Persuasions #12, 1990                                                                                                                                            Pages 99-110


Imperfect Articulation: A Saving Instability

in Sense and Sensibility



Department of English, Howard University, Washington, DC


I do believe,

Though I have found them not, that there may be

Words which are things, hopes which will not deceive,

And virtues which are merciful, nor weave

Snares for the failing; I also deem


That two, or one, are almost what they seem



From the heart of Sense and Sensibility echoes Marianne’s agonized cry to Willoughby: “Good God!  Willoughby, what is the meaning of this?”1  The centrality of this question is dramatized repeatedly through the various characters who, in the course of the novel, experience some form of anguished puzzlement or express need for enlightenment.  With obvious perplexity the normally composed Elinor, for an example, exclaims to Lucy:  “Good heavens! … what do you mean?” (p. 129).  Similar kinds of unanticipated urges for clarification, voiced or muted, resound again and again through the text: Eliza of Willoughby, Elinor of Edward, Edward of Lucy, Fanny of Miss Steele, Colonel Brandon of Willoughby, Mrs. Ferrars of Edward, Robert, Lucy.  And prior to and underlying them all, loud and insistent because incapable of utterance, must be the late Henry Dashwood’s imploring of his son, John, who, with his wife’s help, deliberately misconstrues his father’s words under the guise of defining their meaning.

The struggles of characters to make sense and take control of their world provide the tensions that organize Sense and Sensibility.  Sense-making is the stuff of which fictions are made.  Stimulated by the environment, driven by necessity, human beings not only face questions, they must fabricate answers, devise means of coping with experience.2  According to Rabindranath Tagore, man’s life moves “through story materials,” through turmoil “formed by the clash between passion and passion, between individual and society, mind and flesh, desire and denial,”3 and, one may add, between sense and sensibility.

Tagore’s observation seems particularly relevant to Austen’s novel.  Noticing a ring bearing a plait of hair on Edward’s finger, Marianne asks, “Is that Fanny’s hair?  I remember her promising to give you some.”  Edward replies in the affirmative.  Ignoring his response, and with only her desire for evidence, Elinor “instantaneously felt as well satisfied as Marianne [that] the hair was her own.”  We will learn later that the hair is neither Fanny’s nor Elinor’s but Lucy’s.  Each of these characters – Edward, Elinor, Marianne – fabricates a story that is commensurate with his or her experience, desire and need.  Thus, Edward’s defence, “the setting always casts a different shade on it you know”  (p. 98), though founded upon a lie, may be the “truth” that Sense and Sensibility conveys and the issue with which the novel is most radically concerned.

Metaphorically, this incident comments on the novel’s own concern with meaning, fiction and interpretation.  The episode frames strategically both fabula and sujet, highlighting an act of fictional production where the characters’ urge to understand and take charge of their world parallels and engages the reader’s quest for mastery of the text.  The incident foregrounds the text’s tendency towards multiplicity of meaning and towards duplicity; the setting is all.  Thus, the general quest for enlightenment that echoes thematically throughout the novel is not easily disposed of by appealing to sense and dismissing sensibility to a secondary status.  Austen is not as straightforward in supplying clear alternatives as readers are in deriving them.  The text’s preoccupation with what things mean is counterpoised against a reserve – symbolized in Edward’s secret, which is in turn concealed by his invented but nevertheless deeply authentic explanation – a reserve that permeates the novel, beginning at the level of plot, and going beyond it, endlessly to frustrate interpretation.

Since the “setting always casts a different shade on it,” there can be no settled opinion as to what it means or even what it is.  There can be only endless interpretative possibilities, a situation inherently fraught with contradiction and instability.  In addition, by espousing possibility instead of offering solutions, the text reveals its own tentativeness, its rejection of fixed assumptions.  Thus, Sense and Sensibility is marked by a characteristic restlessness, a refusal to yield unequivocally to critical enquiry.

