Sense and Sensibility (Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay

Jane Austen


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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.)