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Wednesday, 8 February 2017

ELINOR THE MORAL CENTRE IN JANE AUSTEN'S 'SENSE AND SENSIBILITY'

Elinor is a prolific and confident speaker, compared with the usual Jane Austen heroine. Anne Elliot in some chapters is virtually silent. But Elinor has plenty to say; and she probably speaks as many words in the middle of Chapter 37 as Anne Elliot does in the whole of Persuasion. Her reflections there on the relationship between Lucy and Edward and on her own behaviour during the past four months read like a Shakespearean soliloquy.

As for Marianne, it goes without saying that she never goes without saying. In her case, robust self-expression is one of the 'defects' of character that she must learn to curb.

Although we are given the illusion of following the inner lives of both sisters, the truth is that we interpret events almost entirely through Elinor’s vision. She is present throughout almost the entire narrative and we are kept fully aware of what she is thinking and feeling. We are also led to believe that her views are sound, sensible and to be admired, whereas there is explicit criticism from the narrator of Marianne’s behaviour. This, for example, comes from Chapter 31:

Like half the rest of the world, if more than half there be that are clever and good, Marianne, with excellent abilities and an excellent disposition, was neither reasonable nor candid. She expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself.

There are no such reservations in the praise the narrator gives Elinor. So, although the novel is sometimes said to demonstrate fairly the merits of persons who behave with sensibililty as well as those who behave with sense, it is clear that, over all, Jane Austen comes down in favour of ‘sense’. Although Marianne is treated sympathetically – and Jane Austen makes clear she is essentially a good-hearted person – her actions are almost always observed through Elinor’s eyes, with Elinor’s interpretation of them.

At one point Elinor mildly takes Marianne to task for behaving with impropriety. Marianne says she knows there can be nothing wrong with what she did, for she would not have enjoyed it if there had been.

How the doctrine that a ‘good’ person would know, instinctively, whether something was good or bad ever came into being is hard to say. The idea no doubt is that we all have a natural conscience that instinctively reacts against evil, but this is a concept that flies in the face of experience. Propriety is a set of rules made by society. Elinor tries to follow them because they make for smoother relations among people. Marianne thinks she does not have to bother about rules as long as her conscience is clear.