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Stronger Alone?: Bridging gaps and reaffirming sisterhood in Sense and Sensibility.

Abstract: Sense and Sensibility examines the female dynamics within the family structure and society at large. The Dashwood sisters, unlike other heroines written by Jane Austen, experience a life with a mother whose presence is unmistakably felt and is often problematic. In addition to the challenge of dealing with blurred parent-child boundaries in their household, the sisters also struggle to find common ground amongst themselves. While the novel follows the traditional marriage plot, leading both heroines into happy unions, I maintain that Sense and Sensibility is, first and foremost, a novel about reaffirming sisterly bonds and their strength above all others.

Keywords: Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, motherhood, sisterhood, generations, female dynamics

Depicting the lives of two sisters living with their mothers, Sense and Sensibility takes a closer look at tight-knit female familial dynamics. Unlike other Austen heroines, the Dashwoods have an all too present mother in their lives. Still, while Mrs. Dashwood is a warm and gentle woman, she is not without her faults. She is over-involved in her daughters' affairs, and fails to establish a healthy boundary between parent and child. With juvenile or overly emotional mothers, daughters cannot help but be impacted on, and the sisters at the center of this novel develop bonds of trust and friendship that become just as important as their ensuing happy marriages, if not more so. The sisters have not only their mother's inadequacy to overcome, but also the differences between themselves. Their journey is not only one of self-knowledge and eventual romantic bliss, it is also one through which they rediscover each other, and learn to bridge the gaps that might have kept them from fully knowing each other's heart. The novel affirms a belief in the truest form of sisterhood, and ends with sorority prevailing over all other familial ties.

Austen's first published novel focuses on two equally engaging heroines who also happen to be sisters. The plot follows their growth and maturation not only as individuals but also as sisters.Through a series of romantic and social trials, the two learn new things about themselves, a process which, in turn, enables them to strengthen their always loving but often conflicted relationship.

Out of all the heroines that Austen has given us, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood undoubtedly have the most caring and nurturing mother. Still, Mrs. Dashwood's genuine concern and affection are not enough to transform her into an adequate moral guide. In fact, in the very first pages we are told that Elinor is the one who often takes on a mothering role in the family's purely feminine dynamics:
Elinor, this eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, possessed
a strength of understanding, and a coolness of judgment, which
qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother.
[...] Her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them; it was
a knowledge her mother had yet to learn. (Sense and Sensibility 3)

Though Mrs. Dashwood appears to be endowed with all one could ask from a good mother, we learn rather quickly that traditional roles within the family are not necessarily filled by the person one would expect. Mary Margaret Benson claims, and I am inclined to agree, that Mrs. Dashwood "acts more like a sister, especially to Marianne" (120). Indeed, like her middle daughter, Mrs. Dashwood is a hopeless romantic and is unfortunately lacking where discrimination and judgment are concerned. With regard to her daughters we are told that she "entered into all their feelings with a warmth which left her no inclination for checking excessive display in them" (45). The blurriness of the parent-child interaction in the Dashwood household is of pivotal importance to the novel's heroines and to their chosen paths.

Elinor and Marianne's relationship, though loving, is not without its obstacles. Austen explores their values and ethics with regard to their own identities, to their function as social players and, of course, to their sisterly bond. According to Glenda A. Hudson, a fundamental part of their maturation and growth involves not only the way they respond to their suitors but "how they understand, react and become involved with each other's needs and problems, in spite of their own miserable predicaments" (78). James Thompson also highlights the significance of sorority in the novel: "What is truly innovative about Sense and Sensibility is its founding assertion that affiliation does not necessarily need to be found or forged-it needs to be understood, valued, and maintained" (par. 5).

Indeed, while other Austen heroines expand their familial web of relations and others replace it altogether, Elinor and Marianne find their way back to each other. As Thompson notes, "instead of a romance in which the heroine journeys out in search of adventures that will yield marriage and a husband, Austen's first published novel is in fact a romance about maintaining and repairing the family into which her protagonists are born" (par. 5). I would also argue that Austen's choice of romantic partners for the Dashwood sisters is not inadvertent. While Willoughby excites our imagination, the sisters end up with Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon, two worthy but wholly unexciting characters. It is almost as if Austen cast them in these roles in order to let the progression of the sisterly bond outshine all other relationships in the novel. I do, however, disagree with the way in which Thompson lumps all of Austen's heroines together where family obligations are concerned: "From heroines such as Elinor, Fanny, and Anne, who understand these duties from the start, to those such as Elizabeth and Emma, who must learn them in the end, they all without exception affirm familial ties" (par. 5). Thompson's generalization is not only incorrect in my eyes, it also belittles Austen's achievement as an author who grew to realize -along with her heroines-that "home" is a developing and varying concept. While his assertions regarding Elinor are quite accurate, Fanny and Anne-both of whom find eventual happiness in families that are not the ones they were born into-cannot be said to have had a similar journey to that of Elinor. Nor can this comparison be drawn between Elinor and the static Emma or the eventual mega-matriarch Elizabeth Darcy. In fact, the Dashwood sisters are unique among Austen heroines who-as her novels progressed-found it increasingly harder to affirm biological familial ties.

