 "The Vanity of Human Wishes," line 359.
P. Gila Reinstein (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "Moral Priorities in Sense and Sensibility," in Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Summer, 1983, pp. 269–83.
[In the following essay, Reinstein argues that in Sense and Sensibility Austen promotes moderation—"the mix ture of prudence and decorum"—as the ideal quality to possess, not the strict extremes of sense and sensibility.]
In Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen ostensibly opposes practicality and sensitivity, praising the former and censuring the latter. Further examination of the novel, however, reveals a subtler, more significant moral opposition between selfishness and unselfishness. Although the title of the novel suggests a simplistic approach to values, Austen's characters and moral discriminations are, in fact, complex, reflecting the complexity of life itself. The qualities of sense and sensibility are embodied by characters in the novel in many gradations and with different shades of definition. Neither consistent, unmitigated sense nor thoroughgoing sensibility is, finally, acceptable in the novel, for both tend to lead to selfish, even destructive behavior. Moderation, the mixture of prudence and decorum with warm emotions and aesthetic enthusiasm, seems to be the ideal presented in Sense and Sensibility.
Austen skillfully portrays the tensions between sense and sensitivity, selfishness and selflessness through the characters she creates, both in their actions and in their patterns of speech and thought. Norman Page, in his excellent study, The Language of Jane Austen, suggests that this novel "evinces an alert interest in language as an aspect of social behavior,"1 and establishes his point by analyzing the syntax of the chief characters, especially Elinor and Marianne. I would like to extend his study by utilizing the techniques of stylistic analysis to explore the language patterns of various significant characters both major and minor, and to relate the results to a thematic analysis in the tradition of what might be called the "morality school" of Austen criticism.2
The most important characters to consider are the heroines, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. In the course of the novel, each grows to be less one-sided and more like her sister. On this point I disagree with Robert Garis, who asserts that Sense and Sensibility fails because Elinor neither learns nor changes, and is "emphatically praised for not needing to."3 It seems to me that one of Austen's central points is that both sisters need to change, and the novel is a comedy because both are able to. When the novel opens, Elinor is prudent, judicious, and self-controlled to the point of stiffness, whereas Marianne abandons herself to quivering passions and irrational intuitive judgments. Elinor is conscious of her duties to family and society; Marianne rejects all outside claims and lives according to her own personal standards. Neither, to be sure, is a pure caricature of sense or sensibility, even initially. Austen clearly indicates that both possess good qualities of mind and feeling, but exercise them differently. When Austen first introduces the heroines, she tells us that Elinor has "strength of understanding and coolness of judgment," but also "an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them."4 Marianne, in turn, "was sensible [here meaning intelligent] and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation … she was everything but prudent" (p. 6).
At the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that each sister has constructed a self-image which she tries to realize completely and use as a standard in everyday affairs. Elinor determines to be judicious; Marianne, sensitive. The girls are innocent and inexperienced, and therefore believe that they will be able to control their lives and their reactions to the lives of those around them by merely choosing to do so. Marianne expresses their complacent sense of self control: "At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should see or hear anything to change them" (p. 93). Life, however, does get in the way. A self-image is very easy to preserve under circumstances that do not challenge it beyond its limits. Elinor and Marianne are taxed beyond their control and find themselves shaken by feelings and occurrences they cannot dominate. A similar set of events happens to them, and they are both educated and matured through their experiences. Both fall in love with a man who is not able or willing to get attached, but who, despite himself, reciprocates the affection. The young women suffer a trial of waiting while their lovers' worth is tested: the men have to uphold or break a previous decision. Both seem to have lost their loves and endure intense pain. Finally, all is explained, and Elinor triumphs by consummating her romantic attachment, while Marianne grows wiser, learning that love can have many manifestations. It is an ironic touch that prudent Elinor marries Edward, her first and only love, despite family opposition, on the verge of poverty, and then only by a quirk of fate—Lucy Steele's sudden shift. Marianne, on the other hand, is forced to retract her youthful, ignorant assertions about romantic first love. She makes a rational, practical match for esteem and comfort, with a man whom she learns to love slowly, in a mild and quiet way, altogether unlike her earlier images of what satisfactory love must be. At the end of the book, both young women are more mature and less one sided; Marianne makes a conscious effort toward self-control and propriety, and Elinor is so overwhelmed by emotions that she shows her feelings openly and spontaneously.
The plot gives some idea of the way in which the girls change, but language reveals far more. Austen's use of syntax is "a medium for communicating, by imitation rather than summary or analysis, the outline of a passage of experience, and the structure of the sentence forces upon the reader … a miming of the heroine's experience" (Page, 99). Consider Elinor. At the begin ning of the book she speaks of her regard for Edward.
"Of his sense and his goodness," continued Elinor, "no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough to engage him in unreserved conversation. The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent. You know enough of him to do justice to his solid worth. But of his minuter propensities as you call them, you have from peculiar circumstances been kept more ignorant than myself." (p. 20)
Elinor's prose is balanced, and sentences frequently divide neatly into two equal parts joined by a coordinating conjunction. Her use of the formal sentence reflects her sense of the importance of self control, discipline, and duty. "Her syntax is thus an index of her temperament," according to Norman Page (Page, 94). Elinor's sentences are heavy with nouns and substantives (participles, gerunds, and infinitives used as nouns) such as "sense," "goodness," "conversation," "excellence," "to do justice" and so on, which give the sentences a weighted, static tone. Notice her concern for judging and evaluating, which here she expresses in terms of "solid worth." She seems deliberately hesitant to use adjectives and adverbs, and she avoids colorful phrasing. Her verbs are most often "state of being" words or passive voice or impersonal constructions or verbs of intellectual activity such as seeing, knowing, thinking. Instead of describing Edward in bold terms, Elinor uses limiting, qualifying words and negatives which repress emotional intensity and put a distance between Elinor and her own opinions: "no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough," and so on. She seems to put her most private feelings and thoughts into the third person, as if that were the only way to justify them.
Contrast Marianne's "autumn leaves" speech, which also appears early in the book.
"Oh!" cried Marianne, "with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight." (pp. 87–88)
Her sentences are asymmetrical; instead of balancing clauses, Marianne piles up phrases of increasing intensity which come to a climax. Jane Austen uses a great variety of rhetorical devices to heighten Marianne's style. In the quoted passage, an interjection sets the tone of excitement. Marianne's speeches are typically graced with rhetorical questions, apostrophe, personification, and hyperbole. Elinor speaks in a static prose of nouns and colorless verbs; not so Marianne. Marianne's verbs are active, and her adjectives, participles, and adverbs evoke lively pictures: "walked," "driven," "have inspired," "hastily swept," and so on. By assigning such a style to Marianne, Austen brings to life, rather than merely tells about, a girl of strong feelings, susceptible to beauty in her environment and prone to exaggerated modes of expression. Elinor, in contrast, keeps in abeyance all those feelings not strictly permitted by the social code. She takes an amused, mildly critical view of Marianne's excesses. After the latter concludes her nostalgic outburst, Elinor dryly remarks, "It is not every one … who has your passion for dead leaves."
