The plot of Sense and Sensibility is a conventional one for its time. It raises a conflict in love that is typical of the comedy of manners, and it resolves the anxieties of its heroines in a pleasing, if unremarkable, way. It is clear from the outset that the novel will focus on the education of Marianne’s sensibility. She must learn through suffering that the decorum of polite society, which she despises, has been designed to channel and discipline human feeling. To Marianne, this decorum seems cold. She rejects it in the figure of Colonel Brandon, although she eventually learns that his own sobriety is largely the result of his earlier disappointment in love. Elinor is the key to Marianne’s reformation, for she shows that to behave with decorum is not tantamount to behaving in a cold and unimaginative manner. She feels things as strongly as Marianne does, but Elinor realizes that simply giving vent to feeling destroys sense. In other words, the emotions and the intellect must be kept in exquisite balance. Thus, Sense and Sensibility is a comedy of manners not merely because it contains many amusing scenes but also because it is centered on a plot that resolves itself through an understanding of societal manners and how they have been developed to ensure a happy ending for human lives.
Although Sense and Sensibility lacks the full maturity of Jane Austen’s later novels, its prose style, wit, and characterization reflect her genius for precision and balance. Although Elinor, for example, is the sensible sister, she is neither humorless nor callous. She loves Edward Ferrars very much, yet she realizes that her position is fragile and that his own is precarious. Elinor must bide her time, learn what she can from Lucy Steele, and hope that her judgment of Edward has not been wrong. Above all, Elinor is interesting because her assessment of human character is so shrewd, yet she does not presume to think that she can know all the factors that have gone into Edward’s perplexing behavior.
Marianne, however, believes that she should be forthright, that Elinor’s demeanor is altogether too placid and her behavior too oblique. She mistakes her sister’s self-control for complacency. She does not guess how much Elinor has been hurt by Edward’s failure to propose marriage. Marianne takes Willoughby to be a character much like herself, and she will not countenance the idea that he might be playing with her. The irony is that she rejects Colonel Brandon, although his own history is one of disappointed love, and he is in the best position to understand how devastating Willoughby’s rejection of Marianne will be.
Elinor and Marianne, representing such different sensibilities, should be at odds. That they are not is largely because of the way in which Jane Austen has handled Elinor, who quickly realizes that it would be folly to interfere actively in the concerns of her headstrong younger sister. Instead, Elinor commits herself to carefully watching Marianne and offering her point of view only when Marianne is disposed to accept it or calls for it in conversation. This characterization of Elinor is crucial to the novel, for it allows Marianne room to analyze her faults without Elinor’s having attacked her.
No analysis of a Jane Austen novel would be complete without some discussion of her extraordinary style. There is, for example, the famous scene between John Dashwood and his wife Fanny. John is discussing his promise to his father to look after his stepmother and her daughters. He is trying to settle on a sum that would make them comfortable. Each figure he proposes is whittled down by his wife, who insinuates that John should not overreact to his father’s deathbed request, that his father could not have meant John to give so much of his own fortune away, and that John should remember that his own children might very well miss the amount he is proposing to settle on Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. Soon enough, Fanny has reduced the figure to nothing. Yet this process of depriving the Dashwoods of their due is done in the most rational tone, as if Fanny is speaking not from avariciousness but from prudence. Her husband John responds to her in the most mild and thoughtful way, as though she has done no more than help him in managing his responsibilities rather than, as is the case, totally abandoning them. There is no better example of the way in which Jane Austen uses irony, so that the characters say one thing but mean another, imagining they are behaving decently when in fact they are behaving like beasts. Moreover, the whole scene is managed without any authorial intervention. These characters convict themselves.