Society and the Individual

The interaction between the individual and the other individuals around him or her who make up society is central to all Austen's novels. No other novelist is more emphatic that we are social animals, unable to remain isolated, drawn into relationships with others and forced to take up a position in the social structure. Austen is also emphatic that society will not change itself for the individual; it is for the individual to adapt to society and to conduct him or herself in it in a suitable manner. Elinor naturally accepts this; Marianne is forced to accept it.

Marianne is the embodiment of the Romantic movement in art, literature and thought which was reaching its peak in the early 1800s. The first Romantics - Wordsworth and Coleridge - were Austen's exact contemporaries, while the later generation of Romantics - Keats and Shelley, for example - followed shortly afterwards. Austen shared with the great Romantic poets a belief in the importance of the individual consciousness, but diverged from them in her conviction that the individual matures just as much by social interaction as by private meditation. Marianne puts the self over any other consideration, convinced of the primacy of personal feelings. Her exaltation of nature is truly Romantic. Compare, for instance, her expression of delight at being outside on a fine, blustery day with Wordsworth's ecstasy over the view from Westminster Bridge:

"They gaily ascended the downs, rejoicing in their own penetration at every glimpse of blue sky; and when they caught in their faces the animating gales of an high south- westerly wind, they pitied the fears which had prevented their mother and Elinor from sharing such delightful sensations.

'Is there a felicity in the world,' said Marianne, 'superior to this? Margaret, we will walk here at least two hours.'

Margaret agreed, and they pursued their way against the wind, resisting it with laughing delight... " (p. 74)

"Earth hath not anything to show more fair.
Dull of soul would he be who could pass by
sight so touching in its majesty."

Marianne's hyperbole is equal to Wordsworth's, but, of course, her expedition ends in torrential rain and a sprained ankle. Austen brings her, quite literally, down to earth and shows that the caution of her mother and sister was well judged. Austen cannot approve of behaviour that forgets all social and practical considerations in the emotional conviction of the moment. Austen gently parodies Marianne's Romantic rhapsodies, for instance in the conversation between her, Edward and Elinor as they walk in the fields near Barton. For each lengthy effusion of Marianne, Edward or Elinor replies with a short, truthful statement:

"'Oh!' cried Marianne, 'with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen [the leaves] fall! How I have delighted, as I walked, to see them driven about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the sky, the air altogether inspired! ... '

'It is not everyone,' said Elinor, 'who has your passion for dead leaves.'

'Now, Edward,' said [Marianne], calling his attention to the prospect, 'here is Barton valley. Look up to it, and be tranquil if you can. Look at those hills! Did you ever see their equals?... '

'It is beautiful country,' he replied; 'but these bottoms must be dirty in winter.'" (p. 114)

However, it is not for her joy in nature that Austen condemns Marianne. Anne Elliott and Fanny Price, two of Austen's "sensible" heroines, express the same passion for the outdoors, and Marianne's favourite poet, the early Romantic Cowper, was also Austen's. What Austen portrays as most reprehensible in Marianne is her self-indulgent failure to play her allotted role in society. The honesty and openness on which she prides herself more often manifest themselves as rudeness and gracelessness. In a scene in Lady Middleton's drawing room, for instance, Marianne excuses herself from playing cards with the curt

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