In her novel Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen resists the culture of sensibility. This resistance does not mean that she completely dismisses the culture of sensibility, as Austen does not advocate sense that discourages true emotion, romance and feeling, but instead calls for sensibility moderated by sense. The culture of sensibility, which defined sense as rational and sensibility as emotional, favoured the physical manifestation of feelings, such as crying or blushing, thus registering emotion. By the end of the 18 th century, the period when Austen was writing Sense and Sensibility, the culture of sensibility was unfashionable. This shift in opinion regarding sensibility may account for Austen’s use of satire toward the culture of sensibility, as this is her way of proving its merit while not fully embracing it.
Austen’s use of sensibility and her satirizing of it results in tension between characters. This tension between sensibility moderated by sense and satire is evident in the relationship between the characters of Colonel Brandon and Willoughby through their personalities, their relationship with Marianne and their relationship to each other. Brandon represents sensibility moderated by sense, and Willoughby represents a satirized excess of sensibility. It is this tension between the use of sensibility and the satirizing of it that brings to light the need for moderation within the culture of sensibility. At first, Brandon’s personality appears closely aligned with sense. He is introduced as “silent and grave” (Austen 29), which is the extreme opposite of sensibility.
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Though Austen makes sure to stress his good looks, pleasant manners, and wealth, it is clear that Brandon is old and unexciting, especially in Marianne’s opinion. Her impression of him is that is completely lacking in sensibility. She states that “if he were ever animated enough to be in love, [he] must have long outlived every sensation of the kind” (Austen 31).
Brandon’s age of thirty-five, in Marianne’s mind, makes him incapable of showing love or emotion.
It is through these introductory passages that Brandon’s character is developed as being one of sense. The introduction of Willoughby sharply contrasts with that of Brandon’s. Willoughby appears very sensible, judging from his first meeting with Marianne. He is depicted as heroic and emotional, as he comes to the rescue of Marianne when she twists her ankle. “The gentleman offered his services, and perceiving that her modesty declined what her situation rendered necessary, took her up in his arms without farther delay” (Austen 35).
Willoughby’s charm and grace impress Marianne and her family, and the romantic nature of this first encounter depicts him as a sensible and noble character.
Compared to the introduction of Brandon, that left Marianne with the belief that he is old and emotionless, Willoughby appears mysterious and charming. Thus, in contrast, he is much more appealing to the sensible Marianne. The true sentimentality of each man is shown through his relationship with Marianne. Though Brandon at first appears governed by sense, his relationship with Marianne reveals otherwise. When Marianne is playing the piano and singing for the group at Barton, Brandon does not overreact in applause and praise. “He paid her only the compliment of attention; and she felt a respect for him on the occasion, which the others had reasonably forfeited by their shameless want of taste” (Austen 30).
Brandon’s reaction reveals his deep appreciation for music and his good taste, which represents sensibility moderated by sense. He is sensible in his genuine enjoyment of Marianne’s performance, but his reaction shows that he does not exaggerate his feelings. This calm admiration of Marianne sets the stage for his relationship with her. In contrast to Brandon, Willoughby’s relationship with Marianne reveals that his sensibility is not moderated by sense, and instead is quite excessive.
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In Willoughby, Marianne finds someone who shares all her interests when it comes to music and literature. “Their tastes were strikingly alike. The same books, the same passages were idolized by each-or if any difference appeared, any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed” (Austen 40).
Willoughby is putting on an act of sensibility, by simply agreeing with Marianne’s opinions and emotions. Marianne believes they are perfectly compatible, and falls in love. The fact that Willoughby does not have a great appreciation for music and literature, as is evident through his lack of opinion and individuality, proves that he is not as sensible as originally believed.
This behaviour of sensibility is satirical because Willoughby puts on such an excessively sensible act of enjoyment and mutual interest, when he is really just doing so to please Marianne. His sensibility is only used to fool the extremely sensible Marianne, whose actions are emotion based. The culture of sensibility called for the expression of genuine emotion, and Willoughby’s actions are dishonest and misleading. In addition to Brandon’s sensibility, there are also physical signs of Brandon’s sensibility, which illustrate that he is not governed only by sense. Upon receiving the letter regarding Miss Williams at Barton, Brandon’s emotions show in his reaction. “[H]e took it, looked at the direction, changed colour, and immediately left the room” (Austen 54).
Brandon is visibly upset, and it is evident that the contents of the letter have affected him. His sense chimes in to moderates this reaction; he leaves the room to compose himself and decide what to do next. This scene is important because Brandon displays physical signs of sensibility, though excessively, and he is able to moderate them by sense. Willoughby continues to make questionable his degree of sensibility through his complete lack of sense in his physical actions. This absence of sense is evident through Willoughby’s actions toward Marianne, in which he has no concern for respect. He breaks conventional norms by seeing Marianne alone and taking her into the home he hopes to inherit.
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Elinor is shocked by this, as it “seemed very unlikely that Willoughby should propose, or Marianne consent, to enter the house while Mrs. Smith was in it, with whom Marianne had not the smallest acquaintance” (Austen 58).
Willoughby acts inappropriately, and causes others, such as Elinor, to question his lack of sense. This treatment of Marianne is very different from that of Brandon’s, who with his good manners and respectful nature would never put Marianne in such a situation. Further to each man’s relationship with Marianne, the true sentimentality of Brandon and Willoughby is revealed through their relationship with each other. Brandon continues to display that his sensibility is moderated by sense through his relationship with Willoughby.
