Death irrevocably changes a family. The unit must learn to operate with one less member, and this subtraction often requires some compensation from the remaining relatives. This dynamic of loss and recompense plays out in complex ways in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Although the death of patriarch Henry Dashwood doesn’t occupy a principal space in the novel, his absence looms in the background, subtly affecting the daily lives of the Dashwood women. Critics have tended to focus on the Dashwoods’ sudden “impoverishment” and the financial “fate that looms” after Mr. Dashwood’s death (Bartlett; Segal 253). But beyond this recognition of an atmosphere of foreboding, there is a general lack of discussion about the larger effects of Mr Dashwood’s death on the family dynamics. In a time of such strict gender roles, where do the responsibilities that once accrued to a patriarch fall upon his death, and how do these changes affect how the family interacts? How do different family members deal with grief?
I would propose that, in the case of the Dashwood family, three of the women exhibit altered roles, emotions, and behaviors as a result of Henry Dashwood’s death. If critics like Mary Margaret Benson have acknowledged that Elinor “act[s] as the mother figure,” I would argue that she fills both parental roles based on her functions in the family (Benson). Mrs. Dashwood doesn’t assume extra responsibilities as a single parent. Instead, her emotions take hold and she appears lost. Meanwhile, Marianne clings to a combination of nostalgia, heightened emotions, and men. These women’s altered states—how they differently respond to Mr Dashwood’s death—in turn affect their relationships with each other. In what follows, I examine these complicated family relationships and argue that Austen shows not only the financial effects of Henry Dashwood’s death, but also the complicated changes in how the Dashwood women now understand themselves and their relationships to each other.
After Henry Dashwood’s death, his estate and wealth pass to his son from a previous marriage, Mr. John Dashwood. John, greatly influenced by his wife, decides not to add to the five-hundred pound allowance per year for all the Dashwood women to live on in spite of the promise to his father. The women must also find a new home, which only exacerbates the pitifulness of this sum. In the first chapters, it’s immediately clear who is in charge of the family’s dire situation, a job that would have belonged to the patriarch of the family: Elinor dives into this role without hesitation. Mrs. Dashwood also wastes no time in deferring to her eldest daughter’s “effectual” advice and “coolness of judgement” (Austen 4). When deciding whether or not to leave Norland promptly after the blow of John Dashwood’s measly allowance, it’s Elinor who convinces Mrs. Dashwood to stay. Later, when moving to Barton, Elinor helps her mother to face reality once again. She explains that owning a carriage and employing several servants is financially irresponsible. With Elinor’s “discretion” and “wisdom” as a guide, Mrs. Dashwood sells the carriage and keeps only three servants (Austen 24). Again and again, we see Elinor as the voice of reason when it comes to major financial decisions. In terms of the gendered family roles of the era, Elinor effectively becomes the acting “patriarch” of the family.
In this regard, it’s significant that Elinor also exhibits a more traditionally masculine attitude toward emotion. Her stoicism and indifference toward romance is notable for a young woman in an Austen novel. Austen characterizes Elinor early on as an “affectionate” and sensitive woman who “[knows] how to govern” her feelings (Austen 5). This self-control translates into an unwillingness to express her innermost feelings and inability to understand others’strong emotions. For example, she keeps her fondness for Edward Ferrars close to her chest and later internalizes the devastating news about Lucy and Edward’s engagement. When Marianne breaks into a long-winded soliloquy about her conversation with Willoughby, Elinor could not be less interested. She sarcastically wonders if Marianne has “exhausted each favorite topic” yet (Austen 45). Elinor feels as though she must be strong for her family, but her coolness just causes misunderstanding between her and her more emotionally vulnerable mother and sister. Elinor selflessly helps her family without asking for or expecting the same support in return, as though she is playing the parental role for both Marianne and Mrs Dashwood, who now appear more like Elinor’s two daughters. As a part of this role, Elinor concerns herself with Marianne’s moral education. As she watches Marianne’s behavior with Willoughby, she can’t help but express concern and disapproval. After Marianne unbecomingly tours Willoughby’s estate, Elinor lectures her about impropriety and relays the “impertinent remarks” circulating around the neighborhood (Austen 66). Elinor’s role in the family certainly makes for an odd relationship with her mother and sister. Mother relies on child. Older sister parents younger sister. Austen portrays Elinor as quicker and smarter than both Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne. As a consequence, there’s a sense of distance between Elinor and her family members, even though they constantly depend on her. This distance stems from Elinor’s emotional isolation, a byproduct of her lonely new role as a single parent (father and mother combined) to her household.
