Friday, January 24, 2014

How to Mourn like Jane Austen Part One: Sense vs. Sensibility

Elinor saw, with concern, the excess of her sister's sensibility; but by Mrs. Dashwood it was valued and cherished. They 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. Elinor, too, was deeply afflicted; but still she could struggle, she could exert herself. She could consult with her brother, could receive her sister-in-law on her arrival, and treat her with proper attention; and could strive to rouse her mother to similar exertion, and encourage her to similar forbearance.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen first published novel, begins with death. Our introduction to the two heroines is through the opposing manner each lady copes with death, establishing the theme of the story: Marianna represents the cult of sensibility, which encourages excessive emotionalism, while Elinor is the sensible sister, unwilling to allow her own sorrow overwhelm to her. Austen tends to look to births, deaths, and marriages - the major life events - to provoke her plots, and she does this particularly well in S&S, for what better way to get to know a character than through their behavior, so particularly revealing in times of heightened emotion? By showing Elinor to be better at handling death, Austen also demonstrates how she is better equipped to handle life, as the events of the story amply bear out.

With the death of a dear cousin two days ago (really more than a cousin - she grew up in close proximity to my mother-in-law, and both ladies were only children), I have had a new opportunity to observe and reflect on how different people express their grief. I'd like to share an example with you.

My mother-in-law called to tell me her cousin had died. Words were unnecessary to express her shock and pain. The loss is grievous, and as she she spoke of the basic details regarding what happened, how and why, the stringently suppressed tears in her voice conveying the sudden wound from which she suffered. We tried to find the good in our loss, tried to think what to do next, surrendering to the inevitability of fate and looking towards the world without our dear one. It's a quiet way to greet death: submitting to it. This is what Elinor does when her father dies.

An hour or two later I called my mom, an action I typically have cause to do every hour or two. I shared our sad news. My mother knew the departed through family gatherings and birthday parties, but they were not close acquaintances. However, my mom and Marianne are two of a kind, and she burst forth with exclamations of horror and despair. You really should hear the quality of my mother's gasp, for it's remarkably harrowing. Struck at once by the contrast in these two maternal figures' responses, I laughed. Now, my mother knows me excessively well, and she did not take offense at such an inappropriate reaction, and it was all far too much like a Jane Austen novel for me to contain myself. The foundations for some yet unwritten scene lays in that moment.

Those who have been paying attention know I look to Austen for guidance in life. Persuasion has long been my favorite of her novels because Anne Elliot has for decades been my idol. I have diligently tried to model my behavior off of the near perfect example set by the resigning, sensitive, and intelligent heroines Austen created, almost always falling far short. Often I have complained of my Marianne-esque tendencies, no doubt taught to and fostered in me by my mother, and I have striven against nature to be more like Elinor. When next my mother-in-law and I search for the good in this tragedy, I will try to remember that I handled it with sense rather than sensibility. We've come a long way, baby! Far more impressive are the actions of the departed's daughter, who has been remarkably pragmatic and functional throughout the last 48 hours. It is my hope to have such presence of mind on the awful day I have to cope with the loss of one of my own parents. Hopefully, I have many more years to imbibe Austen's teachings before being so tested.

It occurs to me Austen provides a great deal to advice to guide mourners, just as she does for most of life's challenges. I may do another post or two on the topic, if my brain doesn't wander to far before I get around to it. Maybe these musing will be able to help someone else someday. One never  knows.

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