“Now it is thought to be the mark of a man of practical wisdom to be able to deliberate well about what is good and expedient . . . about what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general.”
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
In Sense and Sensibility, Austen presents the virtue of prudence as a means to personal and domestic happiness through the example of Elinor Dashwood. Elinor shows genuine affection for her sister Marianne, who repeatedly shows a want of prudence, by encouraging her to practice this virtue. Elinor undoubtedly wants Marianne to be happy, but in her wisdom, she is aware that happiness will be achieved by the practice of prudence and self-command. Through encouraging her sister to live a virtuous life and leading by her own example, Elinor helps Marianne triumph over her imprudence. Marianne ultimately changes for the better, and finds happiness by the means promoted by her sister.
Elinor’s prudence in thought, word, and act is evident throughout the novel. From the beginning, the reader learns that Elinor knows how to govern her strong feelings, which was “a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught” (Austen 6). While her family members lack a certain amount self-command, Elinor possesses enough for herself and for them. She displays this characteristic most notably when she learns of Lucy Steele’s engagement to Edward Ferrars. Upon hearing the news, her “security sunk; but her self-command did not sink with it” (132). After receiving the shocking information, she repeatedly displays command over herself, such as when she admitted to Lucy she saw Edward’s ring of Lucy’s hair, “with a composure of voice under which was concealed an emotion and distress beyond anything she had ever felt before” (135). In reality, “she was mortified, shocked, and confounded” (135). Despite her strong emotions, Elinor does not allow her feelings to cloud her good judgment. She is pained by Edward’s imprudence, but she immediately and compassionately considers the loss of his own happiness as a result of his mistake (139). She thoughtfully looks at the situation from his point of view, and the more she considers it, the more she weeps for him than for herself (139).
Despite the tremendous pain the ordeal has caused her, Elinor does not think solely of herself; she knows the news will greatly afflict her family, which strengthens her resolve to keep the secret to herself. She does not doubt her probability of success in this difficult endeavor; “she was stronger alone, and her own good sense so well supported her, that her firmness was as unshaken, her appearance of cheerfulness as invariable, as, with regrets so poignant and fresh, it was possible for them to be” (140). Elinor’s attitude and behavior here is contrasted with that of Marianne’s, who thought only of her own misery when Willoughby left and was powerless to control her emotions, “because she was without any desire of command over herself” (83).
Elinor’s resolve did not waver in the least when the news of Lucy and Edward’s secret engagement became public. When she was forced to converse about it with others, she “felt very well able to speak of the affair without embarrassment, and to give her judgment, as she believed, with impartiality on the conduct of everyone concerned in it” (257). Even during her discussion of the news with Marianne, she “was to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs; and all the comfort that could be given by assurances of her own composure of mind, and a very earnest vindication of Edward of every charge but of imprudence was readily offered” (258). Here Elinor shows, in her sensibility and prudence, her willingness to sacrifice her own needs for the sake of her family’s happiness.
Elinor’s desire for Marianne’s happiness in particular is constant throughout the novel, but she does not allow this desire to cloud her judgment. With regard to Willoughby and ascertaining his intentions towards her sister, she promises herself that “should the result of her observations be unfavorable, she was determined at all events to open the eyes of her sister; should it be otherwise, her exertions would be of a different nature - she must then learn to avoid selfish comparison, and banish every regret which might lessen her satisfaction in the happiness of Marianne” (158). The selfless nature of Elinor’s affection for Marianne shines through here. Even though she might not personally like Willoughby or his behavior, she would not let her opinions interfere with Marianne’s future happiness. Much later, Elinor again demonstrates a desire for Marianne’s happiness when Mrs. Dashwood relates Colonel Brandon’s intentions toward Marianne. Elinor says, “so highly do I value and esteem him, that if Marianne can be happy with him, I shall be ready as yourself to think our connection the greatest blessing to us in the world” (334). In other words, she only wants him to marry Marianne if that would secure her sister’s happiness.
In Elinor’s wisdom, however, she knows that imprudence and complete indifference to propriety will not achieve happiness in the long run, which is why she challenges Marianne’s somewhat reckless behavior with Willoughby. For instance, after Willoughby’s visit, she teases Marianne for her openness and eagerness in conversation with him, to which Marianne defensively protests that she had done better than conversing in a reserved and spiritless manner. Another example of Elinor’s displeasure with Marianne’s impropriety occurs after Willoughby gave Marianne a tour of his home alone. Upon hearing the news from an excited Marianne, Elinor asserts “that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety” (69). She worries about Marianne’s exposure to impertinent remarks from this event, but also continually worries about the pair’s general manner of conduct while in public, and wishes that their attachment was less obvious. She “once or twice did venture to suggest some propriety of self-command to Marianne,” who ignored her sister’s wise counsel and persisted in her imprudent behavior (54).
