Sense and sensibility; Jane Austen

Literatura universal del Romanticismo. Narrativa romántica inglesa # Vocabulary. Characters

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  • Idioma: inglés
  • País: España España
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In the traditional view, Sense and Sensibility juxtaposes ethical or moral opposites and satirises the novel of sensibility by showing that feeling is a dangerous guide to conduct. By giving to the novel a shift in mode (from comedy to tragedy) based on a patriarchal code of behaviour, it concentrates on an environment where the drama of woman is a consequence of both the social pressure and the problem of preserving integrity in order not to fail. This atmosphere of the sexual and emotional vulnerability of women is ruled by self-control and control over society, an understanding of one's behaviour and behaviour towards society which are the keys to survive in a patriarchal environment. The aim of this paper is to analyse the drama of woman in a sentimental novel, in which the tragic action is developed in an atmosphere of a possible social disgrace for woman caused by the destructive patriarchal order, in a society where preservation of morality and a correct response to pressures and temptations are the better way to face up the world.

Jane Austen was the creator of a new kind of novel from the sentimental to the domestic novel or comedy of manners which although at first sight seems to be simply a didactic novel, it is always developed in a tragic and melodramatic atmosphere. She was a transitional writer from Neoclassicism to the Romanticism, which is noticeable in her novels, of which Sense and Sensibility is a clear case in point. Despite its inception in parody, it deals with serious issues as related of the individual (female) with society. What begins as a joke, ends as lesson. Although it begins as a comedy and in fact it returns to comedy, it projects a `dark vision'. In one explanation, we can say that the social order makes oppressive demands on its members by forcing them to follow the status quo, the pre-established system in order to survive in their society, where a double standard of morality prevails. Within this double standard, the public sphere is the male sphere while women are confined to the private or domestic sphere, where they were supposed to be good mothers, wives and guardians of morality. The novel uncovers the precarious situation of single women in this society and marriages of convenience as the only female possibility of financial and social security. This shift is also present in the suffering of the character of sensibility, Marianne Dashwood, who is out of the allegoric or didactic canon, stimulating the emotional response like a character from a tragedy. In this way, this novel that simply looks like a didactic novel, hides a plot close to tragic action and a tone that at times approaches the melodramatic.

Although Austen makes all turn well for her heroines finally, there is certainly an emphasis close to drama in Sense and Sensibility, the drama of woman, a behaviour characterised by self control, inhibition and pretence all this caused by a patriarchal society. The dominant subjects are tempered by an emphasis on the single woman's vulnerability and need for prudence. Nowhere else in Austen's novels are the facts of life for unmarried females so baldly stated, the selfishness and love of power of men, the patriarchy's privileged. In order to understand Jane Austen's plan in this novel, we must look closely at its treatment of the `Drama of woman'. Social behaviour and events are regulated by patriarchal principles; social values are based on the possession of property; the female is subordinated to the male in the family and in society. The widow of Henry Dashwood and her three daughters are economically disadvantaged by the practice of transferring property between generations through a male heir. Thus, the sisters vainly look to their half-brother John Dashwood for relief. The female's unfavourable position encourages the view of the beauty offer in marriages in order to achieve financial security: `It would be an excellent match, for he was rich and she was handsome' (SS, 36). Here Jane Austen emphasizes women's vulnerability by stressing the sexual dangers that confront the young female, especially seduction, in a world where she is prized for her physical beauty. On the other hand, secrecy and sickness are key points of this `drama'. Secrecy is present everywhere in this novel. People had to pretend to preserve the status quo. The secrecy of feelings was essential since personal compromise or self-control was the most important thing that could preserve integrity. As far as sickness is concerned it was seen as a consequence or sometimes a salvation; people had to follow the rules, especially women, otherwise they would fall into dishonour, death or even mental illness. Sickness is a climax, the moment to decide, change, and Marianne Dashwood is, in fact, a good example. This character ruled from the beginning by her feelings defies the established order and this leads her to mental illness, but being near to death, she recuperates and realizes her place in society. Thus, self-control, inhibition and pretence were the main features of the woman's world, a word full of drama established by a patriarchal society with fixed rules to respect and inevitable consequences that could lead a woman to a social disgrace.

