PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.25, NO.1 (Winter 2004)

Speaking of Silence: Speech and Silence as a Subversive Means of Power in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

Michal Beth Dinkler


Michal Beth Dinkler (email: is Adjunct Professor of English at Salem State College.  Her Master’s Degree is in English from Stanford University.  She is pursuing graduate studies at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and is Editorial Associate for the theological journal Priscilla Papers.


in “A Room of One’s Own,” aVirginia Woolf contends that nineteenth-century society rejected women writers out of fear, which manifested itself in a conflict of values: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war.  This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room” (557).  Although Woolf sets up a direct dichotomy between “male” war and the “female” drawing-room, Jane Austen’s novels actually conflate such gender stereotypes by depicting the seemingly innocuous drawing room as a dangerous domestic battleground in itself.  Without social or political power, Austen’s only weapon in the battle for influence was her profoundly persuasive tongue.  Thus, Austen’s novels are preoccupied with the strategic play between spoken language and silence as a subversive means of power for the eighteenth-century woman.


Despite a proliferation of talk about Austen’s novels in recent years, the talk in her novels has remained sadly and ironically under-discussed.  Scholars have commented on Austen’s discourse1, but only sparingly.  Notably, Stovel and Gregg’s very helpful book The Talk in Jane Austen begins to remedy this strange neglect.  In “Mrs. Elton and Other Verbal Aggressors,” Juliet McMaster calls female speech “veiled warfare” (76).  In “‘Hands off my man!’ or ‘Don’t you wish you had one?’:  Some Subtexts of Conversational Combat in Jane Austen,” Lesley Willis Smith touches on the “verbal duels” between Lucy Steele and Elinor Dashwood, among others (91).  Still, although several chapters briefly discuss Sense and Sensibility (1811)2, none treats this discourse-centered novel thoroughly.


Marilyn Butler argues that because Austen first uses free indirect discourse in Sense and Sensibility, “[d]ialogue is far less important” here than in the other novels (190).  Discussing Pride and Prejudice, Tony Tanner posits, “all the important transactions (and most of the unimportant or vexatious ones) take place through language” (130).  Yet, the same is true of Sense and Sensibility, a novel with many “narrative lacunae” (Jones 78) that, I argue, can only be filled through dialogue.  This article will focus on the ways the female characters in Sense and Sensibility use language—or the absence of it—to manipulate those around them, as well as Austen’s clear commentary on such manipulations of power.


Austen’s women turn to their only available weapons—those in their linguistic arsenal – to subvert the dominant hierarchy of power.  Much has been made of the literary foil between the two sisters Elinor and Marianne, as well as the narrative symmetry, which the title clearly foretells.  And yet, more is going on here than a contrived parallelism.  By comparing Elinor to Marianne, both of whom we are meant to like, Austen implicitly comments on her society’s use of speech: she praises Elinor’s restraint and warns her readers of the prospective pitfalls of communicative combat.  As such, Elinor becomes “the well-scoured channel through which [Austen’s] comment most readily flows” (Forster 149).  Austen juxtaposes Elinor’s calculated use of speech and silence with Marianne’s indiscriminate loquacity in order to illustrate her admiration of linguistic moderation.


Repeatedly, the two are presented as foils who are both alike and unlike.  Hiding her grief over Edward’s engagement to Lucy, Elinor claims, “‘Marianne, I have nothing to tell’” (170).  Marianne’s stinging response is: “‘Nor I . . . our situations then are alike.  We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing’” (170).  Elinor alludes to the depth of her feelings for Edward, saying, “‘Believe them to be stronger than I have declared’” (21).  Marianne chastises Elinor for not sharing her genuine feelings, “‘Esteem him!’ . . . use those words again and I will leave the room this moment’” (21).  Although she decries Elinor’s “use [of] those words,” Marianne perceives those words to be deficient because they are too few.  The sisters are, as Marilyn Butler describes them, “professors of two opposing creeds” (189).


As the novel progresses, we are invited to witness the effects of the opposing extremes of Elinor’s and Marianne’s respective modes of communication.  Marianne, the true Romantic, luxuriates in her own floridity, languishing in layer upon layer of love language and succumbing to morose and mournful melancholy.  By contrast, Elinor’s speech is confined and refined.  Austen links command over one’s tongue with power, deeming Marianne, “without any power, because she [is] without any desire of command over herself” (82).  Instead, Marianne speaks “inconsiderately what she really” feels, and consequently, “her own vexation at her want of thought [can]not be surpassed by” the surprise of her hearers (98).


