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?