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Sense and Sensibility: Neo-classicism vs Romanticism Essay

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin was a moralistic novel depicting the two main forms of attitudes at that time; the neo -classics and the romantics. The period in which it was written, nineteenth century England, was laden with social etiquette and customs imposed on people of that time; and thus the characters of Jane Austin’s novels. The novels’ two main protagonists; Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, exemplify the Neo classical era and the romantic era, respectfully. Jane Austin instils Neo-classic and romantic ideals in Elinor and Marianne as to present a view of each attitude and to further enhance the discrepancies of social nineteenths century England.

Neo- Classicism derived from the 17-18th centuries’ intellectual pursuit into disciplines such as philosophy, history, classicism and science. The ‘Enlightenment’ era believed knowledge provided a clear future in a developing age and thus a rationalist philosophy was formed. This philosophy shunned the value of human emotions and social freedom. Instead it placed an exalted value on order, convention, wit rationality and logic. The Neo- Classics was convinced logic and reason were superior to emotional and imagination, and believed it was proper to abstain or withhold from expressing emotive feelings and impulsive behaviour.

It was this belief that formed the better part of nineteenth century England and its superficial and trivial social life. This emphasis upon the mind and reason became the topic of authors from that era however by the latter half of the 18th century a few writers had become dissatisfied and alluded to writing about feeling and sentiment. This was known as the transition period, which made way for the conversation of most writers to Romanticism. Some authors, namely Jane Austin, created Neo-Classic characters to emphasize the philosophy and compare it to Romanticism.

In Sense and sensibility, Austin uses Elinor to represent Neo- Classic beliefs. Elinor is portrayed as the character with sense, rational judgment and the qualities that are associated with it such as self- government, duty compassion and propriety. From the beginning of the novel Elinor is described to be the mature, elegant girl who possesses ‘a strength of understanding and coolness of judgement’ (p6) and was a ‘counsellor of her mother’ (p6). Instead of criticizing the Neo- Classic beliefs, Austin expresses the admirable qualities of the philosophy by allocating Elinor as the heroine of the novel; through the Neo classic qualities she possesses. As she is the heroine, Elinor is free from the narrative’s ironic censure applied to the other characters, as well as receiving approval in the opening chapter of the novel. Although her demeanour consists of the attributes of Neo- Classicism, it is rewarded in the novel’s conclusion with a marriage that promises happiness and fulfilment and mutual love.

In the novel, Elinor can be seen to possess a sense and understanding of social propriety. Social propriety was the proper way to behave at that time. She adheres to the social conventions and customs of society to save herself and others from embarrassment, discomfort and injury:

“And upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it, always fell” (p104)

Out of the two sisters, Elinor was the only character who demonstrated a respect for social propriety, as a result the duties of upholding the family’s respect and name was rendered to her.

Another Neo- Classic quality is sound personal judgement. Marianne, in her Romantic demeanour, was not capable of sound judgement but approached matters in the novel with a biased viewpoint. Elinor however is able to treat the novel’s events dispassionately. She is neither conformed to the conventions of society or to the heart, but believes in the value of one’s own judgements. This can be seen in her conduct towards Lucy Steel when she is informed of Lucy’s love for Edward; unbiased as opposed to what her heart desires:

“Elinor saw, and pitied her (Lucy steel) for, the neglect of abilities which education might have rendered so respectable; but she saw, with less tenderness of feeling, the through want of delicacy… and she could have no lasting satisfaction in the company of a person who joined insincerity with ignorance” (p108)

Throughout sense and sensibility, Elinor is shown to be fair and just in her personal judgements. Elinor is also distinguished for her ability to self govern her feelings. The neo classics disprove of one indulging in feelings and believe one should instead conceal them, suffering silently. An example of this can be seen when Edward breaks Elinor’s heart, thus Austin places Elinor and Marianne in parallel situations. Marianne, the romantic, focuses solely on her own feelings and disregards the feelings of others.

However, Elinor follows Neo Classic ethics by remaining a pillar of support for those who depend on her. She does not withdraw away and contemplate her life but instead carries on with the duties she undertook since the beginning of the novel. She continually self sacrifices her desire to the needs and benefit of those around her, showing a magnanimous concern to others while silencing her own feelings; dealing with issues with an unbiased outlook:

” She was very far from wishing to dwell on her own feelings, or to represent herself as suffering much, any otherwise than as the self command she had practised since her first knowledge of Edward’s engagement… (p220)”

A major example of her self-sacrifice can be seen when Elinor agrees to bear the news of Colonel Brandon’s offer of a living to Edward; even though this would enable Edward and Lucy to marry. In spite of this, she is genuine in her desire for Edward’s happiness, whatever it may be. This shows Maturity in her love for Edward; maturity being a Neo-Classic attribute:

“…Whatever minor feelings less pure, less pleasing, might have a share in that emotion, her esteem for the general benevolence, and her gratitude for the particular friendship, which together prompted Colonel Brandon to this act, were strongly felt, and warmly expressed (p239)”

The Neo Classics, although a people not concerned with the heart, showed compassion when it was needed. The Romantics, following their heart desires, felt no desire to do this if it went against their principles. Elinor, in her dealings with Willoughby, found him to be a distasteful man, and her ‘abhorred (him) as the most worthless of men’ (p285), however she allowed herself to consider his unfortunate story, the events leading to his Romanticism inspired misconduct, and feel compassion towards him:

” Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated for ever from her family with a tenderness…” (p285)

The Neo Classics withdrew their feelings and congested them inside, as did Elinor. As a result of they experience outbursts in passion when they are not able to contain their feelings. Elinor experiences this in the conclusion of the narrative, when she finds out she is able to marry Edward. She is unable to control herself as it was seen to be the first time in the novel Elinor truly expressed her feelings. This Strength of feeling is a Neo Classic Attribute.

