NovelGuide: Sense and Sensibility: Metaphor Analysis
Free indirect speech
A key element of Austen’s style is free indirect speech, a technique pioneered by eighteenth-century novelists Henry Fielding and Frances Burney. Free indirect speech is a style of third-person narration which also contains some of the characteristics of first-person direct speech. The thoughts and speech of the characters mix with that of the narrator. Free indirect speech often leads to ambiguity as to whether the author is expressing the views of the narrator or of the character the narrator is describing. The end result is an often ironic interaction of internal and external perspectives. Austen uses free indirect speech to provide summaries of conversations or thoughts.
An example of free indirect speech in Sense and Sensibility is the following passage from Volume I, Chapter II: “Mrs. John Dashwood did not at all approve of what her husband intended to do for his sisters. To take three thousand pounds from the fortune of their dear little boy, would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again on the subject. How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum?”
The first sentence is straightforward narrative in the author’s own voice. The third sentence is normal indirect speech, describing the character’s actions from an external viewpoint. The second and fourth are free indirect speech. In these sentences, Austen represents the inner thoughts of her character and creates the illusion that the reader is entering the character’s mind, although the author’s voice is not silenced. “Impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree,” and “rob his child” are violently emotive expressions, but readers are not drawn in to sympathize with Fanny because of the author’s strong presence, standing to one side of the character in a position of ironic detachment. The author has already established Fanny as a selfish and greedy woman, so having Fanny’s claims relayed through the author’s voice reinforces the author’s view of Fanny, in spite of Fanny’s words.
Satire, irony, and biting social commentary
Austen is known for her satire (a literary genre which involves mockery of its subject), and much of Sense and Sensibility has a satirical tone. Frequently, the context of her satire is the minute social distinctions that governed the behavior and attitudes of her time. The object of her satire is financial greed, vanity, and hypocrisy.
An example is Fanny Dashwood’s dinner party in Volume II, Chapter XII. Fanny and John Dashwood, along with Mrs. Ferrars, behave charmingly towards Lucy and Anne Steele, while Mrs. Ferrars pointedly ignores Elinor. Their outward attitude, however, is a lie. It conceals a vicious contempt towards anyone who lacks money and social status and who also poses a threat to their hopes of financial and social gain. At this point, they feel safe treating Elinor badly and flattering the Steeles, on the assumption that Elinor may entrap Edward in a socially disadvantageous marriage, whereas the Steeles have no hope of such advancement and thus pose no threat. But their attitude is based on their ignorance of the true situation, which is that Lucy and Edward are secretly engaged. Because the audience knows this fact and the unsympathetic characters do not, there is much dramatic irony in this scene.
The satirical purpose of the scene is to mock the superficiality of people who judge another person purely on how much money or social status they can offer. Austen shows the fragility of this inversion of moral values: the Ferrars’ comfortable world could be overturned in an instant by the revelation of Lucy’s secret. Lucy and Anne, though on one level they are the low-status victims of the situation, do not escape Austen’s satirical judgment: they court the Ferrars’ favor with “studied attentions,” and thereby help to perpetuate their snobbish attitudes.
There is irony too in the contrast between the apparent tone and the underlying tone of the scene. On the surface, everything is genteel and polite, but simmering beneath are a shocking greed and absence of compassion. Austen has the final devastating word, firmly setting the moral standard against which the reader is expected to judge the unsympathetic characters: “John Dashwood has not much to say for himself that was worth hearing, and his wife had still less. But there was no particular disgrace in this, for it was very much the case with the chief of their visitors, who almost all laboured under one or other of these disqualifications for being agreeable - Want of sense, either natural or improved - want of elegance - want of spirits - or want of temper.”
Austen satirizes the greed of contemporary society in part through the character of Lucy. In Chapter XIV, Austen writes of Lucy’s capture of Robert: “The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.” Austen’s skill here lies in her apparently escalating praise of avaricious self-interest, with only the very last word, “conscience,” undermining all that has gone before and re-establishing the firm moral context of the novel. Lucy and her like may well succeed in their ambitions, but in the process, they turn their backs on everything that is good and right in humanity.
The symbolism of hunting recurs throughout the novel. The reader’s first sight of Willoughby is as a hunter, carrying his gun and with two gundogs. Just as Willoughby hunts game, he also hunts Marianne. There is a suggestion of predatory behavior. Hunters kill their quarry, and Willoughby does great harm to Marianne’s heart. Sir John Middleton is also a hunter, although his enthusiasm for the sport is more benign. It merely seems to blind him to most concerns save for hunting, to such an extent that he does not see the truth of Willoughby’s character, but only gives the Dashwood women his opinion of Willoughby’s gundogs. His praise for the Willoughby’s fine bitch, however, adds to the symbolism of Willoughby-as-hunter, although Sir John is unaware of it, leading to dramatic irony.
The symbolism of hunting reappears in Edward’s statement in Volume I, Chapter XVIII that “Mr. Willoughby hunts.” While Edward means that he hunts animals, there is once again dramatic irony in the fact that the reader understands another level of meaning: Willoughby “hunts” Marianne.
The name “Queen Mab” is another example of symbolism. Queen Mab is the name of the horse that Willoughby tries to give Marianne in Volume I, Chapter XII. The name is a reference to the “fairies’ midwife” from William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet (Act I, Scene 4), who causes humans to dream of the fulfillment of their desires. These dreams, however, according to Shakespeare's character Mercutio, are “begot of nothing but vain fantasy” and “more inconstant than the wind,” just as Marianne’s dream of owning the horse can never come true and Willoughby will prove an inconstant lover. Willoughby’s inconstancy lends irony to his later insistence (Volume I, Chapter XIV) that Mrs. Dashwood promise never to alter Barton Cottage; while he himself changes his lover, he expects others not to change their house.
The symbolism of Queen Mab is reinforced by Marianne’s delusion in Chapter XVI that the man she sees riding toward her and Elinor is Willoughby, a delusion that is rapidly followed by disillusionment. The incident foreshadows her hope to marry Willoughby, and his subsequent betrayal.