When I teach my class on “Couples Comedy in the Restoration and 18th Century,” I encourage my students to compare the works with contemporary romantic comedies. This means finding modern parallels for various Restoration and Neo-Restoration plays, Wilmot, Pope and Montagu poems, and comic novels (we read Tom Jones, Evelina, and Sense and Sensibility). Not only does finding parallels give my students new insights into the older works, but they come to understand better how we continue to use couples comedies to work through our relationships.
Some of the comparisons have been inspired. To cite two, Windy Vorwick compared Sense and Sensibility to Frozen while Jane Harkness compared it to 500 Days of Summer. I’ll save the parallels with 500 Days for a future post.
The Frozen comparison has the virtue of suggesting that the Elinor-Marianne relationship is more dynamic than it is sometimes seen. Too often students regard the author and Elinor as unassailable voices of reason and assume that Austen’s intended happy ending involves Marianne coming to see the light. Elinor, in this interpretation, doesn’t change, nor does she need to. Some of my students are dissatisfied with the novel because of this.
In the Disney movie, however, the elder controlling sister and the younger romantic sister must both change if a happy ending is to be achieved. Sense and Sensibility becomes a more interesting novel if one sees a similar drama at play.
Frozen has an elder sister, Elsa, who is overly controlling because she fears turning those around her into ice, a special power that she possesses. Her younger sister Anna, on the other hand, is romantic and impulsive and wants to marry the first prince who comes along. Elsa must learn that she can use her powers for good as well as ill if she only learns to loosen up and be less fearful. Anna, meanwhile, must learn to become more discriminating in her relationships. Her early love affair with Prince Hans parallels almost exactly Marianne’s early relationship with Willoughby and ends just as badly.
At one point in the film, Anna tells her elder sister that she should have shared her hidden fear that she would destroy those around her. Together, she says, they could have figured out how to control those powers. It could be argued that Elinor should share her own painful secret, her knowledge of Edward’s hidden engagement to Lucy Steele, with Marianne. After all, once the news is out, Marianne proves more than capable of supporting her sister. Indeed, it could be argued that Marianne’s romantic impulses are in part a reaction to her sister’s excessive reserve. This is certainly the dynamic in Frozen.
I have long thought that the real relationship in Sense and Sensibility is between the sisters and that the men are just instruments for making it possible for them to live in close proximity for the rest of their lives. Here’s Austen’s final paragraph:
Between Barton and Delaford [Brandon’s estate and Edward’s parsonage], there was that constant communication which strong family affection would naturally dictate;—and among the merits and the happiness of Elinor and Marianne, let it not be ranked as the least considerable, that though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands.
Frozen ends similarly. Although Anna thinks that she needs a true-love kiss to keep her heart from turning to ice, what ultimately saves her is her selfless sacrifice on behalf of her sister. Yes, she finds a man, but that’s not where the movie’s energy lies.
Come to think of it, Marianne begins to heal when she learns how Elinor has suffered. Heroically rising to her support takes her mind off of her own misery.
And here’s another parallel that Windy pointed out. When Elinor finally explodes, dumping all her misery in Marianne’s lap in one monumental venting, she is not unlike Elsa unleashing snowstorms. Elinor ultimately learns, however, that the venting is less destructive than holding her emotions in. She thought that her mother and sister could not handle her unhappiness but they both prove up to the challenge. It is by retreating into her palace of ice that Elinor alienates her sister. Here’s Marianne describing how it feels to be frozen out:
We have neither of us any thing to tell; you, because you do not communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.
Mind you, it is understandable why Elinor has behaved as she has, just as Elsa’s behavior is understandable. Elinor has had to play the mother because Mrs. Dashwood has abdicated that responsibility while Elsa’s parents die in a shipwreck, forcing her to grow up too early. One doesn’t blame either Elinor or Elsa. If they are to achieve happiness, however, they need to step out of their comfort zones and learn to trust those they love.
Once they do, a true love story is the result. The two sisters reconcile and life happily ever after.