Sensibility Women's Identities Are Determined and Limited by the Expectations of Their Societies
Literature written by and about women lends itself very well to feminist interpretative approaches of various kinds. Such approaches often examine the literature of earlier centuries for signs of discontent with or subversive suggestions against aspects of a society in which men have exclusive control of power. Such an approach is especially fruitful to use when examining Jane Austen's novels since she was writing in a cultural climate that did not accept direct opposition to the status quo. Only through an indirect critique could she publish views critical of the prevailing laws and conditions under which women of her time were forced to live.
By 1811, when Sense and Sensibility was published, an intense backlash against the women's rights fiction of the 1790s had made the publication of blatantly feminist works impossible in England. Yet the women's rights literature of fifteen to twenty years earlier had been very widely read and discussed, and many of the concepts explored in it continued to be in the minds of many of the writers of the early nineteenth century. Jane Austen was one such writer. In Sense and Sensibility she created a novel that explored the dangers to women of a society in which they were forced, by both law and custom, to rely on men for their very livelihoods.
By the end of the nineteenth century, women were beginning to feel "trapped in a script they did not write but were slowly beginning to analyze, [and they began to] look about them for a way out, a way on to a different life" (42). But perhaps it was in the Victorian novel, as early as Jane Austen's fiction, that women, recognizing the constraints imposed upon them as they tried to write their own texts, began to create "a way out, a way on to a different life" for themselves. And perhaps this new text is delineated in their portrayal of women's friendships.
Because women are taught to be mothers, their lives largely revolve around relationships, nurturing and self-sacrifice. Carol Gilligan, in a Different Voice, says that women's lives are defined by the closeness of their relationships: "Intimacy goes along with identity, as the female comes to know herself as she is known, through her relationship with others" (12). In the Victorian novel, perhaps because women's friendships are drawn "outside the action that makes the story" (Cosslett 11), women writers felt freer to develop women's relationships and experience. These literary friendships are drawn to delineate the care, trust and support that define the female experience. What women readers found in the depiction of these friendships was at once a consolation for the difficulties of being a woman, a maternal model of (a female text for) re-establishing mother-daughter bonds, and a reinforcing, and therefore a validation of, their feminine identity. Thus, women's friendships, while developed peripherally to the plot, are central to the heroines' (and therefore all women's) psychological development, for they provide assurance about female issues and experience and develop and sustain communication between women that allows them to gain self-confidence and feel loved and nurtured. In this way, the friendships Victorian women portray in their novels seem to me to be the embodiment of what Heilbrun seeks: a way for "women [to] turn to one another for their stories" (44).
Thus, women's friendships as delineated in novels by women both reflect and validate female experience; but just as importantly, they provide a text for women's lives, a text that allows women to communicate their experience to each other. Furthermore, it is within that text, that center of communication, that female friendship "stands out as uniquely precious, an 'island' of peace and understanding...in some world beyond normal social relations" (Cosslett 11).
The mother-daughter relationship creates the essence of female identity. As has been explained, because the mother sees the daughter as a narcissistic extension of herself -- the daughter, in fact, if she is behaviorally and emotionally like her mother, reinforces and validates her mother -- the mother's relationship with her daughter is at best ambivalent, and this pattern of confusion which was established in childhood is replayed in adolescence.
These issues can be seen in nineteenth-century novels by women, who, while developing characters who deal with common Victorian themes of moral growth and self-knowledge, are also delineating specifically female psychological conflicts through their heroines' personal growth and relationships. These adolescent issues tend to be portrayed through opposing personality traits of their heroines; and the pairings can be seen to unconsciously suggest a psychological manifestation of merging and separation issues. For example, Jane Austen's practical Elinor Dashwood contrasts with her overly emotional sister, Marianne. Indeed, the theme of Sense and Sensibility is most often seen to be the need to balance reason and emotion, as the novel is developed around each sister's extreme practicality or sensitivity and her growth as she comes to self-understanding and her responsibility to society for right action. As the rational sister, however, Elinor's independence is really her rejection of the "femininity" her mother and sister represent, for Marianne's extreme sensitivity is the part of her that is most emotional and dependent -- or "womanly" in the Victorian script for acceptable female behavior -- the most merged with her similarly endowed mother.
The difficulty for women that Austen explores in her depiction of the sisters is twofold and reflects women's divided self: the woman who has not successfully merged with and separated from her mother and is therefore dependent on her mother for her very identity; and the opposing fear of independence as encompassing a state of rejection and alienation. Thus, Marianne, as an example of a woman whose mother has encouraged too close merging, is defined as being "strikingly" like her mother in her inability to "govern her feelings" (5). Mrs. Dashwood, in fact, whose "feelings were strong" (4) "valued and cherished [Marianne's]...excess... sensibility" (5). And further, "[Mother and daughter] encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction" (5). This commiseration, while initially appearing as a warm and close tie that protects Marianne, is really her mother's way of validating herself through her daughter. It has tragic consequences, for it keeps her daughter tied to her to affirm herself by approving and reinforcing the very aspects that keep Marianne dependent and lacking in self-awareness and ability to make rational decisions that would allow her to grow independently and act reasonably in the world.
Thus, when Willoughby leaves, Marianne falls ill: "The violent oppression of spirits continued the whole evening. She was without any power, because she was without any desire of command over herself" (71). Like her mother, "common sense, common care, common prudence, were all sunk in...romantic delicacy" (73), and she thus "would have thought herself very inexcusable had she been able to sleep at all the first night after parting from Willoughby" (71). Eva Margolies says that women who have maintained a too exclusive bond with their mothers often retain a childlike dependence on others and a constant need for attention and for having their needs met by others. "Ironically," says Margolies,
it is often a friendly, positive relationship with a traditional mother [that makes women dependent on others for their identity]. Too friendly, in fact, which is why these women often don't develop much of a desire for independence. While a close relationship with [her mother] might feel emotionally nourishing, as a rule, the better relationship with a [traditional mother], the less separated the girl. (74)
Marianne's extreme emotions, while on the surface a warning from Austen of incorrect behavior, become, from a female psychological perspective, a manifestation of her too complete merging with her mother, which results in her inability to know her own feelings and guide them rationally.
Marianne's relationships are always formed from shallow traits of dependence and need; that is why her relationship with Elinor initially does not contain the honesty and support needed to build an intimate and nurturing relationship. Knowing her tie with her mother to be based on protection and merged feelings rather than on guidance and support, Marianne sees Elinor, who consistently takes on the more sensible role of a wise, rationally-guiding mother, not as a replacement for her mother but as the opposing and distant authority figure, the self-denying independent woman who has no feminine characteristics or needs, while Elinor sees Marianne as an overly emotional, unself-guided and dependent child with few admirable characteristics on which to model herself. Thus, though they love and wish to protect each other, they are not "friends" as yet because, without role models or texts, they both feel the need to guard themselves from the unwanted extreme of opposite the other represents.
Yet Elinor, as the independent daughter, the more rational of the two, though possessing the self-control and intelligence to conduct her affairs with little emotional interference, is overwhelmingly alone. It is true that Austen develops the other characters as flawed and…