Admittedly, the unions that Elinor and Marianne finally achieve represent a profit for them but the marriages in Sense and Sensibility illustrate the destructive working of the patriarchal order. The worthy marriages of Elinor and Marianne occur only after great suffering and, in the latter's case, after the threat of social disgrace. To emphasise the power of patriarchy over the individual, Austen also describes its nearly ruinous influence on Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby who, like their two women, are influenced by society and trapped by the system. These two characters are not equal but somehow symmetric. Edward begins with his acquiescence to an idleness while Willoughby is free too early and has consequent habits of idleness, dissipation and luxury. To support their style of living they must marry a woman of fortune or in the case of Willoughby, please his elderly cousin (to inherit his properties) and in the case of Edward please his mother, who could disinherit him unless he weds her choice. Furthermore, this antitheses of personality is softened by Austen's sympathetic treat towards Willoughby, who despite his `crime' (seduction and abandonment of Eliza Williams) is considered to have been extravagant and vain because of the influence of the world. Thus, the influence of external forces partially excuses him. In this novel Austen stresses that the system is more the enemy than either the self or the others. On the opposite side of the coin we have Edward that in spite of not being handsome, his manners make him pleasant but, he is a man in conflict because the patriarchal order inhibits his ability to act. Both men face similar problems, set by the same forces and all arising from the financial dependence that inhibits their capacity to act freely in an honourable manner. At the same time, we have parallelism between Marianne and Elinor and also among them and their two men. The personalities of Willoughby and Edward correspond to those of Marianne and Elinor but in this relationship we have to distinguish two different points: First is that although all four characters are vulnerable, those guided by feeling are more easily victimised and more susceptible to corruption or exploitation. Second, although both men and women suffer in a patriarchal society, women are more vulnerable and less able to escape the consequences. Here lies the great lesson of the novel. Nowhere else does Jane Austen place such stress on the risk of the female in the patriarchal society. She may not let a heroine fall from virtue, but she insists on the danger of a surrender to sexual impulse and as a consequence, the possible social disgrace as a result of the self destructive power of the patriarchal order.

The Dashwood sisters definitely have to find the correct way to face up a world in which temptations and pressures are continuous. They have similar problems but the main one is integrity and how it can be preserved together with selfhood and happiness. According to the patriarchal system there are three possibilities: The first one is pursuing one's desires defying social attitudes and customs, the second could be collaborating with a dehumanising social order and the last one is an adaptation to these insistent social pressures. The first possibility is described in the stories of the two Elizas, one forced to marry and fell to a seducer and the other one, daughter of the first, seduced and abandoned by Willoughby. But the danger here comes from the sexual response and not from the temptation (here we have one of the lessons of the novel). The second possibility is represented by Lucy Steel who, like Willoughby, is guided by self-interest and manages a rich marriage to take the place society denies her. Both Lucy and Willoughby are product of the patriarchal order. Finally, the third possibility is the story of the Dashwood sisters. Having abandoned the view of Elinor and Marianne opposition, each girl is a mixture of qualities in which the difference is given by the contrast between the prudence in Elinor and the impulsiveness in Marianne. Marianne's overflow of feelings is a potential self-destructive force rather than liberating, in fact it increases her vulnerability and Elinor is also vulnerable. She tries to fulfil her obligations as a daughter, sister, and member of society, which is an enormous burden. After Marianne's illness, she discovers that the preservation of her integrity resides in the control of impulses and the right response to external pressures. In other words, there are two basic changes: self-control over the feelings and the discovery of the value of social forms. The interplay between individual character and social behaviour is always on Austen's mind. The preservation of individual integrity requires knowledge and control of one's emotional impulses as well as an adequate response to external pressures. Therefore, self knowledge and knowledge of the world are both essential to have self control over the temptations and pressures presented in this world they have to confront.

All in all, what Austen found in the parlour was the drama of woman's subjugation and depersonalisation. Behind the self-knowledge, self-command and respect for social forms in Sense and Sensibility, was the perception of woman's vulnerability in a society in which she occupies a position of sexual inferiority. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen examines and rejects two responses to the dehumanising pressures of the patriarchal order in favour of a programme of realistic adaptation to the existing terms of the `drama of woman'.