John Bayley suggests that contradiction and instability may be fiction’s greatest assets.  Enduring works of art have the distinctive quality of irresolution, a “saving instability that transforms and enlarges the world of experience that they present.”  Such works eschew the transparency of intention prevalent in modern fiction such as Proust’s opting instead for “an inside,” for “reticence and the tensions of reticence” that indicate “powers unresolved below the surface, unresolved in what they suggest to us and the impression they make, but effective and triumphant at the level of artistic exposition.”  Shakespeare, Bayley notes, mastered this supreme art; query and puzzlement, contradiction and possibility underlie his drama.  Consequently, Hamlet, for example, retains “its mystery in idea while prodigally spending its material in action.” Austen figures prominently among the artists whose strength hinges on these literary qualities.4

On one level Sense and Sensibility seems to be primarily concerned with taking its turn at addressing a topical issue with an argument for sense, and against sensibility.  The argument seems simple enough in its polarized organization and cannot account for the fact that readers have kept returning to the novel with renewed interest for nearly two centuries.  Closer examination reveals a work caught up in exploring the complexity of human experience and struggling with the problems attending the articulation of this experience in all its knotty realities.  Such a task necessarily focusses attention not only on fictional representation but on artistic exposition as well.  The puzzlement, the urge for clarification, the reserve, contradiction, multiplicity and restlessness that distinguish the text are simultaneously the motive force of the narrative as well as the product of the narrative discourse.

Mainly the narrative sets up lines of discourse which it subtly but rigorously undermines and, in the process, cuts through the assumptions that this discourse had led the reader to make.  In other words, the text creates undercurrents that challenge and alter its own premises, thereby propelling the work towards analysis rather than synthesis.  The opening paragraphs provide a case in point.

Sense and Sensibility begins with an impression of stability: a portrait of  an esteemed family “long settled in Sussex,” whose estate was large and whose “residence was in the centre of their property where for many generations they had lived” (emphasis added).  The late owner’s “constant companion” having died, an “alteration” in the household resulted, but normalcy is soon restored.  The legal inheritor and his family re-establish the “constant attention” providing “every degree of solid comfort.”  The emphasis on extended time, established space and on constancy; the rhythmic sequence of events – stability/alteration/stability – creates a sense of order and permanence.  However, at the very beginning of the second paragraph, this impression is displaced in one sentence: “By a former marriage Mr. Henry Dashwood had a son: by his present lady, three daughters” (p. 3).  Though the reader is aware of the meaning of “former” in its immediate context the term’s implication extends beyond the first paragraph, coming up from the past to defeat Henry Dashwood’s expectations for his daughters and to frustrate the reader’s assumptions and anticipation.

From the outset, the novel initiates a system of shifting emphases that challenge the linear focus that it is bound to set up.  John Dashwood and his son after him will inherit Norland Park but “half blood” (and daughters) exert rightful claim, if not legal, then at least moral; fracture clouds the transparent linearity of succession: John Dashwood is “amply provided for by the fortune of his mother, which had been large”; in contrast, his sisters’ fortune “could be but small.  Their mother had nothing” (p. 4).  Large/small, ample/nothing: opposition replaces the comfortable correspondence between past and present, expectation and outcome.  Tensions arising from difference obtrude and interpretative possibilities increase.  Thus, Marianne’s “competence” is Elinor’s  “wealth,” and the Dashwood women’s dwelling may be a “comfortable house” or a “defective cottage” depending on one’s point of view.  Meaning is compounded, not pure.