The Romantics was, in essence, a revolt against the reason infatuated Neo- Classics.

The Romantics enjoyed the simple and emotional aspects of life; they wanted to be free, not enslaved by the social constructs of the Neo- Classic society where they are burdened by etiquette and the demand for intellectual pursuits. They abhorred the idea of being members of a society, rather saw human beings as individuals and focused on individual thoughts and emotions.

The Romantics neglected the Neo Classic’s desire for advancements in the area of science and rationalist thinking; rather they linked themselves to the surrounding nature and considered emotional responses superior to rational ones. They considered urban, social existence to be artificial and corrupting to their liberated heart.

Romanticism searches for truth, and believes that stolid religious concepts and social rules diverted them from the truth. In their minds, they believed the truth could only be found in the individual’s heart, experience and imagination. Ultimately, the Romantics believed in self – fulfilment as the only real way to experience life and live it to one’s complete potential. The novelists of this philosophy were attempting to break away from the regulated topics concerned with Neo- Classicism.

In Sense and Sensibility, Austin uses Marianne to represent the Romantics. Like the Romantics Austin delineates, Marianne describes the sensibility spoken of in the title.

As with numerous Romantics of Austin’s time, Marianne expresses her sensibility through her sentimentalism for poetry and landscape. Like a true Romantic, she longs to be one with nature and often walks in the woods:

“The admiration of landscape scenery is become a mere jargon. Everybody pretends to feel and tries to describe with the taste and elegance of him who first defined what picturesque beauty was…I detest Jargon of every kind”

Romantics shun the idea of social propriety. They do not like the idea of an unofficial social duty requiring them to behave a certain way; instead they prefer to express themselves however they so please. This is typical of Marianne. She believes propriety to be directed by feeling alone. Throughout the novel the words she speaks and her actions reflect her Romantic self-cantered attitude:

“On the contrary, nothing can be a strong proof of it, Elinor; for if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure” (p60)

Marianne does not feel she requires society to control her judgments but rather believes she is capable of directing her own judgment through imagination, fancy and feeling. This is concurrent with the Romantic sense of freedom and trust in imaginative potential. The romantic ideals were influenced by this trust in imagination and her decisions on love and marriage were based on unrealistic, idealistic and erroneous notions. Being a Romantic, she refuses to allow reason to govern her feelings and thus she remains immature in her thinking and attitudes; especially in the issue of love:

“The more I know of the world, the more I am convinced that I shall never see a man who I can really love. I require so much! He must have all Edward’s virtues, and his person and manners must ornament his goodness with every possible charm…” (p15)

Many times in the novel Marianne, who “had never much toleration for anything like impertinence, vulgarity, inferiority of parts, of even difference of taste from herself” (p108), displaces hypocrisy by possessing the very qualities she detests; by being revealed as erroneous, cold and reserved. Marianne however, in her natural ignorance, believes she is justified in ignoring the requirements of social conduct. She aims straight for the truth and in doing so neglects to speak with tact and can be direct. In doing so she ignores the conventions of social discourse; an attribute archetypal of Romantics:

“I have erred against every common place notion of decorum; I have been open and sincere where I ought to have been reserved, spiritless, dull and deceitful…” (p42)

Although Jane Austin may have merely wrote Sense and Sensibility with the intention of an investigation into the two dominant philosophies, it is a popular opinion among readers that Austin was criticizing Romantics by portraying Marianne as egotistical and self- interested. She depicts Marianne’s Romantic values are a fault, not a virtue. Many instances in the novel can lead a reader into believing the text lends itself to be biased against Romanticism.

This is evident mainly near the novel’s conclusion, when Marianne develops an illness through to a broken heart resulting in lack of willpower. She is reformed by this illness and calls into question all her ideals and the attitudes displayed throughout the text. She comprehends the hypocrisy and error in her previous conduct. One of the main revelations she realizes is the burden her actions have placed on her family, particularly Elinor:

“There are inconveniences attending such feelings as Marianne’s, which all the charms of enthusiasm and ignorance of the world cannot atone for”(p49)

As a result of the Illness and self- revelation, Marianne can be seen to adopt Neo- Classic principles such as a mature outlook on love, seen in her new approach to Willoughby:

“As for regret, I have done with that, as far as he is concerned. I do not mean to talk to you of what my feelings have been for him, but what they are now” (P292)

By the novel’s conclusion, Marianne appears a reformed character; a mixture of the superior parts of Romanticism and Neo Classicism. She maintains her feeling, eagerness and vitality however instead of concentrating on selfish ambitions of matters of the heart, she channels them into her newfound social duties as wife, mother and patroness of Delaford.

Sense and Sensibility was used by Jane Austin to delineate her social culture of which her life consisted of. She uses both her protagonists, Marianne and Elinor, to effectively describe the balance that must be present in order to benefit from the virtuous attributes of both philosophies. By glorifying Elinor as the heroine of the novel, a character who is majority Neo- Classic, the reader can see which philosophy Jane Austin considers more suitable. However, though Marianne’s reformation by the novel’s conclusion, the reader sees that Austin also believes the Romantic philosophy is also needed in order to create a sensible but more exciting life.

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