Class, society, and politics in the home, on an interpersonal level among the characters, are themes of outmost importance in the novel “Sense and Sensibility” by Jane Austen.
In this short essay, we shall discuss these themes in relation to the characters, as presented in the novel. Austen presents these social conditions throughout the story, as they were dominant in the society of her time.
Laws surrounding inheritance, and property, social etiquette, and money matters in a time were gender limitations were very apparent, signified a person’s position in the social scale.
The Dashwood women, as they appear in “Sense and sensibility”, suddenly find themselves in a humiliating situation, when the mother, Mrs. Dashwood, becomes a widow. They were immediately cast into a dire situation. They were deprived of their estate and income when Mr. John Dashwood, became the legitimate heir of all of Mr. Dashwood’s fortune, and decided not to support the Dashwood women financially.
Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, Marianne, Elinor and Margaret had no entitlement to any of Mr. Dashwood’s wealth. Having no income resources, they depended on John’s charity for support.
This was a standard practice of the eighteenth century legal system. In Victorian times, women had, by law, no rights on property.
They were seen as dependent on men not only to survive, but also in order to keep their status and respectability.
Class divisions, social status and the struggle for its gaining and maintenance are important themes in the novel.
All characters in the story come from wealthy, upper class backgrounds.
They all belong to high society and their interests and occupations imply this. Sir John Middleton seems to symbolise the best of upper class society.
Like the majority of upper class people, his occupation and marital status defined his high position within his social circle.
His occupation is hunting, his wealth is inherited, and his wife’s only occupation is to raise children. Lady Middleton gathers all the characteristics of the ideal upper class woman: she stays in the home, marries, and is very formal and extremely polite, perhaps to the point of irritation.
Characters constantly seem to compete for financial and social power.
Inherited wealth is presented as the trademark of high social status.
The Dashwood women become deprived of both. As a result they are driven into hardship when they have to give up their house in Norland and all its comforts and luxuries and move to smaller, less luxurious premises in Devonshire.
By using this relocation theme, Jane Austen could imply their descent from a high social position to a lower one. It seems almost as if the Dashwoods were “expelled” from Norland’s “paradise” to Barton Cottage’s “hell” merely because of their female nature. In Austen’s world, being a woman in a man’s world is a harsh, cruel reality.
Marriage for status is an issue of great importance in Sense and Sensibility”. It was seen as a common way in order to gain status. What is more, it was not seen as a choice, but a necessity.
Men would seek status through inheritance and/or a wealthy marriage. Edward Ferrars is a typical example of this type of a man in the story.
Women would not only opt for handsome and educated men, but mainly for wealthy ones, like Lucy Steele. Wealthier women were also more likely to be legitimate for marriage depending on the dowries they could offer.
This put Marianne and Elinor in immediate disadvantage to other women in the novel (i.e. the Steele ladies), and subsequent pressure, in terms of their legitimacy.
Their strife for successful marriages mainly stemmed from a desire for social settlement and a restoration of their loss of status.
However, in Marianne’s case, the main motive
Men seem to have a lot more space for manoeuvering through suppressive social rules than women do in the novel.
Society appears to allow them more freedom in marriage and age issues; Colonel Brandon makes a good example in this case. His advanced age did not eventually stop him from getting married to Marianne.
In Jane Austen’s world as presented in the novel, social integration and acceptance depends on one’s status and his/her sensible, controlled behaviour. There seems to be very little room for individuality and deviance.
Elinor, Edward Ferrars and the Middletons make fine examples of sensible, controlled characters. As Austen describes: “Elinor …possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment…She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them” (p4-5).
Edward’s propriety and the Middletons’ formality also signify their extreme level of political correctness and adherence to strict codes of conduct in order to be accepted in society.
Social etiquette, formal code of conduct, and discretion to the point of concealment of one’s feelings, are also important features in the novel.
Desire for social advancement is also evident. Mrs. John Dashwood, for example, was fast to install herself “mistress of Norland”.
In the struggle for financial and social power, women appear to act within their own sphere of action: the home. Women like Mrs. J. Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars, use domestic and financial politics to ensure their control over situations, within and outside their home environment.
Financial and domestic politics seem to be the only means women can use to have their own way in the world of the novel.
Ironically enough, even though the story is set in a male-dominated society, the male characters possess little power over women like, for example, Mrs. J. Dashwood and Mrs. Smith and Ferrars.
In terms of politics in the home environment, it almost seems as if under the surface of a male-dominated society, what is actually going on is beyond what eyes can see. Austen successfully conveys this idea.