The latter point takes on added significance in the events surrounding old Mr. Dashwood’s will.  The document “tied up” the whole estate “for the benefit of a four year old child” whose influence on the late owner is credited to “an imperfect articulation, an earnest desire of having his own way, many cunning tricks, and a great deal of noise” (p. 4).  These attributes are of such moment “as to outweigh all the value of all the attention which, for years, he [the late owner of the estate] had received from his niece and her daughters” (emphasis added).  Austen’s use of a child’s garble to undermine established relationships and prospects – that is, a whole order of signification – suggests something ‘naturally’ insidious about language, an idea that the text pushes forcefully to the foreground.  Young Dashwood’s performance, his innocence and success, anticipates, comments upon and is, in turn, qualified by his mother’s deliberate use of language to get her own way, as well as to secure the end that her son has achieved.  Fanny demonstrates brilliantly the underside to Harry’s “imperfect articulation” – hers is a willful manipulation of words, a cunning misrepresentation of facts, a jarring noise created by violent inversion as she convinces John that in recommending that something be done for his sisters and mother, Henry Dashwood could only have meant that nothing be done for them.  In Fanny’s vocabulary, “imperfect articulation” catches up and codes the rest of the sentence: “an earnest desire of having [her] own way, many cunning tricks and a great deal of noise.”   In other words, in her terms, bias and conscious manipulation are traits of utterance.  Fanny’s distortions are what is normally considered defective speech; Harry’s, because spontaneous and primitive, is innocent.  Still, the babblings of a child and the studied enunciations of an adult produce the same result: the displacement of the Dashwood sisters and the securement of self.

A point about distinctions is being made here.  Tony Tanner believes that “careful distinctions are being made throughout the novel.”  He feels however, that motives can be clearly distinguished, “self interest,” for example, from “prudence.”  He goes on to suggest that “Jane Austen was sufficiently before our time to think that with an effort words could be made to coincide with things and that moreover a good deal of our dignity and peace of mind depended on our making them do so.”5  Fanny’s avarice is clear; Elinor’s prudence is evident; but to young Harry hardly can be ascribed a conscious motive for his accomplishment.  Yet, his role in the affair, though recounted as merely incidental, and though obscured by Fanny’s, is no less accountable than hers.

However, at the same time, Austen’s narrator reveals that Harry Dashwood “gained on the affections of his uncle by such attractions as are by no means unusual in children of two or three years old” (p. 4).  The narrator also specifies that Harry Dashwood was four.  Is there a hint here that Harry’s influence on the late owner of Norland estate may not have been as innocent as the term “child” would lead the reader to believe?  Conversely, in her arguments against John’s fulfilling his father’s will, Fanny comments: “Your father thought only of them.  And I must say this: that you owe no particular gratitude to him, not attention to his wishes, for we very well know that if he could, he would have left almost everything in the world to them” (p. 13).  As spurious as Fanny’s arguments are, motivated as they are by greed and malice, trivialized by generalization and hyperbole, there is some truth in what she says.  For, “Mr. Dashwood had wished for it [the estate] more for the sake of his wife and daughters than for himself and his son” (p. 4).  And even the unrestrained Fanny says “almost everything” lending just a hint of moderation to an otherwise vulgar disregard for proportion.

This juxtaposition of Harry’s “guileless” and Fanny’s unscrupulous use of language and the subtle deflections produced make an important point: Articulation can be neither wholly innocent nor completely false.  Opposing concepts define a continuum not polarities, and as has been demonstrated, in the text’s process of meaning, words look forward to what has not been said yet, and simultaneously, deal backward, amending, deleting, anticipating, re-creating.  The result is instability, a restless traversing of the conventional lines dividing, for example, “sense” from “sensibility.”  Sometimes distinctions blur.  Articulation may be equivocal, contradictory, discordant.  Again, it cannot be chaste.

And yet, Sense and Sensibility insists on propriety of expression, on distinctions, on clarity.  It would be difficult to find another English novel in which such relentless attention is given to the manner in which things are said, and what is meant or implied by what is uttered or not said.  To Miss Steele Elinor responds, “I cannot tell you, for I do not perfectly comprehend the meaning of the word” (p. 124).  Marianne dislikes “jargon of every kind” and sometimes refrains from expressing her feelings because, she says, “I could find no language to describe them in but what was worn and hackneyed out of all sense and meaning” (p. 97).  Mr. Palmer tells his wife: “don’t palm all your abuses of language upon me” (p. 113).  Edward “blushed over the pages of her [Lucy’s] writing,” the grammatical indiscretions, the lack of “substance,” the “defect of the style” (p. 365).  In addition, “reserve” is not to be confused with insipidity nor “beauty” with “real elegance.”

