Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) was originally titled Elinor and Marianne, after the two protagonists. Her move from a nominal title to a conceptual one mirrors a recent shift in Disney animated film titles. After decades of princess films with titles like Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), Cinderella (1950), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and The Little Mermaid (1998), Disney switched to titles that reflected thematic significance like Tangled (2010), Brave (2012), and Frozen (2013). Dirk Libbey associates the move with Disney’s desire to brand only particular characters as princesses and the rest as heroines. Princesses deserve eponymous film titles while heroines populate films with titles that denote more adventure and action.
Elinor and Marianne Dashwood are far from princesses, and their London adventures are unlikely to impress most Disney viewers, but their narrative is woven into Jennifer Lee’s retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” in Frozen, as of 2018 the highest grossing animated film worldwide (Verhoeven). Frozen’s two heroines represent opposite ends of a forced binary for emotions: heat and cold. Anna is effusive and open while Elsa is repressed and reserved. Their plot arcs in developing a mature balance between the two extremes re-interpret Marianne’s and Elinor’s similar character development. The film’s use of the picturesque, of inheritance, and of the danger of romantic ideals navigates Austen’s narrative and reveals novel considerations of the original text. One significant way Frozen reinterprets Sense and Sensibility is in how it escapes the marriage plot that Austen never avoided in the denouement of her novels. Revealing Anna’s salvation in an act of true love between the sisters revises heteronormative romantic expectations for a marriage and instead privileges sisterly love.
Frozen’s parallel thematic structure with Sense and Sensibility is clear even from the protagonists’ names: Elsa represents Elinor’s reserve while Anna represents Marianne’s excessive warmth. The narrative begins with the young girls enjoying Elsa’s supernatural ability to manipulate temperature and create snow and ice. When Anna accidentally intercepts Elsa’s freezing blast, she is injured, and their regal parents seek a cure from forest trolls, who warn that another dose of Elsa’s unexplained power will kill the younger sister. To protect them both, the king and queen isolate the girls from each other and the public. Years later, when both parents are lost at sea, Elsa’s coronation demands public interaction. She has become emotionally cold in her attempt to suppress her unwieldy ability. Suffering from the isolation, Anna seeks warmth and human interaction, so much so that she falls in love much too quickly with Hans, a young royal from a country near the girls’ kingdom of Arendelle. After another slip of her abilities at the coronation, Elsa departs for the wilderness to protect others from her mishaps. The wilderness provides an opportunity for Elsa to explore her powers and revel in them without shame, but she doesn’t realize she has also cursed her kingdom with lethally gelid temperatures. When Anna tries to intervene with the help of Kristoff the ice harvester, she is once again hit by Elsa’s icy blast, which begins the fatal process of freezing her heart. This time, the forest trolls can suggest only one cure, “an act of true love.” While Anna believes this must come in the form of a kiss from Hans, the audience is led to believe that Kristoff will be her salvation. However, it is Anna’s own sacrifice to save Elsa from Hans’s designs that reifies the cryptic prediction.
Though Frozen is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” it draws from Andersen only the magical elements of the tale. Andersen’s fairy tale bears little resemblance to Frozen. In it, the evil Snow Queen kidnaps a young boy, Kay, and holds him in her cold castle until he is rescued by his young friend Gerda. She tracks him to an icy palace before his heart completely freezes and removes a glass splinter from his eye so that he can return home. Jennifer L. Miller cites Andersen’s tale as inspiration for C. S. Lewis’s White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and the malignant intentions of the witch in Narnia match better with Andersen’s Snow Queen than Elsa’s inadvertent use of her powers. Frozen is better understood as a re-telling of Sense and Sensibility than it is a re-telling of “The Snow Queen.” Both Austen and Disney follow romantic plots involving an overly effusive sister and a sister too closed off. Elsa’s “kingdom of isolation” is much like the isolation Elinor experiences as she withholds information from everyone, including Marianne. It’s a kingdom of her own making, with walls almost unbreachable even by sisterly affection.
