Tuesday, December 1, 2009

promises promises promises; or, Sense and Sensibility part 1

There is a line from the film Vanilla Sky that I quote quite often. Cameron Diaz says to Tom Cruise (yes, I know their characters have names, but really, does anyone ever really think Tom Cruise ever plays anyone but himself?) She says,"Don't you know that when you sleep with someone, your body makes a promise whether you do or not." (Then she crashes the car off a bridge, but that should be enough to get you to watch the movie.)  I love that line "your body makes a promise, whether you do or not." It captures in one line something of the finer question that I think Jane Austen is asking in Sense and Sensibility (aha cue segue) in 5-4-3 2- and... now.

How do we make promises? And once made do we have to keep them? No matter what?  Sense and Sensibility opens with the promise--a deathbed promise no less--by John Dashwood to his father that he will provide for his stepmother and stepsisters after the father dies. John promises to "do everything within his power to make them comfortable." With the words of this promise in his ears, his father dies, surely believing that the Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marriane, and Margaret will stay at Norland, have enough of an inheritence to be cared for, and hopefully enough to attract a husband. What really happens is, well, he gives them nothing. Readers will no doubt believe that he has broken his promise to the Dashwood girls, but to him, he is just whittling his words down to the size of his wife's heart (nonexistant).  The process of shaving this promise to its barest form--from a decent allowance, to a small allowance, to helping them move, to checking in on them now and again, to what really becomes absolutely nothing at all--make up the first pages of the book. A promise of ambiguous words "make them comfortable" that is carried out with zero action. This is our first words vs. action scenario.

In Sense and Sensibility (and no, I am not done reading either) everyone is making promises. Some by word, others by deed. Like life there are two kinds of promises the stated and the implied. The types of promises are mostly the usual kinds: romantic promises of marriage, love and fidelity. There are promises of silence. Promises of friendships, visits, inheritence, care, and so on. The conflict, for Austen, seems to be about how we make promises, and how to keep them once made. I am not done re-reading, so more on this later, but I am interested in the idea that our bodies (our actions, body language, interactions) can make implied promises. (Edward Farrars and John Willoughby anyone?). In Austen, it seems that the spoken promises--no matter how bad the actual thing promised--takes precedence over the implied promises of the body. If you promise to marry Lucy Steele, well, then you should marry Lucy Steele. Even if your eyes, heart, and body made other kinds of promises to Elinor's eyes, heart, and body a hundred times. But, if your body (Willoughby) promises her body (Marianne) you'd better be damn sure you keep that promise too.

Damn she's good.


  1. There was a quotation somewhere from something--I have some words floating around in my head and I don't know where they are from--about the distinction "between telling a lie and communicating one." Ouch.

    Anyway, this is interesting because it ties into what I was thinking but you take it in a very different direction--I was wondering why, as a reader, it is so much easier to like Edward and dislike Willoughby. I was just chalking it up to Elinor's power in the narrative--there's a strong temptation to accept that she is always right just because she is "sense" and she is telling the story. But she's very good at convincing herself that the person she'd like to be right, is right, and the person she'd like to blame, is blameworthy. (meanwhile the people she dismisses, like Mrs. Jennings, are always right after all!).

    But that's all a bit elementary and I like yours quite a bit. What do you think of Lucy Steele breaking *her* promise of secrecy by telling Elinor about her and Edward? (not to mention other promises, but I'm not there yet----)

  2. I think you are on to something here. I never understoon why the Dashwoods disliked Mrs. Jennings so much. I like them both, even if they are a bit much sometimes.

    The promise breakers in the book are the villians: John Dashwood, Lucy, Willoughby. Those who keep promises are the heros.

  3. Also a villain: Mrs. Ferrars, who makes promises on other people's behalf.

    I think we would hate Lucy even without her insincerity, though, because she is obnoxious and petty. These are pretty major sins in Austen.