Sense and Sensibility

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Sense and Sensibility

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

Jane Austen


Sense and Sensibility was first published in 1811, sixteen years after Jane Austen began the first draft, titled "Elinor and Marianne." Financed by Austen's brother and attributed only to "A Lady," it was the first of her novels to be put into print.

Austen is particularly known for her sharp portraits of early-nineteenth-century upper-class English society and for her remarkable talent in creating complex, vibrant characters. Sense and Sensibility is no exception. It is the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who, as members of the upper class, cannot "work" for a living and must therefore make a suitable marriage to ensure their livelihood. The novel is a sharply detailed portraiture of the decorum surrounding courtship and the importance of marriage to a woman's livelihood and comfort.

The novel is also, as is most evident in its title, a comparison between the sisters' polar personalities. The eldest sister, Elinor, exemplifies the sense of the title—she is portrayed as a paragon of common sense and diplomatic behavior—while her younger sister Marianne personifies sensibility in her complete abandonment to passion and her utter lack of emotional control. In upholding Elinor's levelheaded and rational behavior and criticizing Marianne's romantic passions, Austen follows the form of the didactic novel, in which the personalities of two main characters are compared in order to find favor with one position and therefore argue against the other. Although rich in character development and wit, Sense and Sensibility is viewed

as one of Austen's lesser works because of this formulaic approach, which Austen abandons in her more mature novels.

Author Biography

Jane Austen, a nineteenth-century English novelist, is considered one of Britain's most important writers. Her talent has been compared to that of Shakespeare, and her work remains an integral and important part of what is commonly accepted as the canon of classic English literature.

Austen was born December 16, 1775, in Steventon, Hampshire, the seventh child and second daughter of Rev. George Austen and his wife Cassandra. As a clergyman's daughter, Austen was a member of the professional class. As she lived her entire life in the country, she wrote about her society and her surroundings, and she would become famous for her insightful portrayals of upper-class English country life.

The Austens, though plagued by debt, were a learned family of book lovers. Her mother wrote light poetry, and her brothers, in early adulthood, aspired to literary endeavors while they were at college. Their delight in language, puns, and witticisms is evident in Austen's works.

Except for brief stints at boarding schools, Austen was schooled largely at home, benefitting from her father's extensive library. She and her sister Cassandra, who remained her closest friend throughout her life, were given a proper girls' education in that they learned to play the piano and draw, but unlike their brothers, who attended Oxford, they were not afforded a formal, extended education.

Austen's novels often focus on the necessity of women of her society to marry for security. Although Austen did have several suitors throughout her early adulthood, she never did marry, either because of a lack of money on both sides or because of a lack of compatibility.

As a teenager, Jane wrote plays and stories, mostly satires and parodies of contemporary work, for the amusement of her family. She began the manuscripts for her serious novels in her early twenties, but she was hard-pressed to find publishers for any of them. Sixteen years after first beginning Sense and Sensibility as "Elinor and Marianne," a publisher finally agreed to take the manuscript—but the printing was done at the expense of Austen's brother. To avoid developing a scandalous reputation, for it was still frowned upon for women to indulge in literary endeavors, Austen published her first book anonymously. Sense and Sensibility proved to be successful: Austen netted 140 pounds. Encouraged, she went on to publish three more novels: Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), and Emma (1816). However, even after her work gained in popularity and demand, her brother Henry did not reveal his sister's identity until after her death.

Austen died in Winchester on July 18, 1817, after a gradual illness. Henry went on to publish Austen's final novels in 1818. They were North-anger Abbey and Persuasion.

Plot Summary

Chapters 1–2

Elinor and Marianne, the Dashwood sisters and main characters of the novel, are introduced. The novel opens with a description of the line of inheritance of the Dashwood estate. Mr. John Dashwood, the half brother of the Dashwood sisters, is left controlling virtually the entire inheritance. He promises his father that he will take care of his half sisters.

Mrs. John Dashwood shrewdly convinces her husband that his promise need not include any significant financial obligation to his sisters. Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood take over the residence in Norland after inheriting the estate, leaving Mrs. Henry Dashwood and her daughters feeling like visitors in their home. Elinor, Marianne, and the younger Margaret will have to rely on their charms in securing a husband for their future comfort and security.

Chapters 3–5

Edward Ferrars, the brother of Mrs. John Dashwood and a man due to inherit a significant fortune, is introduced as a love interest of Elinor. The temperaments of Elinor and Edward suit each other perfectly. Both are practical and not inclined to passionate outbursts. Marianne is not impressed with Edward. However, Mrs. Dashwood, recognizing the necessity of her daughters to marry well, is pleased with the developing intimacy between the two. Mrs. Dashwood, accepting the offer of a relation, moves with her daughters to a cottage in Barton. The move separates Edward and Elinor.

Chapters 6–8

The Dashwoods get settled in their new home and make the acquaintance of Sir John Middleton, the relation who made the cottage available to them. The sisters are invited to the Middleton's home for a social gathering. There they meet Lady Middleton, Mrs. Jennings, who is Lady Middleton's mother, and Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John. Marianne plays the pianoforte and Colonel Brandon silently listens. Marianne thinks that Brandon, a man of thirty-five, is old, jaded, and has outlived his usefulness in enjoying life. Later, Mrs. Jennings, a gossip and matchmaker, believes that Brandon is interested in pursuing Marianne.

Chapters 9–10

While out walking with Margaret, Marianne falls and twists her ankle. She is rescued by the dashing John Willoughby. Later, the Dashwoods learn that Willoughby has a good reputation and is due to come into a fortune. Willoughby and Marianne have similar, romantic outlooks on life and share the same opinions on art. Marianne, in tune with her romantic notions about life, falls headover-heels in love with Willoughby.

Chapters 11–12

Elinor believes that the relationship between Marianne and Willoughby is too intimate and that it has crossed the boundaries of decorum; they are too open with each other. The gift of a horse to Marianne is viewed as unacceptable and extravagant. Elinor, unlike her sister, finds Brandon a likeable character. The theory that humans are destined to have only one love is broached. Brandon has had his heart broken. Elinor can forgive this because she is sensible. Marianne, with her romantic notions, believes this a fatal flaw.

Media Adaptations

  • Sense and Sensibility was first adapted for television in 1985. This version starred Irene Richards and Tracey Childs.
  • A movie adaptation was produced in 1995 by Columbia/Tri Star Studios and directed by Ang Lee. The film starred Emma Thompson (who also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay), Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet.
  • Several abridged audio recordings of the novel have been produced, most notably a version read by Kate Winslet, produced by Highbridge.
  • An unabridged audio version, 900 minutes long and performed by Jill Masters, is available from Blackstone Audiobooks.

Chapters 13–15

Brandon gets bad news in a letter, which Mrs. Jennings conjectures must contain news about an unfortunate Miss Eliza Williams. Brandon departs, and Willoughby makes mocking comments about his serious nature. Marianne and Willoughby become more and more of an item of gossip and speculation. Willoughby shows Marianne the house he is to inherit. The assumption is that Marianne will one day be mistress of this house as the future Mrs. John Willoughby. However, there is no formal engagement announcement, and Elinor and her mother are left to speculate about the true nature of the relationship. Willoughby's dialogue further unmasks his romantic notions. He is just like Marianne. They are romantics who behave according to sensibility and not sense. Willoughby suddenly breaks the news to Marianne that he must depart for London.

Chapters 16–18

Marianne sulks over the sudden, unexpected departure of Willoughby. It is in her nature to suffer openly. Edward Ferrars appears at Barton for a short visit. The further portrayal of Edward's sensible character illustrates his suitability for Elinor. Elinor suspects that the lock of hair Edward has in a ring was stealthily taken from her during their time together in Norland.

Chapters 19–21

Elinor handles Edward's departure with stoicism, in marked contrast to Marianne pining for Willoughby. The Palmers, relatives of Mrs. Jennings, appear at a social gathering. Various allusions about the unreliability of gossip as an information source are made in these chapters; for example, Mrs. Palmer "heard" from Brandon's "look" that Marianne and Willoughby are to wed. The Steele sisters are introduced during a social gathering. Elinor does not like Lucy Steele, but her sensible diplomacy forbids her from making this apparent.

Chapters 22–24

Elinor learns that she has been grossly mistaken about Edward's sentiments. Lucy Steele admits that she, Lucy, is engaged to Edward, and that the lock of hair is hers. Elinor, who Lucy has taken into her confidence, bears this news silently for the sake of propriety.

Chapters 25–26

The daughters agree to accompany Mrs. Jennings to London. Marianne is completely self-absorbed during the journey. She wants to meet Willoughby in London. Upon arrival, she writes him a note, which remains unanswered.

Chapters 27–30

Brandon appears in London. Gossip abounds regarding the relationship between Marianne and Willoughby. However, Marianne is increasingly perturbed over Willoughby's failure to contact her. Finally, she meets him at a party. Willoughby, who is there with another woman, treats her rudely. Marianne is devastated. The next day, Marianne receives a cruelly cool letter from Willoughby and becomes hysterical with grief.

Chapters 31–32

Brandon appears and relates to Elinor the true character of Willoughby, revealing that he seduced Eliza Williams. Brandon and Willoughby fought a duel over the incident. The reader learns, incidentally, that Willoughby has married Miss Grey, a woman of considerable circumstance. Marianne remains completely despondent.

Chapters 33–36

John Dashwood appears in London. Mrs. Ferrars, the mother of Edward, also appears. Edward finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being in a room alone with Elinor and Lucy. Marianne is still so self-absorbed that she cannot discern that there is no relationship between Edward and Elinor.

Chapters 37–41

The engagement of Lucy and Edward is unwittingly made public. Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars are all greatly upset by the socially unsuitable match. Marianne finally learns that her sister, too, has a broken heart. Mrs. Ferrars disinherits her eldest son, leaving Edward in serious financial difficulties. The good-hearted Brandon offers, in a conversation with Elinor, to provide Edward with a living. Elinor relates the offer to Edward.

Chapters 42–44

The Dashwood daughters leave for Cleveland and then home to Barton. After a long walk in the rain, where Marianne goes to look on Cum Magna (the estate in which Willoughby lives), she catches a cold and soon becomes feverish. She is quite ill and there is concern as to whether she will survive. Elinor asks Colonel Brandon to send word to the girls' mother to rush to Cleveland. Willoughby appears uninvited and makes a startling confession to Elinor: he needed to marry for money and regrets treating Marianne the way he did. The final letter jilting Marianne was actually dictated under orders of his fiancé. Marianne slowly recuperates.

