2011 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
The Sisters Dashwood and the Invisible Hand
It is nothing new or revolutionary to note that Sense and Sensibility is structured around a series of oppositions, even beyond its titular set: propriety and authenticity, stoicism and enthusiasm, pride and amiability, and, as the quotation under consideration poses it, wealth and grandeur. The novel has often been read as a means of collapsing those distinctions, moving Marianne and Elinor, who begin at the opposite ends of these poles, towards each other and towards the middle of the spectrum, where the best conduct—or perhaps even happiness—lies.
But what Elinor’s distinction between wealth and grandeur invokes is not a relatively smooth narrative process of moving towards a happy medium, but a distinctly eighteenth-century idea that seems to require simultaneously holding two different attitudes towards money. Recent historical work on Austen has emphasized the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on her thinking about human relationships and sympathy; it seems appropriate, then, to treat Elinor’s opinion of wealth in the context of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments, one of the most influential documents of its kind in Austen’s formative years and one that she certainly knew, at least secondhand.1 Smith’s discussion of wealth in this text is less elaborate and theoretical than in his more famous tome on the subject, An Inquiry into the Cause and Nature of the Wealth of Nations, The Theory of Moral Sentiments offers a more comprehensive and more relevant analysis of the impact of wealth on human nature and society. In Smith’s account, as in Sense and Sensibility, sympathy, happiness, and wealth are deeply entwined, although not always in positive or readily understood ways. Wealth and happiness have important social implications for human relationships, and seem, in the end, to suggest an unusual and nuanced definition of what Elinor’s characteristic “sense” encompasses.
It is remarkable to note how closely Smith’s vocabulary in Book IV of the Theory echoes the dinner table conversation of the Dashwoods and Edward Ferrars. “I wish as well as every body else to be perfectly happy; but, like every body else it must be in my own way. Greatness will not make me so,” says Edward; Marianne, who has a tendency to synonymize words instead of seeing them as possessing distinct and precise meanings, replies, “What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?” adding a term that Edward himself did not use and which Elinor is sure to correct when she associates wealth with happiness, but not grandeur (79-80). Compare this to Smith’s discussion of a poor man’s son, “whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition,” and who “is enchanted with the distant idea of […] felicity. It appears in his fancy like the life of some superior rank of beings, and, in order to arrive at it, he devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness [181; italics mine]. The sin of this son of poverty is, effectively, an excess of imagination; all too capable of imagining himself in the place of the rich, he is simply the exemplary victim of a feeling that is well known to us all in some proportion or another:
The palaces, the gardens, the equipage, the retinue of the great, are objects of which the obvious conveniency strikes every body…Of our own accord we readily enter into it, and by sympathy enjoy and thereby applaud the satisfaction which they are fitted to afford him [182; italics mine].
But this act of imaginative sympathy proves deeply destructive:
Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power, and which, if in the extremity of old age he should at last attain to it, he will find to be in no respect preferable to that humble security and contentment which he had abandoned for it (181).
Readers who are perhaps expecting a different, and, indeed, more sympathetic account of sympathy—for Smith, the way in which we enter into the minds of others to feel what they feel, and vice versa—may look for it elsewhere in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This segment of the treatise is concerned, to some extent, with the pitfalls of an all-too-keen sympathy, an over-appreciation of what the rich must feel as they gaze upon their possessions. We thus find ourselves in Marianne territory, as becomes clear from the rest of the conversation. Elinor’s attempt to find common ground between her own endorsement of wealth and Marianne’s disregard of wealth in favor of a bare competence ends in failure, as Marianne’s notion of competence is twice Elinor’s idea of wealth. What starts as a disagreement about values reverts to a disagreement about definitions.
While this might appear at first merely to reinforce the point that Elinor and Marianne do not in basic materials begin the novel so distantly from one another, what the conversation lays bare is not only the way in which these semantics really do reflect deeply held values, but the flawed means by which Marianne arrives at her definition. As was the case for the poor man’s son, Marianne’s reason for the pursuit of a “competence”—and the feeling of activity and bustle connoted by this word is significant—is intimately tied up in imagining her future, and the happiness that the objects of her competence will bring (80). “A proper establishment of servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters, cannot be supported on less [than two thousand a year],” she says to Elinor, who renders the meaning of this utterance clear when she remarks to herself that Marianne is describing her supposed future at Combe Magna with Willoughby (81). And just as the poor man’s son who subjects himself “to more fatigue of body and more uneasiness of mind” (180) in the pursuit of a competence than remaining in his original state of poverty might have entailed, Marianne’s own efforts and bustle not only cause her extraordinary grief but also disguise for a time the fact that she could have easily had her two thousand a year and a man who adored her far closer to the beginning of the novel.