These are the heroines at the beginning of the novel, before life steps in to overturn their self images. When Elinor first learns she has lost Edward to Lucy Steele, she is still in relative control of herself, but her balance begins to break down, in speech as well as in behavior.
"Engaged to Mr. Edward Ferrars!—I confess myself so totally surprised at what you tell me, that really—I beg your pardon; but surely there must be some mistake of person or name. We cannot mean the same Mr. Ferrars." (p. 131)
And yet, for all the dashes, and disjointed and fragmentary sentences, Elinor exerts herself to maintain politeness to Lucy, and by so doing, keeps herself from falling apart. She spares herself humiliation, and Lucy, triumph. Later, alone, she weeps more for Edward's mistake than for her own disappointment. Because her sense of duty sustains her—duty to Lucy's confidence and duty to spare her mother and sister unnecessary and premature suffering—she manages to conceal the painful information for months.
Marianne's reaction to the sudden collapse of her hopes is characteristically different. When Willoughby returns her letters and informs her that he is engaged to Miss Grey, Austen contrasts Elinor's long-suffering, unselfish control with Marianne's self-centered emotionalism.
"Exert yourself, dear Marianne," she cried, "if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer; for her sake you must exert yourself."
"I cannot, I cannot," cried Marianne; "leave me, leave me, if I distress you; leave me, hate me, forget me! but do not torture me so. Oh! how easy for those who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer."
"Do you call me happy, Marianne? Ah! if you knew!—And can you believe me to be so, while I see you so wretched?" (p. 185)
Elinor urges Marianne to fulfill her responsibility to those who love her. Her own sense of duty sustains her, but Marianne's is insufficient to the task. Marianne bursts out with intense, illogical hyperboles and exclamations. Elinor, of course, has been rejected in the same way by her beloved—indeed, in a more irritating manner, by nasty Lucy Steele in person. Elinor here almost slips and reveals her own sorrow when Marianne accuses her of being happy, but quickly covers up her momentary lapse with a credible, if self-righteous excuse. Elinor's discipline is strong to a fault, for she denies herself the sympathy of those who love her and refuses them the chance to give, which is, after all, half of the act of loving. Both young women are suffering, both are deeply touched, but one selfishly wallows in misery while the other tries to carry on her life as usual.
Thus far, the self-images hold up rather well, with only minor deviations. When life becomes more complicated, however, the over-sensitive Marianne is chastened, while the self-negating Elinor loses control and pours out repressed feelings despite herself. Illness frightens Marianne and then allows her time to meditate. She recovers, a reformed young woman, and her speech pattern reflects her new attempt to control herself and observe decorum (Page, 196). For the first time she concerns herself with rational judgment, moral responsibility, and propriety. Of the Willoughby affair she says, "I can talk of it now, I hope, as I ought to do" (p. 344). Austen assigns to Marianne the stylistic quirks of Elinor, such as qualifying statements with apologetic phrases, to show us Marianne's newly reflective nature. Marianne, realizing the resemblance between her own and her sister's misfortunes, is doubly humbled when she compares their reactions to pain.
"Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your judgment must censure. My illness has made me think—it has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others." (p. 345)
Here her sentences are balanced and symmetrical, turning on carefully polished antitheses and parallels. Verbs are static or describe mental, rather than physical, action. The new pace of Marianne's sentences is slow and dignified, not impulsive and irregular as before. Marianne's maturation/reformation is reflected by her use of Elinor-like sentences.
Elinor has an opposite development. She, through long tension and disappointment, begins to let emotional, bitter words escape, as her carefully guarded propriety cracks. Under stress she occasionally repeats, accumulates phrases for emphasis, and conveys the breathless, impulsive tone originally characteristic of Marianne. Speaking of Lucy's engagement to Edward, she says,
"It was told me,—it was in a manner forced on me by the very person herself, whose prior engagement ruined all my prospects; and told me, as I thought, with triumph…. I have had her hopes and exultations to listen to again and again." (p. 263)
Although here Jane Austen opens Elinor's heart and has the character show some of the turmoil it contains, Elinor is still able to express herself verbally. There is one further step in her education to womanhood: she must be so deeply moved that she is speechless and unable to depend on the polite formulas with which society usually provides her. This final chastening experience happens when Edward suddenly returns after Elinor has, presumably, lost him forever. In this scene, she is at first able to make small talk, to "rejoice in the dryness of the season" (p. 359), but then is forced to put her head down in "a state of such agitation as made her hardly know where she was" (p. 360). When the truth of Lucy's marriage to Robert Ferrars comes out, Elinor completely loses control of herself, can no longer sit in her place, but dashes out of the room and bursts "into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease" (p. 360). Elinor is overcome by sensibility.
Why do Elinor and Marianne both need to change in the novel? What is it that each has that the other must learn? Is it simply that Marianne must correct her irresponsible freedom and adopt Elinor's stifling prudence? Are warmth and sensitivity frowned upon? Are practical concerns set above personal ones? It seems to be more complicated than that. Neither sense nor sensibility by itself is attacked; neither, unqualified, is sufficient. The focus of Austen's criticism seems to be elsewhere.
The true opposition in the novel is between selfishness and selflessness. Marianne's relationship with Willoughby errs, not in its warmth, but in its selfcenteredness. In public they have words and glances only for each other. Their imprudent display of attachment, their lack of reserve in company and between themselves comes from belief in a personal morality which cuts them off from the rest of the world. Their relationship flourishes for their own pleasure, independent of the demands of society and family. Since they feel superior to everyone else in sensitivity and candor, they judge others without honest reflection and continually mock their friends. Their love is exclusive and smugly self-centered; when the relationship collapses, Marianne is left with the bitter residue of those feelings. In her suffering, she believes herself to be unique and inconsolable; instead of trying to pull herself out of misery, she remains "equally illdisposed to receive or communicate pleasure" (p. 171). The illness, which she cannot call up or dismiss by whim, cures her of her exclusive concern for her own pleasures and pains. Elinor's relationship with Edward is something rather different. Although his family objects to a marriage between them, their friendship is acceptable to their society. Their behavior is decorous and inoffensive. In public they are active members of whatever group they find themselves in; to Elinor's immediate family, the friendship brings comfort and delight, because everyone is welcome to share in the affection of the couple. Their love, unlike Marianne and Willoughby's, turns outward.
