by Anne Tulloch
April 2014

Sensibility versus Insensibility: the differentiation between using personal feelings and emotions to understand nature and man, and the active, if not completely conscious, overwhelming of oneself in his or her emotions to the point of an unhealthy obsession with them for the sake of nature. This is the distinction that Austen explores and illustrates through her characters in Sense and Sensibility. Her particular study of sensibility is illustrated in the characters of Marianne, who is the epitome of insensibility near the end of the novel, and in Elinor, who represents sense, with traces of sensibility, who together impart to the observer the need for balance between the two. Austen uses this novel to illustrate that Sensibility is a useful means to understand and connect to nature as well as man, but it must be guarded by reality to avoid the possibility of emotional instability conquering rational thought entirely.

The late eighteenth century presented a new philosophy dubbing it acceptable to be sensitive about nature and emotionally vulnerable to both nature and man. This evolved into the ‘cult of sensibility’ (Brodey 1999). It was understood to be the “genesis of goodness and virtue associated with: humanity, of generosity;…the service of merit” meant to fortify reason and the mind (Diderot 1755). Jane Austen belonged to this period where the ‘cult of sensibility’ developed rapidly. But she did not agree with this opinion that hailed the character of intense emotional vulnerability as entirely worthy of practice. In her title Sense and Sensibility, Austen makes an allusion the argument she will make in this fictitious work: that ‘Sense’, the use of the intellect to understand the world, and ‘Sensibility’, the emotional perspective of life, could either create friction or balance when used together.

To illustrate and argue for the potential for balance, Austen wrote several characters in to this work with personalities of different degrees of either or both of these character traits. In this case, Sense is understood as the use of reason to understand the world and build the intellect. Sensibility, on the other hand, used the emotions to understand nature and connect to the feelings of others. With such simple definitions as these, it is easier to pick out the characters that Austen used to argue for or against the use of these two emotionally inclined traits. Elinor and Marianne would represent a balance of or too much of the more dramatically emotional state, respectively, with the horrid Mrs. John Dashwood as exemplifying the completely calculating intellect without feeling, and Colonel Brandon exhibiting a goodly amount of both, but perhaps not enough.

To begin with too little sensibility: Mrs. John Dashwood embodies the idea of too little sensibility throughout the novel because of her high ability to use reason over emotion as her means to an end. She does not have much more sense than sensibility per se, because if she had too much of the former, she would not be able to justify taking away their fortune; and she has practically none of the latter since Austen depicts her as unfeeling and rude, especially in the way that she connives to get her husband to give his step-mother nothing to live on. This she illustrates when she says to her husband that “when the money is once parted with, it can never return…it strikes me that they can want no addition at all” (Austen 16-17). Mrs. Dashwood also becomes the part of one with too little sensibility because of her manipulating way with words.

Sensibility is often characterized by the inability to use words, but Mrs. Dashwood brandishes them with ease. This woman has just enough of a calculating mind to manipulate the variables around her to try to get what she wants, even though it does not always succeed, as is seen in her conniving attempts in Elinor and Edward’s case. Another example where she illustrates a lack of sensibility while exhibiting highly refined rational thinking is when she slights Elinor during a party and the narrator comments: “Perhaps Fanny thought for a moment that her mother had been rude enough…[b]ut then again the dread of having been too civil, too encouraging herself, probably came over her, for she said, ‘Do you think there is something in Miss Morton’s style of painting?’” (214). Here Fanny begins to consciously rationalize her responses to her mother and in the act, slight Elinor, without feeling it would hurt her. Mrs. Dashwood would rather appear too harsh than too affectionate, even towards a sister-in-law. In this way, she illustrates the danger of becoming cold-hearted through the practice of rationalizing everything, and in doing so, quenching any sensibility she may have had.

