Austen, lauded as one of England's most important writers of the nineteenth century, is known for her astute social and psychological observations of the world in which she lived: middle-to-upper-class nineteenth-century England. Her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, centers closely on the domestic lives of a close circle of well-to-do friends and relatives. The narrative action and dialogue in the novel, however, is completely separated from political and historical events of the era; the action appears to occur in a hermetically sealed bubble. The countryside of Barton, where the Dashwood sisters live, and the London of Mrs. Jennings and other landed gentry seems to be far removed from the poverty of slums, class disenfranchisement, and any talk of political or social reform that characterized the political climate of the England in which they lived. Thus, Austen has not been widely viewed—both to her credit and to her criticism—as a political writer.
It is evident, however, after examining the political landscape in which Austen was writing, that the intent of the novel seems to be politically motivated, even though she does not explicitly mention politics. Sense and Sensibility has traditionally been viewed as a largely formulaic, didactic novel—a popular format in Austen's time, in which two philosophies are pitted against each other. In Sense and Sensibility, as the title suggests, Austen pits romantic notions (sensibility) against rationale (sense) by comparing the socially proper Elinor Dashwood with her romantically-inclined sister Marianne. Through this comparison, and the subsequent condemnation of Marianne's romantic philosophy, Austen takes on the biggest political controversies of her day, namely, the ideologies of revolutionary France and the growing cry for the equality of women.
Although it is not apparent from the polite conversation at the Middleton's social gatherings, the action in Sense and Sensibility takes place in an England that is increasingly unstable. The country is fighting a war with France where the individualistic philosophy of the revolutionary Jacobins rules the day. (The Jacobins were the revolutionaries who overthrew France's monarchy to replace it with a republic; they executed many of the aristocracy, including the king and queen, by the guillotine.) This revolutionary sentiment was perceived as a threat to the status quo and economic hierarchy within the upper classes in England. Additionally, social and economic changes in the form of agrarian reforms and industrial capitalism were also gradually transforming English society; they posed a specific threat to the landed gentry, whose comfortable lifestyles were becoming less and less secure. Critic Mary Poovey writes, "By the first decades of the nineteenth century, birth into a particular class no longer exclusively determined one's future social or economic status, the vertical relationships of patronage no longer guaranteed either privileges or obedience, and the traditional authority of the gentry, and of the values associated with their lifestyle, was a subject under general debate." In light of such changes, the beliefs of moralists and the gentry, who their opinions represented, were coming under increasing scrutiny. Although Austen did not outwardly confront these issues, many other writers of her era did.
Another revolution that was seeing its beginnings in England was the fight for equality of women. In the early nineteenth century, the period in which Sense and Sensibility takes place, women had no rights: they could own no property, they could not enter into professions, and they had to depend entirely upon men for their economic welfare. Mary Wollstonecraft, a "radical" who fought for egalitarianism, wrote her seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792, only a few years before Austen began her early drafts of Sense and Sensibility
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Sense and Sensibility. Wollstonecraft's work called for the equal education of women and condemned the "delicacy" that women were taught to conform to for the sake of becoming proper wives and mothers. This notion of "delicacy," though not specifically mentioned by Austen, equates loosely with Elinor's "sense," or her conviction of the importance of social propriety and demureness.
Thus, the unromantic, socially proper Elinor, whom Austen makes the heroine of her novel, directly contradicts the reformist and revolutionary sentiment that was taking root in England.
The first critic to broach the subject of politics in the work of Austen was Marilyn Butler. Butler's seminal work Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, which first appeared in the mid-1970s, compares Austen's castigation of Marianne's sensibility with Austen's own disapproval of the rabid individualism of the Jacobins, the radical group that had gained control of France during her lifetime. While some critics, as critic Robert Clark notes, blanched at this new criticism that "discovered politics in a realm naturally free of such sordid matter," it is rather difficult to read Sense and Sensibility without realizing that, whether intentional or not, Austen left a text rife with political sentiment. To enjoy Austen or to dismiss her because she only represents a narrow class of society in her works is to miss out on the novel's many subtle political allusions and social criticisms. The bickering between critics should not concern whether Austen's book is political, but rather just what political and social philosophy Austen may be endorsing.
