Posted tagged ‘Perception’

Sense and Sensibility 2-4: Arguing the “Minuter Propensities,” Changing Perceptions

January 3, 2009

This is my log for Chapters 2-4 of Sense and Sensibility. From now on, my posts will certainly cover multiple chapters at a time.

Plot Points

Continuing from the background given in Chapter 1, the Mrs. Dashwoods are now living with the Mr. John Dashwoods at the Norland estate, having not yet found a reasonable alternative. Mrs. John Dashwood convinces her husband that the amount of money given to his step-mother and step-sisters be diminished to almost nothing. Edward Ferrars enters the story, providing Elinor, Marianne, and Mrs. Dashwood something to discuss and adding to the complexity of the relationships between all parties. After antagonizing comments by Fanny Dashwood, the Mrs. Dashwoods finally decide move out of Norland after receiving a reasonable offer which leaves even Elinor with “no right of objection.”

Character Commentary

The face of Mrs. John Dashwood (now given the first name of Fanny) is clearly shown in Chapter 1; she is manipulative. In a seemingly calculated argument, she convinces her husband to nullify his father’s wishes that the Mrs. Dashwoods be looked after financially, at one point even saying that they would be in a position to transfer wealth to him. Who is the manipulated, then? Mr. John Dashwood. In this scenario he does not resemble the person who, in the opening chapter, was said to conduct his duties with “propriety.” Add to this her using the Elinor-Edward relationship as leverage against Mrs. Dashwood, and Fanny’s position as the antagonist seems clear.

Edward Ferrars is the brother of Fanny Dashwood, and there is something of an intimate relationship developing between him and Elinor. Austen describes him as “not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing.” Elinor and Marianne discuss in detail the merits of his affection toward Elinor; is affection enough when it is not coupled with ideal artistic qualities and social ranking? I’m not sure if we’ve yet seen any true view of Edward in these early chapters, as what I can describe about him is only through hearsay on the part of the sisters’ wavering opinions, or the broad-stroke descriptions given by the narrator. Even then, “handsome” is an expression of opinion, hardly an objective description of one’s features, in my opinion.

Rhetorical question: could Austen have (effectively) achieved describing Edward’s less-than-ideal appearance by saying that he “had a wart on his face” or “didn’t bother to brush his hair or teeth”? Saying he is “not handsome” is effective, but only so by default. I’m not sure if the narrator is being fair to Edward; in other words, I view this way of describing a character to be a bit tacky. See my Out of Context lead below for a continuation of this discussion.

Themes and Threads

Austen seems to be driving home the existence of two distinct worldviews in the sensibilities of the characters. For certain unfortunate souls, their temperament can know no moderation: Mrs. Dashwood: ‘I can feel no sentiment of approbation inferior to love.” Elinor: “You may esteem him.” Mrs. Dashwood: “I have never yet known what it wa to separate esteem and love.” Marianne similarly gives in to the extremes of expectation in her critique of Edward: “… to hear him read with so little sensibility.”

These chapters show a change in perception on the part of several characters: Mr. John Dashwood and the fate of the inheritance previously dedicated to his step-sisters; Mrs. Dashwood’s view of Edward upon Elinor’s remark that he is simply “unlike Fanny”; a dissolving of Marianne’s troubled view of Edward upon discussion and argument with Elinor; doubt developing in even in Elinor’s mind about the possible future with Edward; and Mrs. Dashwood’s change in mood about staying at Norland, to finally move away. It seems that a deadly brew is being mixed in the lives of these characters. In which of the above is there change caused by an actionable event, or even conjecture based on an action? John Dashwood is connived by his wife, the elder Mrs. Dashwood makes judgements based on the opinion of someone else—as does Marianne—both in the case of their view of the potential for Edward in their lives, and Elinor has a moment of doubt despite her effective argument in the opposite direction (granted, a victory against the easily convinced Marianne). At least when the decision is made to leave Norland, it comes as a result of the offer to enter Barton Cottage.

I think this passage adequately describes the change of the end of those months, and the mood at the time: “To quit the neighborhood of Norland was no longer an evil; it was an object of desire; it was a blessing in comparison of the misery of continuing her daughter-in-law’s guest: and to remove for ever from that beloved place would be less painful than to inhabit or visit it while such a woman was her mistress.”

Out of Context

How do writers describe physical traits today? First of all, I think an important de facto rule about fiction needs to be understood. Unfortunately, because stories are not meant (or preferred?) to be a one-time event—authors, filmmakers, and artists want their work to proliferate—the story is attached to market forces. That is, a story must be marketable, and characters are an essential part of a story. Therefore, characters must be marketable. I perceive that in every way, the characters around me are created to appeal to my senses: they are smart, funny, storied with interesting pasts, and most of all, beautiful. Surely, if the story weren’t fiction, ie, a reflection of real life, all of the characters contained therein wouldn’t be among (all) of these traits?

And so, in reading a story given by words, where the visual sense is reliant upon description by words, the author (or narrator) must tread the line between making his/her character appealing (which throws a proverbial wrench into the allegedly/ideally independent process of creating art) and maintaining the aesthetic of words as art. I perceive that, at least in this case, a default solution is sometimes put into practice by authors. For example—and keep in mind that this is anecdotal and by no means a solid survey—I seem to have read many books (usually they are related to the science fiction genre) in which the narrator achieves character ideal by using a catch phrase such as, “she had a slender body” or “he had a square jaw”; and every time I read this phrase and other like it, I think, “just say it”: “imagine Kate Moss in The Matrix, you know, the one with the tight-fitting latex. Yeah, that’s what my character looks like.”

At least Austen doesn’t insult my imagination in this way; she just goes straight in with “not handsome”; incredible!


“… but in the meanwhile, till one of these superior blessings could be attained, it would have quieted her ambitions to see him driving a barouche. But Edward had no turn for great men or barouches.”

“I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own.” – Marianne

Looking Ahead

The Mrs. Dashwoods are moving out; the girls will have to adjust to the new lifestyle, and Elinor will have to adjust to physical and relational divides between herself and Edward.