jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is not usually associated with a spaghetti western like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the third in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy.1 Indeed, Leone’s deadly desert scenario of dishonor among thieves seems a long way from sprained ankles and broken hearts in the pastoral village of Barton. There was no High Noon at Norland, nor did bounty hunters roam the Devonshire range. While both Austen and Leone use repeated passages of narrative silence to intense dramatic effect, Austen offers nothing like Leone’s iconic three-way pistol duel—unless we count the embarrassed silence when Elinor, Lucy and Edward meet unexpectedly in Mrs. Jennings’s drawing-room in Berkeley-street (274). Nevertheless, Austen’s first published novel is similarly preoccupied with the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
Like Leone, Austen constructs her plot around greed. In most versions of the tale on which Leone’s film is loosely based—a motif already ancient when Chaucer used it in “The Pardoner’s Tale” and still going strong in B. Traven’s 1927 novel The Treasure of the Sierre Madre—the greed of three partners searching for buried gold leads to the death of each by one another’s hands, thus illustrating the Pardoner’s precept: Radix malorum est Cupiditas (the root of all evil is greed). Austen’s plot, too, is driven by cut-throat competition for gold. In Sense and Sensibility, the “Bad” characters—John and Fanny Dashwood, Lucy Steele, Mrs. Ferrars, Robert Ferrars, John Willoughby—ruthlessly pursue wealth through inheritance or marriage. The John Dashwoods’ rationalization that they owe the Dashwood ladies nothing, echoing as it does Goneril and Regan’s whittling down of Lear’s followers—“What need one?” (2.2.452)—leaves no doubt that greed trumps duty in their cold hearts. Lucy Steele’s ability to trade up men as their fortunes shift, imperfectly disguised as her sentimental pursuit of true love, also reveals calculating ambition. She is well matched by Robert Ferrars, happy to prosper at his older brother’s expense. Of course, Willoughby leads the list of Austen’s “Bad” characters: first he seduces and abandons poor Eliza, then he leaves a good, lovely woman whom he truly adores in order to marry an unattractive heiress for whom he cares not a jot. In Sense and Sensibility, the “Bad” characters all sacrifice better feelings for financial gain, and like Leone’s “Ugly” Tuco and “Bad” Angel Eyes, they are willing to destroy others for gold.
Moreover, both Austen and Leone created bad guys who were very different from the villains of their predecessors. Leone’s films remade the conventions of the Hollywood western by eschewing black-and-white characterizations (the ugly villain in the black hat who commits dastardly acts, the noble hero in the white hat who follows a strict code of honor). His “Good” hero Blondie, played by Clint Eastwood, is morally complex: he is an outlaw who survives by practicing a bounty-hunting scam and kills easily in self-defense, but he avoids unnecessary violence, and his compassion for the suffering of others makes him ethically superior to Tuco and Angel Eyes. Even when he abandons his partner Tuco, who has repeatedly betrayed him, he scrupulously leaves him half of the stolen gold. But he differs in degree, not kind, from his fellow outlaws. Tuco has broken every law in the land, but, as he tells his priest brother, he has done what was necessary to survive in a hostile environment, and he has considerable trickster charm. Even Angel Eyes, a vicious, amoral killer, prides himself on honoring his contracts.
Austen’s characters, too, are what her dear Dr. Johnson called “mixed.” Johnson had warned sternly against the use of such “mixed” characters in novels, fearing that attractive, sympathetic villains would create moral confusion, for “as we accompany them through their adventures with delight, and are led by degrees to interest ourselves in their favour, we lose the abhorrence of their faults, because they do not hinder our pleasure, or, perhaps, regard them with some kindness for being united with so much merit” (33). Austen, of course, mocked exemplary characters in her juvenilia, letters, Northanger Abbey, and “Plan of a Novel.” In fact, none of Austen’s villains, with the possible exception of Mrs. Norris, is purely evil. They are something far more interesting: often they are attractive people with some generous impulses who muddle up their lives, who lack self-knowledge and self-discipline, who fail to consider the feelings of others, who do not foresee the consequences of their actions, who unreflectively take the easy options. This complexity doesn’t imply moral relativism, however—we all know, or at least we think we know, who’s good and who’s bad. Rather, Austen’s characters, like Leone’s, occupy various points on the same middle ground, distinguished largely by their degrees of self-knowledge and self-discipline.