Ironically, Elinor eventually can “no longer witness . . . in silence” Marianne’s “torrent of unresisted grief” (185).  Stepping into her now-familiar parental role, she speaks up in order to enjoin Marianne to bear her grief in silence, as the reader knows she herself does.  In fact, we see Marianne change profoundly over the course of the narrative; as she matures, she learns to hold her tongue.3  When Mrs. Jennings speaks of the painful subject of Edward’s affections in Elinor’s presence, Marianne’s reaction is “only a spasm in her throat” (265).  For her, this is the height of discretion, and for the reader, this moment is the height of her transformation.


Through Marianne’s “extraordinary fate” of expressive maturation, this novel becomes a kind of linguistic Bildungsroman (378).  Silence is linked directly with self-command, for Elinor in particular: “She was silent.—Elinor’s security sunk; but her self-command did not sink with it” (131).  Austen favors Elinor’s self-possession: “her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them” (6).  Elinor is venerated because, even when “mortified, shocked, and confounded,” she maintains “a composure of voice, under which was concealed an emotion and distress beyond anything she had ever felt before” (135).  Just as Elinor suggests “the propriety of some self-command to Marianne,” Austen encourages the same self-discipline for her readers (53).


Although Austen admonishes her readers to be strategic in their use of language, she clearly despises linguistic manipulation.  Significantly, the catalyst for the entire plot of Sense and Sensibility is a woman’s exploitation of language.  As the book opens, Mr. John Dashwood promises his dying father that he will use his inheritance to help support his mother and sisters.  However, Mrs. John Dashwood’s machinations over this money ultimately provide the impetus for subsequent events in the novel.  She first manipulates her husband by agreeing superficially with his assertions, beginning her sentences obligingly with, “‘Certainly,’” and “‘To be sure,’” and “‘That is very true’” (10).  Then, she cunningly undercuts her purported agreement by inserting her own different viewpoint.  By (mis)leading her husband to think that he is in control, she subtly redefines his interpretation of his father’s speech, until he concludes: “‘My father certainly could mean nothing more by his request to me than what you say’” (emphasis added, 12).  Thus, solely by what she says, Mrs. John Dashwood thwarts the intentions of one man (her late father-in-law) by convincing another man (her husband) to withhold money from his widowed stepmother; without this money, our heroines must move into the small cottage at Barton Park, and the novel proceeds from there.


Darryl Jones asserts that Elinor actually is a manipulator in the same ilk as Mrs. John Dashwood; she is an “habitual liar” who acts “in a very similar fashion” to the underhanded Lucy Steele (73).  However, a careful examination of the “conversational combat” between Elinor and Lucy supports the view that Austen does not equate the two women, but rather places them in stark contrast with one another (Smith 91).  Austen makes no apologies for characterizing Lucy as manipulative and conniving.  When first introduced, Lucy lords language over others by consistently amending “all her sister’s assertions” (126).  When she dislikes the conversation, she uses her tongue as a rudder, deliberately “turn[ing] the discourse” by “admiring the house and the furniture” (124).  She is constantly “engaging [Elinor] in conversation,” and her clever remarks are referred to as “powers,” albeit unassisted by education (127).  As we will see, when contrasted with Lucy, the opportunistic rival, Elinor emerges the wise, virtuous victor.


We remember that Lucy’s unsolicited confession to Elinor of her secret engagement to Edward is purely strategic, and at a cursory glance, Lucy seems the verbal victor.  Unwittingly, Elinor has stumbled upon a linguistic land mine.  At first, she reacts in “silent amazement” and her astonishment is “too great for words” (130).  Here, we find a significant reciprocity between disclosure and silence.  Elinor perceives Lucy’s underlying motive that she “might be informed . . . of Lucy’s superior claims on Edward, and be taught to avoid him in future,” and she defers (142).  Lucy’s “superior claim” upon Edward makes her superior in this social interaction.  Initially, Elinor forfeits to Lucy out of a sense of decorum; she becomes bound in more ways than one.  Appropriately, Lucy’s claim—both literal and metaphorical—induces Elinor to remain silent, now not only about Lucy’s secret, but also about her own personal suffering.


Ironically, Elinor eventually gains the upper hand by using the very thing Lucy has demanded of her—silence.  Rather than utilizing the spoken word as an offensive strategy to demand social supremacy, Elinor uses silence—the withholding of the spoken word—as a defensive strategy to maintain power.  Just after confessing her secret, Lucy pauses dramatically, expecting Elinor to speak.  Instead, “Elinor for a few moments remain[s] silent” (130).  When, “Elinor ha[s] no answer to make,” Lucy asks, “‘Are you ill, Miss Dashwood? . . . you don’t speak’” (239).  Clearly, Elinor’s silence has made Lucy ill at ease.


