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Austen 2014: Sense & Sensibility, Volume 2

Again, yes, late. I know, I know. Anyway...Austen!

While it is easy to take the two traits described in the title and ascribe one each to each of the Dashwood sisters, that is clearly an overly simplistic reading of the novel. Yes, Elinor is often guided by her good sense and Marianne frequently lets her romantic sensibilities overcome her, but they are both more than that. Elinor's distress upon seeing Marianne so hurt by Willoughby (and yes, I'll talk about him later, at length) is a clear demonstration of the strong emotional core that she contains, and Marianne's sense is stated flatly by the narrator when she introduces the character and is shown to us multiple times through her actions. Most notably, while she is sullen and often distant during this volume, either waiting for the letter from Willoughby that never arrives or reeling from the shock of his rejection, she still makes some effort at functioning in society, if only in a minimal capacity. She also demonstrates enough sense to be guided by her sister several times, trusting to Elinor to be sensible for the both of them, just as she trusts that Elinor shall be well enough for the both of them when Edward comes to visit.

Still, Austen is clearly playing with the two contrasting but complementary notions of sense and sensibility, and showing the various forms the deficiency or excess of either can take. Those lacking sense can include Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Jennings, Sir John, the elder Miss Steele, and the various other stupid characters, but also the vacuous characters who are merely slaves to fashion, such as Lady Middleton and Robert Ferrars. Indeed, Robert Ferrars is a wonderful skewering of the purposeless fashionable male. Austen's heroes either have actual professions or take their responsibilities as landlords and masters very seriously; they do not lead frivolous lives of pleasure. Robert, on the other hand, has no profession except being fashionable, and his mother's refusal to grant her sons independence fosters this lifestyle by keeping him from having to bear responsibility from anything or anyone except himself.

Mr. Palmer, on the other hand, suffers from an excess of sense in relation to his sensibility level. In other words, he's a heartless jerk. The same is true of John and Fanny Dashwood, two of the more odious characters in Austen. John Dashwood, for his part, seems to have some small amount of feeling for his sisters, but he lets his greed and his wife's coldness overrule what little is there. Indeed, it's possible that, had John married a kinder woman, he would be a better man; just the same, if Mr. Palmer had married a less silly woman, he might not be so unpleasant. The same is arguably true for Willoughby, though I think his fault lies neither with sense nor sensibility, but for a third metric Austen is always examining: moral strength. The same is possibly true of Lucy Steele, though I think she lacks any real feeling but has enough sense to know to pretend to do so. Indeed, if Willoughby were deficient in either sense or feeling, he would not have captured the heart of Marianne, nor would he have won the good opinion of Elinor, which he certainly did during their time together in Devon.

Of our main characters, then, the only ones who seem to have sufficient levels of both sense and sensibility--as well as a strong moral sense--are our two heroines and Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon. Edward is not nearly so insensible of feelings and beauty as Marianne would exclaim, which his real affection for the Dashwood family indicates; and Colonel Brandon, though quiet, clearly is at least partly reserved because his emotions are so strong that he must constantly work to keep them in check. In this way, he's a forerunner to the brooding Byronic hero, a wounded man with a dark and secret past, misunderstood by society and full of feeling. Brandon, however, is a gentleman, so he doesn't walk around saying, "Look at me, I'm dark and brooding!" These four characters, then, must surely end up together, for they also all possess a fine moral strength where they not only can know and/or feel what the right thing is to do but actually do it.

The fifth person whom Austen describes as having both good sense and a strong sensibility is, as mentioned above, Willoughby, but he is morally weak. If Brandon's personality is like Willoughby's but in a minor key--sadder and more dour--then Willoughby's morality is the inverse; where Brandon is strong, Willoughby is weak. Their briefly mentioned duel, while in keeping with the narrative that Austen gives Brandon, has no real place in the less dramatic world of the rest of the novel, so it happens off-stage, as it were, and isn't focused on at all. It does, however, serve as a proxy for the relationship between the two men as rivals for Marianne's affections. The last third of the novel, however, complicates the matter still further, for there, finally, Willoughby tells his story...

Coming soon!


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