The Symbol of Woman Power and Potential in 'Sense and Sensibility'

In Sense and Sensibility, Austen makes use of the legal doctrines of both primogeniture and entail to show the methods of controlling and restricting inheritance which serve to make explicit the superiority of the eldest son. Through the use of primogeniture, Austen demonstrates that although women belong in the home according to the cult of domesticity, they have no claim to it. In this way, women have no real space in which they can fully exist. Thus, women do not have access to full personhood and therefore they must attempt to navigate a society where they are not full people but not non-people. This want for a space of belonging could explain why women in Austen are often aligned with the social experience of being in a carriage as this acts as a liminal space in which women can have full personhood.

In the opening of her study on Sense and Sensibility, Marilyn Butler explains the genre of the didactic novel: “The didactic novel which compares the beliefs and conduct of two protagonists—with the object of finding one invariably right and the other invariably wrong—seems to have been particularly fashionable during the years 1795–1796.”  Sense and Sensibility can be seen as the perfect representation of the didactic novel, as highlighted by the dichotomy set up in the title. These didactic novels tended to be formulaic, as one viewpoint always won over the other. The critic Marilyn Butler emphasises that Sense and Sensibility is “unremittingly didactic,” and she goes on to describe how “all the novelists who choose the contrast format do so in order to make an explicit ideological point”. 

Austen uses the juxtaposition of Elinor and Marianne to examine the dichotomous ideologies of rational thought (Sense) and romantic thought (Sensibility). Elinor is characterised by her “strength of understanding” that has led to her becoming a “counsellor” to her mother and sister. Elinor’s positive attributes are intrinsically linked to other characters in terms of how she can help them or even “counteract” the excesses of others. Elinor is also described in terms of her “excellent heart” and the narrator notes that “her feelings were strong”. However, unlike her sister, Elinor is capable of governing her feelings so that she may hide them: “she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn; and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught”. This is illustrated in chapter 22 when Elinor discovers that Lucy Steele and Edward Ferrars are engaged: “a composure of voice, under which was concealed an emotion and distress beyond any thing she had ever felt before. She was mortified, shocked, confounded.”. This highlights that Elinor is capable of experiencing extreme emotions as Marianne does, however, it is her ability to “govern them” that sets the sisters apart . Elinor is contrasted with the heroines of gothic and sentimental tradition as she is governed by reason and is not prone to flights of fancy: “she stood firm in incredulity, and felt in no danger of an hysterical fit, or a swoon”. Conversely, Marianne possesses an excess of passion and sensibility. These traits are often criticised by feminist writers, such as Wollstonecraft, as they are seen as signs of weakness. 

Mary Wollstonecraft believes that women like Marianne who have an excess of sensibility will “become the prey of their senses, delicately termed sensibility and are blown about by every momentary gust of feeling” . However, Wollstonecraft is not calling for complete removal of sensibility, she believes that reason and feelings should inform one another. According to Johns, Austen follows this model as the Miss Dashwoods’ interactions with their respective suitors “teach the passionate sister to rein in her emotions and the grave one to loosen up” and in doing so “they both achieve true freedom and happiness”. In this way, feminine autonomy is achieved through Wollstonecraft’s ideals of rational education and balance. Thus, Austen does not completely follow the conventions of the didactic genre as she offers a divergence from the formulaic pattern: “Sense and Sensibility corrects the typical didactic emphasis by refusing to choose between Marianne and Elinor”. From the first chapter of the novel, the dichotomy of sense and sensibility is called into question as the narrative shows that Marianne possesses sense as well as sensibility and that Elinor has “strong feelings” as well as her sense of composure. In this way, the binary of sense and sensibility is set up by Austen simply to be deconstructed.

Austen is most well-known for her portrayals of the upper-class English society of the early nineteenth century. The majority of Austen’s novels deal with the dependence of women on marriage in order to obtain security in terms of social standing and financial stability. The women of Austen have a limited sense of autonomy due to both political and social issues. Political and legal concepts such as inheritance and coverture have a negative effect on women’s ability to possess money or property and social issues such as one’s upper-class social standing prevents women from being able to work and earn money. In this way, the Dashwood women were in a dangerous situation after the death of Mr Henry Dashwood as they did not have the autonomy to work nor to access the property that had been inherited by Mr Dashwood. 

Overall, Austen and Wollstonecraft criticise the dependency of women on men: “Girls, who have been thus weakly educated, are often cruelly left by their parents without any provision; and, of course, are dependent on, not only the reason, but the bounty of their brothers”. According to Wollstonecraft, allowing women access to an education in reason will provide them with a greater sense of autonomy. Wollstonecraft argues that women are currently “made slaves” by their own excess of sensibility. Wollstonecraft suggests that an education in reason, either formally or socially, will allow the sentimental woman to find a balance of reason and sentiment. This is seen in Sense and Sensibility when Marianne resolves on her deathbed to learn how to control her emotions: “I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it, my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. They shall no longer worry others, nor torture myself”. Both sisters achieve a moderation between sense and sensibility that allows them to find their place in society and marry the men that they love whilst preserving a “strong family affection”. In this way, Elinor and Marianne become symbols of the happiness that may be found in the egalitarian marriages advocated for by Wollstonecraft and Austen.  

07 July 2022
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