To further emphasize Austen’s argument for the need for balance in Sensibility, a second character with perhaps only just enough is Colonel Brandon. This character holds great esteem in the novel; all the characters praise him, Elinor finds a true companion in him, and in his love for Marianne demonstrates a tender and faithful heart. He illustrates sensibility several times, although not verbally, especially when he is watching Marianne. A line from the narrator explains the depth of his character: “Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party, heard her without being in raptures. He paid her only the compliment of attention….” The narration continues: “His pleasure in music, alone could sympathize with her own, was estimable when contrasted against the insensibility of the others” (40). Already, small amounts of sensibility seem visible in this description, along with fortifying elements of sense. Later, Marianne notes that he is the only one who shares her love of music in the same reverent way as herself, since he “alone could sympathize with her” pleasure in music. In her estimation, he does not allow his emotions to judge his perception of what is good music which draws a strong contrast to the others at the party who were completely unintelligible in their ability to appreciate good music. To Marianne, Colonel Brandon is similar to herself since they both seem to share a love of truly beautiful music. But his demeanor also proves he has command over his sensibility by reason. The narrator tells that the Colonel “paid her only the compliment of attention”; He did not go into raptures about the beauty of the music, or praise her highly for creating the sound. His silence confirmed that he was not one to be whisked away on a cloud of emotion as Marianne was wont to do. The narrator tells that “[Marianne] was reasonable enough to allow that a man of five-and-thirty might well have outlived all acuteness of feeling and every exquisite power of enjoyment” (40). Marianne can sense that he seems to control his emotions so well, that he could possibly almost be dry of them. And so in practice, Colonel Brandon has a bit of sensibility to do him credit, but he is almost too controlling by Marianne’s standards, in his sense.

As the plot develops, Austen’s characters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood become the illustrations of both the practice and regulation of sensibility, and excessive routine of insensibility in their respective stories. In order to understand what a good balance is between these two character traits, one would have to look at the effects of allowing the emotions to rule, unguarded. Since the healthy growth of sensibility relies on the regulating of emotional health and stability, this state of emotional openness is almost always susceptible to becoming ‘insensibility’. The alternative to having a healthy emotional understanding of nature is the self-absorbed kind that implodes on itself, and becomes solely interested in the unhealthy obsession of the self’s emotional state. This becomes what is termed ‘insensibility’ by default and is the more dangerous of the two states because in the obsession of one’s state, physical health and a clear perspective of reality become contorted and hardly comprehensible. With the inability to see reality through this screen, the mind gives way to a heavy heart and is lost in the world of emotional instability that is created by insensibility.

If Fanny were the extreme right of sensibility with Brandon towards the middle right, Elinor would be left and closer to the center, with Marianne at the far left. Marianne has extreme sensibility even in the beginning of the book. In her goodbye to Norland she bemoans her state with great grief: “Dear, dear Norland!…When shall I cease to regret you!-when learn to feel home elsewhere!” (32). She finds emotional stimuli in what is beautiful, and looking at the sky asks, “Is there a felicity in the world…superior to this?” (45). Up to this point, she still has a lot of sensibility, but not yet unhealthy; she simply feels very deeply. Austen would most likely have used this to show a very visual picture of what sensibility looks like while it is still in a healthy, yet slightly over emphasized, stage.

After her first love, Willoughby, leaves her, Marianne begins to digress from a balanced to a progressively unbalanced state. She starts moping and does not communicate to Elinor as usual. The emotions she feels begin to take over her thoughts and she takes a sort of distorted pleasure in her sorry state: “Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby” (Brodey 1999). Such a gesture signals the stage of insensibility coming on. In not wishing to sleep, Marianne consciously begins to allow her rapidly growing emotions to overtake what reason she had previously been exercising. Reason would have dictated the need for sleep for one grieving, but Marianne would have it this was a sort of rite to forget him properly. The more she thinks about the recent events and what she feels, the more sorry she feels for herself and she strains her body with the strain of her emotional turmoil. In London, as her withdrawal from Willoughby evolves, the climax of the emotionally filled life she has been living collapses. “Marianne had now been brought by degrees so much into the habit of going out every day, that it had become a matter of indifference to her whether she went or not…she prepared quietly and mechanically…and often not knowing till the last moment where it was to take her” (225). By now, Marianne’s sensibility has turned to insensibility and she is emotionally broken. She had grown so accustomed to thinking and feeling about Willoughby that when the source of affection was extracted, she began recycling her empty, grief-filled emotions, thus affecting her physical and mental well being. Once she no longer has control of her perspective of the rational, she becomes violently ill. It takes this physical sickness for her to realize the depth of her insensibility and the damage it has done to herself physically and emotionally. As she regains her ability to live in the reality of her now single life, she understands how her insensibility shook her.

