Sense and Sensibility: Deconstructing the ‘happy-ending’

Sense and Sensibility was the first novel published by Jane Austen in 1811. Like many of her later novels, it deals with the themes of love, romance, attraction, betrayal, marriage and money. Irony is used as a powerful tool by Austen in her works. Austen’s novels work at various levels and she takes the reader into the feminine world.

Jane Austen grew up in a country parsonage and even in her novels , we find frequent mention of the countryside. She was a part of a large family and her parents lived on the fringes of gentry. Though her mother hailed from a rich family, they were dependent on rich relatives for help. From a young age, Austen and her sister were expected to find suitors. So , for Austen, the idea of marriage was closely related to gaining financial stability and not solely as a luxury or a romantic relationship. Austen was aware how money was an important factor in deciding the success or failure of love/marital relationships. Though Austen never married , this awareness of how marriage became a ticket to survival for many , is reflected in her works. In her works, she doesn’t lose sight of these money matters even in novels about love and romances.

The novel Sense and Sensibility begins at a note where after the death of Mr. Henry Dashwood , his wife and three daughters are in desperate need of financial help since the house in which they live and all of Mr. Dashwood’s property now goes to his son from his former wife, that is, John Dashwood. Though Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters look up to John Dashwood for some help, his petty nature supported by the greedy nature of his wife Fanny, soon comes to fore front in his reluctance to help them.

However, the much needed help comes from a relative of Mrs. Dashwood, that is, Sir John Middleton, who offers them a place at Barton Cottage at a reasonable price. Though the generosity of Sir Middleton helps the family out of their present condition, it becomes important for the two elder daughters to find suitable and well-to –do husbands in order to bring themselves out of their present situation.

Elinor, being the eldest daughter is prudent and very much in control of her feelings and emotions. Also, she takes great care of what she is saying and how she is expressing herself. However, the younger sister, Marianne is very different from Elinor. She is passionate, out-going, out-spoken and driven by feelings and emotions. Her speeches are often marked by outbursts of overwhelming emotions.

Marianne finds a lover in Mr. Willoughby, whom she meets by a chance encounter while returning home on a rainy day. Willoughby greatly impresses Marianne by his passion for art, music and dance. Mr. Willoughby appears as someone too good to be true. And due to the rather childish and out-going nature of Marianne and indiscretion on the part of Mr. Willoughby , the rumour of their engagement spreads far and wide. However, the reader is kept in suspense about the reality of it.

Here, the author brings the theme of appearance versus reality as the reader gets to know about the true nature of Mr. Wlloughby and how he first abandoned Marianne and later abandons the ward of Colonel Brandon, Miss Williams, after impregnating her to finally marry Lady Grey in order to meet his monetary needs.

Elinor, on the other hand develops a liking for Mr. Edward , brother of Fanny Dashwood but isn’t sure if it is mutual. The author brings in a period of strained relationship between them where it seems that Edward is betrothed to Lucy , who though is pretty , but is equally annoying as a company.

Things go well till the latter half of the novel. However, it is towards the end that some abruptness is found when things start taking the right turns and falling in place in a rather surprising way, with no foreshadowing. Marianne becomes more mature, discreet and sensible which allows her to fall for the rather simple gentleman and bachelor, Colonel Brandon , who acts as  a  foil to Willoughby. Also the curtain over the Edward and Lucy affair is lifted as Lucy gets married to Edward’s younger brother,  Robert. Edward after being aware of Elinor’s regard for himself, proposes marriage to her.

Even Mrs. Ferrars, Edward’s mother, who wanted Edward to marry a rich woman at first and was against the match,experiences a change of heart and agrees to the marriage of Edward and Elinor. She also gives them a sum of ten thousand pounds, the interest of which will allow them to live safely along with the money that they already have and the small amount of money that he’ll get from the parsonage.

Thus, even though Austen deals with the issue of love, marriage and romance,she never loses sight of the money matters involved. The critic Allen Moers in ‘Literary Women’ says that :

“From her earliest years, Austen had the kind of mind that enquired where the money came from, on which young women were to live and exactly how much of it there was.”

Many critics criticize Austen for not dealing with the social and political issues of the time in her novels. As George Steiner remarks :

“At the height of political and industrial revolution ina a decade of formidable philosophical activity, Ms. Austen composes novels which seem to be almost extra-territorial to history.”

But, this criticism is countered by others such as Raymond Williams, who argue, “Austen’s novels provide an accurate record of that moment in English history in which high bourgeoise society was most evidently interlocked with agrarian capitalism. It’s an openly acquisitive society which is very concerned with the transmission of wealth and is trying to judge itself at once by an inherited code and the morality of improvement.”

The novel Sense and Sensibility raises issues that are raised in Austen’s other novels too but have a darker tinge to it. Here, all the obstacles are removed in the latter part of the novel by the entry of Colonel Brandon, maturation of Marianne to make her fall for Colonel Brandon and the marriage of Robert and Lucy. The potentially grim issues aren’t allowed to shadow the happy ending, where both the sisters marry the men they love,  at the same time leading to all the financial problems being resolved.

Austen avoids questions such as what would happen had Marianne not met Colonel Brandon? How Edward and Elinor would have managed had Mrs. Ferrars not have had a rather sudden ‘cahnge of heart’ for them both and not have offered them ten thousand pounds? What would have Edward done , had Lucy , out of her greed, not decided to marry Robert?

Austen sidelines all these questions and obstacles to bring about the happy –ending in a rather hurried up sequence of events. The reader is left wondering as to what brought Lucy and Robert so close as to get married. The news comes as a shock to both the reader and the characters in the novel. Similarly, Marianne after getting betrayed by Willoughby is shown to develop a liking for Colonel Brandon later in the text. But what makes Colonel Brandon fall for Marianne is a theme rather weakly developed by the author (except the weak justification that she resembled his former love interest).

Thus, though Austen raises a lot of issues in the novel and even highlights how women in the nineteenth century had limited choices and had to depend on marriage for financial stability; she pushes all these issues under the carpet towards the end of the novel to achieve the happy-ending resulting in two love marriages , therefore making the reader question the possibility of such ‘happy-endings’ in both the real life and the novel.

 

Bibliography:

Shubinsky, Diane: ‘ Sense and Sensibility: An Eighteenth –Century Narrative’- University of Haifa, Israel.

Lerman, Rachel: ‘The Sense and Sensibility of Jane Austen’ : V21, NO. 2 ; Jane Austen Society of North America; Summer 2000.

Dinkler, Michal Beth: ‘Speaking of Silence: Speech and Silence as a subversive means of power in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility’ : V25,NO.1; Jane Austen Society of North America; Winter 2004.

Brann, Eva.  “The Perfections of Jane Austen,” The College [The St. John’s Review], April, 1-14,1975 .

 

Submitted by:

Raveena Chaudhary  (965)

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