Most readers today think that characters are individuals. From this perspective, a character’s job is to make sure that there is exactly one of something. Poets of the Renaissance had the opposite idea. They were working with an ancient understanding of character as type. From this perspective, the job of a character is to collect every example of a kind. Out of this understanding, they built an entire literature.
The old meaning of character suggests a better way of reading characters from all epochs in literary history, ancient to modern. The advantage of the old sense of character is that it allows you to generalize. To grasp something that seems too big to hold in your hand. Characters funnel whole societies of beings into shapes that are compact, elegant, and portable.
The character of the misanthrope has a special place in this book. Here the act of generalizing creates a paradox. The misanthrope’s characteristic action is to withdraw from the world, “banishing the world,” in Shakespeare’s phrase. In doing so, the misanthrope projects another world, populating it with examples of the same type who have also banished the world.
I am just starting to learn how to read Austen’s novels. Two other writers have helped to open them up for me. The first is the popular novelist Helen Fielding, whose book Bridget Jones’s Diary is sort of an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. But only sort of. Their relationship is surprisingly oblique. Fielding’s novel is only indirectly based on Austen’s and directly based on the BBC serial. Fielding acknowledges this genealogy by having Bridget comment on the social phenomenon of all England sitting down as a nation to watch the same program. The two novels don’t quite touch, but they are connected by television and by the idea of a national viewership that turns Bridget on.
Fielding gets at least one thing right about Austen, and that’s one more thing than I used to be able to get. Her concept of emotional fuckwittage names a form of pretend relationship. I pretend we’re going out; you pretend not to notice. A pretend relationship. Or you pretend we’re not going out; I pretend not to notice. A pretend relationship. That’s not my girlfriend; that’s the woman I’m sleeping with who thinks she’s my girlfriend. Emotional fuckwittage. From watching Pride and Prejudice on television Bridget learns that impressions are invariably mistakes and relations are at least awkward and sometimes excruciatingly painful.
The second writer who has helped me to read Austen is D.W. Harding. Readers have sensed for a long time that there is something not very nice in Austen’s novels. To put it bluntly, as Harding does in his classic essay “Regulated Hatred,” Austen “wrote novels to be read and enjoyed by people she despised.” This claim, which he deftly unfolds for each of the six major novels, is useful in a few different ways.
First, it acknowledges the many readers who experience the schizophrenic feeling that Austen is addressing them directly. Harding both gives back this special relationship and takes it away. Yes, he affirms, Austen is writing just for you. It’s because she hates you.
Second, it brings to light Austen’s deep interest in hatred. How many statements in her novels begin with the phrase, “I hate.” “I hate an open carriage.” One might even speculate that positive feelings in her novels, including the perfect happiness that her conclusions invariably defer, are only tertiary hybrids generated out of the interaction of several fundamental bad feelings. Like the pleasure of remembering pain. Or like the “angry pleasure” that you experience when your anger makes you notice that you are still alive and have a capacity to be enraged.
Third, it accounts for Austen’s unlikely conservatism. Harding writes that Austen, by her own intention, “is a literary classic of the society which attitudes like hers, held widely enough, would undermine.” In other words, if everyone believed what Austen believed, there would be revolution. But they don’t. And there isn’t. And that is her project!
In this extraordinary formulation, Harding goes beyond even Trilling, who, in a controversial passage from Sincerity and Authenticity, compares Austen to Robespierre. The point of Trilling’s comparison is to remind us that we don’t exactly know what society would look like if Austen had been made its omnipotent governor. The point of Harding’s description is to say frankly that we do know what it would look like, because it would look exactly like English society in her lifetime. She wouldn’t change a thing. No one is more aware than Austen of the systematic and incidental unfairness of her social organization, and she supports it in every specific instance.
From Fielding I take the idea that Austen’s characters get off on manipulating their emotions; from Harding I take the idea of regulation. I want to use these ideas to characterize the key terms from the title Sense and Sensibility and then to identify a third term, an overlooked form of emotional fuckwittage that links the first two.
Austen introduces the key terms in character sketches of Elinor and Marianne. She defines sense as a knowledge of “how to govern” strong feelings, sensibility as a condition of “no moderation” in feeling (6). The weight of historical context on both terms (in the first place, common sense, enlightenment rationalism; in the second, the romantic cult of sensibility) has sometimes obscured how they operate in the community of the novel and how they configure the characters to which they are assigned. Both are forms of sensitivity that exclude physical sensation and psychological experience. They are not feelings or even capacities for feeling. They are emotional in the way Gertrude Stein means when she says that “paragraphs are emotional; sentences are not.” That is, they are emotional because they limit or regulate emotion. This psychological configuration separates person from feeling. There’s the part of you that feels, but that’s not you. The real you stands outside of the feeling and controls it either by repressing it or by encouraging it.
