2012 JASNA Essay Contest Third Place Winner College/University Division
Elinor’s Duty: Ideology as Groundwork for Manipulation and Resistance in Sense and Sensibility
That the characters of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility could possess dramatically differing definitions of the word “duty” may seem on the surface implausible, given the essential role this concept plays in underpinning the societal structure they all inhabit. Many of the characters themselves, in fact, seem to assume that their private definitions are shared by everyone they encounter, and frequently uphold their unique models of duty as arguments for the courses of action they want others to take. Invariably in such cases, however, disappointment ensues. Mrs. Ferrars, for instance, in attempting to break her son away from an unwanted engagement, finds him unmoved by his family’s notions of “[d]uty, affection, every thing” (278); to her indignation, nothing she says can induce him to alter his course where his ethical code simply does not match hers. Similarly, though invoking a very different set of values than those of Mrs. Ferrars, Elinor’s repeated defense of what she terms “duty” meets with a cold reception from Marianne and Willoughby. The ideological splintering does not end there; as events conspire to reveal, Marianne’s theories are as far divided from Willoughby’s as those of both are from Elinor’s. Fundamental disagreement over the purpose of duty, or in other words, over to whom, exactly, duty is to be paid, surfaces again and again as the members of the Dashwoods’ acquaintance come into confrontation with one another, accentuating the idea that the nature of one’s existence on both the social and the individual level is determined by far more than material circumstances alone. While many of the concepts of duty entertained by Sense and Sensibility’s varied assortment of characters prove in practice to be nothing more than extensions of their own desire to control others, or at best half-baked moral codes too flimsy to stand against outside influence, Elinor’s mature sense of duty ultimately provides her with a sturdy defense against the attempts of those around her to manipulate her behavior.
The cruelly selfish actions of many of the novel’s peripheral characters expose in them an underlying philosophical stance that reduces duty to little more than a means toward the achievement of one’s exclusively personal desires. Sycophants like Lucy Steele and her sister tender their attentions only to those from whom they hope to extract some kind of material or social good, courting the preference, for example, of Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood with a view toward entering into their family and its property, while in the company of others scrambling after invitations and compliments of all kinds. Though in most cases, this plan of behavior results innocuously enough in smug self-congratulation on both sides of the exchange, the harmfulness of such a philosophy becomes apparent when Lucy knowingly bestows her attentions where they are completely undesired, empowered to do so by her skillful manipulation of codes of morality she recognizes in others but declines to apply to herself. She has no sense of duty toward Edward, despite all he suffers for her; as Elinor observes after the jarringly abrupt elopement with Robert, Lucy, for her part, had “lost nothing by continuing the engagement, for she has proved that it fettered neither her inclination nor her actions” (372). Such utter disregard for the emotional well-being of others, along with a knowledge of the moral principles by which the victims of her machinations regulate their conduct, grants Lucy Steele considerable power of a certain kind. Even though she lacks pecuniary or hierarchical clout, her ability to manipulate the network of ideologies she finds among her acquaintance enables her to exert an unwelcome influence over characters in many ways her superior, imprisoning Edward in an increasingly painful engagement and even confining Elinor for a time to a silence that gnaws at her heart.
Lucy is not the only character in Sense and Sensibility to utilize concepts of duty as mere tools to direct the actions of those around her. Fanny Dashwood’s demonstration of this skill reaches truly horrendous heights as she convinces her husband to neglect in the name of duty a promise made to his dying father by not only depriving his near relations of their home, but actually declining to help his step-mother and half-sisters in any way financially at all. There is much of Lucy Steele’s approach to life in John Dashwood, “a man who, once free from the manners of the past, will be guided by a purely self-seeking rationality” (Kaufmann 399). While Dashwood, however, unlike Lucy, is not completely untroubled by doubts as to the nature of his duties, Fanny, “a strong caricature” of her husband (Austen 37), knows their selfishness for what it is. Her self-awareness and his appalling lack of it pave the way for Fanny to guide her husband down the path of pure self-interest while fostering in him the comforting fantasy of following another code of duty altogether. Like Lucy, Fanny takes hold of models of morality extraneous to her own only in order to manipulate those around her, achieving her personal ends at the expense of others, and John, however self-deceivingly, follows suit.
