Compare and Contrast the Character of Elinor and Marianne

Elinor and Marianne offer a sharp and striking contrast in the novel Sense and Sensibility. There is a contrast between their physical appearances; and there is an even bigger contrast between their temperaments, their natures, and their mental and moral make-ups. Elinor has a delicate complexion, regular features, and a remarkably pretty figure. Marianne is even more beautiful.

Jane Austen

Her figure, though not as correct as Elinor's and though not having the advantage of height, is more impressive; and her face is much lovelier. Marianne's complexion is uncommonly brilliant; her features are all good; her smile is sweet and attractive and in her eyes there is a life, a spirit, and an eagerness which fills an onlooker with delight. Thus Marianne may physically be described as an alluring and enchanting girl, while Elinor is physically just presentable or just attractive, and full of grace and charm.

The two sisters represent two entirely different kinds of human temperaments; and this contrast between the two has been sketched for us by the novelist at the very outset. Elinor possesses a strength of understanding and a coolness of judgment by virtue of which she, though only nineteen years, is capable of being her mother's counselor. She is able, by means of these qualities, to keep in check her mother's eagerness of mind which would otherwise have led that lady to acts of imprudence. Elinor's disposition is certainly affectionate, and her feelings are certainly strong. But she knows how to govern her affections and her feelings. This capacity to govern the feelings and the emotions is something alien to her mother as well as to her sister Marianne. Marianne's abilities are, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor's. She is sensible and clever, but she is too eager in everything, so that her sorrow and her joys know no moderation. She is everything but prudent, and in this respect she resembles her mother closely. Elinor feels somewhat worried because of her sister's excessive sensibility; but their mother values and cherishes this trait of Marianne's. Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne tend to encourage each other in the intensity of their misery and sorrow, as, for instance, when the family is badly treated by Fanny. Elinor too feels miserable at this time; but she has the capacity to struggle against her misery and to exert herself, whereas Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood simply surrender to their misery.

The entire contrast between the characters of Elinor and Marianne may be summed up by saying that, while Elinor embodies sense, Marianne embodies sensibility. Elinor can exercise restraint upon her feelings; she possesses the strength to command her feelings and emotions; she has the virtue of prudence; and she tends to be stoical in the face of disappointment or failure. Marianne is susceptible to feeling to an excessive degree. She is lacking in self-command, in self-restraint, and in the capacity to keep her emotions under control. The contrast between the two sisters, as stated by the novelist herself at the outset, is the most conspicuous feature of this novel. The story of the novel gives us incident after incident to demonstrate this contrast so that it is indelibly impressed upon our minds, no matter what the scholarly critics might say in this context. In fact the novel is, on the whole, a story of "the loving tension" between the two sisters. The "tension" arises from their different views about things and persons, and from their disagreements; but it is a "loving," tension because they feel a genuine mutual affection, and are deeply attached to each other.

They have different criteria of judging Edward's worth. One of the earliest incidents to bring out this contrast is Edward Ferrar's visit to Norland Park when the mother with her three daughters is yet living there. Elinor and Marianne react to this young man in absolutely different ways. Elinor begins to admire and love him, while Marianne cannot understand why Elinor not only admires him, but has also fallen in love with him. Marianne finds Edward's manner of reading out a poem to be spiritless, tame, and devoid of sensibility. She also feels disappointed by Edward's having no taste in music and having no capacity even to admire Elinor's drawings or the beauties of nature in the right perspective. Elinor, on the contrary, feels attracted by Edward because of what she regards as his sense and his goodness. She is attracted by Edward's views about literature, by his enjoyment of books, by his lively imagination, and by his accurate observation. Thus the two sisters have altogether different criteria of judging the worth of a man.

Elinor shows adverse reaction to Marianne's friendship with Willoughby. Marianne becomes quickly attached to Willoughby after her very first meeting with him. She then begins to move about freely in his company. Elinor feels somewhat worried by this friendship which comes to the notice of everyone who knows them. She even suggests to Marianne to show some more self-command, and to avoid going about openly in Willoughby's company. But Marianne abhors all concealment where no real disgrace can result from a want of reserve. And so she continues going about with Willoughby openly. She even agrees to accept from Willoughby the gift of a horse though it is not possible for her to maintain and feed a horse. Elinor urges Marianne not to accept the gift; and, even though Marianne does not ultimately accept the gift, she does say that she finds no harm in accepting a gift from Willoughby. Here is another example of a strong disagreement between the two sisters.

Elinor has the capacity to subdue her unhappiness and Marianne does not have. Elinor, though feeling very unhappy about Edward's despondency of mood at the time of his departure from Barton Cottage after a week's stay there, is able to subdue her unhappiness by her sheer firmness and her determination to do so. She does not adopt the procedure followed by Marianne on a similar occasion. When Willoughby had suddenly departed from Barton Cottage after a very short visit, Marianne had felt very unhappy and had augmented her sorrow by seeking silence, solitude, and idleness. The contrast between the two sisters has pointedly been brought to our attention.

This contrast is further emphasized by the author when Elinor reacts to her disappointment in love differently from Marianne's reaction to hers. When Elinor learns that Edward is committed to marry Lucy, and that he is persisting in his sense of loyalty to that girl, Elinor has every reason to shed tears of distress and to make herself miserable. But far from doing so, she actually tries to give comfort to Marianne who is feeling more upset by Edward's resolve than even Elinor. Elinor tries to argue Marianne out of her distress on this occasion by citing her own stoical attitude. She tells Marianne that she has already acquitted Edward of all essential misconduct, and that in her opinion Edward is only going to do his duty by Lucy. Edward would marry Lucy, says Elinor and, in doing that, he would be marrying a woman superior in person and understanding to half of the female sex, adding that time and habit would teach him to forget that he had ever thought another woman namely Elinor. Here, then, is an attitude of detachment on the part of Elinor. Marianne now understands that Elinor can console herself for her loss by means of her resolution and her self-command. Elinor also says on this occasion that her self-command does not mean that she has not suffered deeply because of her loss, and that she has certainly suffered deeply not only on account of Edward's promise to Lucy but also because of the unkindness of Edward's sister, Mrs. John Dashwood, and the insolence of Edward's mother. She further says that to have endured all this involved a constant and painful exertion on her part. Elinor's reasoning subdues Marianne who now feels so affected by Elinor's silent suffering and endurance that she apologizes to Elinor, saying: "How barbarous have been to you Is this my gratitude?" Marianne also here says that Elinor has been her only comfort, and that Elinor has always shared her misery while she, in return, has only been ignorant of Elinor's real state of mind. And the author tells us that the tender caresses followed this confession by Marianne. This piece of dialogue again shows that Elinor is capable of suffering her disappointments and frustrations without feeling overwhelmed by them, while Marianne makes an abject surrender to her misfortunes. Marianne herself now begins to realize, with an even greater intensity, the difference between Elinor and herself. She begins to reproach herself for her want of the strength to endure her frustration in love with that calmness with which Elinor has endured hers. However, she is still not able to follow Elinor's example, and is still not able to keep her sorrow in check. We have, therefore, to infer that merely the will to control one's grief would not enable a person to control the grief. The capacity to control one's grief is something inborn or innate as is the susceptibility to indulge one's grief and to let grief vanquish one's will-power. In other words, the difference between the two sisters is something fundamental, and basic to their natures.