Hair Symbolism in Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Jane Austen, author of Sense and Sensibility
Jane Austen, author of Sense and Sensibility | Source

In Jane Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility, engagements and consequent marriages occur contrary to expectations. This is because all the clues and evidence held important by society and seen as indicative of engagement are ambiguous at best, if not entirely baseless and reliant on mere supposition.

An example of such evidence is the exchange of hair; an act that is believed to be evidence of a mutual sentiment, often when it is not.

The exchange of hair is viewed by many as proof of an ongoing engagement and with anticipation of upcoming and inevitable matrimony. It is therefore when Maragaret sees her sister Marianne supplying Willoughby with a lock of her hair at his apparent request, which he folds and places within his pocket-book, she exclaims to Elinor: "I am sure they will be married very soon, for he has got a lock of her hair" (61).

This action has the same meaning for Elinor, who "from such particulars, stated on such authority, [...] could not withhold her credit: nor was she disposed to it, for the circumstance was in perfect unison with what she had heard and seen herself" (61). Based on inexplicit circumstantial evidence both sisters' find Marianne's forthcoming marriage and current engagement to Willoughby credible.

Margaret has witnessed Marianne and Willoughby whispering to each other and interprets Willoughby's motions as if requesting Marianne's hair; she has actually heard nothing of their conversation but only watched their actions from afar. Therefore she knows neither why he requested a lock of hair, nor if he in fact requested it at all.

Elinor is predisposed to believe her sister's assumptions are correct based on what she herself inferred through past observations of the pair, not by any explicit statements of intent made by Willoughby, or any concrete tokens given to Marianne which would undeniably and openly prove his regard and commitment.

An illustration of Marianne giving Willoughby a lock of hair.
An illustration of Marianne giving Willoughby a lock of hair. | Source

Both sisters still unfalteringly believe in Willoughby's intent to marry Marianne, although the only substantial proof either saw was his miniature portrait that Marianne wore around her neck a mere week after meeting him, which was later discovered to be "only the miniature of [their] great uncle" (61).

In fact, Elinor initially cautions Margaret that the hair Willoughby held in his pocket-book may be that of "some great uncle of his" (61), although Margaret's claims of seeing Marianne give Willoughby her hair convinces Elinor of his regard.

Neither questions the fact that the hair is concealed under three levels: wrapped in paper, placed in a pocket-book, and secured within a pocket, far from the eyes of society and therefore a concealed display that proves little. It is therefore that Willoughby can later claim that he "endevoured, by every means in [his] power, to make [himself] pleasing to [Marianne], without any design of returning her affection" (299), as no intended design could ever be proven as no concrete proof had ever been supplied.

Yet even when a man wears the gift of a woman's hair prominently as a display of his attachment, it retains ambiguity. An example of this is Edward, who wears a ring containing a plait of hair. Though the hair is from only one woman, Marianne believes it initially belongs to his sister Fanny, which would then represent sibling attachment, although his sister's hair is darker in color.

After realizing this, in addition to Edward's embarrassment at her noticing the ring, Marianne concludes that it represents a romantic attachment, along with Elinor, and that it is in fact Elinor's hair, although Elinor herself is unsure if it is the correct shade or when it was obtained.

This situation is even more circumstantial than that involving Marianne's supposed engagement to Willoughby, because "what Marianne considered as a free gift from her sister, Elinor was conscious must have been procured by some theft or contrivance unknown to herself" (96). Marianne only assumes Elinor has given her hair to Edward, she has not seen the action taken place. Furthermore, Elinor herself thinks the hair to have been taken from her without her knowledge, and therefore has no absolute proof as to its identity.

In the 1800s giving a fiance a lock of hair was appropriate; any other man in any other situation was thought improper.
In the 1800s giving a fiancé a lock of hair was appropriate; any other man in any other situation was thought improper. | Source

Both women believe their own baseless theories to be true and give little thought to the possibility that it may be the hair of another woman.

Elinor seems to have a slight uncertainty, as "she internally resolved henceforward to catch every opportunity of eyeing the hair and of satisfying herself, beyond all doubt, that it was exactly the shade of her own" (96), yet no description of this further analysis exists, and no thought at all is given to the possibility of Edward being romantically involved with another woman to whom the hair could belong.

It is not long before, without any additional proof in the matter and despite Edward's strange and questionable behavior, that Elinor turns "for comfort to the renewal of her confidence in Edward's affection, [...]above all to that flattering proof of it which he constantly wore round his finger" (100). Thereby Elinor dismisses tangible evidence, such as Edward's troubled behavior, in favor of beliefs of his affection based on a ring which she cannot know with certainty contains her own hair.

In this instance, the ring does represent an engagement, unlike Marianne's hair when given to Willoughby; however, it represents the engagement of Edward to another: to Lucy, the owner of the hair contained within the ring. However, even after this fact comes to light Elinor feels sure that although the ring unquestioningly represents Edward's engagement, it does not represent Edward's feelings of attachment to Lucy, and that "Edward was not only without affection for the person who was to be his wife; but that he had not even the chance of being tolerably happy in marriage" (145).

The gift of hair within the novel Sense and Sensibility is surrounded by ambiguity and yet is treated as fact. Consequently, the hair never represents what the main characters believe it to represent. The act of giving hair can be viewed by one as an engagement, by another as a token of mere affection, and by yet another as a regrettable promise that must be fulfilled.

Once given, the hair itself can be viewed as either sisterly affection or romantic attachment, and to any of several different women. The gift of hair and the hair itself thereby represent nothing for certain as they potentially represent many things, and therefore the characters of the novel that make predictions based upon the gift of hair are usually mistaken.

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Comments 3 comments

melissa 5 years ago

A lock of hair has been for centuries as a very personal gift to bestow. Such things should not be taken lightly. With the case of Willoughby his goal was to keep his chances open. He fools Marianne in believing she is the only lady of his heart, when in reality it was money that won him at the end.

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Schatzie Speaks 5 years ago from US Author

Thank you for your comment, Melissa. I completely agree!

Anna 2 months ago

I totally agree with what melissa has share.

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