Saturday, June 26, 2010

Mighty Elinor?

Book 3, Chapter 9 (Chapter 45 in some editions)

Last chapter, Willoughby unleashed a charm offensive on Elinor. How did she fare?

Shaken to her very foundations. Even though she knows it is wrong, Elinor sympathizes deeply with Willoughby. Here is the relevant paragraph with some added emphasis:
Willoughby -- he whom only half an hour ago she had abhorred as the most worthless of men -- Willoughby, in spite of all his faults, excited a degree of commiseration for the sufferings produced by them, which made her think of him as now separated for ever from her family with a tenderness, a regret, rather in proportion, as she soon acknowledged within herself to his wishes than to his merits. She felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction -- that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge. But she felt that it was so, long, long before she could feel his influence less. 
Notice how hard Elinor's good sense is working to overcome her feelings here and yet is failing on every front. Okay, we might say, but she'll get over it.  She doesn't. In a stunning turnabout that most readers, including not a few readers with degrees in English literature, miss, we now discover that feelings matter far more to Elinor than they do to any other character in the novel.

 She is torn by thoughts of "poor Willoughby" that night and even entertains the fantasy that his wife might die leaving him free (and rich enough) to marry Marianne after all.

And when Mrs. Dashwood reveals next day that Colonel Brandon has revealed his love for Marianne, Elinor has decidedly mixed feelings. She raises all the concerns that modern readers who do not like the marriage raise. When Mr.s Dashwood says she things Marianne will be happier with Brandon than she would have been with Willoughby, Elinor silently reviews all the reasons this is nonsense:
Elinor was half inclined to ask her reason for thinking so, because satisfied that none founded on an impartial consideration of their age, characters, or feelings, could be given ....
 And, just in case, we had any doubts, the whole issue is raised a  second time so that Elinor can, privately, reject it that second time.
"And his manners, the Colonel's manners, are not only more pleasing to me than Willoughby's ever were, but they are of a kind I well know to be more solidly attaching to Marianne. Their gentleness, their genuine attention to other people, and their manly unstudied simplicity, is much more accordant with her real disposition, than the liveliness, often artificial, and often ill-timed, of the other. I am very sure myself, that had Willoughby turned out as really amiable, as he has proved himself the contrary, Marianne would yet never have been so happy with him , as she will be with Colonel Brandon."
She paused. Her daughter could not quite agree with her, but her dissent was not heard, and therefore gave no offence. 
The irony, dramatic irony, in the situation is that it is Mrs. Dashwood's feelings that now prevent her from seeing that her assessment of Marianne's feelings is not accurate.

Perhaps even more shocking is the last line of the chapter where we learn that Elinor is not primarily concerned with Marianne's feelings:
... Elinor withdrew to think it all over in private, to wish success to her friend, and yet, in wishing it, to feel a pang for Willoughby. 
At the risk of of offending, the  prize in the story right now is Marianne. The novel in these chapters is very much about, as Mrs. Jennings earlier put it, who will "get" her. Marianne has very little control over her destiny now. Prepare to be shocked as it soon will be obvious that Jane Austen thinks that is more or less her due. The two sisters are about to get their just rewards and only one is going to get a marriage based on love.


  1. It's pretty clear that Elinor is deeply repressed, and has been given a serious erotic charge by Willoughby himself!

  2. Well, it's a free country and we can all read the text as we wish. I have a hard time seeing anything that looks like evidence of sexual repression here myself. Quite the contrary in fact; Elinor understands her own feelings better than anyone else in the novel.