Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Heart vs. Head: "Sense and Sensibiity"


Source: "Sense and Sensibility -3" by MadMonaLisa, DeviantArt
 http://fc07.deviantart.net/fs70/f/2012/174/2/0/sense_and_sensibility__3_by_madmonalisa-d54jqkz.jpg


The connection between the theme of Head vs. Heart and this Jane Austen classic should be pretty well evident in the title of her novel.  Sense and Sensibility describes the two main characters, sisters Elinor and Marianne, in a manner that is far more clear than her similarly titled Pride and Prejudice  (Which one’s “pride”?  Which one’s “prejudice”?  Elizabeth and Darcy have their moments of each!).  Also, where Pride and Prejudice names two flaws in the characters, Sense and Sensibility names one strength, and one failing. 

Just a side note, here, for the current generation: in “olden times” the word “sensibility” was used for one’s capacity to feel emotions.  I point it out because it would be quite easy to mistake the word for the similar-sounding “sensible,” which is practically an antonym.  The title Sense and Sensibility means “Wisdom and Feeling” rather “Wisdom and Wisdom.”  The latter just wouldn’t make…er…sense.

Marianne Dashwood is our cautionary tale of what can happen when emotion and romanticism get taken to the extreme.  She allows her emotions to overwhelm her to the point of alienating her friends and even putting her health and life in danger:

“Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby. She would have been ashamed to look her family in the face the next morning, had she not risen from her bed in more need of repose than when she lay down on it.”
~S&S, Volume I, Chapter 16
 
At first Marianne’s overdramatic bent is played as humorous, but as she succumbs more and more to her emotions, rejecting the wise advice of her sister Elinor.  As a result she not only gets her heart broken by a despicable Handsome Cad with a rotten past and a penchant for gold-digging, but she very nearly ruins her reputation by flaunting her attachment to him in front of complete strangers. 

Meanwhile, her older sister Elinor is going through some romance problems herself.  Secretly in love with Edward Ferrars, she finds out that he is engaged to a shrew of a girl.  The mere fact of being in love with a “taken man” could ruin her reputation were it to get out, and so Elinor keeps all her emotions bottled up inside.  The story being written in third person nevertheless focuses on Elinor’s point-of-view so the reader can see that she does have emotions, that she isn’t completely devoid of sensibility; she just controls it with her sense. 

Marianne is so swept overboard by her own drama that she couldn’t see Elinor’s suffering even if Elinor were more overt in expressing them.  Therefore Marianne has a tendency to belittle everyone else’s emotions—remember she’s still only a teenager, so this is pretty true-to-life—and exalt her own emotional highs and lows:

“Elinor has not my feelings, and therefore she may overlook it, and be happy with him.  But it would have broke my heart had I loved him, to hear him read with so little sensibility.”
~ S&S, Volume I, Chapter 4

 
But as Marianne learns as the moral to this story, if you don’t master your emotions, they will master you.  Neglecting her health for the sake of her “love” for Willoughby, she eventually gets sick almost to death.  It’s only a miracle of the plot that she survives to see the error of her ways:

“ 'My feelings shall be governed and my temper improved.  They shall no longer worry others, nor torture myself.’”
~ S&S, Volume II, Chapter 10

So why did Jane Austen favor Sense over Sensibility?  Perhaps because—as anyone who has read a biography on her, or even seen Becoming Jane will attest—she had a background very similar to Marianne’s.  Perhaps she made Elinor more of a hero because Austen herself was striving to be more like her.  As for whether this story is resonant with the modern reader, personally I think this would be a great book to read when young women first start thinking about dating.  Jane Austen’s works in general are a good primer of How to Spot a Cad, but Sense and Sensibility in particular shows how emotions must be held under the rein of common sense or else they will run rampant and risk hurting others as well as yourself.

Verdict: Head wins

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