Persuasions #12, 1990                                                                                                                                            Pages 71-78


The Problem of the Interesting



University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA


The first description of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility includes this sentence: “She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was every thing but prudent” (Austen 6).  In a list of qualities accorded or denied to the character, interesting has a curious ring.  Unlike generous, amiable, or prudent, it sounds remarkably vague.  If we think about it, we may decide that it does not designate a property of personality at all, but rather a way in which others respond.  It sounds like one of Marianne’s words, not an item in the vocabulary of Jane Austen’s precise narrator.

Willoughby, it turns out, is also “interesting.”  In the two pages that introduce him after Marianne sprains her ankle and he rescues her, the adjective occurs twice and the noun interest, once.  This time, the context provides clues about the concept’s meaning. Willoughby’s “interest” bears some relation to his age and appearance: “Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of Mrs. Dashwood would have been secured by any act of attention to her child; but the influence of youth, beauty, and elegance, gave an interest to the action which came home to her feelings” (42).  The romantic rescuer becomes “still more interesting” because he departs “in the midst of a heavy rain” (42).  As Marianne reflects about him and his actions, she concludes that “Every circumstance belonging to him was interesting” (43).  The specific circumstances mentioned include his name, his residence, and his shooting jacket.  Clearly, the assignment of “interest” to Willoughby tells more about the assigners than about the object of their judgment.

The best that can be said for Edward Ferrars, Elinor’s lover, as far as interest is concerned is that he “was no longer uninteresting when [Mrs. Dashwood] knew his heart to be warm and his temper affectionate” (17).  Elinor beholds in Colonel Brandon “an object of interest” (50), but Marianne, denying him “genius, taste, [and] spirit” and adding that “his understanding has no brilliancy, his feelings no ardour, and his voice no expression” (51 ), does not concur.  As for Elinor herself, the category seems not to apply: no one in the novel explicitly perceives her as either interesting or uninteresting.

The references to interest as attached to Willoughby, Brandon, and Edward suggest the notion’s subjectivity.  Willoughby appears interesting to observers predisposed to value youth, beauty, elegance, unconventionality.  Edward becomes not uninteresting when Mrs. Dashwood finds reason to interest herself in him.  Brandon interests some and not others.  Marianne, on the other hand, simply is interesting.  And Elinor’s degree of interest for others, apparently, does not merit comment.

A glance at the history of the word interesting sheds light on Austen’s varying usages and complicates the problems involved in them.  Interest, according to the O.E.D., derives from a Latin verb form meaning “it makes a difference, matters, is of importance.”  The original sense of interesting, now obsolete, centers on the idea of importance: “That concerns, touches, affects, or is of importance; important.”  More familiar to us now is the second meaning: “Adapted to excite interest; having the qualities which rouse curiosity, engage attention, or appeal to the emotions; of interest.”

The first cited instance of the modern meaning dates from 1768; the last occurrence of the obsolete sense belongs to 1813.  Sense and Sensibility, on which Austen began work in 1797, actually appeared in 1811.  In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the word interesting would have reverberated with two significantly opposed meanings.  The modern definition – “adapted to excite interest; having the qualities which … appeal to the emotions,” and so on – designates a set of responses by the observer: interest, curiosity, attention, emotion.  The older meaning implies more objectivity.  Given that meaning, the adjective might indeed participate in the exact diction characteristic of Austen’s narrator.  Although importance, too, the crucial concept in the obsolete definition of interesting, may be subjectively designated, relatively impersonal criteria can be invoked for assessing it.  Yet, as Raymond Williams points out, “the problem is that the sense of objective concern and involvement … is not always easy to distinguish from … later more subjective and voluntary senses” (143).  Moreover, the idea of importance mingles in the old definition with less dispassionate alternatives: “that concerns, touches, affects ….”  And the relation among the concepts evoked remains problematic.  Is something conceived as important because it concerns, touches, or affects?  Is whatever touches and affects necessarily important?  Or are the notion of the touching and that of the important independent of one another?  The newer definition of interesting avoids the difficulty by eliminating the notion of importance.

