he best stories teach us something. Jane Austen’s captivating novel Sense and Sensibility (or Ang Lee’s brilliant 1995 film version of it, starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet) can teach us quite a lot about common sense.
Sense and Sensibility is the story of two sisters, both unlucky in love. Elinor loves a man who is committed to another woman; Marianne loves a scoundrel. The title announces the novel’s double theme—Elinor personifies sense, Marianne sensibility.
Of the title’s two themes, “sense,” meaning “common sense,” is easier for us to understand today. Translating the title to “Common Sense and Sensibility” sends us in the right direction. But there’s a complication: Austen and her readers’ understanding of “common sense” was much more robust than ours.
Interpreting “sensibility,” is harder, because changes in attitudes and speech have distanced Austen’s meaning from our contemporary usage. Consider the root word “sensible”—we still use it, but usually very differently. We commend someone’s sensible decision to convey that it showed common sense. When Marianne defends her conduct by telling Elinor, “I am not sensible of having done anything wrong in walking over Mrs. Smith’s grounds,” she means, however, that she had no emotional response alerting her to having acted wrongly. In Austen’s day, “sensibility” meant a person’s capacity for emotional responses to impressions. The strongly sensible person could be counted on to display, and often readily express, feelings aroused by poetry, music, picturesque scenery, or life’s vicissitudes.
In Austen’s time, common sense and sensibility were considered fundamental human faculties. As components of human nature, they were capable of being cultivated or neglected, developed or stunted. Differences in cultivation and capacity explained the human truth that some have abundant common sense and others little, and that human beings differ widely in how emotionally responsive they are to impressions and experiences.
Appreciating the novel on a deeper level requires understanding that Elinor and Marianne personify these two human faculties. But they do more than just that: they personify a great philosophical change in the world.
In an introduction to Sense and Sensibility, literary critic Mark Schorer claimed that Austen “very probably thought that she was writing small, modestly edifying comedies of contemporary manners, and nothing more.” In claiming that the great historical convulsions of Austen’s lifetime did not play “any part in her novels,” he speaks for most experts. Precisely the opposite is true of Sense and Sensibility.
C.S. Lewis claimed that George MacDonald’s fantasies baptized his imagination. With this, Lewis credited MacDonald with reaching his imagination and preparing him for his eventual intellectual assent to Christianity. Jane Austen does something similar. She reaches us by means of our imagination, and prepares us for great philosophical issues and historical changes.
In The Roots of Romanticism (1965), Isaiah Berlin called the transformation of European consciousness that occurred between 1760 and 1830 “the greatest single shift in the consciousness of the West that has occurred, and all the other shifts which have occurred in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries appear to me in comparison less important, and at any rate deeply influenced by it.”
Austen was born in England in 1775; Sense and Sensibility was published in 1811.She lived and wrote during this period of radical transformation, just as the Enlightenment was giving way to the Romantic era.
For Berlin, the Romantic movement cultivated a new consciousness that valued:
integrity, sincerity, readiness to sacrifice one’s life to some inner light, dedication to some ideal for which it is worth sacrificing all that one is, for which it is worth both living and dying…common sense, moderation, was very far from their thoughts…there was a great turning towards emotionalism…an outbreak of craving for the infinite…admiration of wild genius, outlaws, heroes, aestheticism, self-destruction.
The Enlightenment in Europe emphasized reason, while in America, Scotland, and England it emphasized common sense. While it is the latter Enlightenment tradition that Austen recalls in Sense and Sensibility, the Romantics rejected both.
Elinor and Marianne do double duty in the novel. As sense, Elinor represents the Enlightenment era of reason and common sense. As sensibility, Marianne represents the Romantic era of exalted feelings. Near the novel’s beginning, Austen establishes that double pairing when Elinor says of her sister “her opinions are all romantic…A few years will settle her opinions on the reasonable basis of common sense and observation.”
