Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: Romantic Love and the Idea of “Settling”

Watercolour-and-pencil portrait of Jane Austen

A problem for many, especially the young, is that when they seek long-term partners they are moved by sexual passion and physical desire. They often fail to seek substantive people with whom they can experience a lasting, mature love based on compromise, tolerance, stability, and commitment. I realize this is trite advice, and I also acknowledge this thought didn’t occur to me when I was in my twenties. Still, it is surprising how many disregard this advice. Here is an example. 

Before a college class about twenty years ago two young female students were discussing the movie “Sense and Sensibility,” which is based on Jane Austen’s novel of the same name. In the movie, the beautiful Marianne Dashwood immediately falls madly in love (lust) with the dashing John Willoughby. Here is the scene as they first meet. Marianne has hurt her ankle and the strong, dashing Willoughby has carried her home. “He lifted me as if I weighed no more than a trite leaf,” she says. She is smitten.

As for the wealthy, stable, but older and less dashing Colonel Brandon, who dearly loves Marianne, she has no use. Marianne has mistaken her passionate enthusiasm for love, and, shortly thereafter, Willoughby discards her for a more wealthy patron.

Finally, she begins to realize that Willoughby loves money more than he loves her—she realizes that Willoughby is more form than substance. She eventually marries the Colonel and by all accounts, they have a happy, stable marriage built on mutual love and respect. (The character of David Copperfield in Dickens’ novel has a similar experience. He marries his longtime, sensible friend Agnes and finally finds true happiness.)

My two young female students found this outcome disappointing if not downright depressing. Marianne shouldn’t have “settled” for the Colonel they told me. She should have waited for a better man. My rejoinder? The Colonel was only rich, kind, wise, just, stable, honest, smart, and good-looking. What a terrible husband he would make! But why couldn’t the beautiful Marianne find all that in a man as handsome, passionate, and strong as Willoughby, my young students wondered? By contrast, I doubted if a man as good as the Colonel even existed. I concluded that these young women had an immature and naive view of romantic love. Somehow the Colonel fell short of their ideal mate—a mate that doesn’t exist. My young students wanted to marry a chimera.

Many people, especially young ones, foolishly reject potentially good mates for those who only seem good, as Willoughby appeared to Marianne.  And this is partly why the Greeks thought erotic passion was dangerous and irrational. It clouds our judgment and misleads us. We are naturally drawn to external beauty and passion, often missing a deeper beauty right in front of us. Our senses detect external beauty and physical passion, but our good sense, our sensibility, determines if a person is truly beautiful. Hence the title of the novel.

Jane Austen’s message is that we should seek true beauty. Fortunately, in the end, Marianne becomes wise. She recognizes the serenity, if not the unending passion, of true love.

“For whatsoever from one place doth fall,
Is with the tide unto another brought:
For there is nothing lost, that may be found, if sought.”

― Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene

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4 thoughts on “Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: Romantic Love and the Idea of “Settling”

  1. I stumbled across your site in my search for an adequate definition of ‘Philautia.’ You provided it.
    I’ve enjoyed your posts on the dangers of ‘Eros’ and our society’s dismissal of them. It’s been on my mind often lately: basically, we tell our kids that passionate desire is wonderful and expected and that they should jump right in. Might as well tell them to start mainlining heroin.
    That said, I think you tend to over-correct in your condemnation of Eros. Yes the Greeks thought that Eros was irrational and dangerous but they also appreciated its transformative possibilities – note Plato’s parable about the divided lovers or the Phaedrus, for that matter. In ‘Romeo and Juliet’, eros directly leads to the lovers’ death – and Shakespeare makes sure to point out that Romeo was heartbroken over another girl the day he met Juliet. Yet their love and tragic deaths create peace between the warring families. Something that would otherwise have been impossible.
    I’m glad for your corrective, though. No one ever warned me, and the result was a long and extremely painful education.

  2. Thanks for the insightful comments. I agree with what you say and perhaps I do “over-correct” a bit.

  3. ” I concluded that these young women had an immature and naive view of romantic love. ” — It is no wonder they felt Marianne was “settling”. It appears they share her (former) sentiments on the nature of true love. Just as with Marianne, they may yet feel differently with time and experiences.

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