Chapters 45–50

Mrs. Henry Dashwood arrives. Brandon admits to her his feelings for Marianne. Mrs. Henry Dashwood realizes that Brandon would be perfect for Marianne. Marianne realizes that her behavior has been bad and that her romantic philosophy is flawed. When Marianne learns of Willoughby's visit, she holds her composure; she has learned to behave like her sister. Elinor mistakenly believes that Edward has wed. She is truly wounded. Then, Edward appears. As in so much of the book, the gossip is wrong: Edward's brother Robert is the one who married Lucy, after Lucy changed her affection to Robert due to Edward's financial despondency. Edward now pursues his true feelings and asks Elinor to marry him. Edward's penitence towards his mother gradually allows him to get back in her good graces. Mrs. Ferrars gives grudging consent to their marriage, which occurs in the autumn. The marriage of Brandon and Marianne becomes inevitable. Elinor and Edward end up near Barton, on Brandon's estate in Delaford. The book ends with a description, alluding to life being a sensible, practical compromise.


Colonel Brandon

Colonel Brandon is the affluent suitor and eventual husband of Marianne Dashwood. Although reserved and not passionate, he has a very good heart and helps out those in distress. His charitable behavior toward Eliza Williams and Edward Ferrars makes him the unnoticed knight in shining armor. Upon first meeting, and throughout most of the book, Marianne considers Brandon much too old (thirty-five) and sensible. He has clearly already had his heart broken, and the romantic Marianne believes that everyone is fated to only love once; she prefers the young, handsome, and spontaneous Willoughby, who eventually jilts her. Proving that patience is a virtue, Brandon remains on the perimeter until Marianne gets over being jilted. Brandon's character and temperament conform to Austen's and Elinor's idea of sense rather than sensibility.

Miss Elinor Dashwood

Elinor Dashwood is the eldest daughter of Mrs. Dashwood. At nineteen years of age, she is quite mature. She personifies the sense in the title of the work; she is practical and concerned with diplomacy. She values coolness of judgment more highly than rash surrender to emotional whims. In spite of the fact that she has strong feelings and artistic talent (she draws), a sense of prudence governs her actions. She puts the concerns and wellbeing of others above her own. She sees Edward Ferrars, a man who comports himself much like she does, as a future spouse. When this match briefly fails, she copes privately, never letting on to others how much she is wounded. She is the glue that holds the family together during times of stress; she often counsels her mother and sisters to behave with restraint. Throughout the book, Austen holds up Elinor as a paragon of virtue.

Mrs. Fanny Dashwood

Fanny Dashwood is the wife of John Dashwood. She is manipulative and greedy and convinces her husband that he need not concern himself with the financial comfort of his half sisters. Her arguments in chapter 2 show that she is both shrewd and selfish. Her thoughts, much like her husband's, revolve around the family wealth and social standing. Mrs. Henry Dashwood and her daughters dislike Fanny. When Fanny installs herself as mistress at Norland, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters accept an offer to leave for Barton. Austen never gives a flattering description of Fanny, displaying a marked scorn in all depictions of her.

Mr. Henry Dashwood

Henry Dashwood is the father of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. His untimely death, when coupled with the provisions in his uncle's will, leaves his wife and daughters in a financial predicament. Henry Dashwood's wish that his son John provide for his half sisters is not fulfilled to the extent of his intentions.

Mrs. Henry Dashwood

Mrs. Henry Dashwood is the mother of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. After the death of her husband, she leaves the estate in Norland because she cannot stand Mrs. John Dashwood, her stepson's wife, who has abruptly replaced her as the lady of the estate. She accepts an invitation from a relative, Sir John Middleton, to live with her daughters in a cottage in Barton. Her temperament is closer to the sensibility, or passionate nature, of Marianne than the sense, or sensible nature, of Elinor. Elinor must often keep her mother from acting imprudently.

Mr. John Dashwood

Mr. John Dashwood is the half brother of Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. He is coldhearted and selfish. His wife easily manipulates him and brings him around to her way of thinking. He falls prey to his wife's cunning, in chapter 2, when she convinces him that his father never intended for him to help his half sisters financially. Constantly obsessed with money and social standing, he neglects to take care of his sisters as his father had wished. He wants to see his sisters marry well so that he is not bothered by a bad conscience. Austen never describes him in flattering terms.

Margaret Dashwood

Margaret is the younger sister of Elinor and Marianne. As she is not yet old enough to court suitors, she is used mainly as a character through which other characters in the novel discern information about Elinor and Marianne.

Miss Marianne Dashwood

Marianne is the middle Dashwood sister. She is considered the "catch" of the Dashwood family by those who gather at Sir Middleton's parties. Marianne personifies the sensibility in the title of the book. Marianne is a girl whose "sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation." She is all passion and romantic notions; this is typified in her playing the piano. While living out her passions, she is totally self-absorbed and unconcerned with the poor impression that she often makes on others. It is often up to her sister, Elinor, to smooth over her behavior. Marianne believes that it is only in the nature of the human spirit to love once. Her obsession with Willoughby, a man who jilts her, as her one true love, leads to a long period of despondency in which she must gradually reassess her values and philosophy. She ends up marrying Colonel Brandon, a man of whom she once spoke derisively. Nevertheless, she is content because she comes to respect the wisdom of sense over sensibility. The transformation of Marianne's values and behavior is a crucial theme in the book.

Dr. Davies

Dr. Davies often drives the Miss Steeles around in his coach.

Edward Ferrars

Edward Ferrars is the love interest of Elinor Dashwood. He is the eldest son of a man who died very rich. However, he must marry a woman of his mother's approval to come into his fortune. Austen writes, "He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing." Edward is not pretentious and prefers a simpler life than the one his mother has planned for him. His practical nature and moderate character are similar to Elinor's. The two end up together as the book comes to a close.

Mrs. Ferrars

Mrs. Ferrars is a meddlesome, vindictive woman who attempts to control her sons by holding their inheritance as ransom. She wants to see Edward marry the rich and socially connected Miss Morton. When Edward makes public his plan to marry Lucy Steele, a woman of low social and financial standing, Mrs. Ferrars disowns her eldest son.

Robert Ferrars

Robert Ferrars is Edward's younger brother. A coxcomb, he becomes the beneficiary of his mother's anger at Edward. When his mother disinherits Edward, she makes Robert the main beneficiary, although Robert ends up marrying the very woman, Lucy Steele, who caused the strife.

Miss Sophia Grey

Miss Grey is the woman whom Willoughby eventually marries. She forces Willoughby to write the letter that causes Marianne's despondency.

Dr. Harris

Dr. Harris is the doctor who tends to Marianne when she falls deathly ill.

Mrs. Jennings

Mrs. Jennings is the mother of Lady Middleton and Mrs. Charlotte Palmer. She is merry, fat, and rather vulgar. Obsessed with gossip and matchmaking, she is intent on marrying off the Dashwood sisters. She makes jokes often and has a good heart.

Sir John Middleton

Sir John Middleton is a relative of Mrs. Dashwood who offers her and her daughters a small cottage at Barton in Devonshire. He often gives large dinner parties to which the Dashwood daughters are always invited. John is forty years old, good-humored, and solicitous. He is, however, somewhat of a bore; his conversation is often restricted to hunting.

Lady Middleton

Lady Middleton is the wife of John Middleton. In her mid-twenties, she is handsome and elegant. However, she is somewhat cold and reserved. Obsessed with her children, she talks of virtually nothing else. The Dashwood sisters find her and her husband good-natured but boring.

Mrs. Charlotte Palmer

Charlotte Palmer is Mrs. Jennings's other daughter. She is in her early twenties, pregnant, and not quite as elegant as her sister. She is good-natured, optimistic, and happy. The Dashwood sisters consider her rather silly and boring.

Mr. Thomas Palmer

Thomas Palmer is the husband of Charlotte. He is about twenty-six, grave, and with an air of self-importance. He does not say much, is rather taciturn and brooding, and is considered rather boring by the Dashwood sisters.

Mrs. Smith

Mrs. Smith is an elderly relative of Willoughby's who controls his future wealth.

Miss Anne Steele

Miss Anne Steele is the older sister of Lucy. She is not as good-looking as her sister. Nearly thirty, she is destined to be an old maid.

Miss Lucy Steele

Lucy Steele is the girl to whom Edward Ferrars proposes during his education at Mr. Pratt's (who is her uncle). When Edward is disinherited, Lucy feels no remorse in switching her interest to Edward's brother, Robert. Lucy is not well educated. Austen includes many grammatical errors and inconsistencies in Lucy's conversations.

Miss Eliza Williams

Eliza Williams is the illegitimate daughter of the first love of Colonel Brandon. Although not her father, Brandon provides for Eliza, even after she is seduced and abandoned by Willoughby.

Mr. John Willoughby

John Willoughby is the dashing and handsome romantic interest of Marianne Dashwood. He conforms exactly to her idea of love and, at twenty-five, is much younger than Colonel Brandon. He appears out of nowhere to rescue her from distress and then proceeds to sweep her off her feet. He has impassioned views on art that conform with Marianne's exactly. However, he is also a callous womanizer who left one woman in a dire predicament and who immediately begins to see other women after separating from Marianne. He must also rely on a good marriage to procure his fortune. Willoughby jilts Marianne in a most cruel manner with a callous letter, leaving her to wallow in the misery of rejection for much of the book. He remains rather a villain until he confesses to Elinor that he resents having married for money and was forced to write the letter at his future wife's dictation.



The sense of the novel's title refers to the rational, sensible nature of Elinor, which Austen holds up as exemplary. Elinor suffers through various trials and tribulations, particularly after being jilted by Edward. However, she never abandons herself to her emotions and never lets her own disappointments affect her behavior toward others. In fact, she strives to keep her heartbreak to herself for the sake of social propriety and for the sake of her own family's ease. She always remains sensitive to others' feelings, even if she does not particularly like them, and strives to behave with social graciousness. She keeps the secret of Lucy's engagement to Edward to herself. En route to London, while Marianne indulges her obsession with Willoughby and ignores her hostess, Elinor holds polite conversations with Mrs. Jennings. Austen, in making Elinor the heroine of the book, shows that the sensitive approach to social interactions is superior to a selfish abandon to emotions.

Sensibility, or Passion, and Romanticism

The sensibility in the novel's title can be read as passion and refers to Marianne's emotional, romantic nature. Sense and Sensibility is largely seen as a criticism of romanticism, of which freedom of passion and emotion is an important tenet. The romantic sensibility of Marianne is portrayed by Austen as selfish and is gradually unmasked as weak and unrealistic when compared to Elinor's diplomatic and sensible beliefs. Austen's view is that a person who lives for passion is bound to be disappointed by the harsh realities of life. Marianne falls victim to her romantic notions after Willoughby jilts her. Her hysterical, inconsolable behavior is largely a result of her romantic nature. Marianne becomes physically and emotionally weak while her sister, who has suffered a similar fate but has a more sensible philosophy, can still function on a day-to-day basis. When Marianne recovers from a near-deadly illness brought on by her hysteria, she resolves to control her emotions, abandoning her more naïve romantic philosophies and adopting an outlook more akin to Elinor's—illustrating Austen's prevailing view of the inferiority of romanticism to rationality and emotional control. Marianne's eventual marriage to Colonel Brandon is practical, based on sense, not passion.