I do not mean to imply a kind of interchangeability between Willoughby and Colonel Brandon, for to do so would certainly do violence to the plot of the novel. Rather, Sense and Sensibility seems to display Willoughby himself as a kind of luxury good, a character who in Marianne’s imagination and in Smithian terms seems to imply more happiness and satisfaction than he is actually likely to produce, and whose price (not his value) is two thousand pounds per annum. Not for nothing does Colonel Brandon describe Willoughby as “expensive,” as well as “dissipated” (181). He is the ultimate “trinket of frivolous utility, no more adapted for procuring ease of body or tranquillity of mind than the tweezer–cases of the lover of toys” (179). This ascendancy of his beauty over his use value may help account for his strongly aesthetic characterization in the Barton Cottage chapters, where he primarily endears himself to Marianne by fully entering into her approbation and disapprobation of various writers and painters. It also provides an interesting gloss on his desire to instantly pull Combe down, and build it up again in the exact plan of [Barton] cottage,” another point in the novel where the relationship between wealth and happiness becomes significant (63). Willoughby’s suggestion is that Mrs. Dashwood’s “improvements” would make improper use of wealth in securing her happiness, but it is Willoughby’s view that is ultimately exposed—by means of his subsequent disgrace—as privileging the trivial over the real utility and happiness of the Dashwoods. While Elinor points out the very practical and relevant fact that the kitchen smokes, Willoughby is inclined to sacrifice utility (“were [he] rich enough” [ibid.]) in pulling down the truly more convenient Combe and replacing it with a smallish cottage rife with various physical defects that impede the convenience of its occupants, and for essentially sympathetic/aesthetic reasons. Convenience” is a word that Smith often uses interchangeably with happiness, and it is our tendency to enter into a false view of the conveniences of the rich that sacrifices our real tranquillity” (181) and actual convenience in the here and now. For Marianne—as a character who is almost entirely characterized early in the novel by her intense aesthetic feelings—“sensibility” dooms her to too close of an imaginative relationship with the object she means to enjoy, which does indeed come to seem trivial and trifling.
If feeling with the rich and entering into their aesthetic approbation of all of the little conveniences that prove to be so very inconvenient signifies an improper relationship with wealth, what relationship with it is actually likely to promote real tranquility? It is tempting to assign to happiness, like Elinor and Marianne, some monetary amount, but as a novelist working in the Enlightenment tradition of moral sentiments, process is more interesting to Austen than absolute numbers. It is also tempting to simply answer, “Elinor’s relationship to wealth is the correct one” because she is generally the figure of propriety in the novel. But this is too pat an answer, and ignores some of the troubling aspects of Elinor’s characteristic good sense. For while we feel as modern readers that Elinor’s answer is a kind of happy medium, we should not ignore how she gets to it and how strange and apparently contradictory a cognitive process it really is.
After his deprecation of imaginative sympathy as it relates to wealth, Smith moves onto the famous if still nascent description of the “invisible hand” that will prove such a key concept in The Wealth of Nations. He first describes a situation that seems unlikeliest of all to produce happiness, the “splenetic philosophy,” which we feel in times of injury, illness, or other bodily distress, which causes
riches [to] appear then to be, what they are, enormous and operose machines contrived to produce a few trifling conveniencies to the body, consisting of springs the most nice and delicate, which must be kept in order with the most anxious attention, and which in spite of all our care are ready every moment to burst into pieces, and to crush in their ruins their unfortunate possessor (182-3).
The alignment of a true perception of wealth with illness and spleen is then underscored by its inverse: “when in better health and in better humour, we never fail to regard [wealth] under a more agreeable aspect. Our imagination, which in pain and sorrow seems to be confined and cooped up within our own persons, in times of ease and prosperity expands itself to every thing around us” (183). In this expansive, imaginative, and ultimately sympathetic mode, “The pleasures of wealth and greatness…strike the imagination as something grand and beautiful and noble, of which the attainment is well worth all the toil and anxiety which we are so apt to bestow upon it” (ibid.) But what about the essential falseness of this perception, its dissociation with the products of wealth as “what they are” (184)? In one of the most striking moments in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith admits that this imaginative mode, so common to human nature, is literally what keeps human society together, for “It is this deception which rouses and keeps in continual motion the industry of mankind. It is this which first prompted them to cultivate the ground, to build houses, to found cities and commonwealths, and to invent and improve all the sciences and arts, which ennoble and embellish human life” (183). The rich, for all of the personal comfort that they sacrifice in obtaining their wealth, cannot possibly spend it all, and in the process of acquiring it not only substantially improve the world around them, but end by conferring some of its benefits on their less fortunate brethren.
