Jane Austen’s most beloved novels hinge on a female character misunderstanding which man is the best man until time and circumstances reveal the truth. The resolution always comes from the discovery of character and compatibility—in time.
Austen’s stories are exemplars of “decisions under risk and uncertainty.” That term describes the age-old practice of analyses to limit risk to a reasonable calculation. While some people do this for a living (e.g., insurance actuaries), we all make such calculations in life and love.
Throughout all her novels, discovery of the nature of others is the theme, including both men of women and families of outsiders. Austen understood that, while we never have perfect information, informed decisions increase the odds of improved outcomes. She also understood deception. Sometimes, one party withholds information that would be valuable to the other. But even more, she was a master in describing how self-deception limits our access to relevant information. “How quick come the reasons for approving what we like!”1 Indeed.
In Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, Austen’s heroines discover the truth about the men in their lives as more perfect information replaces biased observations. For some, the best decisions come just in time. Lesser characters become victims of poor timing or poor judgment, or both. Still others make do by accepting that there are better men around but that there are no better options available to them. In Pride and Prejudice, these are the story lines for Elizabeth, Lydia, and Charlotte—who make excellent, poor, and good-enough matches, respectively.
Austen provides a near fairy-tale ending for some of her heroines. Nevertheless, she writes lucidly of timeless truths about love, character, and commitment. I believe her understanding is nearly modern, aside from the necessary differences in social context (e.g., entailments) and the dramatic shifts, since then, in the stages of relationships where these dynamics unfold.
I believe Pride and Prejudice is Austen’s best story, but it’s not my favorite book. I like Sense and Sensibility best because, in it, Austen reveals most clearly the confusion of intention that captivates me as a reader—and a researcher. She understood ambiguity in love before it became a dominant aspect of romantic and sexual relationships in life before marriage.2
Sense and Sensibility
If you do not know the story, here’s enough background to understand the points I make here. You can watch the movie later, but the really good stuff is in the book.
Elinor Dashwood is the lead character. She falls in love with Edward Ferrars, brother of the deliciously evil Fanny. Fanny’s husband, John, inherited the Dashwood estate and turned out his father’s second wife and her three daughters by that second marriage. That would include Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. John is weak and Fanny is cruel. Elinor has sense and wisdom, but she is emotionally reserved. She loves Edward, and Edward is a good man to love. This information about Edward is apparent enough from start to finish. It is signaled at every turn. Unlike the case of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, it only needs confirmation, not discovery.
Marianne is Elinor’s younger sister. She is emotional and a nearly hopeless romantic. Marianne is the sensibility to Elinor’s good sense. Here, sensibility means emotion and captivity to sensation. While we might imagine the title as creatively working a double entendre, that notion relies on our modern definitions. The terms were clearly understood in Austen’s day as I have described them just now.3
Marianne is enraptured by passionate love. Whereas Elinor is head with heart, Marianne is all heart, and therefore at greater risk of being deceived in love. While Elinor and Marianne are separate characters, their characters are also devices for Austen to portray the dangers of different strategies in finding a mate. Elinor’s risk is based in being reserved to the point of loneliness, even in her relationship with her sister, Marianne. Marianne’s risk lies in being blinded by passion, making it hard to see the reality of a man capable of affection but not commitment: Willoughby.
John Willoughby is dashing, gallant (at first blush), and romantic. He enters Marianne’s life as Marianne has fallen and twisted her ankle while walking through the countryside. Willoughby arrives in the need of the moment, checks her ankle to see if it is broken, and carries Marianne away—down the hill to the cottage where the Dashwood women now live. He is revealed as a lover of poetry and passion, attracting Marianne’s heart in the way Marianne believes men like Edward Ferrars never could. Marianne is carried away, body and soul.
Marianne is misled by Willoughby, who likely is truly enamored with her, but he’s drawn away. Over time, Willoughby is revealed as a cad incapable of commitment. At one point, Elinor directly questions Marianne’s incautious and rapid embrace of confidence in Willoughby. Marianne fires back:
“You are mistaken, Elinor,” said she warmly, “in supposing I know very little of Willoughby. I have not known him long indeed, but I am much better acquainted with him, than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mama. It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy;–it is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.”
