Sense and Sensibility 8-12: Chagrined and Surprised

I have just read through Chapters 8-12 of Sense and Sensibility.

Plot Points

The Dashwoods, now firmly established at Barton Park, continue to meet characters such as Mrs Jennings, who does no shorting of “railing” in her sarcastic poke-funnery at the sisters. Marianne enters into an affectionate—friendship?—with Mr. Willoughby, who charmes her (and her mother) in every way. Meanwhile, Elinor’s confidence in her own situation dwindles.

Character Commentary

Never in Marianne’s life has something so simple as a “false step” caused something so glorious. Her situation seems to have turned completely around: she is enthusiastic, confident, and enthralled by the entry of Mr. Willoughby. She seems to have found her perfect match, for “their tastes were strikingly alike.” At this opportunity, Elinor and Marianne exchange sarcastic remarks, which serve to solidify their respective positions on such things. Austen takes time here to give Marianne some physical description: “handsomer.”

Mr. Willoughby contrasts with Edward in every way: he is sensible and spirited, which is why Marianne is encouraged around him. He draws some level of contempt, I suspect, from Colonel Brandon and Elinor Dashwood.

Themes and Threads

The question of one’s actions being proper is challenged in these chapters. Marianne and Willoughby showing no restraint in their affection toward one another, Marianne and “her systems,” Marianne accepting a pony as a gift, and to some extent Margaret’s inadvertently encouraging Mrs. Jennings’s hurtful remarks.

Narratology Notes

In Chapter 8, Elinor and Marianne’s discussion of age and male virility as a component of the male-female relationship offers a curious, if potent, look at Austen’s writing at a heightened pace. Marianne is convinced that an older women (in her eyes, 27 years of age) has very little to offer a mate, and that the joining by such a women with an older-aged male would be one of convenience—less in sincerity than what it would be were they younger. Elinor objects: “Confess, Marianne, is not there something interesting to you in the flushed cheek, hollow eye, and quick pulse of a fever?”

In the text that follows, Marianne approaches her mother about an issue which she “cannot conceal from [her]”: Edward Ferrars hasn’t visited yet. And this fact, to Marianne, equates to their relationship being an impassionate one. So readily did Elinor defend Colonel Brandon and his future wife, and defend the validity of their union, that the comparison in Marianne’s mind is made: Elinor and Edward are each a Colonel, older, slower, not as attentive as they should be: “How cold, how composed were their last adieus! How languid their conversation the last evening of their being together!” And though Elinor, Marianne, and thier mother had discussed the evolved relationship that would come in time (“You will gain a brother…”), the opinion that Edward’s actions were “as an affectionate brother to both” is now used against him.

The diction used here, “cold” and “languid” is a reflection back to previous talks of Colonel Brandon’s sickly behavior on “a very cold, damp day” and of the fever to which Elinor sarcastically refers. But why is Marianne acting naive at best—with malice at worst—in taking the topic to her mother? In the text directly after Elinor and Marianne’s conversation, a strange (in my view) transition takes place: “Soon after this, upon Elinor’s leaving the room, ‘Mama,’ said Marianne, ‘I have an alarm on the subject of illness…” Perhaps this direct-to-dialogue approach to explaining the action jumps out because so much of the narrative up to this point had been told in third person (as if a summary), but the quickened turning from Elinor to her mother seemes conspicuous. At least, it makes me wonder what thoughts (malice or misunderstanding?) go through Marianne’s head as she turns.

Style Points

I think that Austen has thus far (I’ve read through chapter 12, remember) been successful at creating sympathetic, engaging characters. There are some whose potential feels unfulfilled—caricatures (as was used to describe Fanny Dashwood) of some extreme. These have their purpose, no doubt. But, I am thinking of Elinor and Marianne, who are various points in the story have had their ups and downs. This is successful in getting me, the reader, through the text. That being said…

Shame on Jane

Yes, it’s that time. By now, I’m used to the “handsomes” and “not handsomes.” I get it: readers have to project whatever they prefer—or need—to imagine these characters as real variables seeking their function in a real world. But here Austen has gone to far, in my opinion. In describing Willoughby: “… his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and expression. Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of Mrs Dashwood would have been secured by any act of attention to her child; but the influence of youth, beauty, and elegance, gave an interest to the action which came home to her feelings.”

Why describe his personality and activity through his having a gun, in possesion of two dogs, and the courage to assist Marianne, if you, in the next paragraph, qualify his beauties with such broad—and frankly utterly uncreative—strokes as NOT old, NOT ugly, NOT vulgar? In my view it lessens Willoughby as a character. Sure, he goes on to play a vital part in the story of Marianne, but he will be looked back upon as the one who fit the bill—not only perfectly, but not unperfectly, in a just-in-case-you-need-further-convincing sort of way.