Here’s how it works for Elinor.
‘I do not attempt to deny,’ said she, ‘that I think very highly of him — that I greatly esteem, that I like him.’ Marianne here burst forth with indignation – ‘Esteem him! Like him! Cold-hearted Elinor! Oh! Worse than cold-hearted! Ashamed of being otherwise.’ (14)
This passage is both an instance of sense in action and a critique of sense by sensibility. Sense is either coldhearted (and proud of it) or deceitful (and equally proud). (Here, again, pride, a positive feeling, appears as a product of a feedback system that sets negative feelings against themselves.) Marianne is right. The claim that Elinor “likes” and “esteems” but is not “attached” to Edward is a deliberate lie. Elinor comes close to admitting that she is lying when she invites her sister to “believe” that her feelings are “stronger than I have declared.” The narrator confirms that Edward and Elinor have “mutual” feelings of “regard” and “attachment.” Yet the narrator also endorses the lie as Elinor’s “real opinion”: “Elinor had given her real opinion to her sister” (15). How can this be? The person that Elinor really is is not the person who feels but the person who responds to the feeling and controls it.
I can be more specific about the technique of control. Elinor’s first move in any situation is to lie. To her is given “the whole task of telling lies when politeness required it” (92). Her life’s work is “to command herself to guard every suspicion of the truth from her mother and sisters” (104). This is the ideal Elinor projects and the mode of conduct she recommends.
There is one more layer of disingenuousness. Elinor lies about her feelings. For the purposes of ordinary conversation, she expects the rest of the world to treat her lies as statements of fact. But she also expects her friends to know that she is lying. Thus she speaks resentfully when they take her at her word. She admits her impossible expectation that others should be able to discern her carefully hidden feelings when she says that her operations on feeling are concerned only with “behavior” and are not “aimed at the subjection of the understanding” (72). Her resentment at the belief in her pretense of being unfeeling is most clearly expressed in a long confidential speech to Marianne that catalogues her sufferings and ends by describing the curious fantasy that she has yet to describe them: “Perhaps nothing could have kept me entirely . . . from openly showing that I was very unhappy” (199).
Is resentment the right word? Elinor’s rhetoric may not primarily be expressive. It might be more accurately described as a transfer of the entire weight of suffering from Elinor to Marianne. Or perhaps this is best described as not a rhetoric at all but rather a kind of therapy. Maybe this is another example of what sense tries to do. Maybe the fantasy that Elinor has never acknowledged her suffering effectively makes her deaf to the paragraph of suffering that she has just spoken. Maybe this brilliant lie gives Elinor the benefit of exerting her sense while being an object of pity for her sister.
The lesson Mrs. Dashwood finally learns is not the practical knowledge to apply Elinor’s techniques to her own feelings but a key to interpreting Elinor’s accounts of herself. “She now found that she had erred in relying on Elinor’s representations of herself” (270). The hermeneutic is to assume that Elinor is always lying. Why? To whom is she lying if not to her friends?
Only Marianne seems to approach Elinor’s lies as a rhetoric, or, in other words, a psychology directed outward and concerned primarily with effects on an audience. The terms that Elinor and the narrator prefer are “exertion” and “self-command,” both of which indicate an imperative of personal transformation. Elinor “commands herself” (30-31). She “composes herself” (99). She “determines to subdue her feelings” (78), and she does. The governance of feeling actually means self-discipline. An inward-directed pressure that shapes, alters, and even destroys what she feels.
To put it another way, sense internalizes the techniques for composing and displaying the outermost surfaces of the person, particularly the face and clothing, that Aphra Behn calls “management.” (The foil for Elinor, Lucy Steele, who functions as a negative image of sense, is called an “active, contriving manager” .) How deep a divide does sense make between person and feeling? Not only do the techniques of sense obfuscate what one feels but they diminish feelings to a point where they no longer feel. Sense means pretending that you have no feelings. Until you really don’t.