When she speaks of “common sense and observation,” Elinor refers to the Anglo-Enlightenment’s account of human understanding, which saw common sense as requisite. In the Enlightenment era, one learned through observation; the new scientific method made rigorous observation possible by scientific experiments.
But it’s common sense and observation that come to the fore later in the novel. Austen reveals the romantic sensibility and its shortcomings to us through Marianne. When jilted, Marianne throws herself into her feelings:
Marianne would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting with Willoughby. She would have been ashamed to look her family in the face the next morning, had she not risen from her bed in more need of repose than when she lay down in it…she got up with an headache, was unable to talk, and unwilling to take any nourishment; giving pain every moment to her mother and sisters, and forbidding all attempt at consolation from either. Her sensibility was potent enough!…The evening passed off in the equal indulgence of feeling…and this nourishment of grief was every day applied.
Austen draws a clear contrast between Marianne and Elinor. When her turn at disappointment comes, instead of yielding, Elinor’s conduct shows “her determination to subdue” her feelings. Austen writes repeatedly of Elinor’s “self-command.” Elinor’s conduct, however, does not impress Marianne:
Such behavior as this, so exactly the reverse of her own, appeared no more meritorious to Marianne, than her own had seemed faulty to her. The business of self-command she settled very easily; with strong affections it was impossible, with calm ones it could have no merit.
Marianne takes Elinor’s conduct as proof of indifference. We know better. A scene near the novel’s end when Elinor is united with her beloved is one of Austen’s most emotional.
Marianne’s self-indulgence results in a life-threatening illness. Elinor sets aside her own grief to nurse her sister, and eventually helps change her perspective. Elinor finally saw in Marianne:
an apparent composure of mind which, in being the result, as she trusted, of serious reflection, must eventually lead her to contentment and cheerfulness… “My illness has made me think…I considered the past: I saw in my own behavior nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself, by such negligence of my own health as I felt even at the time to be wrong. Had I died, it would have been self-destruction.”
Elinor’s prophecy that Marianne would in time “settle her opinions on the reasonable basis of common sense and observation” was fulfilled. Austen comes down firmly on common sense’s side.
Through Marianne, Austen shows us that putting common sense “very far from one’s thoughts” is dangerous. Romanticism’s exaltation of martyrdom has a serious downside—embracing it for love very nearly cost Marianne her life.
Romanticism started in Germany, and martyrdom’s elevation was a central tenet. For Berlin, “somewhere between the end of the 1760s and the beginning of the 1780s”—at precisely the time of the American founding—the romantic hero was taking hold of the German imagination. Heroic martyrdom became “a quality to be worshipped for its own sake.”Berlin even described the romantic hero as “satanic.”
This is the beginning of…the Nietzschean figure who wishes to raze to the ground a society whose system of values is such that a superior person…cannot operate in terms of it, and therefore prefers to destroy it…[who] prefers self-destruction, suicide, to continuing to drift along simply as an object in an uncontrollable stream.”
Marianne’s ambitions never included razing society to the ground, but Austen deftly shows that romanticism’s attraction to martyrdom also threatens the individual.
When Marianne reflects on her self-imposed danger, she lists three of the cardinal virtues: prudence (“imprudence”), fortitude (“want of fortitude”), and justice (“want of kindness to others”). Temperance, the fourth, is not named, but its marked absence is underscored through Marianne’s behavior.
Readers in Austen’s day would have understood that a developed common sense gives us more than the ability to make prudent and practical choices that are likely to have good outcomes. It helps us make choices that are moral and virtuous. For Austen, prudential common sense is a necessary virtue. This is very far from the way we think about common sense.
C. S. Lewis, discussing Sense and Sensibility, wrote of “the grammar of conduct.” Grammar is accessible to all and its mastery is essential to language’s proper use. In the same way, mastering conduct’s grammar enables us to use the principles of common sense—including morality’s principles—in the conduct of our lives.
Robert Curry is the author of Common Sense Nation: Unlocking the Forgotten Power of the American Idea from Encounter Books. For more information about the author, click here.