illustration of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood's faces

Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen

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How does the relationship between Elinor and Marianne change over the course of the novel Sense and Sensibility?

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The relationship between the Dashwood sisters is that of the title: Sense and Sensibility. While each sister begins clearly representing one quality rather than the other, by the novel’s end, Jane Austen shows each as having acquired some of the other’s characteristics, although they do not completely trade places. Elinor, as the older sister, initially embodies “sense”: she is rational, level-headed, and moderate. Marianne felt justified in behaving irresponsibly, as she knew she could depend on Elinor. The younger sister stands for “sensibility,” or emotion: she is impetuous, impractical, and easily swayed.

Elinor undergoes substantial changes in part because of her love for Edward, which finally can be reciprocated. In many ways, Elinor had been behaving as a second mother to her younger sisters as she tried to ease their mother’s burden. The gradual inclusion of Colonel Brandon in their lives not only helps Marianne learn what true love means, but also helps relieve some of Elinor’s family burden. With both sisters married to the appropriate partners, their relationship is more of one between equals.

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Sisters Elinor and Marianne have always been very close. Elinor is the "sense" of the novel: she is always logical, practical, and sensible, and she doesn't like to betray what she is feeling.

Marianne is the "sensibility" of the title. That is not a word we use (at least in this sense) anymore, but the closest synonym today would be "sensitivity." You could think of the novel being called Sense and Sensitivity. Marianne is very emotionally sensitive. She feels everything very deeply, and she sometimes alarms Elinor because she always wears her heart on her sleeve. If she likes a person, they know it, but if she hates a person, she will also let them know. Elinor is the one who always has to smooth everything over.

As the novel progresses, Marianne's excess sensibility and Elinor's excessive sense drive the two apart. Elinor becomes increasingly alarmed that Marianne isn't really engaged to Willoughby, as she has led everyone to believe. Marianne, because Elinor hides her emotions so completely, doubts that Elinor is really in love with Edward.

Elinor feels a great deal of frustration with Marianne over her behavior regarding Willoughby. First, she is frustrated with Marianna for assuming they were engaged when Willoughby had no intention of marrying a woman like Marianne with no dowry. Second, Elinor becomes upset that Marianne has an excessive emotional reaction to Willoughby's engagement to another woman. However, when Marianne almost dies from her excessive response to Willoughby's betrayal, the two become closer again, especially at the end of the novel, when Marianne develops enough sense to marry Colonel Brandon, and Elinor opens up more about her sufferings over Edward, whom she eventually marries.

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Elinor and Marianne, London

Elinor and Marianne are invited to London by Mrs. Jennings. Elinor expects that Marianne, despising Mrs. Jennings, will reject the offer out of hand. Yet Elinor did not take into account the effect upon Marianne of Willoughby's sudden departure, and the lengths to which Marianne will go to see Willoughby.

Marianne, no matter the company she must keep (Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton, Lucy and Anne), suddenly must get to London--which is where Willoughby has gone to for the purpose, as we learn later, of securing an engagement to the wealthy Miss Grey. Marianne must see Willoughby again at any cost, even the cost of accepting the invitation of a woman she loathes, the kindhearted though somewhat vulgar Mrs. Jennings.

To say that Elinor and Marianne go to London to visit friends is a misreading a critical element that sets up complications in Marianne's conflict leading to her eventual epiphany: Marianne pursues the object of her sensibilities despite the claims of sense by reducing herself to misusing people she loathes to attain her desired ends. Marianne accepts an invitation from people who are decidedly not friends.

Plot Versus Subplot

Elinor comprises the plot while Marianne comprises the subplot because Austen focalizes the story through Elinor's perception, comment and experience. To explain, Elinor comments on virtually everything that happens: she comments on Marianne and Willoughby's unfortunate excursion to Allenham; she comments on Marianne's treatment of Brandon; she comments on Lucy; etc. In contrast, Marianne comments on only that which she experiences directly or that which Elinor tells to her, as when Elinor communicates to Marianne both Brandon's and Willoughby's confessions to her.

Elinor is also directly involved in almost every event, with the exception of events like the excursion to Allenham; Brandon's trips to and experiences in London and Barton Cottage; Lucy's engagement to Edward; Lucy's visit with and revelation to Fanny. Still these events are related through the consciousness of Elinor.

