Deadly Desire in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility, 1995
The Moral Match: Marianne (Kate Winslet ) and Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman) in the 1995 film version of 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.

Willoughby and Marianne
The dangers of desire: Willoughby’s (Greg Wise) seduction of Marianne (Kate Winslet)

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.

Jane Austen
What does death mean in Austen’s oeuvre?

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.

Dancing at English Ball
The marriage game: what does Austen see behind the pageantry?

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.

Samuel Johnson
“It is the business of moralists to detect the frauds of fortune, and to show that she imposes upon the careless eye, by a quick succession of shadows, which will shrink to nothing in the gripe” Dr. Johnson, Rambler #58

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.

Work Cited

Auten, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2003.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Contributing writer for The Artifice.

Want to write about Literature or other art forms?

Create writer account


  1. To comment on:

    “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.”

    I am curious to understand not only the checks and balances of reality and fantasy, but also the psychological bridge between the two. Why, in sickness and death, does a person come to their “senses”? Is it rooted in our cognitive sequence of thoughts that sickness, harm, fear, death brings us past the point of delirium and to the point of material reality?

    • ericespo7

      Thank you for your comment. I like that you use the term “senses” in questioning why sickness necessarily leads to a higher valuation of materiality/morality. In Austen’s playing with the two terms in her very title, they are connected with an “and,” and I think, at least in part, this has to do with the inseparability of the body from mind. In apprehending sickness in the body, in a “sense” losing cognitive rational, what we construe as the “real” sensible symbolic world dissolves. In Austen’s vision, I suppose, at least through Marianne, a higher valuation takes place in the fragile realm of psychological stability after the apprehension of the absurd hole in the dialectical order, this literal near-death and near complete incapacitation. Dr. Johnson himself exemplifies this in his own staving off of madness through industry and shoring up the strictures of a staunch code of morality. I myself am not a psychologist, so I only try to apprehend this through textual means.

      Anyway, great food for thought. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Ellsworth Woodson

    Pride and Prejudice still has my favorite romance, but Sense and Sensibility wins in terms of character and plot.

  3. Okay this may be shameful for an English literature student like myself, but yes, this is the first Austen’s novel I read. Personally, I still prefer Charlotte Bronte’s works, however now I understand why many people become such huge fans of Miss Austen. Her female characters are absolutely remarkable for their era. They’re oppressed but somehow they have their own ways to struggle.

  4. What an interesting concept! It’s perfectly understandable that a near death experience would rush someone to the alter. After all you want to live happily while you still can. I have never actually read Austen but this really gave me a new perspective of it.

  5. Clement

    It is pretty intriguing to examine how Austen biases the narration of this novel to favour “sense,” and thus, Elinor.

  6. Jeffries

    It always happens that I have a hard time getting into any of the classics after I just finished anything contemporary and it was so with this too, until I reached this passage at the end of chapter 6.

  7. Yuri Purnell

    I enjoyed reading this. I must confess I am not necessarily an Austen fan. I find that an analytical/comparative study of several of her works is much more entertaining than process of actually reading one.

  8. What do you think Austen is doing with the action of near-death, followed by trip to alter? Is she pointing out ways in which this marriage is a sham, or is she suggesting that this is the best thing for her character? I find that oftentimes in Victorian British women’s literature, even the woman who stands up for herself, or tries to make a living for herself, ultimately falls in love, quits her job, marries, etc. What do you make of this phenomena?

  9. Helen Parshall

    S&S is my favorite Austen novel. Excellent article!

  10. Rachel Watson

    I really appreciate how you take a very different approach to studying Austen’s fiction. While reading an Austen novel, it’s so easy to forget that she was writing during the same era as the passionate Romantic poets, since her works’ language and content both appear so ideologically stable. It’s fascinating to start to reconsider the more sublime and even Gothic elements inherent in Austen’s fiction to counter the more subdued, Regency-era traditions.

  11. Susanna Princivalle

    I really enjoyed this reading, it has many good points in it. It gave me a different perspective to look at when I will re-read the novel. Thank you!

  12. Stephanie M.

    Nice article. I always thought of Marianne’s illness and near-death experience (NDE) as the culmination of selfish and infantile behavior. However, your take on the situation gives me more sympathy toward her, even if I do agree that she needed to be “inaugurated” into a more realistic and practical type of love. Her love for Brandon is not “less than” her love for Willoughby. It’s simply on steadier ground for her time period, which affords her practical and relational security. Marianne’s NDE doesn’t eliminate or dull the passion for which we love her. It simply tempers it so she can function effectively as a Regency woman.

  13. I think that this work illustrates that Austin was very much a transitional literary figure.

Leave a Reply