Literary Tales Literature

Literary Summary: Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

Jane Austen’s heroines follow this spirit of theology laid forth in Christianity. All of her heroines begin their tales atomized and alone. None are married. Some have even been unmarried for a long time. Others are lovesick, desiring love at any cost—even to the point of bringing misery onto themselves and others. Others yet think themselves impervious to love, immune to Cupid’s arrow. Austen’s many heroines all experience transformation and closure through the course of their respective stories and story arcs. “Change-resisting” Highbury, contra Margaret Drabble, does not win at all. In fact, change is the great metamorphic spirit that defines Austen’s novels. 

Each of our heroines must come to reform. The errors of their way must be exposed, shattered, but then redeemed. Unlike the hyper romantics who celebrated destruction and death as the highest manifestation of romantic love, Austen allows destruction but then digs out of the rubble to rebuild. Destruction isn’t how Austen ends her works. Life is the proper ending for Austen precisely because love triumphs.

C.S. Lewis, that other great English writer, famously said that lovers see each other face-to-face. Friends, by contrast, stand side-by-side. Lovers, then, see each other’s gaze; they peer into the eyes of the lover and enter the seat of their lover’s soul through the highway of the eyes.

Marianne is, as mentioned, a romantic sentimentalist. Her concern for Elinor isn’t that Edward Ferrars doesn’t love her, per se, it is that Edward doesn’t take an enthusiastic interest in Elinor’s artistic talents. A more loving man would be gawking over her talents, the youthful and inexperienced Marianne lambasts. Marianne’s conception of love is nothing but pure emotion. It isn’t surprising that she is swept up by the dashing eroticism of John Willoughby.

But Marianne is never truly face-to-face with her supposed knight in shining armor. While Willoughby rescues her from the side of the road having sprained her ankle on a walk, their burning romantic hearts are not sealed through a face-to-face encounter but through an act of intentional seduction. John Willoughby sooths Marianne from behind, as she rests on a couch, and she cuts off a lock of her hair to give him as a memento of their supposed love. Their romantic encounters are defined by impetuous action and emotion. Then Willoughby, just as quickly as he rapturously entered Marianne’s life, leaves.

From back-body seduction to letter writing, Marianne convinces herself she is in love with Willoughby and he her, despite an overcoming of sorrow upon his sudden departure. She cries and cries and cries, “They saw nothing of Marianne till dinner time, when she entered the room and took her place at the table without saying a word. Her eyes were red and swollen; and it seemed as if her tears were even then restrained with difficulty. She avoided the looks of them all, could neither eat nor speak, and after some time, on her mother’s silently pressing her hand with tender compassion, her small degree of fortitude was quite overcome; she burst into tears and left the room.” But Marianne sooths herself and indulges in a new phantasmagoric romanticism through her many letters to Willoughby. Again, he is neither beside her as a friend or face-to-face as a lover.

When she has a face-to-face encounter with him, in London one day while out for a walk, he spurns her. Willoughby is, of course, flirting with another woman. Dejected, Marianne attempts to coax Elinor into grabbing Willoughby’s attention for her.

Marianne’s sentimental romanticism nearly kills her. When Willoughby returns her locket of hair, admitting to just playful flirting and nothing more, Marianne is heartbroken. She wallows in her own tears and her health becomes sickly. She is on the point of death.

Elinor’s good sense, in contrast to Marianne’s sentimentalism, helps heal her. Elinor is both beside her and talks to her, face-to-face, as a loving sister does. Marianne eventually reforms her sentimentalist ways and embraces the good sense of her sister in marrying Colonel Brandon and enjoys her life as a result of her reformation. Yet the love of Colonel Brandon was visible from the start. Colonel Brandon loves Marianne from the first moment he sees her. He is not enraptured by her body or hair, but her face. She has a radiance that Colonel Brandon sees but Marianne, still the impetuous blind youth she is, cannot see past Colonel Brandon’s older age. Love, however, reforms Marianne’s and unites these two souls together in blessed felicity.

*This reflection on Sense and Sensibility was part of a larger essay on Jane Austen, first published at VoegelinView, 10 May 2021.

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Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.

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