Persuasions #12, 1990                                                                                                                                            Pages 134-138


Winning Essay, 1990 JASNA Literary Competition


Dangerous Words and Silent Lovers in Sense and Sensibility



University of Chicago, Chicago, IL


Of all Jane Austen’s novels, Sense and Sensibility expresses the greatest distrust of words and speech.  As we read this novel we are encouraged to revise and refine our definitions of many words, notably of ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility.’  The conversations – and silences – between the lovers are particularly useful in understanding the meanings of these words and in finding to what extent each lover represents these qualities.

It is noteworthy that both of the ‘heroes’ of the novel – Colonel Brandon and Edward – are remarkably poor speakers.  Colonel Brandon stammers when he tries to express his feelings and confesses himself to be a “very awkward narrator” (p. 204).  His speech is punctuated with dashes and characterized by unfinished sentences.  In Chapter 9 of Volume II, it takes the Colonel over one hundred words to hint at what he is trying to say to Elinor.  He completes not a single sentence, but Elinor manages to understand him and promptly summarizes what he intended to say in 15 words.  Edward, also, is “no orator” (p. 289), as he repeatedly admits and as all his friends acknowledge.  The reader, therefore, cannot come to love the heroes of this novel through charming speeches.  It is only if the reader learns to distrust the charms of free-flowing language that he or she can forgive – and perhaps even admire – those in the novel whose speech is constrained.

But Elinor cannot speak freely either.  Through most of the book, Elinor is forced to have restraint enough for two – she is forced to cover up Marianne’s extremes.  Her restrained speech is not due to inability or even reticence; Elinor simply has no one to whom she can talk.  Her friendship with Colonel Brandon shows her ability to be a good confidante, but confidences proceed in only one direction.  Colonel Brandon speaks with Elinor with the lack of reserve which would befit a sibling; he highlights what Elinor is missing – i.e., he shows the role that Marianne should and could fill.

Marianne’s words flow very freely, but not as freely as she would like to think.  As Edward successfully parodies in Vol. I, Ch. 18, Marianne’s romantic vocabulary limits her.  Edward playfully tells her that he does not subscribe to the same aesthetic rules and vocabulary:


I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars.  I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere,  (p. 97)


Marianne, who is confident that her great sensibility lets her experience Nature more directly and express it more freely and spiritedly, shows herself to be quite the reverse.  She is stubborn and fixed where she ought to be free; blind where she ought to perceive.  The fixity of her romantic code of life keeps her from being open to experience and enables her to see only what fits into her pre-existing categories.

The power to speak, and to speak well, belongs primarily to the cold-hearted characters in Sense and Sensibility.  The reader knows, from the second chapter of the novel, to beware of words because they can be abused by anyone who, like John or Fanny Dashwood, has a degree of sense without “the strong feelings of the rest of the family” (p. 5).  They are remarkably adept at abusing the sense of the promise which John gave his father on his deathbed.

Willoughby also shows an ability to make words serve his own interests.  Willoughby is an excellent actor; he adopts the language of those he would like to please – that is, those who can please him.  Even in his first conversation with Marianne, he shows he can play the role she assigns him; he can appear to be what she wants to behold;


Their taste was strikingly alike …. if any difference appeared, any objection arose, it lasted no longer than till the force of her arguments and the brightness of her eyes could be displayed.  He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm …  (p. 47)


Willoughby copies Marianne’s vocabulary just as, at the end of the novel, he copies his wife’s letter and sends it to Marianne.  By the end, he demonstrates that he has mastered so many people’s “languages” that he hardly knows how to express his own emotions:


When the first of [Marianne’s notes] reached me, … what I felt is – in the common phrase, not to be expressed; in a more simple one – perhaps too simple to raise any emotion – my feelings were very, very painful.  – Every line, every word was – in the hackneyed metaphor which their dear writer, were she here, would forbid – a dagger to my heart.  To know that Marianne was in town was – in the same language – a thunderbolt.  – Thunderbolts and daggers!  – what a reproof would she have given me!  – her taste, her opinions – I believe they are better known to me than my own, – and I am sure they are dearer.  (p. 325)


Before finishing each sentence, he deliberates about which effect he would like to achieve, and he shows the shortcomings of each “language” he speaks.  But Willoughby has never learned to speak his ‘native tongue’ – that is, he has spent so much time conforming himself to others’ opinions that he neither knows nor cares to develop his own.  In such a world, inhabited by Willoughbys, Fanny Dashwoods, and Lucy Steeles, where ‘success’ in selfish plans is united with the ability to manipulate language, silent and stammering lovers gain our confidence and affection.

Ability to observe keenly and judge appearances appropriately is essential for survival in such a community.  Austen shows in all her novels that those characters who truly love also observe well.  Love produces a keenness of perception, a sensibility inaccessible to those whose loves are merely narcissistic projections of themselves.  Therefore, the ‘true lovers’ in all Jane Austen’s novels tend to watch their objects from afar rather than hang about them, chattering as the ‘false lovers’ do.