Marianne is sensitive and absorbed in herself, while Elinor is practical and concerned primarily with her duty to others. Neither is a caricature of either extreme, and as the book develops, they grow toward a golden mean. To Jane Austen, neither sense nor sensibility is all-good or all-bad. Her judgment upon all the characters, including the heroines, depends on whether they use their sense or sensibility for selfish satisfaction or for the general comfort.
Austen seems to use Elinor as a voice for her own opinions, and is altogether less critical of her than of Marianne. Elinor, for example, is the ear into which Lucy, Colonel Brandon, Willoughby, and Marianne confess. Elinor advises and lectures the others how to behave properly under their difficult trials. For these reasons it seems as if Austen's principal approval lies on the side of sense rather than sensibility. This imbalance of emphasis is really caused by the fact that sensibility is inclined to individual satisfaction at the expense of general happiness, whereas sense tends toward the opposite.
As if to underscore this point, the novel includes several secondary characters who speak for greater extremes of sense or sensibility, with differing amounts of selfishness and unselfishness. The John and Fanny Dashwoods, for example, are prime instances of people abounding in hard, cold sense and very little else. Austen condemns them beautifully in the second chapter of the first volume, which contains the dicussion of John's promise to his dying father. Fanny, exercising brilliant logic and playing on selfish rationalizations, pares down the aid John is to give his sisters from three thousand pounds to nothing. Their language is almost a parody of Elinor's balanced, reflective, polished sentences.
"Well, then, let something be done for them; but that something need not be three thousand pounds. Consider," she added, "that when the money is once parted with, it never can return." (p. 9)
The repetition of phrases, the symmetry, and the careful concern for cause and effect, is the style of sense. Or again, consider this passage:
"Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you." (p. 12)
Notice the apologetic, qualifying phrases that give a weighted, judicious tone to the inexcusably greedy sentiments. Austen lets us know that these people are practical, but laughably self-centered.
Mrs. Dashwood, the girls' mother, is at the opposite extreme. She, because she is older, is fully confirmed in her imprudent, impractical ways. To be sure, she is often able to comfort her daughters in the abundance of her warmth, but she is also able to inflict pain from her want of caution. She "valued and cherished" (p. 6) Marianne's excesses of sensibility. She persistently pushes Marianne and Willoughby, and Elinor and Edward together, by assuming and letting it be spoken of, that the couples are about to be engaged. Her injudicious, misplaced affection is an agent of unintentional destruction; her unguarded, hasty statements or guesses cause suffering precisely where she means to soothe and strengthen. Trusting feeling, rather than thought, she blinds herself to whatever does not suit her purposes. One notable instance is the letter she sends to Marianne praising Willoughby, which reaches London after Willoughby's engagement to Miss Grey has been announced. Her letter, instead of supporting Marianne and leading her to wise self-government, cuts her so deeply that she falls apart. After Marianne's illness, Mrs. Dashwood is somewhat more sympathetic to Elinor's pleas for prudence, but she has not really learned: she is, for example, carried away by Colonel Brandon's love for Marianne, and invents and exaggerates to suit her fancy. Her impractical, sensitive self-absorption is shown to be sometimes dangerous, always foolish.
Perhaps an ideal combination of sense and sensibility on a lower level of education and refinement than that of the heroines', is Mrs. Jennings. She is a mother-substitute for them during most of the story, and therefore can be contrasted reasonably with Mrs. Dashwood. Mrs. Jennings' speech is occasionally ungrammatical and coarse, and she is addicted to gossip and teasing. Norman Page notes that, "She is exceptional in Jane Austen's gallery in being given dubious linguistic habits which nevertheless carry no overtones of moral censure" (Page, 145). Despite her language, she func tions properly in society, like Elinor, and communicates affection in her family circle, like Marianne. Most significantly, toward the end of the novel she evaluates situations more justly than any other adult.
Austen first introduces Mrs. Jennings in the role of a buffoon—fat, merry, loquacious, even boisterous and vulgar. She retains the character of a foolish jokester until the sisters accompany her to London. There, in her own home, Austen develops Mrs. Jennings into a truly worthy woman. She is genuinely kind and solicitous for the happiness of her guests, although surrounded by superficial, egotistical people. Unlike her daughter, Lady Middleton, Mrs. Jennings is not a snob. She is loyal to her "old city friends" (p. 168) who seem distastefully unfashionable to her elegant children. Her town house, her friends, her way of life are described as handsome and not at all insipid. Full of life, Mrs. Jennings is able to laugh at herself as well as at others, and her jokes are good-humored, without barbs. What is possibly the most impressive of Mrs. Jennings' qualities is that, while she knows the world and understands the call of money, she holds people and their feelings to be more important. Her nature is warm like Mrs. Dashwood's, but she is neither tremulously sensitive nor blind to the realities of society. Although her mind is acute, she is neither cold nor reserved. When all the adults suddenly turn against Edward, after his engagement to Lucy is made known, she defends him and his spirit. She approves of his loyalty and willingness to sacrifice material comfort for what is, as the reader must agree, a high and unselfish end. Mrs. Jennings delights in the youth and joy of the couple although there is no question of any personal gain for her. When events turn so that Elinor wins Edward, she does not become sour or resentful that her happy predictions were mistaken. It is enough for her generous heart that a bit of happiness is advanced in the world.
Mrs. Jennings' style of speech is an amusing mixture of controlled balance and effusive disorder. At some points she speaks evenly weighted prose with parenthetical expressions to slow the pace and formalize the tone. Her words are never ponderous, because her lively mind undercuts any heavy seriousness.
"Upon my word I never saw a young woman so desperately in love in my life! My girls were nothing to her, and yet they used to be foolish enough; but as for Miss Marianne, she is quite an altered creature. I hope, from the bottom of my heart he won't keep her waiting much longer, for it is quite grievous to see her look so ill and forlorn. Pray, when are they to be married?" (p. 181)
This combination of logic (or semi-logic), of comparison and contrast, of affectionate catch phrases ("Upon my word," "from the bottom of my heart"), of unlabored, yet approximately symmetrical structure, is typical of Mrs. Jennings at her best. Much of her language, however, is fragmented, disjointed, and relatively chaotic in form. She overflows with the breathless wordiness of a fat, merry, middle-aged woman to whom meanness or hardness of any sort is foreign.
