by Luke Bunday, junior writing coach
If I were asked to give the sensory equivalent to the experience of reading Sense and Sensibility, I would say that it’s like sitting down at the beach to play cards, sip tea, and watch an oil tanker explode in the distance.
(The oil tanker in that analogy is actually filled with sarcasm — there is a lot of it.)
As Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility is pretty darn important in the history of literature: its commercial success paved the way for the publication of Pride and Prejudice and the rest of Austen’s brilliant works. But seeing it as just a stepping stone to other novels would be an injustice.
Sense and Sensibility tells the story of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne. They respectively represent sense (i.e., reason and caution) and sensibility (i.e., emotion and spontaneity), and throughout the novel they both struggle with separation from their love interests. In fact, by the second act, these love interests are basically never present physically. Don’t get me wrong, though; Austen includes enough romantic yearning to tug out your defenseless heartstrings and play them like a violin, especially in the last thirty pages. But the thing that propels the novel forward in the meantime is her hilarious, whip-smart dialogue.
One of the primary conflicts of the story is Elinor’s fight to maintain a collected exterior even in the face of increasingly distressing circumstances and belligerent people. And this restrained facade turns out to be the perfect vessel for delivering jabs of verbal swordplay. The understatement in Elinor’s polite retorts only adds to their sharpness; you can practically feel the heat of the burns rising off of the pages.
Marianne, too, is brilliantly characterized in ways that adds to the humor of the story. By the middle of the novel, it would be easy to write her off as melodramatic and careless, but her strong emotions end up lending to her likability. On multiple occasions, her fierce temper and earnest affection for her sister lead her to disregard social norms and say things that are both totally out of line and completely justified.
The wonderful way the two sisters provide foil for one another, with complementary but opposite approaches to dealing with frustration, is just one of the reasons why this book, which started as a simple character study, is more than the sum of its parts. The great thing about Jane Austen’s work is that it contains multitudes. Social commentary, critiques of superficiality, and thoughts on love and loyalty intermingle in Sense and Sensibility, and you come away from reading it with a feeling of fulfillment and a lot to think about.