The Taming of Marianne Dashwood: a source of discontent.
Warning: contains spoilers and key quotations.
After re-reading it these past few days, I have pinned down my issue with Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: Marianne’s ‘happy ending’.
As a refresher - and since this is basically the ending for every Austen novel, it’s hardly a spoiler - Marianne Dashwood, after recovering from her first, ultimately undesirable, crush on the selfish Willoughby, ends up with the calm and worthy Colonel Brandon.
Marianne’s is not our primary story arc: it is her elder sister Elinor who is our POV character and who, in my opinion, more fully gets what she wants. The match between her and Edward leaves no room for doubt in the reader: they are exactly suited to one another.
Not so Marianne. As I said before, Marianne and Elinor exist in part to make a point: that sense and passion must unite for optimum happiness. In this comparison, Marianne is the embodiment of sensibility, or passion. Her opinions and emotions are all strong, eager, and unreserved.
At seventeen, when recently moved to a new home, she meets young Willoughby in a matter exactly suited to her fancy: he is a mysterious stranger who carries her home when she has sprained her ankle. They turn out be be perfect for one another: feeling and thinking the same, not caring for the good opinion of their general acquaintance, clearly smitten with one another. And, though Austen, of course, does not say it, we can certainly imagine the sexual tension involved.
Alas, though, Mr. Willoughby turns out to be a young rascal and eventually marries another. Marianne suffers “from a nervous” complaint for many weeks, and when she does finally recover, she is much calmer and more thoughtful than before.
It all ends with her eventually marrying Colonel Brandon, who has been a quiet, much-suffering presence in her life for over 300 pages, but whom she always used to see as “too old to feel anything near passion” and too retiring in nature.
The problem with all this is in the way Austen describes the union. A few examples:
”[…] her wish of bringing Marianne and Colonel Brandon together was hardly less earnest, though rather more liberal than what John had expressed. It was now her darling object. Precious as was the company of her daughter to her, she desired nothing so much as to give up its constant enjoyment to her valued friend; and to see Marianne settled at the mansion-house was equally the wish of Edward and Elinor.”
Nothing is said, when discussing the wishes of either mother or sister, of what Marianne herself is supposed to feel. Even worse:
“They each felt his sorrows, and their own obligations, and Marianne, by general consent, was to be the reward of all.”
Jane. Here you slip up! Marianne Dashwood is a person, even more so than almost any other character in any of those novels, and you stoop to use her as a conditioning reward for the dog-like loyalty of an infatuated man? Her company, while professedly valued, is seen as something to be “made over to a valued friend”, in lieu of the riches that Mrs. Dashwood can’t bestow.
I don’t mean to be entirely unfair. Marianne has the most interesting character arc: coming to believe, from her heart, that many of her former opinions and beliefs were naive and ultimately harmful. A attachment to the Colonel, grown slowly under her rising estimation of all his good qualities, would have been natural and believable. She might have found that loudness is not a yardstick for admiration of any book or musical piece. However, the main reason for the marriage seems to be the wishes of her family and friends, with “no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship”. For me, personally, this is too much of a stretch. It feels like settling.
The only consolation we are offered it that
“Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughly.”
Marianne Dashwood was a wild thing. How are we supposed to rejoice at her being broken?
So, err, I’m super happy with this piece. Any thoughts, followers o’ mine?