The question arising at this point is: in an imperfect world where imperfect articulation is all that is possible, how is this propriety of expression to be attained, distinctions clearly drawn and maintained?  This issue is an important one for Austen.  It resurfaces with varying configurations in succeeding works.  In Mansfield Park Fanny’s timid reserve is pitted against Mary’s reckless prolixity; in Emma, Miss Bates’ jumbled diffuseness, Jane’s reticence, Emma’s licence, Mrs. Elton’s hyperbole and Mr. Knightley’s “Plain” English provide a sustained study.  Sense and Sensibility introduces Elinor Dashwood as the model of “proper” expression.  She is invested with meet qualifications: “strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment”; “her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them.”  She is contrasted against Marianne who was “eager in every thing … could have no moderation … [and] was every thing but prudent” (p. 6).  Interestingly, this distinction between sense and sensibility, central to the novel, is drawn on the basis of economy.  Marianne believes in saying what she feels; Elinor is saying what is needful.  Elinor is associated with limitations, Marianne with a sense of excess.  Thus, whenever Marianne kept silent because she found it impossible to say what she did not feel, “the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell” on Elinor (p. 122).

The notion of “polite lies” calls forth an uneasy alliance, an uneasiness reinforced both by the implication that Elinor’s linguistic probity depends to a great degree on her ability to dissemble, and by the further suggestion that it is impossible to operate within limits set up rigidly on the basis of difference.  To differ from is to invoke the very quality that is being screened from view.  The text pursues this latter point relentlessly; it goes to great lengths to establish and emphasize kinship between Elinor and Lucy, its most accomplished dissembler.  An examination of this relationship at some length, therefore, will yield not only insight into the complexity of Elinor’s character and of her role in the work, but also insight into the complexity of the propriety that the text disallows yet demands.

Lucy tells polite lies; she makes herself agreeable to Lady Middleton by flattering her children and admiring what she does, by rising to the “importunate demands which this politeness made” on her (p. 120).  Elinor too speaks of Lady Middleton “with more warmth than she felt, though with far less than Miss Lucy” (p. 122).  Other examples of affinity between the two characters emerge with ironic overtones.  When Sir John reveals to Miss Steele his suspicion concerning Elinor’s secret love, little does he know that this “great secret” is more Lucy’s than Elinor’s.  And when Mrs. Jennings, speaking of Mrs. Ferrar’s ill treatment of Lucy, tells Elinor that Edward would be upset “to have his love so scornfully used,” she would more accurately be referring to Elinor.  Elinor’s and Lucy’s destinies are intertwined:  Each wishes to marry Edward; they share the same secret, become sisters, and give similar advice to their husbands.

Syntagmatically, Elinor is located between Marianne’s tactlessness and Lucy’s sycophancy; paradigmatically, Lucy represents what Elinor’s social strategy potentially is.  The skill with which Elinor maneuvers a tête-à-tête with Lucy, gaining her own end while at the same time pleasing Lady Middleton, would do credit even to Lucy.  The ambiguous relationship between the two characters is most emphatically demonstrated in their verbal exchanges.  Their repartees provide one of the most delightful literary studies in double entendre.  Lucy justifies her confidence in Elinor thus: “For you are a party concerned,” “Tis because you are an indifferent person.”  “If you could be supposed to be biassed in any respect by your own feelings, your opinion would not be worth having” (p. 150).  Elinor replies in kind: “Could you have a motive for the trust, that was not honourable and flattering to me?” (p. 146).  In this duel of words that conceals or feigns to conceal feelings and motives, Elinor proves to be Lucy’s equal.  One of Elinor’s earliest observations concerning Lucy is that she lacks artlessness.  By now it is clear that Elinor does not lack artfulness.

The double talk, the artfulness loops out into the narrative.  Consider Lucy’s appeal to Elinor:


“Pity me, dear Miss Dashwood! ….  There is nobody here but you, that can feel for me. – I declare I can hardly stand.  Good gracious!  – In a moment I shall see the person that all my happiness depends on – that is to be my mother!”


