Deadly Desire in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility
Near-death experiences and sickness are generally not the first things to come to mind when thinking about Jane Austen’s oeuvre. But the manifestation of physical illness is often used throughout Austen’s work at critical junctures and for critical purposes. Let us take an early example from Austen’s first published novel, Sense and Sensibility, where Marianne’s malady late in the novel serves as the primary motivation to temper her previous romantic fantasies. As Marianne states to her sister Elinor: “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” (Austen 284). In this quote feelings are intimately intertwined with ones own physical well being. The natural “sensations” of the body impede the healthy fortitude of “sense;” indeed, they seem to lead to an almost irrational and unnecessary early death. And, if what happens after Marianne’s recovery is of any consequence, we might consider her “recovery” to go in tandem with her “decision to transform into a dutiful wife” with Col. Brandon (Engel xxviii). The romantic tempers excited by the purely physical, yet deceptive, eroticism of Willoughby are quelled into a sedate and moral match with the Colonel.
So was the purpose of the fever just to become a good wife? Certainly this reading has some defendants; but I think Marianne’s near-death experience has greater significance in thinking about an Austen’s ambiguity, especially with respect to reader’s response.
What I wish to examine is why a near-death experience is needed for Marianne to change her thinking from extreme romance to more “practicality:” from illusionary to symbolic. Indeed, if one were to read Marianne in psychoanalytic terms, one might deduce that her progress from sickness to health runs in tandem with a transition from the infantile realm of fantasy (or “desire”) with Willoughby towards the symbolic “sensible” structure of 18th century England with Col Brandon. Marianne’s more practical and restrained sister Elinor acts as a bridge to bring Marianne into the realization of the material necessities. This scene serves, then to effectively inaugurate Marianne into the symbolic order of England which necessitates a permanent check, or “death,” on the infantile desire to refuse the strictures and implications of what 18th century English discourse (and by extension English culture, economics, etc.) places on women.
Marianne’s melancholy in this near-death scene erupts from realizing her own desires and delusions, especially over Willoughby, to be infantile and illusory. And yet, we, as readers, run into an interesting dilemma when we consider Marianne as representative of almost falling off into madness, death, or delirium. For it is Marianne, after all, through which the plot and the passion we, as readers of a novel, expect to exist. Marianne’s desire towards the verge of “death” moves the plot towards a climax and serves as a point of transition. We, as readers expecting the sensationalist romance exhibited in the expectations of Willoughby, have as strong and as deadly a “death drive” as Marianne in reading her life as a romance. Austen, however, is not a romantic; in her own prose as in her own plot she checks the temptations towards a deadly romance with the implications of survival in the materiality of the “real” world, by which I mean the symbolic codes one lives or dies by, the very codes Austen must work within and against.
I would suggest that in Austen, as in Shakespeare’s sonnet 147, “desire is death.” Indeed, in Marianne’s very malady we see the harmful literal effects even natural sexual desire seems to be capable of. Desire is the eternal and unrelenting deferrals perpetuated by a system of signs which do not admit resolution. Desire is undercut by language’s refusal to resolve. The apparent “resolution” within the matrimonial ending is an expected trope, but Austen distinguishes herself as a supreme artist in placing the resolution on this unsteady ground amidst the undercurrent of the “real” world’s discourse man has constructed in harsh dialectics: the eternal material and primal struggle of the human species, only differentiated from the primal Paleolithic age in its covering up of evolutionary desires with signs.
Then it is quite interesting that the essential human apprehension over death becomes perhaps the only apprehension that could move Marianne from desire towards restraint rather than propagation. Matrimony seems to be as elemental to the human species as expectancy of mortality, and one of Austen’s insights, herself an outside observer to the matrimonial paranoia later in life, is to point out how the match-making game relates to our own contradictory death drive.
Desire cannot be resolved save in death, seems to be the apparent implication of Marianne’s death. Within the pool of language we cannot revert back to infantile wordless wonder. The only good the erotic passion could have served would be the temporary cessation from societal strictures; a small break before being forced back into the deferral of the signifiers (just as some readers might have desired from a romance plot). In a good marriage, as in a good plot, we expect the climax, the petite morte of momentary cessation from the strictures of the social world we find ourselves enmeshed in. In Austen’s fiction, however, the romantic realm of fantasy is always checked by the materiality of survival and the imposed symbolic structure in which women find themselves. In this way, Austen gets us to be better readers both of our own expectations, as well as readers of the culture that surrounds us.
To be on the verge of death is a great moment of realization in Austen, to which she turns, along with the melancholic Dr. Johnson she so admired, towards a higher valuation of morality. This author is certainly not one to wallow in pessimism over the human predicament, for the rightness of morality and the agency of the pen are redemptive qualities in Austen’s vision. It seems better, in this vision, to resolve towards effectively and intelligently working with the symbolic structure to effect change than blindly rebelling against it and suffering the dire consequences.
The marriage to Col. Brandon is not as important as the near-death experience Marianne has which allows her to marry him. The near-death experience is a vision which Austen constantly uses and contemplates in her fiction, and further cements her place in the English canon. While the great theme of and implications of mortality are not discussed as front and center as in an author like, say, Milton, Austen takes on the same eternal themes of literary men with just as much intensity, however subtle it may seem. That strange paradoxical paranoia/temptation over man’s mortal status is a major undercurrent of the matrimonial game. Part of Austen’s immense genius is to give us this grand insight into the human condition in a country village. Marianne’s near-death vision gives us a clue to the grand themes this novelist would explore later with richer complexity.
Auten, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.
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