My general commentary on Sense and Sensibility is here.
Jane Austen was not the kind of writer, such as Charlotte Bronte or Hermann Melville, who attempted within the pages of a novel to sketch out a universal worldview encompassing God, humanity and everything else. Instead, Austen examined human nature through the lens of everyday personal thoughts and interactions. Austen’s examination of humanity through common occurrences can be found in almost every page of her novels. There are literally thousands of illustrations and observations on human behavior in her books. These observations are often insightful, subtle, complex and accurate. She was able to dig deep into human behavior, emotions and relations.
Take the below quote from Sense and Sensibility. Marianne Dashwood is describing how she plans to cope with the heartbreak of being jilted by John Willoughby,
“As for Willoughby— to say that I shall soon or that I shall ever forget him, would be idle. His remembrance can be overcome by no change of circumstances or opinions. But it shall be regulated, it shall be checked by religion, by reason, by constant employment."
The above quote is a prime example of Austen describing a common human reaction to a common situation. Here the often-cited dichotomy between emotion and reason is examined. Marianne is distraught that Willoughby has chosen to marry another woman. Like many rejected lovers, she is unable to shake her thoughts of her paramour and is experiencing emotional distress. In the moment, she is planning to counterbalance these strong emotional thoughts with the more cerebral aspects of her psyche. As she observes, she is trying to “regulate” the negative emotion, not eradicate it.
Based on life’s experience, one would expect that, at least for the short term, “Religion, reason and constant employment” will not completely regulate or counterbalance Marianne’s pain. People often try to distract themselves from such depressed feelings to no avail. However, in the long run, one might expect the heartbreak to ease. Such relief can in part be attributed to such distractions. Thus, the situation described here is not a simple one.
It seems to me that Austen has very successfully gotten into her character’s head. She is also accurately portraying human nature. The voice of Marianne in this passage seems to believably reflect a young woman attempting to self-analyze herself. Her statement sounds like something people, under similar circumstances, commonly say, even in our present time.
Is this dichotomy real? Like many things said about human psychology, it is to some extent a generalization. Yet, there is a degree of reality behind this generalization. Neuroscience teaches us that the two halves of our brains represent opposite ends of thought and behavior. One side is analytical, and the other side carries on the more abstract thinking. In a way, Marianne is describing the interaction between the two halves of her brain. I would argue that here and elsewhere Austen has proven that she was a decent psychologist. Here, unbeknownst to herself or her contemporaries, she was dabbling in a bit of early neuroscience!
Austen was neither the first, nor the last, thinker to examine this issue. However, like many things Austen, her take on it was distinctive and aesthetically pleasing. The above quotation only comprises of two sentences. It is one of thousands of these keen insights into humanity contained in Austen’s books. It is an illustration as to why this author can be classified as one of the great artists and thinkers of all time.
Brian, I like the way you've chosen a small "snapshot" within the novel for explication as a way to illuminate further the whole novel and the writer's strategies.
In the past I used a similar tight-focus explicative approach but have gotten away from it in recent months; I need to get back to that way of thinking for reading and writing. I also need to read some more Austen. She seems to offer much as a way of responding to the challenge of "how to read and why" (i.e., the title of one of Harold Bloom's books).
Which, by the way, is your favorite Austen novel? Mine, oddly enough, is _Northanger Abbey_. Well, it was when I read it many decades ago. Perhaps I would think differently if I read it again now.
I love it! I actually have a daughter who lets her emotions run away with her without checking them with her head. I need to get her to read Austen again.
This is off topic but I just reread your review on Middlemarch. I'm trying to decide what to read next and you had an excellent review on that book too.
Nice post and I agree with your vision of Austen.
Thanks RT - Sometimes I think that with classics like this, that so much has been written and said about them that one needs to drill down into something fairly obscure.
I have not read Northanger Abbey yet. i plan on getting to it relatively soon. So far my favorite I think that my Austen book is Pride and Prejudice.
How to Read and Why is a great boom by the way. I also love Bloom.
Hi Heidi - Your daughter is not the only obe who lets her emotions run without checking them. I have been known to do so occasionally :)
Middlemarch was such a great book. If you read it I would love to know what you thought.
Thanks Emma. Austen seems to have near universal appeal for folks who have tried her books.
Emotion v. Reason
Wonderful post, Brian Joseph! I enjoyed the quotation you chose. The genius of Jane Austen is expressed in her written observations about human nature and behavior.
I like the way you've homed in a particular example in this post, it's a great way of illustrating the point. Human behaviour is such a complex thing, but Austen seemed to have an uncanny knack for capturing it.