Elinor could have given her immediate relief by suggesting the possibility of its being Miss Morton’s mother, rather than her own, whom they were about to behold; but instead of doing that, she assured her, and with great sincerity, that she did pity her, – to the utter amazement of Lucy, … (pp. 231-32)


The passage is loaded with ricocheting irony.  As Lucy’s confidant, Elinor is indeed able to feel for her, but as the “other woman” she can and does feel for Lucy varying things.  And, while it is doubtful that she could give Lucy relief by informing her of Miss Morton, she could probably set her rival at ease by reassuring her that it is not “her own” (Elinor’s) mother that she is to meet – the vague pronoun in “rather than her own” underscores the latter possibility and bares the narrator’s collusion.

Finally, how is Elinor’s “great sincerity” to be understood?  Is her concern based on her knowledge and Lucy’s ignorance of Mrs. Ferrar’s plans for Edward and Miss Morton, a plan which places Lucy in a position exactly as her own?  Or does her pity originate in her conviction that, with or without Miss Morton, Lucy does not stand a chance at marrying Edward?  Elinor’s pity in the present case recalls earlier and similar sentiments:


She [Lucy] was ignorant and illiterate ….  Elinor saw, and pitied her for, the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered so respectable; … (p. 127)


If in the supposition of his [Edward’s] seeking to marry herself, his difficulties from his mother had seemed great, how much greater were they now likely to be, when the object of his engagement was undoubtedly inferior – to herself.  (p. 140)


Elinor’s sense of her superiority to Lucy, the narrative insistence on points of similarity between them, is added evidence of the text’s “play.”  There is just enough similarity as well as difference between the two women to challenge the definitive gap which on the surface exists between decorum and deception.6

In Sense and Sensibility decorum may be “composure of voice, under which was concealed an emotion and distress” (p. 135); “a smile, which concealed very agitated feelings” (p. 150); speaking "safely, under the shelter of [the pianoforte’s] noise … without any risk of being heard” (p. 145); it may be Elinor’s “guarding her countenance from every expression that could give her words a suspicious tendency” (p. 147), or perfectly understanding Lucy, using “all her self-command to make it appear that she did not” (pp. 217-18).  Camouflage – composure of voice, muffled speech, unsuspicious words, avoidance of exposure – is essential to decorum.  Decorum is a polite lie, is equivocation.  This definition reveals a deeply subversive strain in Sense and Sensibility.  Elinor’s rectitude in times of stress, her consideration for others, cannot be discounted, but to a great degree these qualities serve as the given upon which the subversion depends, and which Austen is not so anarchic as to dismiss.

Besides, inasmuch as the subversion challenges the antithesis without annulling it, the result is a sense of inconclusiveness rather than the declaration of a discrete position.  With this and like strategies Sense and Sensibility sets up its partiality for contradistinction, throughout, against a struggle to disavow polarization.  Accordingly, the text creates and reinforces a sense of division, and perpetuates the atmosphere of query and puzzlement.  Especially since Sense and Sensibility is a nineteenth-century novel, its open endedness raises questions about the propriety of its own performance, questions which shift the problem of decorum from a purely social focus to include aesthetic considerations.

Frank Kermode suggests that there is a kind of propriety in narrative sequentiality, that indispensable element of fiction that regulates fictional activity.  Sequence fulfills a sense of order, promises interpretative consensus, and makes possible closure and message.  Thus, sequence cushions the creative/interpretative process: it provides the comfort of connexity, validates the reader’s concept of what life is like, and accommodates the author’s wish to please.  Opposing sequence, and interrelated with it, are secrets, those portions of the text that are backgrounded because non-sequential and hostile to connexity, and that often go unread.  The tension between connexity and concealment is inevitable.  In order to foreground sequence and message, the text must suppress what gets in the way.7 Thus, if as many critics maintain, Austen’s aim is to promote sense and expose the potential dangers of sensibility, the foregrounded material will tend towards the privileging and inevitable triumph of sense over sensibility.  But what if this privileging and triumphing are a polite lie?  Then the suppressed material may become unruly, rendering the text uneasy with its “façade of propriety.”  Such a work engenders a mutinous subtext that struggles to overturn the manifest.8