"Poor soul!" cried Mrs. Jennings, as soon as she [Marianne] was gone, "how it grieves me to see her! And I declare if she is not gone away without finishing her wine! And the dried cherries too! Lord! nothing seems to do her any good. I am sure if I knew of any thing she would like, I would send all over the town for it. Well, it is the oddest thing to me, that a man should use such a pretty girl so ill! But when there is plenty of money on one side, and next to none on the other, Lord bless you! they care no more about such things!—" (p. 194)
Although she sees the cruel pursuit of wealth and position around her, it does not corrupt her judgment of how things ought to be. Mrs. Jennings is free of what Jane Nardin calls "Ambition … the farthest extreme of mercenary 'sense' and it characterizes all the really bad people in the novel…"5 She may be an incorrigible chatterer, but she is also a faithful friend in all her attitudes and actions. She talks a lot, but she does more and does it gladly, without complaint. In a way, Jane Austen explains Mrs. Jennings by putting these words in her mouth: "And what good does talking ever do you know?" (p. 195). Her noisiness does little good, as she herself knows, but neither does it do any harm, for it is always light in tone. Her actions, her steady, honest giving of warmth, encouragement, and spirit, help Elinor through the hard days, and set an example of mingled good sense and sensibility, unmarred by selfishness.
Willoughby is another character whose actions demonstrate that neither sense nor sensibility is implicitly frowned upon, but that both are evil when selfishly applied: Willoughby acts both parts, but is always consummately self-centered. His life is guided solely by what will bring him maximum pleasure at minimum expense of wealth or emotional effort. He becomes involved with Marianne mostly because she is a convenient distraction to fill the idle time he must spend in the country with Mrs. Smith. Charmed by Marianne's beauty and vivacity, he falls into her pattern of selfindulged, exclusive sensitivity. That Willoughby follows Marianne's lead, Austen makes clear by her wry, after-thought inclusion of Willoughby's beliefs.
But Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to commonplace and mistaken notions. Willoughby thought the same…. (p. 53)
He is a weak, drifting character, willing to change himself, if the change will assist him in his pursuit of pleasure. "He acquiesed in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm" (p. 47). Typical of his flabby morality is the way in which he excuses himself for the dreadful affair with Eliza Williams, Colonel Brandon's ward; he lays the blame on her, calling her wild and ignorant, rather than castigating himself for taking advantage of her.
A comparison of Willoughby's actions and speeches with those of his fellow-suitor, Edward, brings to light some curious parallels. Willoughby, like Marianne, superficially represents the "sensible," and Edward, like Elinor, the "sense." As the book develops, however, Willoughby acts more for selfish, practical motives, and Edward for unselfish, emotional, even romantic ones. Both men have prior attachments when they meet the Dashwood sisters, and both want only an innocent friendship, without complications. Edward is so involved with Lucy that he feels himself safe from serious emotional attachment. Willoughby, deeply in debt, has prior plans of marrying a lady with a fortune, and uses Marianne as a means to remove the summer tedium, as well as to gratify his vanity by winning her affection. Both men, contrary to their intentions, fall in love and find themselves in a dilemma. Willoughby takes the cold, mercenary way out—he chooses the selfish "sense" of Fanny and John Dashwood, of Mrs. Ferrars, of Lucy Steele. Edward, on the other hand, determines to stand by his rash, youthful promise. He refuses to compromise his honor and cannot bring himself to inflict pain where he thinks he is trusted and long loved. Elinor's extreme reserve keeps him ignorant of her love, and he has no real sense of hurting her by his loyalty to Lucy. Willoughby makes a money match and regrets it; Edward stands by one love match until free to make a second, and is rewarded for his choice.
The language of the two men is as markedly different as that of the sisters. Most of the time Willoughby speaks wittily, twisting Elinor's logically structured sentences into clever jests by using anti-climax, surprise antithesis, and nonsensical pseudo-logic. Answering Elinor's defense of Colonel Brandon,
"Miss Dashwood," cried Willoughby, "you are now using me unkindly. You are endeavouring to disarm me by reason, and to convince me against my will. But it will not do. You shall find me as stubborn as you can be artful. I have three unanswerable reasons for disliking Colonel Brandon: he has threatened me with rain when I wanted it to be fine; he has found fault with the hanging of my curricle, and I cannot persuade him to buy my brown mare." (pp. 51–52)
His flippant sentences balance, turn neatly on polished constructions, and have many of the other characteristics previously attributed to Elinor's more serious prose. He does occasionally speak in the language of enthusiasm borrowed from Marianne:
"And yet this house you would spoil, Mrs. Dashwood? You would rob it of its simplicity by imaginary improvement! and this dear parlour … you would degrade to the condition of a common entrance, and everybody would be eager to pass through the room which has hitherto contained within itself, more real accommodation and comfort than any other apartment of the handsomest dimensions in the world could possibly afford." (pp. 73–74)
The sentence structure rambles asymmetrically, accumulates phrases, uses extreme, hyperbolic words and superlatives altogether out of place with the normal amount of energy given to discussions of household improvement, and generally takes on the traits of "sensibility." Willoughby's language vacillates between the two styles, depending on whom he is with and what kind of impression he wants to make. His vacillation differs from Mrs. Jennings' in that he seems able to manipulate his style to curry favor: his fickle, insincere point of view matches his glib talk.
When he comes to confess to Elinor, that stormy night when Marianne lies deathly ill, he uses the vocabulary of a Lovelace. He scourges himself verbally, but in his melodrama, he seems as insincere as ever. He cannot simply admit to himself that he did wrong and caused pain. Instead, he must convince himself of his remorse by using high flown diction: "Oh God! what an hard-hearted rascal I was!" (p. 324); "I was a libertine" (p. 322); "Thunderbolts and daggers!" (p. 325), and so on.
Contrast this carrying on with Edward's more modest, but no less interesting, words. Throughout the novel, Edward's speeches are self-effacing, even mildly selfmocking. He has an excellent sense of humor, which is always directed against himself. Discussing the countryside around the Dashwood cottage, in response to Marianne's lyric excitement, he says:
"You must not inquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and couth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give." (pp. 96–97)
His prose is smooth and even, like Elinor's, and has a similarly slow, reflective pace, because Austen uses many of the same stylistic devices for both. He judges himself by strict standards, but is not self-righteous. He maintains the same style of speech, regardless of his audience: he is consistent, unlike the hypocritical Willoughby. Edward's sense of his own worth is very small; he does not believe that anything is owed to him because of his personal merits or birth. His under-estimation of his own worth leads to a certain amount of trouble, causing him to attach himself to Lucy originally, though he was worthy of far better. That is also how he failed to see Elinor's growing love—someone who esteems himself so lightly and judges himself so sternly is unlikely to assume that a young woman is falling in love with him, especially without encouragement.