Thanks Suko - This is such an age old question and Austen handled it soi well.
Thanks Jacqui .
I find that Austen and few other Nineteenth Century writers really understood people in an impressive way.
Hi Brian! I agree with your assessment of Austen compared to Bronte or Melville. She never goes beyond the parochial confines of her neighborhood but the observations she makes about human nature are astute.
I've only read this story once but it's pretty scathing in what she has to say about human selfishness and how people didn't take care of their own family leaving them helpless and how some women have to resort to scheming to trick men into marrying them.
That was something else that struck me in this novel how a man's word was as good as a contract. We've come along way from that!
An insightful commentary. I appreciate your observations of Marianne's thoughts as presented by Austen. Certainly her depiction of human nature in this and other novels is edifying as shown by her understanding of the importance of her characters' very human sensibilities.
Another excellent post... and another of the many reasons I love Jane Austen.
Hi Sharon - You raise a good point, despite her prim and proper reputation Austen's criticism of some things in her society was scathing.
It seemed that the honorable people did abide by a strong moral code in regards to their word, these books, not so for the dishonorable folks.
Austen was truly an expert in human nature,
I could write an entire series of posts based on how good this book is.
This is an outstanding and very insightful post, Brian!
You're so right that Austen was actually an early psychologist. Her books have to be read in this light. There's less about high drama, and more about the subtle workings of the mind, as reflected in outward behavior and societal mores. They do require patience to read, though, for readers like me, who are actually addicted to high drama. Lol. Still, they're very much worth the effort. The quote you've provided is ample proof of this.
Your correlation of neuroscience with Austen's observations is spot on, too. Kudos for that insight! it's actually fascinating how writers can frequently foreshadow scientific developments. In the field of psychology, Dosteyevsky and even Dickens certainly did so, as well. In the field of technology, writers like Jules Verne also foreshadowed later scientific developments. Of course, that's what the whole science fiction genre is about.
Thanks for another fascinating post! I'm going to bump up "Sense and Sensibility" on my classics TBR!! :)
Thanks Maria. These creative folks understand humans and the mind in the way that scientists do later is in my opinion a testament to their genius.
When I was younger I never would have had the patience for Austen. As I am getting a little older I am appreciating more and more the kind of story that is less about plot and more about theme and characters.
Whilst over the years I've often found myself impressed with the various quotes I've seen shared from Austen's books like you it is probably only now that I'm beginning to truly appreciate them for what they are. still, not convinced they are novels for me but I have my mam's copies stored away should I ever feel the desire.
Hi Tracy - I for one would not have appreciated Austen when I was younger. I think that it would be interesting if you gave her books a try.
That's a nice Austen quote. What a word to use: regulated. It sounds so official-like or industrial business like. But she's right: Constant busyness indeed would help.
Hi Susan - It is interesting that Austen choose the word "regulated." To continue my analogy to modern psychology it is a term that the medical profession uses to refer to medication.
I think that you've hit on one of the reasons for Austen's (and Shakespeare's) enduring popularity. Regardless of the story or the characters or the circumstances, she accurately portrays human nature, sometimes too close for comfort.
Interestingly, your quote S&S reminded me of a quote from Uncle Tom's Cabin that I rediscovered today while reviewing my post about the book.
"Of course, in a novel, people's hearts break, and they die, and that is the end of it; and in the story that is very convenient. But in real life we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us. There is a most busy and important round of eating, drinking, dressing, walking, visiting, buying, selling, talking, reading, and all that makes up what is commonly called living..."
I admire Austen for making Marianne a character who doesn't die when her heart is broken but one who figures out how to go on living in a productive way.
Hi Jane - That is a great quote from Uncle Tom's Cabin. It seems to look at similar ideas from a slightly different way.
Marianne does survive her heartbreak. However she is young, experiencing what many people do, and likely to find someone else.
I think it is a bit easier to make it through heartache depending on what stage one is at.
You've touched on a lot of what I like about Austen. The way she wrote novels and portrayed the psychology of her characters also influenced future novelists. And I forget who it was who pointed it out to me, but she was also skillful in using the structure of dialogue to convey character (for instance, in Pride and Prejudice, Lady Catherine likes to talk at people in a monologue rather than engage in a dialogue).
Hi Hila - You raise a good about how Austen influenced future writers. This influence was enormous.
I also think that there is something very skillful in the way that she constructed dialogue. As I plan top read more Austen in the coming weeks and months, I will pay particular attention to this.
Insightful post as always. I love how Austen got into the minds of her characters. The quote you shared is perfect, about how Marianne would still think of Willoughby, but through a different lens now.
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