Elinor's conflict is that of the quest. Elinor has heroic qualities and is in quest of a goal: Edward's love. In the end, Elinor succeeds in her quest and attains her goal by being true to what she knows to be good and right. Elinor does not undergo character change: she has no epiphany nor any change of heart, nor any lesson learned. Marianne, on the other hand, has a main conflict within herself: her central conflict is her belief system against the outcome of her life. In the end, Marianne experiences an epiphany; has a significant change of heart; learns a lesson; undergoes dramatic character change in the face of a life-threatening event.

Marianne's Tragedy

What is Elinor's role in Marianne's tragedy that begins at the ball and escalates with Willoughby's cold letter the following morning? Is Elinor Marianne's chief support, her source of comfort and strength? How does Marianne react toward and think of Elinor during their time in London, both before and after the ball?

Before the ball, Marianne takes the imprudent step of corresponding with Willoughby, and Elinor is alarmed and uses the fact of correspondence to confirm to herself the existence of a secret engagement between her sister and Willoughby. Elinor is concerned enough about this secret that she writes their mother to require that she insist Marianne explain herself:

They reached town by three o'clock the third day, [...] Elinor determined to employ the interval in writing to her mother, and sat down for that purpose. In a few moments Marianne did the same. "I am writing home, Marianne," said Elinor; "had not you better defer your letter for a day or two?"
"I am NOT going to write to my mother," replied Marianne, hastily, and as if wishing to avoid any farther inquiry. Elinor said no more; it immediately struck her that she must then be writing to Willoughby;....
Elinor resolved to write the next morning to her mother ... and she was still more eagerly bent on this measure by perceiving after breakfast on the morrow, that Marianne was again writing to Willoughby ....

Why is corresponding with Willoughby so imprudent that Elinor and Brandon are concerned and that Elinor presses her mother to "demand from Marianne an account of her real situation with respect to [Willoughby]"? In the Georgian era of Jane Austen (1775-1817), which extended from 1714 to 1830 and included the Regency period of 1811 to 1820, social norms governing relationships between unmarried women and men were strict.

For unmarried men and women to avoid being or even appearing to be vulgar, strict social norms were adhered to. In view of the fact that private conversations and physical contact were chaperoned and prohibited outside rigid social situations, e.g., dancing at balls or supervised parties, one of these norms was that unmarried men and women did not correspond unless they had a definite, publicly known and acknowledged engagement to be married.

For Marianne to correspond with Willoughby exposed her (and him) to accusations of vulgarity if not engaged, and of secrecy and lack of propriety if engaged. Engagements needed to be public and acknowledged in order for honor and reputation to be upheld (it is interesting to consider Lucy's long secret engagement to Edward in this light).

Elinor's concern for Marianne's welfare was awakened from their first day in London when Marianne immediately undertook to write to Willoughby whom she supposed to be still in London, rather than having returned from London to his estate at Combe Magna in Somersetshire.

How does Marianne respond to Elinor's concern? Is she accepting of Elinor's comfort, support or counsel? Might we say that Elinor was Marianne's "mainstay"?

Marianne's first reaction is to snap at Elinor--in such a way as to forestall further inquiry--that she is not writing their mother; she does this without volunteering the name of the person she is writing to: "'I am NOT going to write to my mother,' replied Marianne, hastily, and as if wishing to avoid any farther inquiry." Not many days after, Marianne dashes to grasp a letter that is delivered even though told by Mrs. Jennings' servant that it was addressed to Mrs. Jennings herself. When Elinor compassionately attempts to gain Marianne's confidence regarding Willoughby, Marianne's response is one that is not only intended to put Elinor off but also to give Elinor an affront:

[Said] Elinor in some confusion; "indeed, Marianne, I have nothing to tell."
"Nor I," answered Marianne with energy, "our situations then are alike. We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing."
Elinor, distressed by this charge of reserve in herself, ... knew not how, under such circumstances, to press for greater openness in Marianne. (Ch 22)

Thus far, there is no indication of Marianne deriving or looking for any comfort or support from Elinor. What about at and after the ball? Does Marianne lean on Elinor as her chief support? Indeed, she does not. When Elinor counsels Marianne to be composed and await Willoughby's notice, Marianne has neither the ability nor the wish to follow her counsel; she has no desire to be supported by Elinor.