When he finally returns to Barton to explain his new freedom and express his love for Elinor, he chooses simple, characteristically modest phrases. After the few broken sentences which consititute the scene that dramatically reveals Lucy's duplicity, Edward comes back to make a full confession of his mistakes. Unlike Willoughby, he does not accuse himself of grand and dastardly deeds, but of a natural stupidity based on inexperience and insecurity. His words are halting, qualified by apologetic phrases: "I think," "what I thought at the time," "at least I thought so then, and I had seen so little of other women," and so on. The conclusion and climax of his speech are in negatives of reasonable self-censure, not at all hyperbolic or artificially intensified by diction or imbalanced structure—but the intensity, although suppressed, is evident:
"Considering everything, therefore, I hope, foolish as our engagement was, foolish as it has since in every way been proved, it was not at the time an unnatural, or an inexcusable piece of folly." (pp. 362–63)
He concerns himself with judgment, with the standards of society, and does not exclude himself from humanity because of his guilt, as Willoughby tries to do. And yet, Edward's remorse and chagrin are clearly conveyed, and the passage is charged with restrained emotion of a more convincing sort than that professed by Willoughby.
Edward and Willoughby, Elinor and Marianne, more than extremes of sense and sensibility, represent extremes of ego-negation and ego-centrism. In the course of the novel, Edward's modesty wins him rewards after much suffering. Willoughby reveals himself to be pitifully cold and selfish under his facade of sensibility. The sisters grow to be refined, elegant young women, following the excellent moral example of Mrs. Jennings. Overwhelming sense is criticized in the persons of John and Fanny Dashwood; and overwhelming sensibility, in the character of Mrs. Dashwood. Both poles inflict pain by self-willed blindness to the feelings of others or to the consequences of their actions. Sense and Sensibility is a novel describing the education of two young women into the world of mature responsibility, the world in which compromises are necessary when circumstances get out of control. The sisters learn to look to others instead of being engrossed in themselves; they learn to accept the love and help of others instead of assuming that they can manage alone; they learn to combine warmth and intensity with prudence and judgment. Elinor and Marianne, when the novel closes, are prepared to add to the pleasure and happiness of those immediately around them as well as to their society in general. Sense and Sensibility presents a complicated and compelling morality through an excellent story.
1 Norman Page, The Language of Jane Austen (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), p. 20, hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as Page.
2 See, for examples, Gilbert Ryle's essay, "Jane Austen and the Moralists," in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, ed. B. C. Southam (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968), pp. 106–22, and Jane Nardin's Those Elegant Decorums: The Concept of Propriety in Jane Austen's Novels (Albany: SUNY Press, 1973).
3 Robert Garis, "Learning Experience and Change," in Critical Essays on Jane Austen, p. 61.
4Sense and Sensibility, ed. R.W. Chapman (London: 1953), p. 6. All quotations from the novel are cited in the text.
5 Nardin, p. 37.
R. F. Brissenden (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "The Task of Telling Lies: Candor and Deception in Sense and Sensibility," in Greene Centennial Studies, edited by Paul J. Korshin and Robert R. Allen, University Press of Virginia, 1984, pp. 442–52.
[In the following essay, Brissenden proposes that the characters of Willoughby and the Dashwood sisters stand in stark contrast to the novel's other characters who are rooted in artificial politeness and social games.]
No one would wish to argue that Sense and Sensibility is Jane Austen's greatest novel. The title, however, is one of her most brilliant touches. Titles of this sort, in which two related, often antinomous, qualities or concepts are set together, were of course, popular at the time.1 No other, I think, crystallizes so lightly and precisely such a large and significant subject. The debate concerning the relative merits of the head and the heart, the reason and the feelings, had been pursued widely and vigorously during the eighteenth century—to such a degree, indeed, that by the time Jane Austen put her novel into its final shape one could have been forgiven for assuming that the subject was exhausted. The freshness, vivacity, and openness with which she explores it, however, prove that in her hands at least it was not. Indeed, one of the strongest impressions which the novel leaves us with is the sense that the question is ultimately irresolvable and inexhaustible. Among the most surprising and admirable features of what in some ways is very much a "first" book is the air of ambiguity and mystery with which in the end it is pervaded.
At one level it purports to resolve the question posed by the title in a simple and final way—and it is possible that Jane Austen thought that this was what she was doing. If we believe this we shall no doubt read Sense and Sensibility as little more than a roman à thèse and find it, as Marilyn Butler does, "the most obviously tendentious of Jane Austen's novels and the least attractive."2 In this view the work is relatively uncomplicated, and what complexities do exist have arisen incidentally to what the author saw as her primary objective: "Marianne, and to some extent Elinor, are drawn with strong feelings which the reader is accustomed to sympathise with, and actually to value for their own sake. But it is the argument of the novel that such feelings, like the individuals who experience them, are not innately good. Unfortunately, in flat opposition to the author's obvious intentions, we tend to approach Marianne subjectively. Right or wrong, she has our sympathy: she, and our responses to her, are outside Jane Austen's control."3 Quite apart from the very large assumptions made about the author's aims and purposes, such a reading of the novel strikes me as limited and unsatisfactory. It sets up a moral paradigm to which Jane Austen would no doubt have been happy to acknowledge allegiance—but it does not take adequately into account the extent to which as a human being and specifically as a creative writer she was aware of the incongruities—often painful, often amusing—that arise when one attempts to fit the lives of ordinary, fallible people to preordained moral patterns. It may well be that her consciousness of these incongruities grew as she was writing the book: like most first novels Sense and Sensibility is a work of self-discovery. As a result there is a degree of untidiness about the action which leaves us at the conclusion with some dissatisfaction: the neatness with which the two sisters, Marianne and Elinor, are disposed of does not fully accord with our sense of them as living, individual, and to a degree unpredictable people—a sense that has been able to develop only through the imaginative insight and vitality with which Jane Austen has envisaged them, and the dramatic freedom with which she has allowed them to move and grow. But this does not mean that they are out of her control or that, specifically, she does not appreciate the degree to which Marianne has engaged our sympathies. What it does suggest, I think, is that she came to realize in the course of writing and rewriting the novel that the questions it raised were incapable of any final solution—at least within the context of the situation with which she originally set herself to work. But the questions themselves have not been evaded. As Ian Watt observes, "Clearly no very simple verdicts are being invited in this early novel,"4 and "there is every evidence that Jane Austen intended a complex and not a complacent response."5 Although Sense and Sensibility may be a minor piece, it is the work of a major writer; and among its most striking qualities are the creative flexibility, imaginative insight, and human sympathy with which the author renders and reanimates a stereotyped situation.
