PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.32, NO.2 (Summer 2012)

Idleness and Melancholy in Sense and Sensibility

Márta Pellérdi


Márta Pellérdi (email: is Associate Professor at the Institute of English and American Studies of Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Piliscsaba, Hungary, where she teaches nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and American literature.


one of the major concerns in Jane Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility (1811), is idleness and its moral and spiritual consequences.  Austen’s focus on this topic is partly ideological and partly literary:  eighteenth-century teachings on the moral dangers of idleness and the long-standing literary convention of the “English Malady” or melancholy, to which the concept of idleness is very closely related, are reconsidered in the novel.


Thus far, the theme of idleness in Austen’s texts has received little critical attention, having been approached by scholars from a mainly sociological rather than religious or literary historical perspective.  Although some readers have identified idleness in Sense and Sensibility as an important theme, the topic has been treated in a similar manner as in Austen’s other novels, the social relationships and consequences receiving more emphasis than the moral and spiritual ones.  Commentators have observed that both Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby are victims of idleness, partly due to their genteel position in society.  Claudia L. Johnson, for instance, censures Edward Ferrars for “form[ing] an early attachment out of the idleness endemic to landed gentlemen” (57).  Moreland Perkins considers idleness to be a major issue in Sense and Sensibility, but his analysis limits its focus to the young men in the novel.  As Perkins notes, “there are more disparaging remarks made in this novel about young men’s lack of profession and their consequent idleness than in any other Austen novel” (122).


For Austen, the daughter of an Anglican clergyman, however, the moral implications of idleness were also clear, and struggling against it in order to avoid the various forms of melancholy was considered to be a Christian duty.  Most of the characters in Sense and Sensibility are elaborated on the basis of their inclination toward idleness, their willingness to struggle against it, and their moral strength or lack of fortitude in facing the consequences of this struggle.  Discussing the theme of idleness from this point of view, however, involves taking stance in the critical debate concerning the issue of whether Austen is a Christian writer or a “fully subversive” one “who was not finally subject to religious or cultural limits on individual freedom” (White 6).  Laura Mooneyham White in her recent study, Jane Austen’s Anglicanism, has summarized the essentials of the long-standing debate and has convincingly argued in favor of regarding Austen as a Christian writer.  White demonstrates “the ways [Austen’s] Anglican worldview, informed by that particular historical moment, affected her fiction” (7).  This essay contributes to the view that Austen’s Christian convictions are reflected in her writings and are thus crucial to the interpretation of her novels.  By focusing on idleness, Austen participates in the centuries-long religious and literary discourse on idleness and melancholy, the echoes of which can still be found in early nineteenth century texts such as Sense and Sensibility.


The various manifestations of melancholy have permeated English cultural, literary, and medical history ever since the Renaissance.  The “disease” mainly afflicted those who were more inclined to be intellectual, contemplative, and philosophical in nature.  It has, however, even more ancient roots dating back to the early Christian fathers.  According to Reinhard Kuhn, melancholy was considered to be one of the seven deadly sins, acedia or sloth, a term which originally denoted “a lack of interest, . . . a condition of the soul characterized by torpor, dryness, and indifference” (40).  This mental state of dejection was usually accompanied by idleness, a form of conduct that rendered the victim even more powerless to combat this destructive state of mind.  Medieval literary expressions of melancholy raised moral issues in a mainly religious context.  After the Renaissance, melancholy or “spleen,” as it was also called, and the concept of idleness, which was closely linked to it, became more secularized, complicated, and ambiguous in nature.  It was generally believed that the virtue of diligence or industry was the best cure.  The French word ennui, for example, was commonly used from the end of the seventeenth century in literary texts to imply not only melancholy but also boredom.  The spiritual concern over these issues, however, did not disappear in the eighteenth century.  Religious texts showed a growing anxiety over the moral and spiritual consequences of idle conduct and melancholic state of mind.  Christians regarded seeking constant employment as their duty in order to ward off the harmful effects of the disease.  Idleness and melancholy as themes can also be found in the writings of prominent eighteenth-century English poets:  Alexander Pope, James Thomson, Thomas Gray, William Cowper, and Samuel Johnson.