“That unaccountable coldness”
Throughout Sense and Sensibility, Austen uses imagery of heat and cold to describe the two protagonists and other characters as well. Marianne views Elinor’s reserve as an “unaccountable coldness,” while she shows more “warmth of regard” (100) toward Elinor’s putative suitor, Edward. Marianne considers how “‘cold, how composed’” (46) Elinor and Edward are as they say goodbye and depart from Norland. Lucy, too, comments upon Elinor’s “‘coldness’” (167). In contrast, Elinor confesses that Marianne could hardly express herself “‘more warmly’” (23) when she describes Edward’s manners. Marianne objects “warmly” (53) to Sir John’s accusation of setting her cap at Willoughby, and Edward is “astonished” at Marianne’s “earnestness and warmth” (116) in discussing Willoughby’s tastes. It’s easy to side with either Elinor’s sense or Marianne’s sensibility, but Austen calls for a temperate mix of both. Consequences for Marianne’s excessive sensibility are more obvious in her illness and the spectacle she makes of herself, but Elinor is harmed also by her excessively controlled emotions. She suffers in silence as she withholds from Marianne what could have been a model of decorum and expression because she fears distressing her sister more. Austen’s descriptions of sense tend to align with coldness, and descriptions of sensibility tend to align with heat and warmth, but the descriptions of characters as warm and cold don’t sort themselves neatly with this alignment. For example, Austen often describes Lady Middleton as cold, but it would be difficult to believe she acts with much sense. And Mrs. Jennings consistently acts with warmth, but she lacks Marianne’s characteristic aesthetic taste associated with her sensibility. Lucy’s expression is often described as warm, but her actions and intent are coldly self-aggrandizing. The novel includes approximately forty-five mentions of heat or warmth and approximately forty uses of cool or cold, so that both dispositions appear at about the same frequency, a balance that underscores Austen’s message from Marianne’s resolution at the denoument that her “‘feelings shall be governed’” and her “‘temper improved’” (393). Marianne and Elinor both improve with equilibrium.
Although Austen’s temperature metaphor for manners isn’t useful for sorting characters by their morality, its prevalence suggests its importance to Austen. For example, Marianne’s illness is first diagnosed as a cold, but, as she sickens, her dominant symptom is an unshakable fever. Her potential death of a “‘putrid fever’” (374) represents her excess heat or sensibility. The climax of her illness occurs on the same night that Willoughby is driven to find the Dashwoods and justify his repugnant behavior: “The night was cold and stormy. The wind roared round the house, and the rain beat against the windows” (357). The description is much like the setting in Arendelle after Elsa loses control of her powers and runs into frozen wilderness to generate an ice castle and sing “Let It Go.”
“Let It Go” is the most recognized song from Frozen, and it carries much of the film’s thematic weight. We are to see the repression of Elsa’s power as destructive to her, her family, and her community. She begins the song with, “The wind is howling like this swirling storm inside”—a description reminiscent of the storm during Marianne’s illness. As Lisa Hopkins notes, weather is important in Austen’s novels: “we are repeatedly made aware of the weather and the characters’ response to it” (41). Elsa finds that too much coldness is harmful to those around her, and she must learn moderation, not complete repression of her gift. Christopher Kowalski and Ruchi Bhalla emphasize Elsa’s coming of age in the song as she abandons being “the good girl” she always has to be and instead strikes out as a powerful and independent adult. They write of her pre-coronation splitting and repression:
Here Elsa deliberately suppresses her emotions, and indeed her powers, in order to perform the functions required of her. The reality that becomes clear, however, is that underneath the external composure lies a host of unconsciously repressed feelings struggling to surface. (147)
Elsa’s insistence on repression in order to complete her duties as a queen is like Elinor’s constant insistence on maintaining polite conversation with those Marianne selfishly snubs: Mrs. Jennings, their brother John Dashwood, Lady Middleton, the Steele sisters, and Robert Ferrars. Austen’s cold sister doesn’t “let it go” in public the way Disney’s does, with Elsa blasting Arendelle into a miserable winter. Elinor only lets go when Edward Ferrars reappears and reveals that it is his brother who has married Lucy Steele and that he remains unattached. At that moment, Elinor runs from the room to “burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease” (408). Her spontaneous emotion is later harnessed into tranquility, but for a moment she permits the overflow of tears just as Elsa experiences the full intensity of her power.
