Left unchecked excessive sensibility is a sure prescription for disaster as Austen demonstrates through Marianne

THE PROPER MANAGEMENT OF TOXIC EMOTIONS IN JANE AUSTEN’S SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

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

“The prudent carefully consider their steps” (Proverbs 14:15)

The proper management of toxic emotions is the central theme of Jane Austen’s much loved novel, Sense and Sensibility. In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, the psychologist, gives us her version of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy by comparing and contrasting the romantic lives of two sisters, Marianne and Elinor. Acclaimed novelist Margaret Drabble surmises that one of the reasons Jane Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility was in response to the prevailing “cult” of the “Sentimental Novel” and the “dangerous emotions it expressed and encouraged.” These popular novels “tended to elevate ‘feeling’ above reason” and were given to “sudden passions, fits of weeping and fainting, and acts of wild generosity.” In Sense and Sensibility Marianne represents this sort of uncontrolled emotionalism, and her older sister, Elinor, by way of contrast, demonstrates that emotional life, properly guided by reason or rational life, greatly assists in negating self-destructive conduct and living a happier, more fulfilling life. We are not talking here about a sort of Platonic superiority of reason over emotions, but of the proper integration of the two for a happy life, which is the happy situation for both Elinor and Marianne at the end of the novel.

Theologically speaking – and Austen will bring God and religion into the equation very briefly at the end of Sense and Sensibility – the beautiful emotions God has given us work tremendous good in our lives when they are under the guidance of our rational and spiritual faculties. A child lives his life primarily on an emotional level, but to mature he must gradually bring his emotional life under the control of right reason and spiritual life. We know very well that letting our emotions flow freely can be psychologically healing –  as in sharing our emotions and feelings with a friend or in therapy. But in a different context unregulated emotional life can be very damaging. In this sense if emotional life is not brought under the control and guidance of rational and spiritual life it can become a tyrant – and, in such circumstances, anger or sadness can even lead to violence or other destructive conduct. Take a look at Marianne Dashwood. What is the outcome of her massive, unchecked emotionalism?: – she nearly dies of mental and physical maladies occasioned by her grief over the handsome but duplicitous Willoughby.

Margaret Drabble comments: “It is in the portrayal of Marianne’s sufferings…that we reach the heart of the novel’s power, and find ourselves face to face with the conflict between emotion and control. [Marianne] suffers more intensely than any other Austen heroine. [Austen’s] description of the first, psychosomatic broken heart illness is particularly vivid and realistic. We learn of Marianne wandering restlessly from room to room, her deathlike paleness, her choking burst of tears, her almost screaming with agony, her hysterical nervous fever, her inability to eat. The psychological details of her illness are extremely convincing. This is not a distressed heroine from a sentimental novel; it is an observed and felt portrait” (as edited).

By way of contrast it would be a mistake to think of Elinor merely as an unimpassioned stoic who spurns emotional influence in favor of a calmer life. This is not how Jane Austen portrays her. Of Elinor Austen says:

“Elinor, this eldest daughter, whose advice was so effectual, 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: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn; and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.”

Austen tells us that Elinor’s feelings were strong, but she knew how to govern them. This statement of Austen is essentially the whole meaning of the novel. It is the lesson Marianne will learn only by way of the most painful of purifications, from which she essentially emerges a new woman, with a deeper understanding of herself and life.

And to demonstrate Elinor’s deep emotional life, we come to one of the most emotional scenes in all of literature, where Austen describes Elinor’s reaction upon suddenly learning that Edward had not married Lucy and was free to marry Elinor:

“Elinor could sit it 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. Edward, who had till then looked any where, rather than at her, saw her hurry away, and perhaps saw—or even heard, her emotion; for immediately afterwards he fell into a reverie, which no remarks, no inquiries, no affectionate address of Mrs. Dashwood could penetrate, and at last, without saying a word, quitted the room, and walked out towards the village—leaving the others in the greatest astonishment and perplexity on a change in his situation, so wonderful and so sudden;—a perplexity which they had no means of lessening but by their own conjectures.”

“But Elinor,- how are her feelings to be described? From the moment of learning that Lucy was married to another, that Edward was free, to the moment of his justifying the hopes which had so instantly followed, she was every thing by turns but tranquil. But when the second moment had passed, when she found every doubt, every solicitude removed, compared her situation with what so lately it had been,- saw him honourably released from his former engagement,- saw him instantly profiting by the release, to address herself and declare an affection as tender, as constant as she had ever supposed it to be,- she was oppressed, she was overcome by her own felicity; and happily disposed as is the human mind to be easily familiarised with any change for the better, it required several hours to give sedateness to her spirits, or any degree of tranquillity to her heart.”

We must remember, too, that Elinor also had suffered from a broken heart, not only from her knowledge of Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy, but also from the direct communication that Edward had married Lucy (which turned out to be mistaken). But, rather than let her emotions tailspin into a nervous breakdown, she maintained her “composure of mind,” and was the “comforter of others in her own distress,” despite immense personal suffering and the inability of “openly showing that I was very unhappy.” Under all these distressing circumstances Elinor remained “mistress of myself.”

Marianne’s redemption and cognitive rehabilitation comes about through introspection and valuable self-knowledge that causes her to see the rightness of Elinor’s conduct in comparison to her own. This is Marianne speaking in a confessional, remorseful tone near the end of the novel:

“My illness has made me think — It has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my own behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died, it would have been self-destruction. I did not know my danger till the danger was removed; but with such feelings as these reflections gave me, I wonder at my recovery, — wonder that the very eagerness of my desire to live, to have time for atonement to my God, and to you all, did not kill me at once. Had I died, in what peculiar misery should I have left you, my nurse, my friend, my sister! — You, who had seen all the fretful selfishness of my latter days; who had known all the murmurings of my heart! — How should I have lived in your remembrance! — My mother too! How could you have consoled her! — I cannot express my own abhorrence of myself. Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged. Everybody seemed injured by me…. Here ceased the rapid flow of her self-reproving spirit; and Elinor, impatient to sooth, though too honest to flatter, gave her instantly that praise and support which her frankness and her contrition so well deserved.”

And at the very end of the novel Jane Austen narrates the conclusion of Marianne’s remarkable transformation into a prudent, mature woman:

“Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another! — and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married — and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat!

But so it was. Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as once she had fondly flattered herself with expecting — instead of remaining even for ever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement and study, as afterwards in her more calm and sober judgment she had determined on — she found herself at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village.”

CONCLUSION: The inter-relatedness between emotional life (sensibility) and rational life (sense) is the great theme of Sense and Sensibility. Simply put, the proper regulation of emotional life produces well-being and happiness. Left unchecked, excessive sensibility is a sure prescription for disaster as Austen demonstrates through Marianne. But sensibility, properly integrated with sense – that is to say with reason – directs the passions and emotions to be guided by right reason. Marianne and Elinor can teach us a lot about the meaning of life, and the path to emotional well-being, if we take the time to study their character development. Marianne’s mind and heart were sabotaged by her excessively romantic spirit, and her healing came through the profound discovery or realization that she had deceived herself about the true nature of love. The mistake made by so many of the interpreters of Sense and Sensibility is to say that Marianne represents sensibility and Elinor sense. In actuality, Jane Austen shows us that Elinor represents both sense and sensibility, and this too is the happy situation for Marianne at the end of the novel (she, too, now embodies sense and sensibility). By way of her transformation, Marianne did not lose the ability to love passionately, but rather she gained the knowledge to do it prudently and virtuously. “Marianne,” says Austen, “could never love by halves, and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband as it had once been to Willoughby.”

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

 

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