Mrs. Dashwood

As much as we may wish to root for Mrs. Dashwood, her unwavering approval of Marianne's antics as well as her romantic silliness as opposed to Elinor's mature groundedness, prove just as destructive as will the behavior of some of Austen's more overtly monstrous mothers. To start with, Mrs. Dashwood has no sense of frugality. Her lack of economic understanding, along with her romantic tendencies, lead her to believe that nothing material could keep two lovers apart. While there is no doubt as to her devotion to her daughters, Mrs. Dashwood's naive outlook detracts from her mothering abilities. We commend her for telling Sir John that "catching" men is not an employment which her daughters were brought up to pursue (SS 37) but at the same time we question her perception of social reality. For someone in her financial predicament, Mrs. Dashwood devotes no time to any practical thinking regarding her daughters' future security and prefers the romanticized imaginings she shares with Marianne. Her carefree attitude takes a dangerous turn when the affection between Willoughby and Marianne becomes more pronounced; Mrs. Dashwood never supervises the young lovers' behavior nor does she attempt to act as a buffer between her daughter and what could turn out to be a disastrous situation. This is when readers begin to understand the ways in which Mrs. Dashwood falls short of her eldest daughter. The former has no actual knowledge of an assured engagement between Marianne and Willoughby, but unlike Elinor, she does not need one; knowledge only gets in the way of fantasy. Tension rises between Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood with Willoughby's abrupt departure, since Elinor, who thinks empirically and reasonably, needs more proof of his seriousness towards Marianne. Mrs. Dashwood does not need anything but what she already knows, which is-as we all know-nothing at all.

Mrs. Dashwood makes the fatal mistake of not asking Marianne to relay the true account of her presumed engagement to Willoughby. Elinor's insistence on the matter is pointless since "common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs. Dashwood's romantic delicacy" (SS 73). Allowing Marianne to wallow in her own misery instead of setting the record straight while in Barton Cottage, Mrs. Dashwood exacerbates Marianne's mental and emotional volatility, a state that becomes catastrophic in the London chapters with the discovery of Willoughby's engagement to Sophia Grey. While Marianne eventually rids herself of perpetual melancholy and of over-sentimentalism, these positive transitions in her character are in no way due to her mother's guidance. In fact, as I will argue, I see very little change in Mrs. Dashwood's character in the final chapters of the novel. Mrs. Dashwood understands the error of her ways but is in no hurry to correct her thinking. She transfers her romantic aspirations from Willoughby to Colonel Brandon, who suddenly seems like the only man meant for Marianne. Mrs. Dashwood is yet again fantasizing and weaving romantic scenarios before she has any solid ground to build on. Furthermore, in promoting Brandon as the perfect match for Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood suddenly "remembers" made-up things that she did not like about Willoughby and convinces herself that Marianne could never have been happy with someone like him. Since we know how thoroughly she adored Willoughby and how trusting she was in his character and intentions towards Marianne, the self-delusion and denial she is in when it comes to him now makes it difficult for us to trust that she has changed.

Bill Hughes locates the tension between Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood in the latter's reluctance to "move the speech onto the level of discourse, where... questions can be examined critically" (42). Sense and Sensibility is a novel filled with female speech but most of it is just the words of too many female characters who only speak for the sake of speaking. Though Mrs. Dashwood is not a gossipy chatterbox like Mrs. Jennings or Mrs. Palmer, she shares with them the absence of any desire for critical doubts or substantial facts. Elinor is the only woman in the novel who operates on the level of discourse; she asks questions, demands evidence and relies on facts rather than imagination. The friction between her and her mother reaches a boiling point when Willoughby unexpectedly quits Barton, leaving their entire family in limbo. Naturally, Elinor's suspicion is raised, and most unnaturally, her mother's is not. This is where the breakdown in communication between them is most evident. When one party refuses to move from speech to discourse, no beneficial results can be attained. As Hughes notes, Mrs. Dashwood is "persuaded by her own, completely unsupported, narrative" and refuses to enter into a meaningful dialogue "unless Elinor can provide an equally unfounded, but persuasive, counter-narrative" (42). Mrs. Dashwood, like Catherine Morland, exemplifies the dangers involved in believing a narrative of one's own making rather than simply asking the correct questions in search of the truth. Unlike Catherine, Mrs. Dashwood is not a doe-eyed teenager, but she certainly acts like one. Moreover, while Northanger Abbey's heroine learns to see the beauty in truth, Mrs. Dashwood-even in the final stages of the novel- continues to embellish the narrative she lives by.

Conversely, Kathryn Davis attempts to portray the character in a more positive light, and while I do agree with her fundamental assertions that Mrs. Dashwood's intimate involvement and wholehearted concern with her children's happiness "makes her remarkable among Austen parents" (61), I am not as quick to vindicate this very problematic mother figure. Davis acknowledges that "Mrs. Dashwood's relationship with her middle daughter is described linearly rather than hierarchically: she and Marianne are more like friends and confidantes than mother and daughter" (62). This, she states, is Austen's invitation for readers to attend not just to Marianne's decline and eventual distress, but to Mrs. Dashwood's as well (62). By establishing an alliance between Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood, Davis argues, readers are urged to see how Marianne's deficiencies in moderation and prudence extend to her mother, and how this alignment dangerously throws off the "balance within the community of the family" (64). However, while I see a divergence in Marianne's and Mrs. Dashwood's paths as the novel comes to a close, Davis continues to believe the latter is an extension of the former. She argues that just as Marianne grows and develops, so does her mother: "Austen presents us with a woman who, despite her age, could still become receptive to an education... [T]hrough her, Austen suggests that change and growth are not the exclusive prerogative of the young" (65). While Mrs. Dashwood understands that she has made mistakes, she does not really comprehend the nature or the extent of these mistakes. Her embellished imaginings regarding Marianne's and Brandon's match, along with her almost bizarre renunciation of the once adored Willoughby, prove that she is very far from being what Davis calls "transformed" (74). A transformed Mrs. Dashwood would have admitted to being deceived by Willoughby and she would not revise history to suit her newly written narrative or imagine faults that she had supposedly seen in Willoughby in the past-since there were none. Davis claims that the greatest indication that Mrs. Dashwood has acquired knowledge and prudence is her decision to remain at Barton Cottage after Marianne marries Brandon: "She is able to relinquish an immoderate level of intimacy with her daughter, an intimacy that would undoubtedly have been a detriment to Marianne's happiness in marriage" (74).

I struggle to see Davis' point, since choosing to stay at Barton may just mean that Mrs. Dashwood has accepted Marianne's progress and does not necessarily indicate that she has been "educated" and will not repeat similar mistakes with Margaret, her youngest daughter. By the time Marianne marries Brandon she has not only reached the awareness that her prior behavior had been selfish and damaging, but she has also matured in age. Marianne is nineteen when she marries, which means that she has had sufficient time to prove to her mother that she has gained a similar level of prudence and moderation to that of Elinor. Is it not likely that Mrs. Dashwood chooses to stay at Barton because she now trusts Marianne to make the right decisions? Even if this is not the case, Marianne marries a man of great maturity and sense, and due to Edward's receiving a living from Brandon, Elinor is also nearby. Since Marianne is surrounded by people who not only love her but are able to give her valuable guidance, it is also possible that Mrs. Dashwood feels that her constant presence in Marianne's life is no longer crucial. Indeed, there could be several explanations for her decision to keep her residence at Barton, and so I cannot share Davis' conviction that this is a sign of true transformation. In a survey of Austen parents there is no doubt Mrs. Dashwood scores high; her affectionate heart and genuine concern for her daughters are without parallel. However, Austen always shows us the damages of excess, so while with Mrs. Bennet it is vulgar stupidity and with Sir Walter Elliot it is unwavering vanity, with Mrs. Dashwood the excess of feeling-as refreshing as it may be-eventually proves just as hazardous.

Marianne and Elinor

The Dashwood sisters and their evolving relationship are at the center of the novel, and a wonderfully complex relationship it is. Both sisters go through an intense inner journey, though it is mostly Marianne who is transformed. Elinor, whose morals, manners and judgment are admirable from the start, does, however, learn to balance these with more expressive emotions.

Marianne says she can only love a man who "will enter into all [her] feelings" and acknowledges that she "require[s] so much" (SS 13). What Marianne fails to realize is that letting someone into all your feelings means you are left with nothing that is just your own; nothing is truly protected. As we learn later, this is the source of Marianne's devastation. Marianne's overall approach towards love and human emotions is similar to her mother's: overly-romantic, hopelessly sentimental and often immature. One example of this frustratingly emotional point of view is Marianne's perception regarding love at an older age:
A woman of seven and twenty... can never hope to feel or inspire
affection again, and if her home be uncomfortable, or her fortune
small, I can suppose that she might bring herself to submit to the
offices of a nurse, for the sake of the provision and security of a
wife. (SS 31-2)

Though it is clear that Marianne is not mature or evolved enough to see beyond her romanticized notions, her words in this section are nonetheless thought-provoking and not entirely without reason. One cannot help but think about two twenty-seven-year-old characters that Austen readers are very familiar with, and the difference in their situations. While both Persuasion's Anne Elliot and Pride and Prejudice's Charlotte Lucas are at this age when we meet them, only Anne, who is somewhat financially secure, has the privilege of hope (which eventually pays off); Charlotte, on the other hand, is forced to marry the ridiculous Mr. Collins due to grim social circumstance. So, it seems that in spite of its childish cruelty, Marianne's comment is at the very least realistic.

Marianne's naivete is quite different from Catherine Morland's in the sense that Marianne is utterly convinced in her "knowledge" of things and by the accuracy of her convictions. It is not the endearing ignorance we saw in Catherine but an almost tragic assurance that is bound to collapse eventually. Marianne rejects the language of female conquest, which to her seems "gross and illiberal" (SS 38) and one cannot overlook the sad irony of her declarations considering how imprisoned she already is in the rigidity of her own romantic notions. Similarly, Marianne's certainty that "we always know when we are acting wrong" (SS 60) is almost heartbreaking; her conviction is so strong, and her belief in her views so unrelenting that when these crash and burn there is no wonder she crashes and burns along with them.

As I have argued earlier, Sense and Sensibility is very much a novel about the bonds of sisterhood, more than it is about finding the perfect husband. Indeed, Marianne's first step towards the maturity and prudence she so desperately lacks is made on her sister's account, not for the sake of a suitor. She keeps her promise to Elinor and does not overreact to the news of Edward's and Lucy's engagement. Her behavior is described as "advances towards heroism" (SS 228), informing us that Marianne is not a heroine quite yet. This also points to the fact that containment and discretion-at least to a certain degree-are what constitutes a true heroine. These first advances, followed by a life-threatening (but also life-altering) illness, eventually place Marianne where we have wanted her to be-in a state of mind that involves rational thinking and balanced emotions.

Marianne's actions in the novel are a part of the female dynamics of the Dashwood household and have a significant impact on the relationships within these dynamics. The motives and reasons behind Marianne's behavior are never fully explored in the novel and we are left to believe that she is just a silly, child-like fantasist. However, Marianne's psychology is far more complex and her path towards true happiness far more difficult than is usually perceived.

Marianne is addicted to melancholy; she wills it and embraces it to a worrisome degree. As Marta Pellerdi notes, Marianne is not only "excessive in her emotions and imprudent in her behavior toward Willoughby, she is also inconsiderate towards others" (par. 11). Marianne's behavior, then, has an impact not only on her family, but on her ability to function properly in society. This is an issue that is cardinal to the novel, especially when one considers Elinor, who, in spite of her own suffering, never lets melancholy cloud her judgment or influence her ability to truly engage with others. Elinor is proof that self-control influences not only the individual who exercises it, but also his or her social world, something that Marianne fails to understand. Elinor attempts to remind Marianne that her tumultuous feelings do not exist in a vacuum and that she must think of others: "Exert yourself, dear Marianne", she cried, "if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer; for her sake you must exert yourself" (SS 159). As Pellerdi notes, "[e]xertion is Austen's word for fighting against idleness and melancholy. [...] It is with fortitude that such exertion becomes possible and difficulties can be overcome" (par. 11). Moreover, as Sarah Emsley claims, fortitude is the most important virtue in the "process of discovering happiness" (13). Marianne does not have the tools to enable her to contain her suffering and function as a thoughtful social being. Her answer to Elinor reflects a total submission to melancholy: '"I must feel--I must be wretched'" (SS 163). Marianne's insistence on pursuing this form of distorted happiness comes at the expense of "every common-place notion of decorum" (SS 40), and if a prominent moralist like Samuel Johnson took the time to address this issue, we can assume that an infatuation with melancholy was not uncommon. Johnson warns against just such self-indulgence in his Rambler No. 4: "[S]orrow is to a certain point laudable..., but... it ought not to be suffered to increase by indulgence, but must give way, after a stated time, to social duties, and the common avocations of life" (255). Moreover, in such circumstances, a habitual sadness, he writes, "seizes upon the soul, and the faculties are chained to a single object, which can never be contemplated but with hopeless uneasiness" (255).

Marianne is a part of something greater than her own private misery; when we meet her, she is dangerously close to becoming a dysfunctional member of society, neglecting her duties and imprisoning her abilities. Though Johnson probably saw women's duties as mostly domestic, he nonetheless believed in women's capacity to be educated and encouraged them to make intelligent, reasonable choices. (1) One of Marianne's biggest lessons in the novel is not to learn how to stop feeling, but how to refine her feelings with the help and balance of more cerebral faculties. Marianne is not the hopelessly spoiled Lydia Bennet--she has the depth and solid morals to improve and mature. What we witness in Sense and Sensibility is her struggle not only against a wounded heart, but mostly against a damaged consciousness that she must rectify.

It is quite difficult for me to place Marianne Dashwood and Lydia Bennet in the same company, but although the former is worthy of so much more empathy and respect for her eventual transformation, the two are what a modern reader would define as obnoxious teenagers. Indeed, the teen years of a young woman's life received no specific attention in eighteenth-century literature, mostly because the term "teenager" (for all its psychological attributes) is relatively modern. In one of the most refreshing pieces of criticism I have read regarding Marianne Dashwood, Shawn Lisa Maurer outlines what she calls Marianne's "painful process of maturation". Maurer sees Marianne's marriage to Colonel Brandon not as an artistic or ideological failure (as many readers and critics do), but as a "developmental progression from the intense emotions and dangerous passions associated with adolescence to the duties and responsibilities of adulthood" (723). As Maurer explains, in eighteenth-century conduct literature adolescence is never acknowledged because it is not a phase which is considered significant: "adulthood is the goal, and that adulthood must be achieved by avoiding, rather than learning from, the dangerous feelings and risky behaviors associated with youth" (726). What conduct literature cannot provide, fiction can. Therefore, novels provide "a place in which characters might undergo and assimilate precisely such perilous experiences" (726). All of Austen's foolish, naive or just plain stupid young female characters are given a fictional stage on which to act out their childish antics and missteps. The point is that only those who are able to learn from their mistakes emerge as heroines, while the rest remain stuck in their infantile ways and become even more detestable to us for failing to gain any knowledge from the experiences they are granted by the narrative.