Furthermore, Austen’s title is, like Leone’s, a sequence of abstract nouns linked by the simple coordinating conjunction “and.”2 The three nouns representing each of the three antagonists in Leone’s film mix ethical and aesthetic terms. That is, “Good” and “Bad” are moral judgments while “Ugly” is an aesthetic judgment with the implied opposite “Beautiful.” “Ugly” and “Beautiful” represent extreme ends of a continuum, but it is an altogether different continuum than that described by “Good” and “Bad.” Leone’s title therefore gives us two characters who are identified ethically—“Good” and “Bad”—and one who is judged aesthetically: “Ugly.” (This argument, I confess, breaks down with the original Italian title, for “Ugly” is a rendering of “il brutto,” which connotes bad behavior as well as ugliness—appropriate enough for Tuco’s character—but for the purpose of this essay I’m sticking to the English version.) This confusion of ethics and aesthetics is also a prominent theme of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
The relationship between aesthetic and ethical judgment was hotly debated by philosophers and moralists in Austen’s day, and is still contended by critics today. Marianne articulates one side of the debate when she defends her visit to Allenham with Willoughby: “‘if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure’” (80). Marianne here invokes an eighteenth-century philosophical belief, inspired by Rousseau and articulated by Shaftesbury: that we have an innate moral “sense” or “taste”; that just as we are born with the natural ability to recognize the Beautiful, so too we recognize and are drawn to the Good; that what is beautiful must be good; that what attracts us must be virtuous.
Austen critics have long recognized echoes of this debate in Sense and Sensibility. Alistair Duckworth summarized the ideas in his influential study, The Improvement of the Estate (1971):
Marianne is the legatee of a philosophy of sentiment, which, wherever its roots are exactly to be located, was generally considered to have begun in the Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711) of the third Earl of Shaftesbury. . . . Morality is discoverable in the “heart” rather than in the “head,” in feelings rather than in conformity with received precepts. Shaftesbury’s thought did not deny a rational access to truth, but his emphasis on an innate moral sense tended in later writers [like Hume and Smith] to become a full-fledged sentimentalism. (106)3
In Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (1975), Marilyn Butler also characterizes Marianne’s position as Shaftesburian: “She believes in the innate moral sense; and since man is naturally good, his actions when he acts on impulse are likely to be good also” (187). Butler argues that Austen’s schematic treatment of the sisters “necessarily directs the reader’s attention not towards what they experience, but towards how they cope with experience, away from the experiential to the ethical” (184). More recently Edward Copeland, in his Introduction to the Cambridge edition of Sense and Sensibility, surveys the influence of both Butler and Duckworth on Austen criticism (xl-xli), glossing Marianne’s claim to virtue by citing Shaftesbury’s assertion in “An Inquiry Concerning Virtue”, part 2: “no creature can maliciously and intentionally do ill, without being sensible at the same time, that he deserves ill” (455 n. 9).
Not all critics view Marianne as a Shaftesburian. Karen Valihora’s Austen’s Oughts: Judgment after Locke and Shaftesbury, for example, argues that Duckworth “puts Shaftesbury on the wrong side: he dismisses his morals as sentimental and aligns him with Marianne’s excesses” (197 n. 9). Rather, in Valihora’s analysis, it is Elinor who pursues a Shaftesburian ideal of reconciling private feeling with public harmony whereas Marianne’s bad behavior results from her failure to concede the importance of adapting private desires to the public good (197-98). Yet even if Marianne misapplies Shaftesbury, she clearly alludes to a version of his moral sense when she claims that she behaved ethically in visiting Allenham (“‘we always know when we are acting wrong’”). After some reflection, however, she concedes, “‘Perhaps, Elinor, it was rather ill-judged in me to go to Allenham . . .’” (80), thus demonstrating that when separated from Willoughby’s influence, she too can think beyond her feelings.
The sentimental doctrine of Benevolence to which Marianne refers was paralleled in the aesthetic sphere by the Picturesque, for as Gilpin wrote, “The general idea of the scene makes an impression before any appeal is made to the judgment. We rather feel, than survey it” (50), adding that the imagination, unfettered by reality, “can build castles” where none exists (56). Gilpin’s theories were hilariously burlesqued in The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque (1809). Rowlandson’s Plate 2 shows Dr. Syntax, a would-be landscape artist, stranded on a barren plain with his broken hack Grizzle, staring at an unreadable signpost.
