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[149] Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen

“Vanity, while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance, or at least its offspring necessity, had required to be sacrificed. Each faulty propensity, in leading him [Willoughby] to evil, had led likewise to punishment.” [234]

“…that Marianne’s affliction, because more acknowledged, more immediately before her [Mrs. Dashwood], had too much engrossed her tendered, and let her away to forget that in Elinor she might have a daughter suffering almost as much, certainly with less self-provocation, and greater fortitude.” [252]

Forced in leave their home after their father’s death, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood must rely on making good marriages as their means of support, especially when Fanny Dashwood, the sister-in-law, all envy and avarice, steals their inheritences and leave them unprovided for. Sense and Sensibility thus, lying between tragedy and comedy, owing to romantic reversals that render a sombre tone, follows the social and romantic adventures of the sisters who possess opposite mental constitution. Elinor, who in time morphs into Elizabeth Bennet—for she asserts a suspicion that human wishes are vain and unreliable, represents privacy and discretion. Marianne, a quintessential case of Romanticism and sublimated adolescent sexuality, represents emotional openness. While Marianne seems to be completely torn apart at the tiding of Willoughby’s marriage to a wealthy Miss Grey whose fortune will re-establish his circumstances, Elinor suffers the punishment of an attachment without enjoying its advantages and endeavors to appear indifferent. That Marianne’s affliction has been more pronounced and has engrossed everyone’s tenderness, that the very person who has been clandestinely engaged to Edward Ferrars for four years breaks the astonishing news to her have given the sense that Elinor is not suffering as much, for she chooses, out of consideration to not incur any more sorrow in her mother, to cope with less self-provocation and great fortitude. The composure of mind with which she has brought herself to consider the hapless romance and the consolation she is willing to admit have been the effect of constant and painful exertion.

Closer inspection will afford the truth that Elinor is not the only one who is withholding something—everybody has got a secret, everybody has got a scheme. Elinor is revealing that she’s brokenhearted about Edward. Marianne leaves everyone to the conjecture that she’s engaged to Willoughby. The conflicting goals are salient though unspoken in the scene where Elinor and Lucy Steele talk over Lucy’s secret engagement to Edward. The cunning opportunist in Lucy, who sinks her claws into one Ferrars brother and hangs on, lying and cheating, until she achieves the position in society she has set herself to win. She is to warn Elinor off, and the latter is to extract information about Edward while maintaining her composure. But ironically, all these self-interested calculations, including those schemes of Mrs. Ferrars and Mrs. Fanny Dashwood out of vanity and avarice, don’t get anybody anywhere except to cause confusion and misconception. Conjectures, inference, and downright miscommunication dominate the interactions of these characters who really have little or no idea of what is going on around them, and much less of what will come next. Jane Austen delights in such epistemology—the limit and validity of knowledge of the characters, for she employs marriage and money as means on which she hinges her stories of deception.

The most insistent irony of the novel is Elinor Dashwood, who supposedly represents the “sense” in the title. But her “sense” leads her astray in almost every one of her plausibly reasoned conjectures. She doesn’t seem to follow her own advice regarding the notion of character:

“I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes, in a total misapprehension of character in some points or other: fancying people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why, or in what the deception originated. Sometimes one is guided by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge.” [67]

Character does not refer to the natural disposition and inclination, which are eclipsed by affected sensibility. That Marianne Dashwood has relentlessly slighted Colonel Brandon and whose love she treats with ungrateful contempt, and showers faint praise on the spiritless, insipid Edward is the reason Elinor is pluming herself on her own superiority for valuing goodness and sense more than her sister does. But she is foolish enough to let herself be guided more often by this sensibility, in the form of wishful thinking, as she should know better, or her sense should have warned her that nothing is ever so certain and dependable, let alone the business of romance, which is capricious and fickle.

*I shall write a separate exploring the idea of “attachment” and Willoughby’s character.

Further Reading:
Reading Sense and Sensibility

5 Responses

  1. I love your very keen-edged and incisive exploration of character and theme in this novel; one more of your reviews to savor and absorb more carefully through re-reading.

    **spoiler warning** for those who have not yeat read the book.

    It is interesting that, in the long run–depite her determination not to lapse into the sensibility of wishful thinking–Elinor’s devotion to Edward is rewarded, after all; and despite all appearances that circumstances have permanantly barred the fulfillment of those wishes. The paths of life seldom encounter the terrain and countours anticipated in our initial view of things, even for those among us endowed with what might seem to be more reliable tools. (No Global Positioning Systems existed then–or even now–capable of guiding the heart)

    I look forward, with a great deal of interest, to your comments on “attachment” and Willhoughby’s character. Most of us have met our own Willhoughby.

  2. I, too, am looking forward to your insights on Willoughby. He was not the nicest guy around, but I always thought he was kind of hot. Maybe a ‘bad boy’ of his time…

  3. I have never read Sense & Sensibility. Judging from your insights, this novel affords multiple layers in terms of social eminence, status, vanity, and relationship. The whole deception theme is no more than our “daily” (maybe not lierally, hope not!) encounter with relationship. The least expected might turn out to be the true blessing. I’ll certainly have to put it on my reading list!

  4. I thought it was interesting to see how some of the character “types” morphed into her later very well known characters.

  5. […] Somehow all my high school English teachers did not believe in Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility only showed up on the optional summer reading list. I read both and fell in love with latter. The […]

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