The dichotomy between "sense" and "sensibility" is one of the lenses through which this novel is most commonly analyzed. The distinction is most clearly symbolized by the psychological contrast between the novel's two chief characters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. According to this understanding, Elinor, the older sister, represents qualities of "sense": reason, restraint, social responsibility, and a clear-headed concern for the welfare of others. In contrast, Marianne, her younger sister, represents qualities of "sensibility": emotion, spontaneity, impulsiveness, and rapturous devotion. Whereas Elinor conceals her regard for Edward Ferrars, Marianne openly and unashamedly proclaims her passion for John Willoughby. Their different attitudes toward the men they love, and how to express that love, reflect their opposite temperaments.
This dichotomy between "sense" and "sensibility" has cultural and historical resonances as well. Austen wrote this novel around the turn of the eighteenth century, on the cusp between two cultural movements: Classicism and Romanticism. Elinor represents the characteristics associated with eighteenth-century neo-classicism, including rationality, insight, judgment, moderation, and balance. She never loses sight of propriety, economic practicalities, and perspective, as when she reminds Marianne that their mother would not be able to afford a pet horse or that it is indecorous for her to go alone with Willoughby to Allenham. It was during the Classical period and its accompanying cultural Enlightenment that the novel first developed as a literary genre: thus, with the character of Elinor, Austen gestures toward her predecessors and acknowledges the influence of their legacy on her generation. In contrast, Marianne represents the qualities associated with the emerging "cult of sensibility," embracing romance, imagination, idealism, excess, and a dedication to the beauty of nature: Marianne weeps dramatically when her family must depart from "dear, dear Norland" and willingly offers a lock of her hair to her lover. Austen's characterization of Marianne reminds us that she was the contemporary of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Walter Scott, the luminaries of the English Romantic literary scene. Austen's depiction of Elinor and Marianne thus reflects the changing literary landscape that served as a backdrop for her life as a writer.
However, this novel cannot simply be understood as a straightforward study in contrast. Elinor, though representing sense, does not lack passion, and Marianne, though representing sensibility, is not always foolish and headstrong. Austen's antitheses do not represent epigrammatic conclusions but a starting- point for dialogue. Although Austen is famous for satirizing the "cult of sensibility," in this novel she seems to argue not for the dismissal of sensibility but for the creation of a balance between reason and passion. Fanny Dashwood's violent outbreak of feeling towards the end of the novel reveals that too little feeling is as dangerous as too much. Both Elinor and Marianne achieve happiness at the end of the novel, but they do so only by learning from one another: together they discover how to feel and express their sentiments fully while also retaining their dignity and self-control. The novel's success is not a result of the triumph of sense over sensibility or of their division; rather, we remember Sense and Sensibility as a conjunction of terms that serve together as the compound subject of Austen's novel.
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The cult of sensibility
The cult of sensibility was an eighteenth-century literary and intellectual movement which elevated sensibility above reason and other standards of right action. It argued that to have acute and heightened feelings was a sign of superior character. The cult of sensibility led to the sentimental novel, in which the hero is preoccupied with his or her sufferings in love and other emotions. Such characters were prone to weeping or fainting fits or attacks of extreme weakness as a response to emotionally moving experiences. Examples of sentimental novels include Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), and Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling (1771).
Jane Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility partly as a critique of the cult of sensibility, to which she was exposed in her youthful reading. She believed that there were problems with placing ultimate value on sensibility as a way of perceiving the world. By showing us how the two sisters, Elinor (“sense”) and Marianne Dashwood (“sensibility”), manage their love relationships, Austen attempts to show the dangers of excessive sensibility, or feeling.
One danger is that feeling is not always a reliable guide to truth. For example, Marianne feels that Willoughby loves her. While this may be so, it does not follow that he will act on his feelings and marry her. A second danger in elevating sensibility above other considerations is that it leads to selfishness. For example, Marianne feels justified in being rude to Mrs. Jennings because that lady’s gossipy curiosity offends her sensitive nature. Only when Marianne later realizes the error of her ways does she come to appreciate Mrs. Jennings’ kindness, a quality that was always evident to the woman of “sense,” Elinor. Austen shows that however deeply held someone’s feelings are, they do not excuse that person from the decencies of social behavior. A third danger in valuing sensibility over restraint is that it exposed a person’s reputation to public scandal. Marianne’s openness about her feelings for Willoughby leads everyone to speculate on their forthcoming marriage and endangers her reputation in an age when women were supposed to be either chaste or married. At the very least, it risks her dignity, as in the scene in which she rushes up to Willoughby at the party and is slighted by him.
