The Marianne Problem

I just want to link to this while I have a moment free – I read it this morning and have been thinking about it, off and on, all day.

Anne talks about what she calls “The Marianne Problem” – based on Marianne Dashwood, in Sense and Sensibility – the sister who follows her heart, her soul, her spirit – to disastrous results, in the arms of Willoughby. Who is nerely ruined by passionate love. Is it better to take a steadier course? To choose something that is perhaps not so exciting, not so dangerous?

But isn’t it also true that, perhaps, for people like Marianne – there is no other choice? How can you train your heart to not want what it wants?

Some people ARE able to make other choices, are able to counsel themselves out of grand passions, and pick what is best for them. I have seen it around me. They don’t seem to be paying any great price of the soul.

But who says that this is the path everyone is even able to take?

I’m asking these as hypotheticals, and I’ve been asking myself these questions all day. I’ve got quite a bit of Marianne Dashwood in me, which is why the post hit such a nerve. I’ve also got quite a bit of Elinor in me as well – but in terms of love, romance, all that jazz – I’m Marianne all the way. And I’ve had equally disastrous results (although, granted, I haven’t almost died from my disasters, and I haven’t had to be “bled” in the sick room of a drafty manor, all because of my broken heart). But I have paid a huge price for my Marianne-ness.

And you could counsel me a smarter course, you could tell me why it isn’t always best to follow one’s passion … blah blah blah … but we are talking about something which is so intrinsic to my makeup that I literally would stop being myself if I chiseled that part of me out. I’ve tormented myself with these questions before, in my lonelier periods. Could I really change? In that way?

I think you’re right, too, Anne, about the weakness in the novel. It was Austen’s earlier book, and while the prose is, of course, magnificent – the plot is a bit more simplistic, the lines more clearly drawn.

I have a lot I want to say about this, but no time at the moment. I’ll post my thoughts later, when I know what exactly they are.

Oh, one last thought: In terms of the whole Willoughby thing – who, while he is compelling and romantic, and says all the right things – he’s a complete cad, and he has no character.

But the question the book poses (or – maybe it doesn’t) is: Can you tame your heart to not want what it wants?

I don’t think that this is just a matter of training yourself not to fall in love with heroin addicts (or “Notorious” addicts) or really bad men who beat you – or something so obviously self-destructive. I think it’s deeper. Can you decide, after making some mistakes in love, after paying huge prices, to put aside your need for great chemistry, for sexual fizz, for passionate feelings … and be with someone who may not shoot you over the moon, but who is a steady companion beside you?

I believe the answers are different for different people.

I don’t believe that Marianne Dashwood, as she is written, could actually make that second choice. I think the film does show that her happiness will never again be what it was. However, she was punished so greatly for loving someone so deeply, that the happiness she will find with the Colonel, although it is a quieter kind, will be enough.

She has been frightened out of wanting more from life.

Just a couple of my thoughts.

UPDATE Anne responds to this. I’ve got a lot more to say on this topic. It touches on my problem with the self-help therapeutic culture which has so entwined itself into our society. The fallacy that we can be “fixed” – and also the fallacy that there is anything to fix in the first place.

Elia Kazan said a great thing about analysis. (And I have to just say this, to be clear: I had been in analysis for years. It did me a great deal of good. And I know that being in analysis has saved many people’s lives. I am not discarding the idea of therapy – NO. The following is just my opinion, and my problem with the idea that everyone needs therapy and that every problem needs to be “fixed”.)

Kazan said that too much of therapy wants to get rid of the “rebel” in us. It wants to “fix” the anti-social side of us (not the psychopathic guy-with-the-rifle-in-the-watchtower rebel – that’s not what he meant by antisocial) – but the person who maybe sees things in this society he doesn’t like, and doesn’t WANT to conform.

I don’t want to get into this too much – at least not in a cursory way – it deserves more thought.

But that’s a little bit of what Anne’s post made me think of.

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27 Responses to The Marianne Problem

  1. Bill McCabe says:

    Almost entirely off the subject:

    Around here, “The Marianne Problem” refers to my sister.