Johnson, one of Austen’s favorite writers, struggled constantly with idleness and melancholy.  Concerned for his spiritual welfare, Johnson regarded idleness as a major sin against God, which could only lead to melancholy and madness.  In his last letter to James Boswell on October 27, 1779, Johnson recommended a remedy.  He suggested that Boswell follow Robert Burton’s advice in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621):  “The great direction which Burton has left to men disordered like you is this, Be not solitary, be not idle:  which I would thus modify:—If you are idle, be not solitary; if you are solitary, be not idle” (Boswell 640).  Johnson’s essays in The Rambler and The Idler and his best-known work of fiction Rasselas also reflect his preoccupation with idleness.  According to Diane Buie, “The danger of idleness, in particular of choosing to adopt an idle lifestyle, is a predominant theme running throughout all of these works” (187).  In Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations, idleness is a major and recurring sin, which, it seems, he repeatedly committed and which he fervently prayed to defeat:  “Enable me to shake off idleness and sloth; to will and to do what thou hast commanded, grant me to be chaste in thoughts, words, and actions; to love and frequent thy worship, to study and understand thy word; to be diligent in my calling, that I may support myself and relieve others” (30).  Austen was familiar with Johnson’s religious writings, and as Bruce Stovel contends, “seems to have known [them] by heart” (189).


Besides the numerous conduct books and religious writings warning against idleness, there was a more secular view of the subject throughout eighteenth-century Britain.  The discourse on idleness, Sarah Jordan argues, was used by the higher classes to secure their own position over the laboring ones, and, ambiguously, by the industrious middle class to criticize the idle upper classes, whose ranks they were only too eager to join, for idleness was regarded as the “desired reward for hard work” (18).  Literary texts commonly depicted idleness in the ranks of the lower classes as dangerous to social order and criticized the higher classes of society for the frequent occurrences of melancholy among their members.  Maria Edgeworth, Austen’s contemporary, was more interested in the social and economic consequences of idleness than in the spiritual life of her characters.  In her didactic story for children “Lazy Lawrence” (1796), she contrasts idleness and industry through the characters of two boys from the laboring classes; in the novel Ennui (1809), the aristocratic hero becomes a victim of idleness and melancholy, and is finally cured of the disorder by studying and working for his living.  The literary discourse on idleness is so frequent that it becomes a cliché, which Austen in turn takes up and develops in her novels, combining the social implications with spiritual ones.


In Sense and Sensibility Edward and Willoughby are both punished for their idleness.  Willoughby will never marry the woman he loves.  Edward, the future Anglican clergyman, will eventually end up marrying Elinor Dashwood but must first suffer in order to find his happiness and get his reward.  Edward almost falls victim to melancholy in consequence of his former idleness.  It is Mrs Dashwood who remarks upon Edward’s want of spirits when he first visits them at Barton Cottage.  She suggests that he should study for a profession in order to be “‘happier’” and to “‘engage [his] time’” (118).  Edward’s reply shows, however, that he is aware of the troubles that have resulted from his idleness:


“But unfortunately my own nicety, and the nicety of my friends, have made me what I am, an idle, helpless being.  We never could agree in our choice of a profession . . . —and, at length, as there was no necessity for my having any profession at all, as I might be as dashing and expensive without a red coat on my back as with one, idleness was pronounced on the whole to be the most advantageous and honourable, and a young man of eighteen is not in general so earnestly bent on being busy as to resist the solicitations of his friends to do nothing.  I was therefore entered at Oxford and have been properly idle ever since.” (119)


Falling in love and becoming engaged to Lucy was “‘was a foolish, idle inclination,’” Edward admits when he is finally free to propose to Elinor (410).  It was the consequence of having nothing worthwhile to do to pass his time:  “‘instead of having anything to do, instead of having any profession chosen for me, or being allowed to chuse any myself, I returned home to be completely idle; . . . I had therefore nothing in the world to do, but to fancy myself in love’ . . . ” (410).


