Oh, Sense and Sensibility…
Best synopsis ever.
There are a lot of things that I enjoy about Sense and Sensibility, and an equal number that I find troubling or downright irritating, but it is still my fourth favorite Austen novel and still ranks quite high on my list of all the books I’ve ever read. As with most of Austen’s novels, my chief enjoyment is in the antics of the wide cast of secondary characters and in Austen’s witty, if harsh, take on those antics. Who could not love the delightfully awful Mrs. Ferrars, Robert Ferrars (toothpick cases are important, after all), and John and Fanny Dashwood? And what about Mr. and Mrs. Palmer? I challenge any one to resist their charms.
Regarding the things I find troubling, most of them revolve around Elinor and Marianne. Elinor seems to be the chief heroine of the piece, even though nobody much likes her, especially when she is in one of her disapproving moods. Unlike Marianne, whose happy ending is sort of a throwaway and is actually Col. Brandon’s happy ending, after all (pun totally intended), Elinor achieves the full arc of her story. My difficulty is that Elinor doesn’t go on any kind of internal journey throughout the story, so while I’m always happy that she gets her Edward (who doesn’t change much, either), it isn’t as satisfying as when Lizzy gets her Darcy, or Catherine her Henry, or Anne her Wentworth.
Can anyone really relate to Elinor as a character? I certainly can’t, not because she’s so emotionally constipated (I am, too), but because she always behaves with the utmost propriety. While I can comprehend showing a brave face and drawing as little attention as possible to one’s distress, I can’t imagine enduring all that Elinor does without at least a few episodes of histrionics or angry jazz hands. Elinor’s adherence to strict propriety perhaps should, in being the exact opposite of her sister’s and mother’s wild expression of sensibility, be considered just as immoderate and intemperate as their behavior is. But that’s not the case in this book. Instead of Elinor being able to learn anything throughout the course of the story (instead of her story being able to have some point or purpose), she is instead depicted as the model for proper lady behavior.
“I am not wishing him too much good,” said Marianne at last with a sigh, “when I wish his secret reflections may be no more unpleasant than my own. He will suffer enough in them.”
“Do you compare your conduct with his?”
“No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”
Elinor learns no lessons (rather like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, come to think of it), and Sense and Sensibility is less interesting a book as a result. I am not suggesting that her behavior is not model, but it does seem to me that a character who behaves perfectly on every occasion can have little claim to being realistically portrayed. Further, if a character behaves so well all the time that no reader can identify with her, how can the reader be more than passively interested in her story? I would like Sense and Sensibility much more if Edward and Elinor’s story received the treatment that Col. Brandon and Marianne’s does in the book and if the latter couple got more page time to show how their understanding came about. Theirs is the more interesting story, right?
Given I mentioned that there were things I find irritating about the book, I should, at least, mention them.
- Why does Margaret exist as a character? As far as I can tell, she serves no purpose at all.
- Elinor recognizes that Marianne is Mrs. Dashwood’s favorite daughter by rather a large margin, but she accepts this parental failing with all the philosophy of a totally disinterested party–except she isn’t one. Of all Elinor’s unlikely traits, this one strikes me as being the least realistic. Who wouldn’t be hurt or angered to be so slighted by one’s parent? But Elinor in all her perfection accepts what love comes her way and feels justified in the righteousness of expecting no more. Ugh!
For those who are participating in this Jane Austen January (and for those who aren’t–and here’s a shout-out to the lurkers: HOLLA!), I’d love to know what you think of Sense and Sensibility. Theories as to why Margaret exists are also very welcome.