Complementing Rowlandson’s image, Combe’s text reads:
What man of taste my right will doubt,
Valihora argues that in Austen as in Shaftesbury, “The rules that hold in aesthetic judgments—judgments of proportion of all kinds—hold likewise in moral matters, in the order and integrity of the self” (37). As Austen mockingly shows in Northanger Abbey, however, picturesque principles were a counter-intuitive rejection of the old neoclassical rules. It’s one thing to turn a signpost into a landscape, quite another to redefine vice and virtue. Marianne’s reliance upon her subjective feelings, harmless enough in the aesthetic sphere when expressed as a passion for dead leaves, becomes perilous in moral matters.
Austen, like Elinor, was made of sterner stuff, believing that imperfect, fallible human beings require religiously inspired, rationally applied “principles” (the ethical equivalent of the neoclassical rules) to guide behavior when emotions blur self-knowledge. In this belief she was following Sterne, who despite his sentimentalist views also advocated the importance of moral principles over feelings. In a sermon that he first preached and later published in Tristram Shandy, Sterne insists:
So that you would form a just judgment of what is of infinite importance to you not to be misled in,—namely, in what degree of real merit you stand either as an honest man, an useful citizen, a faithful subject to your King, or a good servant to your God,—call in religion and morality.—Look,—What is written in the law of God?—How readest thou?—Consult calm reason and the unchangeable obligations of justice and truth;—what say they? (2:105)
In fact, Austen challenges all of her heroines, as well as her readers, to do just that: to call in religion and morality, to reflect upon how they read the world and the text, exhorting them to consult calm reason, justice, and truth. Sense and Sensibility dramatizes what happens when the disparate categories of ethics and aesthetics, the Good and the Beautiful, are confused: when subjective feelings supplant rational judgment, and we build castles where none exist.
This confusion abounds when characters attempt to “read” one another. During Edward Ferrars’s first visit to Barton, for example, he and Elinor discuss the difficulty of evaluating another human being, specifically Marianne, in Marianne’s silent presence. Edward admits to Elinor that he had wrongly thought of Marianne as “‘a lively girl.’”
“I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes,” said Elinor, “in a total misapprehension of character in some point or other. . . . Sometimes one is guided by what [people] say of themselves, and very frequently by what other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge.” (108, my emphasis)
Elinor’s observation about “frequently” mistaking character is amply illustrated by Mrs. Jennings, the “great wonderer” (82), who sees a romance between Colonel Brandon and Marianne before one exists, then ceases to tease the “lovers” at the moment when Brandon’s love for Marianne “first became perceptible to Elinor” (43, 59). Mrs. Jennings also says of mercenary, calculating Lucy Steele, “‘I believe there is not a better kind of girl in the world’” (303). Clearly she does not take time “to deliberate and judge.” Mrs. Dashwood is not much better than Mrs. Jennings at reading character or situation. When Elinor observes that “‘not a syllable has been said’” about marriage by either Willoughby or Marianne, her mother replies, “‘I have not wanted syllables where actions have spoken so plainly’” (92). “But Mrs. Dashwood,” the narrator adds, “could find explanations whenever she wanted them” (97). Like Marianne, she builds castles where none exists.
