Elinor and Marianne

December 1st, 2009

While working on lyrics for the song “The Pleasantness of an Employment” where Marianne and Elinor are arguing, I wrote down some thoughts about the nature of the sisters’ ongoing argument.

As I see it, the substance of their debate is how we are to treat other people, and how we are to view ourselves. Insofar as their answers concern compassion and respect for other people, then their debate is a moral one. But notably, certain areas of morality do not enter into the dialogue. Marianne and Elinor would hardly disagree over how to characterize Willoughby’s treatment of Miss Williams, or the latter’s fall from grace. All the characters in Sense and Sensibility take for granted the immorality of that sort of behavior. (There is no equivalent in S&S of Mansfield Park’s Mary Crawford, who calls sexual mores into question.) No, their disagreement arises in the grayer arena of what Marianne calls “every commonplace idea of decorum.” To what degree is it acceptable or desirable to flaunt society’s arbitrary conventions?

The answers given by each sister reveal not only how they view others, but how they view themselves. Elinor knows that adhering to rules of etiquette, arbitrary though they may be, is one of the main ways of conveying respect for others in daily life. Thus she is ever careful of others’ feelings, whether or not the other party deserves it. Elinor puts up with clueless Sir John and motormouth Mrs. Jennings out of gratitude for their help and patronage, but she also humors such buffoons as Fanny and John, Lady Middleton, Robert Ferrars, etc., those who are less clearly deserving of her kindness. This shows Elinor’s regard for the personhood of others, whatever their talents and resources, and however much she may dislike them. But Elinor has equal regard for her own personhood, which she demonstrates in refusing to share her mind with those she knows are incapable of appreciating it. Thus she blandly approves Robert Ferrars’s ridiculous speech about cottages, knowing it is not worthy of “rational opposition.” In this case she not only recognizes the high quality of her own mind, but even shows compassion for Robert Ferrars in withholding it, since she knows he is ill-equipped to engage her in a battle of wits!

Elinor also knows the practical value of functioning inside these societal norms. They can be a means to an end, such as when she acheives a desired tête-à-tête with Lucy through her slightly ingratiating addresses to Lady Middleton.

The downside to Elinor’s outlook is that in her concern for others, she neglects herself. Rather than telling her mother and sister about Lucy’s engagement to Edward, which could have lessened the emotional demands on her by allowing others to help shoulder her burdens, Elinor opts for four months of mental anguish. Of course, above all, she must keep her word to Lucy, and her faithfulness is one of her sterling traits. But I wonder if the words she used to make that vow, “your secret is safe with me,” might not be open to interpretive variations great enough to allow her to ease her own mind. Surely the secret would be equally safe with Mrs. Dashwood, if not with Marianne? Elinor readily chooses the prison of her own thoughts and feelings, focusing instead on comforting Marianne in her grief over losing Willoughby. Ironically, it is through the withholding of her own problems that Elinor fails to help Marianne. For of what could Marianne have greater need, than to forego her intense narcissism and instead exercise compassion for another? By staying silent, Elinor denies Marianne a much-needed chance to emerge from her self-piteous mire; and any comfort Elinor offers her only keeps Marianne stuck in egotism. The supercharged moment when the sisters finally discuss the truth, and Marianne offers compassion to a receptive Elinor, could have been happening all along in a less explosive fashion, to the benefit of both sisters, but for Elinor’s emotional distance.

When Marianne questions how Elinor could have borne the secret alone for so long, Elinor protests that she had plenty of resources for her own comfort without needing to ask for help. Such a response is consistent with Elinor’s upbringing. Jane Austen states that with a loving but childish mother, Elinor was cast in a role of responsibility from an early age. I further conjecture that Mrs. Dashwood subconsciously abrogated her role as mother, training her daughter to take responsibility to an unreasonable degree for a child. And Elinor’s natural hardiness and intelligence were in harmony with that role, which brought her much affirmation, and from which she derived a great sense of personal significance. Consequently, it is very difficult for Elinor to appear needy and vulnerable before others. It is unfamiliar and hence frightening territory for her, and no doubt her pride keeps her from admitting her weakness. This is a pride she shares with Marianne, although they differ in their outward expression of it. Unlike Elinor, in the Dashwood family system Marianne has been protected from having to make responsible decisions, and suffers instead from overindulgence. Unfortunately for Marianne, Elinor’s role of responsibility has not carried with it the full authority of a mother; and so Elinor is not really capable of providing the model that Marianne needs, a model of tempering her openness of expression with true concern for others. Elinor can only remonstrate with her sister and hope for the best. With such similarities of temperament, Mrs. Dashwood could have been a more apt guide for Marianne in governing her passions; but she herself has far to travel on that journey, and she seems reluctant even to set out on it.

The debate between Marianne and Elinor is about more than how to behave in the drawing room after dinner, or how high one can acceptably raise society’s eyebrows. It raises deeper questions of the motives for our behavior, since how we treat others reflects our view of ourselves. Is Marianne’s self-centeredness a simple question of pride, or is it a failure to recognize her own personhood and to treat herself with the respect it demands, drawing the inference that others ought to be treated in the same way? She does, after all, starve herself into a serious illness, which would not be a kind thing to do to someone else. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” presupposes that we do, indeed, love ourselves. Similarly, what are we to make of Elinor’s minute concern for others’ feelings while she suffers a four-month emotional martyrdom? What would it look like if she treated herself with the same kindness she extends to others?

I don’t know if Jane Austen was thinking about all these issues when she wrote S&S, but I can’t help wondering about them as I read it.