Marriage and Courtship

Sense and Sensibility describes the courtship of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood by their suitors. The importance that many families place on the wealth of a potential partner is a significant theme that runs throughout the book, playing a major part in the characters' conversations and preoccupations. Willoughby cannot consider Marianne as a spouse because she is not wealthy enough. Mrs. Ferrars pressures her sons, unsuccessfully, to marry wealthy women. The sisters' different attitudes toward love are contrasted in how they fall in love and deal with rejection. Romantic, passionate love, exemplified by Marianne's philosophies, is contrasted with the more sensible reasons for choosing a spouse, which are illustrated by Elinor's more rational approach.

Topics For Further Study

  • In Vindication of the Rights of Women, a classic feminist work published during Austen's lifetime, Mary Wollstonecraft argues that because women are enslaved to their weaker sensibilities, they must become completely dependant on the more rational men to survive. Wollstonecraft believes that women can only gain their independence through the complete rejection of their sensibility in favor of a strict course of rational education. Based on your reading of Sense and Sensibility, how do you think Jane Austen would respond to this argument? Do you think she was a supporter of Wollstonecraft's views?
  • One of the major political movements of the eighteenth century was taking place in France during the time that Jane Austen began her writing career. The Jacobins had just taken over France from the aristocracy; their cry for individuality and personal freedom, or sensibility, was revolutionary at the time and would come to profoundly impact all of European politics. How do you see the political events in France affecting Austen's writing of Sense and Sensibility? Does she side with the Jacobins' cry for individual freedoms, or do you think Austen was more conservative and would have wanted to retain the status quo?
  • Sense and Sensibility is often described as a "didactic" novel, that is, a novel that pits two opposing viewpoints against each other. Didactic novels were popular at the time Austen was writing and were known for being formulaic: one view point always won over the other. The opposing viewpoints in this novel are obviously sense and sensibility. Do you consider Sense and Sensibility to be didactic in the classic sense of the word? In other words, is there a clear winner and loser in the struggle between sense and sensibility?
  • One of the curious characteristics of Sense and Sensibility is the almost complete absence of father figures from the main action. The father of nearly every adult child in the novel who has to make a decision about matrimony is either dead or absent, and for some it is the mother who has sole authority over them. In fact, mothers play a leading role in the upbringing and education of many of the novel's leading characters. Can you discern Austen's view of motherhood from your reading of Sense and Sensibility? How are the mothers in the novel represented, and what point do you think Austen is attempting to make?
  • Sense and Sensibility very much centers around a small minority of the English population at the beginning of the nineteenth century, namely, the upper class. There is little mention of workers or farmers, yet agrarian reform and the earliest stages of the Industrial Revolution were having a profound affect on these lower classes and, in turn, were affecting the upper classes that Austen was writing about. Research the class structure of England at the time of the publication of Sense and Sensibility. Describe the reforms that were affecting farmers at the time and discuss the ways the working classes were being affected by changing technologies. How did these changes come to impact the classes represented by the characters in Sense and Sensibility?

Role of Women

Austen's portrait of the Dashwood sisters is an excellent example of the plight of upper-class English women without an abundance of family wealth in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These women had to marry well to remain comfortable financially. Working was not a viable option; a woman's fate was largely contingent on her husband and his standing in society, or else she remained completely dependent upon the generosity of her male relatives. Lucy Steele, the most uncouthly ambitious of all the female characters, blatantly jilts her longtime fiancé, Edward Ferrars, when he loses his inheritance, and she marries his newly rich brother. Though both Elinor and Marianne are interested in their respective men not for their fortunes but for their compatibility, they are well aware that a "suitable match" not only means finding a man of compatible nature but also of enough means to support a marriage and family.

Ideal Love

The romantic notion of one ideal, passionate love is critiqued and parodied through the behavior and views of Marianne. She criticizes Brandon for having already loved. However, after she is jilted by Willoughby, she must come to realize that human beings adapt to disappointment and learn to feel strong emotional attachments again. Marianne's fate in marrying the very man she initially belittled is further evidence of Austen's skepticism concerning the notion of ideal love.

Social Classes and Hierarchies

Austen's novel gives an accurate portrait of the professional class (Austen's own) and the landed gentry (the social class one above her own) in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. The landed gentry characters have estates and are idle (they do not have careers and jobs in the modern sense). Many of the women in the professional class marry upwards into the landed gentry. This happens to Marianne. Wealth is passed down through inheritance and the concept of primogeniture, where the eldest son becomes the legal heir of his parents' estate. John Dashwood inherits the Dashwood estate and is left to dole out funds to his sisters as he chooses. Edward, Mrs. Ferrars's eldest son, is to be the primary heir until the scandalous announcement of his engagement to the socially inferior Lucy Steele. None of the characters in the professional or landed gentry class worry where their next meal is coming from. The "cottage" at Barton that Mrs. Henry Dashwood moves into with her daughters has quite a few rooms. Although the Dashwoods' financial situation is not bright, they are not members of the working class.


Original Conception and the Didactic Genre

Sense and Sensibility was first drafted as an epistolary novel—that is, a novel in the form of letters between characters. It is likely that Austen was imitating the format of Samuel Richardson, an author whom she grew up admiring who presented heroine-centered domestic fictions. At some point in her writing, Austen dismissed the idea of an epistolary novel and instead drafted what would eventually become the didactic novel, a form that was popular in the 1790s. Critic Marilyn Butler explains: "The didactic novel which compares the beliefs and conduct of two protagonists—with the object of finding one invariably right and the other invariably wrong—seems to have been particularly fashionable during the years 1795–1796." Seen in this light, Austen's first published novel, right down to the duality in the title, is a perfect example of the didactic novel. In fact, it is so much so that critics are apt to dismiss it as formulaic in comparison with Austen's later, more mature works. Butler asserts that Sense and Sensibility is "unremittingly didactic," and she adds, "All the novelists who choose the contrast format do so in order to make an explicit ideological point."

Presentation of Dichotomous Ideologies

The duality that Austen presents is the contrast between Elinor's sense and Marianne's sensibility. This duality implies much more than the mere definitions of the two words; the sisters personify conflicting philosophies and ideologies. Critics have grappled with one another to define and redefine exactly what Elinor's sense and Marianne's sensibility signify. Various critics have attributed Elinor's sense to humble Christian values and a conservative nature. Austen's portrayal of Marianne, conversely, is often viewed as an indictment against various literary and political philosophies then in style. The two most obvious targets in the negative portrayal of Marianne are romanticism and the egocentric philosophy of the revolutionaries in France. Much like German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did in The Sorrows of Young Werther, Austen presents a character with a weak, romantic philosophy who becomes unhinged by strictly adhering to its precepts. Seen in this light, Marianne's oversensitive, passionate nature is a criticism of the egotistical nature of romanticism (while it may not have been deliberately so, romanticism as a movement was still ill-defined, it certainly encompasses the weaknesses of the developing movement), especially when contrasted with Elinor's classical nature. Elinor's behavior also alludes to the weaknesses in the individualistic philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose work influenced the French Revolution.

Butler feels that Austen eventually grew bored with the didactic nature of the work. The novel advances according to a strict formula. The heroines are courted and jilted by men who they see as indicative of their corresponding philosophies. However, late in the novel, after the sisters have accompanied Mrs. Jennings to London, Austen's authorial talents loosen the constrictions of the didactic novel; she presents events more ambiguously, and minor characters like Lucy Steele play increasingly important roles, particularly after Marianne, jilted and hysterical, is removed from the central action of the novel. The categorical assumption implicit in the didactic genre that one philosophy is right and the other is wrong is weakened by Austen's allowing Marianne to live. Butler writes that "it is remarkable how the harsh outlines of the ideological scheme are softened. Often the changes are small ones, such as turning the jilted heroine's near-obligatory decline and death into a feverish cold caught, plausibly, from staying out to mope in the rain." In short, Austen's talents are too abundant and her observations too precise to be restricted by the formula she chose. Critics feel that the work is more stunted and constrained than her later writings, which were not hindered by this genre choice.

Narrative Voice

In order to portray the contrasting ideologies, Austen employs the third-person narrative technique; the narrator is not part of the action in any way. However, the tone of the narrator is closely aligned with Elinor's beliefs and value system. Elinor is constantly described in flattering terms, while Marianne's behavior is presented in an unflattering light. So, although the narrative is presented in the third person, it is not exactly neutral. There is a scathing quality to this narrative voice that, although it preaches moderation and diplomacy in behavior, is quick to describe greedy, vacuous, insipid minor characters in blunt, terribly unflattering terms. One need only look at a description of Mrs. John Dashwood (Fanny), Mrs. Ferrars, Lady Middleton, or Robert Ferrars to realize that the narrator is often not acting with the same restraint that she preaches.


John F. Burrows writes, "Jane Austen's letters make it clear that she and her family were keenly interested in the niceties of usage and amused by solecisms [grammatical mistakes] of every kind." Austen delights in conveying the dialogue of Lucy Steele verbatim, with plenty of grammatical errors alluding to her poor social standing and lack of education. However, in spite of this exception, dialogue is not an important aspect of the work. This is because, as Butler writes, "the heroine is not so much in doubt about the nature of external truth, as concerned with the knowledge of herself, her passions, and her duty." Sense and Sensibility is an introspective novel that need not rely on dialogue to convey Elinor and the narrator's convictions.

Historical Context

Social Classes in the English Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries

Jane Austen was a member of the professional class. The men in the professional class were expected to pursue a profession, either the army, navy, clergy, law, or medicine. The women were excluded from these professions and were expected to marry. Elinor and Marianne are representative examples of young ladies of the professional class. In Sense and Sensibility, they socialize with and marry into the landed gentry, the next higher social class. Social assimilation and upward mobility of this sort is a major theme in many of Austen's works.

Members of the landed gentry were largely idle. They lived off the wealth of their estates. For leisure, the men hunted and the women gathered in the parlor. They lived in country estates and were completely separated from any squalor of the big city, London, and remained unaffected by economic hardships caused by the war with France. In order to ensure that a family's wealth did not diminish by being split up excessively, the concept of primogeniture was obeyed: the eldest son inherited the majority of the estate and the younger sons were left to join the professional class, in which they actually needed to earn a living in a profession. Although Colonel Brandon is not the eldest son, his brother died early, leaving him in the position of the eldest. When she learns that her son, Edward, intends to marry a woman beneath him in social rank, Mrs. Ferrars disinherits her eldest son in favor of the younger fop, rake, and coxcomb, Robert.

Austen rarely mentions aristocratic characters in her work. Members of the lower social classes are only mentioned in passing. An important exception is Eliza Williams, the unfortunate woman who is seduced by Willoughby. Otherwise, the lower classes are represented by the servants, who do not play an important role in the work.