Maurer also makes a valid point with regard to the Marianne's difference from her mother:
Escaping the stasis of sensibility through the notion of temporal
progression, adolescence provides a conceptual framework that can
incorporate change through its linking of past experience with
present behavior. In this way, the novel creates an important
distinction between Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood, in that the daughter
transforms in the course of the novel whereas the mother remains the
same-her immaturity based in character rather than developmental
stage. (728)

In relation to Kathryn Davis' exoneration of Mrs. Dashwood, I do not believe that the latter grows out of her sentimental, excessively romantic habits because, as Maurer implies, for Mrs. Dashwood, this is not a phase she can emerge from. It is, essentially, who she is. Marianne's extraordinary fate allows her to have a taste of the danger involved in excessive feeling, but prevents this phase in her adolescence from becoming a permanent feature in her adult life. Learning to govern, rather than avoid or repress, "overwhelming and sometimes even life-threatening emotions" (Maurer 742), is what enables Marianne to make her successful transition into adulthood. Austen provides Marianne the social space in which to both be an adolescent and to grow out of this stage.

Elinor Dashwood is similar to Fanny Price and Anne Elliot in that she never really transforms throughout the narrative. However, like all Austen heroines, she does learn her share of valuable lessons and adjusts her views and judgments accordingly. When we meet Elinor, it is immediately evident that she is remarkably different from her mother and sister in the way in which she perceives society, human relations and her own place within these. When it comes to her budding relationship with Edward, but really in anything she puts her mind to, Elinor needs certainty, evidence and assurance. Unfortunately, no one in her immediate surroundings shares this attitude: "She knew that what Marianne and her mother conjectured one moment, they believed the next-that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect" (SS 15). From the very beginning, then, we are made to understand how isolated Elinor is, in spite of the genuine love that resides in the Dashwood household. However, what is truly admirable about Elinor is the fact that unlike Marianne-whose withdrawal into her own private world of melancholy and romantic misery makes her socially inadequate-she is able to use her often isolated state in order to watch, evaluate and judge the people and the situations around her, making her supremely capable of engaging with others with little fear or discomfort. WhileMarianne's isolation (which she chooses to enter) means that she sees no one but herself, Elinor's isolation (which is a given situation due to her unique character within the family dynamics) enables her to see well beyond herself, into the hearts and minds of others.

When Elinor discovers that Edward is engaged to Lucy she chooses to keep the news to herself. She knows that nothing can be gained from confiding in her sister and mother: "From their counsel, or their conversation, she knew she could receive no assistance, their tenderness and sorrow must add to her distress" (SS 122). As harsh as this realization might be, it is, nonetheless, accurate. Unlike Marianne, who only adds to her suffering by not confiding in her mother and sister, Elinor knows that for her own sake, she needs to manage the pain of such a discovery alone. When we remember how Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne handled Mr. Dashwood's death--by making one another more miserable instead of supporting each other--Elinor's choice to weather this emotional storm by herself seems more than reasonable. "She was stronger alone" (SS 122), we are told by the narrator, and as crushing as this may sound, it seems to capture Elinor's state throughout the novel and for most of her life. She is wise enough to know that excessive intimacy, empathy and commiseration can actually aggravate an already unfortunate situation.

In London, Marianne is governed by her emotions more than ever, and is irritable, scatter-brained and without the ability to enjoy anything or anyone. The fact that Elinor has to write to their mother, asking her to get the real account of Willoughby's and Marianne's supposed engagement, goes to show how far apart the sisters are at this point--both mentally and emotionally--though they are physically together all the time. There is genuine love between Elinor and Marianne, but the disconnection between them is too gaping to bridge at this stage in the novel. It is only when Elinor finally confesses to Marianne the turmoil she has been dealing with, that we come to understand the power of sisterly support, and more so, the power of its absence. While Marianne inflicted her misery on her surroundings and placed Elinor in the role of the watchful caregiver, the latter had no one she could converse with on matters of her own heart, and no place where she could find the kind of support she needed. Still, in spite all that has transpired, and although she has much to be bitter about, Elinor's behavior during Marianne's life-threatening illness is remarkable. She is exceptionally attentive yet unaffected by hysterics (a foreshadowing of Anne Elliot's behavior at the scene of Louisa Musgrove's near-fatal fall). Elinor has great fears regarding Marianne's chances of survival, but does not allow herself to convey them. When Marianne is declared out of danger Elinor cannot be openly cheerful; she completely internalizes her overwhelming sensation of comfort and satisfaction.