Her originality displays itself most powerfully and also most subtly in her treatment of the "sensible" sister, Elinor. According to a well-established fictive convention, stories in which "sense" and "sensibility" characters were set against each other were designed to demonstrate the dangers of trusting entirely to the feelings and the merits of being reasonable, conventionally moral, and to a degree hard-headed. Although Sense and Sensibility in general conforms to this pattern, the triumph of sense is by no means clearcut: Elinor and Marianne act not only as foils to but as moderating influences upon each other.6 By the end of the novel Elinor has learned to acknowledge and respect the power and value of spontaneous feeling just as much as Marianne has learned the necessity of prudence and self-control. But there is more to her spontaneity than this. The freshness, honesty, and strength of Marianne's feelings and the depth of her suffering (it almost brings about her death) arouse in us an unavoidable sense of loss: the price that is paid not merely by Marianne but by society in order to acquire prudence, restraint, and conventional wisdom is substantial. And it is a mistake to assume that Jane Austen is neither aware of nor troubled by this sacrifice. The felt and acknowledged complexity of her attitude is borne out not merely through the power with which Marianne's passion is delineated—to a degree this is what the formula demands—but also and more interestingly by the sympathetic yet at the same time ironic and probing manner in which Elinor's character and the moral and social attitudes she stands for are presented and examined.
In the end it is Elinor who engages most deeply not only our attention but also our feelings. Stuart M. Tave puts it well: "Sense and Sensibility is the story of Elinor Dashwood. The action of the novel is hers; it is not Marianne's and it is not equally divided between the sisters; it is Elinor's."7 Although Marianne's grief and anguish are moving, in the process of the novel they eventually become significant not so much in themselves as in the effect they have on Elinor. The incident in London in which Willoughby publicly rejects Marianne provides a significant instance. Ostensibly, the main focus of our regard is directed toward Marianne: she has been deeply wounded, and it soon becomes clear from the intensity of her grief that hers is no merely sentimental or hysterical reaction. What guarantees the authenticity of her suffering, however, is Elinor's behavior: she also—but uncharacteristically—gives way "to a burst of tears … scarcely less violent than Marianne's.8 And when she reads the letter in which Willoughby brutally breaks off the relationship her response in its own way is almost more angry and shocked than Marianne's:
She [could not] have supposed Willoughby capable of departing so far from the appearance of every honourable and delicate feeling—so far from the common decorum of a gentleman, as to send a letter so impudently cruel: a letter which, instead of bringing with his desire of a release of any profession of regret, acknowledged no breach of faith, denied all particular affection whatever—a letter of which every line was an insult, and which proclaimed its writer to be deep in hardened villany.
She paused over it for some time with indignant astonishment; then read it again and again; but every perusal only served to increase her abhorrence of the man, and so bitter were her feelings against him, that she dared not trust herself to speak, [p. 159]
On the evidence Elinor's attitude would not appear to be unreasonable, and her sister's loyalty to the Willoughby she thinks she knows seems sentimental and selfdelusory. '"Elinor, I have been cruelly used, but not by Willoughby.' 'Dearest Marianne, who but himself? By whom can he have been instigated?' 'By all the world rather than by his own heart. I could rather believe every creature of my acquaintance leagued together to ruin me in his opinion, than believe his nature capable of such cruelty'" (p. 164). Later in the same conversation Marianne swings over to Elinor's position—"It is too much! Oh! Willoughby, Willoughby, could this be yours! Cruel, cruel—nothing can acquit you. Elinor, nothing can" (p. 165). But her first response is not completely unjustified: Willoughby's heart has not been entirely corrupted, and he has indeed been used. But we are not to learn this fact until later. The revelation comes in what is unquestionably the most powerful scene in the novel—a scene that for all its theatricality is one of the most powerful in the corpus of Jane Austen's fiction—the final confrontation between Elinor and Willoughby. The meeting, be it noted, is with Elinor not Marianne—although Marianne's near fatal illness is what has brought it about. But it is to say the least interesting that Elinor's relationship with Willoughby should in the end be the most significant in the novel—more significant than the relationship between Marianne and Willoughby and more significant than the relationship between Elinor and her own lover, the colorless Edward Ferrars.
The quality of the scene in which Elinor hears Willoughby's confession has been commented on by a number of critics—and this is not surprising.9 What has not been brought out, however, is the extent to which its effectiveness and force derive from what has gone before, especially from what occurs in Volume I. The way in which the situation, the developing action, and above all the character of Elinor are here presented to the reader is of the greatest importance. The presentation is, one need hardly say, ironical—but the full range and subtlety of the irony are not perhaps immediately apparent, particularly in the case of Elinor. Probably the main reason for this is that the primary objects of Jane Austen's wit and satire stand out so clearly. Marianne's sentimental self-indulgence and her determination to see everything in romantic and literary terms are obvious targets; so too are the insensitive heartiness and oppressive sociability of the Middleton family and the sly hypocrisy of the Steele sisters. Jane Austen's touch in this first volume of her first novel is as delicate and assured as it is anywhere in her later work. She evokes a world which is full of noise, bustle, and people—Sir John Middleton's "prevailing anxiety was the dread of being alone" (p. 136)10—but which is, or at least appears to be, essentially empty. It is a world in which privacy seems to be impossible; and the incessant gossip and boisterous teasing, the unrelenting succession of hints, digs, and queries about beaux and lovers, soon induce an atmosphere of mounting claustrophobia. Austen gives this claustrophobia a disturbingly physical dimension in scenes such as the one in which the Middletons, Mrs. Jennings, and the Palmers practically burst in upon Elinor as she sits alone for a few moments in the cottage enjoying the luxury of being able to think about Edward. Sir John doesn't bother to knock at the door but steps across the turf, obliging her "to open the casement to speak to him, though the space was so short between the door and the window as to make it hardly possible to speak at one without being heard at the other" (p. 90); Mrs. Jennings also comes "hallooing to the window"; Lady Middleton and the two strangers walk in through the door; and Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret come down the stairs—everybody talking at once. One is left with the enduring impression that Barton Cottage is rather small and constricted while Barton Hall is excessively noisy.