Elinor, in contrast, is the epitome of discretion and sense. From the very beginning of the novel, Elinor illustrates a clear sense of reality in her helping the family cope with change. Elinor practices sensibility as she is familiar with nature through the tenderness of her personality and especially her growing attachment to Edward Ferrars. However, she continues to remain in control of her emotional state. She is quite similar to Colonel Brandon as they are both observant, thoughtful people, who grow in tender affection for others: Elinor for Edward, and the Colonel for Marianne. But the difference between Elinor and Brandon is that Elinor speaks of her emotions to a degree: “‘I do not attempt to deny’ said she, ‘that I think very highly of him-that I greatly esteem him, that I like him’” (27). In this way, she shows more sensibility than Brandon in verbally expressing her emotions and not using sense to hide them. She sees emotion as helpful, and even better to express, but carefully. This skill of carefully watching the emotions and not often making them known is what sets her apart from Marianne, who expresses her emotions frequently and has no shame in letting the present company know them. Most of the time, Elinor keeps her perspective in reality, as painful as it is at times, creating a sharp contrast between the sisters. When the news of Edward’s engagement to Miss Steele becomes public, Elinor shows the greatest strength over her emotions when she tells Marianne of knowing the secret and not sharing it: “‘By feeling I was doing my duty…I have very often wished to undeceive you and my mother’ added Elinor…‘Now I can think and speak of it with little emotion.-I would not have you suffer on my account’” (236). Here, Elinor proves that she did indeed feel much affection for Edward, but knew it would hurt her family to know ‘the secret’. This illustrates her deep sensibility and her care for the feelings of others, while at the same time, she proves that she has the sense to remain silent for the comfort of those around her, if not for herself. In this way, Elinor becomes an example of a humanly perfect balance of sense and sensibility.

Through Sense and Sensibility, Austen gives the reader examples of rationally censored sensibility, as well as sensibility left to its own devices. In writing about the concept of sensibility, Austen seems to express to the reader that sensibility is essentially emotional and comes naturally to some. It is a characteristic that can bring those who have it closer to nature and become more sensitive to their feelings. She uses the examples of Marianne and Elinor to clarify the fruit of sensibility which is dangerous if not regulated with reason, and those of Mrs. John Dashwood and Colonel Brandon to show the need for sensibility in moderation, but not to the extent of an eradication of emotion. In the dialog and action of these characters, Austen gives the reader a better understanding of what it means to have sensibility, and how one should keep this quality in check. Within the novel Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen seems to illustrate both the genuine quality of having sensibility in comparison to the potential evil of insensibility, as well as the possibility of not having enough or too much sense to balance them out. Through her characters, she shows that sensibility is a slippery characteristic to have and if not regulated, as exemplified by Elinor, it can lead to the loss of the self within the self. Besides being a warning of the dangers of sensibility, Austen shows sensibility is a good characteristic to have and can be used for the good of others, as long as it is tempered with reason within the boundaries of reality.

Works Cited

Brodey, Inger Sigrun. “Adventures of a Female Werther: Jane Austen’s Revision of Sensibility”. Philosophy and Literature, Volume 23, Number 1, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, April 1999. 110-126. Project MUSE. Web. 3 June 2013.

Diderot. Encyclopedie. “Sensebilite (morale)” ed. J. Assazat (Paris: 1875); quoted in Inger Sigrun Brodey, Adventures of a Female Werther: Jane Austen’s Revision of Sensibility” (Baltimore: Johns HopkinsUniversity Press, 1999). 110-111.

Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: Heron Books.

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