Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility (Modern Library Classics)

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.

Everything 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 Charlotte’s 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,  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 pleases.

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 notthink 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

3 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility

  1. Kristie March 4, 2008 / 1:30 pm

    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 March 4, 2008 / 5:44 pm

    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 March 5, 2008 / 11:45 am

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


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