Friday, February 4, 2011

The Meaning Behind the Title; Sense and Sensibility

'Cut off a long lock of her hair'
C.E. Brock

While reading Sense and Sensibility, one of the main things I noticed was the different ways in which the title of the book could be interpreted. From the footnotes of the novel, we learn the definitions of the two words;

Sense – possessing judgment and intelligence (303).

Sensibility – capacity for refined emotional response to feelings and experiences, involving delicate sensitivity to moral and aesthetic issues (303).

From one perspective, the character of Elinor could be considered as having ‘Sense,’ while Marianne would be acting out of ‘Sensibility.’ Austen begins the novel by describing her two main characters and how they appear in comparison to each other.

“Elinor… possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to imprudence. She had an excellent heart; – her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them” (6).

“Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was sensible and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent” (6).

This description of her characters sets up the basic personalities of the sisters for the rest of the story, and is important in showing their growth. Later in the story, we start to see the traits blend together as the sisters develop and mature.

When Elinor finds out that Lucy married Robert and not Edward, she acts more like you might think Marianne would respond.

“Elinor could sit no longer. She almost ran out of the room, and as soon as the door was closed, burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease” (273).

Marianne also grows and begins to reflect on her behavior, such as Elinor might do.

“My illness has made me think… I considered the past; I saw in my own behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with [Willoughby] last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. …My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health” (262).

Another possible interpretation of the title appears in the first footnote, which explains that it is unknown whether Austen had decided upon the name after reading an allegory in Lady’s Monthly Museum, in which Sense (male) rescues Sensibility (female) from Susceptibility (male).

With these in mind, how would you interpret the title of Sense and Sensibility? In what other ways could it be viewed? How do you think the other characters in the novel portray these behaviors, and how does this affect the story?


  1. I agree with Lauren’s analysis that throughout the novel, Elinor is portrayed as corresponding with the definition of sense provided, whereas Marianne fits more accurately with the definition of sensibility. I believe that the characterization of others throughout the novel fall into one definition or the other. Moreover, I think that characters possessing the trait of sense are looked upon more favorably by the narrator and by other characters than are characters who fall within the definition of sensibility.

    Some of the major characters that I found to identify most strongly with the definition of sensibility were Marianne, Mrs. John Dashwood, and Mrs. Jennings. All three women, throughout the novel, appeared fond of giving in to their every emotional desire, while ensuring that everyone around them was witness to their emotional states (for example, Marianne’s prolonged desperation at Willoughby’s abandonment, Mrs. Dashwood’s theatrics upon discovering Edward’s engagement to Lucy (pg. 200), and Mrs. Jennings’ often-vacillating yet vehement opinions on love and engagements). The characters viewed in the light of sensibility all receive a certain amount of disapproval for their behaviors in both the tone of the narrator when speaking of them, and the opinion of the characters more closely aligned with the definition of sense.

    On the other hand, the major characters I found to identify with sense, including Elinor and Colonel Brandon, seem to command a high opinion of many of those around them, as well as a tone of increased respect from the narrator. These characters are lacking in emotional outbursts throughout the novel, and instead maintain a dignified outward appearance even in the midst of significant emotional distress (for example, Colonel Brandon’s ability to maintain a calm appearance despite his fears of Marianne’s illness, and Elinor’s efforts to comfort all of those around her with a calm appearance despite her personal distress at Edward’s seeming carelessness). The only way we as readers know of their intense emotional feelings is a result of the narrator sharing their thoughts, rather than their outward displays of dramatics. In this sense, those characters who identify with the characteristic of sense seem to be more valued in terms of personality and character than those who show signs of sensibility.

