A Model of the ‘Ideal’ Woman in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (an essay)

Foreword:

I wrote this piece originally in 2012. It is centred on the novel, Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen. The story is of two sisters and how they navigate their lives in 19th-century England. Although society has evolved significantly over two centuries — what with all the technological developments, innovations, and inventions we hear about every day — yet it still seems like somewhere along the way, the development of women, women as persons, and women as equals in society has been stunted. We say there is progress being made towards equality, and yes although one step is better than none, the whole preponderance begs the question, why were the women left so far behind in the first place?

This year on International Women’s Day, I had the honour of co-hosting a beautiful function and awards ceremony honouring the brave, intelligent, brilliant, beautiful and powerful women in our community here in Toronto, and we celebrated them. But as almost each and every one of the awardees and guests pointed out, there is a lot of progress yet to be made.

As a token of appreciation for all the women I have the honour and pleasure of knowing and meeting, I’m releasing this essay that talks about the subtle and harsh ways in which women were viewed and treated in the society of the 1800s. Hopefully you’re able to see vast differences between the society of the 1800s and the society of the 2000s (if not now, hopefully in a few years).

Happy International Women’s Day!

Yours Truly, AJ

In the 1800s, women led lives that consisted of little choice. Women were controlled by the men in their lives; first, their fathers and brothers, and then, their husbands. A woman was expected to be married at the earliest possible age, often when she was just in her teenage years. She was then expected to take on the role of the central upholder of the domestic household, while the men continued about their public duties. In the household, women were expected to carry out certain tasks and fulfill particular roles. Freedom of self-expression was not outright denied to these women, but it was often looked down upon by the men and other women in the community. Over time, this trend has evolved to better suit the societal, political and environmental conditions of the world at present. Still, the idea remains that society expects women to portray and carry themselves in a particular way that may limit them from being the individual that they are.

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility highlights the customs of the 1800s that women of the time should have conformed to and suggests that they mould their actions around what society has labelled to be appropriate conduct and behaviour. Austen makes this concept evident through the character of Elinor, who is portrayed as an appropriate model for ideal expected behaviours and mindsets of a woman from the 1800s. Austen uses literary contrast to show Elinor’s sense of duty to her family and to society, verbal irony to express her wisdom of judgement, and third-person narration to emphasize the suppression of her emotions, all of which are key characteristics that make Elinor a suitable model for the appropriate societal conduct of women.

Elinor sets a prime example for women because she has a sense of duty to her family and to her society. The theme of sense versus sensibility, or rationality versus sentimentality, resonates throughout the novel. Marianne Dashwood, the younger sister of Elinor, can be seen in a relatively unflattering light, as the narration of Austen seems to portray Marianne’s disposition as inadequate or undesirable in comparison to Elinor’s. Marianne is “eager in everything” in terms of expression of her emotions (Austen, 7). On the contrary, Elinor is extremely composed and is brought across as the elegant and responsible young woman she is. In the novel, Elinor “demonstrates practicality and an almost transcendent adherence to social responsibility over personal passion,” shown especially when she does not indulge in the budding relationship between herself and Edward Ferrars; “Elinor seems wholly devoted to duty, loyalty, and truth in her actions throughout the novel” because she feels a sense of need to put others’ interests before her own (Anderson, 138). For portrayal of Elinor’s exceptional sense of duty, Austen displays her characteristics on the same canvas as Marianne’s using immense contrast.

Contrast, in a literary sense, is defined as “a juxtaposition or comparison showing striking differences; a thing or person having qualities noticeable different from another” in a work (Oxford, 250). Beginning with the title of Sense and Sensibility, it is already clear that two very different entities or characters are to be explored in the novel. Austen accomplishes this by showing two extremes on the spectrum of self-understanding and self-expression: “The novel’s women represent a range of levels on the continuum between extreme sensibility and extreme sense” (Anderson, 135). There is a strong psychological contrast between the novel’s two chief characters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Elinor, 19, is the older of the two Dashwood sisters, and displays tremendous sense. On the other hand, her sister, Marianne, 16, displays sensibility, which, in this case, means sensitivity of emotions. Marianne displays an incredible number and degree of emotions throughout the novel and most of “her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation” (Austen, 7). Elinor, too, feels this vast array of emotions but is able to maintain her sense duties to her family and her society.

Moreover, Sense and Sensibility was written on the cusp of the two literary movements: classicism and romanticism. “Elinor [possesses] strength of understanding and coolness of judgement” (Austen, 6); Elinor embodies the characteristics typical of a heroine of literature from the classicism era. On the contrary, Marianne is sensible and clever; she has views of a very romantic nature (Austen, 7). This display of both classicism and romanticism is a perfect crossover combination for a novel published on the cusp of these two movements and provides the stark contrast between the characters of the two Dashwood sisters. Contrasting Elinor with Marianne helps to highlight the dutiful and desirable characteristics that Elinor possesses and Marianne does not have.