In contrast to such superficial visions of social interaction, Elinor’s moral sense leads her to believe that everyone within her influence holds some claim on her consideration, and the civility she pays them all does not depend on the quality of information she has as to their character or effects. Her philosophy as to the function of duty is truly unique within the framework of the novel, and plays a key part in the preservation of her independent spirit in the face of efforts to modify, subjugate, or eliminate her will. The only person who controls Elinor is Elinor, and she is no manipulator of other people, either: where she hopes for change, it is not the kind of change that can be achieved by a mere reshaping of the visible or superficial aspect of relationships.
Susan Morgan argues that Elinor, who possesses “both deep affections and the willingness to control the desires of her heart for the sake of the people she loves,” constitutes “the moral center of Sense and Sensibility” (191), and her level behavior throughout the novel certainly receives justification as events unfold. Her courteous conduct toward Mrs. Jennings, for instance, a woman who seems at first crude and inconsequential, allows the Dashwoods’ relationship with this lady to grow until even Marianne recognizes the true goodness beneath her uncouth manners. When Elinor displays only the same friendly propriety toward Willoughby, despite his “more than common gracefulness” (74), her mother and sister berate her caution, but again, it proves wiser in the end than their much-flaunted candor. Besides, Elinor is, in her own more intelligent way, as truly candid as the romantics of her family. Though declining to deliver her moment-by-moment impressions as pronouncements ex cathedra, she proceeds with a steady decorum that gives her true feelings time to fully develop before being exposed to all the world.
The unflagging politeness with which Elinor behaves toward all her acquaintance actually saves her and her loved ones from many sufferings to which they could easily have been subjected. As Morgan observes, the uncertainty Elinor feels over Edward’s attachment to her, a hesitation which preserves her family from more painful scenes like the final meeting of Marianne and Willoughby, “comes from her power to see Edward independently of herself. This is how Marianne fails to see Willoughby …” (191). In viewing the world in terms of herself, Marianne does not strengthen her own individuality, but rather weakens it to a state so brittle that in the face of information contradictory to what she believes of her own state, she—as she herself puts it—nearly self-destructs (Austen 352). Elinor, on the other hand, exercises a fuller awareness of others, and therefore of herself, that can withstand the shock of unpleasant revelations. Her conduct lays down a pattern of responsible behavior for the reader: since “we cannot know what goes on inside other people’s heads and hearts,” if we want to do our duty by them and promote happiness for ourselves, “[w]e must begin, as Elinor does, with doubt” (Kaufmann 391). Although Elinor’s dutiful attention to everyone, no matter what her opinion of their individual merit happens to be at the time, does not always receive the recompense of making “real friends” of them down the line, “politeness must be a general principle of behavior if it is to reflect truly the assumption that perception can be wrong” (Morgan 203).
Elinor’s model of duty is more than a system of probabilities or precautions, however. It goes beyond the consideration of what each person may deserve, even in theory, because of their character and actions. Hearing of the blamable part the girl Eliza played in her own seduction, Elinor still censures Willoughby sternly, “‘Do not think yourself excused by any weakness, any natural defect of understanding on her side, in the wanton cruelty so evident on yours’” (331). Her disapproval of his conduct is unsurprising; what is perhaps more remarkable is the way she firmly holds her own self accountable to the essence of her argument—that one’s duty toward another human being does not depend on that other’s fulfillment of their responsibilities. Once again, Elinor uses “the rules of propriety” as a means of compensating for the frequent inaccuracy of human judgment (Nardin), but the general reserve with which she observes her neighbors does not impede her altogether from forming judgments on one character or another that she considers final. Kauffman argues that the concept of judgment, rather than simply suggesting “the power of discrimination,” to Elinor, “signals a call before the tribunal of informal social justice” so that over the course of several encounters, “Lady Middleton, Sir John Dashwood and Lucy Steele are all arraigned, tried, and found guilty” (386). Still, although Elinor determines beyond a doubt that Lucy has not earned her polite consideration through any merit of deed or character, she holds to her promise to share with no one the secret the unworthy woman has maliciously divulged to her. Her sense of duty toward Lucy, then, depends on more than the value of Lucy herself.
