Calm Against the Storm: Jane Austen’s Elinor

MAY / JUNE 2012: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO

elinor

ELINOR WAS DEEPLY afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself. This summarizes Elinor Dashwood’s philosophy in life: no matter what happened or how much something bothered her, she would keep moving and not let anything leave her in a state of shock.

It is a good philosophy to have, especially in a time when women are limited in what they can do and how much independence they have. Elinor’s practicality and strength come into good use over the course of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility as she and her family navigate through issues of finance, family and love.

Elinor is described as a young woman who “had an excellent heart … her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them.” She inherited her family’s tendency to feel deeply yet at times comes into conflict with them because they see her restraint as insensitivity rather than as a way of coping with a situation. Her usual method of hiding her emotions “qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother.” Her practicality suits their dire financial situation; she suggests that a cottage would be more affordable than a house, and is mindful that they would not be able to care for the horse Willoughby gives Marianne. Budgeting and making unpopular decisions are thankless jobs, but her efforts ground her family in their present situation.

Her pragmatism extends to matters not related to their finances, for she is also an astute observer. Many of the characterisations conveyed in the book are derived from observations she makes about the people she meets along the way. For example, while Marianne makes fun of Colonel Brandon and avoids his company for most of the novel, Elinor understands him to be kind and dependable and feels sympathy for him. She even understands the rude and withdrawn Mr. Palmer to be a kind man who resorts to rudeness due to exasperation over his wife and his mother-in-law.

Her judgment is not always spot-on: she is fooled by Willoughby’s charm and is later appalled to learn of his dalliances with women. Her quiet observations not only help her and her sister Marianne decide who they can depend on in a number of occasions but also, more importantly, look beyond people’s flaws and quirks to see the good in them.

This particular ability is sorely tested when it comes to Edward Ferrars. It is difficult to determine how deep Elinor’s feelings are towards him; the reader is not provided with explicit scenes depicting their time together other than in others’ personal comments and observations. Elinor admits to Marianne that she “think(s) very highly of him—that [she] greatly esteems, that [she] like(s) him.” Edward’s visit to their home at Devonshire shows how deep Elinor’s feelings really are with the way she is consciously watching out for him and how acutely aware she is of his uneasiness and preoccupation.

Lucy Steele’s revelation of being secretly engaged to him for the past few years catches Elinor off guard because she cannot believe he would do something as improper as holding a secret engagement, an act that is generally frowned on at the time. The more Lucy’s explanations and tokens of love prove her story to be true, Elinor’s shock is replaced by hurt. Such a revelation is enough to warrant her to distance herself from Edward (after all, she was deceived by his omission) but instead of jumping to that conclusion, she reflects at length on his behavior during their time together.

Remembering the kind of person he was, the fact that he ultimately did not act improper towards her and the love she has for him, Elinor is able to forgive him for hiding such a connection from her and continues to think well of him. She even feels sorry for Edward because of his predicament and how ultimately he will have to choose between Lucy and his family. To look beyond his faults and continue caring for him shows a strength of character in Elinor that many people would not find easy to do.

Elinor’s temper and emotional discipline are sorely tested by Lucy’s continued presence. She never actively seeks Lucy’s confidence and is cornered into keeping the secret to herself. Upon learning her secret, Elinor is resolved to never broach the subject ever again. Much to her chagrin, Lucy continues to turn to her and unload all of her many thoughts, concerns and hopes for the future. She could have sought a way to discourage Lucy from conversing with her about it, or maybe even to influence her decisions about Edward, but instead she chooses to endure her company and numerous conversations because she always acts accordingly, regardless of her opinion of the individual she is socializing with. She listens to Lucy out of respect for the confidentiality she swore to, something she takes very seriously.

Throughout the novel, Elinor faces the obstacles before her… supporting Marianne as best as she can in the wake of Willoughby’s strange behavior and betrayal, enduring Lucy, facing the possibility of losing Edward forever… quietly, stoically and alone. Her sobs upon learning that he is released from his former engagement are not only a catharsis of the emotions she has been holding back but also an affirmation that everything she is braving through is now resolved and out in the open. Elinor is a strong Austen heroine in her own right, remaining steadfast and calm amidst personal turmoil and drama. Her keenness to remain responsible and act properly is a tough and repetitive job, especially when counteracting a vivacious and passionate sibling like Marianne who does not care for social expectations. But her ability to keep pushing forward even when things are not going her way is admirable and something to aspire to. ♥

mayjune2012

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