Anything but Sense or Sensibility in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

Was my title misleading? Are you thinking: “What? You think that Sense and Sensibility has nothing to do with discussing the propriety and impropriety of one over the other?” Or perhaps: “This woman is crazy. She never makes sense.” I do think that sense and sensibility are discussed in Sense and Sensibility. I wrote an essay on it once. But my title is simply my title because I couldn’t come up with anything else, and I’m going to talk about anything but sense and sensibility. Deep breath, everyone, before we dive into a rabbit hole of my own making, where I try to puzzle out the narrator but only succeed at making you roll your eyes at me.

So I’ve glanced over free indirect speech before, and Sense and Sensibility is riddled with it, but what really interests me is who on earth is the heroine of this novel?? Ok, it’s both Elinor and Marianne, but in a weird way. Within the first three chapters, if not sooner, we’re introduced to Elinor’s love interest, Edward. It’s practically a decided thing. And if you’ve read as much literature from this time period as I have, you’d know that there’s a 99.9% chance that they will live happily ever after. As much as I love Jane Austen and admire everything about her writing, I sometimes wonder why we were told so early about Elinor’s love interest. I finally hit upon an idea reading it this time round and will present it to you for your consideration.

The narrator in Sense and Sensibility is quite confusing to me. The story follows both Elinor and Marianne, but throughout the majority of it, we don’t learn anything new about Elinor. Austen sends us gallivanting with Marianne but in a withdrawn manner. Occasionally, she’ll give us a glimpse into what Marianne is thinking, which is where our good friend, free indirect speech, comes in handy, but the rest of the time it’s filtered through Elinor. She comments left, right, and center on Marianne’s behavior, wondering what’s really going on, or noting the change in her looks etc. Example:

Elinor attempted no more. But Marianne, in her place, would not have done so little. The whole story would have been speedily formed under her active imagination, and everything established in the most melancholy order of disastrous love.

(Maybe this isn’t the best example.) During this scene, Elinor had been talking to Colonel Brandon. He mentioned something mysterious, and she let it pass. As we see here, the narrator takes it upon herself to comment on how Marianne would have reacted in the same situation. So who was saying it? A third-party narrator? Elinor? I don’t know. I think that it’s a third-party narrator, but I still imagine Elinor smirking about it in her head (because it would be improper to make vocal such things).

What about this: “Elinor felt secure of its announcing Willoughby’s approach, and Marianne, starting up, moved towards the door.” We’re told exactly how Elinor feels but are met with a description of Marianne’s movements. Moving towards the door, starting up, all of them point towards a heightened state of nerves, excitement, inability to sit because of who was coming. I may know what Elinor feels, but I appreciate Marianne’s emotions more. I suppose it all boils down to “Show. Don’t tell.” for all you writers out there.  While we learn a lot about Marianne’s life, she’s not the one telling us. We see her actions, can feel her emotions more than Elinor’s, but she’s not the narrator. But is she the heroine?

While this novel brings us both Elinor and Marianne’s stories, I feel closer to Marianne, especially in the beginning. Elinor seems somewhat distant as a character and perhaps it’s all because the narration filters through her without us, necessarily, positive that she’s the one speaking. You could argue it’s because Austen wants to make it perfectly clear that having sense, like Elinor, is better than Marianne’s sensibility. I don’t, however, always prescribe to that straight and narrow interpretation of Sense and Sensibility. More to the point, not only does Elinor filter the story for the readers, but she is also a filter for Willoughby and other characters. In the most straight-forward example of this, “he approache[s], and address[es] himself rather to Elinor than Marianne, as if wishing to avoid [Marianne’s] eye . . .” Are we such fragile creatures that we can’t face the story without Elinor’s kind, dulling of the facts? Marianne is shocked by Willoughby’s ignoring her and so is Elinor. Maybe Elinor would prefer being the narrator of her own story as opposed to her sister’s?

She soon gets the chance. The last few chapters are devoted to her love story with Edward. She finally gets to savor the limelight that Marianne had occupied the whole time. While Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood are relegated to exclaim “in an accent of the utmost amazement,” Elinor gets to “[run] out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy.” In this role-reversal, Elinor is the one we’re close to, the one whose actions tell us how she feels. Marianne is in the background, exclaiming, feeling for her sister but not sharing in it. Elinor is alone on the stage, finally suffering under the weight of suppressed emotions and couldn’t be any happier because she now has Edward.

Marianne’s story is wrapped up by a third-party narrator, one who doesn’t seem to resemble the previous narrator of her story. She is no longer described in action. We’re told what happens to her. Now that Elinor is happily married has she resigned her duties as the filter? Or perhaps it’s only a nice way to wrap their stories up in pretty bows? I don’t know. Maybe this wasn’t so much about who the heroine is, as they each had a share in that role (no matter how small), but rather the narrator. On that note, I’ll release you from my rabbit hole, while I continue to muddle along down here.


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