Four sisters and their inheritance
At the center of all Austen plots is inheritance. The disadvantages of primogeniture drive many narrative points. Women struggle more than men under the rule that excludes them from their families’ legacy and wealth. Sense and Sensibility begins with the Dashwood sisters and their mother exiled from the family home as their half-brother, John, inherits everything and his greedy wife, Fanny, convinces him to dilute the promise to his dying father that he provide for Mrs. Dashwood and his half-sisters. Inheritance directs plot again when Mrs. Ferrars disinherits first-born Edward in favor of Robert because of Edward’s engagement to the socially unacceptable Lucy Steele. The disinheritance encourages Lucy to transfer her affections to the brother with more status, which in turn sets Edward free to marry for love. Stephanie M. Eddleman explains the impact of inheritance in Sense and Sensibility as contradicting the intent of legacy, to cement family relationships: “In fact, Austen illustrates that large inheritances, rather than binding people together, can make them interchangeable commodities in the marriage market” (9). Edward and Robert are clearly interchangeable for Lucy, and John Dashwood believes Edward should easily exchange his long-betrothed Lucy for wealthy Miss Morton.
Inheritance is often a critical concern in Disney princess films, too. Princesses are obviously part of monarchical power, and their place in line to inherit the throne is often contested in Disney narratives. Frozen’s use of the common Disney trope of deceased parents introduces an inheritance conflict. We could place the film’s inciting incident with Elsa’s coronation, when Anna becomes engaged to Hans and Elsa exiles herself after losing control of her powers. Coronation is an apex of inheritance, and we find that Elsa’s occurs three years after her parents’ death at sea because she must wait to “come of age.” In Frozen, the nineteenth-century scramble for inheritance is reversed in that a woman stands to inherit. Elsa becomes the queen of Arendelle, and Anna is a princess, providing both women with status and wealth, and as a consequence, suitors. Hans attends in his role as a prince from another country, and he tells Anna that he has twelve older brothers. Readers of Austen should recognize immediately that Hans could be a climber looking for a marriage that will elevate him, or at least provide what his family cannot. Viewers of Disney, though, can easily mistake Hans’s inferior position as that of underdog hero. At the film’s climax, Hans confesses that his goal was to rule Arendelle by any means necessary. He was willing to marry either Elsa or Anna, whichever was easier to seduce. He admits that Elsa was “preferable” because she was heir to the throne, but no one could penetrate her icy disposition, while Anna was so “desperate” for love that she was an easy target. They are interchangeable in his ambition for inheritance.
Frozen and the picturesque
Another motif Frozen borrows from Sense and Sensibility is Austen’s attention to the picturesque aesthetic. Austen depends upon the tropes of picturesque landscape aesthetics to demonstrate how the leisure class objectified the middle class in Sense and Sensibility. During his courtship of Marianne, whom he later abandons, Willoughby extols the beauty and virtues of the cottage to which the Dashwood girls have retreated following the death of their father. When Mrs. Dashwood describes her financially unrealistic plans for spring improvements to the cottage, Willoughby exclaims,
“Improve this dear cottage! No. That I will never consent to. Not a stone must be added to its walls, not an inch to its size if my feelings are regarded. . . . To me it is faultless. Nay, more, I consider it as the only form of building in which happiness is attainable, and were I rich enough, I would instantly pull Combe down, and build it up again in the exact plan of this cottage. (84–85)
Willoughby’s desire for the simple pastoral life proves insincere when he is later induced by the withdrawal of favor by his patroness, Mrs. Smith of Allenham, to marry Miss Grey for her inheritance instead of Marianne for her pastoral innocence. Even before Willoughby’s integrity is tested, readers recognize that he romanticizes cottage life. The English picturesque landscape style grew from European picturesque landscape paintings. As if Willoughby has internalized the pastoral scenes painted by Salvatore Rosa and Claude Lorrain—which later became models for English picturesque landscapes (Manca 297)—Austen’s would-be hero seems to believe that he can enter their fictionalized settings without consequence, and, in fact, there is little consequence to him personally. But the risk to Marianne is great. She, too, enjoys the fantasy of inhabiting the romanticized landscape, as when she takes Margaret on the ill-advised walk that ends in meeting Willoughby. But her “sensible” disposition truly jeopardizes her health, and another peril threatens in the form of the unseen Eliza Williams, Colonel Brandon’s ward, whom Willoughby seduces and discards. Eliza is Marianne’s unfortunate doppelganger, a lesson in what could have happened to Marianne.