  2. I find this examination of the story through a discussion of its language fascinating. I believe that with titling the novel Sense and Sensibility, Jane was establishing a set of characteristics that are in fact stages in a person’s development. My belief in this comes out of the definitions provided in the appendix. My theory is that a person has three stages of development. The first is one that is not mentioned in the title by hinted at through the definitions that are supplied. I call this state “the raw state”. A person is influenced by his or her emotions and is a slave to his or her passions. Eventually a person grows and matures and reaches “Sensibility”. In this state, the person is beginning to put their emotional past behind them. According to the appendix, sensibility is defined as “capacity for refined emotional response to feelings and experiences” (303). The word capacity implies a transition in power. A person is gaining power over his or her emotions; he or she is refining them. However the transition is not fully complete because capacity means potential. A person who has reached “Sensibility” may be able to control their emotions but in a moment of weakness, this control could be lost. This is not the case for someone who has reached the “Sense” state. The definition for sense reads “possessing judgment and intelligence”. In my opinion, possession equals more power than capacity. A person in this last state owns his or her emotions. In fact, they have been replaced by the more logical judgment and intelligence.
    The sets of siblings in the story show the progression of someone from sensibility to sense. For example, Marianne and Elinor and their choice in men show the difference in their emotional capacity. Marianne falls for a man, John Willoughby, who fails to marry her because he is motivated by greed and marries the wealthy Sophia Grey. Instead Elinor falls for a man with better principles. Her heart goes to Edward Ferrars, a person more put together and “refined”. His brother, Robert is not in the same state as his brother. For example, he cannot hide the secret that his brother is engaged to Lucy Steele. The only exception to my theory is Lucy and her sister Anne. Despite an age difference between them, the older Anne acts in a manner I would associate with sensibility. She is unmarried and like the younger Ferrar brother, unable to keep her knowledge of Lucy’s and Edward’s engagement to herself.
    In this novel, there are states of development for the characters to inhabit. They can be based on maturity but a person, such as Anne Steele shows that backslide is possible. Overall, “Sense” and “Sensibility” serves as measuring sticks for the characters.

  3. I agree with Lauren’s analysis of the novel, especially while talking about the growth of both Elinor and Marianne and how they begin to exhibit each other’s characteristics. With this growth and character development in mind, I feel that the title Sense and Sensibility is suggesting that someone should not strictly act with sense or strictly act with sensibility; there needs to be a balance between the two concepts. Elinor, while acting with sense, almost misses her opportunity to be with the man she loves because she does not really show emotion or give any indication that her feelings for him are so strong. Marianne, by acting with sensibility, lets her emotions get the best of her, allowing her to fall in love with Willoughby, who ultimately deceives and hurts her. When both sisters show both sense and sensibility their situations improve and they are each happily married at the end of the novel.
    Besides Elinor, I feel that Colonel Brandon also demonstrates sense. While he is in love with Marianne, she quickly dismisses him because he is not as outgoing as Willoughby and she is not drawn to him. Only when she begins to think more rationally and sees how caring and heroic Colonel Brandon is capable of being, does she marry him. Mrs. Dashwood, like Marianne, demonstrates sensibility. She is looked down upon by many people for her neglecting social or financial hierarchies. She is despised by Fanny Dashwood for encouraging a relationship between Elinor and Fanny’s brother, Edward, because he is expected to marry someone wealthy, which Elinor is not. Mrs. Dashwood has no real understanding or comprehension of Fanny’s issue with her daughter, making her look foolish.

  4. The narrative between Elinor and Mr. Willoughby (pages 242-249) offers an instance where Mr. Willoughby's "sense" butts heads with his perhaps newfound "sensibility." He is an example of relying too strongly on senses when the emotions of others are involved. We may want to raise discussion on whether it is better to have sense or better to have sensibility, or as Maureen has stated, a balance of both.

    Marrianne appeared to have too much sensibility in the ways in which she pursued and admired Mr. Willoughby. This left her in hysterics over his engagement to Miss Grey. Mr. Willoughby, however, was caught in a predicament where the prospect of marrying Ms. Grey for her money made more sense than having feelings for the girl who loved him so. He does admit that he only allowed Marianne to have feelings for him for his own vanity (242). Reflecting on his behavior towards Marianne's affection, he reveals "that my heart should have been so insensible!" (242). The affection he did have for her was overshadowed by the “unwillingness to enter into an engagement while my circumstances were so greatly embarrassed” (243). In Mr. Willoughby’s case, sense outweighs sensibility.