Because Marianne believes that “Beautiful” is a marker for “Good,” she is even more vulnerable. She has difficulty, for example, assessing Edward Ferrars’s true worth. The narrator’s description of Edward stresses his lack of beauty and grace but also insists upon his essential goodness: “He was not handsome . . . ; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart. His understanding was good, and his education had given it solid improvement” (18). So, despite verging on “Ugly,” Edward is apparently “Good.” While Marianne concedes Edward’s goodness, however, she is not swayed by his virtue to overlook his lack of manly beauty and grace. She complains to her mother, “‘Edward is very amiable, and I love him tenderly. But yet . . . there is a something wanting—his figure is not striking; it has none of that grace which I should expect in the man who could seriously attach my sister’” (20). Later she reassures Elinor, “‘I have the highest opinion in the world of his goodness and sense” (23). Elinor explains, “‘The excellence of his understanding and his principles [that is, his moral principles, his knowledge of the ethical rules] can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent. You know enough of him to do justice to his solid worth’” (23). Even Elinor must admit, “‘At first sight, his address is certainly not striking; and his person can hardly be called handsome, till the expression of his eyes, which are uncommonly good, and the general sweetness of his countenance, is perceived. At present, I know him so well, that I think him really handsome; or, at least, almost so’” (23-24). Elinor’s knowledge of Edward’s essential goodness renders him handsome in her eyes. In Marianne’s less partial vision, however, Edward remains resolutely “not handsome”—hence, in her view, someone not capable of inspiring true love.4
Like Edward Ferrars, Sir John Middleton’s friend Colonel Brandon is also pronounced “not handsome,” but the narrator is at some pains to present him as nevertheless attractive, at least to the unprejudiced: “His appearance . . . was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five and thirty; but though his face was not handsome his countenance was sensible, and his address was particularly gentlemanlike” (40-41, my emphasis). In Marianne’s eyes, however, he cannot begin to compete with the “manly beauty” of John Willoughby. When Willoughby first enters Barton Cottage carrying the injured Marianne, his “manner [was] so frank and so graceful, that his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and expression” (50). The narrator adds, “His manly beauty and more than common gracefulness were instantly the theme of general admiration,” and Marianne “had seen enough of him to join in all the admiration of the others. . . . His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story” (51). Marianne’s “favourite story,” a romance she had written for and about herself before the age of sixteen (20-21), features an ideal hero who must share her taste in every respect, who must be capable of reading Cowper with strong feeling, who “‘must have all Edward’s virtues, and [whose] person and manners must ornament his goodness with every possible charm’” (21). Willoughby, with his guns and his hunters, his energy, “‘spirit’” and “‘eagerness’” as well as his “beauty” and “grace,” and with taste “strikingly alike” to Marianne’s (53, 56), walks straight into the role she has created and which he is prepared to play to the hilt: “he acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm” (56).5
Significantly, however—and in distinction to the narrator’s introduction of Edward—nothing is said about his moral qualities. Mrs. Dashwood asks her cousin, “‘And what sort of a young man is he?’” Sir John’s answer reveals his own values more than it does Willoughby’s: “‘As good a kind of fellow as ever lived, I assure you. A very decent shot, and there is not a bolder rider in England.’”6 Later he repeats, “‘He is as good a sort of fellow, I believe, as ever lived’” (52-53). Clearly, when Sir John calls Willoughby “good,” he means “agreeable” rather than “virtuous.” His criterion is dashing sportsmanship, not moral probity. Ironically, even though Marianne reacts indignantly to Sir John’s characterization—“‘And is that all you can say for him? . . . But what are his manners . . . ? What his pursuits, his talents and genius?’” (52)—she shares Sir John’s conventional idea of a “hero” as a graceful, spirited young man of action, adding her own pinch of aesthetic enthusiasm to the formula. Recognizing that Willoughby is not Ugly, satisfied that he has grace and taste, Marianne simply assumes that he must be Good.
When Marianne and Willoughby contemptuously assess Colonel Brandon’s character, they too invoke criteria that have everything to do with aesthetics, nothing to do with ethics. Colonel Brandon “was slighted by Willoughby and Marianne, who, prejudiced against him for being neither lively or young, seemed resolved to undervalue his merits” (59-60). They call him boring, a man to be ignored, whereas the less prejudiced Elinor, who converses profitably with Colonel Brandon, applies different criteria: “‘I can only pronounce him to be a sensible man, well-bred, well-informed, of gentle address, and I believe possessing an amiable heart’” (61). Superficially Brandon is an anti-Willoughby: past his first youth, not a sportsman, staid, silent, gloomy. Because Marianne reads surface behavior only, she cannot see that Brandon is unlike Willoughby in more significant ways: honest, honorable and true, unmotivated by mercenary considerations, a man of feeling who remains attached to his lost love and who will fight a duel to avenge the honor of his ward. Ironically, Brandon ought to be “the hero of a favourite story.”
Yet even Elinor, who recognizes Brandon’s goodness, is vulnerable to Willoughby’s manly beauty and seduced by his charm and grace. Mrs. Dashwood, defending Willoughby’s unaccountable departure from Barton, asks Elinor, “‘Is he not a man of honour and feeling? Has there been any inconsistency on his side to create alarm? can he be deceitful?’” Elinor responds, “‘I hope not, I believe not. . . . I love Willoughby, sincerely love him; and suspicion of his integrity cannot be more painful to yourself than to me. It has been involuntary, and I will not encourage it’” (93-94). Elinor’s “involuntary” suspicion is, however, rationally provoked by Willoughby’s behavior; her repression of doubt is an act of faith, not of judgment.
