Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

“The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex.”

Mr. Dashwood of Norland Park has passed away leaving his wife, Mrs. Dashwood, and three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret to the mercy of their half-brother, John Dashwood, now owner of their ancestral home.  While John had promised his father to care for his step-mother and sisters and settle money on them for their comfort, he is quickly and deftly talked out of giving them anything by his mercenary wife. The Dashwood family is left to accept Barton Cottage, a small cottage in Devonshire, offered to them by a distant cousin, Mr. Sir John Middleton.  Yet before they leave Norland, Elinor forms an attachment with Edward Ferrars, the brother of her callous sister-in-law, a good-natured young man, who appreciates Elinor’s sense and temperance.

At Barton Cottage, the family meet their benefactor, Sir John, a rather buffoonish cordial man, with a wife with a character as warm as winter. Despite their reduced circumstances, the Dashwoods accept their new life with, more-or-less, a cheerful resignation and begin to move about in society, meeting the dour and grave Colonel Brandon.  Brandon is attracted to Marianne, but at thirty-five years old, he seems rather ancient to her, and his disposition does not exemplify all the sensitivity, feeling and passion that she considers essential in a man.  During an accident in the rain, Marianne is rescued by a young gentleman, Willoughby, and his nature, in contrast to Brandon’s, appears to be everything her heart desires.  His love of books, music and poetry correspond identically to hers; his impulsiveness and his carefree love of pleasure; his immoderate abandon in the face of love.  Their marriage soon appears to be a surety, but when Marianne learns of his engagement to another, her heart and all her preconceived ideals are damaged.

Meanwhile, Edward Ferrars pays a visit, yet while Elinor feels an ardent connection between them, Edward appears indecisive.  She soon learns of his engagement to a Miss Lucy Steele and, contrary to Marianne’s disposition, she is forced to suppress her natural feeling for the sake of convention, but also self-respect.

Gathering Flowers in a
Devonshire Garden
John William Waterhouse
source Wikiart

The juxtaposition of sense and sensibility is played out and embodied in the characters of Elinor and Marianne.  Elinor’s sense is soon made apparent.  “Elinor, the eldest daughter whose advice was so effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgement, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must generally have led to impudence.  She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong: but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.”

Marianne, in contrast, is all unbridled sensibility, and shows a contempt for those who are not as passionate.  While her sensibility is a sensation of passion induced by positive emotions and experience, such as love, poetry, music, and a response to beauty, it is a wild impulsive, unrestrained, vehement emotion, and Marianne allows herself to be governed by it entirely.  As young colt strains against the teaching rein, so Marianne pulls against the constraints that society places on her as a young woman in Georgian England.

London (1808)
William Turner
source Wikiart

Yet while Austen shows the differences and consequences of the two character traits, with her usual insights and character crafting she does not put either sister in a tidy box.  While Marianne is wild and impulsive, she also show glimmers of sense.  As her character develops, Willoughby’s true nature is revealed to her, and through him her own nature is reflected back into her eyes.  She recognizes her faults and strives for change.  Conversely, it is not that responsible, pragmatic Elinor doesn’t feel; she has similar strength of emotion and attachment as her sister, but her emotions are bridled.  Elinor’s sensibility is there, but it does not overpower her sense and therefore allows her to see situations in a clearer light, and from that she is able to govern her life in a way that not only brings respect and contentment to herself, but is beneficial for those people around her.

As usual, Austen gives us a kaleidoscope of characters and while there is strict delineation between the different levels of society, she also shows the colourful interactions that cross those boundaries between them.  She juxtaposes two situations, one were engagements are incorrectly assumed for both sisters, and then the turmoil of both sisters when it is known that Willoughby and Edward are engaged to other women.  Yet it is the characters that offer us a lesson, as their behaviour determines the outcomes of each situation, and gives us an intimate look at the correct balance of both “sense” and sensibility”.