The tension between sequentiality and secrets is a complex one in Sense and Sensibility since it exists at two levels.  On a crude level the novel is full of secrets.  Lucy, Elinor, Marianne, Edward, Willoughby, Colonel Brandon – everybody has a secret.  These secrets contribute directly to the query and puzzlement that, as pointed out at the beginning of this paper, characterize the work: they stir narrative impulse by disrupting connexity, thereby necessitating speculation and fabrication.  Consequently, then, the novel plots a relationship between reserve and disclosure that is both necessary and problematic, and that has telling implications for their operation at a second, more comprehensive level.

The strongest clue to the nature of this necessary but problematic relationship between sequentiality and secrets is the anxiety that attends instances in the work when disclosure or concealment is indicated, and is exercised or violated.  For example, Elinor cannot reveal her affection for Edward nor his for her because he has not declared his love; Edward cannot declare his love because he is secretly engaged to Lucy; neither Edward nor Lucy can speak openly of their engagement and risk disinheritance, and Edward cannot break his engagement and be guilty of bad faith.  Implicit in this immobilising, obligatory silence is the threat of impotence, a threat captured poignantly in that scene where Edward tries to tell the Dashwood women of his release.  Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood with “unspeakable amazement,” and Elinor in speechless “wonder” fix their eyes on Edward who, picking up a pair of scissors – presumably Elinor’s since she “sat with her head leaning over her work” – and cutting its sheath to pieces, destroys the constraining, protective cover and in the process “spoils” the scissors as well.

Nonetheless, sometimes “concealment if concealment be possible, is all that remains.”  One of the risks of telling is that intention cannot guarantee designed results.  Marianne’s attempt to protect Elinor’s secret embarrasses Elinor and exposes Marianne’s own complicity in Margaret’s indiscrete revelation.  In another vein, when John Dashwood relates the story of Mrs. Ferrar’s “truest affection” in threatening to ruin her son, and Edward’s “unfeeling character” in defying her, John misinterprets Marianne’s exclamation “Gracious God! can this be possible!” and Marianne finds herself involuntarily supporting John’s misguided notions.  In both cases, disclosure whether of knowledge or of feeling, whether tactlessly uttered or tactlessly appropriated, indicts.

Characters often take refuge in nonverbal communication.  There is in the text an almost instinctive awareness of the unreliability of words: “What good does talking ever do … “? (p. 196).  “Well it don’t signify talking” (p. 194).  During their conversation, Elinor watched Colonel Brandon’s “eyes … his looks of anxious solicitude …, because unexpressed by words, entirely escaped” Mrs. Jennings (p. 305).  “[Lucy’s] little sharp eyes [were] full of meaning” (p. 146).  “Marianne’s countenance was more communicative” (p. 100).  Mrs Dashwood does not need “syllables where actions have spoken so plainly” (pp. 79-80).  Unfortunately, however, actions do not necessarily speak more reliably than words; it is exactly where Mrs. Dashwood feels that “everything has been uniformly open” that there lurks a devastating secret.

Besides, revelation can be as benumbing as reserve.  Marianne learns with shock that Willoughby is engaged; Elinor, that Edward is engaged; and Edward, that Lucy is married to Robert.  Paradoxically moments of disclosure such as these are moments of most intense query and puzzlement, and they invariably trigger loss of speech.  Upon hearing Lucy’s secret, Elinor turned to her in “silent amazement” and for a while “she remained silent.”  Her astonishment “ … was … too great for words” (pp. 129-30).  She “would have given the world to be able to speak, … but she had no utterance” (p. 348) when Edward arrived at Barton to appraise her of his release from Lucy.  At Colonel Brandon’s revelation of his secret, Elinor “could not speak” (p. 216).  Willoughby’s puzzling taciturnity during his last visit at Barton – “he did not speak, he did not behave like himself” (p. 77) – foreshadows a revelation that will reduce Marianne to a muffled scream, a violent suppression of voice.  Indeed, the word, “silence” occurs over forty times in the text as if, under the strain of its own discourse of suppression, it threatens to become mute.  Marianne then, may have the last cryptic word: “our situations then are alike” she tells Elinor, “We have neither of us any thing to tell, you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing” (p. 170).

