In Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’, duality plays a major role. The title creates a dichotomy between the values of ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’, or as they are commonly identified today, rationality and passion. The two protagonists, sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, personify these traits. The beginning of the book establishes the characters as such. Elinor is the ever the voice of reason in the search for a new living space, in interactions with their family, and in matters of love. Marianne, on the other hand, indulges in the arts and her emotions. She allows herself to despair over every loss and abandons the pursuit of propriety in more situations than not. However, the reason that ‘Sense and Sensibility’ has long been adored and acclaimed is due to the multi-dimensional quality of Austen’s protagonists. Neither Elinor nor Marianne conforms entirely to the blueprint of a ‘sensible’ or ‘sensitive’ human being; both sisters are both passionate and rational, especially by the story’s close.
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Although Elinor exhibits sense and self-control time and time again throughout the novel, she also gradually begins to exhibit more of her passionate side. While she continues to advise her mother and sister about their impractical desires, (such as Marianne’s desire to accept a pet horse as a gift from Willoughby) she also reveals more of her feelings. With Willoughby’s abandonment and rejection of Marianne, Elinor responds not with frigidity of ‘I told you so’s but with warmth and empathy. She genuinely feels for her sister’s heartbreak, and not only through the lens of her own. Although Elinor is frequently irritated by the lack of sense that those around her use, she remains understanding and affectionate. When Lucy Steele confides in Elinor about her long-standing engagement to Edward Ferrars, the object of Elinor’s love as well, Elinor continues to act sensibly, but not due to lack of pain. Elinor’s rational and just nature merely overpowers her need to induge her emotions. Her feelings are no weaker than her sister’s, but her decorum and morals keep her from revealing Lucy’s secret, although concealing it tortures her. Elinor’s emotional evolution throughout the novel, peaks with Edward’s visit and the revelation that he and Lucy have not been wed. Elinor, who has contained her feelings and stayed restrained for the whole of the book, finally is outward with her emotions. With Edward’s proposal, the reality of Elinor’s pain and love towards him is revealed, pulling back the curtain of etiquette that had veiled her passions. In Elinor, the reader gradually grows aware of her emotional side as it becomes more pronounced, due to familiarity with the character and her struggles.
This is not the case with Marianne. Throughout the novel, Marianne only exhibits her passionate side. In every situation, she indulges her feelings and responds extremely. Beginning with their departure from Norland, which draws out extreme sorrow, to her ecstatic brief love with Willoughby, and then to her hopeless detachment and heartbreak at the loss of him, she solely reacts emotionally. After her illness, however, Marianne begins to show a change in her ways. She begins to reflect on her relationship with Willoughby, and sees weakness and unrealism. She begins to open her mind to Colonel Brandon’s advances. As Elinor’s story climaxes with Edward’s proposal, Marianne’s growth and story peaks with her acknowledgement that her and Willoughby’s affair was not merely the cruel workings of fate, but that perhaps they were not as well-matched as she believed them to be. Marianne acknowledges that the practical matter of finances would possibly have snuffed out the happiness that they would have had together, and that that would have proven their love to be weaker than she had thought it to be. Marianne’s use of logic and sense, in her acceptance of her heartbreak shows how much she has grown from the experience.
The Dashwood sisters in ‘Sense and Sensibility’ are extremely different. Marianne is artistic, passionate, wild, and impractical. Elinor is level-headed, decorous, reserved, and sensible. However, the worth of the novel lies in their similarities. Both sisters have a grasp of reason, as well as emotional depth and passions. Austen’s characters are multi-dimensional and believable. Both of the sisters are relatable for the reader, and sympathetic characters, due in great part to the realism in the balance of both ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’ in their personalities.
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