Sense & Sensibility

by Neil

At the end of Volume I of Sense & Sensibility, Marianne is ghosted by a guy (Willoughby) she thought was about to propose to her. She holds out hope that there’s been some kind of misunderstanding. But we’re following along from the perspective of Marianne’s older sister, Elinor1, and we’re inclined to be skeptical. How do you know whether the rapport you have with someone is real?

Marianne puts a lot of emphasis on sensibility,” personal feeling, aesthetics. So immediately, she falls back on shared taste. She and Willoughby agreed that Cowper is great and Pope is mid, so they must have a real connection. We see another way this might have come about: Marianne was very vocal about her opinions, and all Willoughby had to do was play along.

Did Willoughby really ever like her? It turns out this is sort of the wrong question. He actually did really like Marianne, he’s just a very unstable person. He’ll flirt with you today, and if tomorrow he’s more worried about his financial situation, he’ll go off to marry a rich woman. The day after that, now that he’s financially stable, he’ll regret trapping himself in a comfortable but loveless marriage. And so on and so on.

So the coordination problem here is not so much about identifying a shared feeling — it’s about identifying whether that feeling, or whatever you want to call it, will cash out in a way that is compatible with your own understanding. Liking the same poets is not a reliable indicator of this, as people continue to discover today.

For Austen’s characters, the solution involves seeking out people of integrity, who can be observed to behave consistently with respect to their circumstances. But Austen had the advantage of living in a tightly circumscribed society, with a well-understood common code of expected behavior (at least within her social class). If this can still be done, it would have to be done without reference to an implicit unwritten handbook. How might that work?

  1. They have a third, younger sister, Margaret, who appears in maybe three scenes. It’s one of the least economical writing choices I’ve ever seen. Why does Jane Austen put her in there at all? Just to say the letter F”? Please DM me on Twitter if you have a better explanation.↩︎