Reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, one is struck at the extreme differences between Elinor and Marianne. Though sisters, one orchestrates the well-being of the family, while the other brings about a host of hardships and indulges in her emotions. While this particular reader could not help but fall in love with Elinor’s brilliance and maturity, it is very comprehensible why Marianne would captivate the hearts of so many others – not just from beauty, but from the innocence Colonel Brandon so cherishes. These sisters exemplify two sensibilities – one of sense, and the other of emotion, and while the two have both sensibilities, their predispositions to one or the other cause readers to identify Elinor with sense and Marianne with sensibility.
The novel, largely through the shortcomings of Marianne and blunderings of Willoughby, is intended as a satire of “sensibility” – a movement both in the arts and social sciences striving for a better civility through one’s feelings and empathy. The movement inspired a quixotic following, and Austen admitted to the ranks of those not in its favor. Yet despite the ridicule Austen imposes on the movement and those influenced thereby, she seemingly cannot help but defend the idea of sensibility at the same time, provided sensibility avoids excess and is checked by sense. Certain characters warn us of the insidious nature of sense without sensibility, while others are afflicted in various ways – dullness, boredom – from a lack of sensibility. The novel argues that the ideal for a character is the marriage of sense and sensibility, for without the latter, one is cold, and without the former, one is a fool.
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Austen provides many examples of how these two qualities may interact to create vastly different characters. Sensibility adds a certain color to life, which certain characters lack. This lacking almost creates a certain boredom for them, and the absence of any emotional bond or common ground between Sir John and Lady Middleton, due to a “total want of talent and taste which confined their employments” (Austen 31), attests to this. Furthermore, while Marianne’s “heart was devoted to Willoughby… and the fond attachment to Norland… softened… by the charms which his society bestowed on her present home” (50), Elinor, confined partially by her sense, cannot dream the same way about Edward (50), leaving her miserable in moving while Marianne is overjoyed. Marianne herself seems to understand this alluding to the dullness a want for sensibility can create when she mocks Elinor’s idea of being a lady as speaking “only once in ten minutes” (45).
Without sensibility, life can certainly be plain and dull.
Sensibility too adds to intellect. While Marianne plays the piano-forte for company, amidst Sir John’s loud and tasteless approval and Lady Middleton’s pretentious show of refinement, “Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party… paid her only the compliment of attention… [which revealed] his pleasure in music” (34).
All the other characters appear ridiculous, while Colonel Brandon’s sensibility alone gains Marianne’s respect.
Sense without sensibility can fare even worse than sensibility without sense. Characters with strong sense and a lack of sensibility are often quite sinister and brutally individualistic. Mr. Dashwood, Mrs. John Dashwood, Robert, the elder Ferrars and Fanny are all recognizably sensible characters, and they are quite savvy with finances and wealth, but their overabundance of sense and complete lack of sensibility turns this understanding of financial importance into an overly self-interested, individualistic quest for advancement. As if they’ve become blinded by sense, their only concerns are matters of class and society, leading them to see only the surface of characters, as evident from their methods of judging potential suitors.
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Their actions too attest to their folly. While they are wealthy, they cheat the Dashwoods, subtly dishonoring a father’s death wish, simply on the technicalities made in the speech (14) – as if families should need to speak to one another as they write legal contracts. They discredit genuine goodwill, as Mr. Dashwood questions why Colonel Brandon would give Delaford to Edward, and when Elinor gives a reasonable answer – “to be of use to Mr. Ferrars” (261), Mr. Dashwood cannot seem to genuinely believe it. Furthermore, there isn’t even solidarity amongst themselves, as Mrs. Ferrars disowns both children, even if temporarily, for marrying the woman whom they choose while maintaining a pretense of heartbreak (235) and Robert Ferrars steals Lucy from Edward (322).
This is a very brutal family portrait, where everyone is pitted against everyone else and where there is absolutely no friendship or love.
Couple the Dashwoods with the cold narcissism of Lady Middleton, who only cares about herself and her kids, and the reserve of Mr. Palmer, who simply sits and reads the news, not talking with anyone (97), and a need for sensibility is clear. The worst of these characters – Lady Middleton excepting – have no real home or family to support them and are as solitary as their ambitions and feelings. And while it is not explicitly stated that the aforementioned overly-sensible characters are unhappy, which reader, both contemporary and in 1811, would want to be them? It is self-evident that such extremes of individualism and loneliness beget neither warmth nor comfort, and any sensible reader can recognize, whether they be cold or not, that something is entirely wrong in a world without friendship or love. Why else would the Dashwoods so fervently assert their morality, both to themselves and others, even if readers and the narrator alike can laugh at the attempt?
With the above examples, sense may almost appear sinister, but this of course isn’t so universally so. Sense without sensibility can be dangerous, but as could sensibility without sense, and the ideal Austen is presenting here is clearly not a need for sensibility, which in many ways she satires, but the need for a balanced coexistence between the two qualities. Without sense, sensibility ignores the importance of reputation and financial concerns for fleeting fancies, as if if the present emotion is all that could exist and the future entirely unconsidered. Mrs. Dashwood jeopardizes Elinor’s reputation in assuming a marriage between Elinor and Edward (17).
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If she were to publicly discuss this, Elinor’s eligibility would falter in the event of no marriage with Edward. Sensibility also produces an element of snobbery, which further distances the characters from the others: Marianne finds both Mrs. Jennings and the Steeles to be without feelings and void of emotion due to their want of taste (177, 113), which, despite their vulgarity, baseness, or manipulation, is certainly not true. Sensibility without sense distances others from society and from considerations of the future ramifications of a life without societal approval.
Sensibility also puts characters into very sincere danger outside of considerations of reputation alone. Willoughby and Marianne both nearly destroy one another in regards to their financial futures (as Willoughby makes less than he spends).
The story of the two Elizas is meant to reveal this possibility. Here we have two women destroyed by sensibility, one of which reminds Colonel Brandon of Marianne. Not only does the first Eliza’s death and the second’s misfortune raise considerable alarm as to how far a lack of sense can take someone, but the juxtaposition in the narrative of the Elizas with Willoughby’s denial of Marianne, coupled with his (somewhat unbelievable) chance connection with both Marianne and the second Eliza shows just how possible it is that sensibility could lead to one’s fall.
Austen does give us a heroine – a paragon of both sensibility and sense – in the character of Elinor. While she is far from perfect, often investing too little faith in caring but otherwise foolish characters (like Willoughby, who seems to unintentionally ruin many lives) or in straying from her code of sense by making excuses for Edward (91) – she is the character that most readers seem to trust. She’s the protagonist and someone whom a sensitive and careful reader would easily trust. She alleviates the pain of the family, painfully concealing her emotions to fulfill her social duties, and earns the respect of readers when she offers up her happiness with Edward to do what she feels is right and civil, making an incredible sacrifice to stay virtuous (251).
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Marianne in turn admits to the “imprudence to [herself], and want of kindness to others” (305) caused by her sensibility, and endeavors to be more like Elinor, with both the warmness of heart to feel and the sense to make good use of those feelings.
Applied to the real world, Austen’s ideal makes sense. Without sensibility, what is there? Sense: a rational, logical tool, as dead and lifeless as a hammer or any other tool. It cannot nourish happiness alone without a design to be used. But that design cannot be followed with the tool. One cannot bury one’s happiness in rationality, but one can use rationality to ensure a happy life, and thus one must have both sense and sensibility to lead a happy life.