Sense and Sensibility

Sense and Sensibility (1811) is Jane Austen's first full-length novelIt tells the coming-of-age story of two sisters: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.

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Table of contents
    AuthorJane Austen
    Written between1795–1811
    Published in1811
    Original titleElinor and Marianne
    GenreNovel of manners (or domestic novel) Romance Satire
    NarratorA third-person omniscient narrator Free indirect discourse
    Main themesLove and marriage Class and society Gender roles Appeareance vs reality
    Literary devicesIrony Symbolism Allegory Imagery Simile Metaphor Personification

    Sense and Sensibility Summary

    Sense and Sensibility was originally written as an epistolary novel (a novel-in-letters) called Elinor and Marianne. It tells the story of two sisters: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.

    The two sisters along with their youngest sister, Margaret, and their mother, Mrs Dashwood, become impoverished after the sisters’ father dies and leaves their home, Norland Park, to their half-brother. The new owner of Norland Park, John Dashwood, and his wife, Fanny, are an unpleasant pair and although John promised their late father that he would take care of them, Mrs Dashwood and her daughters are not welcomed in Norland Park. With no choice but to leave their home, they move to stay with their distant relatives in Barton Cottage.

    This forced departure is most painful for Elinor who, whilst still at Norland Park, had formed a close attachment with Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars. Later, it turns out that Edward is secretly engaged to another woman: Lucy Steele. However, when his mother, Mrs Ferrars, finds out, she disowns him and Ms Steele gets engaged to his brother.

    After suffering in silence, Elinor is rewarded when Edward confesses to her that it was her he was in love with all along.

    Meanwhile, Elinor’s younger sister, Marianne, develops feelings for the charming John Willoughby. Although he openly courts her, it’s later revealed that he has a history of debauchery and he never intended to return Marianne’s affections.

    Willoughby marries a wealthy heiress and Marianne is left heartbroken. However, the respectful Colonel Brandon, who is the sisters’ neighbour at Barton, gradually wins Marianne’s heart.

    The novel ends with Elinor marrying Edward Ferrars and Marianne marrying Colonel Brandon.

    Sense and Sensibility Analysis

    Let’s explore some of the main topics and themes of the novel.

    Elinor and Marianne

    The novel is centred around the contrast between sense and sensibility in the two protagonists. The older sister, Elinor, represents ‘sense’ as she disregards her feelings in favour of her steady mind. The younger sister, Marianne, is the epitome of ‘sensibility’: she is open about her feelings and doesn’t hold back.

    Elinor controls her temper and hides her feelings for Edward Ferrars for the sake of propriety, but at the cost of her happiness. In contrast, Marianne expresses her feelings of joy and sorrow, caused by John Willoughby, for the sake of being true to herself, but at the cost of imprudence.

    In the course of the novel, Elinor has the opportunity to acknowledge and embrace her feelings by marrying the man she loves. As for Marianne, she learns common sense by suffering disappointment in love and then falling in love again with a steady older man. The message of the story is that the brain and the heart are equally important: neither should be neglected in favour of the other. By the end of the novel, each sister has learned to balance her sense and sensibility.

    Neoclassicism and Romanticism

    The novel can also be viewed through the historical lens of two literary movements that correspond to the human conditions of sense and sensibility. Jane Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility at the turn of the eighteenth century when the literary movement of Romanticism was emerging and overshadowing the hitherto prevailing movement Neoclassicism. Neoclassicism corresponds to ‘sense’: it relies on rationality and moderation. Romanticism, on the other hand, celebrates sensibility and the expression of one’s innermost feelings and ideals.

    In comparing sense and sensibility and coming to the conclusion that both are necessary, Austen acknowledges the changing literary landscape of her time.

    Sense and Sensibility Main Themes

    To further understand the novel and its importance, we need to explore some of its main themes.

    Love and marriage

    It is not time or opportunity that is to determine intimacy; —It is disposition alone. Seven years would be insufficient to make some people acquainted with each other, and seven days are more than enough for others.

    - Marianne, Chapter 12

    Marianne says this to Elinor to explain why she's fallen for Willoughby when she barely knows him. Marianne is a hopeless romantic and can be very naive when it comes to love.

    Marriage is a major theme in the novel but the idea of marrying for love is foreign for most of the characters. Mrs Ferrars controls her sons’ lives by determining who is a proper match for them. When she finds out that Edward has been engaged to Lucy Steele without her knowledge of it, she disinherits him. For Mrs. Ferrars, marriage has nothing to do with love and everything to do with acquiring wealth and status. In contrast, both Elinor and Marianne value love over any material convenience that a good match could bring. Their values could be traced back to their devotion to each other, and to their mother and youngest sister. The strong family bond of their upbringing helps the sisters get through hardships and allows them to find happiness in marriage despite their financial circumstances. In turn, their marriages, which are based on love, mark the start of a new chapter in their family.

    Think about Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra. In a way, in writing Sense and Sensibility, the author created the happy ending for herself and her sister that they never experienced in their real lives.

    Class and society

    I wish, as well as everybody else, to be perfectly happy; but, like everybody else, it must be in my own way.