“… and he then departed, to make himself still more interesting, in the midst of a heavy rain.” That’s a beautiful image! Too bad it occurs after such assuming writing as to make me feel like a three-year-old in trying to imagine how Willoughby posseses such “manly beauty.”


“But Marianne could no more satisfy him as to the color of Mr Willoughby’s pointer than he could describe to her the shades of his mind.”

“It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy: it is disposition alone.” – Marianne Dashwood.

Looking Ahead

Elinor looks to be in bad shape; where’s Edward been all this time?

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4 Comments on “Sense and Sensibility 8-12: Chagrined and Surprised”

  1. Sylwia Says:

    “Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of Mrs. Dashwood would have been secured by any act of attention to her child; but the influence of youth, beauty, and elegance, gave an interest to the action which came home to her feelings.”

    It’s not Austen’s description of Willoughby, is it? It’s her description of the impression he made on Mrs. Dashwood. Austen has this habit of changing POV in half a sentence.

    “…and he then departed, to make himself still more interesting, in the midst of an heavy rain.”

    Oh no! She didn’t write that with a straight face. How can a man be made more interesting by weather?

    I know that Austen has an opinion of having written the best love stories ever, but she’s not a romantic. Some of her characters are, but Austen as the narrator never is. Only sometimes she’s serious.

  2. Anaka Says:

    Sylwia writes so well what I was about to write. I agree that this description of Willoughby is Mrs. Dashwood’s impression of him, not the narrator’s impression. These lines, then, do not necessarily give the reader a better impression of Willoughby but a better impression of Mrs. Dashwood.

  3. Sylwia and Anaka,

    Thank you for the comments. I think you have a good point in that Austen is giving us an important view of Mrs. Dashwood here. I may have missed that on my first reading.

    Isn’t Austen using these terms in an objective way, though? The terms in the phrase “old, ugly, and vulgar” are given without deference to their subjective use in the real world. Perhaps this is a more honest way of using language to write a story; this is a topic/question I hope to understand more in the future.

    As an exercise, note the following comparison of Austen’s text and a possible alternative containing test additions of text:

    (a) Original: “Had he been even old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of Mrs Dashwood would have been…”

    (b) With test insertions: “Had [she even thought him as] old, ugly, and vulgar, the gratitude and kindness of Mrs Dashwood would have been…”

    I hypothetically add to Austen’s text not to point out a ‘better way’ or ‘improved understanding’ of the original, but to create a comparison which might test and explore my reactions. In Austen’s original, the personality qualifiers are given as-is and, in my reading, appear (whether intended or not) to be a judgment on the part of the author. Even if you include that the author’s voice is sometimes tangled with the narration in either sarcastic or other character-building remarks, there is no flexibility in the words’ meanings.

    In that second example sentence, in which I added what I feel might add the some strength to the intended meaning, it is more clear that Mrs Dashwood is the one offering the judgments (or words, in the context of Austen’s page). The characterization of Mrs Dashwood through her view of Mr. Willoughby is clear, but the degree to which she is characterized as such is flexible.

    Or perhaps, still, the flavor of Austen’s prose is created through not offering a clear distinction between the narrator and the subjectivities of her characters, in an attempt to emphasize them.

  4. Sylwia Says:

    You have very good points about Austen’s technique. I have always considered it to be her slyness. In a way she’s pulling us, but when we catch her on it, she says, but _I_ have never said it.

    Consider that novel reading back then was more than it is today. It was a family amusement. Just as we’re watching TV, exchanging remarks on the characters with others, back then people read books aloud for the pleasure of their family. Once someone bought a book they’d most likely reread it many times. Simply there weren’t so many books back then, and people, especially those leaving in the country, had little to do in the evenings. No pubs, cinema or bowling. Just calm family evenings all year around, with occasional balls and dinners.

    In a way Austen writes in order to continuously please, amuse and intrigue, so each time one rereads her books one finds new elements one had missed the first time. I’ve read them hundred times and I still keep finding. I’m slowly beginning to think I understand Pride and Prejudice – an impression I had only on my first reading, but then each subsequent rereading was proving me wrong, until I learnt how to find all of the hidden issues, inside jokes, and important connections between characters.

    When you read the description of Willoughby as Austen’s own that’s because she wants you to think so at this point. Only later, as I’m sure you know by now, she’d make you question it, but then if you returned to this part of the novel and reread her words you’d see that _she_ never said so.

    Additionally Austen keeps laughing at her characters. She’s never overly sympathetic. She keeps distance, which sometimes people read as insincerity of their feelings, but it’s only Austen trying not to become the romantic. In the era of sentimental novels she tried to remain level-headed, sometimes sarcastic and cynical, and nearly always ironic.

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