To be dutiful is a fine quality to possess, but another equally imperative characteristic to have is the ability to make good decisions and be wise in one’s thinking in both a familial and societal sense. Making wise choices in terms of reactions or responses is something that was expected of a woman of Elinor’s time, and she clearly displays this characteristic in numerous incidents throughout the novel.

Unlike Marianne, Elinor is extremely composed, quiet and reserved. “She [has] an excellent heart… [and] her disposition [is] affectionate” (Austen, 6). Elinor cares for others and looks out for their best interests as it comes as second nature to her. Also, Elinor is the confidante and advisor for her mother, Mrs Henry Dashwood, and is described by Austen as

the eldest daughter, whose advice [is] so effectual, [who possesses] a strength of understanding and coolness of judgement, which [qualifies] her… to be the counsellor of her mother, and [enables] her to frequently counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs [Henry] Dashwood which [usually leads] to imprudence (Austen, 6).

Elinor is the advisor of her mother, who is evidently elder to her in terms of age, maturity and supposed wisdom; this suggests that Elinor, herself, has many qualities that prove her to have an advanced and very mature view of the world that allows her to make informed, rational, and wise decisions.

Elinor’s ability to judge situations coolly and arrive at appropriate conclusions is demonstrated in her interaction with Lucy Steele, after Lucy and Edward have been engaged. When Lucy was to meet her fiancé’s mother, Mrs Ferrars, she sarcastically asked Elinor for her pity. Elinor assured Lucy “that she did pity her, – to the utter amazement of Lucy, who, though really uncomfortable herself [before meeting her future mother-in-law], hoped at least to be an object of irrepressible envy to Elinor” (Austen, 223). Elinor, indeed, was upset that she could not be engaged to Edward, but she had accepted that fact and had consciously decided to look past it. She pondered in her head, had this incident taken place with Lucy a few days prior, she would have been hurt and angered; but, now that she had come to the said conclusion in her mind, she deemed the situation as an unnecessary investment of her emotions and time. This led her to react the calm way she did with Lucy, keeping the situation from getting out of hand.

Elinor’s judgement is expressed effectively through Austen’s use of verbal ironies, defined by Random House Dictionary as “irony in which a person says or writes one thing and means another, or uses words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of the literal meaning” (Random House, 1). Through verbal ironies, contrasts between what can be done, what should be done and what will be done are shown. A scholar, Mark Schorer, has observed

that ‘there are none but verbal brutalities’ in Jane Austen’s novels. The brutalities are not gratuitous; they are the means whereby Jane Austen shocks us into seeing the disparity between proper norms of conduct and the actualities of human behaviour (Watt, 43).

By examining the verbal ironies of Sense and Sensibility, insight is provided into Austen’s intentions and what she is indicating; in this case, it seems that she is suggesting that it is important for a woman to possess wisdom of judgement in her actions. For example, “Elinor smiles to see Mrs Ferrars and her daughter being gracious to Lucy Steele” when she well knows that she has so much she wishes to say, yet makes sure that she does not utter a word  to any of them (Watt, 43). Her ability to understand situations objectively allows her, through her sense, to derive an appropriate solution or response to them. Elinor is wise in her judgements and through this wisdom, she is able to make appropriate choices for herself and give suitable advice to those around her, proving to be an ideal model for what society expects of women.

In addition to wise judgement, the ability to keep emotions subdued while interacting with other people is an important quality to display, especially for a woman, as it allows her to think things through logically and make rational decisions.

In most situations, Elinor is able to keep her emotions suppressed and does not express them wholly, despite what she is feeling inside. In a discussion between Elinor, her mother and her sister about Edward, Elinor is satisfied in addressing her affection of Edward as indifferent as it is to anyone else in her family.

Elinor had often wished for an opportunity of tempting to weaken her mother’s dependence on the attachment of Edward and herself, that the shock might be the less when the whole truth were revealed, and now on this attack, though almost hopeless of success, she forced herselve to begin her design by saying, as calmly as she could, ‘I like Edward Ferrars very much, and shall always be glad to see him; but as to the rest of the family, it is a matter of perfect indifference to me, whether I am ever known to them or not’ (Austen, 150).

Despite her overwhelming romantic love and admiration for Edward Ferrars, she reacts so subtly to comments about him, made by her mother and sister. This ability to suppress and tone down her emotions when in the presence of others is an admirable quality.

To demonstrate Elinor’s ability to keep her emotions subdued, Austen uses third-person narration. Through third person narration, Austen is able to highlight the main points of view of all the major characters in the novel. In Sense and Sensibility, the two main characters are Elinor and Marianne. Although the narrative nature of the novel suggests that the two main characters in the novel may be polar opposites, this suggestion is incorrect; the narration most often speaks from the point of view of Elinor. This strongly implies that the views of the author, herself, are brought across through the character of Elinor.

