“Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility could serve as title to all Austen’s novels. In each, sense and sensibility – reason and emotion, reflection and instinct – contend with each other, the question of the proportions to which they should ideally be blended forming the backbone of the narrative. But, as the very clear dichotomy of the title implies, in no other novel are the two presented in such clear contradistinction to each other. Elinor Dashwood clearly represents sense, and her sister Marianne sensibility: there appears little if any intersection between the two. Most of the other characters, too, are presented as being on one side or the other of the divide, and if the purpose is indeed to find a judicious balance between the two, the dice does frankly seem somewhat weighted: for sensibility, even when belonging to people who are decent and likable – the Dashwoods’ mother, Mrs Jennings, Marianne herself – invariably leads people astray: it inevitably leads to the forming of wrong judgements, misperception of reality, and seeing the world, disastrously, for what it is not. And, inevitably, it is left to sense to make amends.

Misperceiving reality is, of course, a recurring theme in Austen. Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey misperceives reality – not necessarily because she is foolish, but because she is inexperienced, and trusting; but she grows through experience, and, by the end of that novel, can temper her youthful sensibility with a grown-up sense. As ever, it is left to sense to make amends, to put things right. But this is not to disparage sensibility: far better, after all, the trusting and affectionate sensibility of a Catherine Morland, helpless and vulnerable though it is, than the mercenary sense of an Isabella Thorpe.

In Sense and Sensibility, however, the two qualities are presented as a clear-cut dichotomy, and this creates certain problems – the principal one being that it becomes very difficult to present sensibility as anything other than merely silly and frivolous. Not that sense is always admirable: the Dashwood sisters’ half-brother and his wife display a “sense” of sorts in their money-grubbing meanness, and are repulsive. Equally repulsive is the vulgar Lucy Steele, possessed, as was Isabella Thorpe, merely of a “sensible” self-interest, unmediated by a humanising sensibility. But the principal representative of sense here is Elinor Dashwood, and so irreproachable is she in all that she says and does and thinks that, in comparison, the characters on the “sensibility” side of the divide cannot but appear foolish. By the end, Marianne, like her predecessor Catherine Morland, acquires sense to balance her sensibility: Elinor, however, requires nothing to complete her person; and the symmetry promised by the title seems, as a consequence, inevitably compromised. For while Austen could understand the importance of blending the two, her own sympathies, one strongly suspects, remain on the side of sense rather than of sensibility.

In her later novels, Austen knew better than to be so schematic. Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse are allowed to misperceive reality not because excess of sensibility has rendered them foolish, but because they are complex, fully-rounded characters who, like the rest of us, can be blind in certain respects, though intellectually vivacious in others. And in her last completed novel, Persuasion, Austen allows sensibility to triumph and to bring fulfilment where, previously, mere sense bereft of sensibility had provided but unhappiness and barren frustration. But there is little here of any of that: here, sensibility leads one astray, and sense puts things right. However, it is easy to forget that, for all its accomplishment and sophistication and passages of often starling psychological insight, Sense and Sensibility is but the writing of one still starting out on her literary career: although the novel was published in 1811 when Austen was 36, an early version of it had existed when she was merely 20, and it seems more than likely that this early version had been drafted out when she was but a teenager. The precocity of such an achievement is breathtaking, especially when one considers that Austen was breaking new novelistic ground. Of course, since we do not have that early draft, there is no way of determining what elements of the novel we have now are the product of a teenage prodigy, and what is the product of a more mature artistic sensibility: I rather suspect that the schematic nature of the characterisation is a leftover from the earlier work. But the depth of insight that overlays the schematic outline is exceptional. Take, for instance, that startling moment when Mr Willoughby explains why he cannot be reconciled to Colonel Brandon, whom he has injured:

“… But I will not stay to rob myself of all your compassionate good-will, by shewing that where I have most injured I can least forgive.”

