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Fates and Fortunes: The Role of the Protector in Achieving a Happy Ending in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

For the regency woman, family provides every kind of protection, an avenue to thrive, or the path to obscurity. Sense and Sensibility presents a cast of female characters amplified or reduced by their family connections. From orphans to heiresses and step-sisters to distant cousins, the relationships that women are able to cultivate directly give them access to their endings, happy or tragic. The air of mystery surrounding Colonel Brandon’s alleged child primes the reader to understand the high stakes for women of disadvantaged circumstances. But Brandon’s scandalous backstory also puts forward a theme that Austen paints across every portion of the novel: the importance of the role of protector in the family unit. By his own admission, Brandon failed at protecting his lover, first from a loveless, painful marriage, then from a life of destitution and shame, and finally from the suffering of disease and death. What Brandon offers steadily and righteously to the Dashwood sisters is a form of this protection, redeemed by love and hallmarked by effective, sacrificial self-disclosure. Brandon becomes a pseudo-brother for the novel’s protagonist sisters through his close relationship with Elinor, and assumed responsibility in Marianne’s distress. His examples of protection, both in failure and success, in familial duty and romantic love, become a vehicle to unfold Austen’s layered definition of protection in Sense and Sensibility. Rather than praising characters who are self-protective, Austen elevates the role of the protector and evaluates the fate of the vulnerable in the success or failure that protection offers. By examining both types of protectors in examples of sibling pairs, readers begin to identify how an effective protector preserves, promotes, and sustains those most vulnerable, while a failed protector or self-protective character abandons, neglects, and undermines, dependents, generally putting him- or herself first.

Austen uses familial relationships to evaluate the role of protector on both interior and exterior levels. In particular, John, Fanny, and Elinor each offer insight into one or both of these levels. The influence of the protector affects all things from financial stability, social standing, deep matters of the heart, and, critically for Austen, the possibility of a happy ending. The characters who achieve their end goals or their heart’s desires seem to be those who are self-protective over those goals and desires. It is those characters who show a lack of discretion and show all their cards, so to speak, who suffer, unshielded and unguarded. Given that the source of Marianne’s misery might well be traced back to an over-enthusiastic openness, it may be tempting to conclude that adopting a guarded heart is the only way to achieve a happy ending. Readers of Austen, however, know better. Elinor’s not-quite zealous nobility to maintain propriety at all costs, even when it causes herself more harm than benefit, is both her stumbling block and her pedestal. What readers find in Austen’s first heroine is a model of self-disclosure that, when governed rightly, enables Elinor as the protector to steer her family and herself towards the good fortune of domestic contentment and, happily, satisfying romantic conclusions.

In order to understand how Elinor emerges as the protector of the novel, readers must first judge the ways in which characters fall short of fulfilling this role. The importance of family and its necessary functions providing safety, suitable living conditions, and of course, social status and connections is made clear through the inciting incident of the novel. Mr. Dashwood’s inheritance will not serve to protect his second wife and youngest children from lack of fortune. Instead, the endowment of wealth and estate upon Mr. John Dashwood establish in the novel the persons most vulnerable and without protection, i.e., the Dashwood women. John, with his mother’s inheritance and new wife’s fortune, is set in contrast to his dependent relations: “To him therefore the succession to the Norland estate was not so really important as to his sisters; for their fortune… could be but small” (Austen 38). Money as security, a shield against troubles, and a vehicle for ascending class appears plentifully throughout the narrative. Mrs. Jennings, despite becoming a woman of means “in a low way” of the working class, is “a woman of good fortune” (271, 264). She can support her many friends with ease and operate in society with full respect even with her poor behavior that Elinor considers “rather vulgar” (76). Her fortune elevates her to a position of power in this way, allowing her to provide a type of protection for those vulnerable. When Mrs. Jennings hears of Edward’s disavowal, she welcomes him “to bed and board at my house,” and, in a show of good sense, declares, “I have no notion of people’s making such a to-do about money and greatness” (309; 301). Mrs. Jennings identifies the connection between money or the stability it brings with contentment and one’s happy ending. To remove such protection as money offers, especially when one has the ability to suffer little inconvenience, is to do an injustice. Despite Marianne’s former assertion that Mrs. Jennings “is not a woman whose society can afford us pleasure, or whose protection will give us consequence,” she has a rather formidable presence in the novel where her family is concerned (199). Compelled to defend the couple to John, she says, “I have some little concern in the business, as well as yourself, for Lucy Steele is my cousin” (308). John puts estimation of money above care for family in his response. In his eyes, Lucy’s main sin is to connect herself to “a woman especially of such very large fortunate as Mrs. Ferrars” (308). To John Dashwood, Edward likewise, is “so stubborn, so unfeeling,” disregarding “duty, affection, everything” (307). Yet John is better describing his own conduct. His failure to fulfill his father’s dying wish is a greater failure of protection. His ignorance for the truly vulnerable confirms that has “not the strong feelings of the rest of the family,” a trait that contributes to his inability to act as protector (39). Where Colonel Brandon recognizes and regrets the consequences of his actions, John never realizes his error.

