Achieving a Balanced Life in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility
We are often told that too much of anything can be a bad thing. Even Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, insisted that the only path to real contentment and inner peace is "The Golden Mean" (Funk & Wagnalls 328). This life lesson is learned by two of Jane Austen's most well-known characters. Only when Elinor and Marianne Dashwood achieve a balance between Sense and Sensibility do they find true happiness in their lives.
The dichotomy between "sense" and "sensibility" is one of the lenses through which Austen's Sense and Sensibility is most commonly analyzed. This distinction is most clearly symbolized by the psychological contrast between the novel's two main characters. Elinor, the older of the two, represents qualities of "sense," such as reason, restraint, social responsibility, and a clear-headed concern for the welfare of others. In contrast, Marianne, her younger sister, represents the qualities of "sensibility," such as emotion, spontaneity, impulsiveness, and rapturous devotion. As both Elinor and Marianne suffer disappointments in love, they undergo transformations that bring each character closer to the other in behavior and personality. Elinor, the epitome of all that is proper and conventional, begins to show emotions, traits that appeared to have been hidden within her. Marianne, the over-reacting and highly emotional young lady, evolves into a more mature and dignified woman. In the final analysis we find that only when these two young women achieve a balance in their lives, can they truly enjoy a peaceful existence. In other words, the novel's success is a result not of the triumph of sense over sensibility, or sensibility over sense, but rather it is an equal balance between reason and passion that allows Elinor and Marianne to achieve true love and happiness.
From the very beginning of the novel, the reader can clearly notice the contrast between the characters of Elinor and Marianne. In the opening chapters, Elinor, age nineteen, is described as having "strength of understanding" (Austen 5) and "coolness of judgment" (Austen 5), as well as the ability to govern and control her feelings. She modestly states that she "greatly esteems" (Austen 18) Edward Ferrars, a remark typical of her rational, sensible attitude. In contrast, her younger sister Marianne is everything but prudent. She longs for a man with taste, grace, spirit, and fire in his eyes, and considers her sister cold-hearted in her calm and tempered regard for Edward Ferrars. Marianne's excessive sensibility is also manifested in the way that she mourns the deaths of loved ones, in contrast to Elinor's more silent grief. Not only is Marianne overcome by the sadness of losing her father, but she carries on dramatically about having to leave Norland to move to a smaller cottage. Before departing, she wanders the grounds of Norland uttering a histrionic elegy that says,...