What can Jane Austen teach us about our current situation? For many people, the answer might well be a resounding “Nothing.” After all, as Allan Bloom points out, one could say that nothing is precisely what Austen’s characters do. Each of her books is taken up with the minutiae of private, domestic life—paying calls, attending dances, swapping rumors, all for the sake of marrying someone off or getting married oneself—which are presented as all-absorbing. Any indicator of a major political event, such as the company of soldiers in Pride and Prejudice or the military background of Persuasion’s Captain Wentworth, is discussed only in relation to the personal lives of Austen’s protagonists. Though these protagonists take an interest in the tumults of the wider world, it is always in the context of polite conversation, the kind that happens after dinner around the fire. What connection could such sheltered, humdrum characters have to the turmoil of today?
I contend that Sense and Sensibility, which lacks even the muted political references of the aforementioned texts, still contains crucial lessons for the modern reader. As we battle the pandemic, grapple with the impacts of an ever-widening partisan divide, and confront the bleak truths of racial inequality, it may seem unreasonable to ask: Ms. Austen, what is to be done? I hope to show that this question is not only reasonable, but also necessary.
Sense and Sensibility follows two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, through the social situation into which they are forced after their father’s death. Though they and their mother have hardly any income of their own, convention calls for their father’s estate to devolve upon his son from a previous marriage, who needs the fortune much less. The son, who lives under the thumb of his jealously frugal wife, makes no provision for his half-sisters. In order to survive, therefore, the Dashwoods must move from their late father’s estate to a cottage some miles away. The sisters’ lives, however, are not devoid of excitement: Elinor has recently formed an attachment to Edward Ferrars, an in-law of her brother’s, while the move to the cottage throws Marianne into the path of the rakishly handsome John Willoughby. Naturally, romantic intrigues and entanglements ensue, but they do not last. As in every Jane Austen novel, all misunderstandings are eventually cleared up, all appropriate matches made, and all characters given their just deserts.
It is not the ending, then, that contains the element of surprise, but the comparison between Elinor and Marianne. At the beginning of the book, an analysis of their characters appears easy enough to perform. Elinor is Sense: rational, economical, and skeptical. Marianne is Sensibility: passionate, effusive, and “everything but prudent.” The sisters’ first conversation shows Marianne chiding Elinor for expressing her liking for Edward in such a “cold-hearted” way. Yet Marianne herself finds Edward wanting. She thinks he reads aloud, listens to music, and admires art with a disappointing lack of emotion. As Marianne tells her mother, “I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both.” For Marianne, even one disagreement about a piece of literature or art would be grounds for dismissing a potential suitor. And her dismissals—not only of Edward, but also of Elinor—are swift. Because Edward does not praise certain books with as much unrestraint as Marianne, she calls him passionless; because Elinor does not praise Edward with that same unrestraint, Marianne calls her cold-hearted.
The inaccuracy of Marianne’s judgments quickly becomes clear. As it turns out, the division between the two sisters—Sense and Sensibility—is less stark than it originally seems. Upon leaving their father’s house, Elinor, like Marianne, feels “deeply afflicted.” Later in the book, when Elinor is ambushed by the news that Edward has been secretly engaged for four years, the depth of her love for him becomes evident: “For a few moments, she was almost overcome—her heart sunk within her, and she could hardly stand.” Elinor only appears cold-hearted to her sister because, unlike Marianne, she strives to conceal the strength of her feelings. In the first case, it is the consciousness of her familial duties toward her brother and his wife that drives her; in the second, it is the conviction that she should neither betray the trust of Edward and his fiancée nor reveal her affection for an engaged man.
The modern reader, however, might agree with Marianne that Elinor only makes these efforts out of a conventional primness. During a conversation with Marianne and Edward, Elinor admits that her first impressions of people are often unsound, saying she allows herself to be led astray by common opinion rather than trusting her own judgment. Sarcastically, Marianne replies that she thought Elinor’s “doctrine” was to submit to common opinion in every instance. Elinor’s answer is worth quoting in full:
“No, Marianne, never. My doctrine has never aimed at the subjection of the understanding. All I have ever attempted to influence has been the behavior. You must not confound my meaning. I am guilty, I confess, of having often wished you to treat our acquaintance in general with greater attention; but when have I advised you to adopt their sentiments or conform to their judgment in serious matters?”
Having listened to this speech, Edward says, “You have not yet been able then to bring your sister over to your plan of general civility.” His phrasing is apt, since “civility” is the word that appears most often in connection with Elinor’s attempts to correct Marianne—or, if the damage has already been done, to excuse her. Marianne refuses to “treat [her] acquaintance in general with greater attention” because she will not hide her feelings, which means she shows “coldness” to anyone who demonstrates “impertinence, vulgarity, inferiority of parts, or even difference of taste from herself.”[^9] When she disregards those she finds irritating, dull, or simply peculiar, “the whole task of telling lies when politeness require[s] it”—of leaping into the social breach that Marianne has opened—falls to Elinor.
In some situations, Marianne’s feelings are understandable. After all, anyone would tire of listening to the chatter of the nosy Mrs. Jennings or praising the fatuous Lady Middleton’s unpleasant children. Yet even when Elinor privately agrees with Marianne, her desire to be civil prompts her to treat these people with courtesy. As she tells Marianne, she tries to prevent this desire from subjecting her own judgment to theirs; when obeying the rules of politeness, she makes her remarks as “simple and just” as she can without offending her companions. Elinor’s attempts to walk this line, of course, do not always succeed, and she recognizes this fact. Her ready acknowledgment that her impressions can be wrong demonstrates not only an awareness of her own imperfections, but also a willingness to correct her mistakes when they become evident.
