Scholarly Musings: Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen.  Sense and Sensibility.  London: Penguin Classics, 2003.  382 pgs (including the Tony Tanner intro).

Oh la, the time carriage has arrived!—and the driver is most impatient to return to her native era.  Time to don my literary nerd bonnet!

Or:  Buckle up, kids – academicky post is going to be academicky.

. . . . .

Sense and Sensibility.  The title, of course, sums up the story’s major conflict, theme, and characters:

It’s a battle between reason and emotion (or the head and the heart, or calm vs. passionate love, or the Age of Reason vs. the Romantic era…).  It’s about two sisters with opposing responses to first love and heartbreak.  It’s about Elinor Dashwood’s attempt to control not only her own emotions, but also her younger sister’s.

Austen’s early style took some getting used to before I started to enjoy the story, and I can only really say I like it in retrospect.  It was a bit difficult keeping up with the genealogy lesson in the first few chapters (wait, is she talking about John Dashwood or the little boy now?  How are all these Dashwoods related?), and there were things I wish Austen had shown rather than just told.  Like Elinor and Edward’s early falling-in-love moments.

But looking back, I am fascinated by how the characters and relationships are paralleled and contrasted.  I can appreciate the story from a literary and historical point of view – how it shows the evolution of the novel form, and how society viewed love and marriage in the late 1700s/early 1800s.

I won’t go in depth here about all of those things, but I do welcome discussion in the comments!  In the meantime, I’ll focus on a few elements that particularly interested me.

  • Characterization

Elinor is the story’s moral compass – she’s the standard by which almost all the other characters are judged.  She’s careful, considerate, and self-controlled, while other characters are impulsive, selfish, and/or overly emotional.  She follows the rules of her society, without catering to its beliefs.

Marianne, on the other hand, is portrayed as self-centered and melodramatic.  She seems to have firm principles, but is naïve; she believes in doing and saying exactly what she feels, even if it offends other people or makes her look silly.

And yet, it’s not all that simple; Marianne isn’t just a 2D foil to Elinor’s stoic saintliness.  As Tanner points out in his intro,

Jane Austen was already enough of a novelist to know that nothing comes unmixed, that qualities which may exist in pure isolation as abstractions only occur in people in combination, perhaps in confusion…[1]

In other words, this isn’t a straightforward morality story, and no one is completely a hero (well, Elinor kind of is) or villain (well, Fanny Dashwood is generally a b****).

Marianne, in fact, does show some empathy for other people — at least for Elinor — long before her coming-of-age turning point.  Even in one of her most miserable moments, she’s aware enough to see when her sister is being insulted by Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars, and immediately jumps to her defense.  It may not be in the subtle, socially acceptable way Elinor defends herself (her conversations with Lucy Steele are particularly amusing.  You can just see the invisible claws coming out), but I still admire Marianne for that moment.

. . . .

As for Lucy, I actually found myself liking her at first, despite Elinor being turned off by her “want of real elegance.” In fact, I thought that early assessment was unfair, considering how concerned Lucy was with politeness and propriety.  She was constantly trying to cover for her sister’s bad manners (“ ’Lord! Anne,’ cried her sister, ‘you can talk of nothing but beaux;—you will make Miss Dashwood believe you think of nothing else.’  And then to turn the discourse, she began admiring the house and the furniture.”[2]).

Apparently there’s something in Lucy’s tone or expression that tips Elinor off, but is lost to us; maybe she’s too clumsy and obvious in dealing with Anne’s rudeness, which just makes the situation more awkward.  But that’s no reason to look down on her; I thought Elinor would at least sympathize with the girl’s intentions.

But until we get to know her better and read more of her dialogue, we just have to take Austen’s word for it that Lucy is inelegant and uneducated.

. . . .

We also have to take her word for it that Elinor and Edward are in love by Chapter 3.  There I am, reading along, still getting to know the characters and how they’re related, and suddenly this happens:

…a particular circumstance occurred to give still greater eligibility, according to the opinions of Mrs. Dashwood, to her daughter’s continuance at Norland.

This circumstance was a growing attachment between her eldest girl and the brother of Mrs. John Dashwood, a gentlemanlike and pleasing young man, who was introduced to their acquaintance soon after his sister’s establishment at Norland, and who had since spent the greatest part of his time there.[3]

And I’m left thinking:  Wait, what, they’re already in love?  I haven’t even met the guy yet!  No fair, I wanted to see the courtship for myself!

