Study Guide

Sense and Sensibility Language and Communication

By Jane Austen

Language and Communication

Chapter 9
Marianne Dashwood

"That is an expression, Sir John," said Marianne warmly, "which I particularly dislike. I abhor every common-place phrase by which wit is intended; and 'setting one's cap at a man,' or 'making a conquest,' are the most odious of all. Their tendency is gross and illiberal; and if their construction could ever be deemed clever, time has long ago destroyed all its ingenuity." (9.16)

Marianne expresses her dislike for perfectly normal colloquial speech, which she finds too crude entirely. While Sir John could be a bit less direct and blunt, we have to say that he does manage to communicate more clearly than some of the other characters. Perhaps some of Marianne's troubles come from her desire to phrase everything poetically.

Chapter 15
Mrs. Dashwood

"I have not wanted syllables where actions have spoken so plainly." (15.14)

Mrs. Dashwood is willing to accept actions and implications rather than actual declarations – a dangerous tactic in this proper, convention-bound society.

Elinor's uneasiness was at least equal to her mother's. She thought of what had just passed with anxiety and distrust. Willoughby's behaviour in taking leave of them, his embarrassment, and affectation of cheerfulness, and, above all, his unwillingness to accept her mother's invitation, a backwardness so unlike a lover -- so unlike himself, greatly disturbed her. One moment she feared that no serious design had ever been formed on his side; and the next that some unfortunate quarrel had taken place between him and her sister; the distress in which Marianne had quitted the room was such as a serious quarrel could most reasonably account for, though when she considered what Marianne's love for him was, a quarrel seemed almost impossible. (15.11)

Willoughby's change in attitude is clear from the shift in his mode of conversation – which Elinor's canny ear picks up. She, unlike some of the other characters, constantly tries to read between the lines of everyone's discourse, where most of the truth is usually found.

Chapter 17
Elinor Dashwood

"I do not understand you," replied he, colouring. "Reserved! -- how, in what manner? What am I to tell you? What can you suppose?"

Elinor looked surprised at his emotion, but trying to laugh off the subject, she said to him, "Do not you know my sister well enough to understand what she means? Do not you know that she calls every one reserved who does not talk as fast, and admire what she admires as rapturously as herself?" (17.7)

Edward's communication problems emerge rather awkwardly here – he's surprised and perhaps ashamed by the idea that other people find his reticent nature notable. However, he's clearly uncomfortable and unsure of how to remedy this. We're not sure what exactly he'd say if he could come out and say whatever's on his mind, like Marianne.

Chapter 20
Mrs. Charlotte Palmer

"How charming it will be," said Charlotte, "when he is in Parliament! -- won't it? How I shall laugh! It will be so ridiculous to see all his letters directed to him with an M.P. But do you know, he says he will never frank for me? He declares he won't. Don't you, Mr. Palmer?"

Mr. Palmer took no notice of her.

"He cannot bear writing, you know," she continued -- "he says it is quite shocking."

"No;" said he, "I never said anything so irrational. Don't palm all your abuses of language upon me."

"There now; you see how droll he is. This is always the way with him! Sometimes he won't speak to me for half a day together, and then he comes out with something so droll -- all about anything in the world." (20.24-26)

There's a profound kind of communication block going on between the Palmers – as though they're both aiming at different conversations. Mrs. Palmer's ability to block out the rudeness of her husband and genuinely laugh it off as "drollness," in combination with the fact that he can say whatever he wants to her face without fear of hurting her feelings, is perhaps the key to their marital bliss.

Chapter 27
Elinor Dashwood

These words, which conveyed to Elinor a direct avowal of his love for her sister, affected her very much. She was not immediately able to say anything, and even when her spirits were recovered, she debated for a short time on the answer it would be most proper to give. The real state of things between Willoughby and her sister was so little known to herself, that in endeavouring to explain it, she might be as liable to say too much as too little. (27.28)

The conundrum of communicating at all in this society is really quite shocking – there's always the danger of saying too much, or nothing at all. We're not sure how anyone ever got anything out in the open in Austen's day! Elinor can't even come out and say that she simply doesn't know.

"Me!" returned Elinor in some confusion; "indeed, Marianne, I have nothing to tell."

"Nor I," answered Marianne with energy, "our situations then are alike. We have neither of us anything to tell; you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing." (27.17)

The difference in Elinor and Marianne couldn't be made more plain – their different tactics on communication are clearly both flawed.

Chapter 28
Marianne Dashwood

At last he turned round again, and regarded them both; she started up, and pronouncing his name in a tone of affection, held out her hand to him. He approached, and addressing himself rather to Elinor than Marianne, as if wishing to avoid her eye, and determined not to observe her attitude, inquired in a hurried manner after Mrs. Dashwood, and asked how long they had been in town. Elinor was robbed of all presence of mind by such an address, and was unable to say a word. But the feelings of her sister were instantly expressed. Her face was crimsoned over, and she exclaimed in a voice of the greatest emotion, "Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this? Have you not received my letters? Will you not shake hands with me?" (28.6)

Again, we see a kind of odd disconnect between modes of conversation, even when two people are standing face to face. Willoughby is playing the stiff upper lip society guy, while Marianne, unable to pretend, speaks directly – a rare occurrence in any of the conversations we've seen.

Chapter 29
Elinor Dashwood

Elinor drew near, but without saying a word; and seating herself on the bed, took her hand, kissed her affectionately several times, and then gave way to a burst of tears, which at first was scarcely less violent than Marianne's. The latter, though unable to speak, seemed to feel all the tenderness of this behaviour, and after some time thus spent in joint affliction, she put all the letters into Elinor's hands; and then covering her face with her handkerchief, almost screamed with agony. (29.7)

Interestingly, Elinor and Marianne seem to communicate most directly in a non-verbal fashion – we see them really commune for the first time in this scene.

Marianne Dashwood

The sort of desperate calmness with which this was said, lasted no longer than while she spoke, and was immediately followed by a return of the same excessive affliction. It was some minutes before she could go on with her letter, and the frequent bursts of grief which still obliged her, at intervals, to withhold her pen, were proofs enough of her feeling how more than probable it was that she was writing for the last time to Willoughby. (29.2)

The only clear line of communication available here is letter writing – it's only in written form that Marianne can say what she was unable to say to Willoughby in person.