Before I began reading this novel, sense and sensibility were two words that were almost interchangeable. I knew that there was some subtlety between the two definitions, but seeing sense and sensibility in action and embodied by Elinor and Marianne respectively made the definitions more clear to me. Once I saw this pair however, I began to see pairs all over the novel of couples or sisters playing the part of either sense or sensibility.
In the first chapter, the personalities of the two sisters are depicted as complementary opposites. Elinor is described as “the qualified… counselor of her mother…. her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them” (Austen 3). Marianne on the other hand is “sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows her joys, could have no moderation” (Austen 3). Elinor embodies the logical and practical side of sense while her sister illustrates the sensitivity to emotion that is defined by sensibility.
The most important pair that mirrors the sense and sensibility motif is the Steele sisters. “Lucy and Anne Steele together with Lady Middleton and Mrs. Palmer function as parodic reflections of Elinor and Marianne. These reflections are both dim and distorted… [but] not if we focus on Elinor’s capacity for self-control and Marianne’s contrasting inability to control her emotions” (Brown 61). The personality traits I highlighted earlier are heightened by the similarities between the two sets of sisters. Initially, The Dashwood sisters are wary of going to meet with the Steeles because they did not know anything about their character since Sir John is given to exaggeration. When they do meet there are obvious resemblances between the two sets of sisters. Elinor and Lucy both are forced to cover for their sister’s forwardness in conversation or in social situations; Marianne and Anne “both have a tendency to speak with thoughtless exaggeration, to the chagrin of their sisters” (Brown 64). Elinor is given the “task of telling lies when politeness required” (Austen 81) and Lucy similarly is forced to apologize for her sister being impudent or “too familiar” when talking about their beaux and Norland (Austen 82).
Both Elinor and Lucy seem to be more practical and smarter than their sisters in the respect that they are more guarded with their words and actions rather than acting emotionally or impulsively. So far, the similarities between Marianne and Anne are sparser. However, from their conversations in chapter 21, it is obvious that Marianne and Anne are quicker to emotional type outburst as the definition of sensibility suggests. Brown also points to Elinor and Lucy having the same hair color as another mark signifying the similarity between the two girls which is how Elinor and Marianne mistakenly believed that Edward was wearing Elinor’s lock of hair (62).
The most humorous pair that portrays sense and sensibility in the novel is Mr. and Mrs. Palmer because they are such an exaggerated depiction of the title. Mr. Palmer to a fault represents sense. Like Elinor, he appears more reserved in public but also cynical. Mrs. Palmer, representing sensibility is a gushing, “very silly woman” (Austen 75) who constantly laughs and says “Mr. Palmer is so droll” (Austen 74, 76). This husband and wife serve as a warning to Elinor and Marianne. The traits of sense and sensibility when taken to an extreme can be dangerous.
The relationships of the pairs that depicted throughout the novel so far I’m sure will play a role in the second half of the book. I will be interested to see if Jane Austen begins to show us that whether embodying either sense or sensibility is more fruitful. I would also want to finish the reading before I begin to decide if and how Elinor and Marianne are similar to the sisters from Pride and Prejudice.
[Note: the Brown book I am referring to is Devoted Sisters: Representations of the Sister Relationship in Nineteenth-Century British and American Literature.]