Austen's championing sense over sensibility can certainly be read as her disapproval of writers espousing the Jacobin sentiment and even feminist reformers such as Wollstonecraft. While this approach is certainly valid, the fact that Elinor's sense prevails in the end should not necessarily be taken as a tacit endorsement of the society in which Austen lived. While Austen may have disagreed with those outwardly clamoring for a change in the status quo, she subtly acknowledges that the status quo does indeed have flaws. Just as it is an over-simplification to claim that Elinor's personality is bereft of sensibility—after all, the stoical Elinor is greatly affected by the false news that Edward has wed Lucy Steele—it is likewise an oversimplification to claim that Austen wholeheartedly endorses Elinor's diplomatic, prudent philosophy of sense.
In a traditional, formulaic fairy tale like those of the Grimm Brothers, the hero lives "happily ever after" while the villains are duly punished. Snow White and Cinderella both marry their perfect princes while Snow White's wicked stepmother is tortured to death and Cinderella's sisters have their eyes pecked out by crows. Sense and Sensibility begins like a fairy tale; it appears to be a formulaic work, as a fairy tale is formulaic. It starts out as a didactic novel, a format that was popular during Austen's era, in which two seemingly contradictory philosophies are pitted against one another.
However, it is clear that Austen, while writing Sense and Sensibility, felt constrained by the formula of the didactic novel; otherwise, she would have killed off Marianne with the fever, much like German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe, in perhaps the most famous novel of the eighteenth century, killed off his Werther, a character who adheres to "sensibility" just as stubbornly as Marianne. This would have been the fitting demise to a character who stubbornly persisted with her romantic philosophy to the very end. But Austen deviates from this didactic approach and tempers her ending; it is more ambiguous in what it signifies or endorses. Marianne lives but must modify her beliefs.
The book's ultimate "happily ever after" is rather lukewarm: the less amenable and more acquisitive and greedy characters—the "villains"— like Mr. and Mrs. John Dash wood, Lucy Steele, and Robert Ferrars, escape unscathed. There are no Prince Charmings in Sense and Sensibility, just husbands who represent mediocre compromise. Austen, in her description of Elinor's future spouse writes, "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." Marianne ends up marrying Major Brandon, an arthritic man eighteen years her senior who she once mocked and who, throughout the novel, does not have the forthrightness to address her directly. Thus, the ending is ambiguous in that there are no clear winners or losers. The categorical extremes of right and wrong or good and evil are less clearly delineated in Austen's work than they are in the typical didactic novels of the era.
In the much-quoted summation, Austen writes:
Between Barton and Delaford, there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate; and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.
Austen's ironic tone and use of negatives in describing the happy ending and the future spouses of the sisters betray a sense of dissatisfaction with the prevailing social system. Sense is perhaps the only viable option in a world that has become vaguely distasteful. This is not exactly a glowing endorsement of the fate of the heroines. Rather, it beckons the notion of Christian tolerance and endurance in the midst of a world that is anything but the Garden of Eden. While Marianne's sensibility is refuted, her stubborn beliefs do not earn her death; Austen allows her to live. Marianne's marriage to Brandon is but a mediocre compromise in a world bereft of Prince Charmings. Meanwhile, Elinor, because she aspires to more humble goals, attains exactly what she had desired. The lukewarm fate of the heroines can, on one level, be read as an endorsement of the tenets of the Anglican Church to which Austen belonged: Elinor's philosophy is akin with traditional Christian values of prudence, modesty, and silent endurance. However, it is difficult to read the novel today and not feel a sense of the author's discontentment with the society in which she lived.
Perhaps the Christian doctrine of modesty is just a strategy to help Austen cope with a repressive social system and a male-dominated, patriarchal hierarchy that other writers, like Wollstonecraft, shouted against. Austen's artistry and subtle prose, with all its ironic implications, make it possible for her to whisper rather than shout. And, almost two hundred years later, critics still listen carefully and debate whether or not Austen subtly weaves a radical tone in her texts.
Source: David Partikian, Critical Essay on Sense and Sensibility, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.
Jane Austen's first novel to be published, Sense and Sensibility was developed from a sketch in letters ("Elinor and Marianne") begun some 15 years earlier. Its title seems to locate it firmly in a neoclassical, dualistic moral world where the values of reason and restraint, embodied in Elinor's good sense, will finally triumph over the impulsive, romantic sensibility of her sister Marianne. Yet even by its second chapter, any readerly security in such terms as "justice" and "good sense" is immediately put at risk as John Dashwood and his wife Fanny use rational calculation and prudent self-interest to hide their greed from themselves as they "sensibly" persuade one another that the intent behind the father's deathbed legacy of £3000 to his daughters, John's stepsisters, can be satisfied by an occasional gift of fish and game. Just as the novel's first scene shows how Sense can become a screen for coldness and cruelty, so too the novel as a whole dramatizes the gaps that occur between language and behavior, feeling and action: gaps that the unscrupulous exploit, the naive are trapped by, and the wise must use every resource of imagination to repair, or at least understand.