    -Edward, Chapter 17

    Here, Edward talks to Mrs Dashwood about how doing what his family expects him to do will not make him happy. Edward wants to live a simple and quiet life, while his family expects him to do what is appropriate for a man like him: to become very wealthy or a great genius.

    Sense and Sensibility is a novel of manners because it depicts in great detail the late eighteenth-century English high society. Elinor and Marianne, who are less wealthy than most of their acquaintances, have to navigate through all kinds of social gatherings and situations. Elinor is very careful to always present herself and her family in the appropriate way: she often hides what she really thinks and controls her temper. Marianne, on the other hand, doesn’t care as much for her role in society; she’s more interested in being honest than in presenting herself in a calm and collected manner.

    Society in the novel is presented as a ruthless game of manners that often involves hypocrisy, and having to endure humiliation hidden behind the pretence of good intentions. At the same time, society is a necessary component in the sisters’ lives because it is thanks to its complicated devices that they chance upon meeting their husbands.

    Appearance vs reality

    I have not wanted syllables where actions have spoken so plainly.

    - Mrs Dashwood, Chapter 15

    Mrs Dashwood talks to Elinor about Willoughby. He has deceived her and she’s convinced that his intentions towards Marianne are serious.

    In the novel, false appearances are not only limited to the way characters present themselves. Some characters prove to be deceiving in their personal relations with others. John Willoughby skillfully misleads Marianne to believe that his intentions towards her are serious. In reality, it turns out that he has a history of debauchery and is more interested in securing a fortune than marrying for love. Similarly, Lucy Steele appears to be genuinely in love with Edward Ferrars but when his brother Robert gets his inheritance, she swiftly becomes engaged to him and leaves Edward. In doing so, she reveals that she is not who she appeared to be.

    Gender roles

    I will be calm. I will be mistress of myself.

    -Elinor, Chapter 48

    Elinor says this when she finds out that Edward is coming to visit them. This takes place when she thinks he has just married Lucy Steele. As a woman in this time and age, she doesn't have the power to change her situation. She can, however, remain graceful and show inner strength as is expected from a lady of her position.

    The role of women in the society described in Sense and Sensibility is limited. During the 1700s, women in England couldn’t inherit any property and they couldn’t have a career of their own. However, Austen shows that there are ways in which a woman can exert power and have a kind of freedom within those restrictions. Mrs Ferrars orchestrates the lives of her sons. Fanny Dashwood cleverly controls her husband’s decisions by manipulating him to think her opinions are his own. Before having a husband, Lucy Steele does whatever it takes to find a suitable match and to secure her social status.

    As for Elinor and Marianne, although they don’t resort to such cunning means, they also manage to find some freedom by marrying for love. Be that as it may, for the most part, women depend on men and are unable to do much if they don’t have a husband or a father at their side.

    Sense and Sensibility Characters

    Who are the main characters in Sense and Sensibility? Let’s study them in further detail.

    Elinor Dashwood

    (...) sense will always have attractions for me.

    - Elinor, Chapter 10

    Elinor is the oldest Dashwood sister. She is the personification of sense as the quote above shows: she is calm and collected and keeps her feelings in check. Elinor has a good sense of propriety and knows how to act in society, she is always polite even to people who are unpleasant to her. At only 19, Elinor takes on the role of the head of the family after her father dies. She puts the needs of her mother and sisters first and neglects her own feelings and desires.

    The older Dashwood sister is the voice of reason in her family and in the world of the novel as a whole. Her judgment only fails when it comes to matters of the heart, but she learns to embrace and express her sensibility and ends up happily married to the man she loves.

    Marianne Dashwood

    Marianne Dashwood is the middle Dashwood sister. She is the personification of sensibility: she is passionate, romantic, and very open about her feelings. Marianne can’t control her temper, which leads to her acting inappropriately in some social situations. She gets excited and overwhelmed by everything she cares about from the beauty of nature to the man she falls in love with. Marianne’s judgment is often clouded by the intensity of her emotions, but by the end of the novel, she learns to be more rational and calm.

    Mrs Dashwood

    Mrs Dashwood is Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret’s mother. Marianne’s personality resembles Mrs Dashwood’s in many respects. Mrs. Dashwood tends to be emotional rather than rational, which is the reason behind her many poor decisions. Nonetheless, all Mrs. Dashwood wants is for her daughters to be happy. Unlike Mrs Ferrars, she never forces Elinor and Marianne to marry for money.

    Edward Ferrars

    I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness.

    - Edward, Chapter 17

    Edward Ferrars is Mrs Ferrars’ eldest son and brother to Robert Ferrars and Fanny Dashwood. Edward is seemingly not very remarkable, especially to passionate people like Marianne Dashwood, who doesn’t understand what her sister sees in him. Elinor, however, appreciates Edward’s humble and honest demeanour. Moreover, Edward is very honourable: his loyalty to the promise he made to Lucy Steele keeps him from being happy with Elinor. At the end of the novel, Edward marries Elinor, a woman who is on the same wavelength as him in almost every regard.

    Colonel Brandon

    Brandon is just the kind of man whom everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about; whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to.