Elinor’s disposition, contemplative and evaluative in nature, allows her to “[commit] herself to carefully watching Marianne and offering her point of view only when Marianne is disposed to accept it… this characterization of Elinor is crucial to the novel,” as Austen displays effectively through third-person narration (Rollyson, 3). Elinor is reserved, composed, and very held-back in her emotional interferences with her sister; Elinor does not let her own emotions and sentiments impede or influence the lives of others.

Moreover, Austen concentrates mainly on the lives and thoughts of the female characters in the novel. Although John Willoughby and Edward Ferrars are in the foreground of the plot at times, most of the novel centers on the female characters, namely Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. For example, when Elinor receives word that Edward has been engaged to a young woman by the name of Lucy Steele, she is heartbroken, but does not let it seem so. Elinor’s sense is commendable because the unhappy but sensible Elinor believes that she was not deceived by Edward and refuses to blame him for her state of grief. Elinor experiences “consuming emotions as the distress beyond any thing she [has] ever felt before,” but by neglecting the grief that was taking over her heart, she is able to continue on with her life as per usual (Austen, 135). At this point in the story, it is evident that the narration most closely describes only Elinor’s reaction to this event; a true account of what actually happened and the reasons behind Edward’s apparent betrayal are revealed much later through Lucy’s letter to him (Austen, 352).

Elinor embodies all the traits that a young woman in her time should; she is responsible and rational in her decisions and behaviour. Still, what sometimes is overlooked is the fact that Elinor, despite her external composure, has “feelings [that are] strong; but she [knows] how to govern them,” (Austen, 6). Elinor’s sensibility is intense,  maybe even as intense as that of Marianne’s, but what allows her to be an appropriate behavioural model for other women is the fact that she does not let these emotions overwhelm her and dictate her actions, unlike Marianne and Mrs Henry Dashwood, who surrender themselves fully to their grief and happiness.

In Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, the character of Elinor, the older of the two Dashwood sisters, is very different from that of her younger sister, Marianne, and her mother, Mrs Henry Dashwood. Throughout the novel, Elinor encounters many situations which test her abilities in presenting herself in a particular way. The character traits that she displays are admirable, and can be deemed an ideal model for a woman of the 1800s. Austen shows Elinor’s sense of duty through the use of literary contrast in her work, she uses verbal irony to display Elinor’s wisdom of judgement and the third-person narrative voice of the novel assists in the demonstration of Elinor’s ability to suppress her emotions. Through these notable characteristics that Elinor embodies, she is portrayed as the ideal woman who is able to make rational decisions without strong influence from her emotions and does not fail to carry through in her familial and societal duties.

Women in the 1800s were relatively deprived of freedom of expression, as their lives were nearly prescribed: schooling, household chores, marriage, children and being in charge of the household. Beyond this, especially in public, society set guidelines that were generally regarded as qualities that the ideal woman of the time should possess. Sometimes, these guidelines, as they may be called, can become very influential factors in the way one behaves. Limited by what society expects and wants from a person, one may be required to follow these demands, knowingly or unknowingly. Although conventional roles are drifting away from the norm and men and women are taking up many of the same or similar roles in both the household and in public, society today still expects certain things of women as it did in the 1800s. Women are often expected to portray and carry themselves in a particular way that may limit them from being the individuals that they would have otherwise become. From before the 1880s to date, women have been placed under these unspoken expectations of society, and, unless there is some significant change in the general mindset of the human race as a whole, these expectations will continually and inadvertently be placed on women, possibly limiting them from the women they were once meant to become.

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Dr. James Ford Historical Home.” Welcome to the Dr. James Ford Historical Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2011. <http://www.jamesfordmuseum.org/e_nineteen_cent_life.php&gt;.

Seeber, Barbara Karolina. General consent in Jane Austen: a study of dialogism. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000. Print.

Smith, Kelley. “Lives of Women in the Early 1800s.” Historical Briefs. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2011. <http://staff.washington.edu/cgiacomi/courses/english200/historicalbriefs/women.html&gt;.

WORKS CITED

Anderson, Kathleen and Jordan Kidd. Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, 2008, Issue 30, p135-148.

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. 1811. Reprint. New York: Knopf Publishing Group, 2006. Print.

Oxford Concise Dictionary, The. “Contrast.” Eighth edition. 1990.

Rollyson, Carl. “Sense and Sensibility.” Masterplots II: Women’s Literature Series (1995): 1-3. Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 27 Oct. 2011.

“verbal irony.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 08 Nov. 2011. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/verbal irony>.

Watt, Ian P.. Jane Austen: a collection of critical essays. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963. Print.

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