  2. red says:

    It almost sounds like a Robert Ludlum book

  3. Aaron Pohle says:

    But doesn’t the harm and the danger in following that sort of passion come from finding that you are madly in love with an idea of someone that does not match the reality? I suppose it can also be a case of discovering things that you thought trivial were anything but. In each case, doesn’t the most harm come from walking blissfully into a fantasy and having reality cruelly intrude?

    I think that we should never let go of our passions, nor should we abandon our dreams. Yet, I also think we should accept reality, and allow our dreams to change with what we learn and know as we grow and develop.

    Pursue your dreams. Follow the path of your heart, but look around the real world that you are traveling through and learn not to stumble on the rock strewn in your path.

  4. red says:

    I think you’re right, Aaron. Most disappointment comes from the fact that reality gets in the way with illusions. Hard to even see when that is going on, because everything feels so REAL – but I think it is the case.

    This has not been my issue though, not really.

    As of now, I have just turned my back on all that stuff. I am like Marianne. I have been frightened by those disasters. But … I just don’t want to accept “the Colonel”, as lovely as he might be.

    Maybe I’m immature but I don’t feel done with having big major LOVE take up my entire world. The kind of love that keeps you up at night. That drives you mad.

    I don’t know how to do it any other way.

    But I hear what you’re saying, and I will think it over. Thank you.

  5. Aaron Pohle says:

    Oh, I think there should still be that kind of love in life. There should be a passion that allows us to the good moments and make them into great ones, which raise our experience to new heights.

    It also, leaves us open for disappointment and hurt that will come, and opens us to greater pain because of the heights we have allowed ourselves to be taken to.

    That is not bad, life should not be lived to avoid pain, but to live to the fullest. If you seek to never hurt, I don’t think you can ever love. I also think that is true for various levels, the more you avoid pain the less you are able to experience love.

    I don’t think the goal is to learn to love just enough to not face too much pain, rather it is to learn how to accept and deal with the hurt that we know will occasionally come with loving to our fullest. It is allowing the joy and height of the good times overcome the sorrow and hurt of the bad.

    It is, of course, very different for all people.

    As you said, that overwhelming love and passion is a part of you. It is a wonderful thing to possess, even if it, at times causes grief. While few people have probably experienced the kind of hurt that you have, because of it, few have also experiences the unbelievable joy that your passion has also brought you.

    I mean, you get nearly insane pleasure from watching Notorious! How many people can say that? ;)

  6. red says:

    you get nearly insane pleasure from watching Notorious

    You’ve got a point there. I was just going to say that I am sublimating everything into Notorious.

    I was also going to say “NEARLY insane”?? More like “completely and utterly insane”!

    And finally: Once you’ve tasted magic, and I have, it’s hard to not want to taste it again. I knew a man who exceeded my expectations of what I could want. My experience is not one of having the ideal not live up to the reality – but to have the reality far surpass the ideal.

    Which fucking sucks, if you want to know the truth. :)

  7. David Foster says:

    From Alastair Reid’s poem “Curiosity”…

    Well, he is lucky. Let him be
    nine-lived and contradictory,
    curious enough to change, prepared to pay
    the cat-price, which is to die
    and die again and again,
    each time with no less pain.
    A cat minority of one
    is all that can be counted on
    to tell the truth. And what he has to tell
    on each return from hell
    is this: that dying is what the living do,
    that dying is what the loving do,
    and that dead dogs are those who do not know
    that hell is where, to live, they have to go.

  8. red says:

    That kind of says it all, David. My heart hurts. “prepared to pay the cat-price”

  9. M says:

    While I liked Sense and Sensibility, the best take I’ve seen on unattainable love has been from Patrick O’Brian, who’s been described as “Austen with testosterone”.

    Okay, not really. The reviewer said that if one of Austen’s brothers in the Royal Navy wrote novels, they would read like O’Brian’s. I just improved it a little.

    My favorite love story in the world is the romance between Stephen Maturin and Diana Villiers in those books. What they went through over a dozen volumes makes Marianne’s plight look like a schoolgirl crush. Stephen and Diana are absolutely heroic in their pursuit, and I’ve never seen their story equalled, let alone surpassed.

  10. Big Dan says:

    I for one, loved the movie and the book on different levels.