Colonel Brandon visits the Dashwoods in order to “look at Marianne and talk to Elinor” (p. 169).  If his silence to Marianne leads us to believe that he loves Elinor more than Marianne, we are falling into the trap of trusting words over sight.  Elinor herself is tempted to do the same thing:


[Colonel Brandon’s] open pleasure in meeting [Elinor] after an absence of only ten days, his readiness to converse with her … might very well justify Mrs. Jennings’ persuasion of his attachment ….  But as it was, such a notion had scarcely ever entered [Elinor’s] head, except by Mrs. Jenning’s suggestion; and she could not help believing herself the nicest observer of the two; – she watched his eyes, while Mrs. Jennings thought only of his behaviour.  (p. 305)

Colonel Brandon’s eyes show what his words cannot express – that his love for Marianne is neither selfish nor blind.  Colonel Brandon, like Elinor, is “on every occasion mindful of the feelings of others” (p. 62).  In contrast, the affection between Marianne and Willoughby leads them to withdraw from others and think only of themselves:


When he was present she had no eyes for any one else …. if dancing formed the amusement of the night, they were partners for half the time; and when obliged to separate for a couple of dances, were careful to stand together and scarcely spoke a word to any body else.  (pp. 53-54)


Marianne’s affection leads her to something approaching madness; her “extreme sensibility” leads her first to illusions which do not correspond with reality (such as her certainty that the man approaching on horseback is Willoughby when it is in fact Edward) and eventually, to become blind to her surroundings and apathetic to the point of numbness (or “insensibility”) during their stay in London.  Austen wants us to see that Marianne does not suffer from an excess of sensibility, but rather from the wrong kind.  Marianne’s selfish sensibility paradoxically leads to the dulling of her senses, whereas the Colonel’s and Elinor’s more social sensibility enables them to perceive more of their surroundings.

Just as there is a perverse kind of sensibility, there is also a powerful and potentially destructive form of sense – the cunning which enables deception.  The rampant deception within the novel is exemplified by the fact that not only one, but both of the initial heroes are secretly engaged.  The most deceitful characters manipulate words to achieve their goals, as Lucy Steele, the most cunning of all the characters, does in her conversations with Elinor and in her letter to Edward.  “The existence of this false ‘sense’ – the cunning which can abuse the sense of words – helps to make words unreliable in the novel.  Austen shows that sense degenerates into cunning when it is not tempered by a social sensibility.  John Dashwood and Lucy Steele both have sense but abuse it because they lack the strong feelings to direct them to consider the feelings of others.

A misguided sensibility is also capable of defeating sense.  Marianne’s selfish sensibility deadens her senses.  As the scene when she mistakes Edward for Willoughby in Vol. I, Chap. 16 shows, Marianne’s sensibility leads her to believe contrary to rational sense and contrary to the evidence of her senses.  In a strikingly similar scene, Elinor’s different sensibility takes her in another direction.  When she expects Colonel Brandon,


a man on horseback drew her eyes to the window.  He stopt at their gate.  It was a gentleman, it was Colonel Brandon himself ….  But – it was not Colonel Brandon – neither his air – nor his height.  Were it possible, she should say it must be Edward.  She looked again.  He had just dismounted; – she could not be mistaken; – it was Edward.  (p. 358)


Fancy, when handmaiden to the proper kind of sensibility, becomes a token of love.  Elinor’s sensibility does not contradict her sense, but in this instance it anticipates it.  Her sensibility leads her to distinguish Edward before her unaided sense of vision could have.

The title of Sense and Sensibility does not, as many have thought, describe an opposition, where each abstract noun represents one sister.  Each sister is endowed with an element of each quality.  By the end Elinor indulges in fancy, becomes speechless, and “almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy” (p. 360), while Marianne learns some sobering lessons about the kind of sensibility which does not insult natural sense.  The novel shows us that extremes are deadening, and that neither quality can exist without the other.  Austen leads us to an understanding of an appropriate mean by showing us the negative effects of the extremes.

No character has everything in this novel.  Beauty, virtue, wealth, talent are, like eloquence, distributed among the characters.  Characters are interdependent, learn from one another, just as sense and sensibility are interdependent.  Each needs the other in order to be fulfilled.

The strict opposition or dualism of the title is only true from Marianne’s early perspective.  Only in Marianne’s and Mrs. Dashwood’s romantic vocabulary is there a battle between sense and sensibility: “common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in Mrs. Dashwood’s romantic delicacy” (p. 85).  The isolation of these words from one another is parallel to personal seclusion.  Marianne’s attempts at isolation, as shown by her “solitary rambles” and her unwillingness to confide in or be comforted by Elinor, lead her to folly, illness, and almost death.

A primary lesson of the novel is the importance of understanding oneself in relation to a whole community.  The best kind of sensibility is that which forms a community.  The surest sign of this sensibility is keen observation of others’ feelings rather than elaborate professions or even the ability to read poetry with expression.  It is therefore important that the ‘true lovers’ in Austen’s novels watch their loved ones from afar rather than stay by their sides to ask their opinions about books and music.  Where a suitor conversing and exchanging ideas with the object of his admiration is self-conscious about presentation and pleasing, the suitor who watches is turned outward.  Truly seeing is sympathizing; and by observing the loved one interacting with others, one learns more about the community to which the loved one belongs.

“General incivility” is not the essence of the love which is formed out of the proper balance of sense and sensibility.  In fact, a love which is not blind is the surest way of combining sensibility and sense for the benefit of the whole community.





Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, ed. R.W. Chapman, 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1933).

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