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In her book, On Rereading, Patricia Meyer Spacks relates meeting “a group composed of female Holocaust survivors. They convened at regular intervals, year after year, to read Jane Austen aloud to one another. When they finished a novel, they’d go on to the next one; when they finished them all, they’d start over. Why Austen? [she] asked one of them. Because, [her] informant said, she represents civilization” (55).

This paper explores how Austen “represents civilization” in Sense and Sensibility by exploring how her characters attempt to create and live in their own utopian worlds—one sister in a world of rationality or “sense” and the other in a world of romanticism or “sensibility.” Austen depicts the danger inherent in pursuing utopian ideals and confusing them with reality. These utopian worlds are set up only to be broken down, and her characters learn that they cannot represent reality with idealization and that individuals who try to live these unrealistic visions will fail.

The novel, however, offers a critique of itself: Austen’s fiction works by careful construction of universality, dependent on few specifics of its physicality. Instead, her prose depends heavily on nominalizations which presuppose a number of indispensable idealized forms. The paradox Austen creates is one that offers generalities that demand the reader to supply the specifics. She universalizes the themes embedded in her plot by insisting on the reader’s personalization of the experience to create a utopian vision of the world. Although fictional, the experience offers a civilization which at once displaces the reader yet at the same time offers refuge in its utopian construction, a tension that invites constant rereading.


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  • Subject
    • English

  • Event date
    • 1 March 2014

  • Date submitted

    18 July 2022

  • Keywords