In this deceptively expressible world the two elder Dashwood sisters (Margaret, the youngest, is largely forgotten by the reader, and the author) try to work out their destinies, discover and narrate their own stories, by very different models. Like all of Austen's young women, both implicitly acknowledge that financial security and social stability, let alone enhancement, depend on marriage. Yet Marianne assumes that that relation should found itself on the unmediated openness of one freely expressive heart to another; her sister, that marriage is first a social contract, mediated by a language that, in turn, preserves a rational and decorous civilisation as a stay against humankind's baser instincts. Both sisters choose, and apparently are chosen by, men of appropriate character: Elinor's Edward Ferrars (brother of her stepbrother's wife) is a man all of whose works "centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life" and who is "too diffident to do justice to himself”; Marianne's Willoughby, conversely, with his "lively spirits," "open affectionate manner," and "natural ardour" is "exactly formed to engage Marianne's heart."
Each sister, however, is deceived: following Willoughby to London after his sudden and unexplained removal from Devonshire, Marianne is cruelly cut by him, in the novel's most powerfully dramatic scene (" 'Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this?'") at a party they attend with their cousin Lady Middleton; Elinor, ministering to her distraught sister (who has been rejected in favor of an heiress), supresses her own recent and painful discovery that Edward has been secretly engaged for four years to Lucy Steele, a vulgar, scheming climber. Both sisters also soon learn that Willoughby had previously seduced and abandoned, pregnant, the 16-year-old ward of their taciturn friend Colonel Brandon. Much confusion is brought about by (among other events) Edward's being disinherited for his unsuitable engagement to Lucy, his initial refusal to break off the engagement (out of a strict sense of honor) even after Lucy wants her freedom when she realizes he will be an impoverished clergyman, and comic confusions involving Edward's foppish brother Robert, who takes his brother's place in Lucy's affections and ambitions. Marianne, never fully recovered from the illness brought about by unrequited love, collapses again with fever en route home to Devon. Willoughby, rushing to what he assumes will be her deathbed, makes a confession and apology to Elinor, who is passionately moved by his distress, and by her sympathy for his economic impotence. After recovering, Marianne comes to see virtue in Brandon, who offers a living to Edward, and the sisters marry prudently at last: Elinor and Edward, in the Parsonage at Delaford, "had in fact nothing to wish for, but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows," while Marianne, "born to an extraordinary fate ... to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims ... found herself at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village."
Though the novel's final paragraphs seem to celebrate happiness and power ("patroness of a village") gained through submission and accommodation to society and the taming of impulsive vitality, the narrator's sly ironies ("better pasturage," "extraordinary fate") point toward a level of awareness no character in the novel is allowed, and the author herself partly suppresses. Together, Elinor and Marianne represent the sort of disciplined imagination later found in such complex characters as Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) or Anne Elliot (Persuasion), but much of Sense and Sensibility's depth exists in implication: in the erotic energy of Willoughby and its devastating effect on Marianne (nearly fatal) and Elinor (who decides not to tell her sister the full truth of Willoughby's confession); and in the complex representation of power relations, whereby men ruthlessly dominate and manipulate women, women have only their sexual marketability as defense, and both sexes are imprisoned in a structure that denies most people (except perhaps for clergymen and gentleman farmers) useful work as a source either of wealth or personal worth.
Source: William W. Heath, "Sense and Sensibility: Novel by Jane Austen, 1811," in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, Vol. 3, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 1841-42.
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 thorough-going 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," 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.
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." 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." 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." 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." 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 Steel'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." Consider Elinor. At the beginning 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."
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. 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."
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."
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?"
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. 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." 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."
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."
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," but then is forced to put her head down in "a state of such agitation as made her hardly know where she was." 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." 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 self-centeredness. 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 ill-disposed to receive or communicate pleasure." 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 discussion 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."
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."
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" 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." Despite her language, she functions 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" 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?"
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!—"
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...." 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?" 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 self-indulged, 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....
He is a weak, drifting character, willing to change himself, if the change will assist him in his pursuit of pleasure. "He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm." 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."
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."
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!”; “I was a libertine”; “Thunderbolts and daggers!,” 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 self-mocking. 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.”
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 constitute 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.”
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.
Source: P. Gila Reinstein, “Moral Priorities in Sense and Sensibility,” in Renascence, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Summer 1983, pp. 269–83.