Music as a Symbol of Passion and Feeling in Sense and Sensibility
The romantic affections of the sisters Elinor and Marianne in Ang Lee’s 1995 production of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility stand at the plot’s center, providing a basis for reflection on the relationship between the human mind and heart. Elinor represents sense as it’s meant cerebrally (intellect, commonsense, good sense), and Marianne, sensibility (the non-intellectual senses, passion, and heart). The story interweaves the two sisters’ personalities, loves, and lives, and in doing so, argues the need for an individual to develop both qualities, sense and sensibility, or a balance between both if he or she is to love maturely and in turn, receive true love. Throughout the movie, Lee uses music—especially Marianne’s piano playing and singing—semiotically, symbolically, to represent various aspects of love and sensory fruition including elegance, creativity/expression, feeling/emotion, sexuality/jouissance , and material prosperity or the blessing of abundance.
Marianne, whose musical talent and expression represent her romantic, passionate nature, plays the instrument in four of five specifically musical scenes, and in some of those four, she sings as she plays. Although the piano and music seem to represent Marianne, as she is the more passionate or feeling heroine, they also signal creativity, love, and feeling in connection with Elinor and Edward, and with Colonel Brandon (see below); thus, Lee uses music and the piano as overall signifiers of love and feeling.
As the film opens, piano music fills the set, although Marianne is not shown playing here. This first instance sets the core tone of the film, one of elegance, artistry, and feeling—or sensibility. Next, Marianne appears playing the piano after her father’s funeral, while she, her mother, and her sisters are still residing in her father’s house before the mean relatives kick them out. She plays sadly, expressing her sorrow at the loss of her father in a virginal, ideal manner, establishing herself as one of the major female characters in the story by this pure expression of a passionate heart expressing filial piety. Her sister begs her to play something “less mournful” (Sense ), but that is not possible. Marianne’s continued playing represents the sincerity of her heart and love for her father, as well as showing her character to be one of intense, even overwhelming or undisciplined, feeling.
The next scene involving the piano occurs with Marianne again playing, but the central focus of this scene lies with Edward and Elinor, who here make their first real romantic connection. Edward discovers Elinor standing aside and listening, in tears at Marianne’s playing, and for a moment uncharacteristically vulnerable. The music here acts as a backdrop and underscore for this emotional, subtly passionate scene. Elinor’s tears endear her to Edward by revealing her deep heart and sensibility, usually hidden behind commonsense and reserve, but here opened by Marianne, whom Elinor deeply loves, and Marianne’s music.
In the fourth instance, piano music and Marianne appear as Marianne attempts a distraction when the group begins torturing Elinor at dinner, trying to put her on the spot about her hidden feelings for Edward. Marianne jumps to play, and her passionate, beautiful music affirms the value and rightness of love and sensibility. At which time, as if on cue, Colonel Brandon enters the picture. Marianne, playing, seems at that moment like a summer rose at full bloom, and he is enchanted. Coincidentally, we learn, he also plays the piano. We hear, “You must play” (Sense ), as he is urged to perform, to express himself, foreshadowing the eventual joining of the passion, sexuality, and love of Marianne and Brandon, represented by their music, their joint playing of the piano.
Music fills the screen in London when the sisters are at the party/dance—a tumultuous social situation in which Marianne’s heart is broken by the handsome Willoughby’s unexpected choice of the rich socialite over Marianne as his future spouse. However, although this scene is about love and there are passion and feeling in abundance, the private, personal jouissance is missing, and we don’t see the piano or Marianne playing here. Thus, she is unable to connect to the public spirit of love and music that surrounds her in the scene, further emphasizing, through contrast, her broken heart and alienation.
However, the fifth and last scene featuring the piano re-establishes Marianne’s sovereign heart as the romantic lead and her future happiness. Colonel Brandon gives her a piano, a small one, just the right size for their cottage. Marianne exclaims, “It’s not just for me; it is for all of us” (Sense ), words which can mean that not only the piano, but music and love, including her deepening love relationship with the steadfast Brandon, are, in this case, finally unselfish, balanced, mature, and worthy of contributing to general society. This reflects the positive input the synergy of their relationship will make, the gift of true and healthy love to others, in contrast to her passionate but comparatively destructive relationship with the more selfish Willoughby.
As she plays, the material blessing and security that Marianne lost with her father’s death is foreshadowed to return by Brandon’s support (for example, he gives her the piano), and as true love and material abundance are often close relatives, it seems meaningful. Her playing and singing in this scene provide a backdrop of sensibility or feeling as Edward unexpectedly returns, leading to his and Elinor’s reunion. Thus, both Elinor’s and Marianne’s joy/jouissance are assured as Marianne marries Brandon in the final scene, despite Willoughby lurking unsatisfied outside the wedding and tearing away on his rearing stallion like the balance of darkness with light.
Sense and Sensibility. Dir. Ang Lee. Perf. Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant. Columbia TriStar Home Video, 1995. DVD.
Ann Wehrman (author) from California on February 20, 2012:
Hi phdast7, I'm very honored that you would like to share my work with your colleagues, and thank you for attributing it/guiding them to my HP profile. This was a humble paper for a Music History class a few years ago.
Theresa Ast from Atlanta, Georgia on February 20, 2012:
Very nice. I will be sharing this with my English Professor colleagues,(I am a Historian with a minor in English. I hope you don't mind; I will make sure it is attributed to you and they know how to find you on HP. SHARING
Ann Wehrman (author) from California on October 22, 2011:
Thanks so much! You will love the movie, but you will need a box of tissues at your side for the sad parts. At least it has a happy ending!
Om Paramapoonya on October 22, 2011:
Great analysis. I enjoyed the book (which is pretty odd because I'm not a big fan of Jane Austen) but have never seen the movie. Now you got me very interested and I'm going to put it on my Netflix list!