    He later says, after speaking to Marianne’s letters, "With my head and heart full of your sister, I was forced to play the happy lover to another woman!" (248). Taking "Sense and Sensibility" into account we might attribute sense with the head and sensibility with the heart. It made some sense to go for Marianne (since her love for him made him feel so honorable) except only for the fact that they would be poor. Of course, he chose to allow his better senses to guide him into marriage with Ms. Grey, but not without sacrifice. The anguish he feels for hurting Marianne proves that, while it may be intelligent to make the decision to have financial stability, his sensibility will get the best of him in the end. He is hurting and pained by his decision, and by Marianne’s disappointment, so much so that he finds it necessary to rid himself of his own guilt by this narrative with Elinor.

    I guess that brings in the question of which is better: sense or sensibility? Though having sense is favored throughout the novel, sensibility also becomes important in regards to the feelings of the other characters. If Mr. Willoughby had been more sensitive to Marianne, would he be so distressed during his encounter with her sister?

  5. Lauren’s description of the polarities presented in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility are undoubtedly evidenced by the demeanors of Elinor and Marianne throughout the novel. Even prior to meeting Willoughby, Marianne’s emotional outbursts are presented. When the Mr. John Dashwood unceremoniously denies his father’s dying wish to take care of his half sister’s family and the four women are forced to leave their home in Norland, Marianne is overwhelmed by the parting. As a girl of only seventeen, her intense feelings of loss are understandable to the modern reader, but in Austen’s age would criticize such emotion-based responses. Marianne’s second loss finds her much more emotionally destroyed than the first. When Willoughby leaves and eventually rejects her, Marianne is thrust into a perpetual sadness that nearly kills her. It is only when she has taken deathly ill that Marianne is able to reflect on the negative impact of letting her emotions run wild. Austen’s Elinor is meant as the novel’s foil to her sister. In a sense, Elinor balances the family by providing a sensible backbone. She concerns herself with the family’s finances and without her, the ladies Dashwood would find themselves in much distress. While Elinor separates herself from the spontaneous overflow of powerful feeling typically seen in Romantic literature, she is still able to find true love. She keeps her emotions out of the public eye, but clearly does not lack some of the sensibility that Marianne so clearly exhibits. By providing both ends of the emotional spectrum and gradually bridging these polarities as the Dashwood sisters age, Austen makes a clear statement of the importance of balancing a clear head with a pure heart.

  6. The title of this Austen novel is significant because it highlights the importance of these two major themes in this work. On a literal level, I would obviously suggest like most of the previous comments have that Sense and Sensibility refers to the Dashwood sisters Marianne and Elinor; after all this novel was originally named Elinor and Marianne before the title was changed during publication in 1811. I would obviously agree with Lauren's assessment that at the beginning of the novel, Elinor represents sense while Marianne embodies sensibility (as defined by the appendix notes). What is interesting however is the way the Dashwood girls seem to reverse roles towards the end of the novel. This throws off the rather rigid characterization that is established in the opening pages. As the introduction section explains, "...notice how the two words coalesce in the word 'sensible'" (xii). Both words unite in a third word which means something different entirely. The difficulty in establishing a boundary between the two words and even creating definitions for each of them separately is further evident in the introduction: "'Sensibility' may be a feminine attribute in some respects, but it would be socially inconvenient for women to possess too much of it, for they would not then fit in with what was required of them or put up with what they had to endure" (xii). Perhaps Marianne's sickness is a result of too much sensibility but then her recovery is a result of sense. The deep connection between these two ideas is reflected in the title, Sense AND Sensibility. Perhaps Austen is making a larger point about society by including both ideas in her title. Not only does a woman need to have sense like Elinor, but she also needs to showcase emotion and possess a bit of passion like Marianne. A healthy balance of both attributes is necessary. One cannot function without the other, which is perhaps an explanation for the Dashwood girls switching "roles" towards the end of the novel and ultimately end up happy because of it.