It should be noted, however, that it is too simplistic to place Elinor entirely in the camp of “sense” and Marianne entirely in the camp of “sensibility” and to draw a strict dividing line between the two. Marianne is well supplied with good sense, and the modern reader is likely to sympathize with her judgments on tiresome people and her impatience at conventions that demanded, for instance, that a woman hide her feelings for a man until she was certain that they were returned. Elinor, for her part, feels as deeply as Marianne, experiencing deep sorrow when she is separated from Edward and when she learns of his secret engagement to Lucy Steele. But the two women manage their emotions very differently. Marianne indulges her emotions, feeding them with melancholy memories. This increases her own suffering and that of the people who love her. Elinor too has “an excellent heart” (Volume I, Chapter I) and her feelings are strong, but crucially, “she knew how to govern them.” Elinor, after Edward leaves the Dashwood house, keeps busy and does not avoid company or talking about him (Volume I, Chapter XIX). This attitude benefits herself and others. Unlike Marianne, she does not become ill from grief or become a worry to her family.
While many modern readers will sympathize with Marianne’s emotional honesty and frankness and equate Elinor’s restraint with the repression and stiffness of a former age, there is no doubt that Austen believed Elinor’s approach to life to be superior. Elinor, unlike Marianne, maintains her public dignity in spite of private sorrow, and her disciplined approach to her own emotions enables her to cope better with the vicissitudes of life than Marianne does. Austen’s definitive judgment on sensibility comes with Marianne’s repentance at the end of the novel. She realizes where her excessive sensibility has led her, and rejects it. When Elinor asks her, “Do you compare your conduct with his [Willoughby’s]?”, she replies, “No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours” (Chapter X). Even Marianne, the champion of “sensibility,” finally judges it as flawed and embraces her sister’s “sense.” Only when Marianne has remade her character to become less dominated by sensibility is she rewarded with a happiness and peace of mind.
Money, rank, and social status
Austen’s novels deal for the most part with a specific social class. Bypassing the laboring class and the aristocracy, Austen’s interest lies between the two, in the rural landowning gentry and the people whose education or family connections enable them to associate with the gentry. Often, her characters live precariously on the margins of the gentry, being forever threatened with the possibility of ejection from fashionable gentry society due to lack of money and social connections. The way out of such precariousness and into security frequently involves making a good marriage. At worst, the characters are prevented from marrying whom they wish by the greed, vanity, and social snobbery of their families. At best, the characters who want to marry, and their families, have to be practical and ensure that the couple will have enough money to live on. Thus in Austen’s novels as in the society of her time, conflicts arise between love and economic priorities, and between individual desires and familial and societal expectations.
Such is the situation of the heroines of Sense and Sensibility. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are worthy and likeable women in every way. However, their good qualities count for little in finding them good husbands, because the society they inhabit is primarily interested in money and social connections, neither of which the sisters possess. This was not only due to greed, although greed is a frequent target of Austen’s satire in this novel. It was partly a matter of practicality. Austen’s was an age in which social security did not exist, gentlemen were restricted to a few respectable professions like the church or law, and respectable women did not work at all. This explains Austen’s insistence on the necessity of a couple’s having enough money to support themselves and any children before they could marry.
As is often the case, Austen’s views on money are expressed through the practical Elinor. In Volume I, Chapter XVII, Elinor and Marianne discuss the role of money in marriage. Elinor says that “wealth has much to do with” happiness. Marianne romantically dismisses wealth as an ingredient of happiness: “Elinor, for shame! … Beyond a competence, it can afford no real satisfaction.” However, Marianne’s romanticism is undermined when it transpires that her idea of a “competence” (a sufficient amount) is two thousand pounds a year, which exceeds Elinor’s notion of wealth. Thus, through irony, Austen shows that even those who claim to believe that money is not important are convinced of the necessity of having it.
The events of the novel also prove Marianne wrong. She labors under the illusion that love will win the day in her affair with Willoughby, but she is wrong. Willoughby turns his back on his feelings for her in order to marry a wealthy woman he does not love. Elinor is fortunate in attracting a man (Edward Ferrars) who cares little for worldly wealth, although he is still subject to the tyranny of money. He keeps his engagement to the fortune-less Lucy secret, and when the secret is revealed, he is disinherited. He is only able to proceed with his plan to marry due to the generosity of the wealthy Colonel Brandon and the condescension of Mrs. Ferrars. Similarly, Colonel Brandon is only able to marry Marianne because he is rich enough to ignore her lack of fortune.