Edward has the excuse of having been too imprudent, inexperienced, and young when he became engaged to Lucy.  Morally, he is superior to Willoughby since he does not break off the engagement when he finds himself in love with Elinor.  When the engagement is revealed to his disapproving sister and his mother, he stands by Lucy.  Although his despondence is evident because he sees no hope for his own happiness in the future, he proves himself to be a gentleman and a Christian in keeping his former pledge.  He is willing to face the consequences of his idleness with fortitude.  Elinor quickly sees the difference between her own disappointment and Edward’s dejection:  “She might in time regain tranquillity; but he, what had he to look forward to?” (160).  Having Lucy for a wife would prove to be a punishment for his “youthful infatuation of nineteen” (160).  But he is ready dutifully to pay his penance by opposing his family and marrying Lucy although he loves only Elinor.  Edward thus gains Elinor’s complete admiration and approval.  Edward “had done nothing to forfeit her esteem” (161).


Willoughby, however, is directed by his own vanity and selfish inclinations.  Although he seems to be a man of taste and sensibility, his actions are marked by cool-headed reason.  He spends time with Marianne at the beginning of their relationship to dispel his idleness and boredom.  Willoughby confesses to Elinor that when he first became acquainted with Marianne he had “‘no other view in the acquaintance than to pass [his] time pleasantly. . . .  Careless of her happiness, thinking only of [his] own amusement, . . . without any design of returning her affection,’” he later tries to see their “‘past attachment as a mere idle, trifling, business’” (362, 369).  Yet in spite of himself, Willoughby grows attached to Marianne and considers marrying her.  Listening to Willoughby’s confession of his selfishness and remorse, Elinor can only pity him as she sees that his faults have been caused by idleness, the result of a lack of proper employment and education:


Elinor made no answer.  Her thoughts were silently fixed on the irreparable injury which too early an independence and its consequent habits of idleness, dissipation, and luxury, had made in the mind, the character, the happiness, of a man who, to every advantage of person and talents, united a disposition naturally open and honest, and a feeling, affectionate temper.  (375)


By the time Willoughby discloses his innermost feelings to Elinor, he is already married.  His marriage has turned out to be “a source of unhappiness to himself of a far more incurable nature” than Marianne’s melancholy (375).  But, as Elinor points out to Marianne, the crime of seducing Eliza Williams was his “‘first offence against virtue,’” which led to the all the “‘lesser’” ones (399).


Marianne Dashwood’s case is, perhaps, even worse than that of the young men in the novel.  The seventeen-year-old Marianne succumbs immediately to the effects of love melancholy.  She reacts hysterically to Willoughby’s departure to London.  Excessive in her emotions and imprudent in her behavior toward Willoughby, she is also inconsiderate towards others.  Elinor and her mother watch with growing uneasiness Marianne’s lack of self-control, the idle hours spent everyday in “solitary walks and silent meditations,” always seeking to be alone, constantly “court[ing] the misery which a contrast between the past and present [is] certain of giving” (96-97).  It is no wonder that Elinor “greatly disapproved such continual seclusion” (99).  Tony Tanner rightly notes that Marianne’s misery is heightened to such an extent that she develops psychosomatic symptoms of illness (81-82).  Justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude are the cardinal virtues which she fails to exercise.  Elinor, on the other hand, does all she can to help Marianne fight against such complete surrender and calls upon her sister continuously to exert herself and to put up a resistance against grief.  Exertion is Austen’s word for fighting against idleness and melancholy.  “‘Exert yourself, dear Marianne,” she cried, “if you would not kill yourself and all who love you.  Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer; for her sake you must exert yourself’” (211).  It is with fortitude that such exertion becomes possible and difficulties can be overcome.  According to Sarah Emsley, in Sense and Sensibility fortitude is the most important virtue in the “process of discovering happiness” (13).1  Marianne’s answer, however, reflects a total submission to melancholy:  “‘I must feel—I must be wretched’” (216).


