The Balance of Sense and Sensibility

As an English major, I’m very accustomed to over-analyzing everything in a text. I particularly enjoy doing this for older texts because it gives me a detailed view of history. This semester, I had the pleasure of uncovering the changing social order of British society throughout the 17th and 18th centuries in my British Literature II class. The biggest takeaway? Conceptions of mental health and emotion have changed drastically. 

This revelation is most pertinent in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. In the novel, Marianne, the young woman who shows and acts upon her emotions, faces trials and tribulations that prove nearly fatal. Her sensibility (aka her “imprudent” emotional persona) literally almost kills her; she is so distraught after losing the supposed love of her life that her emotional outrage leeches the life from herself and those around her. Here, Austen emphasized to the reader that emotion (sensibility) is not only improper — it is dangerous.

black and white photo of a woman sitting on the floor reading a book Photo by Lenin Estrada from Unsplash As a person who is passionate about demolishing the stigma surrounding mental health, this message was shocking to me. I was angry that young women weren’t supposed to feel emotion, that they were instead supposed to fall into the social order and marry not for love, but for financial security. 

That being said, as I began to analyze the text further, I realized that a more modern message could be spun from Austen’s narrative. Elinor, Marianne’s sister, balances sense and sensibility. She marries not only because it is expected of her, but also for love. In my mind, the characteristics of sense and sensibility could be read in a different manner: instead of being suffocating reason and dangerous emotion, they could represent coping mechanisms and regulated emotion.  Silhouette of two people Photo by Tori Wise from Unsplash Throughout my “Operation Brightside” series, I have emphasized the importance of coping mechanisms. Doodling, letter writing, identifying triggers, and seeking therapy have all filled the list of tools one can use to regulate her emotions. If there is one thing I have realized on my mental health journey, it is that emotion (including the feelings my anxiety produces) is not an inherently bad thing — instead, it is a beautiful aspect of human nature that sometimes needs to be regulated. 

“Regulating” emotions can sound scary and harsh, but it’s a key tool towards growing in one’s mental health. This regulation is encapsulated in the stark differences between Austen’s characters. Elinor balances sense (coping mechanisms) with sensibility (intense emotions) to realize a happy and fulfilled life. Marianne, on the other hand, lets her emotion overtake her and ends up unhappy. The entire novel can be read as a metaphor for the proper treatment of mental health, and I highly recommend it to those who want a clearer idea of how to mesh reason and emotion. 

If you work hard to balance sense and sensibility in your own life and on your own terms, you will achieve the happiness and peace of mind that everyone deserves. In the words of Jane Austen in Sense and Sensibility, “I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.” 

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