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.