Patriarchy in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility
Despite the fact that Jane Austen has become what Julian North describes as a “conservative icon in popular culture” signified by her depictions of “traditional class and gender hierarchies, sexual propriety and Christian values,” the novel _Sense and Sensibility_ provides, if not a feminist perspective, a feminist discourse lacking in Emma Thompson’s film version (North 38). In this essay, I attempt to argue briefly that the novel, which initially seems to uphold cultural norms of sexuality and does little to question women’s subaltern position, can be read to undermine the patriarchy and especially male-controlled courtship rituals. Next I seek to demonstrate how the film’s adaptation by Emma Thompson undermines its own feminist intentions to become another late 20th-century romantic-comedy prescribing a happy marriage to an attractive and wealthy man as a cure-all for the single woman’s woes (Giddings 11). Ironically the novel _Sense and Sensibility_, which many critics consider embodying the paradigm of conservative Georgian literature, appears staunchly, if graciously, countercultural in comparison to its 20th-century film adaptation.
Two features of the novel can clearly be identified as providing a feminist perspective: the discourse between sense and sensibility which presents contrasting but complementary strands of female temperament and the sisterly bond that provides the Dashwood women with a self-sustaining, if only temporary, method of resistance to an ineluctably encroaching patriarchy. Often linked to post-revolutionary ideological tumult, the triumph of sense over sensibility in the novel has spurred critics to identify it both as a reactionary victory for the conservative ethos and as a feminist demonstration of resistance to masculinist conventions. Julian North, noting that critics have often read Elinor’s triumphant sense as validating an anti-individualist reactionary viewpoint in which “the self must submit to the moral and religious order of society,” offers a contrasting opinion (39). Other critics “read adherence to conservative ideology as a ‘cover story’…for the ‘implicitly rebellious vision’…of a writer acutely conscious of the confinements of patriarchy” (North 39). This feminist reading of _Sense_ is most cogent when the reader is privileged to Elinor’s own thoughts. Elinor’s sense, manifested in her stoic silence and inner thoughts, contrasts with Marianne’s sensibility, notably with her emotive soliloquies and dialogues, to offer a verbal resistance to their mutual misfortune. The discourse between sense and sensibility in the book offers a means to combat the misfortune the women in the novel suffer, and each temperament leads its possessor to ultimate happiness, even if sense is clearly favored.
Similarly, the sisterly bond of the Dashwoods offers an alternative narrative to the traditional courtship romance. Deborah Kaplan...