  7. I am curious about the possible connection between the novel’s title and the allegory in the Lady’s Monthly Museum. I was able to find part of this allegory online in Appendix B of the edition of Sense and Sensibility edited by Kathleen James-Cavan. I found it interesting that, as Lauren F. mentioned, Sense is male and Sensibility is female, and the third figure Susceptibility is male. Furthermore, Sense is described as the offspring of Genius and Learning, while Sensibility is the offspring of Modesty and Truth. Susceptibility is the offspring of “the equivocal virtues” and is described as “a character, at best, but equivocal; pretending to, without partaking of the essence of either quality” (387).

    Amy and others above have already demonstrated that Marianne could fit the figure of Sensibility; would that make Colonel Brandon akin to the figure of Sense and Willoughby the figure of Susceptibility? Indeed Willoughby could be interpreted as equivocal, for as Lauren B. described, his character is a confusing mix of sense and sensibility in that he is fond of Marianne and wishes he had been more sensitive towards her, yet he still chooses another woman as his wife for financial security. Since Sense rescues Sensibility from Susceptibility in the allegory, perhaps Marianne is “rescued” from her romantic notions and her attachment to the untrustworthy Willoughby by marrying Colonel Brandon. This would suggest that the marriage is the best outcome for Marianne, else she would have become “a sacrifice to an irresistible passion” (288). I wonder if this concept of rescue has any other implications in the novel; for example, does it suggest that the women need to be shaped by men and marriage? Furthermore, because Sense is male in the allegory, does this suggest that sense should monitor and moderate sensibility? I am reminded of Northanger Abbey and the idea that Mr. Tinsley was attracted to Catherine because she was naive and he could therefore instruct her.

    Of course, we cannot say for certain if the comparisons to the figures of Sense, Sensibility, and Susceptibility are relevant since we do not know if Austen even read the allegory in Lady’s Monthly Museum, but I still think it is another possible interpretation of the novel’s title.

  8. While the main characters seem to embody a more rigid role of either sense or sensibility at the start of the novel, these roles become intermingled through the course of the story. I agree with the aforementioned character assignments to the inherent traits of sense and sensibility. As the practical, more realist sister, Elinor is defined by sense; Marianne, the more passionate and emotional of the two, is characterized by sensibility. I think it is important to try to look through the lens of the author when considering the meaning of these characterizations. Looking at Lauren F.'s example of the Lady's Monthly Museum, with sense being a male attribute and sensibility female, I think that Austen sought to explore and contend these conventions. In the introduction to the novel, Margaret Anne Doody suggests that men are the means to a secure future for women. When women marry, they reaffirm sense in that marrying is seen as the smart thing to do for their sex. They also seem to diminish traits of sense and increase those of sensibility, because becoming a wife entails letting their husband control the aspects regarding issues of sense. However, men are also at risk of being stripped of their sense. Robert Farrars, through his marriage to Lucy Steele, emphasizes how sense has some downsides. Because it is not strongly linked with emotion, it may harm a person's relationships, as is the case with Robert Farrars. Because money is a motive for marriage, those who fall under the "sense" heading run the risk of letting practical greed, as insurance for their future, take over. I found this ironic in that surely, it is important to watch out for one's monetary stability, however, does this make one's personal (sensible) connections less important in the long run? Referring to Lauren B.'s question of which trait is better, I think the answer is complicated. I am hesitant to say sense is better, because sensibility is a purely human ability, while sense could be viewed as a trait not limited to humans. Therefore, I think that combined, sense and sensibility form a unique give-and-take characteristic (neither trumping the other overall) in the characters of the novel.