Against this background Marianne's genuine (as distinct from her conventional) spontaneity of feeling, Willoughby's apparent directness and lack of stuffiness, and Elinor's sensitive and tactful awareness of other people stand out with refreshing sharpness and clarity. Willoughby, like the Dashwood sisters, brings a breath of clear air and good humor into the artificially polite and strenuously sociable world of Barton; and from his first conventionally gallant entrance onto the scene the aspect of his character that most impresses everybody—including the reader—is its pleasant candor. He is open and direct in his response to people while at the same time preserving an air of tact and friendliness. When he brings Marianne into the cottage after her fall we are told that "he apologized for his intrusion … in a manner so frank and so graceful, that his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and expression" (p. 36). The next day, when he calls to inquire after her health, Marianne soon loses her shyness when she sees "that to the perfect good-breeding of the gentleman, he united frankness and vivacity" (p. 39). He has "good abilities, quick imagination, lively spirits, and open, affectionate manners"; and the only fault that Elinor can find in him is a propensity to say what he thinks "without attention to persons or circumstances." But in a world of Middletons, Palmers, Steeles, and John Dashwoods it seems a positive virtue rather than a fault to slight in this way "the forms of worldly propriety" (p. 41). Elinor's reservations about his social recklessness cannot in the end withstand his charm—or his genuine candor. The whole force of their final interview for Elinor lies in the reassurance it gives her that, at least in his feelings for Marianne, he had been honest and sincere—he had not been deliberately deceptive. His "disposition," she is able to tell herself, was "naturally open and honest," and he had "a feeling, affectionate temper." It was "the world [that] had made him extravagant and vain" (p. 290)."11
Willoughby may be more of a fool than a knave, but it cannot be denied that he has acted badly. Nonetheless, the genuineness and spontaneity of his feelings set him apart from the cold, self-deluding, and hypocritical villains of the piece, John Dashwood and Robert Ferrars. These are damned completely because they have almost no feelings, no sensibility at all. Willoughby has feelings and, even though he eventually acts against them, he suffers for it. And it is because of this quality that he not only appears to be but is more interesting, a richer character than Edward. From the beginning Edward is set in contrast to Willoughby. Edward suffers from a "want of spirits, of openness, of consistency" (p. 87), and although he takes a much tougher line with Marianne's sentimental enthusiasms than anyone else does, he is not sufficiently confident of the validity of his own feelings to be emotionally honest with either Lucy or Elinor. Edward's coolly deflating comments on landscape and the picturesque somehow don't carry as much weight as Willoughby's frank avowal of his affection. And even though he behaves irresponsibly and eventually very cruelly, Willoughby does not in the end deny either his love for Marianne or the weakness and selfishness that have led him into his marriage. He may be a deceiver but he is not a hypocrite. And it is this honesty of feeling to which Elinor responds—almost like a thirsty woman reaching for a glass of water—in their final conversation. Willoughby may have been corrupted by "the world," but not without some sort of fight nor without some understanding of the cost. Edward Ferrars never openly says what he really thinks about his mother or his brother—Willoughby, on the other hand, is prepared to confess to Elinor that his wife's death would give him a "blessed chance at liberty," (p. 291), a chance to think of Marianne again. The thought is reprehensible, the dream is impossible—but the candor is refreshing; and even though Elinor reproves Willoughby for the thought, she cannot prevent herself from entertaining it, if only briefly, in the days after their meeting. "Willoughby, 'poor Willoughby' as she now allowed herself to call him, was constantly in her thoughts … She … doubted whether … [Marianne] could ever be happy with another; and for a moment wished Willoughby a widower. Then, remembering Colonel Brandon, reproved herself … and wished any thing rather than Mrs. Willoughby's death" (pp. 293–94). To admit openly to such feelings is not what "the world" would advise; and, despite all his faults, Willoughby, though defeated and corrupted by it, never belongs entirely to "the world." Indeed, in the opening sequences of the novel Willoughby's frankness and lack of cant serve as a means of criticizing the society of which he is a member. In this respect he shows most clearly his lineal connection to Richardson's Lovelace. Lovelace, of course, is a genuine and deliberate villain—but he is also a shrewd exposer of the hypocrisies and vanities of the world.
It is against "the world" that Jane Austen's irony is most obviously directed, especially in the first volume. And the contrast between those who clearly belong to the world and those who do not is so marked and so dramatically effective that our attention is drawn away from another level at which Jane Austen's irony is operating, and operating in a much more gentle and subtle manner. Because the Dashwood family—and to all appearances, Willoughby—are so different from the majority of the people with whom they have to mix, and because we see things for the most part from Elinor's point of view, we do not immediately realize that Elinor herself is also an object—indeed the most important object—of Jane Austen's ironic vision. Vision is the operative word: while the way in which Elinor sees herself and the world often coincides with the way in which Jane Austen sees these things and presents them—and thus with the "truth" or "reality" of the fictive world of the novel—there are occasions on which this coincidence is lacking. These occasions, as one would imagine, are of considerable significance; and one of the central elements in the process of the novel is the gradual clarification and realignment of Elinor's vision of herself and the world. By the end of the novel she has, like Emma, learned, though not so painfully, "to understand, thoroughly understand her own heart."12
The question of how people in general—not merely Elinor—see themselves is of central importance. Equally if not more important is the question of how people wish to be seen by the world, and consequently of how they present themselves to others. The contrast between appearance and reality and the fact that things are not always what they seem, that our eyes and ears can deceive us, is continually emphasized. Mistaken interpretations of character and situation function as one of the primary motive forces of the novel. And they range from things as complex as the assessment of Willoughby by the Dashwoods to things as simple and as broadly theatrical as Marianne's mistaking Edward Ferrars for Willoughby, Elinor's assumption that the lock of hair Edward wears in his ring is from her own head, Mrs. Jennings's mistaking Colonel Brandon's conversation with Elinor for a proposal, and the conclusion that Lucy had married Edward and not Robert Ferrars—a conclusion drawn by the Dashwoods' servant who, significantly, does not see Lucy's husband clearly nor hear him speak: "I just see him leaning back in [the carriage], but he did not look up;—he never was a gentleman much for talking" (p. 311). It is indicative of the fundamental unity and coherence of Sense and Sensibility that this incident, the most blatant piece of stage machinery in the novel, should be so completely in harmony with its essential thematic preoccupations. Jane Austen is, of course, concerned throughout her fiction with the conflict between illusion or appearance and reality. But the emphasis given to this theme in Sense and Sensibility, particularly in Volume I, seems to be unusually pronounced. As new characters are brought on to the scene we are repeatedly shown how they "appear," what they "seem" to be, how their "address" or "manner" strikes people on first acquaintance. We are then invited—often within the space of a few sentences—to consider whether the "appearance" accurately reflects or expresses the reality. Thus when Sir John Middleton calls on his cousins in their new home we are told that "his countenance was thoroughly good-humoured; and his manners were as friendly as the style of his letter." Then the qualification is added: "Their arrival seemed to afford him real satisfaction, and their comfort to be an object of real solicitude to him (p. 25; my italics). With Lady Middleton the contrast is made even more sharply. After sending the Dashwoods a "very civil message" and receiving "an invitation equally polite," she calls at the cottage. "They were of course very anxious to see a person on whom so much of their comfort at Barton must depend; and the elegance of her appearance was favourable to their wishes…. her face was handsome, her figure tall and striking, and her address graceful…. But … her visit was long enough to detract something from their first admiration, by shewing that though perfectly well-bred, she was reserved, cold and had nothing to say for herself beyond the most common-place inquiry or remark" (pp. 25–26).
