I must confess — I didn’t actually want to read “Sense and Sensibility.”
It was mid-June and I was sprawled on the floor of my childhood friend’s bedroom, listening to the choppy audio and occasional laughs emanating from the corner of her bed where she was wrapped in blankets, scrolling through TikTok. I sat up and started scanning her bookshelves, pulled out Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” and read the first 30 pages before realizing that it was boring and I’d rather not. But it was too late — 30 pages is a lot when you’re reading Austen’s tiny font size and dizzying sentence structure. I couldn’t throw away my hard work, so I read the whole book.
Surprisingly, I don’t regret it. Sure, “Sense and Sensibility” is frustratingly long and overall quite boring, and the actual plot doesn’t start until over halfway into the book — but none of these unfortunate aspects detract from an incredibly thoughtful and redemptive ending that has stuck with me these past couple of months.
“Sense and Sensibility” is essentially about the love lives of two sisters (though I would argue that it’s more a character study than a romance). Elinor, the elder of the two, is level-headed and always strives to do what’s right. She tends to think thoroughly about an issue before deciding on a course of action. Marianne is pretty much her opposite: spontaneous and passionate in everything, she never holds back from fully expressing her joys and sorrows. Over the course of the novel, both sisters fall in love with men who end up breaking their hearts, and the way they respond to these bitter disappointments is the focal point of the story. Marianne leans into her pain with no restraint, sobbing constantly and refusing to eat. For most of the latter third of the novel, she’s pale-faced and fragile, wandering the house in the dead of night like a ghost. But Elinor, out of love and consideration towards her mother and Marianne, bears her own sorrow with quiet fortitude and carries on without betraying the slightest hint of inner turmoil. When Elinor’s secret heartbreak is revealed, Marianne is shocked and humbled by her sister’s self-denial — that’s the best part of the book.
The boring exposition, monotonous dinner parties and uninspiring conversations are worth it for this singular moment, when Marianne makes a life-altering realization that challenges her entire worldview. Marianne, who always dismissed her sister’s self-possessed manner as a lack of passion, is shocked to find that what she mistook for indifference is actually love in its purest form: restraining oneself for another’s gain.
Pop culture typically teaches us to associate love with passion and gushy feelings. Everyone says to “follow your heart,” embrace your inner desires and pursue them without reserve. In short, be like Marianne. This individualistic mentality extends to our general attitude toward life — if something good doesn’t feel right to you anymore, maybe it’s time to throw in the towel, because our emotions are everything. To be sure, there are times in life when putting yourself first is the right thing, like if you need to protect yourself from a harmful relationship. That said, this philosophy is problematic when taken too far: As Marianne herself experiences in “Sense and Sensibility,” pursuing your desires without consideration for other people can be hurtful and damaging. This exact brand of selfishness is what caused Marianne’s lover, Willoughby, to break her heart and crush her spirit — just so he could be rich and comfortable. Marianne’s unceasing devotion to her own desires made her so preoccupied with personal sorrow that, to her bitter regret, she was unaware of the immense pain Elinor was shouldering. Ironically, pursuing the intense emotions and desires that we assume will lead to great personal satisfaction can actually result in even greater selfishness.
Contrast this with the image of Elinor, suffering in silence and controlling her own heart-wrenching emotions in order to shield her mother and Marianne — who are already burdened by Willoughby’s betrayal — from the additional blow of Elinor’s heartbreak. This kind of self-denying love is something we recognize in our own lives, most often in our mothers. A loving mom is sacrificial and attentive to their child’s needs. Regardless of how tired or emotionally drained they might be feeling, they somehow set aside their own preferences in order to give their best to their kids. When you think about everything moms do on a daily basis, it sounds exhausting — and yet, a mother’s care is often celebrated as the noblest, most elevated form of love known to humankind. There is true beauty in sacrifice, and it’s far more weighty and honest than the dizzying infatuation that is sometimes passed off as love.
“Sense and Sensibility” illustrates how love is more than just our emotions. It’s about concrete acts of restraining yourself for someone else’s benefit. This kind of love marks a counterculture to our world today, where relationships tend to be based more on what we can gain instead of what we can give.
But if love is a deliberate action, it means that we can still choose to put someone before ourselves, even when we no longer have the help of warm, happy feelings. It means that we can develop deeper relationships based on mutual commitment rather than shallow circumstances or temporary emotions. Ultimately, it means that we can experience unconditional love — and truly, there’s not a thing in the world that can compare to the joy of being fully known and fully loved, no matter what, till the end of time.
Daily Arts Writer Pauline Kim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.