Alas, seven days are not enough. Seven days are enough time to be overtaken by the rush of infatuation but not long enough to know the nature of another. Both lasting love and heartbreak will often feel exactly the same at the start. Thus, decisions around love are decisions under risk and uncertainty. Some risks are greater than others.
Signals and Signs
The nature of Marianne and Willoughby’s relationship becomes the subject of an argument between Elinor and their mother, Mrs. Dashwood. They are both concerned about Marianne after Willoughby abruptly departs and Marianne is crushed. I find this conversation to be a master class on the nature of ambiguity in romantic and sexual relationships in modern times. The essence of the argument lies in Elinor being convinced that something is awry while her mother—Marianne’s mother, too, of course—defends Willoughby, seeing him as a victim of circumstances beyond his control.
As I and others have noted, the nature of constraints changes the degree to which behavior accurately signals intention,4 and Mrs. Dashwood is placing her bet here as she strains to believe the best about Willoughby. She feels his commitment to Marianne is genuine but that he is constrained by his family’s desires. Elinor sees something more in the less that was before her, though she also wants to believe the better interpretation of Willoughby. A central question hinges on whether or not Marianne and Willoughby had become secretly engaged. If so, it would have fit with the strength of what they had all been seeing before Willoughby abruptly left. This is not the only instance of actual or suspected secret engagement in this and in other works by Austen. She understood that secret commitment may not be lasting and mutual.
Mrs. Dashwood: But you really do admit the justice of what I have said in his defence?–I am happy–and he is acquitted.
Elinor: Not entirely. It may be proper to conceal their engagement (if they ARE engaged) from Mrs. Smith–and if that is the case, it must be highly expedient for Willoughby to be but little in Devonshire at present. But this is no excuse for their concealing it from us.
Mrs. Dashwood: Concealing it from us! My dear child, do you accuse Willoughby and Marianne of concealment? This is strange indeed, when your eyes have been reproaching them every day for incautiousness.
Elinor: I want no proof of their affection…but of their engagement I do.
[Moments later in the dialogue.]
Mrs. Dashwood: Have we not perfectly understood each other? Has not my consent been daily asked by his looks, his manner, his attentive and affectionate respect? My Elinor, is it possible to doubt their engagement? How could such a thought occur to you?
Elinor: I confess, replied Elinor, that every circumstance except ONE is in favour of their engagement; but that ONE is the total silence of both on the subject, and with me it almost outweighs every other.
As it should. Commitment is declarative, and engagement is one of the most powerful signals of commitment. It was in Jane Austen’s time and it is now. Valid signals of commitment are powerful because they contain useful information that reduces uncertainty in the face of risk. Austen understood that evidence of attraction does not provide much information about commitment. Nor, for many, does cohabitation, itself, provide much information about it. By contrast, engagement or having mutually declared plans for marriage says a lot about commitment.5
While Willoughby’s affections for Marianne are evident to all, Marianne’s broken heart leads her to understand that his love was “every day implied, but never professedly declared.” Jane Austen knew that affection may signify an attachment but romantic attachment, much less mere attraction, is not commitment.6 She knew that commitment declares itself. The more public the declaration, the more reliable the information.
Austen describes a beautiful transformation in Elinor and Marianne’s relationship that is fueled by their broken hearts. In life, Pain will teach if Suffering will learn. Sensibility moves toward better sense, and Sense becomes more sensible. While a happy ending is not had by everyone in this story, Sense and Sensibility come into balance and both find committed love.
Here’s some modern advice. Seven days are not enough to see what needs seeing. Take it slow. And consider with care what you believe signifies commitment in a prospective mate. Affection has a look but commitment has a voice.
The opening paragraphs of this post have been updated since publication for greater specificity.
1. Jane Austen, 1818, Persuasion.
2. Ambiguity is one of my favorite themes, and in our age, reigns.
3. For more on the meaning of Sense and Sensibility, see here.
4. “Marriage and Positive Child Outcomes: Commitment, Signaling, and Sequence,” September 18, 2014.
5. For more on this, see these examples of what I have written on this subject: “Decoding Commitment: When Sally Met Harry,” October 18, 2010, and “First Comes Love, Then Comes…What?,” September 15, 2010. But also, I believe that cohabitation may, in fact, be informative about commitment in some contexts: “Marriage and Cohabitation: Another Take, Building on the Discussion of Selection,” September 9, 2011.
6. Interested in a more academic treatise on what I argue here? See Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257.