The plot reveals that Willoughby impregnated Miss Williams, who is the foster daughter of Brandon. Willoughby refuses to take responsibility for his actions, showing once again his lack of sense through his disregard for respect and compassion. Brandon shows remarkable restraint in that he is able to spend time with Willoughby at Barton, and even witness his courtship of Marianne, with whom Brandon is in love. Regardless of Brandon’s opinion of Willoughby, it is never revealed in the way he addresses him. Brandon values respect and would not behave otherwise.
The difference between the characters is accurately portrayed in their conduct toward each other. Brandon has every reason to dislike Willoughby, but continues to treat him with courtesy and respect. Willoughby, on the other hand, does not extend this courtesy to Brandon. He speaks ill of him behind his back because he is not young and lively, and criticizes his lifestyle. Willoughby describes Brandon as “a very respectable man, who has everybody’s good word and nobody’s notice; who has more money than he can spend, more time than he knows how to employ, and two new coats every year” (Austen 44).
What is satirical about this quote is that it describes exactly what Willoughby is striving to be, and precisely what he is not.
By the end of the novel, Willoughby is not respectable, everyone notices him and no one has a good word for him, and he does not have the wealth to lead a life of leisure, until he marries for money. This view of Willoughby is further exaggerated when he disparages Brandon for leaving Barton the day of the trip to Whit well. “There are some people who cannot bear a party of pleasure, Brandon is one of them. He was afraid of catching cold I dare say, and invented this trick for getting out of it” (Austen 55).
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What Willoughby does not know is that Brandon is leaving to tend to Miss Williams, meaning that the cancellation of the trip is inadvertently the cause of Willoughby’s actions. His senseless actions have caused problems, and it is up to Brandon to take responsibility for the situation.
Willoughby’s character becomes all the more despicable due to his lack of sense. Brandon’s good will and concern for Marianne is displayed during the visit to Cleveland. When Marianne is ill, Brandon comes to her rescue, which is contrasted with Willoughby’s rescue of Marianne. In Willoughby’s case, Marianne had only twisted her ankle and he carried her home. At Cleveland, her plight is much more serious, as she comes down with fever and dementia; Marianne’s life is in danger. It is then that Brandon steps in and offers to fetch Mrs.
Dashwood and bring her to the aid of her daughter. Though Brandon’s rescue is not as romantic as Willoughby’s, it is certainly an act of compassion, and also of a much more practical nature, thus moderated by sense. Elinor is grateful to have “the comfort of such a friend at that moment as Colonel Brandon” (Austen 272).
Brandon’s sense of friendship and caring is further reinforced when Willoughby appears at Cleveland. While Brandon is gone to fetch Mrs. Dashwood, Willoughby’s journey to Cleveland does not have the same noble motives.
He claims he is worried about Marianne, but upon finding out that her life is no longer threatened, he sets out to satisfy his own peace of mind. “I mean [… ] to make you hate me one degree less than you do now [and] to obtain something like forgiveness [… ] from your sister” (Austen 279).
Only when he learns that Marianne is on her deathbed does he feel the need to arrive in person to explain himself. Willoughby’s desperate arrival is satirical because sensible people supposedly express their emotions honestly and freely.
... , 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 ... too little faith in caring but otherwise foolish characters (like Willoughby, who seems to unintentionally ruin many lives) or in straying ...
Willoughby is being honest and free in this scene, but only due to dire circumstances and a guilty conscience. His arrival at Cleveland does not help Marianne, while Brandon’s departure from Cleveland is intended only to help her. Both of these men love Marianne, and when a loved one is sick or close to dying, great emotions dictate a want to be by their side. Sense moderates Brandon’s sensibility and pulls him away in order to do what is best for Marianne. Sensibility brings Willoughby to Cleveland and his presence is of no help to Marianne, especially since he is already married to Miss Grey by this time. Willoughby satirizes sensibility because his sensibility shows only when he feels he can benefit, and it is always excessive sensibility.
Upon her recovery, Marianne realizes that sensibility moderated by sense is a much better path than blind sensibility. She was able to “overcome an affection [for Willoughby] and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and a lively friendship, voluntarily give her hand to another!” (Austen 333).
Brandon has more than proven himself worthy of Marianne and she is happy to marry him. While he did not make a dramatic first impression, or amaze Marianne with his sensibility, Brandon’s continual actions of respect and compassion have revealed his sensibility that is moderated by sense. After waiting patiently for Marianne to embrace his love for her, Brandon’s wish is granted. “Colonel Brandon was now as happy, as all those who best loved him, believed he deserved to be” (Austen 333).
His moral behaviour is rewarded with a happy ending. Willoughby is punished, as he is left in a loveless marriage due to his immoral actions. Through examining the personalities, actions and relationships of Colonel Brandon and Willoughby, Austen’s resistance of the culture of sensibility is displayed. She does not discourage sensibility, but believes that sensibility should be moderated by sense. In Brandon, Austen provides an exemplary character of sensibility governed by a moderating sense. The character of Willoughby is used as a satire of the culture of sensibility, as his actions of excessive sensibility, without the moderation of sense lead to his unhappiness.
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The tension created between the two characters is a dual between that of moderated sensibility and excessive sensibility, and Brandon’s character is the champion. Austen’s implication is that the culture of sensibility has its merits when moderated by sense, but can be dangerous when sensibility becomes excessive. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility.