The Role of Elinor Dashwood in Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

Illustrated Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen book
Illustrated Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen book

Austen began writing Elinor and Marianne as an epistolary novel in 1795. It was published as Sense and Sensibility in 1811. The novel set the tone for many of Austen’s titles: defiance of the social and economic barriers to marriage and the desire of women to marry for love. In the novel, Elinor and Marianne possess parallel experiences: They both fall in love with men who cannot commit to them. Needless to say, Elinor Dashwood epitomizes the concept of “sense” in her dealings with the world, while her sister Marianne models the concept of “sensibility.” In the novel, Elinor displays reason and propriety, while Marianne purports spontaneity, self-indulgence, and a lack of decorum.

One thing that is often confused by the modern reader is the contextual meaning of “sensibility” during Jane Austen’s time. “Sensibility” was a 15th Century word. Instead of meaning “an understanding of or ability to decide about what is good or valuable,” as we use it today, the word took on the meaning of a “peculiar susceptibility to a pleasurable or painful impression” or “refined or excessive sensitiveness in emotion and taste with especial responsiveness to the pathetic.” (Merriam-Webster)

Austen’s novels criticized the novels of sensibility of the late 1700s. “The sentimental novel or the novel of sensibility is an 18th Century literary genre which celebrates the emotional and intellectual concepts of sentiment, sentimentalism, and sensibility. Sentimentalism, which is distinguished from sensibility, was a fashion in both poetry and prose fiction beginning in the eighteenth century in reaction to the rationalism of the Augustan Age.

Austen wrote her novel at the turn of the 19th Century between what is known as Classicism and Romanticism. Austen was always aware of those who came before her, and she acknowledges the 18th Century novels she read voraciously as having a distinct influence on her generation. The novel reflects the change in the literary landscape with the turn of the 19th Century. Austen does not draw the characters of Marianne and Elinor in straight lines. Elinor expresses reserve, but she has her passionate moments. Marianne is headstrong, but not totally lacking in sense. It is as if Austen is arguing for a balance between sense and sensibility in our lives and that being too much of one is an error. Elinor and Marianne learn from each other and achieve happiness in that way.

“Sentimental novels relied on emotional response, both from their readers and characters. They feature scenes of distress and tenderness, and the plot is arranged to advance emotions and not to promote the action. The result is a valorization of “fine feeling,” displaying the characters as a model for refined, sensitive emotional effect. The ability to display feelings was thought to show character and experience, and to shape social life and relations.” (Wikipedia)

Sense and Sensibility (2008 miniseries) -
Sense and Sensibility (2008 miniseries) –

 Generally speaking, readers and film adaptations accept Elinor as displaying the acceptable manners of the time. In modern terms, some feel Marianne’s open expression of her feelings is healthier than Elinor’s suppression of emotions. One thing that REALLY drives me nuts in this novel is Elinor remains a static character throughout. As a teacher of English for some four decades, I taught my students that the main character is a dynamic one. It is almost as if Austen provides a bit of overkill of the concept of “sense” in the form of Elinor’s character.

 I know many remain interested in Elinor’s struggles to know happiness, but I find myself more concerned with Colonel Brandon’s “stuffiness.” When I first read the book (long after I read Pride and Prejudice), I was as irritated as Marianne with Elinor’s evaluation of Edward Ferrars.

“What a pity it is, Elinor”, said Marianne, “that Edward should have no taste for drawing.”

“No taste for drawing,” replied Elinor; “why should you think so? He does not draw himself, indeed, but he has great pleasure in seeing the performance of other people, and I assure you he is by no means deficient in natural taste, though he has not had opportunities of improving it. Had he ever been in the way of learning, I think he would have drawn very well. He distrusts his own judgment in such matters so much, that he is always unwilling to give his opinion on any picture; but he has an innate propriety and simplicity of taste, which in general direct him perfectly right.”

Marianne was afraid of offending, and said no more on the subject; but the kind of approbation which Elinor described as excited in him by the drawings of other people, was very far from that rapturous delight, which, in her opinion, could alone be called taste. Yet, though smiling within herself at the mistake, she honoured her sister for that blind partiality to Edward which produced it.

“I hope, Marianne,” continued Elinor, “you do not consider him as deficient in general taste. Indeed, I think I may say that you cannot, for your behaviour to him is perfectly cordial, and if that were your opinion, I am sure you could never be civil to him.”

Marianne hardly knew what to say. She would not wound the feelings of her sister on any account, and yet to say what she did not believe was impossible. At length she replied —

“Do not be offended, Elinor, if my praise of him is not in everything equal to your sense of his merits. I have not had so many opportunities of estimating the minuter propensities of his mind, his inclinations and tastes as you have; but I have the highest opinion in the world of his goodness and sense. I think him everything that is worthy and amiable.”

“I am sure,” replied Elinor with a smile, “that his dearest friends could not be dissatisfied with such commendation as that. I do not perceive how you could express yourself more warmly.”

Marianne was rejoiced to find her sister so easily pleased.

“Of his sense and his goodness,” continued Elinor, “no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough to engage him in unreserved conversation. The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent. You know enough of him to do justice to his solid worth. But of his minuter propensities, as you call them, you have from peculiar circumstances been kept more ignorant than myself. He and I have been at times thrown a good deal together, while you have been wholly engrossed on the most affectionate principle by my mother. I have seen a great deal of him, have studied his sentiments and heard his opinion on subjects of literature and taste; and, upon the whole, I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure. His abilities in every respect improve as much upon acquaintance as his manners and person. At first sight, his address is certainly not striking; and his person can hardly be called handsome, till the expression of his eyes, which are uncommonly good, and the general sweetness of his countenance, is perceived. At present, I know him so well, that I think him really handsome; or, at least, almost so. What say you, Marianne?”

“I shall very soon think him handsome, Elinor, if I do not now. When you tell me to love him as a brother, I shall no more see imperfection in his face, than I now do in his heart.”

Elinor started at this declaration, and was sorry for the warmth she had been betrayed into, in speaking of him. She felt that Edward stood very high in her opinion. She believed the regard to be mutual; but she required greater certainty of it to make Marianne’s conviction of their attachment agreeable to her. She knew that what Marianne and her mother conjectured one moment, they believed the next — that with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect. She tried to explain the real state of the case to her sister.

“I do not attempt to deny,” said she, “that I think very highly of him — that I greatly esteem, that I like him.”

Marianne here burst forth with indignation —

“Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise. Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.” Elinor could not help laughing.

There is a bit of Elizabeth Bennet in this passage. Elinor does not admit loving Edward; she also does not permit herself to think she is in love with anyone. Edward is as reserved as is Elinor. Being reserved in nature is a subject Austen returns to in Emma. What the reader discovers is the “reserved” displayed by Elinor and Edward and by Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill is not real.

Despite her vow not to love a man who does not love her in return, Elinor convinces herself that the ring he wears contains a lock of her hair. She does not openly mourn Edward’s loss, but she does think upon him often.

Lucy Steele’s revelation that Lucy and Edward are engaged is enough to shake Elinor from her delusions of marriage to Edward. Elinor is wise enough to see through Lucy’s manipulations. Elinor continues to hide her feelings for Edward from all, especially Lucy, who would celebrate Elinor’s hopes being dashed.

Unlike Marianne who openly flaunts her interest in John Willoughby by writing the man letters, Elinor hides her disappointment and devotes her attentions to Marianne’s misery.

Marianne chastises Elinor for the expectation of Marianne’s “sense.” Marianne claims her own despair superior to anything Elinor might feel for Edward’s betrayal. “Always resignation and acceptance! Always prudence and honor and duty! Elinor, where is your heart?”

24 Responses to The Role of Elinor Dashwood in Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility”

  1. I was glad to read of the definitions of the word sensibilities as I always wondered at how they might be in opposition with our modern day interpretation. Learned something new, again. Thank you. Sometimes our modern “letting it all hang out” dispositions might be better received if we had just a little reserve or “think before you act”, I do believe. Text messages and tweets and FB allow so much more brashness and downright rudeness at times.

  2. An informative and thought provoking post. Thank you so much for the clarification of the meaning of ‘sensibility’ in the times it was written. It makes a lot more sense now. No pun intended.

  3. Thanks for your post Regina. I have always seen Elinor as the “sense” put on an extreme level but watching Marianne (who has always embarrassed me) I am admire her. When I was young I thought this was her way to protect herself from sufferings even if it is an impossible thing because inside you feel your loss and some emotions can’t be concealed.

  4. As always, a very thought provoking article, Regina. I come away from your posts with something new to think about and I appreciate all the thought and work that goes into what you present. Thank you for making me dig deeper.

  5. I can also see Elinor as the unofficial head of the family. She had much resting on her shoulders and was amazing at keeping her feelings hidden so that she could give support to the rest of her family. Loved this little article. Jen Red

    • Thanks, Jennifer. I am spending much time of late revisiting my opinions on Austen’s titles. Sometimes I come across a new revelation, and other times, I previous feelings are reaffirmed.

  6. I always felt that Elinor was behaving in the proper way of her time. They weren’t supposed to show what they were feeling. Also how women were supposed to wait for the man to express interest and then show their appreciation or not. She keeps herself to herself, much like Jane Bennet. And don’t forget the British stiff upper lip, and all that. Marianne seems somewhat ridiculous to me. Today she would be considered a drama queen and/or high maintenance. Maybe she, and people like her, think she is just ‘being honest’ and expressing herself. I know that I find such people exhausting.