In Sense and Sensibility, new and old meanings jostle.  Marianne, representative of new ways of valuing feeling, believes herself sufficient standard of interest.  Whatever interests her becomes therefore “interesting.”  For the narrator, on the other hand, the idea of importance remains alive in the word.  The novel raises the question of what constitutes importance: hence interest.  In its wider exploration of the costs of subjectivity, Sense and Sensibility may make its readers realize the kind of loss involved in translating “interesting” only as “personally appealing.”

The possibility of fusing the idea of the important, traditionally associated with the public realm, and that of the touching, a matter conventionally of private concern, calls to mind other sets of opposed assumptions – old versus new – that demanded reconciliation in the early nineteenth century.  Public and private, reason and imagination, thought and feeling … sense and sensibility.  The word interesting in effect miniaturizes a central issue of Austen’s novel.  Marianne, one might speculate, would want to appear “interesting,” at least to people she values; certainly she seeks the quality in others.  Elinor, who wishes for herself moral significance, might prefer to be appreciated for such qualities as those Marianne acknowledges, without considering them “important,” in Edward: “I have the highest opinion in the world of his goodness and sense.  I think him every thing that is worthy and amiable” (20).  One can reformulate the obvious dynamic of the novel, the one readers have always seen, by saying that the book’s pedagogy requires that Marianne make herself “interesting” in the old rather than the new sense of the word, intensifying qualities of moral “importance,” and that Elinor manage to embody more obviously, along with her uprightness, the “touching” or “affecting” aspects of the interesting.

Many readers find Elinor the reverse of interesting.  In Sense and Sensibility, as later in Mansfield Park, Austen works to involve readers’ feelings with a woman who might be called priggish.  The novelist creates for herself a difficult challenge, confronting the reader with immediately engaging presences in Mary Crawford and Marianne, then severely chastising these figures and demanding her audience’s assent to a higher valuation of their upright foils, Fanny Price and Elinor.  The problem of the interesting, as it exists in Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, centers on the issue of the appealing.  Both novels constitute arguments that the appealing, never sufficient, must not be separated from the morally significant: the “important.”  The important manifests itself in small details of domestic life.  Rightly understood, it may often also embody the appealing, but its emotional urgency does not always reveal itself plainly.  The argument implicit in Austen’s plots demands that the reader interest him – or herself in Elinor as much as in Marianne, in Fanny more than in Mary, but the novels must draw on resources beyond rational argument to enforce the quality of interest.  A kind of coercion comparable to that involved in bringing Marianne to accept Brandon works on the reader.

To formulate the patterning of sense and sensibility as a problem of the interesting calls attention to the fact that the matter, as a narrative issue, involves effects as well as causes, within and beyond the text.  Since novelistic characters exist only as words on a page, absorbed into the consciousness of readers, the modification of Elinor’s sense and of Marianne’s sensibility takes place by virtue of a manipulated change in readers’ perceptions.  To call Marianne and Willoughby interesting at the outset and Edward “not uninteresting,” to avoid the category altogether in relation to Elinor – this verbal arrangement corresponds to the initial impressions of most readers.  The reader must learn to understand Elinor and Edward as interesting in a direct emotional sense (it’s pretty hard with Edward!), Marianne as morally significant as well as appealing, Willoughby as neither “affecting” nor “important,” and to concur with Elinor rather than Marianne (the unchastened Marianne) in judging Brandon.  The narrator’s maneuvers to this end constitute the novel.

Such a description of the novelistic enterprise calls to mind the novelist’s primary obligation to interest readers.  As Henry James perceived, the necessity to be interesting takes precedence over all others in the writing of fiction.  Readers’ commitments to the text persist only while that text engages their interest.  In demanding that we perceive Elinor as interesting, the narrator risks her own status.  At stake is her notion of the important and the affecting – as well as ours, the readers’.  The vocabulary of interest in Sense and Sensibility urges readers toward the desired pattern of response.  That response of “interest” involves both judgment and feeling, sense and sensibility: the fusion indicated by the early definition of interesting.

