Seeing Minds Through Minds: Determining Whose Perception to Trust in Sense and Sensibility
The Dashwood sisters are on the verge of a crisis. They are young, single, fatherless, and fortuneless; marriage is their only method of attaining financial and personal stability. But the kind of partnerships Elinor and Marianne Dashwood pursue, and the marriages they eventually enter into, are formed and informed by their growing perceptions of their suitors, through which they reveal something of themselves. Jane Austen juxtaposes Elinor’s view of Edward Ferrars with those of Marianne, Mrs. Dashwood, and the narrator, showing the quality of Elinor’s insights and her ultimate suitability for Edward while also revealing the minds of all three principal Dashwood women.
We come to know of Edward Ferrars first through the perspective of Mrs. Dashwood, who introduces him as Elinor’s potential suitor. Since Austen immediately establishes that Mrs. Dashwood is motivated by neither prudence nor interest, it is important that we receive our first impression of him from inside of Mrs. Dashwood’s mind. She does not seek to partner her eldest daughter up with a man who is rich, and as such is undaunted by the potential for his wealth to disappear along with his mother’s favor. Mrs. Dashwood’s primary motivation is clear: “It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality.” Her main goal appears to be simply that her daughter marries a good man whom she loves and is loved by. Austen continues: “It was contrary to every doctrine of hers that difference of fortune should keep any couple asunder who were attracted by resemblance of disposition.” A marriage between Edward and Elinor would constitute a major step up for Elinor, both socially and financially. Some would consider it an audacious, even scandalous, act of social climbing. Mrs. Dashwood’s approval and justification of the pairing allays concerns regarding its prudence and practicality and positions the reader to view it as she does — as a rightful match between individuals of a similar disposition.
Mrs. Dashwood also provides the first impression of Edward’s character, given that she is the first person in the novel to meet him. Mrs. Dashwood describes him as “amiable,” “gentlemanlike,” and “pleasing.” But how are we to know whether to accept her insights? She immediately declares her love for Edward; this ought to be cause for concern among those looking to trust Mrs. Dashwood’s opinion, as Austen rarely discusses successful love in such blatant and sudden terms in any of her novels. And yet, Mrs. Dashwood appears to have truly fond feelings for Edward:
Mrs. Dashwood now took pains to get acquainted with him. Her manners were attaching and soon banished his reserve. She speedily comprehended all his merits; the persuasion of his regard for Elinor perhaps assisted her penetration; but she really felt assured of his worth; and even that quietness of manner which militated against all her established ideas of what a young man’s address ought to be, was no longer uninteresting when she knew his heart to be warm and his temper affectionate.
Austen provides strong evidence of Mrs. Dashwood’s character in this passage. It is not enough to simply say that Mrs. Dashwood comes to her conclusions “speedily” — it must be shown through her transition into free indirect discourse. We are reading Mrs. Dashwood’s thoughts in this passage. They form a series of small, clipped sentences that are tied together by semicolons. Through this syntax, which jumps quickly from one idea to the next, we learn that Mrs. Dashwood, once she is predisposed to like someone, rapidly comes to see their good qualities. And we, as readers, are encouraged to trust the whole product of her observations because she truly believes them and because they are in line with many of the conclusions to which Elinor and the narrator ultimately arrive. However, while Mrs. Dashwood is eager to extol Edward’s virtues, her reading of him is fundamentally incomplete. We hear nothing of his foibles from her, leaving pieces of her observations in doubt.
While we have no indication that Mrs. Dashwood sees Edward as particularly lacking in any regard, Marianne’s judgment of him is harsh in contrast. She bases her judgment of his taste on her observation of a single action: the way in which he reads to them one night. Of it she remarks, “To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!” Marianne confuses a lack of visible emotion with a lack of sensibility. This leads her to equate calmness with indifference; she believes that to fully enjoy a thing one must display “rapturous delight,” which Edward clearly does not. Once Elinor rebukes Marianne’s opinion with her own observations, Marianne’s reaction is then to attribute Elinor’s thoughts to her “blind partiality” for him. From this we glean not only what Marianne values and finds most essential in a man, but we also gain insight into her thought process. She clearly has a strong, preconceived notion of what constitutes taste. She applies it uniformly and absolutely; because Edward does not strictly fall within the boundaries of taste that she has erected, he is doomed to remain forever outside of them. She does not realize that her perception is highly subjective and ignores Elinor’s detailed observations of him because they contradict her viewpoint. We can conclude from this passage alone, then, that Marianne is passionate, but that her passions can interfere with her judgment and sense.
While Marianne’s perception of Edward is didactic in nature, and is also far more detailed than Mrs. Dashwood’s, the quality of their combined observations pales in comparison to that of Elinor’s. She tells Marianne, “While you have been wholly engrossed on the most affectionate principle by my mother, I have seen a great deal of him, have studied his sentiments and heard his opinion on subjects of literature and taste.” Only then does she “pronounce that his mind is well-informed,” in addition to outlining his other attractive qualities. Elinor sees, hears, and studies Edward on her own terms. By all accounts, she is the only Dashwood woman to do so. In her description she begins with the sensory, with his outward appearance, and moves steadily toward his inner self. Only then does she give us her judgment of him. Elinor’s observations of Edward himself align perfectly with the third-person omniscient narrator’s; the narrator describes Edward’s understanding as “good” and Elinor describes it as “excellent.” Both mention that he is not handsome, but conclude that he becomes more attractive once one becomes acquainted with him. In fact, Elinor’s penultimate description of Edward is essentially a more detailed restatement of the narrator’s. We are positioned to trust her perceptions far more than any other character’s because they are based on her observations and not her feelings, are consistent with the descriptions of him we have received from other sources — such as the narrator’s and Mrs. Dashwood’s — and display a clarity that is absent from any other character’s perception of him. Elinor must defend the strength of her feeling for Edward to Marianne, who chides her “cold-heartedness.” This is when Elinor tells us her feelings directly: “Believe them to be stronger than I have declared; believe them, in short, to be such as his merit, and the suspicion — the hope of his affection for me — may warrant, without imprudence or folly.” From Elinor’s own words we can definitively conclude three things: first, that she feels deeply for Edward, however cautious she might be about showing it; second, that her feelings have arisen from her concrete and unbiased observations of him; and third, that, despite her affection for him, she will behave prudently and will only act based on rational knowledge and understanding.
Within Austen’s narrative voice and the voices of the Dashwood women, we see certain terms repeated throughout the third and fourth chapters. Put together, they sum up Edward as a quiet, amiable, and worthy man, with good understanding and a warm heart, who is revealed to us slowly, his qualities filtered by the succession of impressions we receive from the Dashwood women. Each one of these impressions is more complex and specific than the last. We begin with Mrs. Dashwood’s emotional and hasty set of observations, with each new reading of his character forming a more complete picture of Edward and the person who is observing him and culminating in the perspective of the woman who will eventually marry him. Elinor Dashwood’s complete and careful reading of Edward shows the quality of her mind and sets up their eventual partnership as a good one.