Society and Sentiment
110 years after its initial publication, Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility satirical take on relationships still holds true.
Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers.
Sense and Sensibility, though often overshadowed by its successor Pride and Prejudice, is no doubt one of Austen’s greatest novels. While some might criticize the book, particularly its characters for their fixation on romantic relationships, the underlying theme of the story speaks of the harsh view of society when it comes to marriage and love. While the relationships between the Misses Dashwood and their respective partners provide the plot for the story, it is imperative that readers realize not only the individual love stories, but the expectations of love as a whole during Austen’s time, give this story relevance.
The two protagonists of the story, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, represent the various, often opposite interpretations of love, and how love is to be shown. While Elinor believes one shouldn’t speak about matters of the heart outwardly, and is quiet and reserved when it comes to her feelings, Marianne is inclined to believe that romance is meant to be perceived by others, and not hidden away, and therefore speaks very openly of it. There are such differences in their manner as the story unfolds, for example when they both deal with the heartbreak of discovering their love interests are promised to other people. While Marianne openly weeps and is distraught for all to see, Elinor doesn’t confide her feelings in anyone, and therefore no one knows how she is suffering until it is publicly known that her love interest is engaged. This causes the two relationships, although they have similarities in their actions and tumult, to differ completely when it comes to the reaction of society.
Throughout the story, Marianne is often referred to as “handsome”, alluding to her great beauty, and when proposing a relationship between her and another character, this is often mentioned as a comparison to, for example, the wealth of the other character. This is representative of how society viewed romantic partners as assets in order to decipher whether a match would be suitable or not. To diminish a person and their identity to a factor such as wealth or beauty is to say that emotional compatibility is irrelevant, and looking good on paper is more important. It also implies that marriage is, and should, only be assumed by a pair that has something to offer one another, in the case of Marianne and her second love interest, Colonel Brandon, for example, money and good looks. Readers know, of course, that this is not the case, for we learn early on in the story that Colonel Brandon loves Marianne from the moment he meets her, and wishes for her to return his affections. In the end, she falls for him not based on the sum in his bank account, but purely on his personality and temperament.
One factor which is discussed regularly when speaking of every romantic relationship in the story, is wealth. Characters are inclined and encouraged to pursue romantic relationships based on financial status, for example John Willoughby’s marriage to Sophia Grey. Willoughby is disowned for having an affair, and bearing an illegitimate child, and marries Ms. Grey because she is an heiress to a settlement of £10,000. Although Willoughby has no love for Ms. Grey, and wishes to marry Marianne instead, he is left with no fortune after being disowned, and therefore must marry Ms. Grey rather than following his heart.
Another example of this is in the case of Edward Ferrars, Eleanor’s love interest. Although Edward is the eldest son of a rich man who died and left the majority of his fortune to him, he is dependent upon the will of his mother. When his mother discovers his secret engagement of five years to Ms. Lucy Steele, she is outraged and demands he break off the engagement at once, or she shall disown and disinherit him. He refuses to do so, and therefore Mrs. Ferrars, his mother, disowns him, and he is no longer to inherit the fortune. Once again, a character is forced to make the choice between emotional stability and financial stability. Notwithstanding the fact that we later learn he has no true feelings for Lucy, and is only continuing the engagement because he feels an obligation to do so, he is still making the choice to prioritise his feelings, for he would be much ashamed of himself if he broke off the engagement which he had so willingly entered into.
Despite John Willoughby and Edward Ferrars’ vast emotional differences, they are both forced to make a choice between their own happiness and their place in society. This draws a contrast between the two characters, where there would not otherwise be one, seeing as Willoughby shows in his actions that he is not a good man, and Edward time and time again shows the opposite.
Sense and Sensibility, whilst depicting tumultuous relationships with both sad and happy endings, is also able to shed light on the state of the world through its social commentary. While readers might not realize it, contrasts can be drawn between quite literally any of the characters on the basis of their choices or personality. Many characters make decisions they wouldn’t make, would society’s expectations not constantly be forcing them to push aside their personal dreams.