Although the novel typically uses interesting with overt or subtle emphasis on its subjectivity, it nonetheless often preserves the traditional overtones of “importance” as part of its meaning.  When the narrator offers the judgment that in comparison to the repulsiveness of Lady Middleton’s “cold insipidity … the gravity of Colonel Brandon, and even the boisterous mirth of Sir John and his mother-in-law was interesting” (34), the comment implies primarily the comparative attractiveness, for the Dashwood family and for the narrator, of soberness and boisterousness over the insipidity that implicitly rejects human contact.  (Indeed, this insipidity is finally implicitly defined as the incapacity to take interest in others.  Elinor, in time of stress, takes comfort in her ability “to be sure of exciting no interest in one person at least among their circle of friends” [215]: Lady Middleton’s nature precludes interest.)  But the account of Elinor’s self-control in not betraying to her family her knowledge of Edward’s engagement to another, and of what that self-control conceals, emphasizes a different aspect of the term: “her thoughts could not be chained elsewhere; and the past and the future, on a subject so interesting, must be before her, must force her attention, and engross her memory, her reflection, and her fancy” (105).  The power to engross memory, reflection, and fancy belongs inherently to the interesting, understood as the emotionally important rather than merely the attractive – as that which “must” preoccupy.  In Lucy Steele’s early youth, “simplicity … might … have given an interesting character to her beauty” (140).  That is to say, her beauty might have seemed more significant because it could be imagined as an emanation of character rather than a product partly of artifice.  Elinor introduces to Lucy the “interesting subject” of her relation to Edward (145): the subject of primary emotional importance to them both.  The newspaper notice of the birth of a son and heir to the Palmers constitutes “a very interesting and satisfactory paragraph, at least to all those intimate connections who knew it before” (246): the paragraph’s importance depends on personal involvement.  Mrs. Dashwood, in Elinor’s view, “must always be carried away by her imagination on any interesting subject” (336).  Such is the nature of the interesting: it stimulates the imagination as well as – or, dangerously, instead of – the intellect.

The reader’s education in the proper location of the interesting derives partly from such varied uses of the word.  If predisposition helps to determine interest, accidental conjunctions shape it, and imagination intensifies it, then to direct its location from outside, as the novelistic narrator must try to do, involves many potential pitfalls.  Yet these textual instances of how the interesting is constituted contain implicit warnings, moral directives to the reader.  To contemplate Mrs. Dashwood’s far-fetched conclusions, to note the narrator’s gentle irony at the expense of those who consider the births and marriages of friends or relatives the most interesting of all news, even perhaps to note the intensity of Elinor’s preoccupation with a depressed and self-absorbed young man – such moments of consciousness may help to keep us wary of our own self-centered assignments of interest.  The emphatic irony at the expense of Marianne, who throws aside a book in order to engage in “the more interesting employment of walking backwards and forwards across the room” (166), calls sharp attention to possibly ridiculous aspects of subjective definitions of the interesting.

During my freshman year in college, I learned from a revered English teacher that interesting is not a critical adjective, because it comments on the reader’s reaction rather than on any quality of the text under consideration.  For a long time I passed the dictum on to my own students, circling the word in their essays.  Only recently has it occurred to me that perhaps interesting is, or can be, a critical adjective: an adjective conveying a cultural as well as a personal situation.  Relatively rarely, in fact, does an individual’s location of the interesting prove altogether idiosyncratic.  When teen-age ninja turtles interest one pre-adolescent, they turn out to interest many others.  Marianne’s tendency to allow herself idiosyncratic responses reveals what in her requires rebuke.

The didactic effort of Sense and Sensibility involves trying to move its readers toward communal definitions.  If the notion of the interesting, even in its older sense, never approximates objectivity, it can at least avoid solipsism by a discipline of sharing.  The vocabulary of that sentence – discipline, sharing – belongs to the kind of moral lexicon that Elinor employs.  Marianne accuses her of believing that one should “be guided wholly by the opinion of other people,” that “our judgments were given us merely to be subservient to those of our neighbours” (94).  Elinor denies the charge, claiming that she has tried to influence her sister’s conduct, not her understanding.  In fact Elinor’s advocacy of established norms of conduct reflects a faith in communal standards that her creator appears to share, although aspects of Elinor’s behavior betray her own kind of solipsism.  Like Marianne, although relying on a very different rhetoric, Elinor separates herself from her community.  She does so by refusing to share her pain or to subject the causer of that pain to external judgment.  From one point of view, she adopts a posture of moral heroism; from another, she displays emotional insufficiency.  Her defensive refusal to acknowledge vulnerability even after revealing her secret insists on her difference from those around her.  As her mother says in another connection, “You are never like me, dear Elinor” (336).  If her divergence from her mother marks Elinor’s superiority, it also signals her isolation.