Marianne’s statement describes a paradox.  It appears that the relationship between reserve and disclosure promises no definitive solutions, except to suggest that while the text may expend itself, on the one hand telling all, on the other it necessarily holds back; there is always everything more to be said by it and, by implication, in its behalf.  Of course this notion holds special significance for the novel’s ending, which depends for a satisfactory closure on a satisfactory resolution of secrets and sequence.

Austen ends Sense and Sensibility on a high note: the declaration of “suitable” marriages with special emphasis on Colonel Brandon’s and Marianne’s wedding bliss.


Colonel Brandon was now as happy, as all those who best loved him, believed he deserved to be; – in Marianne he was consoled for every past affliction; – her regard and her society restored his mind to animation, and his spirits to cheerfulness; and that Marianne found her own happiness in forming his, was equally the persuasion and delight of each observing friend.  (p. 379)


Usually as conclusion to fiction, especially of nineteenth century, marriages direct the reader forward beyond the last sentence of the work.  In Dickens’ novels, for instance, marriages represent the triumph of good and the promise of the future.  To place the Brandon/Marianne marriage in context, the text signals the reader backwards into the heart of the novel, to the secrets, the query, the puzzlement.  Perhaps this situation accounts for the fact that the ending of Sense and Sensibility has provoked controversy and has prompted some critics to describe it as weak.

Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor and Edward had wanted “to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house.”  They sympathized with the colonel’s “sorrows” and understood their obligations.  No mention is made of what Marianne wants or understands.  She waits in the background, the object of the exertion of others: “Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all” (p. 378).  This statement carries unmistakable undertones of dehumanization: Marianne is redress for the colonel’s disappointments, a means of restoration for his saddened spirit and the fulfillment of her family’s wishes.  As if to emphasize this point, she is conspicuously inert in the final chapters of the work.  Lucy and Robert have domestic disagreements; Elinor, Edward and Mrs. Dashwood undertake to see her married.  They are happy with their success and are persuaded of Marianne’s happiness.

An earlier chapter had shown a Marianne purged of her characteristic animation and those around her relieved of the “inconveniences attending such feelings as Marianne’s” (p. 56).  She relinquished her right to self-determination, telling her mother and Elinor: “I wish to assure you both … that I see every thing – as you can desire me to do” (p. 349).  Marianne’s statement and the radical change in her personality recall a still earlier incident.  In chapter eleven Colonel Brandon declares his admiration for the very qualities that Marianne surrenders before becoming his wife: “there is something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions.”  Elinor responds thus: “Her [Marianne’s] systems have all the unfortunate tendency of setting propriety at naught” (p. 56).  Under her reformed system, the new Marianne is a matter of propriety, inasmuch as the matrimonial ending of the novel is a matter of fictional decorum.

And it works, that is, unless the reader pays attention, at this point, to the unruly subtext.  It seems ironic, at first, that the devitalized Marianne should be the source of Colonel Brandon’s restored animation, but this seeming contradiction disappears when the marriage is located in the larger scheme of things.  The union is shadowed by secrets, by stories of wronged love, of exploitation and abandonment, of seduction and betrayal.  These secrets are the source of the dark cloud that the marriage lifts from the colonel’s life.  At the same time, these secrets evidence violation of the moral code that the marriage endorses.  Young Eliza and her illegitimate child hover in the wings, opening the way to one of the text’s more decisive subversive strokes.