Understandably, Henry Dashwood’s death devastates Mrs. Dashwood and, in his absence, she appears remarkably lost. With no aid from her husband, Mrs. Dashwood is left to run the household, but her judgment is clouded, and she has a general misunderstanding of her finances. Upon arriving at Barton Cottage, she excitedly jumps into alteration plans without taking her small allowance into consideration. Austen’s narrator points out that Mrs. Dashwood has no concept of how “all these alterations could be made from the savings of an income of five hundred a-year by a woman who never saved in her life” (Austen 27-28). In her disorientation and inability to part with her materialistic ways, Mrs. Dashwood relies on her eldest daughter for approval on many decisions. When Elinor makes decisions about their home and finances, as previously discussed, her mother appears aloof. One would assume this creates a tension between the mother and daughter and a sense of self-consciousness on Mrs. Dashwood’s part. However, their relationship is not affected in this expected way. Mrs. Dashwood doesn’t view herself in this light or recognize any problems with her lack of parenting. She seems comfortable in her role, such as it is. However, from an outside perspective, it’s certainly a unique dynamic that emphasizes gender roles and how unprepared widows may have been for running their households.
Perhaps Mrs. Dashwood’s shortcomings as a mother are most glaring in her relationship with Marianne. The death of their patriarch and the loss of their beloved estate heighten their already erratic emotions. Rather than attempting to alleviate Marianne’s melancholy (about her father, the estate, or Willoughby), Mrs. Dashwood feeds off it. Marianne returns the favor, and together their outbursts reach soaring heights. Further, Mrs. Dashwood encourages her daughter’s impropriety with Willoughby, never giving “one speculative thought” to the rapidly progressing relationship (Austen 47). Without her husband around, she finds in Marianne someone who will bear and reciprocate her feelings, creating a relationship in which Mrs. Dashwood acts more like a friend than a mother. The only mark of traditional motherhood found in Mrs. Dashwood is her investment in marriage. She schemes and matchmakes, much like other mothers in Austen novels, but all the education, caution, and prudence is left for Elinor to impart to Marianne. This responsibility causes unnecessary stress in Elinor’s life, and she undoubtedly feels the emotional neglect from her mother, as well. If Mrs. Dashwood is inadequate as a mother to Marianne, she is that much worse with Elinor, whom she can’t understand at all.
Her father’s death and the move to Barton Cottage have a palpable impact on Marianne’s emotional state. An impassioned person by nature (hence, the “sensibility” in Sense and Sensibility), these significant life changes paralyze her. Marianne attempts to cling to her childhood (and thus her father) as the family leaves for Barton Cottage. She strolls through the house one last time, lamenting that “no leaf will decay . . .nor any branch become motionless” in their absence (Austen 25). As I’ve established, it’s not of Mrs. Dashwood’s nature to attend to her daughter’s sorrow in these situations. Marianne’s emotions are free and encouraged to run wild.
Running right alongside them is an air of selfishness about her personal problems. Elinor must selflessly offer her constant comfort, while Marianne doesn’t bother to inquire about Elinor’s own issues. In a famous turning point of the novel, Marianne discovers that Elinor has been keeping Edward and Lucy’s engagement a secret. With horror, Marianne realizes that Elinor has been privately dealing with this matter while “attending [her] in all her misery” (Austen 254). Even in this moment of rare self-awareness, Marianne still victimizes herself. Her concern for Elinor turns to intense shame as she exclaims how she feels “barbarous” and will “hate [her]self for ever” (Austen 256). In Elinor’s time of need, she once again finds herself quieting her sister’s worries and convincing her otherwise. Therefore, this emotional spiral catalyzed by her father’s death places a tremendous burden on Elinor’s shoulders. Though she genuinely cares about Marianne, there is a touch of resentment toward her. She must bear Marianne’s strife in addition to her own.
In the beginning of the novel, Marianne has a negative attitude toward men and marriage. At just sixteen years old, she is “convinced that [she] shall never see a man whom [she] can really love” (Austen 16). As the toll of losing a male figure begins to weigh on her, though, an eligible bachelor conveniently arrives and (literally) sweeps her off her feet. In her time of profound grief and emotional vulnerability, she clings to this man who has shown her attention. Elinor and Marianne argue about the recklessness and velocity of the relationship, putting a strain on their sisterly bond. In addition to affecting her relationship with Elinor, Marianne and Willoughby’s romance notably impacts Mrs. Dashwood. Once the greatest supporter of the attachment, Willoughby’s betrayal wrecks her. Marianne had convinced her mother of Willoughby’s love and a marriage in the near future, and Mrs. Dashwood’s already fragile emotions can hardly handle the news. Therefore, Marianne’s need for a male presence in her life indirectly yet significantly impacts her relationship with her mother and sister.
We often view Sense and Sensibility as a happy representation of a family, and it’s true that there is a closeness to the Dashwood women not always present in other Austen novels. However, we also see how death can place strains on certain aspects of family life. Sense and Sensibility is really a picture of a family living with grief and adjusting to a new normal, and this interpretation is largely overlooked by critics. In the novel, Austen explores how grief manifests in the Dashwood family, even as she makes a larger statement about how such a loss affects gender roles, family roles, and interpersonal relationships. Sometimes siblings must act as parents. Sometimes parents require support from their children. Sometimes the influx of emotion leads to tension and disagreements. Above all, Austen shows that the family unit can still remain intact after loss, as long as plenty of care and affect rise from the most challenging moments.