Thus preoccupied with her own concerns, as well as with her perceived obligations toward others, Elinor worries neither about being interesting herself nor about finding others so.  She leaves such matters to her sister, who cares about them entirely too much.  The novel’s narrative presentation, however, reminds us that the category of “interest” presents itself as urgent for virtually everyone at some time or other.  Sometimes “interest” means self-interest, as when Mrs. Dashwood acts “against the interest of her own individual comfort” (213), Elinor reflects on how Lucy’s “interest and her vanity … blind her” (238), Marianne praises Edward for his alleged willingness to act on generous principle “against his interest or pleasure” (244), Lucy perceives the “opportunity of being with Edward and his family” as “the most material to her interest” (254), Willoughby speaks of a relative “whose interest it was to deprive me of [my aunt’s] favour” (321), and so on.  Sometimes the word reveals another kind of self-interest, when it draws on the oldest meaning recorded in the O.E.D., from 1450: “The relation of being objectively concerned in something, by having a right or title to, a claim upon, or share in.”  Colonel Brandon’s “interest” must facilitate a group’s admission to an estate (62); Lucy appeals to Elinor’s “interest” to procure a living for Edward (149); Colonel Brandon’s “interest” actually provides such a living (284).

More often, though, it appears part of the nature of “interest” to direct attention outward: Lady Middleton’s incapacity for interest makes the point negatively.  Edward’s mother wishes “to interest him in political concerns” (16) – or in just about anything, but Edward’s resolute depression makes him refuse interest.  Even Mrs. Dashwood thinks he “would be a happier man” if he had any profession to “give an interest to [his] plans and actions” (102).  The sign of his beginning to cheer up when he visits the Dashwoods is that “his interest in their welfare again became perceptible” (90).  To see a mansion that slightly resembles Norland interests the imagination of the Dashwood sisters (40).  Mrs. Jennings “takes a very lively interest in all the comings and goings of all [her] acquaintance” (70).  Elinor, in distress, “appeared to interest herself almost as much as ever in the general concerns of the family” (104).  Elinor and Brandon, preoccupied with other matters, talk to one another “with very little interest on either side” (162) because they feel unable to attend to concerns outside themselves.  Elinor reminds Marianne of the painful difficulty with which she has tried “to appear indifferent where I have been most deeply interested” (264).  In all these instances, and in many others, involvement with a world beyond the self inheres in the idea of interest.  Edward’s temporary and Lady Middleton’s permanent inability to feel interest in external matters suggest moral inadequacy, as does Marianne’s unwillingness to interest herself in anything except her own immediate gratification.  Elinor reminds her sister, who complains about the tedium of the Middletons’ parties, that “the alteration is not in them, if their parties are grown tedious and dull” (109).  The alteration in Marianne that makes her perceive these parties as boring depends on her inability to direct interest toward anyone but Willoughby, a narcissistic extension of herself, whose opinions and emotions duplicate hers in all respects.

Edward’s situation hints the possibility of salvation through interest directed outward.  Elinor accepts for herself a discipline of interest.  She will go through the motions of finding the world interesting even when her true attention focuses within.  Marianne signals her reform by a determination to interest herself in pursuits unrelated to immediate emotional needs.  Both postures of interest and failures of interest acknowledge the importance of commitments beyond the self.