While John fails as external protector for his sisters, his wife presents a case for another kind of failure regarding her brother. Mrs. John Dashwood is a sort of anti-protector who embodies a self-protective attitude that inflicts rather than shields against harm. Fanny introduces the theme of protection at an interior level as she deftly steers her husband away from his duties as the protector of his step-mother and sisters under the guise of fulfilling what he owes to his son, for “to take three thousand pounds from the fortune of their dear little boy, would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree” (43). Rather than acting in a way that sustains or enables the vulnerable, Fanny identifies and exploits John’s weaknesses: “What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters! And as it is – only half blood” (45). In distancing the family connection of the Dashwood women, Fanny conquers considerably in providing for her own offspring and stripping John’s family of protection and risking their happy ending.

Happiness, or a content domestic end for any Austen heroine, becomes a key subject of the novel and can only be a product of effective protection. Edward’s happiness is quite prominently discussed by his family and friends, and even himself. Of all those seeking to enable his happiness, those who endeavor to do so through removing his autonomy and prizing status and fortune above contentment and internal satisfaction exert a form of protection over Edward that binds him rather than helps him thrive. Fanny, with Mrs. Ferrars, looms over Edward, preventing the freedom and autonomy he so craves on the pretext of fulfilling his greatness. What they perceive as keeping him from appearing below his station and attempting to push him into something “smart” is another sort of false protection (148). In arranging a marriage to Miss Morton, “a very desirable connection on both sides” Fanny executes her own desires over Edwards, thus negating herself as protector (267). It is precisely this lack of self-disclosure that excludes Fanny from the new definition of protection that Austen builds in the novel. She suffers mildly as consequence, enduring the upset and scandal of Edward’s secret engagement and loss of status. But the narrator allows her to continue towards her ending on the same trajectory as her beginning, with no virtue gained. Fanny’s self-protective actions serve her own ends and prove hostile to those around her.

Elinor, however, provides sustenance to characters made vulnerable through external circumstances and internal turmoil often caused by enthusiastic sensibility. Elinor is first introduced acting as her mother’s guide, able to give advice because of her heightened awareness of social behavior. Mrs. Dashwood would have been steered by her strong feelings into premature departure from Norland – and therefore cause a visible rift in an already fraught family bond – “had not the entreaty of her eldest girl induced her first to reflect on the propriety of going… and for their sakes avoid a breach with their brother” (41). Elinor’s “strength of understanding” and “coolness of judgement” immediately at the start of the novel “qualify her…to be counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must have led to imprudence” (41). Here, her protection moves towards a deeper level. While Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne encourage each other “in the violence of their affliction” seeking to renew the “agony of their grief” and giving “themselves wholly to their sorrow,” Elinor is forced to find ways to move them out of their grief and help them reach contentment (41). That is, even though she lacks external power as a woman in a male dominated society, Elinor’s strength of will and sensitivity towards the vulnerable endow her in areas that other female characters lack. The narrator describes Marianne as one “without any power, because she was without any desire of command over herself” (127). She exerts effort when others cannot, motivated by affection and love to succeed where others fail in efforts of self-protection. Elinor, then, can promote the happiness of others because she navigates protection both externally in society and internally in matters of the heart.

