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Austen Jane Sense and SensibilityEssay

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Masculinity and Sense / Femininity and Sensibility

In Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility, Elinor represents masculinity and Marianne represents femininity. This is more on a behavioral level than an emotional level, indicating that neither character is necessarily more emotional than the other; they simply express themselves differently. These behavioral differences stem from the diverse reactions to the gender conventions of society. Thus when Marianne resolves to be more like Elinor, she is essentially committing herself to being more like a man. Although the novel was written by a woman, the underlying theme is that women should strive to be more like men -- practical, unemotional and prone to sense more than sensibility. The implication here is that men are superior to women, as it is their types of qualities and traits that women should aspire to emulate.

The fact that the novel was written by a woman does not at all dilute the proposition that is anti-feminist in nature. Women have, after all, been conditioned as powerfully as men have, that feminine traits such as emotionality and free spiritedness are less preferable than the more stoic traits associated with masculinity. Elinor's demeanor is far more closely associated with masculine qualities than is Marianne's, and it is Elinor that is the ultimate protagonist of the story. Therefore, Marianne's expressive, lively personality is viewed as immature and detrimental, while Elinor's dispassionate, non-demonstrative persona is perceived as mature and advantageous.

Throughout the novel, there are numerous references to this dichotomy. For example, Austen writes of "the emotion which overpowered Marianne" (75) but of the "strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment" of Elinor (6). Simply the idea that Marianne is weak enough to let her emotions overpower her, embodies her with the negative traits commonly associated with females: frailty, weakness, lack of control. Thus it is not surprising that Marianne is the one who takes ill later in the novel, a condition which she attributes to her inability to handle her overwhelming emotions. Elinor, on the other hand, is described in terms generally considered to be positive, masculine traits; that is, strength, coolness and a good sense of judgment. She outwardly scorns Marianne's emotionality, proclaiming:

There are inconveniences attending such feelings as Marianne's, which all the charms of enthusiasm and ignorance of the world cannot atone for. Her systems have all the unfortunate tendency of setting propriety at nought; and a better acquaintance with the world is what I look forward to as her greatest possible advantage. (56)

This passage represents Elinor's negative attitude toward feminine emotions. Marianne's "unfortunate tendency" to choose heart's desires over propriety is confusing to Elinor, who cannot imagine herself leading with her heart instead ofher head. Clearly, Elinor wants her younger sister to 'evolve' to the point in which she takes on the same masculine-type qualities that she has. Elinor's reserved persona and her affinity for 'propriety' are, in fact, seen as preferable to Marianne's high spiritedness by the majority of characters in the novel. The only character that seems to truly appreciate Marianne's feminine qualities is the much older Colonel Brandon. However because his interest in Marianne is of a romantic nature, his perceptions are in alignment with patriarchal stereotypes that view feminine qualities as attractive only when a man is looking for a lover. In all other matters, women are only to be admired by men if they are practical, calm, cool and unemotional.

Marianne eventually forgoes wild passion for comfort and stability when she chooses to marry Colonel Brandon.

Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims. She was born to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen, and with no sentiment superior to strong esteem and lively friendship, voluntarily to give her hand to another!-and that other, a man who had suffered no less than herself under the event of a former attachment, whom, two years before, she had considered too old to be married, -- and who still sought the constitutional safeguard of a flannel waistcoat! (378).

Marianne is not unhappy with her decision. It is the wisest and safest choice. But it is also the choice that 'tames' and subdues her more emotionally expressive qualities. Neither sister is entirely cold and unfeeling. In general, neither are men. What Elinor, and later, Marianne, shares with the perception of the masculine gender is their ability to think logically rather than being ruled by her emotions. This is not to say that all women are ruled by their emotions, nor that all men are rational and sensible. It is, in fact, to say that in regard to the gender stereotypes that have pervaded society for centuries, these qualities are most often used to separate the female persona from the male persona. The generalizations being assigned here to Elinor and Marianne are therefore not necessarily reflections of the actual reality of male and female qualities, but are manifestations of the stereotypes traditionally associated with each gender.

Michael Kimmel, author of the Gendered Society, defines gender as "the meanings that are attached to those differences within a culture" that are attributed to differences in sex (Kimmel 3). Simply put, "sex is male and female; gender is masculinity and femininity" (Kimmel 3). The sociological aspect of this perspective is rooted in the notion that "the social institutions of our world - workplace, family, school, politics - are also gendered institutions, sites where the dominant definitions are reinforced and reproduced, and where 'deviants' are disciplined" (Kimmel 16). Elinor is not, however, viewed as a 'deviant' due to her masculine qualities. In general, she is admired for her penchant for "sense" over "sensibility" because these are considered to be desirable qualities. The fact that these qualities are generally associated with males rather than females does not make Elinor a miscreant, but rather a 'better female.' Thus, once again, males are deemed to be the s'uperior gender', that is, the type of person that women should try to be more like, whenever possible.

Another stereotypically male quality possessed by Elinor is her proclivity for discretion. Elinor is not averse to emotions per se, but rather to the outward expression of them at the expense of decorum. For example, she is happy about Marianne and Willoughby's romantic love, but she is disturbed by its openness and flagrancy:

Elinor could not be surprised at their attachment. She only wished that it were less openly shewn; and once or twice did venture to suggest the propriety of some self-command to Marianne. But Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to common-place and mistaken notions. (53)

Interestingly, Marianne's reasons for choosing to express herself openly as opposed to hiding under the cloak of propriety are based on a logical, sensible argument. She is averse to misunderstandings and thus she has come to the conclusion that it is better to be open than to allow people to make their own misinformed interpretations. Yet Marianne is not viewed by Elinor or any other character in the novel is being someone who approaches problems with a linear line of reasoning. Her actions and choices are most often viewed as impulsive and juvenile, even when she has, in fact, thought them out thoroughly in accordance with her own set of values.

Differences in values, or any differences between genders for that matter, do not need to result in inequality. Differences do not need to be assigned classifications of 'better' or 'worse.' Marianne's free-spiritedness could be viewed as just as admirable as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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