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Sense and Sensibility March 3, 2008

Filed under: Uncategorized — Michelle @ 10:40 pm

I finished Sense and Sensibility last week but I was waiting until I had written my reaction paper to it before I wrote about it here.
Non-spoiler thoughts:

  • I love this book.  I think it may be better than P&P which would logically make it my favorite book ever.  I just don't have the heart to knock P&P out of that top space.
  • The characters in this book are amazing.  Mrs. Jennings, Fanny, Nancy Steele…they are just amazingly written characters.  Even if the story weren't so compelling, this book would be worth reading for the characters.

Spoiler thoughts:

  • Lucy is a horrible person.  When I first read this, I just thought that she was annoying but she does everything she does just to spite Elinor.  She knows about Elinor and Edward's mutual attraction because of Mrs. Jennings.  And yet she still manages to make Elinor her confidante and then make her keep all of her knowledge to herself.  And Lucy makes Elinor put up with so much.  Even at the end, she purposely misleads Elinor into thinking that she is married to Edward.  Why is she so mean to Elinor?  Is it because Edward has now fallen out of love with Lucy and in love with Elinor?  Is that the sole purpose behind her behavior?  I just couldn't get over how horrible she was and how much self-command Elinor must have had to exert to deal with her.
  • When I read this the first time, my post questioned Elinor's commitment to Edward.  I still find it a little puzzling that she would still want to be with him after everything he put her through.  Would you marry a man who had led you on while secretly engaged?

My reaction paper for class discusses the role of self-command and the contrast of Elinor and Marianne.  My basic theme was that Austen was not trying to teach us that sense (Elinor) is better than sensibility (Marianne) but, just as Elinor and Marianne balance each other out, we must have some of both to be successful.  The rest of this post is my paper – I thought some of you might like to see it, but I will not be offended if you stop reading it here.  🙂

The main focus of Sense and
Sensibility* is clearly the
differing approaches the two sisters take toward emotional display and
self-command.  Elinor is the level-headed
one.  She is able to exert the energy
necessary to appear composed at all times. 
Marianne is the emotional one. 
Her feelings are easily seen by her behavior and she is unable to hide
them.  But does Sense and Sensibility
really convince us that one is the better way to act?

            At first
glance, it seems Austen is making a statement that Elinor is the better of the
two sisters.  Marianne does not obtain
the man she (originally loves) while Elinor does.  However, I am hesitant to conclude that Austen
really is saying sense is better than sensibility.  We are meant to like the character of Marianne
very much.  The reason we may like Elinor
better probably has more to do with the fact that she is the main focus of the
novel than her proficiency at self-command. 
The story is told from Elinor’s perspective.  We learn her thoughts and feelings on things
along side her behavior.  With Marianne,
we are only shown her behavior.  We do
occasionally get glimpses inside her, but nothing like Elinor.

that Marianne does is understandable. 
She falls in love with Willoughby
and only acts as she does because of a misunderstanding of his feelings.  This is a very relatable position and no one
would judge her too harshly for acting as she did.  Willoughby
led her (and everyone else) to believe that he was in love with her.  Can you really blame her for showing her
feelings for him as well?  The only time
I find myself disapproving of Marianne’s actions are when she writes the
letters and approaches him in London.  I think a little self-control there would
have done her a lot of good, but at the same time, I don’t dislike her for
it.  I feel for her the entire book and
hope that she finds her happy ending.

            Austen portrays
Marianne’s excessively emotional disposition in a pleasing manner.  She does not present her in a negative light
or lecture against her sensibility. 
Austen is very good at pointing out the flaws of her characters and
telling us how she really feels about certain types of people.  Look at Fanny or John Dashwood – their actions
are described in such a way as to make us dislike them.  On the other hand, Mrs. Jennings and
Charlottes flaws are known but because we are reminded of their excessive
kindness, we are willing to overlook this. 
This is all in the way that Austen portrays her characters, and Marianne
is rarely presented negatively.  For
example, we are told that Marianne found it “impossible for her to say what she
did not feel” so “the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it
always fell” to Elinor (87).  Are we
really going to judge someone for not being able to tell lies?  And at least she has the sense and
self-command to stay silent when necessary.

Marianne’s lack of self-control
never crosses the line of impropriety (except possibly in the instance of the
letter writing).  She knows there is a
line that she should not cross.  Early on
in the novel we are told that “Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real
disgrace could attend unreserved” (39). 
And when hers and Willoughby’s
conduct elicits ridicule, we are told that “ridicule could not shame, and
seemed hardly to provoke them.”  The
clearest example of Marianne’s unwillingness to cross the line is when Elinor
questions her about the propriety of going to Allenham with Willoughby. 
She replies that it is proper “for if there had been any real
impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for
we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could
have had no pleasure” (50).  While this
may be a simple view of things, it shows that Marianne is aware that some self-command
is necessary for propriety’s sake.  She
does not turn away from these social rules – she just works within them as she

            At the end
of the novel, Marianne makes an attempt to improve herself and to control her
emotions.  But even though the Marianne
at the end of the story is very different from the Marianne we first meet, she
still is unable to do this all the time. 
For example, when they learn of Edward’s marriage, she “fell back in her
chair in hysterics,” but when Edward reveals that he is not married she is able
to hide her emotion.  Marianne is trying
to become more like Elinor, but really, in the end, Elinor acts more like
Marianne.  When Edward presents himself
to Elinor at Barton Cottage as a single and available man, she is finally
unable to maintain her composure.  Her
emotion betrays her and she is forced to leave the room to get it under control:
“She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into
tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease” (255).

            The novel
plainly demonstrates how Marianne and Elinor are very different, but we must
remember how each is successful in her own way. 
“Their means were as different as their objects, and equally suited to
the advancement of each” (74).  Marianne
may have a little too much sensibility and Elinor may have a little too much
sense, but it works for them.  I do not
think that Austen was teaching a lesson that sense is better than sensibility
or vice versa.  I think by showing us how
Marianne and Elinor balance each other out, Austen is telling us that we need
some of both.

* Citations
refer to the 2001 Modern Library Paperback Edition of Sense and Sensibility by
Jane Austen

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3 Responses to “Sense and Sensibility”

  1. Kristie Says:

    I really like your paper, Michelle! First of all, S&S is my favorite Austen, only slightly over P&P. One comment I really wanted to make was about Marianne's letter writing. You're definitely right: it was very improper at the time for unengaged/unrelated people of the opposite sex to write to each other. It can only be left to wonder if she would've written the letters if her mother had been with her–Mrs. Jennings would hardly stop her and Elinor didn't have much power over her. Her mother might've stopped her…But anyways, I really liked the paper :o)

  2. Michelle Says:

    Well thank you. :)BTW, I tried to say how much I disliked Lucy because she was so mean to Elinor and that even though I understood that she needed to be conniving to make her way up in society, I didn't think she needed to be so cruel. My teacher responded by saying that I would never make it in Austen's time and I would have ended up a governess. I think that might be the most intelligent insult I've ever received.

  3. Kristie Says:

    Haha, it is an intelligent insult. I agree… :o)

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