Throughout Volume I the theme is developed and explored. The Dashwood family, for instance, in their response to their acquaintance—and especially, in the end, to Willoughby—come back always to the question of genuineness and integrity. "You must think wretchedly indeed of Willoughby," says Mrs. Dashwood to Elinor, "if after all that has openly passed between them, you can doubt the nature of the terms on which they are together." The key word is "openly"—Willoughby must be what he has appeared to be. Then she goes on to ask (in expectation of being refuted) the basic question: "Has he been acting a part in his behaviour to your sister all this time?" Elinor's reply, of course, is "No, I cannot think that" (p. 69). But later, in a theoretical discussion of the whole business of assessing people she confesses that she sometimes makes mistakes: "I have frequently detected in myself … a total misapprehension of character … fancying people so much more gay and grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why, or in what the deception originated" (p. 80). The reductio ad absurdum is reached when Elinor asks Mrs. Palmer whether they saw much of Willoughby at Cleveland and "whether they were intimately acquainted with him." "Oh! dear, yes," she replies, "I know him extremely well…. Not that I ever spoke to him indeed; but I have seen him for ever in town" (p. 98).
The climactic touch is achieved with the arrival of the Miss Steeles. Sir John enthusiastically commends them as "the sweetest girls in the world, and they are so "doatingly fond" of Lady Middleton's spoiled children that she declares them "to be very agreeable girls" (p. 102). "Agreeable" appears more than once in the account given of the Steele sisters—but Elinor's response is cool: "Their manners were particularly civil, and Elinor soon allowed them credit for some kind of sense, when she saw with what constant and judicious attentions they were making themselves agreeable to Lady Middleton" (p. 103). The way in which Lucy Steele and her sister sweetly suffer the Middleton brats is the occasion of some of the happiest comedy in the novel. But they serve as more than a mere source of amusement. They act, in a fairly obvious way, as foils to the two Dashwood sisters; and less obviously, perhaps, they provide a means by which the moral and social sensibilities of the two girls may be tested and compared.
Marianne's response is quick and positive to the point of rudeness. She "had never much toleration for anything like impertinence, vulgarity, inferiority of parts, or even difference of taste from herself; and "the invariable coldness of her behaviour towards them" cannot be disguised (p. 109). Elinor, however, allows them "some kind of sense"—a significant allowance, surely, in view of the title and the theme of the novel—and although she has no illusions about the real nature of the Steele sisters, particularly Lucy, she is prepared to play the social game with them. She allows Lucy to involve her in long—and, ultimately, very painful—heart-to-heart discussions, even while admitting to herself that "she could have no lasting satisfaction in the company of a person who joined insincerity with ignorance, and who suffered from "a thorough want of delicacy, of rectitude, and integrity of mind" (p. 110). And when Marianne, who finds it "impossible … to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion," becomes so disgusted that she cannot even bring herself to take part in social small talk with the sisters, we are told that "upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell" (p. 105).
"Telling lies"—the phrase is used lightly; and Jane Austen's wry insistence that absolute honesty in conversation would make ordinary social intercourse impossible is amusing rather than horrifying. But, as always, she is perfectly aware of what the words she is using mean. In order to be tactful and prudent Elinor has to tell lies—and the degree of her prevarication is heightened by the very falsity and hypocrisy of the society in which she moves. To compromise with people like Lucy Steele and Lady Middleton is to be corrupted: despite her own toughness and honesty Elinor is seduced into playing the game of polite lying to some degree on their terms. And she does it, of course, very well: in the two "confidential discourses" she has with Lucy about Edward, the honors may appear to be even, but there is no doubt as to who has the real mastery of the situation or the better understanding of it.
And yet it is Elinor's understanding—her "sense"—that at crucial points in the action, lets her down or leads her astray, even though in the end it may be her salvation. This is most obvious in her commitment to decorum. She assumes that, provided one knows what one is doing, provided one is prepared to call a lie a lie, it is often better to preserve the social priorities than to embarrass others through excessive frankness. This is a view that we may safely assume Jane Austen would have endorsed. Commenting on the passage, Tony Tanner observes that "the astringent realism of Jane Austen's vision is [here] clearly in evidence … for society is indeed maintained by necessary lies."13 But it is maintained at a cost—and the way in which the limitations in Elinor's position are exposed and explored suggest very clearly what the cost may be. It is not that she undervalues candor—on the contrary. And her unwillingness to follow Marianne's example and attempt to speak the truth at all times no matter what the penalty may be is understandable and indeed commendable. But to begin with at least she is rather too ready to follow the apparently easier and wiser paths of polite prevarication. And at certain crucial points in the action this has a disproportionately significant effect. There are moments at which if Elinor had been prepared to say what she really thought and felt the outcome of events may have been rather different.
This is demonstrated most clearly in her response to the relationship between Marianne and Willoughby. Her intuitive assessment of the situation is basically sound. As she says to her mother, "I want no proof of their affections … but of their engagement I do" (p. 40). And she sensibly points out that the whole problem could be settled very simply: "Why do you not ask Marianne at once whether she is or is not engaged to Willoughby?" (p. 72). But when her mother refuses to do this for fear of hurting Marianne's feelings. Elinor allows herself to be persuaded against her better judgment to remain silent: "[She] urged the matter farther but in vain; common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs. Dashwood's romantic delicacy" (p. 73). In one way this is a triumph of "sensibility" over "sense." But in another it is not. To begin with, Mrs. Dashwood's "delicacy" is a false delicacy: it is "romantic." And then Elinor's acquiescence exhibits "some kind of sense"—though not the highest kind. She refuses to commit the impropriety of going against the wishes of her mother. Thus decorum is preserved—as it is when Elinor sustains polite conversation with the Steeles—and Marianne's feelings are, for the moment, spared. And the convenient fiction—the lie—of Willoughby's engagement to Marianne remains unchallenged.
Elinor's greatest error—and it is one that Marianne to begin with, but only briefly, also falls into—occurs in her assessment of Mrs. Jennings. Although at first sight merely a comic buttress to the main action, Mrs. Jennings plays a most significant role in the novel—a role that is...
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Easton, Celia A. "Sense and Sensibility and Joke of Substitution." The Journal of Narrative Technique 23, No. 2 (Spring 1993): 114–26.
Discusses how Austen's use of the ironic "stand-in effect" keeps the reader and the novel's characters in suspenseful delusion.
Harding, D. W. "The Supposed Letter Form of Sense and Sensibility." Notes and Queries n.s. 40, No. 4 (December 1993): 464–66.
Disputes the notion that Sense and Sensibility was originally in letter form and proposes that Pride and Prejudice was the far likelier candidate....
(The entire section is 532 words.)