Sense and Sensibility: Austen's Use of the Arts to Support Characterization
The society in which the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, were raised required a certain proper code of conduct in order to be recognized as a civilized, well bred young girl worthy of marriage. Marriage was mostly looked upon as an aid for future financial success; men married women of equal or greater social status, very rarely marrying below themselves. Because of this sometimes love was a second priority, falling right behind everything considered to be of proper conduct, "It was a perfect match, for he was rich, and she was handsome" (Austen 38). Financial strength was not always an option for young girls looking for husbands, especially since, once again, society did not deem it legal and proper for females to inherit from their fathers - as was the case with the Dashwood sisters. Those with less monetary value needed to somehow counterbalance their loss with other aspects to make them seem socially presentable; this task usually fell upon serious pursuit of one's artistic abilities.
The arts were held in significant regard and a top priority among the higher classes. It separated the peasants and lowest classes from the "civilized" and educated, cultured peoples. If a girl was talented artistically-wise, she could have been considered well-bred and proper. These talents helped to compensate for otherwise unbecoming features, such as unattractiveness and lack of wealth. Society did not warrant men of significant status to marry below their class - although it did not stop them from wooing a perhaps very handsome girl of a lower class without a marriage promise or proposal. The arts of a young prospective girl were usually given up after marriage; evidence that they were labored over just to be presentable for society.
Throughout the life of a young girl, who may not possess the highest rankings, society deemed that she seriously pursue and practice the arts of her choice; as did Elinor and Marianne Dashwood because of their financial instability, not for lack of good looks. Elinor's passions laid with painting and drawing, while Marianne's were in playing the piano forte and singing. Elinor, the eldest and most reserved of the Dashwood girls, was guided by her good sense at all times and with this she conformed to society's "rules" by never outwardly conveying her every opinion.
The arts are filled with emotion and passion, but in the artist's own distinct manners. With painting the observer needs to look at the little details of a piece - the characters' faces, their body language, the objects carefully positioned around the main subject matter. Those features revealed how the artist really felt rather than what one may take away from just a first glance or general overview without consideration for detail. The feelings expressed in a painting are far more subtle than the art of singing and music, but no less expressive. In this manner painting suited Elinor extremely well.
Elinor's propensity for noticing the little inconsistencies and elements of polite society is similar to that of the viewer's requirement to observe the minute particulars of a painting. These details although small and seemingly trivial prove to be significant so as to expose emotion. Elinor was not openly expressive and vulnerable to even the most important events unless it was proven to be something she could be legitimately sensitive about, for example her love for the cultured and educated Edward Ferrars,
"Elinor had more to do; and anxious was she, for his sake and her own, to do it well, that she forced herself, after a moment's recollection, to welcome him, with a look and manner that were almost easy, and almost open; and another struggle, another effort still improved them ... by the observant eyes of Lucy, though she soon perceived them to be narrowly watching her"(Austen 226-227).
In that scene Lucy is careful to notice the minor details of Elinor's behavior, such as the uneasy pause before welcoming in a dear friend and also the words spoken between the parties. Lucy's observations of Elinor and Marianne's behavior, further allows her to believe that her secret is safe with Elinor although there are small differences in the ways in which Elinor would be thought to conduct herself with Edward who is supposedly, once again, just a dear friend. The subtleties of Elinor's actions are what creates her pragmatic attitude which is similar to her expression of feelings through the details of an artist's work. Painting is quite suitable for Elinor in her manners of exposing her feelings and opinions only so wisely.
Marianne is the extreme opposite of Elinor - her feelings are very clear, hiding nothing from even people considered to be just acquaintances. Music is the impulsive and openly emotional Marianne's talent. Through singing and piano playing one is able to be expressive of their emotions and feelings by voicing them aloud, rather than concealing them in the details of a painting. Singing suits Marianne's romantic and charming personality in such a way that it allows her to openly perform when asked at parties, something that Marianne has no issue in pursuing. She enjoys being the center of attention and having everyone quite aware of how she is feeling at almost any particular moment, no matter how opposing to polite society it may be.
Marianne's sensibility, rather than sense, allows her to get carried away in some instances; for example she is so openly vulnerable about her passion and love for Willoughby, not just to him and her family, but also to friends and other contacts. When she is unfairly rejected by the charismatic and endearing Willoughby, whom she never considered even for a second that he would not marry her, she breaks into hysterics and drives herself into depression,
"Elinor advised her to lie down again, and for a moment she did so; but no attitude could give her ease; and in restless pain of mind and body she moved from one posture to another, till growing more and more hysterical, her sister could with difficulty keep her on the bed at all, and for some time was fearful of being constrained to call for assistance" (Austen 181).
This scene is a perfect example of Marianne's open love for Willoughby even though there had been no promise of marriage. Her strong feelings were open and real - she left everything vulnerable to rejection without even fear or consideration that the ending results were even an option. While singing aloud at a party, as the quality singers and musicians are usually asked to do, one must put on a stage of entertainment for guests and the audience. If one is not feeling particularly amused or enjoying the song she is performing, it is obvious in the presentation. Marianne's talent for music parallels her personality in that she does not behave contrary to her feelings and sentiments.
The artistic talents of the poorer or less fortunate girls of society who wish to be regarded as proper marriage material were of great importance. Each young girl chose, practiced, and pursued their talents that usually mirrored their personalities as the Dashwood daughters' abilities clearly did. The openly expressive Marianne and the reserved Elinor had immense differences in their characters, to the point where each counterbalances the other, "it was impossible for her [Marianne] to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion; and upon Elinor therefore the whole task of telling lies where politeness required it, always fell" (Austen 118). Elinor the sensible sister and Marianne the one ruled by sensibility were opposites of each other that who allowed their sentiments and emotions to be expressed in different manners, very often through their cherished arts.