The French Revolution

The political and social unrest in France had a major effect on England. War was declared on France in 1793, resulting in economic hardship and sacrifices among the lower classes. Ivor Brown writes that "the poverty of the masses was aggravated by the long struggle with France and the scarcity of food inevitable in war-time." The landed gentry was largely immune, living the life of leisure on country estates. Officers were chosen from the professional class.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1800s: Women in the class to which Jane Austen and the Dashwood sisters belong are not allowed to work. They depend upon suitable marriages or the generosity of their male relatives for financial support and have virtually no economic freedom.
    Today: While women still face discrimination in the workplace, such as unequal pay, women are free to enter any profession they desire and can be found in leadership roles both in the business world and in the government.
  • 1800s: As well as being denied economic freedom, women are also not allowed much social freedom. They are not allowed to travel alone even a short distance from their homes, and unmarried women cannot keep unchaperoned company with men who are not their relatives for fear of ruining their reputation and thus their chances of a suitable marriage.
    Today: Because of economic independence, women have the freedom to purchase property, to live alone, to travel alone, and to move about freely without fearing for their reputations.
  • 1800s: English society at the time of Austen's writing is sharply divided between the working class and the upper-class, landed gentry.
    Today: Thanks to industrial developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the economic changes they brought, the middle class in Western countries, such as the United States and Britain, now makes up a significant part of the population.
  • 1800s: It is uncommon and frowned upon for women to undertake serious artistic endeavors such as writing. Jane Austen, though her work is received warmly, maintains her anonymity until her death for fear of developing a scandalous reputation because she writes novels.
    Today: Women, though still facing an uphill battle for equal recognition across the arts, are now recognized as major contributors to literature. For example, although the majority of Nobel Prizes for Literature have been awarded to men, women such as Toni Morrison (1993) and Wislawa Szymborska (1996) have recently been recognized.
  • 1800s: The protection of an unmarried woman's chastity is of utmost importance in making a suitable marriage. Women such as Miss Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility, who become pregnant out of wedlock, are doomed to a life of shame and economic hardship, as are their children.
    Today: With the development and acceptance of a variety of birth control methods, women today can have complete, independent control of their sexuality. Also, an increasing number of women are opting to have children outside of marriage.

The war with France and other conflicts are not mentioned in Sense and Sensibility. Although the events in the novel take place in a very specific time, Late Georgian and early Regency England, the characters and plot are free of politics. However, although the French Revolution is not explicitly mentioned, critics like Marilyn Butler have pointed out that Marianne's "Sensibility" is an implicit criticism of the individualistic, revolutionary philosophy taking root in the era. Butler, in "Sensibility and Jacobinism" (Jacobins being the most radical French revolutionaries) writes that

Austen's version of 'sensibility'—that is, individualism, or the worship of self, in various familiar guises—is as harshly dealt with here as anywhere in the anti-Jacobin tradition. Even without the melodramatic political subplot of many anti-Jacobin novels, Mrs. Ferrars's London is recognisably a sketch of the anarchy that follows the loss of all values but self-indulgence. In the opening chapters especially, where Marianne is the target of criticism, 'sensibility' means sentimental (or revolutionary) idealism, which Elinor counters with her sceptical or pessimistic view of man's nature.

Contemporaries of Austen

Austen lived through one of the most renowned periods of English poetry, which brought us the romantics, John Keats and Lord Byron. Percy Bysshe Shelley was also a contemporary, but his work was not recognized until after his death. The poetry of these writers came to symbolize the romantic movement. Although it was not yet a movement as such in Austen's lifetime, aspects of the philosophy, including Shelley's anarchism, are criticized through the portrayal of Marianne's "sensibility."

The Position of Women

Women of Jane Austen's social class were not allowed to work, a circumstance that allowed them little economic freedom. Nor were women allowed social independence; they could not travel alone or make unchaperoned visits to men who were not their relatives. Much of Sense and Sensibility, as well as Austen's other novels, is centered around the household and parlor life, and indeed she wrote on the subject of domestic life because, as a woman without the economic or social freedom to venture very far from the home, it is the realm that she knew best.

When Austen was writing in the early 19th century, it was uncommon for women to write; indeed, it was still largely frowned upon in society. Austen had a great deal of trouble getting Sense and Sensibility published (it was her first book to see print). Its first printing was paid for by her brother, and the author was listed as "A Lady." Although the novel enjoyed success and Austen went on to publish several more novels to warm reception, her identity remained unknown to the public. Claire Tomlin, in her biography, quotes Austen, illustrating her anxiety toward public notice: "To be pointed at … to be suspected of literary airs—to be shunned, as literary women are … I would sooner exhibit as a rope dancer." She would rather not receive public credit for her talent than develop a "reputation."


Austen, like the majority of her contemporaries, belonged to the Church of England, the Anglican Church. The theology is a compromise between Roman Catholicism and non-Calvinist Protestantism. Members of Austen's social class, the professional class, and the landed gentry were likely to benefit from the status of conferred positions and patronage connections. Edward Ferrars plans to "take orders" after being disinherited by his mother. Brandon, a member of the landed gentry, then offers him a rectory. Positions within the church hierarchy are often based on who one knows rather than what one's religious convictions are.

Critical Overview

Sense and Sensibility, Austen's first published work, was initially attributed to "A Lady." Considering her desire to remain anonymous and a tendency for criticism of the age to merely include a plot summary, there were few reviews of Sense and Sensibility in Austen's lifetime. Although he only mentioned Sense and Sensibility in passing, renowned Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott wrote of his admiration for Emma, a later work of Austen's, a year before Austen's death in 1816. As for so many important writers, acclaim was to come slowly and posthumously. Later recognition did not single out Sense and Sensibility; all of Austen's works began to gain a wider audience and appreciation in the years following her death, particularly following a collected volume of her works which appeared in 1833. After Scott, critics started taking measure. As noted by editor Graham Handley in his 1992 compilation of Austen reviews, the Edinburgh Review in January of 1843 compared her admirably to Shakespeare, noting that her characters are "all as perfectly discriminated from each other as if they were the most eccentric of human beings." Handley also quoted G. H. Lewes's words from 1847: "[Henry] Fielding and Miss Austen are the greatest novelists in our language." However,

noted Handley, Charlotte Brontë was not so impressed; she preferred George Sand to the "only shrewd and observant" Austen.

It was not until her nephew, J. E. Austen-Leah, wrote Memoir (1870) that Austen's reputation began to really take off. As her reputation grew, so did the need for more biographies and biographical information. The letters between Austen and her sister Cassandra appeared in 1884. Various other personal studies appeared, trying to give a broader perspective than that of her nephew in the memoir. Finally, in 1938, Elizabeth Jenkins's landmark biography, Jane Austen: A Biography appeared.

By the twentieth century, Austen's reputation was so well established that she could not be ignored. Henry James, G. K. Chesterton and Virginia Woolf, among many others, sang praises of Austen. Graham Handley, in Criticism in Focus: Jane Austen, quotes Woolf from a passage that originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of May 1913, in which Woolf lauded Austen as one of the top three English novelists.

While nineteenth-century criticism tended to focus on Austen's work as a whole, by the twentieth century, criticism on Austen had become highly specialized; critical works addressing Sense and Sensibility apart from the other novels became the norm. Much of the criticism dealt with the portrayal of Marianne and her romantic sensibility. W. A. Craik's study of Austen's novels, as put forth by Graham Handley, include the now widely accepted view concerning Marianne: "Marianne has been found more attractive than Elinor by most readers, which Jane Austen clearly did not intend." Other studies illustrated the historical ideologies implied in the conflicting personalities of Elinor and Marianne. Marilyn Butler compared Elinor's demeanor to that of humble Christians of the era. "The most interesting feature of the character of Elinor," Butler wrote, "and a real technical achievement in Sense and Sensibility, is that this crucial process of Christian self-examination is realised in literary terms." Conversely, Marianne has all the characteristics of the Jacobins, a radical party who played a part in the French Revolution. Feminist studies also appeared; for example, Claudia Johnson's work that criticizes the patriarchy that the heroines must endure. By 1994, critical editions and study guides appeared that were dedicated largely to Sense and Sensibility. These studies examined the minutiae of courtship in Austen's era, the influence of the French Revolution on Austen's philosophy, and feminist interpretations that regarded Austen's conformity, concerning the portrayal of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, with skepticism.


David Partikian

Partikian is a Seattle-based freelance writer and English instructor. In this essay, Partikian addresses the question of whether Jane Austen is a political writer based on the fate of her heroines.

Austen, lauded as one of England's most important writers of the nineteenth century, is known for her astute social and psychological observations of the world in which she lived: middle-to-upper-class nineteenth-century England. Her first novel, Sense and Sensibility, centers closely on the domestic lives of a close circle of well-to-do friends and relatives. The narrative action and dialogue in the novel, however, is completely separated from political and historical events of the era; the action appears to occur in a hermetically sealed bubble. The countryside of Barton, where the Dashwood sisters live, and the London of Mrs. Jennings and other landed gentry seems to be far removed from the poverty of slums, class disenfranchisement, and any talk of political or social reform that characterized the political climate of the England in which they lived. Thus, Austen has not been widely viewed—both to her credit and to her criticism—as a political writer.

It is evident, however, after examining the political landscape in which Austen was writing, that the intent of the novel seems to be politically motivated, even though she does not explicitly mention politics. Sense and Sensibility has traditionally been viewed as a largely formulaic, didactic novel—a popular format in Austen's time, in which two philosophies are pitted against each other. In Sense and Sensibility, as the title suggests, Austen pits romantic notions (sensibility) against rationale (sense) by comparing the socially proper Elinor Dashwood with her romantically-inclined sister Marianne. Through this comparison, and the subsequent condemnation of Marianne's romantic philosophy, Austen takes on the biggest political controversies of her day, namely, the ideologies of revolutionary France and the growing cry for the equality of women.

Although it is not apparent from the polite conversation at the Middleton's social gatherings, the action in Sense and Sensibility takes place in an England that is increasingly unstable. The country is fighting a war with France where the individualistic philosophy of the revolutionary Jacobins rules the day. (The Jacobins were the revolutionaries who overthrew France's monarchy to replace it with a republic; they executed many of the aristocracy, including the king and queen, by the guillotine.) This revolutionary sentiment was perceived as a threat to the status quo and economic hierarchy within the upper classes in England. Additionally, social and economic changes in the form of agrarian reforms and industrial capitalism were also gradually transforming English society; they posed a specific threat to the landed gentry, whose comfortable lifestyles were becoming less and less secure. Critic Mary Poovey writes, "By the first decades of the nineteenth century, birth into a particular class no longer exclusively determined one's future social or economic status, the vertical relationships of patronage no longer guaranteed either privileges or obedience, and the traditional authority of the gentry, and of the values associated with their life-style, was a subject under general debate." In light of such changes, the beliefs of moralists and the gentry, who their opinions represented, were coming under increasing scrutiny. Although Austen did not outwardly confront these issues, many other writers of her era did.