The Dashwoods’ concern over Willoughby’s declaration of an engagement extends to the fear that Marianne has given herself to him during one of the many excursions they take unchaperoned, and his abandonment would therefore leave her ruined. The family’s growing concern throughout the courtship as they wait for an announcement of engagement reflects a sinister aspect of the landscape’s availability to middle class and leisure class touring: the land provides opportunity for sexual transgression, in addition to class transgression. Ginger S. Frost, writing about the Victorians, describes the nineteenth century’s “long-held belief that sex with a fiancé was acceptable, since the couple were to be married anyway” (99). Frost also explains how unmarried and unchaperoned couples could consummate their relationship by traveling alone or by touring their future homes (100–01), as Willoughby and Marianne tour Allenham in Mrs. Smith’s absence. Their unchaperoned rides can take them to secluded areas suited for seduction.
Willoughby’s romanticizing of cottage life began before the Dashwoods’ residence there, as he later tells Mrs. Dashwood:
“How often did I wish,” added he, “when I was at Allenham this time twelvemonth, that Barton cottage were inhabited! I never passed within view of it without admiring its situation, and grieving that no one should live in it. . . . And yet this house you would spoil, Mrs. Dashwood? You would rob it of its simplicity by imaginary improvement! and this dear parlour in which our acquaintance first began, and in which so many happy hours have been since spent by us together, you would degrade to the condition of a common entrance, and every body would be eager to pass through the room which has hitherto contained within itself, more real accommodation and comfort than any other apartment of the handsomest dimensions in the world could possibly afford.” (85–86)
Although Willoughby’s exaggerated attachment to the cottage is part of what endears him to Marianne, Austen undercuts his romanticized view with Willoughby’s fickleness. Austen asks us to consider whether Willoughby legitimately loves Marianne but is swayed to marry for money once he is disinherited by Mrs. Smith; however, his tendencies to romanticize the landscape reveal him to be unworthy of Marianne’s devotion. In the end, Elinor leads Marianne to see that Willoughby’s behavior was always selfish, and both seem to understand that his lack of consideration for Marianne’s happiness nullifies his claim of genuine love. His criticism of Mrs. Dashwood’s intended “improvements” leads to the realm of extensive Austen criticism that seeks to determine Austen’s attitude toward landscape, picturesque taste, and “improvement,” but most critical attempts to categorize Austen’s characters by their opinions on picturesque landscape do not take into enough account the influence of pastoral mode.
When Willoughby confesses that he had often wished Barton cottage were inhabited, it is because he succumbs to a sentimental fallacy created by picturesque aesthetics through paintings, landscape theorists, and the wealthy, who were capable of reifying fictional landscapes as part of their estate architecture and design. This leisure class could populate the hermitages built on their estates to resemble ruins by hiring “hermits” to live on the estate and act the part. While the newly-constructed ruins delivered a patina1 representative of long-established wealth, the presence of agrarian working poor as part of the tableau demonstrated not only domination of inferior classes but also the capacity to live in a fictional world unburdened by the demands of reality. Willoughby anticipates membership in the wealthy class that can participate in its own fiction, but his is a false nostalgia for a simpler, pastoral life that never represented an actual bucolic existence. Instead of anticipating ownership of ruined hermitages, Willoughby’s landscape aesthetic suggests a pastoral fantasy through idealized cottage life. The romanticized picturesque taste he shares with Marianne is a desire for a fictional picturesque/pastoral world where shepherdesses aren’t simple country farm-girls, but are beautiful and well-read and bear themselves as gentlewomen.
