Polar opposites. Night and day. Hot and cold. These are just some adjectives and nouns that are on opposite sides of the spectrum. The words are perfect ways of contrasting the characters of Marianne and Elinor in the novel Sense and Sensibility. Sense, defined as the ability to be aware of things around her describes Elinor. She is the calm, quiet and collective sister, who makes decisions based on practicality. Sensibility, or the trait of being affected by changes in surroundings fits Marianne. She’s the foolish, whimsical and irrational sister, driven by passion and emotion. Both characters are put in similar situations throughout the book and, true to the title, act with sense and sensibility.
Elinor’s courtship with Edward against Marianne’s affair with Willoughby contrasts the characters ideas of marriage and love. Elinor, though interested in Edward, would not admit anything more than having “great esteem” for him. Elinor looked at the situation practically, citing that Mrs. Ferras would be the ultimate factor in their courtship because Edward’s future (and fortune) depended on what Mrs. Ferras thought of Edward’s possible wife. Thus, Elinor waited for more proof before she got carried away.
Marianne couldn’t believe Elinor’s reserved attitude, calling Elinor “cold-hearted” for not saying more positive things. As far as Marianne was concerned, love and nothing else determined the possibility of a good marriage, a fact confirmed by Marianne’s courtship with Willoughby. After falling and meeting her “knight in shining armor,” Marianne quickly fell in love with Willoughby with little equivocation. “I have not known him long indeed,” Marianne said. “It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; – it is disposition alone.” Marianne concluded that if two people had the right personality, then love could emerge instantaneously, ignoring anything to do with social status or approval, which caused Elinor’s hesitancy. Clearly Elinor displayed signs of sense by looking at her affair with Edward practically. Edward, by Elinor’s account, is “far from being independent,” because he will need the inheritance to live comfortably. It would be impractical to marry until the marriage is accepted. In contrast, Marianne plays into the role of impracticality by giving her heart to Willoughby without finding out his financial situation or his lineage. Acting with sensibility, Marianne sets herself up for misery when Willoughby abruptly leaves because she has unequivocally given her heart away.
Of course, Willoughby isn’t the only person to leave Barton College with haste; Edward also has affairs to take care of. The two sisters handle their absences very differently. Marianne spends the days following Willoughby’s departure wallowing in her own misery. She plays his favorite songs on the piano, interrupted only by her tears.
Marianne also continues to act irrationally when she feels that it’s her obligation not to sleep the night after Willoughby has departed. She would have been ashamed to “(rise) from her bed in more need of repose than when she lay down with it.” Elinor did nothing of the sort when Edward left. Instead of “leaving the house in determined solitude to avoid (her family),” like Marianne did, Elinor took more of an interest in her family and, “neither sought nor avoided the mention of his name.” The elder sister even took time every day to think of Edward fondly. Marianne’s behavior bordered on the verge of pure childishness because she felt an obligation to show the family she was suffering. The fact that Elinor conducted herself in such an indifferent way showed that their family and friends would’ve condoned the younger sister getting a good night of sleep. Elinor again showed she acts with sense, knowing that she would see Edward again. Marianne, displaying sensibility, caused herself unneeded stress, focusing purely on the present.
Later in the novel, Elinor learns that Edward was previously engaged to Lucy and we also find that Willoughby was previously engaged to Miss Grey. The commonalities are striking. Willoughby and Edward both have secret marriages that had no planning. Both marriages would have been ridiculed and not allowed by the parents of the two. Elinor reluctantly becomes the confidant of Lucy, displaying remarkable restraint and self-control when Lucy tells Elinor of her affair. “Elinor’s security sunk; but her self command did not sink with it,” said the narrator, displaying Elinor’s incredible discipline. Despite knowing the truth about Edward, Elinor became neither vengeful nor angry for more than short period of time. After briefly rationalizing Edward’s actions, Elinor found that while “her case were pitiable, his was hopeless.” Elinor chose to keep the affair private, and told no one, not even Marianne.
Elinor refused to let this become a topic of gossip among their social circle. Marianne, on the other hand, made her sulking over Willoughby a public matter, even wanting to leave Mrs. Jennings’ house immediately. “I cannot stay to endure the questions and remarks of all these people,” Marianne said. She became antisocial, leaving the house only when pressured to, and began to detest Willoughby. “Cruel, cruel- nothing can acquit you,” Marianne said after she had read Willoughby’s response to her letters. “Where was your heart when you wrote those words? Oh! Barbarously insolent!” Oblivious to her sister’s problems, Marianne cries out “Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer.” In fact, Elinor knew exactly what Marianne was going through, she just handled it differently.
However, handling it differently didn’t necessarily translate into happiness. Acting on opposite ends of the spectrum only brought both Miss Dashwoods more misery. Elinor, on the far side of the spectrum acted with complete sense and had nothing to show for it. While Elinor hoped that “something would occur to prevent (Edward from) marrying Lucy,” she still found herself without a husband. Meanwhile, Marianne, the complete opposite of Elinor, foolishly wandered in the rain in hopeless search of Willoughby and found herself very ill. The only saving grace for the Dashwoods would be a change in character, a step outside of sense for Elinor, and sensibility for Marianne. Elinor jumped outside her character at the conclusion of the novel when Edward said he was no longer marrying Lucy. Elinor “burst into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease.” Elinor, who had displayed remarkable control throughout the novel couldn’t hold sense anymore. The same held true for Marianne, who throughout the novel had acted purely with sensibility.
After finding out that Elinor had gone through the same struggles and persevered, Marianne began amending her ways. “My feelings shall be governed and my temper improved,” Marianne said. “They shall no longer worry others, nor torture myself.” Though their personalities and actions contrasted greatly throughout the novel, by the conclusion, Marianne matured, and heeded advice from her sister. Furthermore, marrying Colonel Brandon, who also had displayed sense throughout the novel, Marianne further bridged the gap between her and sense.
Through Marianne and Elinor were polar opposites at the beginning of the novel with Elinor acting completely with sense and Marianne with sensibility, they managed to come more towards a moderate spot in the spectrum. Marianne finally acted with sense, marrying Colonel Brandon, a more practical marriage than Willoughby.
Meanwhile, Elinor displayed some sensibility, finally shedding tears that had built up throughout the book. Austen appropriately named this novel “sense and sensibility,” and not “sense or sensibility,” because she wanted to convey the idea that either extreme of the spectrum leads to misery and unhappiness. By balancing the two, Marianne and Elinor found tranquility.