‘‘Sense’’ and ‘‘Sensibility’’
The title of Jane Austen’s novel and the Lee-Thompson film adaptation identifies one key theme of the story: the contrast between good sense and untrustworthy emotions. The moral of Sense and Sensibility is that rational thought, not strong emotions, should guide one’s actions and decisions. Those who get carried away by strong feelings—their sensibilities—must conquer their emotions or else continue to be hurt by their impulsiveness. In both novel and film, Elinor ultimately finds love with Edward through her consistent ‘‘sense,’’ while Marianne’s sensibility leads her through heartache before she adopts a bit of good ‘‘sense’’ and settles down with Colonel Brandon.
The dichotomy of ‘‘sense’’ and ‘‘sensibility’’ in Austen’s novel reflects the early eighteenth century, when two cultural movements—classicism, dominant during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, and romanticism, which emerged during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Elinor’s rational leanings, keen insight, and tendency toward moderation typify classicism, while Marianne’s lofty ideals, imagination, and idealism typify the romantic ‘‘cult of sensibility.’’ Like Austen’s portrayal of Elinor and Marianne, the cinematic interpretation demonstrates the changing cultural trends of the eighteenth century and suggests a need for balance between rational thought and emotions. While Elinor is shown doing practical things like balancing the household budget, Marianne is shown wandering across the hills lamenting her lost love.
The Lee-Thompson film emphasizes Austen’s approach to sense and passion, or romance. In the film, as in the novel, Elinor’s sense of reason, decorum, and propriety keeps her from following her own desires or pursuing romance. She keeps the household running smoothly, plays the diplomat in explaining away Marianne’s behavior, goes to London to help Marianne even though the trip may dredge up uncomfortable feelings for her, and acts as go-between on numerous awkward occasions. Believing that it is better to conceal her emotions from the world, Elinor smothers her own feelings for Edward when Lucy reveals her secret and designates her as confidante. Instead of fighting for the man she loves, Elinor looks to acceptance and sacrifice. In contrast, Marianne looks to romance as the basis for love and life. She allows her own desires to control her, as exemplified when she wanders off to Willoughby’s home in a storm and risks her life. She is taken by Willoughby because of the tiny book of sonnets he keeps in his pocket and the way he seems to embrace life without any thought to propriety. Marianne, in contrast to her sister, wears her heart on her sleeve.
Appearance vs. Reality
In many Austen novels, things are not as they seem, and the film adaptation of Sense and Sensibility also emphasizes the differences between how things appear and reality. Willoughby serves as the main example of this theme. To Marianne— and to the audience—he appears romantic, dashing, and genuine. His charming behavior and thoughtful gestures lead Marianne to believe he is in love with her and intends to marry her. Yet he flees Marianne at the news that he has gotten another woman pregnant in order to find a wealthy wife. In doing so he reveals himself to be a secretive, self-centered, and thoughtless cad. Lucy Steele is another example of this theme—she appears devoted and loyal to Edward, but in fact she is selfish and conniving. When Edward loses his fortune, she quickly transfers her affections to his suddenly wealthy younger brother, Robert.
In her novels, Austen often makes characters quick to judge people on first impressions. Emma Thompson also made certain to retain this trait when she adapted the original story. Each character judges another, as they try to make friends, foster romantic relationships, and determine who might hurt them. Characters are frequently quick to judge others positively and negatively, as Marianne does with Willoughby or as Fanny does with the Dashwood sisters. Elinor judges people’s behavior and level of propriety, as exemplified in her judgment of Marianne’s relationship with Willoughby. Elinor finds her sister too impassioned and wishes Marianne would be more cautious, and they argue about their differing approaches to life. In the end, Elinor’s prudent judgment leads her and her sister to a happy end. Elinor’s first impressions tend to be the most reliable in the story.
Money and Marriage
Austen is known for her ‘‘marriage plots’’ in which some marry for love and others for money. True to the novel, Emma Thompson’s screenplay focuses on how marriage plays a key role in defining social status and solidifying the financial futures of Austen’s young characters. Marianne and Elinor will not inherit much money from their mother and must take the wealth of their potential suitors into account, although they both also want to find love. The adaptation shows Elinor often concerned about household financial matters and worried about how to feed the family properly. Willoughby sacrifices his affection for Marianne to marry Miss Grey for money, while Lucy turns her back on Edward to marry his brother Robert for what he stands to inherit. Elinor marries Edward for love, yet his position in the rectory, a gift from Colonel Brandon, will provide them both with security and comfort. At the end of the film, after the Colonel and Marianne marry, he tosses coins into the celebrating crowd of guests, signifying their riches of happiness as well as their monetary riches.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Jane Austen, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010