Structuralism and Sense and Sensibility

The fundamental structural dynamic underlying the whole manifested universe, much less literature, is duality; therefore, Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility is, for the structuralist critic, a somewhat dry yet easily sliceable piece of cake.

Each of us is a complex mixture of polar opposites, the most primary of which being the division between right brain and left brain, or, more commonly, "heart and mind." Austen's technique in this novel is that of eliminating altogether the corpus callosum, thus juxtaposing the two halves into a "binary opposition," a split between the heart that throbs and exults and the mind which ascertains and evaluates. Marianne is, of course, the heart of the novel, Elinor the mind. Moreover, the remaining characters, too, fall within one of these two categories. I have arranged the most important figures of the novel in this way:

          SENSE                          SENSIBILITY
          Elinor                         Marianne
          Edward                         Mrs. Dashwood
          Lucy                           Col. Brandon
          Willoughby                     Sir John
          John Dashwood                  Mrs. Jennings
          Mr. Palmer                     Miss Steele
          Mrs. Ferrars                   Mrs. Palmer
          Fanny Dashwood
          Lady Middleton

All of the above listed characters are fairly predictable and, unfortunately, rather one-dimensional, save for two, these two seeming, at the beginning of the novel, to reside in opposite camps. I am speaking of Col. Brandon and Willoughby. The revelation of their true natures, as contrasted with our initial impressions of them early on in the story, is one of the more interesting shifts in structure achieved by Miss Austen. Our first glimpse of Brandon gives us the impression of a stodgy, lifeless bore, aloof, most likely, from some inflated sense of superiority. This would place him right along side the likes of Mr. Palmer, Mrs. Ferrars, and Lady Middleton. Yet we find, as the plot progresses, that beneath his stony exterior beats the heart of a true romantic, exemplified by his revelations regarding the elder and younger Elizas, as well as his undying devotion to Marianne. Willoughby, on the other hand, while seeming at first the epitome of the dashing, impetuous lover, turns out to be nothing more than a prosaic, opportunistic manipulator.

Unfortunately, outside of the developments of Col. Brandon and Willoughby (and perhaps the machinations of Lucy, although her antics were to be expected), the rest of the novel remains within the narrow confines of the heart vs. mind dynamic. We are never given what we, as readers, rightly deserve: resolution. To the structuralist mentality, this is due to the lopsided nature of the ending. In the end, sensibility must submit, utterly and completely, to sense. This leaves us with a feeling of being cheated, of having come all this way with no emotional pay-off, just a cold, wet slap in the face.

There is one positive result of having attempted a structuralist reading of Sense and Sensibility, namely that of seeing how the basic structure of the novel can stand alone from its constituent elements, to be used and reused again and again by simply replacing different characters, different circumstances. Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund is a perfect example. In this novel, the exact same dualism of heart and mind is explored (and far more interestingly, in my opinion) in the experiences of the two title characters.

In closing, it must be stated that there are certainly other structural dichotomies within the novel, contrasts of high and low which bisect the lateral distinctions upon which I have focused. These involve the shifts in social stations experienced by various characters such as Elinor, Marianne, Lucy, and Edward. These are, however, secondary to the primary theme, the seemingly impassable, yawning chasm which separates those with sense from those possessed by mere trivial sensibility.

©1996 Patrick Galloway

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