Elinor’s role as the protector moves to the interior realm after Willoughby’s betrayal is known. Where Willoughby’s encouragement of Marianne’s fantasies and extreme sensibilities once charged Elinor to act as a type of guide in society, fruitless as her actions were, there is a shift when Marianne is hurt despite Elinor’s best efforts to protect her. Willoughby’s letter reveals a romantic treachery that forces Elinor to become Marianne’s gatekeeper from outside forces. The narrator describes, “Her carefulness in guarding her sister from ever hearing Willoughby’s name mentioned, was not thrown away” (256). Lest Marianne’s slow-to-recover spirits sink further into depression at the utterance of that once hoped-for beloved, Elinor takes on the burden of shielding as much as she can for her sister’s sake. This involves an attitude of self-sacrifice as Austen makes clear that Elinor herself suffers greatly as the topic is emphasized and brought to her without ceasing. Even as their company (finally) grants Marianne the kindness of sparing her mention of him, they turn to Elinor to relieve themselves of the burdens of their own various betrayals and the latest gossip. Elinor “wished that the same forbearance could have extended towards herself, but that was impossible, and she was obliged to listen day after day to the indignation of them all” (256). Even when the grief belongs to Elinor herself, she is called upon “to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs” at the news of a certain secret engagement (303).

This self-sacrificing stands opposite her Lucy Steele, whose expression of protection is greedy and defensive. Calculating Lucy plays her cards well, disclosing enough of her secrets to Elinor to cause harm, stake her claim on Edward, and even strategize herself closer to the approval of Mrs. Ferrars. Her level of awareness matches Elinor’s, but she utilizes it for her own gain rather than to benefit others. The reader begins to realize just how much Lucy will sacrifice in order to reach her goal, whether it means censoring her ridiculous sister or bringing her “fair rival” into her confidence to solidify her winnings, she will preserve herself at the expense of others (189). While her artfulness ultimately leads Lucy to an ending of her own making, her focus on herself causes her to miss out on more substantial relationships. Elinor sees that Edward’s heart must belong to herself, “whatever it might once have been… his affection was all her own” (183). Elinor guardedness does not prevent her from acknowledging her feelings to herself, but her mastery over them prevents her from becoming lost and vulnerable as a result. Contrasting Elinor’s loving protection over Marianne with Lucy’s self-serving maneuvering of Edward solidifies Elinor as a true protector who promotes and preserves. Edward is only able to thrive once freed from Lucy’s protective embrace while Marianne is able to reach a new point of evolved sensibility under Elinor’s care.

The drama of Colonel Brandon’s tragic revelation looms behind the action of the novel and the interaction between family systems. The reader is given the impression that Marianne could have suffered a fate similar to Eliza without her sister’s protection. This resemblance inspires Brandon share his knowledge to support Elinor in her role as protector for love of Marianne. Of Eliza and Marianne, he exclaims, “Their fates, their fortunes, cannot be the same” (251). Elinor’s endeavors to model proper self-disclosure provide a type of external protection for Marianne, and the faithful self-sacrificial affection of the elder sister serve to create a safe, intimate space for the younger to grow. The interwoven nature of relationships in the regency era complicates the way family is understood in Sense and Sensibility. What ought to be a source of safety, recourse from danger, and foundation for one to move up and beyond in their endeavors quite often becomes the very obstacle preventing it. John’s failure to his sisters and Colonel Brandon’s failure to Eliza are a lack of external protection that male power fails to provide. Fanny’s misguided control over her brother and Lucy’s manipulation also miss the mark on what it means to be a protector. The end of the novel finds both Dashwood sisters in the felicity, strong affections, and security that happy marriages offer. Elinor’s exertion in self-sacrifice is well-rewarded, her efforts in protecting Marianne successful, and her self-disclosure granting her the love she most desires.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane, and Patricia Meyer Spacks. Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013.
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