Elinor often tries to persuade Marianne to adopt a similar outlook, but Marianne clings to her opinions much more firmly than does her sister. Having decided that Colonel Brandon, another of their new acquaintances, must be incapable of any strong emotion at the ripe old age of thirty-five, Marianne refuses to listen to Elinor’s commendations of him. Spurred on by Willoughby, with whom she has become enamored, Marianne calls the colonel uninteresting, unintelligent, and unfeeling. Elinor chides the couple for making sweeping generalizations, which, because they come from overactive imaginations, make Elinor’s praises look “comparatively cold and insipid.” Willoughby playfully responds that Elinor is “endeavoring to disarm me by reason, and convince me against my will. But it will not do.” In one way, he is right: Elinor’s main weapon is reason, which does appear “cold and insipid” to those dazzled by passion.
As we have seen, however, the appearances in this novel often belie the realities. Judging by appearances, we would think Elinor was the conventional sister—proper, hyper-conscious of her reputation, and unwilling to alter her rigid views. Marianne, on the other hand, would be the nonconformist—fierce, outspoken, and unafraid to counter common opinion. Yet the opposite turns out to be true. Marianne calls Elinor “cold-hearted,” but it is Marianne herself who treats others with “coldness.” Sometimes, her dismissals are provoked by real annoyances that explain—but do not excuse—her rudeness. Other times, however, they arise from Marianne’s refusal to believe that anyone whose looks or actions differ from hers could be just as intelligent, interesting, and worthy of respect as she is. Furthermore, once her judgment is all-too-hastily formed, it remains unaffected by any opposing argument, even if that argument is correct. In fact, it takes a near-fatal illness and weeks in bed to make Marianne “perfectly able to reflect”—to realize that “Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged. Everybody seemed injured by me.” Until this moment, Marianne is the conventional one—for what is more conventional than the thumotic attachment to the idea that anyone different should be silenced?
It is reflection—long, quiet, sustained reflection—that frees Marianne at last. Comparing her own behavior with Elinor’s and finding it wanting, she resolves to take her sister as her model, for reason and reflection are the guides of Elinor’s life. At every turn, they lead her to wonder whether her opinions are sound and to open her mind to the possibility that they are not. This open-mindedness keeps Elinor from rejecting existing customs outright, for she cannot simply dismiss the idea that she might learn something from them. At the same time, she attempts to view these customs with an impartial eye, hoping to understand their weaknesses and to distinguish her own judgment from that of the crowd. Most important, the recognition that she could always be wrong drives Elinor to follow her “plan of general civility”—to listen when others are speaking, to treat them with consideration, and to check any uncharitable assumptions. Though her feelings are strong, it is her ability to quiet them through reason that makes Elinor truly kind.
Some might argue that reason is the last thing we need right now. Now, they might say, is the time to act like Marianne—to express our feelings, to cling to our convictions, to forge ahead with all the zealous fervor we can muster. And there is some truth to that argument, for spirits like Marianne’s are politically necessary. It takes a fiery passion to push tirelessly for reform, to amplify voices that have been unfairly ignored, and to inspire others to do the same.
Yet the question remains: When the reforms have been made, the speakers have moved on to their next topic, and the inspiration has waned, what then? Changing laws is far from equivalent to changing minds; how will we prevent ourselves from falling back into old patterns, from avoiding uncommon ideas and forming unfounded impressions, from drawing our party lines ever more deeply in the sand? It is not passion that will save us then, for it is near-impossible for a person consumed by passion to challenge her own cherished beliefs. To create a culture of true civility—one that is grounded in open discourse, deep consideration of viewpoints that are not our own, and real willingness to understand those viewpoints—it takes an Elinor.
In their timely and persuasive book How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that the gradual erosion of two fundamental norms—mutual toleration and forbearance—has endangered American democracy. Upholding these norms, they suggest, means remembering that the person whose opinion, background, or identity differs from ours is also a human being from whom we might have something to learn. At the end of the book, Levitsky and Ziblatt quote author E. B. White’s answer to the question “What is democracy?”, asked by the U.S. Federal Government’s Writers’ War Board in 1943:
“Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the ‘don’t’ in don’t shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which the sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere. Democracy is a letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn’t been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It’s the mustard on the hot dog and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.”
American democracy, I would argue, is the most ambitious “plan of general civility” that has ever been conceived. It is not only the “don’t” in “don’t shove,” but also the “listen” in “listen up” and the “my” in “my mistake.” It confirms that what makes us human is our capacity for reasoned speech—our ability, when talking together, to figure things out. It reminds us that it is sense, far more than sensibility, that will see us safely through.
Allan Bloom, “Austen, Pride and Prejudice,” in Love and Friendship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 192. ↩︎
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (London: Penguin Books, 2014), 8. All following quotes, unless otherwise noted are frmo Sense and Sensibility. ↩︎
Ibid, 92. ↩︎
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Broadway Books, 2018), 230–231. ↩︎
Featured Image: Photo of Sense and Sensibilitity staging by Patrick Weishampel and blankeye.tv. Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory via Flickr.
Emily A. Davis is a PhD student in Government at the University of Texas at Austin. She studies Political Theory (primarily Plato, Aristotle, and Montaigne) and Comparative Politics.