Although everything finally works out well for the fortune-less sisters, Austen makes clear that lack of money and connections can make life extremely difficult. This applies to men (such as Willoughby and Edward) as well as women. Nevertheless, men at least have the option of pursuing a career, an option that is not open to women of the same class.
Primogeniture is the tradition whereby the first-born child, usually, in practice, the first male child, inherits the estate. According to this system, and also according to the whim of the Dashwood patriarch, “the old Gentleman,” Norland Park will pass from Henry Dashwood to John and Fanny Dashwood’s spoilt son, Harry. The Dashwood women are not provided for because they are female and because they are not the first-born, both being products of Henry Dashwood’s second marriage. The unfairness of the system is made clear. John and Fanny Dashwood do not need more wealth, yet the Dashwood women are in severe need after Henry’s death. Their only hope out of their predicament is to make a good marriage, but this is not easy because due to primogeniture, they have no money and are not attractive prospects.
Edward’s life, too, is governed by primogeniture. As the eldest son of a wealthy man, he is viewed as a good match for Elinor by her family, but his own family expect him to marry a wealthy woman. Therefore he has to keep his engagement to Lucy, who is even poorer than Elinor, secret. It is significant, however, that the late Mr. Ferrars left all his wealth to his wife, and Mrs. Ferrars can choose where it goes after her. The late Mr. Ferrars was evidently not influenced by the tradition of male-line primogeniture that afflicted the old Gentleman.
The epistemological question
Epistemology is that branch of philosophy that investigates knowledge and how it is gained. The epistemological question is a common theme of literature and is frequently discussed by literary critics. It asks: how is reliable knowledge to be gained? Austen was much preoccupied by this question of how the truth about a person could be known. This theme interacts with the theme of secrecy, as frequently in the novel, characters hide a part of their nature or lives from others. The theme of the epistemological question is introduced in the Volume I, Chapter XVII conversation between Edward, Elinor, and Marianne. Elinor admits that her initial impressions of someone are often wrong. Edward realizes that though he has labeled Marianne a lively girl, she is not. Rather, as Elinor says, Marianne is earnest, eager, and sometimes animatedly talkative.
This theme of the epistemological question is picked up later in the unknowability of people like Willoughby, who seems to be one thing and proves to be another. Edward Ferrars is also hard to know, and it turns out that he is harboring a secret that prevents him from being open with Elinor and her family. In this section of the novel, Elinor spends much time wondering silently about his true feelings for her. When Marianne spots a ring on his finger containing a woman’s hair (Volume I, Chapter XVIII), he claims that it is his sister’s. Both Marianne and Elinor assume that it is really Elinor’s. It later transpires that Edward is not telling the truth, and that Marianne and Elinor are mistaken.
Colonel Brandon is another enigmatic character, who, like Willoughby, turns out to have a hidden past. Colonel Brandon’s hidden life is more romantic and heroic than his public face. To Marianne at the novel’s beginning, he seems dull and old. But in his secret life, it transpires, he has been an ardent lover and a rescuer of Eliza and her daughter, also called Eliza. Willoughby’s life is antithetical to Colonel Brandon’s, in that his public face is that of the romantic lover of Marianne, but his secret self is the seducer and abuser of Eliza Williams.
These characters have various reasons for keeping part of their lives or their selves hidden. Often, it is because they find their desires conflict with societal or familial expectations, and to be open about their desires would bring them into conflict with society or family. This is the case with Colonel Brandon and Edward, who have essentially honorable motives which clash with the greedy and venal motives of those around them. They are in the incongruous position of having to hide their honorable natures. Willoughby also has desires that conflict with social and familial values, though in his case, his own motives are the greedy and venal ones; society and his benefactor, Mrs. Smith, have superior values. Thus Willoughby has to hide his villainy and weakness.
In all cases of the unknowable characters, those who wish to know them are powerless to force open the truth. They must wait for time to do its work and for the truth to come to light. In the meantime, the prudent response to the hidden aspect of the character is caution and patience, such as is exemplified by Elinor in her attitude to Edward. Marianne, on the other hand, rushes into an impulsive positive judgment of Willoughby, to her cost.;