Sensibility has the same structure. It separates the person who feels from the real person who disciplines feeling. “Her sensibility was potent enough!” (63). Which is to say that sensibility is a kind of power, like sense, a form of self-government. Her character, the ideal she projects, is neither the preformatted feeling nor the formatted feeling but rather the part that formats the feeling. One aspect of sensibility is prohibitive, making the absence of marks of feeling “shameful,” “inexcusable,” “disgraceful” (63); its positive, productive aspect is “indulgence of feeling,” “gaining” of sadness, and “courting of misery” (63). We are not talking about an absence of regulation. For Marianne, the point is to give power to expression, a complex and difficult intervention in psychology.
The excess of feeling makes sensibility appear to be a promising site for intersubjectivity. Marianne fantasizes that her lover “must enter into all my feelings.” But she always keeps in mind the impossibility of realizing the fantasy: “I am convinced that I shall never see a man whom I can really love” (14). The rejection of the possibility of intersubjectivity is related to a running joke noted by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in which Marianne, the figure of sensibility, is described as “insensible” to her environment.
Marianne’s insensibility is more than a joke. It’s a definition of the work of sensibility. She actively cultivates an indifference to the feelings of her friends. When she says of Elinor that “she has not my feelings,” the meaning is a little ambiguous. Maybe Elinor doesn’t feel what Marianne feels. Marianne makes similar statements about Colonel Brandon and about the imaginary 27-year-old woman whose feelings “diminish” as she grows older. They have feelings, but not the kind that Marianne has. Or maybe Elinor doesn’t feel – at all. That is what Marianne says about Mrs. Jennings: “She cannot feel” (150).
This is the ultimate form of sensibility: idiopathy, the claim that one’s feelings are incommunicable because other people have no capacity for them. At Norwood the “happy house” and trees “will continue the same . . . but who will remain to enjoy you?” If Marianne is not present, the things that remain are houses, trees, and people who feel less than the houses and trees.
Edward teases Marianne for her insensibility to other people’s feelings by imagining that, given a legacy, she would use her wealth to purchase multiple copies of her favorite books “to prevent their falling into unworthy hands” (70). Edward’s “sauciness” isn’t even a joke, since many scenes in the novel show Marianne doing exactly that – for example, taking Elinor’s screens away from the Ferrars family because they are incapable of “admiring them as they ought to be admired” (177). Her sensibility may be defined as the belief that others have no feelings.
There is a third term between sense and sensibility, doing the work of “and” in the title. This is the mysterious idea of comfort. Unlike the other terms, comfort is unregulated. It occupies both the position of preformatted feeling and the desired result of pretending that you have no feelings or denying that other people have feelings. Thus Elinor “could not deny herself the comfort” of “exerting” her sense,” and Marianne indulges the “exquisite comfort” of an unrepresentable misery.
Comfort does not individuate but holds together the entire community of the novel. It is not assigned to a solitary character or even to a family such as the Dashwoods, who monopolize the novel’s allegorical energy. “How few people know what comfort is!” says Mr. Palmer. But his attempts to limit the concept of comfort to a single kind of object, a billiard room, can’t be sustained in a novel where the other examples of objectified comforts include houses, silverware, china, preserved olives, dried cherries, and Constantia wine.
There are two ways to understand how the ordinary household objects on this list embody comfort. First, comfort may be the barely perceptible feeling of using or possessing an object that one takes for granted. The billiard room is where you expect to find it, in the part of the house where you built it at home. The fork is exactly where you put your hand in its place setting or in its drawer. Second, comfort may be the impossible experience of being such an instrument or possession. In both cases comfort is different from the regulatory devices of self-command or self-indulgence. Comfort is what you command, the material mechanized by the command.
Like composure, comfort wavers between holding and being held. “Yet when I thought of her today as really dying, it was a kind of comfort to imagine that I knew exactly how she would appear to those, who saw her last in the world” (248). To Willoughby, the image of Marianne’s “sweet face white as death” is “a kind of comfort.” What kind? I can specify this astonishing refinement of the concept, because Willoughby shares it with Colonel Brandon. This vision of a dying woman’s face is in fact “the greatest comfort”: “That she was, to all appearance, in the last stage of a consumption,” Brandon says, speaking of his first love, “yes, in such a situation it was my greatest comfort” (155).
The greatest comfort is watching someone die – if it’s the person you love most in the world. The intensity of this comfort is not like the tertiary hybrid of bad feelings that you experience as a better feeling, not like the pain experienced as nostalgia, a reminder that you are alive and can still feel pain. Rather the greatest comfort is the extinction of something that can cause you the most pain because you put most of your care into it. What remains is a world of indifferent objects, and that is comfort. In fact comfort is “better than you deserve,” to use the phrase that Austen typically substitutes for a happy ending in order to register the profound unfairness of a society that she nonetheless supports completely.