Elinor's tremendous ability to "see" others is very evident in her treatment of Willoughby after their final meeting in Cleveland. Elinor's compassion towards Willoughby might appear strange to some readers since she seems to believe every word coming out of his mouth, and even regrets judging him as harshly as she did. In fact, it takes time for her to break loose from the grip his visit has on her mind. Why does she sympathize with him so profoundly? Perhaps because, like Edward, Willoughby portrays himself as a pawn in someone else's game, and possibly because she knows Marianne was wrong to act the way she did without having any reassurance from him of a real engagement. Even in her most dire hour, Elinor cannot judge blindly just because she is Marianne's sister. Her ability to enter the feelings of others and to reach conclusions that are impartial and levelheaded applies even to the man who shattered her sister's heart. Unlike her mother, who is quick to forget all that she once loved about Willoughby, Elinor weighs up the good together with the bad, and thus allows Willoughby to enter her mind until she is able to gradually and naturally let go.

It is only when Elinor sees Edward (thinking he has married Lucy) that we see her struggling for the first time to keep her composure: "I WILL be calm; I WILL be mistress of myself (SS 311). We have never seen Elinor like this, having to talk herself into self-control. Her overpowering outburst when she learns that he is not married is beyond anything that we have come to expect from her, and it becomes clear that this emotional outpouring has been brewing for far too long. It takes her a long while to get used to it, to calm down and to finally embrace her good fortune.

Elaine Bander discusses the differences between the Dashwood sisters, using the philosophical debate between aesthetic and ethical judgment that went on during Austen's day. When defending her visit to Allenham with Willoughby, Marianne posits one side of this debate: "[I]f there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I 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" (SIS 60). As Bander sees it, Marianne invokes an eighteenth-century philosophical belief "[t]hat we have an innate moral 'sense' or 'taste'; that just as we are born with the natural ability to recognize the Beautiful, so too we recognize and are drawn to the Good; that what is beautiful must be good; that what attracts us must be virtuous" (par. 5). This belief is contradicted by Elinor (and probably by Austen herself), who believes that human beings are imperfect and in need of rational principles "to guide behavior when emotions blur self-knowledge" (Bander par. 9). The novel, in a sense, articulates what happens when these categories get mixed up and when "subjective feelings supplant rational judgment, and we build castles where none exist" (Bander par. 11). Marianne is not the only character in the novel who builds such castles, and both her mother and Mrs. Jennings tend to weave a tale of someone's character or of a certain love affair before having any grounds to do so. The difference is, of course, that Marianne's life is at risk due to her blind attraction to beauty. Elinor, aware of others' and her own imperfect judgment, highlights the problem with attraction to superficial impressions:
I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes [...] in a
total misapprehension of character in some point or other
[...] Sometimes one is guided by what [people] say of themselves, and
very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving
oneself time to deliberate and judge. (SS 81)

Elinor exhibits a level of self-awareness that all the other characters combined would find difficult to achieve. She acknowledges not only one's need for private and disinterested judgment, but also her own occasional errors in forming judgments. Indeed, Elinor, though profoundly different from her sister, is not unmoved by beauty and grace; this may explain the profound impression Willoughby leaves on her after their last meeting, and as Bander notes, only serious reflection--which includes carefully sorting ethical from aesthetic considerations--diminishes that influence (par. 19). Austen uses Elinor to show us that even the wisest, most grounded person can be sidetracked into making errors in judgment. The important thing, though, is to be able to adjust the false judgment that has been formed. This is what Elinor re-learns, what Marianne must learn, and what the novel's readers should learn when faced with their own tug of war between reason and feeling.

One thing that Elinor does not need any lessons in is how to function as a social being. Elinor has to implement a slew of strategies in order to engage with the sometimes unbearable people that surround her. Nonetheless, as I have stated before, her ability to see beyond herself, and her adherence to reasonable, fact-based judgment, enable her to operate smoothly in diverse social settings--something that Marianne has no aptitude for. I find difficult to accept Jenny Davidson's claim that Elinor is aware that "she may have more in common with the odious Lucy Steele" than with Marianne, and that "Sense and Sensibility repeatedly emphasizes Elinor's accomplishments as a social hypocrite" (151). The novel, I argue, does not celebrate nor does it glorify hypocrisy, and what Davidson calls hypocrisy, I call exertion. I do not think Elinor ever aligns herself with Lucy, but she does acknowledge that the latter is a fiercer opponent than she had expected. Elinor, as we know, has a personal interest in the news Lucy delivers and needs "to employ strategic speech, not merely to preserve social stability but to defend her selfhood" (Hughes par. 24). Elinor knows that she cannot confide in Marianne and their mother about this matter for reasons that I have already discussed, and also, in her usual vein, she does everything in her power to reach the truth before she forms any sort of judgment. Hughes argues that here, "Elinor's concealment of her authentic self is not, as elsewhere, to maintain social harmony; she is as self-seeking and strategic as Lucy" (par. 27). He paints Elinor in less than flattering colors and like Davidson, unfairly places her and Lucy on the same moral plane.

