Moral or Didactic Design in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility

There arises a sharp controversy among critics as to whether or not Jane Austen, while writing her novels, consciously had in mind certain serious moral concerns of her times; whether or not as a novelist she wanted to pose as a teacher for her society. The problem which baffles the critics is that her oeuvre turns out to be multi-dimension and can be interpreted in various ways. It is often felt that the stories in her novels are oriented towards the education of the heroine/s. The same is true of the novel, Sense and Sensibility, all the more so as it lays equal attention to the two heroines, Elinor and Marianne, and presumably the title points towards that. But it must be emphasized here that the greatness of Austen as a novelist does not depend on whether she moralizes or not; in fact, her major works are complete in themselves and aesthetically independent of any moral concern.

Deliberate or not, however, on her part, a moral design is discernible in the novel, Sense and Sensibility. The entire plot of the novel is intimately and perhaps essentially concerned with exploring the strength of ‘sense’ and the weakness of ‘sensibility’. The novel begins with the presentation of the Dashwood family, now consisting of only the female members who are on the verge of being displaced. Three unmarried daughters of Mrs. Dashwood—especially Elinor, Marianne, are helpless and vulnerable in a male dominated society where there are many immoral predators and unscrupulous dowry-seekers. The situation is more critical as the society is itself ruthlessly unsympathetic to women, who would, without a heavy dowry behind them, remain spinsters and serve wealthy families as governesses. In this kind of situation it is essential that the girls practise ‘sense’ and avoid the excesses of ‘sensibility’.

The plot centres round illustrating this antithesis. Marianne falls in love too easily without knowing fully the person, Willoughby and the affair results in heartbroken misery and prolonged suffering for her. On the other hand, Elinor feels attached to Edwadr Ferrars, but she proceeds sensibly, never allowing her emotions to dominate her rationality. It is not that she does not feel the pain when she finds that Edward Ferrars cannot reciprocate properly; but her suffering is lessened because of her capacity for judgement and for self-control.

But it should be inappropriate to interpret the novel wholly from the perspective of the two girls; in fact, the relative importance of “sense and sensibility” in the society is applicable to the other male and female characters as well. Characters like Willoughby, Robert Ferrars and Lucy how lack of strength and dignity of character. They are not only unscrupulous, but also inadvertently selfish. In fact, much of the irony in the novel arises out their inability to control their inherent faults of character and their misdeeds. Again, she has ridiculed certain persons in the novel so as to expose their absurdities, follies and defects. She has ridiculed Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Palmer for being too garrulous and for being addicted to excessive gossip and rumour-mongering. She has criticized Robert Ferrars for being a coxcomb, a snob and conceited fellow with an inflated ego. Again, Mrs. Ferrars has been criticized for her unusual attachment to money and status and punished for being so. On the other hand, John Dashwood has been criticised in the plot for his selfish nature and lack of warmth for others, and his wife, Mrs. Fanny Dashwood, for her callousness and spiteful narrow-minded nature. Clearly, the novelist aims at reforming the society, urging the reader indirectly to avoid selfishness, hypocrisy, greed and dishonesty.

The characters in the novel can be very easily divided in two group—the first one having the power of self-control, integrity of character and moral strength, and the other lacking those. Elinor, Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon possess those qualities which make them superior to others morally. It must be remembered here that Jane Austen was primarily concerned with the interiors of the society and that is why, the characters are presented very much from the psychological point of view, and psychology in her times was intimately associated with the moral principles which determine the well-being of the society.

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