Austen’s critique of landscape improvements leans more against sentimentality, or application of fictional values to real-world circumstances, than toward a consistent aesthetic theory. David Rosand describes the artificial nature of the pastoral landscape in painting as stimulating longing for a fictional existence:
The pastoral tradition itself is made of such fictions and operates through such seduction. Its very point is to offer a world that is not quite our own, a natural world that is not, an artificial construct that seems all nature. Very much a product of the fervid imagination, the pastoral landscape satisfies imagination's desires. (161)
The pastoral scene imagined by the picturesque aesthetic and Barton cottage as an emblem of it is one of desire. Michael McMordie describes the aesthetic attraction to cottages as desire to synthesize multiple binaries into one architectural structure: real agriculture and an idealized image of it, country simplicity and urban grandeur, growth of a consumer class and a longing for minimalism (27). McMordie explains that the “idea” of a cottage extends beyond its use value, as its meaning within the picturesque required that it be a place that the “richer and more leisured members of society find attractive” (18).
Willoughby also participates in the pastoral fallacy by demanding that the cottage remain unchanged for the sake of his romantic nostalgia. He argues that the “‘many happy hours’” he has spent in the parlor demand the room’s preservation, which suggests that he temporarily privileges the past over the future. He does not consider the possibility of future happy hours in an improved parlor, not because he does not imagine a future with Marianne, but because he seeks a Keatsian “Grecian urn” pastoral fantasy for their courtship so that the cottage becomes a shrine to their blossoming love. Keats’s Grecian scene of pastoral bliss describes a young lover never quite kissing his beloved, yet neither they nor the scene ages, frozen in art. Like other Austen characters, Willoughby’s tendencies toward enacting art do not meet Austen’s test of realism. Part of the pastoral mode includes desire for an unattainable stasis.
While Willoughby played at acting the part of the pastoral shepherd, Austen’s use of this pastoral fallacy demonstrates the vulnerability for women in adopting romantic ideals. Austen manipulates the tropes of picturesque landscapes that picture women as objects. By demonstrating the consequences for objectified women who are reduced to a romantic pastoral type instead of being considered for all they and their circumstances truly are, Austen warns women from adopting sentimental characteristics or allowing suitors to induce them into romantically determined roles. As she critiques the excesses of the gothic in Northanger Abbey, Austen demonstrates the fallacy of romanticized landscape aesthetics in Sense and Sensibility.
Frozen nods to Willoughby’s attempt to inhabit the idealized picturesque with Anna’s solo “For the First Time in Forever.” The song follows exposition of the girls’ close relationship disrupted by Elsa’s accidentally harming Anna with her power. Years later, after their parents’ death, Elsa and Anna prepare for Elsa’s coronation. Anna rushes about the palace in delight as doors and windows are thrown open in preparation. She exclaims, “I can’t wait to meet everyone! What if I meet . . . the one?” She hasn’t attended balls or had friends for years, during which time her romantic sensibilities have flourished. She hopes to find true love at her first social event. The song’s lyrics then reveal her imagined meeting with a love interest: she stands gracefully against a wall, then meets eyes with “a beautiful stranger, tall and fair,” in the form of a handsome bust, with whom she will “laugh and talk all evening.” Anna’s romantic fantasies, before Anna has met any potential object for her affection, mirror Marianne’s expectations for love. Following this projection is a clever series of interactions with large paintings on the gallery walls.
