Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve, and when she falls in love with the dashing but unsuitable John Willoughby she ignores her sister Elinor’s warning that her impulsive behaviour leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Meanwhile, Elinor, always sensitive to social convention, is struggling to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Through their parallel experience of love–and it’s threatened loss–the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love.
I mentioned in a previous post that I balked at the idea of reading Austen for many years based on my experience with film adaptations of her works, which, at the time, I found to be too romanticized for my taste. I finally decided to give it a go and as it turns out my previous notions about Austen were entirely misguided. Years ago when I watched some of the film adaptations, I was not able to pick up on the subtle irony that makes her work so enjoyable. I will be re-watching and reviewing all available adaptations soon, so I will wait to comment on them further until then.
Psychoanalyzing Jane Austen
What changed my mind about reading Austen’s novels? I recently read that Austen was an INTJ (that’s Myers-Briggs speak for Introverted iNtuitive Thinking Judging—one of sixteen personality types). An INTJ myself, and knowing how unusual it can be to encounter other female INTJs, I became much more interested in her work. As I read, I quickly realized Elinor is an INTJ too. It’s not surprising that Austen would create a protagonist similar to herself so early in her writing career. Austen also reveals her dominant rational side in the way she delivers heightened scenes of emotion second-hand, encouraging readers to examine situations objectively (my paraphrase of Ros Ballaster’s words in his introduction).
I would expect no less from an INTJ than a complex and engaging plot, full of twists and turns. Sense and Sensibility lacks for nothing in that department. Even my familiarity with the story did not make it any less of a page-turner.
I love Austen’s writing style, wit, and almost imperceptible sarcasm. My favorite line in the book is when Elinor thinks Willoughby, upon reading his final letter to Marianne, to be “deep in hardened villainy.” I also appreciate her vocabulary, full of delicious words like sagacious, parsimony, and sedulous, which inspired me to create a Pinterest board dedicated to vocabulary enrichment.
Elinor, of course, is the character I most identify with. (I could not help thinking though, that if Anne Shirley were to visit the world of Sense and Sensibility she would comment that Eleanor with the ea is so much more alluring than Elinor with just an i.) I always enjoy characters with comically exaggerated qualities (one of the reasons I love Dickens so much), so Mrs. Jennings and Sir John Middleton are also favorites.
My Analysis of the Original Introduction (Read: The Boring Part)
As much as I loved the story, my favorite part of the book was actually the original Penguin Classics introduction by Tony Tanner, tacked onto the end just before the emendations appendix. I read the introduction at the beginning of the book as I usually do and almost skipped this one. Thankfully my obsessive compulsiveness about reading books cover to cover kicked in or I might have missed a brilliant analysis of the novel. It was so good that I broke my rule about marking up books and liberally underlined my way through it. The rest of this post will more or less be a response to this introduction.
Sense vs. Sensibility
Tanner begins by defending Sense and Sensibility against the critique of Austen scholar Walton Litz, who argues that Austen’s use of antithesis (sense vs. sensibility) is the book’s primary weakness because it “make[s] against the flexibility, and that sense of the unclassifiable in people and their actions, which are desirable in a novel.” This use of antithesis was common in eighteenth-century moralistic fiction and—as a layperson unfamiliar with British literature from that time—I find it rather quaint. Tanner acknowledges that Litz’s point is valid, but moves beyond it saying that, “in regarding Sense and Sensibility as an eighteenth-century matrix containing, as it were, the embryo of a nineteenth-century novel which struggles but fails to be born, I think we miss a lot that the book actually contains.” He goes on to say,
The fact that Marianne has plenty of sense and Elinor is by no means devoid of sensibility should alone convince us that Jane Austen was already enough of a novelist to know that nothing comes unmixed, that qualities which may exist in pure isolation as abstractions only occur within people in combination, perhaps in confusion, with other qualities, in configurations which can be highly problematical.
This point is interesting to me because, as an INTJ, Austen was no doubt fascinated by this antithesis as a purely abstract idea, even while acknowledging that it does not exist that way in reality. Referencing the exchange between Marianne and Edward in volume 1, chapter 16 about the landscape, wherein Marianne admires the grandeur of it (sensibility) and Edward notices only the dirtiness of it (sense), Tanner writes that Austen “could see that there was ‘grandeur’ as well as ‘dirt’ in the natural scene, and a delight in nature only slightly more moderate than Marianne’s is in evidence throughout Jane Austen’s work. Tanner later says,
It is abundantly clear that she put quite as much of herself into Marianne as into Elinor, so from one point of view we can imagine this to be a psychological parable written partly at least for her own benefit—the two sisters adding up to one divided self.
Tanner’s hypothesis that Austen used Sense and Sensibility as a vehicle to self-analyze, whether consciously or unconsciously, makes a lot of sense. She detached herself from her own complexities and projected them onto the page. In so doing, she was able to anatomize and categorize the different aspects of her personality, making them easier to examine objectively (a very INTJ thing to do).
Screening vs. Screaming
Following his analysis of the novel’s primary antithesis, Tanner moves on to the core of the introduction, juxtaposing the themes of screening and screaming, which appear frequently throughout the book. When influenced by strong emotion, Marianne usually reacts violently (screaming). On the other hand, Elinor rarely betrays her feelings and regularly covers for Marianne when her outbursts offend others (screening). Presenting both characters in a way that elicits empathy from readers, Austen demonstrates her understanding and even admiration for those able to express their inner selves without reservation. Still, she is a rational. Tanner concludes—
…while she saw with unsparing clarity just how much cruelty, repression and malice the social forms made possible, how much misery they generated, she knew that a world in which everyone was totally sincere, telling always the truth for the sake of their own feelings and never any lies for the feelings of others, would be simply an anarchy, everybody’s personal ‘form’ cancelling out everybody else’s.
The INTJ is very private and has little regard for social conventions. In this age of TMI, those two characteristics don’t contradict each other. In Austen’s day, disregarding social convention meant speaking honestly. And so we witness Elinor (and through her, Austen) desiring a release from archaic social structures, yet unwilling to betray her true feelings to achieve that end.
Tanner spends the last few pages of the introduction puzzling over the way Austen concludes Marianne’s story—which he considers to be the weakest part of the book. He says, “It is as though Jane Austen had gone out of her way to show that romantic feelings are utterly non-viable in society.” I think that’s a little extreme. I think that Austen is striving for a sense of balance as Elinor, the rational one, achieves the ideal she didn’t think possible and Marianne, the idealist, finds happiness in a relationship anchored in common sense.
Tanner, too, believes that Austen was seeking balance with Marianne’s ending, but he takes a dimmer view of it, saying, “Her energy is sacrificed to the overriding geometry.” Perhaps, but I don’t see that as a bad thing, especially considering how much Austen indulges Marianne’s flights of fancy throughout the book. The ending is Austen asserting her rational side, and it’s rather fun to watch. Of course, I also think Mary should have married Richard Carlisle in Downton Abbey, so you might want to ignore my opinion on this one.
The Bottom Line
I have a great many more thoughts on the subject, but it is beyond the scope of this review, which is too long as it is. In conclusion, I thoroughly enjoyed Sense and Sensibility. If you’re already a Jane Austen fan but haven’t read Tony Tanner’s introduction, I highly recommend doing so. It greatly enriched my experience with the novel.
Have you read Sense and Sensibility? What did you think?