Perhaps, in a later novel, Austen would not have made Mr Willoughby so self-aware as to realise this truth about himself, but the insight that we are least capable of forgiving those we have most injured remains remarkable, and one of which even Tolstoy may have been proud. Indeed, it crops up in one of Tolstoy’s later masterpieces:

[Tsar Nicholas] had done much harm to the Poles and to explain this it was necessary to believe all Poles were scoundrels.

– Chapter 15 of Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Paul Foote

The entire chapter in Sense and Sensibility where Mr Willoughby explains himself to Elinor is extraordinary. A character previously shown merely as a heartless cad is now shown as a flawed being aware of his flaws, and suffering as a consequence. This could easily have appeared an afterthought on the author’s part, an extra chapter gratuitously added to make the characterisation somewhat less schematic than it would otherwise have been; and, indeed, this is how it would most likely have appeared in the hands of a lesser writer. But not here. The depiction of Mr Willoughby as a man who himself suffers is certainly unexpected, but its effectiveness and credibility indicate that this revelation of depth had indeed been prepared for.

Like Mr Willoughby, Colonel Brandon also has a scene in which he reveals himself to Elinor – her ever-present sense forever inspiring trust in others – but the person he reveals is one who is suffering not for flaws in his character, but, rather, for cruel circumstances in the face of which his rectitude has been helpless. Colonel Brandon’s narrative, like Mr Willoughby’s later in the novel, is deeply felt, but, unlike Mr Willoughby’s, his sense keeps his sensibility in decorous check. And Edward Ferrars, too: he had, some years ago, contracted himself unwisely as a consequence of a youthful infatuation, and, as with Catherine Morland, it was his inexperience rather than his lack of intelligence that had led him astray; but he is determined to accept, as honour dictates, the consequences of his error, even though he is aware that this determination can lead only to unhappiness. In short, as with Colonel Brandon, his sensibility is held permanently in check by his sense. Austen does, very subtly, allow us to see the extent to which both these characters suffer as a consequence of their moral rectitude, but in neither instance is there any danger of sensibility overturning sense; and this is presented as entirely admirable. As ever, it is sense that is seen as bringing order to the world, and sensibility as unbalancing it.

There is another respect in which sense and sensibility stand in opposition to each other: Austen was writing at the height of what we now term the “Romantic era”, and, although an admirer of Walter Scott, Austen’s outlook was closer – much closer, one suspects – to the ethos of classicism. In an earlier post on this blog (to which I will not link as I have changed my mind significantly on certain matters since writing it), I had described Austen as a writer who, despite the times in which she lived and wrote, had not “a single Romantic bone in her body”. This is not true: an author utterly lacking in Romantic sensibility would not have been capable of writing Persuasion, which depicts romantic love and sexual attraction vividly, and with utter conviction. But it is true, I think, that her leaning was towards classicism: it was this leaning that led Charlotte Brontë famously to dismiss Austen as “bloodless”. Of course, compared to the Brontës, just about any writer could be described as “bloodless”. The criticism is unfair: Austen had the finest understanding of human emotions, and even, perhaps, of human passions, but her aesthetic preferences were, I think, classical, and she would have regarded too open and too uninhibited a display of emotion – such as Romantic writers had no scruple in depicting – as indecorous.

In this context, it is not hard to see sense and sensibility as representing, respectively, Classicism and Romanticism. Austen had already poked gentle fun in Northanger Abbey at the excesses of Romanticism, and here, she allows the very sensible Edward Ferrars to disapprove of various Romantic tropes:

“You must not inquire too far, Marianne — remember, I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste, if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold! surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give. I call it a very fine country — the hills are steep, the woods seem full of fine timber, and the valley looks comfortable and snug — with rich meadows and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility — and I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood, but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque … I like a fine prospect, but not on picturesque principles. I do not like crooked, twisted, blasted trees. I admire them much more if they are tall, straight and flourishing. I do not like ruined, tattered cottages. I am not fond of nettles, or thistles, or heath blossoms. I have more pleasure in a snug farm-house than a watch-tower — and a troop of tidy, happy villagers please me better than the finest banditti in the world.”

