Sense and Sensibility

Rather like Austen’s most famous novel, this book’s title immediately lets us know that it’s a story about emotion and reason, ethics and morals.

Sense and Sensibility (published in 1811) focuses on two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Elinor is the older sister and Marianne the younger.

With their mother, Elinor and Marianne have to move from their family home, but soon find themselves assisted by a property owning relative who offers them a cottage to live in. In due course, the cottage becomes the place where a range of relationships and encounters develop, each of which tests characters’ sense of themselves and of others around them as the familiar drama of our duty and our desires comes into play. Late in the novel, in chapter 49, Edward Ferrars makes the point about personal feelings and duty.

Like Austen’s other novels, Sense and Sensibility is a romance and through the course of the book both Elinor and Marianne think that they might lose the men that they love.

The novel does not only tell a story about love; it also explores the allure that money holds for people and the character of John Dashwood sees everything in monetary terms.

As in Jane Austen’s other novels, conversations communicate a great deal to the reader about characters, and their behaviour and attitudes and the broader themes of the novel. Elinor and Marianne talk lots about when it’s appropriate to lie and, in keeping with Austen’s work, the issue of politeness and integrity are key concerns of the book. In chapter twelve, Marianne and Elinor are walking along together and their conversation gives us a view into Elinor’s thoughts and feelings.

As the novel’s title suggests, pairings and contrasts are a fundamental part of the relationships in the book as in life. Elinor and Marianne are the most prominent example of this pairing and contrast: where Elinor understands tact and Marianne is more emotionally open. Chapter twenty six offers a very real sense that Elinor wishes she had some of the romance in her life that her young sister was experiencing. One character even says to Elinor of her that she is “Always resignation and acceptance. Always prudence and honour and duty. Elinor, where is your heart?”

One of Jane Austen’s great literary accomplishments was the creation of a narrator’s voice and in Sense and Sensibility the narrator establishes the key female characters very clearly in chapter one. Elinor is described as “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgement, which qualified her, though only nineteen, to be the counselor of her mother, and enabled her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs Dashwood [her mother] which must generally have led to imprudence. 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 resolved never to be taught.”

Contrastingly, Marianne is described as “sensible and clever; but eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation. She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent.”

Rather like Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, Elinor is very good at understanding how the people she knows behave and think. In chapter ten, look at the way in which the narrator lets us understand how Elinor considers Colonel Brandon. Austen’s language here is very precise “She liked him – in spite of his gravity and reserve, she beheld in him an object of interest. His manners, though serious, were mild; and his reserve appeared rather the result of some oppression of spirits than of any natural gloominess of temper. Sir John had dropped hints of past injuries and disappointments, which justified her belief of his being an unfortunate man, and she regarded him with respect and compassion.” (Chapter 10)

As in Jane Austen’s other novels quite a lot of the plot is resolved in the closing few chapters in which various choices that characters have made are clarified and made sense of. Sense and Sensibility explores the complications of choices, social pressures and the conventions of property and inheritance and in chapter twenty nine the text openly presents a conversation about happiness and unhappiness as Marianne has revealed to her the truth about the man she thought she loved, John Willoughby. Elinor tries to calm Marianne by saying “You must not talk so, Marianne. Have you no comforts ? no friends? Is your loss such as leaves no opening for consolation ? Much as you suffer now, think of what you would have suffered if the discovery of his character had been delayed to a later period…” Elinor’s thoughtful attempt to calm her anxious sister reminds us clearly of the Regency period’s interest in self-knowledge and reason, qualities that Jane Austen held so important that she writes about them in all of her novels.

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