Another revolution that was seeing its beginnings in England was the fight for equality of women. In the early nineteenth century, the period in which Sense and Sensibility takes place, women had no rights: they could own no property, they could not enter into professions, and they had to depend entirely upon men for their economic welfare. Mary Wollstonecraft, a "radical" who fought for egalitarianism, wrote her seminal A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, only a few years before Austen began her early drafts of Sense and Sensibility. Wollstonecraft's work called for the equal education of women and condemned the "delicacy" that women were taught to conform to for the sake of becoming proper wives and mothers. This notion of "delicacy," though not specifically mentioned by Austen, equates loosely with Elinor's "sense," or her conviction of the importance of social propriety and demureness.

Thus, the unromantic, socially proper Elinor, whom Austen makes the heroine of her novel, directly contradicts the reformist and revolutionary sentiment that was taking root in England.

The first critic to broach the subject of politics in the work of Austen was Marilyn Butler. Butler's seminal work Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, which first appeared in the mid-1970s, compares Austen's castigation of Marianne's sensibility with Austen's own disapproval of the rabid individualism of the Jacobins, the radical group that had gained control of France during her lifetime. While some critics, as critic Robert Clark notes, blanched at this new criticism that "discovered politics in a realm naturally free of such sordid matter," it is rather difficult to read Sense and Sensibility without realizing that, whether intentional or not, Austen left a text rife with political sentiment. To enjoy Austen or to dismiss her because she only represents a narrow class of society in her works is to miss out on the novel's many subtle political allusions and social criticisms. The bickering between critics should not concern whether Austen's book is political, but rather just what political and social philosophy Austen may be endorsing.

Austen's championing sense over sensibility can certainly be read as her disapproval of writers espousing the Jacobin sentiment and even feminist reformers such as Wollstonecraft. While this approach is certainly valid, the fact that Elinor's sense prevails in the end should not necessarily be taken as a tacit endorsement of the society in which Austen lived. While Austen may have disagreed with those outwardly clamoring for a change in the status quo, she subtly acknowledges that the status quo does indeed have flaws. Just as it is an over-simplification to claim that Elinor's personality is bereft of sensibility—after all, the stoical Elinor is greatly affected by the false news that Edward has wed Lucy Steele—it is likewise an oversimplification to claim that Austen wholeheartedly endorses Elinor's diplomatic, prudent philosophy of sense.

In a traditional, formulaic fairy tale like those of the Grimm Brothers, the hero lives "happily ever after" while the villains are duly punished. Snow White and Cinderella both marry their perfect princes while Snow White's wicked stepmother is tortured to death and Cinderella's sisters have their eyes pecked out by crows. Sense and Sensibility begins like a fairy tale; it appears to be a formulaic work, as a fairy tale is formulaic. It starts out as a didactic novel, a format that was popular during Austen's era, in which two seemingly contradictory philosophies are pitted against one another.

However, it is clear that Austen, while writing Sense and Sensibility, felt constrained by the formula of the didactic novel; otherwise, she would have killed off Marianne with the fever, much like German writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe, in perhaps the most famous novel of the eighteenth century, killed off his Werther, a character who adheres to "sensibility" just as stubbornly as Marianne. This would have been the fitting demise to a character who stubbornly persisted with her romantic philosophy to the very end. But Austen deviates from this didactic approach and tempers her ending; it is more ambiguous in what it signifies or endorses. Marianne lives but must modify her beliefs.

The book's ultimate "happily ever after" is rather lukewarm: the less amenable and more acquisitive and greedy characters—the "villains"—like Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood, Lucy Steele, and Robert Ferrars, escape unscathed. There are no Prince Charmings in Sense and Sensibility, just husbands who represent mediocre compromise. Austen, in her description of Elinor's future spouse writes, "Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address. He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing." Marianne ends up marrying Major Brandon, an arthritic man eighteen years her senior who she once mocked and who, throughout the novel, does not have the forthrightness to address her directly. Thus, the ending is ambiguous in that there are no clear winners or losers. The categorical extremes of right and wrong or good and evil are less clearly delineated in Austen's work than they are in the typical didactic novels of the era.

In the much-quoted summation, Austen writes:

Between Barton and Delaford, 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.

Austen's ironic tone and use of negatives in describing the happy ending and the future spouses of the sisters betray a sense of dissatisfaction with the prevailing social system. Sense is perhaps the only viable option in a world that has become vaguely distasteful. This is not exactly a glowing endorsement of the fate of the heroines. Rather, it beckons the notion of Christian tolerance and endurance in the midst of a world that is anything but the Garden of Eden. While Marianne's sensibility is refuted, her stubborn beliefs do not earn her death; Austen allows her to live. Marianne's marriage to Brandon is but a mediocre compromise in a world bereft of Prince Charmings. Meanwhile, Elinor, because she aspires to more humble goals, attains exactly what she had desired. The lukewarm fate of the heroines can, on one level, be read as an endorsement of the tenets of the Anglican Church to which Austen belonged: Elinor's philosophy is akin with traditional Christian values of prudence, modesty, and silent endurance. However, it is difficult to read the novel today and not feel a sense of the author's discontentment with the society in which she lived.

Perhaps the Christian doctrine of modesty is just a strategy to help Austen cope with a repressive social system and a male-dominated, patriarchal hierarchy that other writers, like Wollstonecraft, shouted against. Austen's artistry and subtle prose, with all its ironic implications, make it possible for her to whisper rather than shout. And, almost two hundred years later, critics still listen carefully and debate whether or not Austen subtly weaves a radical tone in her texts.

Source: David Partikian, Critical Essay on Sense and Sensibility, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.

William W. Heath

In the following essay, Heath discusses the ideas of "sense" and "sensibility" in the context of Austen's world and her prose.

Jane Austen's first novel to be published, Sense and Sensibility was developed from a sketch in letters ("Elinor and Marianne") begun some 15 years earlier. Its title seems to locate it firmly in a neoclassical, dualistic moral world where the values of reason and restraint, embodied in Elinor's good sense, will finally triumph over the impulsive, romantic sensibility of her sister Marianne. Yet even by its second chapter, any readerly security in such terms as "justice" and "good sense" is immediately put at risk as John Dashwood and his wife Fanny use rational calculation and prudent self-interest to hide their greed from themselves as they "sensibly" persuade one another that the intent behind the father's deathbed legacy of £3000 to his daughters, John's stepsisters, can be satisfied by an occasional gift of fish and game. Just as the novel's first scene shows how Sense can become a screen for coldness and cruelty, so too the novel as a whole dramatizes the gaps that occur between language and behavior, feeling and action: gaps that the unscrupulous exploit, the naive are trapped by, and the wise must use every resource of imagination to repair, or at least understand.

In this deceptively expressible world the two elder Dashwood sisters (Margaret, the youngest, is largely forgotten by the reader, and the author) try to work out their destinies, discover and narrate their own stories, by very different models. Like all of Austen's young women, both implicitly acknowledge that financial security and social stability, let alone enhancement, depend on marriage. Yet Marianne assumes that that relation should found itself on the unmediated openness of one freely expressive heart to another; her sister, that marriage is first a social contract, mediated by a language that, in turn, preserves a rational and decorous civilisation as a stay against humankind's baser instincts. Both sisters choose, and apparently are chosen by, men of appropriate character: Elinor's Edward Ferrars (brother of her stepbrother's wife) is a man all of whose works "centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life" and who is "too diffident to do justice to himself"; Marianne's Willoughby, conversely, with his "lively spirits," "open affectionate manner," and "natural ardour" is "exactly formed to engage Marianne's heart."

Each sister, however, is deceived: following Willoughby to London after his sudden and unexplained removal from Devonshire, Marianne is cruelly cut by him, in the novel's most powerfully dramatic scene ("'Good God! Willoughby, what is the meaning of this?'") at a party they attend with their cousin Lady Middleton; Elinor, ministering to her distraught sister (who has been rejected in favor of an heiress), supresses her own recent and painful discovery that Edward has been secretly engaged for four years to Lucy Steele, a vulgar, scheming climber. Both sisters also soon learn that Willoughby had previously seduced and abandoned, pregnant, the 16-year-old ward of their taciturn friend Colonel Brandon. Much confusion is brought about by (among other events) Edward's being disinherited for his unsuitable engagement to Lucy, his initial refusal to break off the engagement (out of a strict sense of honor) even after Lucy wants her freedom when she realizes he will be an impoverished clergyman, and comic confusions involving Edward's foppish brother Robert, who takes his brother's place in Lucy's affections and ambitions. Marianne, never fully recovered from the illness brought about by unrequited love, collapses again with fever en route home to Devon. Willoughby, rushing to what he assumes will be her deathbed, makes a confession and apology to Elinor, who is passionately moved by his distress, and by her sympathy for his economic impotence. After recovering, Marianne comes to see virtue in Brandon, who offers a living to Edward, and the sisters marry prudently at last: Elinor and Edward, in the Parsonage at Delaford, "had in fact nothing to wish for, but the marriage of Colonel Brandon and Marianne, and rather better pasturage for their cows," while Marianne, "born to an extraordinary fate … to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims … found herself at nineteen, submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village."

Though the novel's final paragraphs seem to celebrate happiness and power ("patroness of a village") gained through submission and accommodation to society and the taming of impulsive vitality, the narrator's sly ironies ("better pasturage," "extraordinary fate") point toward a level of awareness no character in the novel is allowed, and the author herself partly suppresses. Together, Elinor and Marianne represent the sort of disciplined imagination later found in such complex characters as Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice) or Anne Elliot (Persuasion), but much of Sense and Sensibility's depth exists in implication: in the erotic energy of Willoughby and its devastating effect on Marianne (nearly fatal) and Elinor (who decides not to tell her sister the full truth of Willoughby's confession); and in the complex representation of power relations, whereby men ruthlessly dominate and manipulate women, women have only their sexual marketability as defense, and both sexes are imprisoned in a structure that denies most people (except perhaps for clergymen and gentleman farmers) useful work as a source either of wealth or personal worth.

Source: William W. Heath, "Sense and Sensibility: Novel by Jane Austen, 1811," in Reference Guide to English Literature, 2d ed., edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, Vol. 3, St. James Press, 1991, pp. 1841–42.

P. Gila Reinstein

In the following essay, Reinstein explores how Austen renders complex and various manifestations of sense and sensibility in her characters and their situations.

In Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen ostensibly opposes practicality and sensitivity, praising the former and censuring the latter. Further examination of the novel, however, reveals a subtler, more significant moral opposition between selfishness and unselfishness. Although the title of the novel suggests a simplistic approach to values, Austen's characters and moral discriminations are, in fact, complex, reflecting the complexity of life itself. The qualities of sense and sensibility are embodied by characters in the novel in many gradations and with different shades of definition. Neither consistent, unmitigated sense nor thorough-going sensibility is, finally, acceptable in the novel, for both tend to lead to selfish, even destructive behavior. Moderation, the mixture of prudence and decorum with warm emotions and aesthetic enthusiasm, seems to be the ideal presented in Sense and Sensibility.