    • “Exhausting” is an excellent word choice, Ginna. Elinor’s quiet suffering is indicative of the time and the situation, although it is bothersome for many modern readers. I never once chose to teach S&S to my students. They could understand the idea of Anne Elliot’s father and Lady Russell forbidding her a relationship with a man they felt unsuitable. Most teens have “hooked up” with someone of which their parents did not approve. I could also interest them in P&P and the nuances of courtship in the Regency, as well as the differences in social classes. Yet, I never thought I could interest them in S&S. Perhaps, if I had played it up more like “Mean Girls” or “Drama Queen,” I might have sold them on it, too.

  7. I think Elinor was doing what she thought she had to do to hold her world together. They had lost SO much and were living in a state of flux. Moving on into the story, they were at a new place with new people and she had to be the anchor. She would not allow herself to give way to anything less until she could stand it no more. I have often referred to myself as a mash-up of Elinor and Lizzy. I have the propensity of Elinor to be led by sense even when seen as cold and unfeeling because it keeps me on track and the world rotates on its axis much better if I maintain my head. Of course I’m also an obstinate headstrong girl who likes my view of the world much better than anyone elses so take what you like from that. LOL

    • I totally understand, Stephanie. Your description rings true for me. I was always the adult in charge, even when I was a child. My mother’s generation did not speak out against the snubs of the world. I was a teen in the 1960s. We saw the world quite differently from what my mother suffered in her teen years of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

  8. I saw Elinor as the unofficial head of that family. Perhaps she worked hard to keep her own deep attraction for Edward in check…because no matter what…she had to lead that vulnerable suddenly poor family onwards…and make sure they lived within their means

    Such rigid control is needed to deal with Lucy Steele especially…and even nice but clueless Edward.

    • Responsibility is a hard pill to swallow, Lee. We must recall that Elinor was only 19 (not the mature woman we envision when we see Emma Thompson in the role). Marianne was but 17. Yes, in the Regency, girls married younger than we think of in modern times, but even so, it must be difficult to take on such responsibilities at any age.

  9. It is odd how many people say they love Jane Austen’s works and then disagree with her pairing of lovers. Edward Ferrars, Edmund Bertram, Col. Brandon are all considered dull , if worthy, Some even feel that Emma would have done better to go with Frank Churchill than Knightley. They dislike Fanny Price and want to make her more like E. Bennet while thinking Edmund and Fanny dull sticks who could only be redeemed by marrying the Crawfords.. If the novels are looked at as a whole, she gives a variety of heroines and heroes. The cleverness of one becomes a fault in another woman. She knew what she was doing .

    • I thoroughly agree, Nancy. I always appreciate your insights on the Regency and Austen. When I wrote this I tried to think of why I preferred Elizabeth’s spunk to Elinor’s “quiet suffering.” I suppose it was my own upbringing that evoke those emotions. Needless to say, when I first read Austen (beginning at age 12), I had no idea of her genius, nor of the nuances of society at the time. Only after years of reading and rereading do any of Austen’s themes become clearer. Thankfully, I’m still learning at age 67.

    • I love how layered the reading experience feels with an Austen novel. I’ve done the same when on a binge of her work and in comparing my own reactions note how I will easily forgive a fault in a heroine, while that same fault in the next story’s villain seems irredeemable. I also love how easy it is to enjoy Austen as a simple read but also an academic one, depending on my mood.

  10. Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Regina. I find it so difficult sometimes to look back 200 years and fully grasp people’s feelings and reactions, as sanctioned by the age they lived in. From our modern understanding of the ‘stiff upper lip’ we are somehow led to believe that Elinor was behaving with due decorum and propriety, whereas Marianne was flighty and too emotional in her estimations of events and people. On the other hand, the cult of sensibility was fashionable in some Regency circles, and the open display of emotion, to the point of grown men shedding tears at the sight of a painting or the reading of a poem was viewed not as slightly ridiculous, but as proof of their ‘ability to feel’. The Prince Regent himself was a proponent, but we all know what Jane Austen thought of the Prince Regent 😉 and her solid common sense, seasoned with clever irony and a wonderful sense of humour is, I think, one of the things that makes her writing so beautifully modern. Of all her characters, I can’t help thinking she IS Elizabeth Bennet.

    • You are perfectly correct, Joana. Many modern readers receive their opinions of the “mode of the day” from the film adaptations, rather than from a working knowledge of the time. Thanks for your input. You added more depth of understanding to the piece.

Your thoughts are precious!