By Devoney Looser, Arizona State University
Jane Austen’s novel isn’t titled sense versus sensibility or sense or sensibility. These are two words linked, even yoked, by the conjunction ‘and’—Sense and Sensibility. It’s not a story of good versus bad. This is important to note because most of the novels of Austen’s day were exactly that—stories of good versus bad.
The Midway in Sense and Sensibility
The novel Sense and Sensibility suggests that one can be ruled too entirely by sense or too entirely by sensibility. One needs to moderate each. One can see this early in the novel, when Marianne sarcastically offers this mock-critique of herself to Elinor, after she perceives herself criticized. Marianne mockingly says, “I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful—had I talked only of the weather and the roads, and had I spoken only once in ten minutes, this reproach would have been spared.”
What’s interesting is that by the end of the novel, Marianne and the reader both realize that she has indeed been too open and sincere, too much at ease, too happy, and too frank. However, she doesn’t come to the conclusion that she ought to have been entirely reserved, spiritless, dull, and deceitful. She discovers a middle ground.
The novel shows that sense and sensibility both have limits as modes of expression. Each Dashwood sister comes to appreciate the value and the limitations of her preferred trait. But it takes experience and growth for them to come to those similar and separate realizations.
This article comes directly from content in the video series The Life and Works of Jane Austen. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Good-natured Battle of Characters
Sense and Sensibility is unusual in offering two terms that both have positive value, especially when joined and held in the right proportions. The novel’s subtle treatment of life’s gray-area complexities goes beyond its title to the novel’s opening line. Sense and Sensibility begins: “The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex.” Now, this is obviously scene setting. Sussex is an area on the southern coast of England. But the line does far more. It prepares one for a story about a family, not just a hero and a heroine.
The verb settled is crucial because it’s placed in a way that’s unsettling. The line reads “had long been settled”. One is clued in that they are about to encounter something that had been true and is about to change. In the first chapter, one learns that some of those Sussex Dashwoods are being forced to resettle. The novel revolves around settling, shuffling, and resettling money, houses, and relationships.
The Dashwood Women
The first characters to be unsettled are four Dashwood women—Mrs. Dashwood, a second wife, and her three daughters: Elinor, Marianne, and youngest daughter, Margaret. These four women are about to be turned out of their home at Norland Park because of two successive male deaths. Their great uncle, the owner of Norland Park, dies first. Then their father inherits the estate, but he dies just a year later.
Upon his death, Mr. Dashwood’s son by his late first wife, a young man named John Dashwood, inherits the estate; his son is set to inherit after him. This means the Dashwood women have no legal claim to the Norland estate. They used to live at Norland, but now they have “no land” and no financial safety, and they will need to move.
Half-brother John Dashwood could have been generous with them. In fact, he promised that he would be, telling his father on his deathbed that he’d “do every thing in his power to make” his stepmother and three half-sisters “comfortable”. But we’re clued into this promise being an empty one by the narrator’s description of John’s character. It’s subtle and damning. He’s described as, “Not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed.”
Many of the narrator’s sentences operate with this kind of dry-witted irony. This line is funny and revealing. It’s also a piece of deep social criticism. Outsiders may suppose that a wealthy man like John Dashwood is respectable; he’s competent and looks the part. But he has neither sense nor sensibility. And his wife, Fanny Ferrars Dashwood, is even worse.
After setting up this family conflict, the story develops similar, further ones. If one steps back, what one sees is that Sense and Sensibility contains many sets of interconnected siblings. The family webs get very tangled.
Portrayal of Sibling Relationships
Not all of the sibling relationships turn out to be as solid as Elinor and Marianne’s. The brothers Edward and Robert Ferrars are often at odds. Edward, the hero, is the more admirable of the two; a shy, diffident, and morally upright young man. Older brother Robert is described as a coxcomb—a vain man. He ends up marrying his brother Edward’s former fiancé, Lucy Steele.
The Ferrars brothers’ unfriendly relationship mirrors that of two other brothers: Colonel Brandon and his late brother. One learns about the bad blood among brothers from a story that the Colonel tells about his early life. The Brandon brothers were competitors, even enemies.
So Austen isn’t suggesting that sibling relationships are naturally strengthening or that they always work out well. She shows that siblings can be quite destructive, too.
Common Questions about the Characters and Relationships in Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’
Sense and Sensibility suggests that one can be ruled too entirely by sense or too entirely by sensibility. One needs to moderate each. The novel shows that sense and sensibility both have limits as modes of expression.
The four Dashwood women are turned out of their home at Norland Park because of two successive male deaths. Their great uncle, the owner of Norland Park, dies first. Then their father inherits the estate, but he dies just a year later. Upon his death, Mr. Dashwood’s son by his late first wife inherits the estate, and his son is set to inherit after him. This means the Dashwood women have no legal claim to the Norland estate, and they need to move.
Jane Austen suggests that sibling relationships are not naturally strengthening or that they always work out well. She shows that siblings can be quite destructive, too.