Austen skillfully portrays the tensions between sense and sensitivity, selfishness and selflessness through the characters she creates, both in their actions and in their patterns of speech and thought. Norman Page, in his excellent study, The Language of Jane Austen, suggests that this novel "evinces an alert interest in language as an aspect of social behavior," and establishes his point by analyzing the syntax of the chief characters, especially Elinor and Marianne. I would like to extend his study by utilizing the techniques of stylistic analysis to explore the language patterns of various significant characters both major and minor, and to relate the results to a thematic analysis in the tradition of what might be called the "morality school" of Austen criticism.

The most important characters to consider are the heroines, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. In the course of the novel, each grows to be less onesided and more like her sister. On this point I disagree with Robert Garis, who asserts that Sense and Sensibility fails because Elinor neither learns nor changes, and is "emphatically praised for not needing to." It seems to me that one of Austen's central points is that both sisters need to change, and the novel is a comedy because both are able to. When the novel opens, Elinor is prudent, judicious, and self-controlled to the point of stiffness, whereas Marianne abandons herself to quivering passions and irrational intuitive judgments. Elinor is conscious of her duties to family and society; Marianne rejects all outside claims and lives according to her own personal standards. Neither, to be sure, is a pure caricature of sense or sensibility, even initially. Austen clearly indicates that both possess good qualities of mind and feeling, but exercise them differently. When Austen first introduces the heroines, she tells us that Elinor has "strength of understanding and coolness of judgment," but also "an excellent heart;—her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them." Marianne, in turn, "was sensible [here meaning intelligent] and clever; but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation … she was everything but prudent."

At the beginning of the novel, the reader learns that each sister has constructed a self-image which she tries to realize completely and use as a standard in everyday affairs. Elinor determines to be judicious; Marianne, sensitive. The girls are innocent and inexperienced, and therefore believe that they will be able to control their lives and their reactions to the lives of those around them by merely choosing to do so. Marianne expresses their complacent sense of self control: "At my time of life opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should see or hear anything to change them." Life, however, does get in the way. A self-image is very easy to preserve under circumstances that do not challenge it beyond its limits. Elinor and Marianne are taxed beyond their control and find themselves shaken by feelings and occurrences they cannot dominate. A similar set of events happens to them, and they are both educated and matured through their experiences. Both fall in love with a man who is not able or willing to get attached, but who, despite himself, reciprocates the affection. The young women suffer a trial of waiting while their lovers' worth is tested: the men have to uphold or break a previous decision. Both seem to have lost their loves and endure intense pain. Finally all is explained, and Elinor triumphs by consummating her romantic attachment, while Marianne grows wiser, learning that love can have many manifestations. It is an ironic touch that prudent Elinor marries Edward, her first and only love, despite family opposition, on the verge of poverty, and then only by a quirk of fate—Lucy Steel's sudden shift. Marianne, on the other hand, is forced to retract her youthful, ignorant assertions about romantic first love. She makes a rational, practical match for esteem and comfort, with a man whom she learns to love slowly, in a mild and quiet way, altogether unlike her earlier images of what satisfactory love must be. At the end of the book, both young women are more mature and less one sided; Marianne makes a conscious effort toward self-control and propriety, and Elinor is so overwhelmed by emotions that she shows her feelings openly and spontaneously.

The plot gives some idea of the way in which the girls change, but language reveals far more. Austen's use of syntax is "a medium for communicating, by imitation rather than summary or analysis, the outline of a passage of experience, and the structure of the sentence forces upon the reader… a miming of the heroine's experience." Consider Elinor. At the beginning of the book she speaks of her regard for Edward.

"Of his sense and his goodness," continued Elinor, "no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough to engage him in unreserved conversation. The excellence of his understanding and his principles can be concealed only by that shyness which too often keeps him silent. You know enough of him to do justice to his solid worth. But of his minuter propensities as you call them, you have from peculiar circumstances been kept more ignorant than myself."

Elinor's prose is balanced, and sentences frequently divide neatly into two equal parts joined by a coordinating conjunction. Her use of the formal sentence reflects her sense of the importance of self control, discipline, and duty. "Her syntax is thus an index of her temperament," according to Norman Page. Elinor's sentences are heavy with nouns and substantives (participles, gerunds, and infinitives used as nouns) such as "sense," "goodness," "conversation," "excellence," "to do justice" and so on, which give the sentences a weighted, static tone. Notice her concern for judging and evaluating, which here she expresses in terms of "solid worth." She seems deliberately hesitant to use adjectives and adverbs, and she avoids colorful phrasing. Her verbs are most often "state of being" words or passive voice or impersonal constructions or verbs of intellectual activity such as seeing, knowing, thinking. Instead of describing Edward in bold terms, Elinor uses limiting, qualifying words and negatives which repress emotional intensity and put a distance between Elinor and her own opinions: "no one can, I think, be in doubt, who has seen him often enough," and so on. She seems to put her most private feelings and thoughts into the third person, as if that were the only way to justify them.

Contrast Marianne's "autumn leaves" speech, which also appears early in the book.

"Oh!" cried Marianne, "with what transporting sensations have I formerly seen them fall! How have I delighted as I walked, to see them driven in showers about me by the wind! What feelings have they, the season, the air altogether inspired! Now there is no one to regard them. They are seen only as a nuisance, swept hastily off, and driven as much as possible from the sight."

Her sentences are asymmetrical; instead of balancing clauses, Marianne piles up phrases of increasing intensity which come to a climax. Jane Austen uses a great variety of rhetorical devices to heighten Marianne's style. In the quoted passage, an interjection sets the tone of excitement. Marianne's speeches are typically graced with rhetorical questions, apostrophe, personification, and hyperbole. Elinor speaks in a static prose of nouns and colorless verbs; not so Marianne. Marianne's verbs are active, and her adjectives, participles, and adverbs evoke lively pictures: "walked," "driven," "have inspired," "hastily swept," and so on. By assigning such a style to Marianne, Austen brings to life, rather than merely tells about, a girl of strong feelings, susceptible to beauty in her environment and prone to exaggerated modes of expression. Elinor, in contrast, keeps in abeyance all those feelings not strictly permitted by the social code. She takes an amused, mildly critical view of Marianne's excesses. After the latter concludes her nostalgic outburst, Elinor dryly remarks, "It is not every one… who has your passion for dead leaves."

These are the heroines at the beginning of the novel, before life steps in to overturn their self images. When Elinor first learns she has lost Edward to Lucy Steele, she is still in relative control of herself, but her balance begins to break down, in speech as well as in behavior.

"Engaged to Mr. Edward Ferrars!—I confess myself so totally surprised at what you tell me, that really—I beg your pardon; but surely there must be some mistake of person or name. We cannot mean the same Mr. Ferrars."

And yet, for all the dashes, and disjointed and fragmentary sentences, Elinor exerts herself to maintain politeness to Lucy, and by so doing, keeps herself from falling apart. She spares herself humiliation, and Lucy, triumph. Later, alone, she weeps more for Edward's mistake than for her own disappointment. Because her sense of duty sustains her—duty to Lucy's confidence and duty to spare her mother and sister unnecessary and premature suffering—she manages to conceal the painful information for months.

Marianne's reaction to the sudden collapse of her hopes is characteristically different. When Willoughby returns her letters and informs her that he is engaged to Miss Grey, Austen contrasts Elinor's long-suffering, unselfish control with Marianne's self-centered emotionalism.

"Exert yourself, dear Marianne," she cried, "if you would not kill yourself and all who love you. Think of your mother; think of her misery while you suffer; for her sake you must exert yourself."

"I cannot, I cannot," cried Marianne; "leave me, leave me, if I distress you; leave me, hate me, forget me! but do not torture me so. Oh! how easy for those who have no sorrow of their own to talk of exertion! Happy, happy Elinor, you cannot have an idea of what I suffer."

"Do you call me happy, Marianne? Ah! if you knew!—And can you believe me to be so, while I see you so wretched?"

Elinor urges Marianne to fulfill her responsibility to those who love her. Her own sense of duty sustains her, but Marianne's is insufficient to the task. Marianne bursts out with intense, illogical hyperboles and exclamations. Elinor, of course, has been rejected in the same way by her beloved—indeed, in a more irritating manner, by nasty Lucy Steele in person. Elinor here almost slips and reveals her own sorrow when Marianne accuses her of being happy, but quickly covers up her momentary lapse with a credible, if self-righteous excuse. Elinor's discipline is strong to a fault, for she denies herself the sympathy of those who love her and refuses them the chance to give, which is, after all, half of the act of loving. Both young women are suffering, both are deeply touched, but one selfishly wallows in misery while the other tries to carry on her life as usual.

Thus far, the self-images hold up rather well, with only minor deviations. When life becomes more complicated, however, the over-sensitive Marianne is chastened, while the self-negating Elinor loses control and pours out repressed feelings despite herself. Illness frightens Marianne and then allows her time to meditate. She recovers, a reformed young woman, and her speech pattern reflects her new attempt to control herself and observe decorum. For the first time she concerns herself with rational judgment, moral responsibility, and propriety. Of the Willoughby affair she says, "I can talk of it now, I hope, as I ought to do." Austen assigns to Marianne the stylistic quirks of Elinor, such as qualifying statements with apologetic phrases, to show us Marianne's newly reflective nature. Marianne, realizing the resemblance between her own and her sister's misfortunes, is doubly humbled when she compares their reactions to pain.

"Do not, my dearest Elinor, let your kindness defend what I know your judgment must censure. My illness has made me think—it has given me leisure and calmness for serious recollection. Long before I was enough recovered to talk, I was perfectly able to reflect. I considered the past; I saw in my behaviour since the beginning of our acquaintance with him last autumn, nothing but a series of imprudence towards myself, and want of kindness to others."

Here her sentences are balanced and symmetrical, turning on carefully polished antitheses and parallels. Verbs are static or describe mental, rather than physical, action. The new pace of Marianne's sentences is slow and dignified, not impulsive and irregular as before. Marianne's maturation/reformation is reflected by her use of Elinor-like sentences.

Elinor has an opposite development. She, through long tension and disappointment, begins to let emotional, bitter words escape, as her carefully guarded propriety cracks. Under stress she occasionally repeats, accumulates phrases for emphasis, and conveys the breathless, impulsive tone originally characteristic of Marianne. Speaking of Lucy's engagement to Edward, she says,

"It was told me,—it was in a manner forced on me by the very person herself, whose prior engagement ruined all my prospects; and told me, as I thought, with triumph…. I have had her hopes and exultations to listen to again and again."

