I will discuss the themes of Jane Austen’s earliest published work, Sense and Sensibility, earlier called Elinor and Marianne. Austen’s niece recorded that the novel was firstly written in epistolary form, and then rewritten in its present narrative form. (Robert Liddell: The Novels of Jane Austen, pg. 13)
The major themes of the novel are of course the central opposing characteristics that of sense and sensibility, proclaimed in the title. The frame, upon which the whole structure of the novel is built up, is this opposition. I can say that in my observation mostly all of Jane Austen’s works are built upon a kind of opposition, a central disharmony of contrasting ideas, like outer appearance and inner wisdom, money and spiritual values, young and aged, men and women, old-fashioned ideas and new ones, marriage and adultery, rich and poor, intelligence and stupidity, manners and feelings, deception of appearances and surprising truth, virtues and follies, etc…
Robert Liddell says that at first the sensibility of Marianne must have been a literary joke, (pg. 16) which is probable, but I don’t think that it’s most important purpose lies in that fact. Though it has a certain air of parody in it, the opposition is not merely ideological, but Austen really searches the human soul and mind through this story of emotions and reason. To read the story only through this idea of opposition between Marianne’s sensibility and Elinor’s rationality would narrow the understanding of the complexity of the novel, but it undoubtedly is of a great importance.
There are parts, in my opinion, when the narrator seems to take this side or the other, balancing between agreeing with one or the other heroine, but on most part of the novel the narrator remains impartial, only showing by fine hints the attitude towards them, and working the whole plot into an almost perfect negotiation between the two major themes, creating a final state of harmony of mind and soul.
The interesting issue is not Elinor finding true, passionate love at the end, but Marianne’s wise and considerate decision to accept Colonel Brandon’s still and restrained love. To the contemporary reader it is of a natural acceptance that happy ending includes the reunion of true and passionate lovers, but in this case it is not so (or to be more precise: not in the manner of how one would imagine the true love to be – no matter how much we have developed a helpless sympathy towards the colonel). But if the reader is attentive, after a time it will be evident that Austen doesn’t treat Marianne’s love as a supreme and ultimate value, nor Elinor’s cool self-control as a model to be followed or a means of teaching, but as different world-views and characteristics that contain precious as well as destructive elements, and which should be over thought again and again. With these opposing ideas the ambiguity and complexity of human nature and life itself is revealed.
The novel can also be read as a Bildungsroman, as the painful and intriguing continuity of change in the characters of the heroines. There is a bit of didactical stream in the novel: Marianne learns a lot about acceptance of others, the value of trustworthy love and patience in human relationships; Elinor learns a lot more about the usefulness of showing emotions in relationships, and about the handling of the overflow of them. There can be said so much more about what they two and other characters learn during the events, and at what extent they do and don’t change, but in my opinion this isn’t the only and most important way of looking at the novel.
Maturity and passion are intertwined at the end, to show at another level the complexity of life: the mature Elinor learns about the depths of passion, and the childish Marianne gets more mature and ready for firm and lasting marriage at the end of the novel.
Another theme could be that of feeling out of place. This is also a common theme in the novels of Jane Austen. For instance in Pride and Prejudice Lizzie feels uncomfortable at home as well as in society, because she can find no interesting and equal match for her taste; in Persuasion it is the same case with Anne. Marianne feels just the same as the other heroines in Austen’s novels, but there is a slight difference between Marianne and the others. In other cases the heroines at least try to fit in, try to accept their fate, and try to understand others. Their fine taste is not looked at with a hint of irony, because they do not represent the naïve and stubborn rebellion, as Marianne does. Marianne feeling of out of place has its roots in egoism and selfishness that is why it is handled with tougher modality. “A large, united and intelligent family must always be tempted to look down on outsiders, and a woman of Jane Austen’s extraordinary gifts, living in a narrow neighborhood, must have almost overwhelming temptations towards an uncandid attitude to society. She would not have regarded the theme as trivial, nor should we: Marianne has, as a besetting sin, a lack of justice, and she habitually neglects a large part of her duty to her neighbor.” (pg. 22)
The impact of Marianne’s repentance is greater upon the reader in the sense that this feeling of not being in the right place is a common human experience, so it catches the reader with great power.
The peace and harmony with nature of the romantic soul is another important sub-theme, which reappears again and again in the Austen-novels. Contemplation, unity with nature are repeated characteristics of the heroines. But in this novel Marianne’s feelings towards nature are handled with a slight irony by Elinor, who is just as able to fall into silent contemplation, and possesses the same romantic quality of loneliness and spiritual superiority.
< “And how does dear, dear Norland look?” cried Marianne.
“Dear, dear Norland,” said Elinor, “probably looks much as it always does at this time of the year. The woods and walks thickly covered with dead leaves.” >
The explanation to this might be in the exaggeration of emotions with which Marianne takes everything, which gives us the queer sense that she goes too near the borderline of being ridiculous.
Money, and subordinate to this, the Cinderella-story, is also a vital theme in this novel. “Several critics have observed that in each of Jane Austen’s novels there is a Cinderella situation. In Sense and Sensibility Elinor and Marianne are turned out of the family place by their father’s untimely death; and their great-uncle’s injudicious will leaves them, their mother and Margaret with a very modest income.” (pg. 25)
In Persuasion the family heads towards bankruptcy, and they have to move out of their home too, while in Pride and Prejudice as if it would not be enough that they live in quite humble circumstances, after the father’s death, Mr. Collins, the ridiculous cousin would inherit the estate. In all of Jane Austen’s novels the poor, but virtuous and intelligent women are greatly rewarded for their uncommon character by fate: they get a good husband, comfortable home and money too. It must have been very important for Austen to highlight the important truth that money is not an honorable thing in itself, and that social rank and power don’t actually tell one’s worth. In addition to this however we can see the stressing and deploring aspects of pennilessness. The states of the heroines are not idealized, and though the main aim of the novel is not a purely social one, it does have a social connotation, and does present a credible social picture of Austen’s contemporary society.
The novel still has a tremendous effect upon readers, and the themes with which Austen works largely contribute to this.