18 thoughts on “Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

  1. "Yet while Austen shows the differences and consequences of the two character traits, with her usual insights and character crafting she does not put either sister in a tidy box." I think that's very true! Although Austen uses the two sisters to explore sense vs. sensibility, she also makes them individuals, and of course we see them grow and develop as the story progresses.

  2. Good character analysis…..
    The sisters had many differences….but in what ways were they alike in our opinion?

    of all Austen's books, this is my favorite!

  3. I've found as I've been reading through Austen's works, that she always picks two opposites, and often extreme opposites, to highlight what she's trying to say. I'm wondering how this will play out in Mansfield Park (which I'm reading now) and Emma which will be my next read after that.

  4. Alike in a specific or general way? I think I mentioned in my review, it wasn't that Elinor didn't appreciate what Marianne did (drawing, music, poetry, etc. — and in this way making them alike) she just held her passions in proper reign. Personally, I don't think Austen was trying to make comparisons with specific likes and dislikes, although they are there, to highlight the bigger picture of sense having proper control of our sensibility. Initially Marianne didn't show much sense but, with her experiences she gained it and would have had to let it finally lead her, to have a proper appreciation for Colonel Brandon's qualities and a realization of her own foibles. Elinor had the proper balance to begin with.

    If I remember, I think that you're not an Austen fan??? I still like Pride and Prejudice the best. Its economy of both words and characters still awes me. Very little is said or done that doesn't add to the story.

  5. I think this is one of the best reviews i have ever read of S&S…brilliant…scholars say that Jane Austen drew the two sisters basis herself and Cassandra, her elder sister – she identified with Marianne and thought of Cassandra as Elinor. You have hit the nail that in a true Austenian style, she brings forth the completeness of each of the sisters….both are capable of sense and sensibility, but like all mortals, one may be in excess of others and with experience comes the realization that sense should perhaps have a little more weight than sensibility. Jane Austen knew her characters , because she knew the heart of the mankind!

  6. Likenesses that don't appear directly but in the course of the book become evident as the character develops…good thing to look for when I'm reading books. True, I'm not an Austen fan but cannot reject her either. She deserves a re-read 🙂

  7. I forgot the part where Willoughby is engaged to someone else…it really is interesting how the same thing happens to both sisters and how differently they react. To be honest I'm more familiar with the film than the book (due for a re-read!), and watching it I always feel like maybe Elinor kept too much to herself, having nobody to lean on. But certainly, back in that culture, it was more expected to keep personal matters to one's self and not tell it to the world.

  8. Your words mean alot to me because I have SOOOO much trouble writing reviews of her books. I often have a headache when I finish.

    I didn't know about the connection with her and her sister so thanks for this information. I really should read a biography on her, or at least some of her letters. It's so important to know something about an author to truly understand their works and I've been lax in this area with Austen.

  9. I think that you're onto something with your observation. Both Marianne and her mother had excess sensibility and even Margaret to a certain extent. It makes sense that Elinor would have to over-compensate. Poor her!

  10. Thanks, O! I definitely have certain levels of love for Austen's books, but the more I read of each one, the more I appreciate them. I found that with this one, she tends to tell more than show, but it's just another aspect of her writing that I can appreciate and different from most of her other works.

  11. Cleo, I love your summary of Sense and Sensibility. I'm pretty familiar with this novel and have read a lot about Jane Austen's work, and this is the best summary I have seen! I have the 1995 film version with Emma Thompson as Elinor. She's so good it's almost possible to overlook that she is too old for the role of a 19 year old.

  12. Thanks so much, Carol; coming from you that is a huge compliment and so treasured because, as I said, Austen "kerfuffles" me when I have to review her works (picture me, banging my head against a wall). It's probably more due to her excellent novels than to me that it all comes out right in the end. 🙂 I loved Emma Thompson as Elinor but somehow I felt that the movie didn't communicate the relationship between Marianne and Brandon in a way that made it believeable. I really liked the 2008 mini series (minus the first token sex scene which I thought was in poor taste) with Hattie Morahan and Charity Wakefield. Have you seen that one? I thought the casting for that one was excellent!

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