Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’: Decrypting the Title

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Life and Works of Jane Austen

By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University

Sense and Sensibility is arguably Jane Austen’s second-best recognized novel after Pride and Prejudice. All of the themes that her readers expect to find are here: family conflicts, money problems, and thwarted courtships. But where Sense and Sensibility is different is in its minute examination of two captivating sisters and its deployment of a darker tone alongside its comedy.

An elderly woman reads a book. The woman's hand lies on an open book
Some readers see Sense and Sensibility in formulaic terms: Elinor equals sense and Marianne equals sensibility. (Image: MVolodymyr/Shutterstock)

Decoding the Title

Sense and Sensibility, published in 1811, was Austen’s first novel to see print. For that reason alone, it deserves a prominent place, as a breakthrough moment in her career. According to her family, this novel had its origins in the mid-1790s, under the working title of its sister-protagonists, Elinor and Marianne. Exactly when the title changed is unknown.

The two—or rather three—title words (senseandsensibility) are often misunderstood by readers. Some mistakenly think these terms are synonyms. Some mistakenly think they are opposites. However, neither is the case.

Then, as now, the word sense meant reason, rationality, and wisdom. It signaled good sense, or common sense. But in Austen’s day, the word sensibility was different. It meant sensitivity or emotional receptivity. Throughout the novel, Austen couples the word sense with ideas of goodness, honor, and duty. Sense has a straightforwardly positive valence here. But the word sensibility is yoked to more complicated adjectives in the novel: potent sensibility; strong sensibility; and affectionate sensibility.

Connecting the Title to the Characters

In Austen’s novel, the word sense is most often associated with the older of the two heroines, Elinor Dashwood, described as a young woman whose ‘advice was so effectual’, and who ‘possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment’.

The word sensibility is most often associated with middle sister, Marianne Dashwood. It’s said that her abilities were equal to Elinor’s—that they were equally sensible and clever. But, in contrast to Elinor, Marianne is called ‘eager in everything’. We’re told that ‘her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation’. Marianne is called ‘generous, amiable, interesting’ and ‘everything but prudent’.

These differences have led some readers see the novel in formulaic terms: Elinor equals sense and Marianne equals sensibility.

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Elinor and Sense

Sense is said to provide patient, rational Elinor with her happy ending with the hero Edward Ferrars.

Her challenge in the novel was to exercise her rationality and patience, especially after she learns that Edward, although he’s shown an interest in her, is secretly engaged to another woman. Elinor learns this engagement from that other woman herself—Lucy Steele.

Despite being silently heartbroken, Elinor behaves coolly and with honor. She keeps Lucy’s secret, despite her deep disappointment. At the end of the novel, of course, the unworthy Lucy breaks her engagement to the worthy Edward. Edward and Elinor are free to marry.

It’s then and only then that Elinor’s feelings for Edward are outwardly expressed. Elinor is famously so emotionally overwhelmed that she runs out of the room. She closes the door, and ‘burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease’. This shows that Elinor feels very strongly. She just prefers, throughout the novel, not to display her deepest feelings openly to others.

Marianne and Sensibility

Her sister Marianne is very different. She believes that feelings must be expressed. She wears her heart on her sleeve as a principle and a point of pride.

She falls in love with the seemingly perfect Mr. Willoughby, a man who literally sweeps her off her feet. They meet after she injures her ankle in a fall. She takes ‘a false step’ that “brought her suddenly to the ground”. Willoughby happens upon her, splayed out in a field. He sees that she’s unable to walk, and he carries her home in the rain. It’s very melodramatic. Marianne literally falls in love, as some critics have put it.

Willoughby discovers Marianne while he’s out hunting. So we might also say that Willoughby captures a beautiful, injured woman as his prey. We’re told that when he sees Marianne, “He put down his gun and ran to her assistance.” He hunts her with a different weapon—his feigned sensibility.

The three volumes of the first edition of 'Sense and Sensibility'
Some readers also feel that the novel depicts sense as good and sensibility as bad. (Image: Houghton Library/Public domain)

When Marianne sees Willoughby, we’re told that she ‘was scarcely able to stand’. So, ‘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, and carried her down the hill’.

When Marianne learns that Willoughby is also a skilled reader of poetry—another sign of sensibility—her heart is already far gone. That’s unfortunate, because Willoughby is not all he seems.

Sense Versus Sensibility

The problem is that Marianne is convinced people fall in love just once in their lives. It’s an odd belief on her part, especially because her mother was a second wife! But, as a true romantic with extreme sensibility, Marianne doesn’t approve of what she calls ‘second attachments’. She believes only in undying first loves.

By the end of the novel, Marianne discovers that she’s been too quick to offer Willoughby her heart. He turns out to be a rake, ruled by impulse, desire, and greed. He’s not at all what Marianne’s powers of sensibility, and his displays of sensibility, had first led her to believe he was.

But Marianne finds a second love in Colonel Brandon, an older man, in his late 30s, who’s also endured heartbreak. Marianne and Colonel Brandon are both each other’s second loves. The narrator tells us that Marianne, instead of ‘falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion’ with Willoughby, learns that she might find happiness by submitting to new attachments, entering into new duties, and becoming the patronness of a village, as Brandon’s wife.

Given these relationships and the ways in which they evolve, some have said that in this novel, sense is shown to be good, and sensibility is revealed as bad. This is a very tempting interpretation because it’s compact, and it’s easily grasped. However, the problem is that it’s a limited way to understand a complicated novel.

Common Questions about the title of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

Q: When was Sense and Sensibility published?

Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811.

Q: Which are the characters associated with the title Sense and Sensibility?

In Sense and Sensibility, the word sense is most often associated with the older of the two heroines, Elinor Dashwood and the word sensibility is associated with the middle sister, Marianne Dashwood.

Q: What was the original title for the novel Sense and Sensibility?

According to Jane Austen’s family, the novel Sense and Sensibility had its origins in the mid-1790s, under the working title of its sister-protagonists, Elinor and Marianne.

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