There is a “very strong resemblance, in mind as well as person,” between Marianne and Colonel Brandon’s first love, Eliza.  Like Eliza before her, Marianne is warmhearted and “eager of fancy and spirit.”  The once “healthful blooming” Eliza is a “sickly figure” when the Colonel finds her; Marianne’s beauty and spirit are altered by the time he marries her.  Eliza is seventeen when he loses her; Marianne is seventeen when he meets and falls in love with her.  The Brandon/Marianne/Willoughby triangle repeats the Brandon/Eliza/Brother triangle.  However, this time there is a third equation of sorts, the Brandon/Eliza/Willoughby affair.  The younger Eliza is sixteen when Willoughby seduces her, but she is approximately seventeen years old when she enters the main narrative.  Her misfortunes resemble those of her late mother and are potentially Marianne’s.

The implication here is that the events of Colonel Brandon’s early life are being re-enacted.  This time, however, a mature Brandon, complete with title and social and economic advantage, gets to play outraged protector and wronged lover, a development which imbues the situation with the aura of romance.  Still, the implications are unsettling: in seducing Eliza, Willoughby repeats the earlier betrayal and seduction of the elder Eliza; and, in rescuing young Eliza and marrying Marianne, Colonel Brandon by a series of displacements successfully challenges his rival, defends her honor and his, and finally reclaims his first love, Eliza.

In this reading, romantic sensibility triumphs, though for reasons of decorum it must masquerade as sense.  Under his reserve and Austen’s, the romantic hero9 not only survives and gets what he wants, he finds accommodation for Elinor and Edward (sense) at Delaford.  However, this triumph does not mean that sensibility is being offered as an alternative to sense.  Elinor and Edward enjoy a triumph of their own.  Neither is the happy balancing of opposites being espoused.  Sensibility’s conquest is concealed, to some extent, discounted.  And then there is the larger world of the novel: Lucy, Robert, Fanny, John, Mrs. Ferrars – hardly exemplars of sense – at least not of the Elinor mold – all flourish.  Mrs. Jennings, Mr. Palmer, Mrs. Palmer and Sir John (who do not fit neatly into either of the two categories) continue in their various degrees of goodness and folly. Willoughby’s love for Marianne endures secretly; Margaret is at an age “highly suitable for dancing, and not very ineligible for being supposed to have a lover” (p. 380).  Life goes on, and history is apt to repeat itself.  The end of Sense and Sensibility is not a resolution; it is the temporary suppression of a fictional inconvenience.





1  Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Vol. 1 of The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R.W. Chapman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1933), p. 176.  All further references to this work appear in the text.


2  Frank Kermode, citing Vaihinger, suggests that “fictions in general … are mental structures.  The psyche weaves this or that thought out of itself; for the mind is invention; under the compulsion of necessity, stimulated by the outer world, it discovers the store of contrivances hidden within itself.”  See The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 40.


3  “Tell me a Story,” in The Golden Boat, trans. Bhabani Bhattacharya (Bombay: Jaico Publishing House, 1980) p. 2.


4  The Uses of Division: Unity and Disharmony in Literature (London: Chatto and Windus, 1976), pp. 11-15.


5  Introduction, Sense and Sensibility (New York: Penguin, 1986), p. 24.


6  Susan Morgan notes that decorum in Sense and Sensibility admits “its own generality” and thereby “acknowledges its falseness as well.”  However, Morgan goes on to suggest that decorum “is a polite lie that promises truth.”  In the Meantime: Character and Perception in Jane Austen’s Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp. 129-30.


7  “Secrets and Narrative Sequence,” in On Narrative, ed. W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 83-84.


8  Kermode suggests that as readers we may “enter into collusion with them [authors] and treat all the evidence of insubordinate text as mere disposable noise or use the evidence selectively when it can be adapted to strengthen the façade of propriety.”  p. 83.


9  W.A. Craik suggests that Colonel Brandon’s history – a care-worn temperament resulting from frustrated passion, an attempted elopement, a duel – bespeak a romantic character.  See Jane Austen: The Six Novels (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 45.

Back to Persuasions  #12 Table of Contents

Return to Home Page