When the two meet again, Elinor takes control by being first to broach the subject (146).  During this exchange, Elinor is silent no less than six times, causing Lucy to become disconcerted and even more effusive.  Whereas Lucy calculatingly “lay[s] a particular stress on [her] words,” referring underhandedly to Elinor’s lack of bias, Elinor thinks it is “wisest to make no answer” at all (150).  This results in yet another pause, which Lucy cannot endure (149).  Indeed, throughout the novel, we find that Elinor uses the tactic of silence as a self-defense against Lucy’s manipulative speech.  Whereas Lucy believes Elinor’s silence speaks to her own social victory, the reader discovers that Elinor’s lack of speech actually attests to her presence of mind.


One key retaliatory aspect of Elinor’s use of silence is her deliberate sense of timing.  As the novel progresses, she shows Lucy that she, too, can play games with language, saying “‘Undoubtedly, if [the Ferrars] had known your engagement . . . nothing could be more flattering than their treatment of you;—but as that was not the case—’” (239).  Here, Elinor deals a deadly counterstroke: she says only enough to insinuate her meaning, and then she stops speaking altogether.  Although it is true that, on one level, silence distances two characters, on another level, the silence also forces them together because the listener must effectually “read between the lines” of what the speaker does not say.  In this way, Elinor’s maneuver gives her the tactical advantage of requiring Lucy (as Austen requires the reader) to fill in the unspoken gap; through her silence, Elinor implicates Lucy in coming to the unflattering conclusion.


When Elinor does speak, she does so only cautiously and intentionally.  When she finally responds to Lucy’s initial claim, she articulates herself “cautiously” and “with a calmness of manner” (130).  If she wants to avoid a subject, she subtly speaks of another topic in order to shift the other person’s attention to her preferred focus.  For example, when Mrs. Palmer asks about Willoughby and Marianne’s assumed marriage, Elinor responds purposefully with a non sequitur: “‘Mr. Brandon was very well I hope’” (115).  Although silent regarding Mrs. Palmer’s specific question, she speaks of another topic in order to redirect the other woman’s attention.  In this exchange, Elinor commands power by defining boundaries around the combat zones of conversational content and concomitantly refusing Mrs. Palmer access to the areas she stipulates are forbidden.  Ironically, Elinor’s use of deflection here from Willoughby to Brandon mirrors the larger narrative deflection evident in Marianne’s shifting romantic interests.  As Marianne matures, she discovers “the falsehood of her own opinions,” (378) and to her own surprise, falls in love with the man whose voice, in her earliest assessment, has “‘no expression’” (51).  Thus, Elinor’s response to Mrs. Palmer also serves as ironic foreshadowing of subsequent events, fulfilling both literary and dialogic functions.


Austen’s distaste for linguistic extremes is exemplified powerfully through interlocutions of the minor characters, as well.  At Mrs. Ferrars’s party, the conversation is “poverty-stricken” as the women “verbally posture and parade” (McMaster 86) their opinions, which they “repeat . . . over and over again” (SS 234).  Most people are too verbose, for, “Unlike people in general, [Mrs. Ferrars] proportioned [her words] to the number of her ideas . . . ” (232).  Furthermore, Austen asserts that as is “much the case for the chief of their visitors,” John Dashwood “had not much to say for himself that was worth hearing, and his wife had still less” (233).  Austen boldly lambastes her contemporaries for the utter excess of their tedious gossip.


People wax eloquent on inconsequential matters too often, as further satirized by Mr. and Mrs. Palmer’s comic relationship.  Like Marianne, Mrs. Palmer does not control her superfluous speech.  She speaks incessantly, and yet she laughs, “‘Mr. Palmer does not hear me!’” (107) and delightedly declares, “‘He never tells me anything!’” (110).  One wonders if he could get a word in edgewise.  Often, he outright ignores his wife, affording “her no answer” (108).  Entering the room “without speaking a word,” Mr. Palmer “[takes] a newspaper from the table and continue[s] to read it as long as he sta[ys]” (106).  One of the few times Mr. Palmer does talk, he rebukes his wife for her loquaciousness, saying, “‘Don’t palm all your abuses of language upon me’” (113).  Here, Austen crafts a nice play on words; Mr. Palmer accuses his wife of being a palmer of her abuses of language because she exhibits no restraint.


Perhaps Austen’s most powerful commentary is her cautionary lesson that we must balance our self-expression.  In this sense, the novel itself can be seen as a lesson in linguistic conduct.  The verbal bullies (e.g., Mrs. John Dashwood and Lucy Steele) win some spoken battles, but in the end, Elinor’s balance of speech and silence gets her what she wants.  As the balanced strategist, Elinor ultimately wins the war.


