Sense and Sensibility: A Blend of Neoclassicism and Sensibility

Categories: Sense And Sensibility


In this essay I discuss Jane Austen’s use of both neoclassical and sensibility writing styles, in attempt to define whether Sense and Sensibility is more a product of the 18th or 19thh century. After much research and deliberation I have discovered that as Austen utilizes the sisters to express both themes of neoclassicism and sensibility that the novel is holds equally to both the 18th and the 19th century.

Critic Lionel Murphy said that ‘Sense and Sensibility forms a bridge between the neoclassicism of the Augustan Age and the Age of Sensibility, or the Romantic Age.

Written on the cusp of the 19th Century, is Sense and Sensibility more a product of the 18th or 19th Century?

Discuss. Novels of the 18th century featured neoclassical, rationalistic writing, however from the late 18th century and into the 19th century, sensibility was a popular writing feature for novelists. Jane Austen’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ features both sensibility and neoclassical themes as Austen uses a subtle balance and proportion of the issues she wishes to address about society and the way she incorporates her characters and their stories to have equal justification.

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The Augustan age is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as, “relating to or denoting 17th- and 18th-century English literature of a style considered refined and classical. ” Whereas, Sensibility is defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as a conception of the term held by Jane Austen’s contemporaries, it is a nice and delicate perception of pleasure or pain, beauty or deformity.

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It is very nearly allied to taste; and as far as it is natural seems to depend upon the organization of the nervous system. The differences between the styles is clearly evident, however it was not uncommon for 18th century, neoclassical writers to utilize both styles in their work (Macfarlane 2007). This was common as, sensibility was placed by literary history as a phase that transitioned between the decline of neoclassical ‘reason’ and into the eruption of romantic imagination (Keymer & Mee 2004). Sensibility rejects the ideals of neoclassical values on correct judgement and restraint and heavily emphasizes the value of instinct, feelings and intuition (Pike).

The reputation of the 18th century literature has never quite recovered from its embarrassing association with unmeasured and extravagant emotional displays. It was not just distaste for the fading fashion of sensibility, but often because it was an inherently unstable style of writing (Keymer & Mee 2004). Sensibility arose out of the opposition to rationalism and neoclassicism of the Augustan age which held the deepest feelings of the individual’s morals (Pike, 2013).

The unstable nature of sensibility came from its anti-rationalism that focused on emotional reactions, for example tears, swoons, fainting, prevailing mood of melancholy, fragmentation of form and set piece scenes of virtue and distress that appear throughout the sensibility period (Keymer & Mee 2004). Women’s voices were cemented in 19th century literary history through their increasing popularity from the 20th century onwards, (Shattock 2010).

The literature produced by the women of the 19th century supply an image of personal tragedy and suffering that became the theme of their work. The theme of personal tragedy and suffering was familiar to the characteristic tendency of these women as it was relatable to the phlight of women’s rights but also due to the popularity of sensibility (Harris 2005). Austen had clear statements to make about individual conduct as well as the structure of society and the relation of one to another (McMaster, 1970).

Austen’s interested in the virtues and the vices is evident throughout Sense and Sensibilty as the imperfections of the personalities of Elinor and Marianne’s characters (McMaster, 1970). Marianne expressive nature frequently, a clear example of sensibility, the reader often sees Marianne extremely emotional responses to the situations she finds herself in, “She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatest part of it.

She got up with a headache, was unable to talk, and unwilling to take any nourishment; voicing pain every moment to her mother and sisters, and forbidding all attempt at consolation from either. Her sensibility was potent enough! ’. ” Spectators and readers are witness to the exclamation becoming declamation, grief modulating in self-pity stoicism (Keymer & Mee, 2004). Austen utilizes Marianne to emphasize the theme of sensibility throughout Sense and Sensibility. This is apparent as it is repeatedly expressed by Austen through Marianne Dashwood who feels deeply and suffers cutely, it is evident her sensibility is genuine, (Mcmaster, 1970), “In such moments of precious, of invaluable misery, she rejoiced in tears of agony to be at Cleveland; and as she returned by a different circuit to the house, feeling all the happy privilege of country liberty, of wandering from place to place in free and luxurious solitude, she resolved to spend almost every hour of every day while she remained with the Palmers, in the indulgence of solitary rambles.