Early in Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Edward discuss the relative gravity or gaiety of Marianne’s character.  Edward confesses that he has always considered her lively, but that he now realizes that, as Elinor puts it, “she is not often really merry,” Then Elinor generalizes the point:


“I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes,” said Elinor, “in a total misapprehension of character in some point or other: fancying people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why, or in what the deception originated.  Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge.”  (93)


Despite the abstract nouns of its title, the novel concerns itself more with assessing character than with judging qualities.  It raises the issue of how we are to come to terms with the particular minglings of sense and sensibility in each of the Dashwood sisters more loudly than it announces the less compelling question of how we should judge the value of the abstractions themselves.  Although the narrator does not lead her readers toward “total misapprehension of character,” she encourages partial mistakes – encourages us to think Marianne more frivolous, Elinor more rational than they prove to be, guided by what she makes the characters “say of themselves” without giving ourselves “time to deliberate and judge.”

Of course the narrative action convinces us that these young women have changed in the course of events.  When Elinor has her solitary encounter with Willoughby, come to justify himself before Marianne dies, she finds him, temporarily, far more “interesting” than she or the reader is likely finally to judge him.  Willoughby reveals himself at last as a walking cliché, with his toasts to Mrs. Brandon and his attention to horses and dogs and “sporting of every kind” (379).  Like the Middletons’ parties he becomes dull when the protagonists, and the reader, no longer have reason to be interested in him.  The point is not that he has changed, but that we have.  I’m not sure that Elinor changes either.  In narrating the meeting with Willoughby, the storyteller chooses to reveal new aspects of her personality.  When she bursts into uncontrollable tears at the news that Edward Ferrars remains free, we see something new about her.  But in fact we have been told from the beginning that she has strong feelings, as we are told that Marianne is “sensible” (6).  The evidence of Marianne’s sense and of Elinor’s sensibility takes a long time coming, and to the end Marianne remains extravagant in her sense and Elinor restrained in her sensibility.  The description of Elinor at the outset remains precisely applicable in the conclusion: “her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them” (6).  Her rigid self-government long makes her appear monochromatic: she does not arouse curiosity because she does not reveal complexity.  Like her mother and her sister, though, the reader comes finally to understand more fully the strength of her feelings and their importance to her, her defensiveness and her vulnerability.  She forthwith becomes more “interesting.”

As for Marianne, she of course undergoes one of those wrenching ordeals of self-realization and self-castigation that abound in Austen’s novels.  No longer can one say of her that “her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation” (6), since, punished for emotional extravagance by desperate illness, she has learned as a consequence to moderate at least the expression of her feelings.  But she persists in showing herself “eager in every thing” (6), and we are allowed to wonder about the persistence of her moderation.  Less engaging than before in her chastened condition, she demonstrates through it at least a temporary capacity to claim moral significance.

That is to say, the narrator manipulates created evidence to make readers perceive both Marianne and Elinor in new ways.  The process by which Austen’s storyteller sets out to interest her audience is that of changing their assignments of interest to the Dashwood sisters.  The change occurs because we have been made to pay attention, in subtle and detailed ways.  Paying attention must provide the foundation for the interesting.  Marianne’s unwillingness to accord genuine attention to Sir John Middleton or to Mrs. Jennings, for instance, prevents her from seeing what virtues they embody, what interest they may provide.  Conversely, Elinor’s attentiveness to Colonel Brandon first hints the possibility that even he may prove “interesting.”

Lucy’s actions and her marital and financial success, the narrator observes, “may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest … will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience” (376).  Attention to the self and its interests in Lucy appears unambiguously reprehensible.  Both Marianne and Willoughby, however, through much of the narrative manifest the same focus of attention.  Marianne, at least, learns the alternative to self-interest, with its obsessive focus: she commits herself to the attention outward that makes the world more interesting, in the old rather than only the new sense.  By paying attention, characters within Austen’s narrative come to perceive the importance as well as the appeal of other people.  By paying attention, the posture to which novel-reading compels us, we, the readers, learn to find those invented characters interesting: to take seriously the variety of human possibility, to discriminate between the trivial and the important, to allow our emotions to involve themselves with fictional personalities.  Austen provides in Sense and Sensibility a detailed and provocative pedagogy of the interesting.





The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R.W. Chapman, 5 vols., 3rd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1932-34).


Raymond Williams.  Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

Back to Persuasions  #12 Table of Contents

Return to Home Page