Where she does not discover real worth in the people she knows, Elinor applies her concept of duty to idealized versions of them. While recognizing the deficiencies of every character in reality, she envisions a sort of evolving utopian scenario in which they all react to the goods and evils of the past as they should, and regulates her conduct toward them according to this scheme. Those who do not share Elinor’s idealism, from Marianne to Mrs. Jennings, cannot understand her gracious deportment toward individuals so undeserving in themselves, and this divergence of opinion leads to situations such as the distressing visit Elinor pays on her own to her brother’s London house, even though “no one could really have less inclination” for it, and even though it means running “the risk of a tête-à-tête with a woman, whom neither [Marianne nor Mrs. Jennings] had so much reason to dislike” (305). If “no one” is thought to derive any satisfaction from the visit, Elinor can only be making it for the sake of someone who does not exist. In this instance and in others, as when she decorates screens as a parting gift for a sister-in-law preparing to turn her out of her home, Elinor extends the hand of civility to her relations, not because they carry out their roles properly, but because they occupy those roles at all.
In her sense of duty, then, Elinor, and not Marianne, proves to be the most idealistic character in Sense and Sensibility. Marianne, “not … more passionate than her sister, but … less imaginative” (Morgan 195), visualizes duty as dependent on her estimation of those to whom she would pay it. Thinking, even after her supposed reformation, in these mercenary terms, Marianne laments, for instance, her former lack of courtesy toward Mrs. Jennings, not because such behavior would have been wrong, as Elinor thinks, even if Mrs. Jennings had been all Marianne took her for, but because Marianne has learned to value aspects of Mrs. Jennings’ character that she once ignored. Marianne’s “duty neglected” is, in her eyes, nothing more than a lack of proper reciprocation; she repaid a caring woman’s “unceasing kindness” with “ungrateful contempt” (Austen 352), and, even worse, through her lack of penetration, caused pain to a sister who deserved her love because of her good nature (353). Though there is truth to Marianne’s rationalization of duty, she does not incorporate every part of Elinor’s more extensive vision, and because of this, remains more vulnerable to the influence of changeable circumstance.
To do her justice, Marianne is far from alone in her failure to grasp Elinor’s powerful conceptualization of duty. Even Edward, who seems at first to be enacting Elinor’s ideals in holding firm to his promise to the malicious Lucy, later confesses that “he had always believed [Lucy] to be a well-disposed, good-hearted girl, and thoroughly attached to himself” and that “[n]othing but such a persuasion could have prevented him from putting an end to the engagement” (371). With a moral code whose shape depends so greatly on the nature of the person to whom duties are addressed, it is unlikely that Elinor’s argument that Edward through “‘always doing his duty … must become [very happy]’” would have been validated in his marriage to Lucy. In her own case, however, with her self-sustaining code, she can inform her sister that it was “‘[b]y always feeling I was doing my duty’” (275) she found the strength to weather every horrible incident flung her way, and to stand firm against attempts made to misguide her steps. Though her idealism leads one character after another to tell her, in their varied ways, “‘Ah, Elinor … Your reasoning is very good, but it is founded on ignorance of human nature’” (307), Elinor continues confidently down the path that she has chosen. In the end, it is her caring, thoughtful vision that brings the greatest happiness possible to those she loves.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: Penguin, 1986. Print.
Kaufmann, David. “Law and Propriety, Sense and Sensibility: Austen on the Cusp of Modernity.” ELH 59.2 (1992): 385-408. JSTOR. Web.
Morgan, Susan. “Polite Lies: The Veiled Heroine of Sense and Sensibility.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 31.2 (1976): 188-205. JSTOR. Web.
Nardin, Jane. “Propriety versus Morality in Jane Austen’s Novels.” Persuasions 10 (1988): 70-75. Web.