    My response to the problem at hand is that we may be setting up a false premise to begin with. We want Marianne to be reckless and wild and have everything work out. We don’t really consider what Marianne wants, or Elinor for that matter.

    I think (like to think?) that on some level, each truly wanted to be like what they perceived the other to be, but for their own versions of survival, they denied that impulse. In order not to risk love, Elinor plays it all with common sense. In order not to risk responsibility or even adulthood, Marianne hides her impulses behind the “reckless dreamer” that is only part of who she is. Together the gals make a total package, as it were.

    The message for me is that we all play games with our minds. We create false selves to keep down the anxiety, even if the mask itself creates more anxious moments than simple true-to-self honesty would.

    Wait, maybe I’m thinking of “Shrek.”

  11. red clay says:

    “The Adamantine Perfection of Desire

    Nothing more strong
    than to be helpless before desire.
    No reason,
    the simplified heart whispers,
    the argument over,
    only This.

    No longer choosing anything but assent.

    its bowl scraped clean to the bottom,
    the skull-bone no longer horrifies,
    but, rimmed in silver, shines.

    A spotted dog follows a bitch in heat.
    Grey geese fly past us, crying.
    The living cannot help but love the world.

    Jane Hirschfield”

  12. CW says:

    Red that’s a beautiful post.

    Steven Maturin and Diana Villiers – now there’s a romance.

    Warning: Very personal comment ahead.

    The notion of experiencing something so magic that you just want to have it again and again, at any cost, seems very -female- to me. My own experience is that love like that, if it doesn’t turn out well, which it often doesn’t, is more likely to result in a sensation much like that of being run over by a tracked vehicle.

    It isn’t magic, it’s like getting run over by a tracked vehicle. When you’re not Willoughby, and you know that later, when it’s too late and doesn’t matter, that love will be returned, and there’s nothing in the world that can be done about it, it’s like the tracked vehicle ran over you, reversed, backed up, then spun the tracks on top of you.

    It is reasonably simple psychology that a moderately sane person, having had such an experience, will avoid being subject such a feeling again unto pain of death in the future.

    If you have to live another 70 years ago in such a situation, you learn to put such feelings in very small, tightly closed, and closely guarded containers.

    People who routinely expose themselves to great risk and stress are taught to “compartmentalize” feelings, of any kind, very rapidly. I have found it is a terribly useful skill.

  13. M says:

    Interesting thought, CW. It reminds me of something I’ll call “The Dominique Corollary” to “The Marianne Problem”. (No, I’m not a mathematician but I play one on TV …)

    Remember Dominique Francon’s reaction to recognizing Howard Roark as her perfect love in The Fountainhead? She fought him, and tried to destroy him any way she could, even to the point of becoming his enemies’ lover – not out of sadism, but to prove to herself that he was The One, who would win through at any cost (and I guess also to protect herself from immolation in an unworthy love).

    I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but let me say that I’ve run into more than my share of Dominiques …
    I suspect they’re a uniquely 20th century phenomenon. Don’t know if they’ll carry over into the 21st. Thoughts, anyone?

  14. Steve says:

    I think this is probably what that psychologist guy would label “emotional intelligence.” Which is not really something I’ve got either.

    I don’t think the emotionally intelligent thing to do is go with a loveless marriage. The emotionally intelligent thing to do is to try to find someone who can shoot you to the moon at least occasionally, even if you have to work a lot at the relationship, even if it’s a pain in the ass. The emotionless marriage is not an option. It just leads to cheating.

    You have to take risks, follow your heart, and whatever you learn will have to be learnt the hard way. That is life. That is how we are wired. We are not wired to make the best decision the first time. If we are, we got lucky and our parents didn’t fuck us up in the head.


  15. Nephew says:

    Jane Austen herself had ‘an experience’ with a suitor that, whatever it was, appears to have put her off courtship ever-after, at a relatively early age, even by Georgian standards. The relevant letters etc seem to have been destroyed, either by Jane, or her relatives.
    The biographers know the guys name (I can’t remember off the top of my head), and where he ended up. But we don’t know if he was a Willoughby or not. He may have even been a Darcy who was a little too thin-skinned for Janes acid tongue …

    But let me put a guys perspective here – I think Jane Austen was really cute. I would looove to spend an hour in her front parlour exchanging light banter with her … the weeks and (maybe months) leading up to that first kiss would be so incredible. Thats why kisses are so devalued in the modern world. Too easy to get. Bring back formal courtship. And the gold standard.