Unmistakably, sense here is enlisted on the side of Classicism, and against Romanticism. Given how sense is allowed to triumph over sensibility in virtually every aspect of the novel, and especially in characters who are presented as admirable, it is hard not to conclude that this is where Austen’s own sympathies lie.

But what then of sensibility, which Austen knew had to be part of a well-balanced life? We have, I think, to wait for her later novels for this. The proper integration of sense and sensibility is, at this stage, still work in progress. What we do get here is, nonetheless, a novel of tremendous charm and of acute psychological insight, and a pointer to greater achievements still to come.

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11 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Ann on July 15, 2013 at 2:14 pm

    I would give more weight than you Himadri, to Austen’s clear vision of the problems with sensibility. Every time the news is on, nowadays, people are indulging in emotions all over the place. I’m sure I have mentioned to you many times before my strong dislike of E P (emotional pornography) which is such a bane of present culture. I think we are meant to understand that Elinor had sensibility but that she struggled against it. This novel is not so much a polemic against sensibility and a warning against it in its unbridled state. When Marianne is ill Elinor urges her to fight against her misery not to wallow in it. I think Austen saw sensibility as making life exciting and wonderful but it must be something which one should control and not overindulge in, like alchohol! However I would agree with you that Elinor’s character is too good to be true which makes her less interesting.

    One of the scenes which I think is wonderful in the book is the time when Mrs Jennings brings Marianne some special wine and since Elinor has managed to get her sister to sleep she drinks it herself to try out its effect on a broken heart.

    Reply

    • Hello Ann,
      With rare exceptions (e.g. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or The Grapes of Wrath, or Nineteen Eighty Four -i.e. novels that set out specifically to be didactic), I don’t really expect fiction to be polemical: indeed, I tend to regard polemics usually to be a fault – I’d go to Aesop’s fables to learn moral lessons, not novels. The reason for this, I think, is that moral questions that have unambiguous answers tend to be the more obvious moral questions, and, as such, cannot sustain a serious novel.

      (There are a few exceptions to this, as I say: I don’t mean this as a general rule.)

      And similarly with “warnings”. I expect a novel to depict the thoughts and emotions of its characters, and leave moral lessons, or moral warnings, behind.

      I do agree with you that Elinor is by no means devoid of sensibility: she has very strong emotions (sensibility), but she fights against them, and does not allow them adversely to affect her sense. The problem is not so much, perhaps, that this makes her “too good to be true” – I thought she was a very believable character – but that, as a consequence of this, Elinor does not require to learn any lesson in life; whereas Marianne does. Sense and sensibility are not depicted here as being on an equal footing, and the symmetry in this otherwise well-ordered novel becomes skewed.

      I do not want to make too much of this: this is, after all, an early novel. In her final novel, Persuasion, sense has much to learn from sensibility, and the final triumph comes from an ideal blending of the two. But here, it is only sensibility that needs to learn lessons, and it is the purpose of sense is to keep guard over it. It’s not the morals of this I disapprove of: I just have a few reservations about the structural balance. But as I say, I don’t want to make too much of this.

      On the question of “emotional pornography”: in a novel, if characters feel powerful emotions that they cannot control, or choose not to control, then I expect the novelist to depict these emotions. Some novelists can take us directly into the mind of someone experiencing the most overwhelming of emotions, or even hysteria. Dostoyevsky did this all the time. Tolstoy was capable of this too (Anna Karenina towards the end) – as was Shakespeare (Othello, Lear), or Dickens (Bradley Headstone). It’s not a question of whether or not the author disapproves of such passion; the question is: when characters feel powerful passions, is the author capable of entering the character’s mind to depict them? I had thought for a long time that Austen was incapable of depicting powerful passions, but I think I was probably wrong there: Anne Elliott, for instance, does feel very powerful passions, and she is superbly portrayed. However, when the passion tends towards the violent, or towards the psychopathic, we find ourselves moving away from Austen’s comfort zone: I doubt very much whether she could have entered the mind of a Raskolnikov, say, or of Anna Karenina in those almost unbearably intense pages leading up to her end. But this is not intended as a criticism: we cannot expect all writers to be equally at home with everything. Dostoyevsky, after all, was incapable of depicting anyone sane … 🙂

