Sense vs. Sensibility

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks about the words in a Jane Austen title:

You may already have discussed ‘sense’ and ‘sensibility’, but if not, could you program an entry. I am not sure if Jane Austen’s word meant something particular to that time. Is there a distinction to meanings between/among ‘sensibility’, ‘sensitivity’ and ‘sensitiveness’, and add in ‘sense’ too?

Sense has twenty-nine numbered definitions in the OED, several of them with subsections. Sensibility has seven numbered definitions, four of them with subsections. I shall confine the remarks in this post chiefly to the words as Austen used them in the title of her 1811 novel.

The word sense occurs dozens of times in the novel, with various connotations, including these:

sense of honor
sense of merit
in one’s right senses
sense enough to call for help

As used in Austen’s title, sense refers to what modern speakers still mean by “common sense”: “combined tact and readiness in dealing with the everyday affairs of life; general wisdom.”

The novel focuses on the love life of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Elinor represents the Sense of the title. Even when her heart is breaking, she maintains a polite façade of courtesy and tact, reasoning that what can’t be helped is not to be agonized over.

Marianne represents the Sensibility of the title, what modern speakers might call sensitivity, or even hypersensitivity. When Marianne suffers emotional anguish, everyone knows about it.

Austen sets up the differences between the sisters in her description of the way they deal with the death of their father. Elinor feels the same grief as her mother and sister, but, unlike them, she is able to govern her feelings and attend to practical matters. Marianne and their mother, on the other hand, wallow helplessly in their sorrow and refuse to be comforted:

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal to Elinor’s. She was…clever; but eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent. The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great.

Elinor saw, with concern, the excess of her sister’s sensibility; but by Mrs. Dashwood it was valued and cherished. They [Marianne and her mother] encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction. The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in future.

Sensibility in the sense of the quality of being easily and strongly affected by emotional influences was still a fairly new usage in Austen’s day, giving the title a certain up-to-date catchiness.

The plural, sensibilities, is current in modern usage to mean “feelings as to what is appropriate or decent”:

The treatment of low, disgusting, unpleasant, though not necessarily evil, subjects should always be subject to the dictates of good taste and a regard for the sensibilities of the audience.—The Hays Motion Picture Production Code, 1930.

And while the boundaries have clearly been pushed way back, movies continue to emerge which challenge our notions of what is acceptable, depicting acts of sex and violence in increasingly graphic style and often offending the sensibilities of the prudish and conservative.—Recent blog post about 21st century films.

Related post:
Sense and Nonsense

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