July 22, 1999
Re: S&S: Ch 16: Painful & Confused in the Way Ordinary Human Life Is I wouldn't use the word unpleasant for this chapter: it is painful, painful & confused in the way ordinary human life often is. It's not hard to understand why Edward comes and behaves in an awkward restrained manner. He explains it later himself: he promised to come, and he loves Elinor. He has just spent two further weeks with Lucy which have persuaded him how wrong he was to have engaged himself to this young woman. His mother and sister are making him miserable with their demands he become a person he is not: a mercenary, ambitious, worldly type. He is alone, feels alienated from all. He realises he has made a big mistake (this he dwells upon in the penultimate chapter of the book -- as he would) Elinor in Devonshire is irresistible. So too is her mother and her sister. Once he arrives, he feels how false is his position. Elinor acknowledges in her interior monologues how sometimes he seems so close to a man in love and sometimes how he withdraws and is cold. This is him now wanting to show his affection, now seeking affection, and then again realising how wrong he is to entangle Elinor further. Edward is not an exemplary model character, but conceived as a real human being with all the contradictory impulses of human beings. Austen's tactful mimesis does not allow for a Sir Charles Grandison.
Similarly Marianne is conceived not as a model exemplary character but a real human being. Aysin remarks how self-indulgent she is, how she feeds her grief. The judgement we are to make is not that she grieves -- for when Elinor is left to herself at the time of the Palmer's coming and after she discovers the engagement, she grieves deeply too and finds she cannot control her thoughts. What we are to feel is her refusal to at least try to control herself is self-destructive as well as useless and makes her mother and sisters' lives harder to bear.
The mother does not just recognise the possibility that Marianne and Willoughby are engaged; she fears asking lest they are not:
"Why do you not ask Marianne at once," said she, "whether she is or she is not engaged to Willoughby? From you, her mother, and so kind, so indulgent a mother, the question could not give offence. It would be the natural result of your affection for her. She used to be all unreserve, and to you more especially."
The reason the lack of an apparent correspondenced needs to be explained away is that engaged couples were permitted to correspond. Letters were themselves regarded as erotic agents, dangerous, and to write a letter to a man was putting yourself in his power -- unless you were engaged. Mrs Dashwood assumes the leters ar somehow coming another way, secretly, because Sir John would see they were engaged if he were to see letters passing between them (p. 84).
Once again Mrs Dashwood does not ask because of an overstrained romantic delicacy, but that delicacy is rooted in her desire not to suggest her daughter has had some kind of improper (read: sexual or intimate) relationship with a young man she should not have.
The chapter is not all pain -- as life is not all pain. Edward does show up. It is a moment of uplift and joy for both Elinor and Marianne. Edward is not a liar: he admits he has been in Devonshire for a fortnight. He doesn't say where -- Elinor has the wisdom not to ask questions to which she fears she won't like the answer. Ah, the same psychology informs Mrs Dashwood's behavior. A parallel. Thinking about it suddenly it strikes me many people do avoid asking questions whose answers they think will pain them or not help. Of course against this in Marianne's case, it is important to risk the pain in order to protect the girl from herself and Willoughby.
Not only is Edward not a liar and has arrived to be with them for a time (and what more do most of us offer towards one another, the world being what it is), towards the end of the scene he begins to exhibit that arch shy teasing quality which is his most appealing note in this book:
"How can you think of dirt, with such objects before you?"
It is Elinor who grows irritated with Marianne: 'It is not every one ... who has your passion for dead leaves' (I: 16, 88). Then again unlike Elinor who represses her memories of all the unpleasant moments they have known with the Middletons, Marianne does tell the truth of her heart. In fact all three characters are following the truthful feelings in their hearts at the close of the chapter. Elinor mortified, vexed, half- angry, puzzled at Edward after her initial release and uplift; Edward very strained but trying to be as truthful and quietly pleasant as he can; Marianne in her reverie speaking in a low voice. The novel's greatness lies in just that. Also in Austen's ability to make a comedy out of it - by distancing us just enough.
I agree with Ellen here, that Edward comes to visit the Dashwoods because of Elinor, & because he knows he will find people sympathetic to who he really is. They do not put absurd demands upon him. I believe all of Edward's reactions here are clues planted by the author - they make perfect sense when we discover what was going on behind scenes.
Though Edward wants to visit the Dashwoods, when he comes he realizes the falsness of his position there, as Ellen says, and his despression is extreme. Edward realizes that (as with Willoughby) it is folly for him to stay even with true friends, whose society it is now impossible for him to (honorably) enjoy. He is understanding he must now be outcast from everything he values.
In a way, I think this chapter is perhaps more difficult for readers who do know the story than for those who do not. We know that Marianne's grief will be for naught - that in fact far worse of humiliation, and even sickness, is in store for her before she recovers; and we know that Edward, though he may love Elinor, is not free. His actions during the visit will exasperate and sadden her. This depressing foreknowlege doesn't allow the 2nd time reader to take pleasure in Edward's coming at last, or in believing that Willoughby may at any moment pop back into the picture. Bummer. (I do enjoy Edward's visit though, because we get to see a gentle humor, a brotherly affection and teasing of Marianne. For the rest of the novel we have to take this on faith.)