Even when Willoughby’s perfidy is known, his beauty and grace still powerfully influence Elinor. Following her interview with Willoughby at Cleveland, Elinor
felt that his influence over her mind was heightened by circumstances which ought not in reason to have weight; by that person of uncommon attraction, that open, affectionate, and lively manner which it was no merit to possess; and by that still ardent love for Marianne, which it was not even innocent to indulge. But she felt it was so, long, long before she could feel his influence less. (377, my emphasis)
Like her sister and mother, then, Elinor’s judgment of Willoughby is strongly affected by his manly beauty. Eventually, however, she recognizes that his “influence over her mind” derives from false criteria: his “uncommon attraction” and “lively manner,” qualities that address aesthetics but not ethics, and worse, his “ardent love” for Marianne, which, since it is an adulterous passion, is clearly immoral. Yet Elinor’s recognition of the categorical inappropriateness of Willoughby’s attractive qualities does not at first diminish that “influence.” While her mother quickly transfers her enthusiasm to Colonel Brandon (383), Elinor is not so easily persuaded. She withdraws “to think it all over in private, to wish success to her friend [Brandon], and yet in wishing it, to feel a pang for Willoughby” (384). Clearly Willoughby’s influence over her mind remains potent.
Only serious reflection diminishes that influence. Eventually Elinor comes to see Willoughby as the architect of his own dissatisfactions as well as her sister’s pain: “Each faulty propensity in leading him to evil, had led him likewise to punishment” (375). She views him not as a tragic hero but as a weak, worldly man incapable of acting with courage, grace, or integrity. By the time Elinor describes his “confession” to Marianne, “Reflection had given calmness to her judgment, and sobered her own opinion of Willoughby’s deserts” (395). Carefully sorting ethical from aesthetic considerations, Elinor damns Willoughby as “‘selfish’” (397).
If Elinor, wise beyond her years, could briefly feel a pang for Bad, Beautiful Willoughby, it is not surprising that many readers of Sense and Sensibility also feel dissatisfied when Marianne marries Colonel Brandon. Elinor performs readers’ tendency to confuse the Good with the Beautiful. She reminds us of our readerly obligation to reflect, to resist the tug of our senses and feelings with the force of our logic and reason, to deliberate and judge. In A Jane Austen Education William Deresiewicz claims that each of Austen’s heroines models readers’ own vulnerability to misreading character. I would further argue (indeed, I have argued) that we are each, like Elinor, a reader of Marianne’s romance, compelled to infer the plot of her story from visible, legible behavior: Elinor’s susceptibility to Willoughby thus reflects our own.
In Sergio Leone’s film, “Good” Blondie is a better man than his fellow outlaws, “Ugly” Tuco and “Bad” Angel Eyes. Sense and Sensibility, a far more complex work of art, dramatizes how aesthetic considerations like “Ugly” may distract us from the challenge of recognizing “Good” and “Bad.” If we too still feel a pang for Willoughby, doubting the suitability of Colonel Brandon as a husband for ardent Marianne, perhaps we ought to allow reflection to give calmness to our judgment and sober our opinion, in order that we may better recognize the Bad for what it is, even when it appears to be Beautiful.
1. This essay was first composed for a plenary panel at the 2011 JASNA AGM in Fort Worth, in which three Canadian panelists, Elaine Bander, Juliet McMaster, and Peter Sabor, responded to a theme suggested by conference organizer Cheryl Kinney: “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
2. Austen’s title of two abstract nouns is of course more nuanced than Leone’s. As Margaret Anne Doody notes, “[T]he title teases us with an opposite,” but in fact “the two words are too closely related, philologically and philosophically” (xii). Claudia L. Johnson, citing Doody, observes that critics no longer make the mistake of reading Austen’s abstract nouns as representing specific characters, or as oppositional (Introduction x).
3. Duckworth further discusses the influence of Hume, Smith, and Rousseau (106-07).
4. Doody, however, argues that Marianne views Edward more clearly than her sister does (xviii). The narrator later reminds us of the power of beauty when describing Mr. Palmer: “His temper might perhaps be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman” (130).
5. Doody points out how Willoughby “thus presents himself as a romantic hero, in a sense which reflects the first appearance of the hero in Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho” (xxiv).
6. Doody discusses the “erotic significance” of Sir John’s description (xxv).
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_____. Sense and Sensibility. Ed. Edward Copeland. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.
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Deresiewicz, William. A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and The Things That Really Matter. New York: Penguin, 2011.
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