Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

As the title so blatantly suggests, Austen’s first published novel of 1811 is a battle between “sense” and “sensibility,” as Austen cast two (seemingly) polar opposites as her heroines representing these two extremes.  These words meant something entirely different in Austen’s time from what would jump to mind today, so it would be worthwhile first to consider their past meanings.

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The introduction in my Penguin Classics edition gives definitions of both ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’ from the 1755 Dictionary of the English Language.  Sense is defined as the “faculty or power by which external objects are perceived,” contrasting with sensibility as “quickness of sensation or perception.”

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Marianne typifies sensibility while Elinor exhibits sense.

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Marianne is emotional and spontaneous.  She has eyes that sparkle and un-moderated eagerness.  She is impulsive and defies the demands of society.  To Marianne, saying what she thinks when she thinks it is far more important than what others will think of what she says.  She falls quickly and deeply in love with John Willoughby and then later, when she realizes his true nature, she feels the pain and shock of this blow so wholly, so unreservedly, that she quite unintentionally adversely affects all those around her.

Elinor epitomizes social responsibility, practicality, and restraint.  She exercises common sense and is the picture of fortitude.  Elinor uses her good judgment in regard to financial matters to ensure that the family lives within their means.  She is polite and gracious even to those whom she privately regards as “vulgar.” When she finds that her love interest, Edward Ferrars, is secretly engaged to another, she internalizes all her emotions in favor of carrying on with what needs to be done and putting the interests of others before her own.

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So who wins?  What quality is superior?  Sense?  Or Sensibility?

It would seem that these are meant to be strictly opposite ways of being; however, from my rendering of the novel, they are not.  It is not so ‘black and white’ as it may seem.  The differences between Marianne and Elinor are far more external than internal and they have more in common than meets the eye.  They both feel deeply and value artistic expression – Elinor through her drawings and Marianne through her music.  They both value good intentions and honesty and they both look disapprovingly on the likes of Lucy Steele and others who regard material gain and self-interest above honest affection.  Elinor is not without passion and deep emotion, she simply isn’t so impulsive and dramatic about expressing it.  Marianne, on the other hand, does not achieve happiness in the end by denying her essential nature (i.e. her sensibility), but by altering her perspective, in essence, evolving to adopt some of Elinor’s rationality (i.e. sense).

Sense, as portrayed in the novel, is not without the passion of Sensibility, neither does Sensibility have to completely give way to Sense in order to survive in society.  The key is the balance between the two, and happiness is achieved by both when that balance is struck.

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Sometimes my initial experience with an Austen novel leaves me with the feeling that she’s too cut and dry, too black and white, and altogether too narrow for my tastes.  At first, Sense and Sensibility seems to fit that bill, but as I found with Pride and Prejudice, Austen’s commentary is often subtle, so subtle that it’s easy to dismiss.

This makes me overwhelmingly glad that I have this blog as it forces me to refrain from simply closing a book and place it back on my shelf while retaining only a face-value judgment, without giving it any further thought or reflection.  Another example is George Eliot’s Middlemarch - Eliot’s nuance and subtle wisdom would have been totally lost on me if I had simply closed the book and moved on to the next.  This would have been a real shame because after some thought, research, and rereading of large chunks of it, Middlemarch transformed into one of my favorite Victorian novels.  And while Sense and Sensibility certainly doesn’t have the same depth and distinction as Middlemarch, it also shouldn’t be written off as a mere love story.

I will admit that sometimes I have been too quick to set aside Austen’s novels as simply tales of swooning and heart fluttering, that end in eternal matrimonial bliss.  Perhaps this is because that’s exactly how I read them when I was 16 – back then I was only concerned with the fluttering hearts and the eternal bliss. But Sense and Sensibility isn’t just about love and marriage.  While love and marriage might be the most obvious themes, Austen also has something to say about things like character, society, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivations, gender roles, and the effects of laws surrounding money and inheritance (primogeniture).  I do believe that there is subtle commentary in Austen’s work.  Her heroines are intelligent and strong – sometimes to the point of being headstrong.  When it comes to love they refuse to fall in line with social convention; they have genuine feeling, and marry for love instead of practicality or social status.  The fact that her protagonists stand out from the Caroline Bingleys and the Lucy Steeles of the masses seems to be Austen’s subtle plug in favor of the individual over society.  She was not merely representing her time, but in her own unobtrusive way she was having her say about it.  I mean she was a Marianne after all!

Now having said all that, I don’t think I’ll ever join the band of gushing Austen fans.  While I acknowledge that there’s more to her books than frilly romance, they do tend to be a bit too neat, tidy, and happily ever after for me.  (To date, my favorite author is Thomas Hardy.  And well, if you’ve ever read Hardy. . . . I don’t need to say more.)  I do, however, recognize in myself a growing appreciation for Austen.  While I don’t feel a desire to run out and immediately buy and read all of her books at once, I do think that over time I will find myself returning to Austen again and again, eventually working my way through each and every one of her novels.

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5 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

  1. I’m not a big Austen fan either, for the same reasons that you mentioned, though I did enjoy Persuasion which I read for the first time recently. Sense and Sensibility is the only Austen novel I still haven’t read but I’ll definitely get to it eventually!

    And I also prefer Thomas Hardy – I’m slowly working my way through his books and have loved everything I’ve read by him so far.

  2. Enjoyed your review and that is a beautiful edition of S&S. I would agree that it is easy for non-Austen fans to dismiss her work as romance, carriages and bonnets but they forget that she was a clever satirist.

  3. Pingback: The Sorrows of Young Werther « Every Book and Cranny

  4. Sense and Sensibility is my favorite Austen novel, and I really enjoyed your review. And as much as I love Austen, I understand where you would be coming from thinking that her books end too neatly and happily. But that’s one of the things I love about her – even though it’s not entirely realistic, it’s nice to read about happily-ever-afters sometimes. And besides, even if all you get out of it is a frilly romance story, at least they’re better written than the romance novels that get churned out by second-rate authors today! :)

  5. I just finished this Austen. I absolutely loved it — and absolutely agree that there is a great deal more to Austen than frilly romance. I had a lit professor who suggested she was subtly screaming at the masses, in her work. They were her audience, so she had to cater to them, but in the nuances you can see her real message. For example, Charlotte Lucas in P&P. Not so happily-ever-after…

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