And even after that, I couldn’t really feel the love until much later in the story, and never so much on Edward’s side.  In fact, we don’t really meet Edward until roughly 1/4 of the way into the story, when he finally gets to say more than one line.  Until then, almost all of what we know about him is second-hand.  Austen tells us he’s shy, and not exactly handsome.  Marianne tells us he’s too unenthusiastic for her taste.  Elinor tells us he’s intelligent and has good taste, though he’s also insecure.

And then, many chapters later, we finally get to spend some quality time with Edward in the flesh, and wait–is he actually bantering with Elinor and Marianne, in a strangely extroverted way that I didn’t at all expect?  Is this the Edward whom Elinor got to know so well, back in Chapter 3?  If I’d seen this side of him for myself back then, it might not seem so out of left field now.

Maybe my expectations of the book, overall, were like Marianne’s expectations of love.  I wanted the emotions to be shown more, whereas the book wanted to be more like Elinor – more controlled and understated, even repressed, depending on your viewpoint.

  • Good romance, bad romance, and a consolation prize

WARNING!  SPOILERS AHEAD! If you haven’t read the book and want to avoid said spoilers, stop here.

Here’s what really fascinated and troubled me.  Although the story does leave room for some individual reader judgment of the characters, the overall message is pretty clear.  Elinor’s way of falling in love is more acceptable than Marianne’s, so Elinor is rewarded with a marriage based on mutually strong love and desire, whereas Marianne is forced (by the author, anyway) to settle with what she once hated to think of – a marriage of convenience.

Worse:  in the end, Marianne is little more than Colonel Brandon’s prize.  No, seriously:

…and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward and Elinor.  They each felt [Brandon’s] sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all” [4]

As much as I like Brandon overall – he is certainly very caring, loyal, and dignified – I’m not sure he really loves Marianne as herself, so much as a reincarnation of his former love.  Marianne is his second chance with Eliza.

In other words, the full benefits of this marriage are one-sided.  Like Elinor, Col. Brandon is rewarded for his suffering and desire, but the same isn’t true for Marianne.  I agree that Willoughby wasn’t the right man for her, at least not at that time.  I don’t even think she was really in love with him; it’s more that she was so desperate to experience the kind of true love she read about or imagined, that she grabbed hold of the first man who seemed to fit that image.

On Willoughby’s side, he’s like the Paula Abdul song (just having fun).  He plays the part of Marianne’s dream man, not so much to please her as to see if he can conquer her.  But if we believe his arguments in the end, at some point he really did feel something more serious.  Just not enough to overcome his love of money.

But who knows if time and experience would have helped him mature, and turned his superficial, selfish love into a true respect and desire?  Or, who’s to say Marianne wouldn’t one day have fallen deeply in love with someone else?

And then there’s always the option of staying single for a while, which I’m sure wouldn’t be looked down upon or pitied or discouraged or anything, right?  Oh well, after all, this is a marriage comedy, so it wouldn’t quite do for one of the title characters to not gain full financial security and a higher social status in the end.

. . . .

There’s so much more I could ramble on about — the weirdness of trying to imagine Elinor and Marianne as 19 and 17 years old when my mind keeps going to Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet; why Charlotte Palmer is so cheerful despite her husband’s asinine behavior; Elinor’s “He’s Just Not Into You” moment (when even she tries to think of self-flattering excuses for Edward’s strange behavior) — but I’ll have pity and spare you the dissertation.  As I said, though, I’d love to discuss more in the comments!

[1] Pg. 357

[2] pg 119

[3] pg 17

[4] pg 351


  1. I love what you say about Marianne being viewed as a “prize” at the end, and Elinor being “rewarded.” Excellent thoughts — I felt the same way. And also — I LOVE this book. 🙂

    • Thanks! It’s funny, because even though her naivete and melodrama would get annoying sometimes, I really relate to Marianne overall — not only my younger self, but as I am right now, too. And sometimes I’d actually start to resent Elinor for being so darn strong and stoic.

      It’s very interesting to see Austen’s early style, compared with her other novels. Her sense of humor was much more obvious in Northanger Abbey, and I think even Pride and Prejudice had a lighter mood, somewhat. I’ll definitely want to read her Juvenilia, too 🙂

  2. I know this is a little late (I’m totally reading through all your older blog posts) but I really enjoyed this one! And I just had to say, I felt totally blindsided by Elinor and Edward’s love, too. WTF? They’re just all quiet and like suddenly, secretly, madly in love?? I have always chalked that up to a couple less passionate or something, but that is not the type of love affair I like reading in Austen. But, if you just get past that, the rest of the novel flows nicely. Also, one of my most favorite literary characters is Mr. Palmer. He is a prime example of why one shouldn’t marry for the wrong reasons, and maybe I shouldn’t, but I find him pretty funny.

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