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Discuss the various presentations of distress in Sense and Sensibility.

Discuss the various presentations of distress in Sense and Sensibility.

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Mengmeng Yan. Originally submitted for EN4361 The Novels of Jane Austen in Context at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr Jane Stabler in the category of English Literature
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards (International Programme) Competition by Mengmeng Yan. Originally submitted for EN4361 The Novels of Jane Austen in Context at University of St. Andrews, with lecturer Dr Jane Stabler in the category of English Literature

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 31, 2012
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11/08/2013

 
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Discuss the various presentations of distress in
Sense and Sensibility
.
 I.
 
 Abstract:
Jane Austen’s
Sense and Sensibility
revolves around the conflict between reasonand passion, and the presentations of distress significantly contribute to exemplifyas well as to intensify this conflict. This essay will discuss Austen’s treatment of distress in
Sense and Sensibility
from three aspects, including Elinor’s andMarianne’s anxiety in love, Edward’s and Willoughby’s reaction to their restrictivesocial situation, and the performance of distress by several minor characters. Partof the novel’s power and its quality as a narrative comes from the way in whichcompeting ideas and opinions towards similar realities are presented. Austen’streatment of the distress of her characters in their intensely paralleled circumstancesnot only exercises the reader’s judgement, but also reflects the author’s response tothe values held by her society. The artificiality in the manifestation of distressshown in characters such as Lucy Steele and John Dashwood serves to contrast thesense of truth and genuine feeling which the novel actively defends.
 
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 I.
 
 Main Text:
The various presentations of distress in Jane Austen’s
Sense and Sensibility
assist inthe development both of character and of narrative. This novel uniquelydemonstrates the distress of its characters by creating similar situations of distressfor characters and comparing the various ways in which they respond to them.This essay will discuss the novel’s presentations of distress from three aspects. First,the treatment of Elinor’s and Marianne’s distress in their intensely paralleledexperiences of love demonstrates a contrast between the restraint of feelings and theoverflow of sensibility. Second, the distress suffered by both Edward Ferrars andJohn Willoughby demonstrates men’s entrapment by the social restraints of theirtime, coped with by the two characters in different ways, making one an honourableman and the other a double dealer. Last, the affected distress performed by thecharacters who are lacking in genuine feelings, such as Lucy Steele and JohnDashwood, serves to increase the reader’s appreciation of truth and sincerity,qualities often little valued by those characters in the novel who are driven by greedand self-seeking.The presentation of the parallel plotlines of Elinor’s and Marianne’sexperience in love requires the reader to exercise their judgement, as they comparethe ways in which the sisters cope with their feelings. The heroines’ different waysof coping with distress at their painful separation from the men they love generate acontrast between self-indulgence and fortitude. After Willoughby suddenly boltsfrom Barton Cottage, Marianne’s affliction is described as extreme, but also asself-centred:She was awake the whole night, and she wept the greatestpart of it. She got up with an head-ache, was unable to talk,and unwilling to take any nourishment; giving pain everymoment to her mother and sisters, and forbidding all
 
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attempt at consolation from either.
1
 Edmund Burke describes the highest form of beauty in the female sex as somethingwhich ‘almost always carries with it an idea of weakness and imperfection’, and hesuggests that ‘Beauty in distress is much the most affecting beauty’.
2
Weeping,indisposition and the lack of appetite, which are illustrated through Marianne’sdistress, characterise the ideal Burkean heroine whose visible vulnerability servesto increase her attraction and beauty. The free indirect discourse adopted in thisepisode is permeated with the consciousness of Elinor, who is at once sympatheticto Marianne’s genuine pain, and critical towards Marianne’s excess of sensibilityand her disregard of the feelings of others. Elinor’s implicit disapproval of Marianne’s manifestation of distress is implied through her own response toEdward’s departure after his short visit at Barton:Without shutting herself up from her family, or leaving thehouse in determined solitude to avoid them, or lieing awakethe whole night to indulge meditation, Elinor found everyday afforded her leisure enough to think of Edward (102).This depiction uniquely juxtaposes Marianne’s behaviour after Willoughby’sdeparture with Elinor’s rejection of such conduct. Elinor refuses to unleash herdistress and avoids letting her feelings overflow (‘it was [Elinor’s] determination tosubdue [her feelings]’) (101).After discovering the engagements of the men they love, the sisters’ differentways of managing their intense disappointment not only show further examples of the contrast between self-command and uncontrolled passion, but also indicate thatthe exercise of reason is crucial to the integrity of a woman’s affections. On beingconvinced by Lucy of her secret engagement with Edward, Elinor suffers not only
1
All quotations from
Sense and Sensibility
in this essay are taken from
Sense and Sensibility
, ed.Ros Ballaster (London: Penguin, 1995).This quotation is taken from p.83. Subsequent citations fromthis novel will be given in parentheses.
2
Edmund Burke, ‘Perfection not the Cause of Beauty’,
On the Sublime and Beautiful
.

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