First impressions are often misleading. In fact, passing judgment on people the first time you meet them is toxic. I’m guilty of it. I’m sure you’re guilty of it. And the characters in Jane Austen’s novels are CERTAINLY guilty of it.
Identifying physical signs and analyzing them is one of the ways that society reaches the first impression of a person. This idea of judgment based upon appearance, physical features, and basic behaviors was also prevalent in the Victorian Era, specifically arising in Jane Austen’s novels. However, first impressions in the worlds of Austen’s novels are even more shallow than they are today.
In her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen utilizes characters’ judgment based on the visual to critique Victorian Era society. My favorite instance of this is when Marianne sprains her ankle and is saved by her knight in shining armor, the “manly beauty” Willoughby. When Willoughby delivers the injured Marianne back to the cottage, Mrs. Dashwood treats him as a hero, a god in sorts, based upon the idea that he is dashing with strong physical features.
I argue that this is because of the implications and reactions of attractiveness in society. There’s an old adage that says being attractive makes people trust you. This is prevalent in the interaction between the women of the cottage and Willoughby.
On top of this idea, Austen herself utilizes narration to paint Willoughby in a good light based upon his looks alone. She describes him as the perfect man, bound by praise and affection. The narration sheds light on the privileges and priorities of Victorian England; Victorians possessed a privileged, uppity world indicative of Austen’s novels. However, the question I keep coming back to is whether or not Austen’s novels entirely represent satirical commentary or a mix of both satire and factual representation of how Austen sees the world.
The description and handling of Willoughby is the perfect instance of judging a book by its cover. The narration confirms that and in turn, admits its guilt to creating a world based on sensibility and dramatized pettiness.