    - Willoughby, Chapter 10

    Colonel Brandon is the Dashwood sisters’ neighbour in Barton. Similar to Edward, Colonel Brandon seems unremarkable and stiff to those who don’t know him, as the quote above tells us. He has a tragic past and what he’s been through has made him wiser. Colonel Brandon is a true gentleman: he is polite, accommodating, and generous. Brandon is the only one who cares about Marianne’s music with an intensity that rivals her own, which reveals that there is much depth and sensibility under his calm demeanour.

    John Willoughby

    John Willoughby is a charming but deceitful young man. He is selfish and mostly cares for his own pleasure. Willoughby purposefully makes women fall in love with him with no intention of returning their affections or forming a more serious bond, such as an engagement. Marianne is lucky that her infatuation with Willoughby doesn’t lead to irreparable consequences. After marrying for money to run away from the scandals he has caused, Willoughby apologises to Elinor for the way in which he has treated her sister. This redeems him to some extent.

    The Secondary Characters in Sense and Sensibility

    Let’s now study the secondary characters of the novel.

    Margaret Dashwood

    Margaret is the youngest Dashwood sister. Much like her mother and her sister Marianne, Margaret is a girl of sensibility.

    Lucy Steele

    She is a cunning young woman who wants to marry well and is determined to do so by all means. She is first secretly engaged to Edward Ferrarrs but her affections for him only go as far as the size of his fortune. When Edward loses his inheritance to his younger brother Robert, Lucy reveals her true character by getting engaged to Robert.

    Fanny Dashwood

    Fanny Dashwood is Mrs Ferrars’ daughter and sister to Edward and Robert. She is John Dashwood’s wife. Fanny is vain, greedy, and self-absorbed. She holds the real power in her family: she manipulates her husband not to help his stepmother and half-sisters.

    John Dashwood

    John Dashwood is Mrs Dashwood’s stepson and half-brother to Elinor and Marianne. He is a well-respected but shallow man who lets his wife manipulate him.

    Mrs. Ferrars

    Mrs Ferrars, Fanny, Edward, and Robert’s mother, is a wealthy widow. She is ill-tempered and she controls her sons’ lives by insisting that they only marry women whom she approves of.

    Robert Ferrars

    Robert Ferrars is Mrs. Ferrars’ son and brother to Edward and Fanny Dashwood. Robert is much like his sister: snobby, self-absorbed, and arrogant. He becomes engaged to his brother’s ex-fiance Lucy Steele, but it’s not clear if his mother disowns him because of that like she does his brother.

    Mrs Jennings

    Mrs Jennings is a kind but a slightly vulgar elderly widow. She has two married daughters that she likes to visit in their country homes in Barton, where she also meets the Dashwood sisters. Mrs. Jennings is a match-maker who likes to meddle in young people’s lives and affairs.

    Sense and Sensibility contribution to literature today

    Sense and Sensibility is an excellent example of the novel of manners. The novel presents a witty female perspective that was uncommon at the time it was published. Although our society has changed considerably since then, the themes and the characters of the novel are still relevant to readers today. Don't you know someone who’s just as unreliable and misleadingly charming as Willoughby, or just as impressionable as Marianne?

    Did you know? Sense and Sensibility has several film and stage adaptations. Maybe you’ve seen Ang Lee’s film adaptation from 1995 that stars famous actors, such as Emma Thomspon, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and Alan Rickman.

    But did you know that there's also a stage musical that premiered in 2013?

    Sense and Sensibility - Key takeaways

    • Sense and Sensibility is a novel by Jane Austen published in 1811.
    • Sense and Sensibility tells the story of sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.
    • The message of the novel is to find the balance between sense (the mind) and sensibility (the heart). The contrast between sense and sensibility can also be viewed through the historical context of the two literary movements Neoclassicism (sense) and Romanticism (sensibility).
    • The main themes in Sense and Sensibility are: love and marriage, class and society, appearance vs reality, and gender roles.
    • The main characters in Sense and Sensibility are: Elinor Dashwood, Marianne Dashwood, Mrs. Dashwood, Edward Ferrars, John Willoughby, and Colonel Brandon.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Sense and Sensibility

    Who wrote Sense and Sensibility?

    The author of Sense and Sensibility is Jane Austen.

    What is the story of Sense and Sensibility?

    Sense and Sensibility tells the story of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, as they go through hardships and find love.

    How long is Sense and Sensibility?

    Sense and Sensibility is around 350 pages long.

    How many chapters are in Sense and Sensibility?

    Sense and Sensibility has 50 chapters.

    What did Jane Austen mean by ‘sense and sensibility’?

    With ‘sense and sensibility’, Jane Austen depicts the contrast between the mind and the heart, which corresponds to the contrast between the two main characters: Elinor represents sense while Marianne, sensibility. Additionally, by comparing sense and sensibility Jane Austen also meant the two literary movements of her time: Neoclassicism being sense and Romanticism being sensibility.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Which adjective would you use to describe John Willoughby?

    What literary movement corresponds to 'sense'?

    Who does Edward Ferrars really love?


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