  16. red says:

    CW: I do submit that it is a female thing. But … I mean, I’m a female. So it makes sense. And this goes back to my original thought – I can’t CHANGE that. I can’t change myself to such a degree that I don’t yearn for a big ol’ love affair.

    And your comment about compartmentalizing is very interesting. That’s the Elinor side of things. And that’s what I’ve become a master at. But also, to great cost.

    I will say that I am glad I have figured out how to keep certain things separate – so that one sadness in one area of my life doesn’t seep into ALL areas – if you know what I mean.

    But I do wonder if I’ll ever even be able to love again. Like I did back then. Maybe I’m sounding overly romantic. Perhaps. But again: that’s part of who I am. You can judge it if you like, and try to counsel me out of it (I’m not talking directly to you on that one, CW) – but it will do no good.

    It would be like trying to counsel a really shy or retiring type of person to start acting like Tallulah Bankhead because it would be GOOD for them.

    We are what we are.

  17. red says:

    And Nephew: “kisses are devalued in the modern world”?? What the hell are you talking about?

  18. red says:

    Oh wait, I wanted to add one more thing, CW:

    I just re-read my response to you and winced when I read the words “I wonder if I will be able to love again.”

    Please. Start the violins!

    What I really mean is this – and it was said better by Thomas Hardy at the end of Tess of the D’urbervilles – i’ve never forgotten it:

    Basically the gist of his point was: By the time, in life, when we actually may be MOST ready to give ourselves to love – when we actually have the MOST to give – because we have lived a bit, we aren’t untried youths anymore – we get richer with age, and experience – but anyway: By that time, many of us have been so chastened or frightened by our disasters, that we hide away the richness, it is no longer available.

    How wonderful it would be if all that richness were available when we were in our early 20s … when everything seems possible.

    Anyway – Hardy said it better. Forgive me!

  19. Mr. Z says:

    I agree with Nephew: kisses are devalued in the modern world. They are the one-cent piece in the sexual economy.

    Which is not to say that they can’t be pretty terrific, but they are entirely too common. Heck, we live in a world where intercourse is a fairly easy thing to get. Maybe not in this crowd, but sex just doesn’t hold the magic it once had, at least among the younger generation. And if sex is commonplace, what chance does a little ‘ole kiss stand?

    “Bring back the formal courtship.” Hear, hear! Let us agonize all night as to whether or not we will be graced with a kiss at the end of an evening. Let us dream of that kiss, fantasize about it, hope and pray that it’s everything we want it to be. Let us become romantically involved with one another again, instead of just sexually involved. Its no wonder love doesn’t last – it’s not pursued with the same intensity that sex is.

  20. red says:

    Well, as a member of the modern world, and as a person who loves kisses above all else, I still say: what the hell are you all talking about?? :)

    Really, all we can do is control our OWN way of living. If it suits you to do formal courtship, then do formal courtship, and don’t worry so much about what everyone else does.

    I love “formal” courtship myself. As long as it’s not TOO formal!

  21. Kaptin Marko says:

    I just have to add a couple things here, as a non-Austen reading hermit.

    I understand from the descriptions, and what I know about the book, the two types of characters here, and I am undoubtedly a Marianne.

    I have never been able to hide my feelings and I wear my heart on my sleeve. I am a man of high passions and have always wanted a titanic love to make full what I wanted in my life. I found it, and I married her. She is just as passionate as I am and we are deeply in love with each other, more now than ever, even after 16 years.

    The flip side of a titanic love is that the passions that fuel it are always right under the surface. A kiss is a titanic kiss, a disagreement is a titanic disagreement, a friend is a great friend and a betrayal is a deep betrayal. These are the realities that have intruded on my fantasies of perfect love.

    I have a perfect love, and I have adjusted my reality to it, the good and the bad. Instead of focusing on the shortcomings of reality, I have focused on the passion I sought, and the ever growing level of fulfillment it brings. If I did not, I would be a lonely, cynical, bitter man who would regard others as human detritus.

