Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Sense and Sensibility is a novel that is best understood within the context of the era in which it was written. Austen lived in that period of English history when eighteenth century rationalism was giving way to the increasing popularity of nineteenth century romanticism, as typified by William Wordsworth and the Romantic poets. The open embrace and deliberate cultivation of sensibility—deep feelings and passionate emotions—were perhaps a natural reaction to the admiration of reserve and practicality that had typified the preceding decades.
Austen’s novel, her first published work, offers a portrait of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, who embody the two qualities set forth in the title. Elinor, the elder of the two, is intelligent, loving, and wise enough to see the potential folly in failing to temper emotion with good sense. Marianne, although sharing many of these qualities, lacks her sister’s wisdom; she is, as Austen describes her, “everything but prudent.”
Marianne’s insistence on giving her emotions free rein leads her into an unhappy romance with the fortune-hunting Willoughby when she mistakes his false expressions of sentiment for love. Although Marianne’s own excessive displays of emotion spring from genuine feeling, they blind her to the realization that less fervently expressed emotions may also be heartfelt and true. Waiting patiently throughout the book is the quiet, steadfast Colonel Brandon,...
(The entire section is 435 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
When Mr. John Dashwood inherits his father’s estate, it is his intention to provide comfortably for his stepmother and his half sisters. His wife, Fanny, has other ideas, however, and although she is independently wealthy, she cleverly prevents her husband from helping his relatives. When Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars, begins to show an interest in Elinor, John’s half sister, Fanny is determined to prevent any alliance between them. She makes life so uncomfortable for the older Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters that the ladies accept the offer of their relative, Sir John Middleton, to occupy a cottage on his estate.
Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, and Marianne are happy in the cottage at Barton Park. There they meet Colonel Brandon, Sir John’s thirty-five-year-old friend, who is immediately attracted to Marianne. She considers him too old and rejects his suit. Instead, she falls in love with John Willoughby, a young man visiting wealthy relatives on a neighboring estate.
Once, while the young people are preparing for an outing, Colonel Brandon is called away in a mysterious fashion. Elinor and Marianne are surprised later to hear that he has a daughter; at least that is the rumor they hear. Willoughby seems determined to give Marianne a bad impression of Colonel Brandon, which displeases Elinor. Shortly after the colonel’s sudden departure, Willoughby himself leaves very suddenly and without explanation. Elinor cannot help being concerned about the manner of his departure, particularly since he did not make a definite engagement with Marianne.
A week later, Edward Ferrars appeared at the cottage for a visit. Elinor is strongly attracted to him, but Edward seems no more than mildly interested in her. After a short stay, he leaves the cottage without saying anything to give Elinor hope. Meanwhile, Sir John invites to his home Miss Lucy Steele and her sister, two young ladies whom Elinor thinks vulgar and ignorant. She is therefore stunned when Lucy tells her that she is secretly engaged to Edward, whom she met while he was a pupil of Lucy’s uncle. According to Lucy’s story, they were engaged for four years, but Edward’s mother would not permit him to marry. Since Edward has no money of his own and no occupation, they are forced to wait for Mrs. Ferrars’s consent before they can announce their engagement. Concealing her unhappiness at this news, Elinor tells Lucy that she will help in any way she can.
A short time later, Elinor and Marianne are invited to London to visit friends. Marianne immediately writes to Willoughby to inform him that she is near. Although she writes two or three times, she gets no reply. One day, she meets him at a social event. He is with another young lady...
(The entire section is 1117 words.)