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Jocelyn (The Reading World)

I love to read and can get very attached to my opinions, but recently I've been learning not to completely lose my head when people disagree with me, so feel safe to argue with me whenever you wish ;) 


Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility  - Jane Austen

Hmmm. So Sense and Sensibility wasn't quite what I expected. There's something kind of different about it from the other Austen novels I've read so far (Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Northanger Abbey). I think in general there's less of a sense of permanence to the characters--where the other novels Austen will show examples of bad marriage decisions and characters basically stuck in their situations, like Charlotte Lucas and Maria Bertram, relationships really tend to shift in this book. There's less of an emphasis on social propriety and more of the emotional perspectives behind all the characters. People have a lot more room to maneuver according to their preferences in this story, though of course, that doesn't necessarily mean they make better decisions. In spite how emotionally messy this book can get (which by the way also totally took me by surprise--it made me realize how contrived the plotting of P&P and NA could sometimes be, compared to S&S), just about everyone gets happy endings, and pretty realistic ones at that.

Except Willoughby, I suppose, but Austen lets us know he manages to deal with it okay.

(show spoiler)

Anyway, I think from what I see at least, S&S also gets slightly different reactions from readers. Since the novel is explicitly trying to answer a very fundamental human question about how we approach our lives (emotion vs. logic), there's a lot of room for debate about whether Austen manages to say anything important about it. I guess it's because Sense and Sensibility is a little less structured so the accuracy of the storyline conclusions is more ambiguous. Specifically, a lot of people pointed out the marriage between Colonel Brandon and Marianne--the thematic conclusion makes sense but their relationship doesn't, apparently. Probably this is because we don't actually see them interact a lot for much of the novel. I for one did believe that Colonel Brandon was a pretty well developed character. He's first introduced to us as a person with a sort of reserved personality that hints at something a little deeper--and indeed, we get our expected tragic backstory, which for me added a lot to our understanding of his psychological development. And even though we don't explicitly get Brandon trying to woo Marianne's affections right on the page like we usually do with Austen's lead romantic pairs, I think Brandon's eventual "suitability" as a partner does really shine through, and not just in the way that makes sense on the surface--that he's emotionally and financially stable enough (which Willoughby isn't) to balance out Marianne's more passionate nature. I think it's also because he knows exactly what Marianne has gone through and understands what makes her tick as a person. Like Marianne, he's gone through heartbreak and sorrow and has dealt with it remarkably maturely. He's watched Marianne from the beginning of her relationship with Willoughby and seen how she's slowly come to terms with the fact that her perception of the world is wrong and self-destructive. There's an element of shared experience that isn't there for a lot of Austen couples, e.g. Henry and Catherine, whose relationship I did find a tad unequal and condescending on Henry's part.

If there is a less than satisfactorily developed character in S&S, I would say it's Edward Ferrars. I'm not sure why Austen skimped so much on him, but I did feel like he was there mainly to 1) give Elinor a ton of emotional pain and 2) be the one good guy in a family of annoying social climbers. His emotional backstory with Lucy Steele doesn't make a lot of sense, and one would be inclined to think that if Lucy wasn't the selfish villain Austen makes her out to be, there very possibly could have been some real repercussions there. That potential crisis is averted because Austen invites us to hate Lucy, but it doesn't make total sense if you stop and think about it a little bit and treat these two characters like actual people. I think this is the part where critics of S&S are kind of right--because Austen is attempting here to get behind the characters and show them from the inside, this part comes off as inconsistent and hypocritical in an otherwise seamlessly written story.

However, as always, it's clear that Austen has an excellent grasp on her sense of purpose, and in spite of those stumbles I do understand that it was necessary to provide a lot of the novel's drama and plot. I just didn't like it. In general S&S is great because it can be surprisingly subtle at times in ways that I never thought Austen was capable of. While we all can agree Wickham is awful and probably deserved everything he got, there's something almost tragic about Willoughby's story--how he first sees Marianne as a plaything but ultimately, through changes in his situation that he never foresaw, is forced to confront the consequences of his actions and be punished for it with a loveless marriage. In that way, his character development is remarkably similar to Marianne's in the sense that he's forced to revise his perception of the world in a particularly painful process. Then there's Mrs. Jennings, who I would have thought Austen would deride because she doesn't have the wit or self-awareness that Austen usually gives to the characters she approves of, but who even Marianne admits she treated rudely. Most of the major characters are forced to admit they're wrong at some point, and not in the way Elizabeth Bennet does, as a minor misstep in their otherwise impeccable judgment--but in their entire attitude toward the world. Somehow I find this more organic approach much more fulfilling than Austen's usual self-satisfied wit. It's so easy to find a little of yourself in every one of the characters, which makes it all the more humbling when they reach that point when they realize their life philosophies just don't work and have to change themselves to keep living their lives. Not that Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey aren't great of course. There's always something enjoyable about that strong sense of structure which Austen applies so well to those novels. But if Austen seems cold and rigid to you sometimes, or if she's a little too one-sided in her way of doing things (even if she's totally accurate, which she usually is), well--Sense and Sensibility is the way to go.