Marianne, wholly dispirited, careless of her appearance, and seeming equally indifferent whether she went or staid, prepared, without one look of hope or one expression of pleasure. She sat by the drawing-room fire ... without once stirring from her seat, or altering her attitude, lost in her own thoughts, and insensible of her sister's presence ... They arrived in due time at the place of destination, ... and as Marianne was not in spirits for moving about, she and Elinor luckily succeeding to chairs, ... Elinor perceived Willoughby, standing within a few yards of them, in earnest conversation with a very fashionable looking young woman ... Elinor turned involuntarily to Marianne, to see whether it could be unobserved by her. At that moment she first perceived him, and her whole countenance glowing with sudden delight, she would have moved towards him instantly, had not her sister caught hold of her. ...
"Pray, pray be composed," cried Elinor, "and do not betray what you feel to every body present. Perhaps he has not observed you yet."
[To] be composed at such a moment was not only beyond the reach of Marianne, it was beyond her wish. She sat in an agony of impatience which affected every feature. (Ch 28)

After the encounter with Willoughby, Marianne was in such a state of complete discomposure that Elinor requested Lady Middleton to return them to Mrs. Jennings' home. There, Marianne, in a state of "silent agony, too much oppressed even for tears," went straight to bed without turning to Elinor for support or comfort. The morning found Marianne, without the benefit of either fire or sunlight, struggling to write a letter in dawn's dim light. Elinor was awakened by her violent sobs and rebuffed when she tried to speak to Marianne. It is clear here again that Marianne had no idea of turning to Elinor for or of accepting from Elinor comfort or support in any degree.

Elinor [was] roused from sleep by [Marianne's] agitation and sobs ... [and] after observing her for a few moments with silent anxiety, said, in a tone of the most considerate gentleness,

"Marianne, may I ask-?"
"No, Elinor," she replied, "ask nothing; you will soon know all."
The sort of desperate calmness with which this was said, lasted no longer than while she spoke, and was immediately followed by a return of the same excessive affliction. [...]
Elinor paid her every quiet and unobtrusive attention in her power; and she would have tried to sooth and tranquilize her still more, had not Marianne entreated her ... not to speak to her for the world. In such circumstances, it was better for both that they should not be long together.... (Ch 29)

When Willoughby's last correspondence is read and wept over by Marianne, we see some sign that Marianne recognizes in Elinor a friend and compassionate well-wisher rather than an antagonist of some sort to be resisted. After breakfast with Mrs. Jennings that morning, during which Elinor tried to distract Mrs. Jennings' attention away from the absent Marianne, Elinor dashed back to their room to see if Marianne had received a letter from Willoughby by the early post. When she saw Marianne prostrate upon her bed and nearly "choked by grief" but grasping a letter and surrounded by others, she sat beside her, kissed her hand affectionately, then burst into sympathetic tears and wept along with Marianne. It is here that Marianne shows some sign of seeing a support and comforter in Elinor:

[Elinor] saw Marianne stretched on the bed, almost choked by grief, one letter in her hand, and two or three others laying by her. Elinor drew near, but without saying a word; and seating herself on the bed, took her hand, kissed her affectionately several times, and then gave way to a burst of tears, which at first was scarcely less violent than Marianne's. The latter, though unable to speak, seemed to feel all the tenderness of this behaviour, and after some time thus spent in joint affliction, she put all the letters into Elinor's hands; and then covering her face with her handkerchief, almost screamed with agony.

It is clear from these textual excerpts that Marianne did not think of Elinor as her mainstay; she did not think of Elinor as her comfort and support. On the contrary, she pushed Elinor away as often as Elinor tried to approach with comfort or support. Marianne's reason--although immaterial to understanding her actions--must have been that she knew Elinor would press the claim of sensible behavior against that of behavior of sensibility, and Marianne rejected--just as she did when their father died and when they left Norland--the claim of sense over sensibility.