Although here Jane Austen opens Elinor's heart and has the character show some of the turmoil it contains, Elinor is still able to express herself verbally. There is one further step in her education to womanhood: she must be so deeply moved that she is speechless and unable to depend on the polite formulas with which society usually provides her. This final chastening experience happens when Edward suddenly returns after Elinor has, presumably, lost him forever. In this scene, she is at first able to make small talk, to "rejoice in the dryness of the season," but then is forced to put her head down in "a state of such agitation as made her hardly know where she was." When the truth of Lucy's marriage to Robert Ferrars comes out, Elinor completely loses control of herself, can no longer sit in her place, but dashes out of the room and bursts "into tears of joy, which at first she thought would never cease." Elinor is overcome by sensibility.

Why do Elinor and Marianne both need to change in the novel? What is it that each has that the other must learn? Is it simply that Marianne must correct her irresponsible freedom and adopt Elinor's stifling prudence? Are warmth and sensitivity frowned upon? Are practical concerns set above personal ones? It seems to be more complicated than that. Neither sense nor sensibility by itself is attacked; neither, unqualified, is sufficient. The focus of Austen's criticism seems to be elsewhere.

The true opposition in the novel is between selfishness and selflessness. Marianne's relationship with Willoughby errs, not in its warmth, but in its self-centeredness. In public they have words and glances only for each other. Their imprudent display of attachment, their lack of reserve in company and between themselves comes from belief in a personal morality which cuts them off from the rest of the world. Their relationship flourishes for their own pleasure, independent of the demands of society and family. Since they feel superior to everyone else in sensitivity and candor, they judge others without honest reflection and continually mock their friends. Their love is exclusive and smugly self-centered; when the relationship collapses, Marianne is left with the bitter residue of those feelings. In her suffering, she believes herself to be unique and inconsolable; instead of trying to pull herself out of misery, she remains "equally ill-disposed to receive or communicate pleasure." The illness, which she cannot call up or dismiss by whim, cures her of her exclusive concern for her own pleasures and pains.

Elinor's relationship with Edward is something rather different. Although his family objects to a marriage between them, their friendship is acceptable to their society. Their behavior is decorous and inoffensive. In public they are active members of whatever group they find themselves in; to Elinor's immediate family, the friendship brings comfort and delight, because everyone is welcome to share in the affection of the couple. Their love, unlike Marianne and Willoughby's, turns outward.

Marianne is sensitive and absorbed in herself, while Elinor is practical and concerned primarily with her duty to others. Neither is a caricature of either extreme, and as the book develops, they grow toward a golden mean. To Jane Austen, neither sense nor sensibility is all-good or all-bad. Her judgment upon all the characters, including the heroines, depends on whether they use their sense or sensibility for selfish satisfaction or for the general comfort.

Austen seems to use Elinor as a voice for her own opinions, and is altogether less critical of her than of Marianne. Elinor, for example, is the ear into which Lucy, Colonel Brandon, Willoughby, and Marianne confess. Elinor advises and lectures the others how to behave properly under their difficult trials. For these reasons it seems as if Austen's principal approval lies on the side of sense rather than sensibility. This imbalance of emphasis is really caused by the fact that sensibility is inclined to individual satisfaction at the expense of general happiness, whereas sense tends toward the opposite.

As if to underscore this point, the novel includes several secondary characters who speak for greater extremes of sense or sensibility, with differing amounts of selfishness and unselfishness. The John and Fanny Dashwoods, for example, are prime instances of people abounding in hard, cold sense and very little else. Austen condemns them beautifully in the second chapter of the first volume, which contains the discussion of John's promise to his dying father. Fanny, exercising brilliant logic and playing on selfish rationalizations, pares down the aid John is to give his sisters from three thousand pounds to nothing. Their language is almost a parody of Elinor's balanced, reflective, polished sentences.

"Well, then, let something be done for them; but that something need not be three thousand pounds. Consider," she added, "that when the money is once parted with, it never can return."

The repetition of phrases, the symmetry, and the careful concern for cause and effect, is the style of sense. Or again, consider this passage:

"Indeed, to say the truth, I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. The assistance he thought of, I dare say, was only such as might be reasonably expected of you."

Notice the apologetic, qualifying phrases that give a weighted, judicious tone to the inexcusably greedy sentiments. Austen lets us know that these people are practical, but laughably self-centered.

Mrs. Dashwood, the girls' mother, is at the opposite extreme. She, because she is older, is fully confirmed in her imprudent, impractical ways. To be sure, she is often able to comfort her daughters in the abundance of her warmth, but she is also able to inflict pain from her want of caution. She "valued and cherished" Marianne's excesses of sensibility. She persistently pushes Marianne and Willoughby, and Elinor and Edward together, by assuming and letting it be spoken of, that the couples are about to be engaged. Her injudicious, misplaced affection is an agent of unintentional destruction; her unguarded, hasty statements or guesses cause suffering precisely where she means to soothe and strengthen. Trusting feeling, rather than thought, she blinds herself to whatever does not suit her purposes. One notable instance is the letter she sends to Marianne praising Willoughby, which reaches London after Willoughby's engagement to Miss Grey has been announced. Her letter, instead of supporting Marianne and leading her to wise self-government, cuts her so deeply that she falls apart. After Marianne's illness, Mrs. Dashwood is somewhat more sympathetic to Elinor's pleas for prudence, but she has not really learned: she is, for example, carried away by Colonel Brandon's love for Marianne, and invents and exaggerates to suit her fancy. Her impractical, sensitive self-absorption is shown to be sometimes dangerous, always foolish.

Perhaps an ideal combination of sense and sensibility on a lower level of education and refinement than that of the heroines', is Mrs. Jennings. She is a mother-substitute for them during most of the story, and therefore can be contrasted reasonably with Mrs. Dashwood. Mrs. Jennings' speech is occasionally ungrammatical and coarse, and she is addicted to gossip and teasing. Norman Page notes that, "She is exceptional in Jane Austen's gallery in being given dubious linguistic habits which nevertheless carry no overtones of moral censure." Despite her language, she functions properly in society, like Elinor, and communicates affection in her family circle, like Marianne. Most significantly, toward the end of the novel she evaluates situations more justly than any other adult.

Austen first introduces Mrs. Jennings in the role of a buffoon—fat, merry, loquacious, even boisterous and vulgar. She retains the character of a foolish jokester until the sisters accompany her to London. There, in her own home, Austen develops Mrs. Jennings into a truly worthy woman. She is genuinely kind and solicitous for the happiness of her guests, although surrounded by superficial, egotistical people. Unlike her daughter, Lady Middleton, Mrs. Jennings is not a snob. She is loyal to her "old city friends" who seem distastefully unfashionable to her elegant children. Her town house, her friends, her way of life are described as handsome and not at all insipid. Full of life, Mrs. Jennings is able to laugh at herself as well as at others, and her jokes are good-humored, without barbs. What is possibly the most impressive of Mrs. Jennings' qualities is that, while she knows the world and understands the call of money, she holds people and their feelings to be more important. Her nature is warm like Mrs. Dashwood's, but she is neither tremulously sensitive nor blind to the realities of society. Although her mind is acute, she is neither cold nor reserved. When all the adults suddenly turn against Edward, after his engagement to Lucy is made known, she defends him and his spirit. She approves of his loyalty and willingness to sacrifice material comfort for what is, as the reader must agree, a high and unselfish end. Mrs. Jennings delights in the youth and joy of the couple although there is no question of any personal gain for her. When events turn so that Elinor wins Edward, she does not become sour or resentful that her happy predictions were mistaken. It is enough for her generous heart that a bit of happiness is advanced in the world.

Mrs. Jennings' style of speech is an amusing mixture of controlled balance and effusive disorder. At some points she speaks evenly weighted prose with parenthetical expressions to slow the pace and formalize the tone. Her words are never ponderous, because her lively mind undercuts any heavy seriousness.

"Upon my word I never saw a young woman so desperately in love in my life! My girls were nothing to her, and yet they used to be foolish enough; but as for Miss Marianne, she is quite an altered creature. I hope, from the bottom of my heart he won't keep her waiting much longer, for it is quite grievous to see her look so ill and forlorn. Pray, when are they to be married?"

This combination of logic (or semi-logic), of comparison and contrast, of affectionate catch phrases ("Upon my word," "from the bottom of my heart"), of unlabored, yet approximately symmetrical structure, is typical of Mrs. Jennings at her best. Much of her language, however, is fragmented, disjointed, and relatively chaotic in form. She overflows with the breathless wordiness of a fat, merry, middle-aged woman to whom meanness or hardness of any sort is foreign.

"Poor soul!" cried Mrs. Jennings, as soon as she [Marianne] was gone, "how it grieves me to see her! And I declare if she is not gone away without finishing her wine! And the dried cherries too! Lord! nothing seems to do her any good. I am sure if I knew of any thing she would like, I would send all over the town for it. Well, it is the oddest thing to me, that a man should use such a pretty girl so ill! But when there is plenty of money on one side, and next to none on the other, Lord bless you! they care no more about such things!—"

Although she sees the cruel pursuit of wealth and position around her, it does not corrupt her judgment of how things ought to be. Mrs. Jennings is free of what Jane Nardin calls "Ambition … the farthest extreme of mercenary 'sense' and it characterizes all the really bad people in the novel …" She may be an incorrigible chatterer, but she is also a faithful friend in all her attitudes and actions. She talks a lot, but she does more and does it gladly, without complaint. In a way, Jane Austen explains Mrs. Jennings by putting these words in her mouth: "And what good does talking ever do you know?" Her noisiness does little good, as she herself knows, but neither does it do any harm, for it is always light in tone. Her actions, her steady, honest giving of warmth, encouragement, and spirit, help Elinor through the hard days, and set an example of mingled good sense and sensibility, unmarred by selfishness.

