Sense Versus Sensibility

One of my favorite Jane Austen novels is Sense and Sensibility.  As Jane Austen’s first published work, the novel doesn’t have the crackle of Pride and Prejudice, but I’ve retained a great deal of affection for protagonists Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.  As the title of the novel suggests, the two sisters each attempt a different approach to dealing with the romantic and social difficulties life brings.

One movie version, starring Kate Winslet as the romantic, impetuous, stormy Marianne and the inimitable Emma Thompson as reserved, practical Elinor brings the characters to life as they navigate sudden poverty after the death of their father and finding husbands.  Elinor falls for her sister-in-law Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars, while Marianne finds herself with two suitors: the dashing Willoughby and the older, staid Colonel Brandon.  Elinor finds herself heartbroken when she discovers Edward has a secret engagement to another woman while Marianne finds herself jilted by Willoughby who has some dastardly secrets of his own. 

One of the best scenes in the movie comes shortly after Marianne, abandoned by Willoughby, has spent hours openly destroyed and sobbing.  In the meantime Elinor, quietly nursing her own pain over Edward (who Elinor discovers is secretly engaged to another woman), comforts her.  Shortly, Marianne discovers the truth about Edward’s engagement and confronts Elinor, accusing Elinor of being cold and not really loving Edward because Elinor has not cried openly or otherwise displayed her feelings.  Marianne holds her own conduct up as a more appropriate response to a broken heart.  Elinor snaps back that she has had to bear the knowledge of Edward’s engagement in secret and that she indeed can produce enough proof of a broken heart even by Marianne’s standards.  It’s a wonderfully played, terse scene.

Recently, a real life friend remarked to me that I was handling the entire infertility situation really well.  It’s true that aside from my panic attack at the first HSG, I’ve generally managed not to cry in public, I respond outwardly calmly to questions about children, and I’ve essentially continued on with my life to any casual observer.  Arthur and I go to work, go to church, go out with friends.  We look like any normal young-ish couple that doesn’t have children. 

At the same time, I found myself suddenly, unaccountably furious at the size of the small box provided on the questionnaire the RE’s office sent me, under the question “Describe any emotional, marital, or sexual problems caused by your infertility”.  Before I could stop myself, I found that I had written “I would need PAGES to list all the effects.” 

Certainly, it’s the big-ticket item: no baby.  But it’s also death by a thousand paper-cuts, one small, stinging moment or comment at a time.  It’s losing the certainty I hear from fertile friends who not only plan on having another child, but even have the luxury of timing the conception so that the birth comes at a good time.  It’s losing hours, even days in waiting rooms, then losing weeks and months in worry.  It’s wondering how to answer the questions about children.  It’s waiting in fear for the next pregnancy announcement.  It’s losing confidence, self-esteem, privacy, and dignity.  It’s sitting down with lists of every bank account, loan, and liability to figure out finances for treatment.  It’s the moments with my spouse where both of us are thoroughly sick of talking about infertility and babies but can’t bring ourselves to stop. 

Most of the time in real life, I try to model my behavior after Elinor Dashwood: no outward signs of inward turmoil.  There are some select friends and close family that see glimpses of the ‘real’ reactions, but even then, I feel constrained to moderate myself at least somewhat.  Arthur’s probably the only one who sees the whole thing, and that’s because he’s going through it with me.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing as there are parts of my life most people don’t need to be involved with and I don’t want to cry on everyone I meet. 

The problem with taking the more practical, less openly emotional side of the equation is that people tend to think you’re handling it well, even when nothing could be further from the truth.  It means that people make some horrible comments because they don’t know or understand how painful it is to hear.  My current ‘favorite’ is a much younger, proven fertile woman who, during the course of a conversation with me and another woman told her that she shouldn’t wait to start a family, otherwise, she’d be old, like 30 (as a 30 year-old, I had to restrain myself). 

It also sometimes means people assume that because I’m not openly weeping every time babies are mentioned that I don’t care as much or am okay that I don’t have one.  It’s the classic mistake Marianne makes in Sense and Sensibility when she assumes Elinor isn’t hurting because Elinor keeps her feelings to herself.  Sometimes, that grates on me.  Or when someone makes one of those comments, and all I want to do is start bawling so that the commenter might have some understanding of how bad he/she just made me feel.   Or yelling.  There are days yelling in response to some of these comments would feel awesome (at least, in the moment). 

Austen, for the record, wasn’t entirely sure how to answer the question of sense versus sensibility.  She leans heavily towards sense and to many appearances the book ends with sense triumphing over sensibility.  However, biographers such as Claire Tomalin have noted that Austen never quite resolved on the topic, hence her gifting to Marianne most of the more classically attractive attributes.  I suppose if even Austen couldn’t answer the question entirely satisfactorily, I’m probably not going to do it. 

Do you opt more for sense or sensibility?


6 thoughts on “Sense Versus Sensibility

  1. I love this comparison! It seems we can’t win. Those who show little outward emotion are “handling it well,” aka, not as affected. Those who show too much emotion aren’t handling it well & are making others feel uncomfortable. In real life, I try to go with Sense. So Sensibility ends up all over my blog 🙂

  2. I often feel like I don’t have a choice – I’m such a chaotically emotional person even on a good day that I often fail at restrain even when I would prefer to respond that way. But I have also had a few people make remarks like, “Wow, you seem to be doing so much better. I’m glad to see that,” as if I’m suddenly OVER being infertile, despite continuing treatments. I rather resent that – do I have to perform my depression, just so people don’t assume that I’m somehow “over it”? Do I have to remind people every time I see them of how unhappy I am, or can I at least go out to dinner in the midst of my unhappiness and try to talk about something not related to having a camera poked up my hooha?

    1. I really hear you on “performing depression” for people, who then sometimes take it that it’s okay to discuss sensitive subjects or ask intrusive questions. It’s so frustrating – one of those darned if you do, darned if you don’t things.

  3. I swing wildly between the two, depending on who I am talking to, and even I don’t know which way I am going to go until words fall out of my mouth. Honestly, some days I feel like I’ve stepped out of my body during a conversation and I’m looking at myself thinking either ‘Wow, lady, you totally look like you’ve got your shit together, I’m impressed’ or ‘Crying? Again? Alright, let it out…’

    1. I’ve had that a couple of times, where I figure everything will come out okay and then…burst into tears. Or I think I’m going to lose it and wind up being surprisingly rational about it.

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