Elinor believed so whole-heartedly in Marianne acquiring prudence, that she goes to great lengths to ensure her sister is not left to her own judgment until she overcame this significant weakness in character. Even though Elinor did not want to go to London, she was determined to go if Marianne went because “she did not think it proper that Marianne should be left to the sole guidance of her own judgment” (155). When they arrive, Elinor spends a great deal of her time urging Marianne to acquire self-command over herself in regard to Willoughby. For instance, at the ball when Willoughby ignores Marianne, Elinor begs her sister to be composed and not betray what she feels to everybody present (175). Another instance occurs when Elinor grieves over the imprudence of Marianne’s letters to Willoughby, although she does not explicitly scold Marianne (188).
Elinor does not allow Marianne’s mistakes to interfere with her sisterly duties towards her. Rather, she used the unfortunate situation of Willoughby slighting Marianne to help her learn and grow, all the while showing compassion and offering comfort. As the virtuous and patient sister she was, “Elinor encouraged her as much as possible to talk of what she felt; and before breakfast was ready they had gone through the subject again and again, with the same steady conviction and affectionate counsel on Elinor’s side, the same impetuous feelings and varying opinions on Marianne’s” (201). Though she had warned Marianne to be more cautious with regard to Willoughby all along, she does not falter in her own convictions about the situation or her devotion to Marianne’s well-being.
Elinor notably maintains discretion regarding her sister’s actions, which offers a sharp contrast between the sisterly relations of Elinor and Marianne and that of Anne and Lucy Steele. After revealing her burning secret to Elinor, Lucy confides to her that she has told only Anne of her engagement to Edward. Lucy admits that she regrets doing so because she is in constant fear of Anne betraying her; “she does not know how to hold her tongue& . . . ” (133). Anne is portrayed here as the complete opposite of Elinor, who always has a ready defense of Marianne from other people’s prying inquiries, which often goes unnoticed. As Marianne later admits, she has no idea of the value of having such a sister as Elinor.
Elinor’s virtuous example and affection for Marianne is ultimately the catalyst for Marianne’s transformation at the end of the novel. Upon Marianne’s realization that Elinor had kept the knowledge of Edward and Lucy’s engagement to herself for so long, Marianne wonders how she had been supported all that time. Elinor responds, “By feeling that I was doing my duty . . . I owed it to my family and friends not to create in them a solicitude about me which it could not be in my power to satisfy” (259). She admits that she loved him, “but I did not love only him; and while the comfort of others was dear to me, I was glad to spare them from knowing what I felt . . . I would not have you suffer on my account” (259). This response made an impression on Marianne, who realized the depth of selfless devotion and support Elinor had offered her. Elinor was suffering so much herself, but seemingly and willingly bore only Marianne’s suffering (261). Marianne finally realizes that Elinor’s steady, sensible love for her and her well-being is authentic. She contrasts Elinor’s treatment of her to that of Willoughby and discovers that he never really cared about her happiness, not to mention her character or virtue, the way Elinor did (348).
During her time of infirmity, Marianne reflected on Elinor’s example and her own behavior which she became convinced was “nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others” (342). She reflects that “everybody seemed injured by me” and above all, Elinor, who had showed such kindness toward her (343). To make amends for her past mistakes and avoid future ones, she declares, “I have laid down my plan, and if I am capable of adhering to it, my feelings shall be governed and my temper improved. They shall no longer worry others or torture myself. I shall now live solely for my family” (343-344). Her resolution bore immediate fruit, as she relates how she reasoned about the pain her death would have caused her family, just as Elinor might have reasoned in the same situation (343). Indeed, Marianne finally acquires the virtue of prudence, which ultimately leads to her happiness in a way she never expected. She discovers that “she was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favorite maxims” (376). In other words, she has learned to be more sensible and rely less on her passions. Surprisingly for her, instead of “falling sacrifice to an irresistible passion . . . she found herself, at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (376). In imitation of Elinor’s example towards her family, Marianne exhibits a selfless love for Colonel Brandon, finding “her own happiness in forming his” (377).
To conclude, the example of Elinor’s prudence and overall virtue incites Marianne to acquire prudence herself. Marianne learns that Elinor, out of genuine affection for her, urged this virtue as a means for finding happiness. Elinor, in her wisdom, is aware that long-term happiness is not achieved by imprudence and lack of self-command, but through good judgment and sensibility. Through the example of this prudent heroine, Austen presents the virtue of prudence as the means to discovering personal and domestic happiness.