Each of the animated paintings represents an actual historic painting.2 Anna starts by placing herself in a tableau of an imitation of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Peasant Dance. The Arendelle version focuses on the peasant couple, and Anna becomes peasant woman being invited to dance. The second allusion is to Auguste Surrure’s The Picnic, for which Anna pretends to recline on a blanket while being wooed by an accordian player. In the third, she accepts a suitor’s kiss on the hand in Gerard ter Borch’s The Dancing Couple. With a quick leap into the air, Anna super-imposes herself over the figure in John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo, although it should be noted that Sargent’s painting includes only the female dancer and the Arrendale painting adds a male partner. The most memorable moment in Anna’s gallery tour is the Disney version of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing with a gentleman playfully pushing his beloved in a swing so high that her small shoe flies off her foot. The final tableau is the only one that doesn’t suggest a romantic liaison: Lucas van Leyden’s Potifar’s Wife Shows Joseph’s Gown to Her Husband. Anna here adds her figure into the painting (instead of replacing an existing woman), positioning herself between the man and woman so that she intercepts his gaze while looking back at him flirtatiously. Though the original painting’s false allegations of rape are erased by removing Joseph’s gown from Potiphar’s wife’s hands, this painting and Anna’s interaction with it strike a more sinister tone than the previous ones.
Both Anna of Arendelle and Marianne Dashwood dream of living in the idealized romantic scenes. They revel in the static romance and ignore the consequences of realism. Their anticipation of romantic love creates a receptivity that Disney satirizes in Anna and Hans’s duet “Love Is an Open Door.” After sharing with each other the trials of their sibling relationships, they break into song extolling their new sympathy. The risible nature of their instant connection is clear in the lyrics, such as when Hans sings, “I mean it’s crazy we finish each other’s . . .” and Anna completes his thought with “sandwiches” instead of “sentences.” By the end of the song, Hans has proposed marriage and Anna has accepted. Disney critics point out that the quick courtship is a trope of the animated film that Frozen dispels. When Anna reports her new engagement to Elsa, the fairytale queen objects to the rapidity of the romance.
Sense and Sensibility also censures the quick attachment. Marianne and Willoughby’s affair moves too fast for social standards, and Elinor comments on how little they know of him. Elinor chides Marianne for exhausting topics of conversation all on one visit and later describes her reservations about a man “so little, or at least so lately known to her” (69), an objection Marianne handily and romantically quashes by responding, “‘It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;—it is disposition alone’” (69). When Hans’s transactional motives are revealed, viewers of Frozen recognize how false his attempts to match Anna’s lyrics were. They shared no true sympathy; he adopted her tastes to seduce her. Willoughby’s tastes could be questioned in the same way. Of his and Marianne’s rapturous courtship, Austen writes:
Their taste was strikingly alike. The same books, the same passages were idolized by each—. . . He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm; and long before his visit concluded, they conversed with the familiarity of a long-established acquaintance. (56)
Marianne and Anna privilege sympathy of spirit over longevity of acquaintance to determine character, and both suffer the consequences of their method.
Though Frozen doesn’t end with marriages as Sense and Sensibility does, both pairs of sisters find new balance in their manners, and both pairs reestablish intimacy with each other. Frozen’s salvation of Anna rejects the marriage plot and romantic narratives in general as it is her own sisterly sacrifice that saves her and her sister. Clearly, the emphasis here is on sisterly love, just as Elinor is the one to sit by the side of Marianne, although it is possible her fever is infectious. Until the end, Frozen’s characters incorrectly interpret an “act of true love” to be a “true love’s kiss.” Salvation for both Anna and Marianne comes from sisterly devotion, not romantic heroism. As Leila S. May states, “The sister-sister bond is clearly the paramount familial relation for Austen” (335), and its priority over others seems to include any potential familial relation through marriage. Frozen, too, privileges sisterly love as the truest.
1Grant McCracken explains the eighteenth-century fascination with patina, or the artificial aging of buildings or consumer products, as “an icon . . . that reproduces the duration of the family’s claim to status” (37). In other words, artificial age can suggest that a family is “old money.”
2Lindsay’s “Classic Paintings in Disney’s Frozen” identifies the paintings Anna interacts with by finding the paintings they allude to.