After recovering from serious illness, and finding out how differently Elinor had coped with her own misery, Marianne, ashamed of herself, draws the moral from her own selfish behaviour, emphasizing her lack of fortitude:


“I saw that my own feelings had prepared my sufferings, and that my want of fortitude under them had almost led me to the grave.  My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong.  Had I died,—it would have been self-destruction. . . . Whenever I looked towards the past, I saw some duty neglected, or some failing indulged.”  (391-92)


Marianne’s selfish absorption in her individual concerns has led to the neglect and disregard of others.  Instead of following Elinor’s example she has “‘turn[ed] away from every exertion of duty or friendship’” (392)—an unchristian attitude that both Austen and other conservative writers of the period condemn.  Marianne has placed herself in danger; her carelessness for her own health might have led to madness or indirect suicide.  She has failed in her Christian duty.  With her “‘spirit . . . humbled’” and “heart amended,” however, she is ready to “‘practise the civilities, the lesser duties of life, with gentleness, and forbearance’” (393).2  Thus the change in Marianne’s affections, her acceptance of Colonel Brandon can be best understood if her spiritual transformation is also considered.


The man who struggles most effectively against melancholy by resisting idleness is Colonel Brandon.  The thirty-five year-old bachelor is “silent and grave” most of the time (40).  After many years he is still under the effect of the “misery of disappointed love” (66), but he has learned to be busy by managing his estate, taking care of his orphaned ward, Eliza, being a good neighbor, and assisting anyone who might be in need.  He offers the living at Delaford to Edward when he hears about his disinheritance.  He is a trustworthy friend to Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood during the particularly dangerous phase of Marianne’s illness.  Elinor is profoundly relieved when Colonel Brandon volunteers to bring Mrs. Dashwood to Cleveland.  Although Brandon fears that the worst might happen to Marianne, he is still ready to act:  “He, meanwhile, whatever he might feel, acted with all the firmness of a collected mind, made every necessary arrangement with the utmost dispatch, and calculated with exactness the time in which she might look for his return” (352).  Although Brandon’s disposition is melancholic, he is always active.


Elinor offers another good example of the spiritual struggle against melancholy.  She is constantly busy in order to prevent melancholy from overpowering her so that her sorrow remains undetected by others around her.  After the family’s move to Barton Cottage, Edward does not visit them for several weeks.  When he finally does come, he is “particularly grave” (114) and leaves her in doubt of his attachment.  When he leaves, Elinor consciously tries to control and subdue her emotions:  “to prevent herself from appearing to suffer more than what all her family suffered on his going away, she did not adopt the method so judiciously employed by Marianne, on a similar occasion, to augment and fix her sorrow, by seeking silence, solitude, and idleness” (120).


When Lucy reveals her engagement to Edward, Elinor is shocked, but by “exerting” herself and exercising the virtue of fortitude, she does not give way to complete dejection:  “exertion was indispensably necessary, and she struggled so resolutely against the oppression of her feelings, that her success was speedy, and for the time complete” (154).  Thus she is spared from the devastating physical and mental effects of melancholy into which her sister Marianne falls.  By keeping herself employed all the time instead of remaining idle, she is similar to Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price, who always keeps herself busy:  “There is nothing like employment, active, indispensible employment, for relieving sorrow.  Employment, even melancholy, may dispel melancholy” (MP 513).  It is Elinor’s fortitude and self-command that win Marianne’s admiration.  Elinor, however, assures her sister that she had only been doing her duty:  “‘I owed it to my family and friends, not to create in them a solicitude about me, which it could not be in my power to satisfy’”(297).