      Reply

  2. Stunning analysis of one of Austen´s best books ever…

    Many Thanks, Aquileana 🙂

    Reply

    • More a few personal observations, perhaps (I don’t really have the academic training to write any proper in-depth analysis of such works!) but thank you very much for your kind words. I realised long ago that I’d never be the great writer I dreamed of being, but I do at least try to be a good reader! 🙂

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

  3. Do I detect an ever-growing admiration for our dear Jane, Himadri? 🙂 I can’t tell you how much that warms the heart of this old Janeite!

    I so enjoyed reading your excellent and wonderfully insightful essay. I love all the complex levels that this novel works on – the personal, the emotional, the societal – and the ever widening ripples of significance inherent to all these, and to Austen’s exploration of the aesthetics of her age; the debates thrown into the ring by the rise of Romanticism.

    It’s so long since I last re-read Sense and Sensibility (your wonderful post makes me want to go and pick it up again right now!) and so I don’t feel I have all the exact details fresh in my mind, but some memories nag in my mind about Elinor that suggest Jane making some further steps into criticism of ‘sense.’ Especially when it can lead to such misunderstanding – and when the apparent creates a misrepresentation of a true state of feeling. But you mention this of course – i.e. the misery it can cause; the lives that could so easily be led on a blighted path of the self’s own making…

    I’m feeling a bit frustrated at the moment because I’m trying to retrieve all sorts of stuff from my brain to write this – but am typing against the clock (son home from school any minute). I remember having to write an essay at university about ‘the middle way’ – and bringing Sense and Sensibility into the cast of texts through which to explore the literary concerns of that period. Jane Austen was very much for the middle way – the balance, as you say…

    Oh dear – the clock has beaten me! Must leave it there for now. My apologies – I was hoping to write a much more considered response! And this afternoon, I was also hoping to write a reply to the great comment you left on my Thomas Hardy post (many thanks for that). I’ll get back to you as soon as opportunity allows!

    Mainly, I just wanted to say how much I loved reading your astute, deeply perceptive and marvellously wide-ranging exploration of Sense and Sensibility – and to say how pleased I am that you’re enjoying your latest travels through Jane’s novels! (Is it still too early to say that we might have a new Janeite in our midst? 😉 )

    Cheers for now,

    Melanie

    Reply

    • Oh – given my personal temperament, I doubt I’ll ever be a fully paid-up Janeite! – but that’s hardly the point: as someone who loves literature, and especially as someone who loves the novel, it is important for me to come to some understanding and appreciation of one who is clearly among the foremost rank of novelists. Merely stating personal preferences can be fun, but, as Tom (Amateur Reader) says in his comments to this post, it’s no more than “making tally marks”. “I love X” and “I hate Y” may tell us something about myself, but precious little, I feel, about X or Y!