    If you are a person “of overwhelming love and passion”, then you must be prepared for every instance to be overwhelming, and you must be prepared to have a passionate reaction every time. If that is the way you are made, if that is the track your heart naturally follows, then why try to change it? What an immense gift! to be able to feel fully and see wholly and experience in every richness all the details of the good and the bad! To those who counsel caution, they are wise, and I have tried to follow their advice. Sometimes it has made me better and safer, but sometimes it just left me insulated. I value the wise and their make-up, I try to keep the wise close beside me, but my heart always yearns and longs for free flight!

    I say follow your dreams and your passions. I say live it! Live it all! Take everything that comes and let it be put into the fabric of your being, and in so doing make yourself a rich and deep tapestry, varied of hue and astonishing in its variety.

    Do not let fear, or “What if’s”, or regret dictate how you go forward in life. Go forward fearlessly, eyes open and heart open and ready for every experience, great or small, glad or sad or painful and take those experiences and shape them to your passion.

    What a wild ride! What a life! What a full realization of this existence, an existence without fear, and full of feeling.

    At any rate, I have gone on longer than I intended, and I don’t really know if this will fit this thread or not, but I appreciate the chance to post. Thank you.

  22. David says:

    For what it’s worth, I’m with Nephew. The kiss (not to mention everything thereafter) is way too easily obtained these days. Perhaps that makes us old-souls, of sorts, but so what? I don’t know that I’d want to court Austen herself, but I’d sure enjoy the challenge of a more pure romantic endeavor.

    To speak to your post specifically, however…I call the whole concept the “love is a fire” tangent. Whether it will warm your heart or burn your house down, you can rarely tell. But its probably best to keep it in the fire place (ie. have some amount of control over it).

    Agatha Christie: “I like living. I have sometimes been wildly, despairingly acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly that just to be alive is a grand thing.”

    I’d echo that, though I didn’t used to think this way. I’ve realized, over time, that it is in the extremes that we find ourselves most fully alive. Be they good or bad extremes. That being said, I don’t think that love at large boils down to a choice between the highest fulfillment of your passions that will surely harm you in the end and a mediocre quasi-fulfillment that’s always going to be around (alligator blood). Or, at least, it doesn’t have to be that choice, for everyone. Thank God real life isn’t like Austen.

    Perhaps I’m a dreamer but maybe, out there somewhere, is the confluence of the two? The grandest fulfillment that will remain? We have to at least assume it exists. The opposite certainly does. Granted, in this ideal, there will be the measures of pain, but you’ll see through them because of the permanent nature. And in the end, those lesser sadnesses will add to the joy that you have.

  23. red says:

    Kaptin: Beautiful. Thank you.

  24. Big Dan says:

    It all makes sense on paper.

    Then your heart turns it up-side down.

    The heart wants what it wants.

    Right now my heart wants a sandwich.

  25. red says:


    A “confluence”. Yes. I have to believe that it exists as well. :)

  26. Kaptin Marko says:

    Quite welcome, and a passionate bow and hat flourish to you as well.

  27. MikeR says:

    Geez, I could probably write a novel on this issue. Distilling it down as far as possible, I think the answer lies in learning to love that which is real, as opposed to that which is imaginary or artificial.

    Obviously, that’s much easier said than done. Reality usually falls short of the ideals floating around in our heads. However, I don’t think it’s “settling” to accept and learn to love that which is real. Because the other thing – the thing so many women (and men) really want – is an illusion. Illusions can be very beautiful, and they can carry you for a long time in some cases, but in the end there’s really nothing there.

    It’s a fact that guys who are willing to be an active participant in presenting an illusion, and also those who unintentionally serve as an archetype of one sort or other, receive a considerably greater amount of female attention than those who do not offer such enticements. As you might guess, I see myself as falling in the latter group. But even so, I can summon no bitterness at my circumstance. I’ve always loved women, always preferred their company, always found them – in general – vastly more fascinating and in possession of far greater emotional depth than men. Things are the way they are and you never know – every long once in a while, two atypical but uniquely well-suited people do find each other.

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