I argue that if Elinor recognizes anything it is not that she and Lucy have something in common, but that she must exert herself to converse with Lucy on a matter so hurtful to herself and do so in a slightly "manipulative" way-by not saying much at all--if she is to get to the bottom of Lucy's claims. I struggle to find any difference between Elinor's behavior in this instance and her conduct in other social situations. Marianne's incapability of behaving properly and respectfully in society leaves Elinor with the perpetual burden of conversing with others. As we know, almost always these "others" are insufferable people. There is an element of forced manipulation in almost every social interaction Elinor takes part in, and since we know that even if her heart bleeds when hearing Lucy's news, she will never attempt to sabotage an engagement or to humiliate Lucy, there is no reason to believe that she has any hidden agenda here other that finding out the facts so that she can process and deal with them.

Michal Beth Dinkier stresses that a careful examination of the "conversational combat" between Elinor and Lucy "supports the view that Austen does not equate the two women, but rather places them in stark contrast with one another" (par. 10). Dinkier emphasizes Elinor's use of speech in a surprising way: "Rather than utilizing the spoken word as an offensive strategy to demand social supremacy, Elinor uses silence--the withholding of the spoken word-as a defensive strategy to maintain power" (par. 12). Indeed, these strategies of concealment that Hughes and Davidson view as attesting to Elinor's self-interest, actually confirm her superiority over Lucy and what Dinkier calls "her presence of mind" (par. 13). Language is often the only weapon Austen's women have in their attempt to subvert the hierarchy of patriarchal power structures. These power structures are responsible for both Lucy and Elinor becoming commodities in the ruthless marriage market, but it is Elinor's refined use of speech and silence that elevates her above the petty competitiveness that this meat market induces. This is perhaps the most important lesson that Marianne has to learn: how to replace her indiscriminate loquacity with verbal moderation and reason.

George E. Haggerty considers language in the novel from another perspective: "Marianne's illness becomes for both sisters the test of their feelings for one another and the proof that language can be a bond rather than a barrier separating them from their inmost selves" (231). After Elinor meets with Willoughby for the last time, she needs to wait for something very important to happen in order to communicate to her sister what has transpired; she needs Marianne to be on the same level of speech as herself, meaning she waits until Marianne finally and completely accepts the limitations of her old sentimental language and is able to converse with Elinor on an equal linguistic level. When this happens, Haggerty notes, Elinor "offers her communication not as a lesson to Marianne but as a way of consoling her sister and convincing her that she had been loved" (232).

Elinor's highly developed emotional intelligence enables her to hold her tongue until her words can be received by Marianne as encouraging rather than demoralizing. Someone who rejects this sister-empowering atmosphere is Tara Ghoshal Wallace who argues that
Sense and Sensibility betrays Austen's anxieties about female
authority; seen from this perspective the novel reveals struggles and
tensions rather than ideological serenity [...] It is Austen's most
antifeminist book, a book inhabited by monstrous women and victimized
men, a book which seems to deny all possibility of sisterhood. (150)

Wallace goes on to discuss the ways in which the sins of man and male insensitivity are overshadowed in the novel by "an emphasis on the despicable behavior of a woman" and by "female anger" (150, 152). While I agree with her that both Edward and Willoughby find it all too comfortable to blame the controlling women in their lives for their troubles, I do not think that readers so easily forgive either of the men for their wrongdoings. Edward may get his happy ending with Elinor--albeit purely by the power of circumstances--but throughout the novel he is a less than inspiring hero and garners a great dislike for his impotence in the face of his mother's aggression and Elinor's suffering (which only the readers know about). By the time the novel reaches its conclusion, one cannot help but think that Elinor deserves so much more than this spineless, insipid man as her life partner. Similarly, Willoughby does not come out unscathed, for together with Elinor, readers eventually teach themselves how to resist his deceitful charm and acknowledge-as she does-that he is the architect of his own downfall.

As for Wallace's claim that the novel thwarts any possibility for sisterhood, it is unclear why she chooses the most dreadful women in the novel to make her point. She claims that "[t]he destructive egoism of Fanny Dashwood, Lady Middleton, Lucy Steele, Mrs. Ferrars, and Sophia Grey makes abundantly clear what sort of woman seeks authority and tries to make the world conform to her image of it" (157). For Wallace, these women represent a welcome insistence on independence, and she sees their vilification as a way of keeping women "unempowered, marginal, silent" (157). It is my contention, however, that Austen was attempting to criticize not the female longing for power, but women's abuse of it. Wollstonecraft said it best in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman when discussing the need for equality in women's education: "I do not wish them to have power over men; but over themselves" (133). Indeed, the underlying problem with the supposedly vilified characters Wallace mentions is that they seek to control and manipulate the men in their lives. Neither Wollstonecraft, nor Austen, I maintain, saw such an aspiration as the fulfillment of female empowerment. So who in Sense and Sensibility has power over herself? It is, of course, Elinor. In her, Austen can dramatize not a ruthless desire for power, but a genuine struggle to balance propriety and willpower. Elinor's claim for authority is her impeccable self-control, which contrasts with the power seized by some of the more aggressive women in the novel.