The source of Elinor’s moral uprightness has often baffled readers.  Morland Perkins sums up the problem:


Elinor Dashwood’s character—the ethical foundation of her conduct—is a puzzle.  With no proof possible, yet with some plausibility, it has been held to be devoutly Christian.  On the other hand, appealing to virtually perfect consistency with all explicit evidence, Elinor’s moral foundation has been read as secular—only to find the motivational source of her selflessness a puzzle.  (127)


The “ethical foundation” of Elinor’s conduct might best be explained from a religious perspective:  she exercises all the virtues that Marianne fails to employ.  Her conduct displays sound moral principles grounded in her familiarity with and acceptance of Christian doctrine.  She is wise, never forgetting to undertake the duties for the benefit of others and toward God.  It is this “consistency” and “selflessness” that help her to consciously avoid the spiritual misery that idleness and melancholy would plunge her into.  If instead she were intemperate in her passions, selfishly inconsiderate and unjust to others, imprudent in her conduct and judgements, and indulging in the sin of sloth, her character would be more similar to Marianne’s.


Edward, Colonel Brandon, Elinor, and ultimately even Marianne belong to the set of characters aware of the religious implications of their conduct.  Their natures can be opposed to Willoughby’s selfishness and incorrigibly secular mind.  That is why he is punished and no reconciliation with Marianne is possible.  Although he will “frequently . . . enjoy himself” in the future, as the tongue-in-cheek narrator informs us, he will never be as happy as the other four characters (430).


In Sense and Sensibility Austen contributes to the eighteenth-century religious and secular discourse on the subject of idleness and melancholy, taking a firm, Christian stance in the battle against their powerful temptations.  She presents all the major characters of her first novel on the basis of their inclination towards idleness and melancholy.  The treatment of the theme lends a strong moral and Christian dimension to Sense and Sensibility, in which the virtue of fortitude is emphasized as the best weapon for struggling against the cardinal sin of acedia, sloth, and dejection.  It is with fortitude that Elinor can overcome emotional afflictions and keep herself industrious all the time.  She never enters the vicious circle of idleness and melancholy as her sister Marianne, for whom it is the most difficult to break out.  As suffering offers the possibility of salvation to Christians, Austen makes sure that her worthy major characters, Edward, Colonel Brandon, Elinor, and especially Marianne, undergo the deepest suffering, before she rewards and unites them in marriage.  Thus Sense and Sensibility becomes a study on the spiritual consequences of idleness and melancholy, a novel of development in which the Christian virtues of the major characters are put to a test.  Dr. Johnson’s prayers might well serve as a constant reminder for Marianne Dashwood:  “Let not pleasure seduce me, idleness lull me, or misery depress me” (66).  “Impress upon my soul such repentance of the days misspent in idleness and folly, that I may henceforward diligently attend to the business of my station in this world, and to all the duties which Thou has commanded” (26).





1. Emsley, however, analyzes Sense and Sensibility without seeing the virtue of fortitude and industry within the broader context of idleness and melancholy.


2. In the Explanatory Notes of the Oxford World Classics edition of Sense and Sensibility, “lesser duties” (on the basis of the Book of Common Prayer) are defined as “obligations to other people” (Lamont 326).



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005-08.

Boswell, James.  The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D, including A Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides.  Ed. John Wilson Croker.  London: Murray, 1860.

Buie, Diane.  “Melancholy and the Idle Lifestyle in the Eighteenth Century.”  Diss. U of Northumbia at Newcastle.  2010.

Emsley, Sarah Baxter.  Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues.  New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel.  Chicago: UCP, 1990.

Johnson, Samuel.  Prayers and Meditations.  London: Allenson, 1785.

Jordan, Sarah.  The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth-Century British Literature and Culture.  Cranbury, NJ: Bucknell UP, 2003.

Kuhn, Reinhard.  The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature.  Princeton: PUP, 1976.

Lamont, Claire.  “Explanatory Notes.”  Sense and Sensibility.  By Jane Austen.  Oxford World’s Classics.  Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Perkins, Moreland.  Reshaping the Sexes in Sense and Sensibility.  Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 1998.

Stovel, Bruce.  “‘A Nation Improving in Religion’: Jane Austen’s Prayers and Their Place in Her Life and Art.”  Persuasions 16 (1994): 185-96.

Tanner, Tony.  Jane Austen.  Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986.

White, Laura Mooneyham.  Jane Austen’s Anglicanism.  London: Ashgate, 2011.


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