Gender, Sense and Sensibility, The Reader

On Gender–Part 1(Plus Final Thoughts on Sense and Sensibility)

The other day I heard someone use the phrase “women-centric” in an interview with a member from a television series with a predominately female cast. My immediate reaction was to question if this is even a real word, which was followed by the thought that I hardly know what constitutes real words anymore and what defines language because A) I just took my first linguistics class which opened my perception of language evolution to new levels and pretty much blew my mind, and also B) YOLO (you only language once?)…but aside from that tangent and punctuation nightmare, I’ve been throwing the phrase around in my head in relation to Jane Austen’s body of work. I’ve mostly discovered that my thoughts on the subject are hardly concise enough for a coherent piece of writing, so I’ve decided to turn it into a series of posts relating to three of the Austen’s novels and their portrayal of gender as well as modern readers perceptions of gender within these novels. I know. It’s a bit rambly, but I’m getting somewhere with this.

Clearly the reader’s first reaction is to say, sure, Austen’s work is totally “women-centric.” How could it not be? All of her protagonists are female and most of them are bold and independent in their own ways *cough cough except Fanny Price cough cough.* But something about my die-hard Austenite friends reactions to the characters has been bugging me. Every Austen fan I know is obsessed with Austen’s heroes and her heroine’s end up almost being an after thought. Certainly, these fans have favorite heroines and ways in which they relate to them, but they are quick to point out these character’s faults when in their eyes the Mr. Darcy’s and George Knightley’s have none. I want to address this odd bias further in later posts, but for now I wish to discuss what I find to be the one exception: Sense and Sensibility.

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It is my opinion that Sense and Sensibility celebrates womanhood and sisterhood, as well as the awkward “not a girl not yet a woman” Britney Spears stage of growing into adulthood, the most highly of all six of Austen’s novels. In some way the bond between Elinor and Marianne outweighs their affections for the men in the novel.

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There is something about Edward Ferrars and Colonel Brandon that lacks the dashing qualities which we associate with so many of Austen’s heroes. Colonel Brandon possesses a quiet wisdom and emotional fortitude which give him the feeling of being somewhat withdrawn, and until he his moment of valiance in rescuing Marianne from the dreaded rain, he is mostly just lurking with the occasional purpose of being an intellectual companion to Elinor. We have so little first-hand experience with Edward Ferrars in the book. We hear from him about three times, in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end, and although he is extremely kind and honorable, he leaves much to be wanted in his personality. And then there is Willoughby. Sigh. His carelessness and vanity prevent his being entirely endearing, despite his amiable personality, even before the reader discovers his rake status.

What we do experience in great detail is the affection and the deep empathy and understanding that the elder Dashwood sister’s share despite the differences in their sensibilities and we see, through their acute pain and exquisite pleasure, each of their journeys into their own graceful womanhood.

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