To conclude, as counterintuitive as this may sound, it is the young, romantic, dramatic and captivating Marianne who is stuck in a state of stagnation throughout the majority of the narrative. As Susan Morgan notes, Marianne is the true conservative in the novel as she "stands against adaptation and change" and "upholds a fixed version of meaning and value against the principle of giving oneself time" (195). While Marianne is trapped by her childish and rigid view of the world, Elinor, whose self-control can easily be mistaken for repression, is actually the freer of the two sisters. As I have pointed out, Elinor's social intelligence enables her to constantly adjust her judgments, and as Morgan indicates, since Elinor knows that social forms are made up, she does not mistake them for human nature. She is therefore free to manipulate those forms and to learn from those around her (199).

It is almost an oxymoron to say that restraint entails freedom, but in Elinor's case, it is indeed so. Elinor is self-controlled not self-involved, hence her ability to manage and monitor her emotions gives her the liberty to truly participate in an ongoing social discourse. Marianne, of course, has to learn to turn self-indulgence into self-discipline since "[t]here is no freedom of thought in a self-centered isolation or a code of sentimental maxims. Freedom is only to be found beyond the boundaries of the self (Morgan 202). Among the many private and social lessons Marianne learns by the end of the novel--and will continue to learn after her life outside of the narrative goes on-none is more important than her reevaluation of her sister. Karen Stohr notes that "[o]ne of Marianne's major intellectual failures is that she refuses to see emotional reserve as valuable or even possible" (390). We see how this rigidity leads Marianne to act unkindly towards Elinor since she views the latter's contained emotions as feeble. For Marianne, what is not directly displayed on the surface must not be strong or true enough to garner any attention or esteem, and thus Elinor's suffering goes unnoticed. Marianne has to come to terms with the fact that visibility has little or nothing to do with earnestness of feeling. She has to learn that "the criteria for determining warmth and goodness need not be an expression of feelings, need not take the forms she gives value to, need not be visible at all" (Morgan 196). As the emotional and linguistic gaps between the sisters are finally reduced, and as they are able to communicate as equals, Marianne can finally appreciate not only Elinor's sensibly governed emotions--which she once discounted-but also the extent to which Elinor had to go in order to maintain this unwavering restraint. When Marianne grows out of her dangerous melancholy and unrestrained adolescence not only can she become an active and valuable member of society, but even more importantly perhaps, she can be the sister Elinor very much deserves.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. The Novels of Jane Austen. Ed. R.W. Chapman. Vol. 1. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933.

Bander, Elaine "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Reading Character in Sense and Sensibility". Persuasion On-Line 32.1 (2011): n.p.

Benson, Mary Margaret. "Mothers, Substitute Mothers, and Daughters in the Novels of Jane Austen". Persuasions 11 (1989): 117-124.

Davidson, Jenny. Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.

Davis, Kathryn. "Exonerating Mrs. Dashwood". Persuasions 33 (2011): 61-74.

Dinkier, Michal Beth. "Speaking of Silence: Speech and Silence as a Subversive Means of Power in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility". Persuasions On-Line 25.1 (2004): np.

Emsley, Sarah Baxter, Jane Austen's Philosophy of the Virtues. New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005.

Haggerty, George E. "The Sacrifice of Privacy in Sense and Sensibility". Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 7.2 (1988): 221-237.

Hudson, Glenda. A. Sibling Love and Lncest in Jane Austen's Fiction. New York: St. Martin's, 1992.

Hughes, Bill. "Jane Austen's Conversational Pragmatics: Rational Evaluation and Strategic Action in Sense and Sensibility''. Persuasions On-Line 32.2 (2012): np.

Johnson, Samuel. The Rambler Tuesday 28 August 1750. The Works of Samuel Johnson. Vol 3. Ed. W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss. New Haven: Yale UP, 1969. 252-56.

Maurer, Shawn Lisa. "At Seventeen: Adolescence in Sense and Sensibility". Eighteenth-Century Fiction 25.4 (2013): 721-750.

Morgan, Susan. "Polite Lies: The Veiled Heroine of Sense and Sensibility". Nineteenth-Century Fiction 31.2 (1976): 188-205.

Pellerdi, Marta. "Idleness and Melancholy in Sense and Sensibility". Persuasions Online 32.2 (2012): n.p.

Stohr, Karen. "Practical Wisdom and Moral Imagination in Sense and Sensibility". Philosophy and Literature 30.2 (2006): 378-394.

Thompson, James. "Sororadelphia, or 'Even the Conjugal Tie is Beneath the Fraternal'". Persuasions On-Line 30.1 (2009): n.p.

Wallace, Tara Ghoshal. "Sense and Sensibility and the Problem of Feminine Authority". Eighteenth-Century Fiction 4.2 (1992): 149-164.

Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

(1) For more about Johnson's support and advocacy of women, see Acker, Julia Robertson. "No Woman is the Worse for Sense and Knowledge": Samuel Johnson and Women. MA thesis. University of Maryland, 2007. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2008.
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Author:Bagno-Simon, Libby
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Date:Mar 22, 2017
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