English author Jane Austen wrote satirical romances set within the confines of upper-middle-class English society. Her books are known for their sharp attention to the details of everyday life, and her skillful treatments of character and situation has marked Austen as an astute observer of human nature. This is highly evident in her treatment of the complex relationship between sense and sensibility in her novel of the same name. Jane Austen's Sense and sensibility contrasts two sisters: Marianne, who, with her doctrines of love at first sight and enthusiastic emotions openly expressed, represents "sensibility", and Elinor, who has much more "sense", but is still not immune from disappointments.
Sense and Sensibility addresses the romantic problems of these two sisters with contrary worldviews. The elder sister, Elinor, the embodiment of "sense," loves a man engaged to an ignorant, manipulative woman; the younger, Marianne, who embodies "sensibility," is infatuated with a man who suddenly without explanation ends their relationship.
Very much a Romantic, sixteen-year-old Marianne is governed by her feelings, not by reason, unlike Elinor. Passionate in her opinions and certain of their morality, Marianne lacks prudence and relies on instinct, typical values of the Romantic Movement. Elinor's sense, on the other hand, reflects "the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries which had advocated a commitment to reason and considered and other source of conviction irrational." Marianne, says of love, "To love is to burn.", and Elinor says: "I do not attempt to deny I think very highly of him." However both characters manage to find love in a culture that limits communication to talk of the weather and the roads. A culture in which people are taught to be impersonal.
Late in the novel, a reflective Marianne tells Elinor that she had compared her behaviour "with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours," and that she found her own behaviour lacking: "I saw ... nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself and want of kindness to others. I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings." Acknowledging her errors, Marianne decides to imitate Elinor's reserve and self-discipline. Whereas Marianne is driven by sensibility, Elinor is governed by " sense", by reasoned perception and independence, evident in her tact and attentiveness. Her response to Robert Ferrar's idiotic jabber reflects her self-control: "Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition." "Elinor is an admirable mixture of idealist and realist." Elinor craves "the relief of quiet reflection." Elinor describes this process of reflection several times in the novel. When she reconsiders Willoughby, she is "resolved not only upon gaining every new light as to his character which her own observation or the intelligence of others could give her, but likewise upon watching his behavior to her sister with such zealous attention, as to ascertain what he was and what he meant...." "What felt Elinor at that moment? Astonishment, that would have been as painful as it was strong, had not an immediate disbelief of the assertion attended it. She turned towards Lucy in silent amazement, unable to divine the reason or object of such a declaration, and though her complexion varied, she stood firm in incredulity and felt no danger of an hysterical fit, or a swoon." Lucy has just told Elinor that she is engaged to Robert Ferrars's brother, and Elinor is revolving this shock in her mind. But Austen stays "outside" Elinor, noting her change of colour, and calming the reader, almost as if she is promising that Elinor will not become hysterical. The reference to an external change, a change of colour, is significant, for it suggests that Austen is trying to show that a character will physically register a shock, on the outside. Perhaps by making a direct reference to a physical appearance, Austen is trying to show that Elinor is too calm to register agitation as anything more than an almost-invisible change of colour, highlighting her "sense". At this moment in the novel's development, we cannot enter Elinor's mind; her "silent amazement" is actually silent.
By the end of the novel, Marianne realizes that her excessive openness, hasty conclusions about people, and dismissal of social convention have generated unnecessary misery for herself and others.
Austen is not only concerned in showing the foolishness of "sensibility" and the consequences Marianne faces. She makes it clear that total "sense" can also lead to unhappiness just like impulsive romance. The main theme behind the novel is therefore the problem of achieving a balance between "sense" and "sensibility" in order to gain happiness and love. The two sisters who start out on opposite ends of the emotional spectrum end up with a mix of both "sense" and "sensibility". Elinor is "affectionate and her feelings strong; but she knew how to govern them", while Marianne is "sensible and clever; but eager in everything".