Sense and Sensibility

Category: Mind | Type: Discussion | Title: Sense and Sensibility (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen

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"Sense" in Sense and Sensibility is associated with prudent reason, sensibility with strong feelings. Yet these are complex terms of the time, and they expand and refine themselves as they appear in different contexts throughout the novel.

The words define the two sisters who represent the novel's axis. But we can learn something from a great scientist and poet who were Austen's contemporaries. Humphrey Davy (principally a chemist) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge ("The Rime of the Ancient Mariner") became good friends. Davy wrote poetry and Coleridge thought a great deal about scientific matters and their ramifications. Yet Coleridge was in some ways a troubled man, as "Dejection: An Ode" and some other of his autobiographical poems acknowledge. The time at which Davy wrote to Thomas Poole about their mutual friend was among the darkest in Coleridge's life: Coleridge "has suffered greatly from Excessive Sensibility—the disease of genius. His mind is a wilderness.... With the most exalted genius, enlarged views, sensitive heart & enlightened mind, he will be the victim of want of order, precision and regularity. I cannot think of him without experiencing mingled feelings of admiration, regard & pity" (quoted by Holmes, The Age of Wonder, 300). Davy associates "sense" with order and regularity, and these with reason. Sensibility can veer into "excess," but reason can become a strangling restraint.  A lack of sensibility is a serious moral deficit, even if too great sensibility can lead to imprudence. We see in the next paragraph that John Dashwood is described as "cold hearted, and rather selfish," a consequence of his lacking in feelings and a moral imagination.   

The title is Sense AND Sensibility, not OR. Austen means for us not to polarize reason and feeling but view them as necessary complements.

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