      I certainly think I am getting a better understanding and appreciation of Austen’s art. I especially love her prose, with its perfect combination of expressiveness, and of unfailing elegance. From what I remember of my last readings, her later novels are more artistically ambitious, and I will be moving on to them shortly. Pride and Prejudice is next in line, I think. In the meantime, perhaps I wish to spend my time with an author who was a little less sane and balanced, I think! 🙂 (Without necessarily quite going all the way to Dostoyevsky…)

      Reply

  4. Posted by alan on August 2, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    I’ve been spending a couple of weeks in a holiday apartment which has a bookshelf of 40 or so books and the injunction to leave something behind if you take something away that you haven’t finished reading.
    The bookshelf leans more to the Jeffrey Archer end of the spectrum, but does have a John Mortimer, John LeCarre, John Updike and last but not least: Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’. (You might like John Mortimer as the discarded ‘Rumpole’ novel had a sort of Sherlock Holmes appeal.)
    However, to the point:I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ again for the first time in a quarter of a century and although I could appreciate the artifice I could still find no sympathy for any of the parasites that inhabited it. I suppose that it is necessary that the servants are virtually invisible, otherwise that lack of sympathy would become active dislike. There was indeed talent there but I don’t know what her purpose was and I don’t think I want to spend much more time in her company.

    Reply

    • If you were to reject fiction because it focussed only on certain classes, I’d guess you would have to reject most of fiction – and not just of the past: very few novels, of any era, range across the entire social spectrum.

      Servants did tend to be invisible in older novels; or have minor roles; or, at best, act as onlookers (Nelly Dean in “Wuthering Heights”, say). We don’t, for instance, see the troops of servants that a Hamlet or an Agamemnon must have had tending them.

      I can actually see your point: these are people who lived mainly idle lives on the labour of others, so why should we take an interest in them? But that question is really only valid if we think we must morally approve of these characters to appreciate a fiction. Of course, you may reply that in P&P, we are meant to approve of Elizabeth Bennet morally. But had we lived in that society, and in that class, we too would have been “parasites”: very few people relinquish their privileges for the sake of their conscience. Who knows? – maybe future generations will look back on us, and judge us to be parasites also. Are we sure that we really earn the lifestyles we enjoy, and that we are more entitled to our little luxuries than people starving out on the streets?

      Austen was actually very aware of economic necessity. Women of Elizabeth’s class who didn’t have the opportunity to make their own way in society, would end up, at best, as hangers-on to their families if they weren’t married off; at worst, they may end in the poorhouse. (So you get whats-her-name sacrificing herself – marrying the idiot Mr Collins, knowing full well that he is an idiot – in order to secure her future.) You could say, of course, that things were much worse for the working classes, and you would, of course, be right. But this is, perhaps, to mistake the point of the novel, which is not to offer a critique of the social and economic structures of society.

      I read a lot of the Rumpole stories back in the 80s. they are very, very enjoyable, from what i remember.

      Reply

  5. Posted by alan on August 2, 2013 at 6:48 pm

    I can see that economic necessity is a large part of the novel.
    A lot of people are quoting Auden on Austen at the moment:
    “You could not shock her more than she shocks me;
    Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
    It makes me most uncomfortable to see
    An English spinster of middle class
    Describe the amorous effect of “brass”,
    Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
    The economic basis of society.”
    However, I still don’t understand her purpose. Unless, perhaps, we are meant to understand that the character of Elizabeth might also be influenced by financial considerations but just needed sufficient cause to overcome her dislike. On this alternative reading, instead of it just being about pride and prejudice and two people teaching each other a lesson, it is also about self deception. Otherwise, is it just another evolution of the “virtue rewarded” line of novels?

    Reply

    • I’m only really coming round to Austen now, and <Pride and Prejudice is next on my list. I read it when I was a teenager, and not really tuned to Austen’s art, so I don’t know that I should comment on the novel before reading it again. But perceptions and misperceptions – of others, of ourselves – and the competing claims of reason and of passion (sense and sensibility) seem to be running themes in Austen’s work.

      Reply

      • I’m only really coming round to Austen now, and <Pride and Prejudice is next on my list. I read it when I was a teenager, and not really tuned to Austen’s art, so I don’t know that I should comment on the novel before reading it again. But perceptions and misperceptions – of others, of ourselves – and the competing claims of reason and of passion (sense and sensibility) seem to be running themes in Austen’s work.

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