The conception that sensibility maintains extravagant emotions that may in some ways appear artificial or overacted, is evident as there is something synthetic about her acute feelings that deliberately augments them only the artificial additions to her emotions, this is evident as she repeatedly plays Willoughby’s favourite songs when he leaves and when she takes to going on long walks in the gloomy weather (Mcmaster, 1970).

Marianne sees everything through her own subjectivity, "On the contrary, nothing can be a stronger 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. " Her inability to see things from a more realistic view again emphasizes Marianne’s role in showing Austen’s use of sensibility, her total concern is with her own emotional needs and actions a clear example of sensibility.

Neoclassicism was witness to many extraordinary writings about all kinds of man’s ability to think, feel and postulate. Building on the critical thoughts of the 17th century, English philosophers, writers, clerics and artists produced a massive body of literary works. These works were concerned with taking original works and ‘creatively criticizing’ them (Macfarlane 2007). Neoclassicism was a part of the Augustan age, in literature, Augustan’s expressed the distrust they felt for the imagination, as well as individualism, innovation and emotional freedom (Pike 2013).

Characters of the Augustan age often retained features such as, clarity, propriety, order, elegance and good sense, all features are evident in Elinor Dashwood’s character (Pike, 2013). Elinor appears to be the more reserved of the two sisters as she uses acute observation of what is happening around her and through this is able to find out more about people and their feelings (McMaster, 1970). We are shown Marianne has much learning o do and reverse her values, the values that her emotional needs have created; love is not really the be all and end all, that Elinor and Edward are phugmatic and that men over thirty can feel. This is in contrast to Elinor, who only has to reproach herself once as she has been overconfident that Marianne will recover from her illness rapidly (McMaster 1970). Austen uses this to emphasize Elinor’s maturity and responsibility and show Marianne’s more childish and emotional nature.

Austen uses Elinor to express the neoclassical and Augustan themes of the novel, this is evident when she is deliberating over her love for Edward and decides he has the correct qualities, “I have seen a great deal of him, have studied his sentiments and heard his opinion on subjects of literature and taste; and, upon the whole, I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure. It is difficult for Austen to show Elinor’s neoclassical emotional control, without suggesting her feelings are weaker than Marianne, who appears to maintain free expression and vivid immediate reaction. However readers are able to look into Elinor understanding due to Austen’s narration which shows that there is more in her in showing the reticent love between her and Eduard Femars, Austen manages to an occasion convey intense feeling humorously through the narration of seeming trivia.

This is seen their reunion scene in which Edward toys with the scissors while he blurts out news of his freedom Elinor’s heart is not empty we find her head is certainly far more active (McMaster, 1970). Both of the sisters are affected by romantic love but unlike Marianne, Elinor does not inhibit her sisters passion or feel the rejections so obsessively to the verge of self-destruction (Keymer & Mee 2004). Elinor’s more emotionally stable standing allows her to be endorsed in preference to Marriane’s senseibility (McMaster 1970).

Austen has clearly portrayed the sisters as each theme; Marianne Dashwood has a personality that is evidently themed to be part of the sensibility movement, whereas Elinor retains herself in a way that appears neoclassical. Therefore it does not seem that Austen’s novel, Sense and Sensibility is based in 18th century or in the 19th century as Austen utilizes both neoclassicism and sensibility throughout the novel.

Updated: Nov 30, 2023
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Sense and Sensibility: A Blend of Neoclassicism and Sensibility. (2016, Sep 27). Retrieved from

Sense and Sensibility: A Blend of Neoclassicism and Sensibility essay
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