This detour into the conceptions of wealth which were current during Jane Austen’s adolescence has served primarily to underscore, first, how happiness transforms our view of it, and second, the importance to it of a particular, even a peculiar kind of sympathy. It is a sympathy that seems to require the person who feels it to intellectually understand the real silliness of most of the objects that wealth can purchase—and here we must certainly think of Robert Ferrars and his toothpick case (192)—while still and in moments of expansive happiness prove capable of imaginatively entering into that appreciation for the general benefits that wealth confers (“the regular and harmonious movement of the system” , as Smith terms it) on humankind’s progress and happiness. When Edward Ferrars considers what would happen if the Dashwoods were suddenly to become rich, he seems to explicate this model, whereby good luck of some confers benefits on others: “What magnificent orders would travel from this family to London…in such an event! What a happy day for booksellers, music-sellers, and print-shops!”(81).
If Edward’s economic philosophy appears, at this point and others, quite solid, Elinor is almost entirely characterized by her adherence to the Smithian notions of propriety, of which his discussion of wealth forms only a small part. The founding claim of Smithian sympathy, so important to a healthy attitude about money, is simply that “as we have no immediate experience of what other men feel, we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation” (9). By using our imaginations, we enter creatively and sympathetically into the sufferings or happiness of other people. Crucially, though, when we are suffering or happy ourselves, we must raise or lower the pitch of our emotion, as spectators—not under the same pall of suffering or exultation of joy—will not be able to fully enter into our experience of either. Raising or lowering our emotions to the pitch in which other people might enter into sympathy with us is what Smith terms “propriety” and it requires the same kind of doubleness of feeling that seemed to characterize a proper attitude towards wealth (cf. 19ff). Individual feelings and sufferings must be abstracted to a higher and less personal level for the sufferer to obtain the pleasure of living in society, just as wealth in the abstract benefits society while individual instances of it (“grandeur”) appear silly and trifling. Elinor’s attitude towards wealth is in this sense microcosmic of her social conduct in general; her “sense” is really a pursuit of the mutual sympathy that, in Smith’s treatise, is synonymous with pleasure, for “nothing pleases us more than to observe in other men a fellowfeeling with all the emotions of our own breast” (13).
Any number of moments in the novel might be used to illustrate this concept; for instance, Elinor’s exhortations to Marianne to “exert yourself!” to lower the pitch of her suffering after Willoughby so unceremoniously drops her acquaintance, for Marianne must “think of [her] mother, think of her misery while you suffer” (160). Here, Elinor’s cry to Marianne is for the latter to consider, imaginatively, what others will feel on her behalf, and to lower her emotional tenor to an endurable level. Elinor’s suggestions to Marianne in fact usually involve advice about how to lower her sensibilities to socially acceptable pitches. But perhaps the most paradigmatic example of Elinor’s sense is in her revelation of Edward’s engagement to Marianne, where the latter’s surprise that the former could have endured her knowledge of Edward’s prior engagement without mentioning a word of it for four months bleeds into an accusation of unfeelingness (229). Elinor’s eloquent self-defense asks Marianne to imaginatively enter into not only her suffering of the original event (Lucy’s initial confidence about the engagement) but the subsequent pain of its concealment, “without being at liberty to speak of it to a single creature” (230). What Elinor asks Marianne to admire is the way that Elinor is able to bring herself, by a highly Smithian “constant and painful exertion” (ibid.) to a silence about her suffering that allows her to move around in society undetected by the otherwise contented members of their circle. Although the “consolations” about Edward’s basic goodness that eventually render Elinor happier “did not spring up of themselves,” it is her imaginative appreciation for what other people, and society generally must feel, that allows her to stifle her grief (ibid.) “Sense” thus plays on the double meaning of that word: both intellectual, and, at heart, sensory. It is significant that Elinor feels, but it is also significant that she is broadminded enough to understand that her grief must be tempered for the sake of those around her. She feels for herself, and for them.
What Smith and Austen share is in fact this desire to discipline sensibility, to turn it into the more productive social channels of sympathy. Elinor’s discussion of wealth can therefore not be separated from the general representation of her character. Sympathy as a cognitive process requires the kind of abstraction that allows Elinor to suppress her grief in the name of social harmony, as well as the crucial distinction between grandeur and wealth that provides for happiness. This is how in each instance the grandeur that inspired wealth’s pursuit can appear as “contemptible and trifling” as Robert Ferrars, while wealth itself can, in Elinor’s view, provide happiness. “Sense,” economic and otherwise, turns out to entail this doubled view of one’s private emotions and interests within the broader social milieu.
1. In Jane Austen and the Enlightenment, Peter Knox-Shaw points to Austen’s certain possession of Thomas Percival’s Tales, Fables, and Reflections, “a manual on science and liberal opinions disguised as a conduct-book” (17), which was a gift of her brother Edward once he outgrew it. Percival’s book presented the views of such luminaries of the eighteenth-century skeptical Enlightenment tradition as Shaftesbury, Berkeley, Hume, and Smith.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Project Gutenberg. New York: Macmillan, 1902. Retrieved 8 April 2011. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/21839/21839-h/21839-h.htm
Knox-Shaw, Peter. Jane Austen and Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Vol. I of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982).