Willoughby is another character whose actions demonstrate that neither sense nor sensibility is implicitly frowned upon, but that both are evil when selfishly applied: Willoughby acts both parts, but is always consummately self-centered. His life is guided solely by what will bring him maximum pleasure at minimum expense of wealth or emotional effort. He becomes involved with Marianne mostly because she is a convenient distraction to fill the idle time he must spend in the country with Mrs. Smith. Charmed by Marianne's beauty and vivacity, he falls into her pattern of self-indulged, exclusive sensitivity. That Willoughby follows Marianne's lead, Austen makes clear by her wry, afterthought inclusion of Willoughby's beliefs.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Pride and Prejudice (1813), the second of Jane Austen's novels to be published, is perhaps her most famous work. Much like Sense and Sensibility, the action in this novel centers on upper-class English society, in particular the courtship of the Bennet sisters. Elizabeth Bennet, a spitfire of a character, and her equally spirited beau Mr. Darcy are one of literature's most famous pairs.
  • Mansfield Park (1814), by Jane Austen, tells the story of Fanny Price, an insecure girl who is brought up by her rich aunt and uncle and examines the questions of morality of the time. It has been described as unique among Austen's work in its more somber and moralizing tone.
  • Emma (1815), the last of Austen's novels to be published before her death, is a lighthearted story of upper-class courtship, featuring a charming heroine but nevertheless displaying Austen's razor-sharp wit and observation of her society. Emma has much in common with Marianne of Sense and Sensibility in both her spirited naïveté and her eventual growth into a more mature wisdom, an act which exhibits Austen's views of the necessity of social propriety.
  • Jane Austen's Letters (1997), a new edition edited by Deirdre Le Faye, is a compilation of Austen's witty and sharp correspondence, which give insight into her daily life and the inspiration she had for her novels.
  • A Vindication on the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft, was published in 1792. While Austen was busy writing novels that portrayed the domestic and economic situations of upper-class women, the women's rights movement in England was coming into full swing. Mary Wollstonecraft, a radical of the time, composed this most significant work to call for the equal education of women across the social strata. A shocking and controversial work during its time, it is today considered a classic of women's literature.
  • A Room of One's Own (1929), written by British author, literary critic, and feminist Virginia Woolf, outlines Woolf's groundbreaking analysis of the position of women in English literature, including Jane Austen.
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley, a nineteenth-century poet, was one of the key figures of the romantic movement. Romanticism places great importance on passion, emotion, and the self, which Austen is thought to criticize in her portrayal of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. Shelley's most famous long poems are "Prometheus Unbound" (1820) and the highly controversial "Laon and Cythna" (1817), which was banned during his life because of its sexual references and its negative portrayal of the church.
  • John Keats was also a key poet of the romantic movement. Poems such as "The Eve of St. Agnes" (1819) and "Ode on a Grecian Urn" (1819) concentrate on the sensuality of both natural and artistic beauty.

But Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to commonplace and mistaken notions. Willoughby thought the same….

He is a weak, drifting character, willing to change himself, if the change will assist him in his pursuit of pleasure. "He acquiesced in all her decisions, caught all her enthusiasm." Typical of his flabby morality is the way in which he excuses himself for the dreadful affair with Eliza Williams, Colonel Brandon's ward; he lays the blame on her, calling her wild and ignorant, rather than castigating himself for taking advantage of her.

A comparison of Willoughby's actions and speeches with those of his fellow-suitor, Edward, brings to light some curious parallels. Willoughby, like Marianne, superficially represents the "sensible," and Edward, like Elinor, the "sense." As the book develops, however, Willoughby acts more for selfish, practical motives, and Edward for unselfish, emotional, even romantic ones. Both men have prior attachments when they meet the Dashwood sisters, and both want only an innocent friendship, without complications. Edward is so involved with Lucy that he feels himself safe from serious emotional attachment. Willoughby, deeply in debt, has prior plans of marrying a lady with a fortune, and uses Marianne as a means to remove the summer tedium, as well as to gratify his vanity by winning her affection. Both men, contrary to their intentions, fall in love and find themselves in a dilemma. Willoughby takes the cold, mercenary way out—he chooses the selfish "sense" of Fanny and John Dashwood, of Mrs. Ferrars, of Lucy Steele. Edward, on the other hand, determines to stand by his rash, youthful promise. He refuses to compromise his honor and cannot bring himself to inflict pain where he thinks he is trusted and long loved. Elinor's extreme reserve keeps him ignorant of her love, and he has no real sense of hurting her by his loyalty to Lucy. Willoughby makes a money match and regrets it; Edward stands by one love match until free to make a second, and is rewarded for his choice.

The language of the two men is as markedly different as that of the sisters. Most of the time Willoughby speaks wittily, twisting Elinor's logically structured sentences into clever jests by using anti-climax, surprise antithesis, and nonsensical pseudo-logic. Answering Elinor's defense of Colonel Brandon,

"Miss Dashwood," cried Willoughby, "you are now using me unkindly. You are endeavouring to disarm me by reason, and to convince me against my will. But it will not do. You shall find me as stubborn as you can be artful. I have three unanswerable reasons for disliking Colonel Brandon: he has threatened me with rain when I wanted it to be fine; he has found fault with the hanging of my curricle, and I cannot persuade him to buy my brown mare."

His flippant sentences balance, turn neatly on polished constructions, and have many of the other characteristics previously attributed to Elinor's more serious prose. He does occasionally speak in the language of enthusiasm borrowed from Marianne:

"And yet this house you would spoil, Mrs. Dashwood? You would rob it of its simplicity by imaginary improvement! and this dear parlour … you would degrade to the condition of a common entrance, and everybody would be eager to pass through the room which has hitherto contained within itself, more real accommodation and comfort than any other apartment of the handsomest dimensions in the world could possibly afford."

The sentence structure rambles asymmetrically, accumulates phrases, uses extreme, hyperbolic words and superlatives altogether out of place with the normal amount of energy given to discussions of household improvement, and generally takes on the traits of "sensibility." Willoughby's language vacillates between the two styles, depending on whom he is with and what kind of impression he wants to make. His vacillation differs from Mrs. Jennings' in that he seems able to manipulate his style to curry favor: his fickle, insincere point of view matches his glib talk.

When he comes to confess to Elinor, that stormy night when Marianne lies deathly ill, he uses the vocabulary of a Lovelace. He scourges himself verbally, but in his melodrama, he seems as insincere as ever. He cannot simply admit to himself that he did wrong and caused pain. Instead, he must convince himself of his remorse by using high flown diction: "Oh God! what an hard-hearted rascal I was!"; "I was a libertine"; "Thunderbolts and daggers!," and so on.

Contrast this carrying on with Edward's more modest, but no less interesting, words. Throughout the novel, Edward's speeches are self-effacing, even mildly self-mocking. He has an excellent sense of humor, which is always directed against himself. Discussing the countryside around the Dashwood cottage, in response to Marianne's lyric excitement, he says:

"You must not inquire too far, Marianne—remember I have no knowledge in the picturesque, and I shall offend you by my ignorance and want of taste if we come to particulars. I shall call hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and couth, which ought to be irregular and rugged; and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the soft medium of a hazy atmosphere. You must be satisfied with such admiration as I can honestly give."

His prose is smooth and even, like Elinor's, and has a similarly slow, reflective pace, because Austen uses many of the same stylistic devices for both. He judges himself by strict standards, but is not self-righteous. He maintains the same style of speech, regardless of his audience: he is consistent, unlike the hypocritical Willoughby. Edward's sense of his own worth is very small; he does not believe that anything is owed to him because of his personal merits or birth. His under-estimation of his own worth leads to a certain amount of trouble, causing him to attach himself to Lucy originally, though he was worthy of far better. That is also how he failed to see Elinor's growing love—someone who esteems himself so lightly and judges himself so sternly is unlikely to assume that a young woman is falling in love with him, especially without encouragement.

When he finally returns to Barton to explain his new freedom and express his love for Elinor, he chooses simple, characteristically modest phrases. After the few broken sentences which constitute the scene that dramatically reveals Lucy's duplicity, Edward comes back to make a full confession of his mistakes. Unlike Willoughby, he does not accuse himself of grand and dastardly deeds, but of a natural stupidity based on inexperience and insecurity. His words are halting, qualified by apologetic phrases: "I think," "what I thought at the time," "at least I thought so then, and I had seen so little of other women," and so on. The conclusion and climax of his speech are in negatives of reasonable self-censure, not at all hyperbolic or artificially intensified by diction or imbalanced structure—but the intensity, although suppressed, is evident:

"Considering everything, therefore, I hope, foolish as our engagement was, foolish as it has since in every way been proved, it was not at the time an unnatural, or an inexcusable piece of folly."

He concerns himself with judgment, with the standards of society, and does not exclude himself from humanity because of his guilt, as Willoughby tries to do. And yet, Edward's remorse and chagrin are clearly conveyed, and the passage is charged with restrained emotion of a more convincing sort than that professed by Willoughby.

Edward and Willoughby, Elinor and Marianne, more than extremes of sense and sensibility, represent extremes of ego-negation and ego-centrism. In the course of the novel, Edward's modesty wins him rewards after much suffering. Willoughby reveals himself to be pitifully cold and selfish under his facade of sensibility. The sisters grow to be refined, elegant young women, following the excellent moral example of Mrs. Jennings. Overwhelming sense is criticized in the persons of John and Fanny Dashwood; and overwhelming sensibility, in the character of Mrs. Dashwood. Both poles inflict pain by self-willed blindness to the feelings of others or to the consequences of their actions. Sense and Sensibility is a novel describing the education of two young women into the world of mature responsibility, the world in which compromises are necessary when circumstances get out of control. The sisters learn to look to others instead of being engrossed in themselves; they learn to accept the love and help of others instead of assuming that they can manage alone; they learn to combine warmth and intensity with prudence and judgment. Elinor and Marianne, when the novel closes, are prepared to add to the pleasure and happiness of those immediately around them as well as to their society in general. Sense and Sensibility presents a complicated and compelling morality through an excellent story.

Source: P. Gila Reinstein, "Moral Priorities in Sense and Sensibility," in Renascence, Vol. XXXV, No. 4, Summer 1983, pp. 269–83.


Brown, Ivor, Jane Austen and Her World, Henry Z. Walck, 1966.

Burrows, John, "Style," in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 170–88.

Butler, Marilyn, "Sensibility and Jacobinism," in "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice," by Jane Austen, edited by Robert Clark, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 38–52.

Clark, Robert, "Introduction: Closing (with) Jane Austen," in "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice," by Jane Austen, edited by Robert Clark, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp.1–25.

Handley, Graham, Criticism in Focus: Jane Austen, Bristol Classical Press, 1992.

Poovey, Mary, "Ideological Contradictions and the Consolations of Form," in "Sense and Sensibility" and "Pride and Prejudice," by Jane Austen, edited by Robert Clark, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 83–100.

Tomlin, Claire, Jane Austen: A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 217.

Further Reading

Armstrong, Isobel, Jane Austen: "Sense and Sensibility," Penguin Group, 1994.

Armstrong provides a comprehensive criticism and examination of Sense and Sensibility, including the novel's social constructs and the philosophical beliefs of the characters.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven, 1979.

Gubar and Gilbert are two of the most important feminist literary theorists of recent times. This seminal work brings to light the psychological anxieties faced by women writers throughout the history of English literature, caused by their inferior status in society.

Harding, D. W., Regulated Hatred and Other Essays on Jane Austen, edited by Monica Lawlor, Althone Press, 1998.

Harding, a significant literary critic of the twentieth century, considered Austen one of his favorite authors. Written over a span of sixty years, the essays in this collection examine a range of aspects of Austen's writing, from its historical context to the psychology of her characters.

Jenkins, Elizabeth, Jane Austen, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1949.

Jenkins provides a seminal biography of Jane Austen.

Monaghan, David, ed., Jane Austen in a Social Context, Macmillan Press, 1981.

This collection of essays examines Austen's contemporary social context and the way it is exhibited in her writing.

Neill, Edward, The Politics of Jane Austen, St. Martin's Press, 1999.

This contemporary collection of essays on Austen's major work defends the position that Austen was a subtle political writer.