"Exert yourself, dear Marianne," [Elinor] cried, "if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. ... 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."

By her own admission, Marianne's attitude toward Elinor—an attitude that lies at the heart of the conflict between them and at the heart of the principle theme of the story—doesn't change until after Marianne is recovered from her brush with death and both are back at Barton Cottage and she is perceived to be strong enough to physically withstand hearing Willoughby's confession. It is here that Marianne confesses her own faults, particularly her transgressions against Elinor, in whom she did not see a comforter nor a supporter, and acknowledges what Elinor has been and continues to be to her.

But you,—you above all,... had been wronged by me. I, and only I, knew your heart and its sorrows; yet to what did it influence me?—not to any compassion that could benefit you or myself.—Your example was before me; but to what avail?—... Did I imitate your forbearance, or lessen your restraints, ...—No;—not less when I knew you to be unhappy, than when I had believed you at ease, did I turn away from every exertion of duty or friendship; scarcely allowing sorrow to exist but with me, ...
The future must be my proof ... my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. They shall no longer worry others, nor torture myself. I shall now live solely for my family. You, my mother, and Margaret, must henceforth be all the world to me; you will share my affections entirely between you." (Ch 46)

Marianne's Love for Willoughby: Is It Altered?

Marianne herself gives us the answer to the question of whether she still loves Willoughby after his marriage to Miss Grey, thus there is no need for speculation on this point. However, understanding Marianne depends in part upon applying an understanding of the social norms of Georgian culture to what Marianne says.

Remembering that eschewing even the appearance of vulgarity and impropriety was the driving motivation behind Georgian social norms, we can understand that Marianne would not be able to apply the word "love" to Willoughby after he had married Miss Grey.

She would no longer be able to echo Mrs. Dashwood's protest that to esteem is to love (Ch 4). To do so would be to violate a very serious norm that honored marriage and love within marriage. This is also why Elinor would not tell Marianne the full detail of Willoughby's continued affection (Austen's narrator would not even apply the word "love" here) for Marianne.

When Elinor and Marianne are walking in view of the hill near the cottage—the hill, as Marianne points out, where she first met Willoughby—Marianne reveals the contents of her feelings for Willoughby. We know from social norms and her reactions as well as her words that, though she sees the error—and even the horror—of his behavior, she cannot remove from her heart her fond "remembrance" of him. She only needs to know that he intended from the outset no villainy toward her, that she was not deliberately to be his next Miss Williams, for her heart to rest easy in its continued "remembrance."

We know that while she cannot give up what he meant to her, she asserts she will govern her feelings and check them "by religion, by reason, by constant employment." She will govern her sensibilities. That her feelings for Willoughby are not turned away from love--though she may never speak that word in relation to him, a married man--is confirmed by her final statement that if she "could but know HIS heart," then she would feel easy in her mind.

"There, exactly there,"—pointing with one hand, "on that projecting mound,—there I fell; and there I first saw Willoughby. [...] I am thankful to find that I can look with so little pain on the spot!—shall we ever talk on that subject, Elinor?"—hesitatingly it was said.—"Or will it be wrong?—I can talk of it now, I hope, as I ought to do. ... I do not mean to talk to you of what my feelings have been for him, but what they are NOW.—At present, if I could be ... allowed to think that he was not ALWAYS acting a part, not ALWAYS deceiving me;... how gladly would I suppose him, only fickle, very, very fickle.
"As for Willoughby—to say that I shall soon or that I shall ever forget him, would be idle. His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment."
She paused—and added in a low voice, "If I could but know HIS heart, everything would become easy."
[Elinor] softened only his protestations of present regard. Marianne said not a word.—She trembled, her eyes were fixed on the ground, and her lips became whiter than even sickness had left them. ... She caught every syllable with panting eagerness; her hand, unknowingly to herself, closely pressed her sister's, and tears covered her cheeks.

In conclusion, to say that Marianne no longer loved Willoughby would be a statement that Elinor might wish to be true but with which she would be forced to disagree: Marianne sees Willoughby's faults and relinquishes her proclivity to torture herself with regret over not being his wife—regret being a sure sign of continued love—but in her heart and mind, "[h]is remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions."

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