Interestingly, the mere act of writing novels in this time period is testimony to Austen’s personal empowerment through language.  In a literary environment in which most women authors assumed male pseudonyms in order to get published, Austen’s maneuvers are similar to those of her female characters.  By giving herself a voice, she exercises her own linguistic and expressive power.


Specifically, Austen uses irony to wield the power of language.  Irony is a form of balanced speech and silence; the reader understands a deeper meaning behind language that a character does not grasp.  One reason Austen’s works remain so widely read is that irony effectively empowers the reader.  For example, at one point, Miss Steele declares, “‘I dare say Lucy’s beau is quite as modest and pretty behaved as Miss Dashwood’s’” (149).  The reader knows Lucy’s and Miss Dashwood’s “beaus” are one and the same—Edward Ferrars—but Miss Steele remains ignorant of this.  Austen privileges her reader through irony, creating a richer and deeper reading experience.  The syntax itself directly mirrors the topic about which Austen writes—the subtle manipulation of power through speech and silence.


The following scene aptly illuminates our themes.  Lucy, finding Elinor still in London, reminds her that she had intended to stay only a month, saying, “‘I am amazingly glad you did not keep to your word’” (217).  Elinor understands Lucy, and uses “all her self-command to make it appear that she [does] not” (217).  Several literary techniques are at play in this linguistic moment.  First, we see Lucy using language to shame Elinor, a common “post-Enlightenment means of social control” (Hirsch 76).  However, Elinor uses her defensive strategy of silence, maintaining the upper hand in the conversation.  When Lucy “return[s], after a cessation of hostile hints, to the charge,” Elinor again answers her with silence, deciding she will “not humour her by farther opposition” (218).  The result is just as Elinor intends: for once, “Lucy [is] silenced” (219).


Beyond the characters’ use of language in this passage, we see Austen’s own play with language, as well.  The phrase “your word” is significant here for several reasons.  Keeping one’s word is a prevalent theme throughout the novel.  Lucy accuses Elinor of not keeping her word, when ironically, Elinor suffers precisely because she keeps her promise of secrecy to Lucy.  Additionally, Elinor’s fidelity parallels Edward’s intention to keep his word and marry Lucy.  The passage becomes even more deeply ironic when seen retrospectively—Lucy goes back on her word—engaged to Edward, she marries his brother instead.  This, after she has unflinchingly attested to Edward’s commitment to her (147).  Her language ultimately backfires and makes her look the fool.  Austen’s masterful management of language in this scene is a microcosm of her strategic uses of speech and the implications of word choice in the novel as a whole.


As we have seen, in Sense and Sensibility Austen highlights human strengths and weaknesses through the use of speech and silence as a site for contesting power relations.  And yet, Austen also wages her own linguistic battle for power through her critical commentary on the dangers of expressive excess, and the ultimate authority gained from balanced self-command.  Austen advises her readers that only those with expressive balance will gain the upper hand, and only those with communicative composure will maintain their voice.  As we learn from Elinor, in the domestic battleground of the drawing room, even those without the traditionally “male” artillery can win the war when they manage the weapons they have with greater cunning.





1. For more on the term “discourse,” see Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1978.


2. See especially Lesley Willis Smith’s, “‘Hands off my man!’ or ‘Don’t you wish you had one?’.”


3. Due to Marianne’s maturation and concomitant self-command, we cannot accept Tony Tanner’s assertion that Marianne’s marriage to Brandon is merely Austen’s means of “dispos[ing] of” her at the end of the novel (99).  Rather, in the world of this narrative, Marianne’s choice reflects her growing wisdom and value for self-possession.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975.

Chatman, Seymour. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Forster, E.M. Abinger Harvest. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1936.

Hirsch, Gordon. “Shame, Pride, and Prejudice: Jane Austen’s Psychological Sophistication.” Mosaic 25.1 (1992): 63-78.

Jones, Darryl. Critical Issues: Jane Austen. Hampshire: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004.

Lascelles, Mary. Jane Austen and Her Art. Oxford: OUP, 1966.

McMaster, Juliet. “Mrs. Elton and Other Verbal Aggressors.” The Talk in Jane Austen. Eds. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg. Alberta: U Alberta P, 2002. 73-90.

Smith, Lesley Willis. “‘Hands off my man!’ or ‘Don’t you wish you had one?’.” The Talk in Jane Austen.  Eds. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg. Alberta: U Alberta P, 2002. 91-102.

Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1986.

Woolf, Virginia. “A Room of One’s Own.” The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends.  Ed. David H. Richter. Boston: Bedford, 1998. 554-59.


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