Jane Austen wrote this novel during an important transition in English cultural history when the sensible eighteenth century enlightenment ideas were giving way to the more sensitive romantic ideas of the nineteenth century. In Sense and Sensibility, she creates the two Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, to embody the extremes of relational and romantic personality. The story may sometimes seem to fit a predictable formula, in which common sense is pitted against emotional sensitivity, but Austen also makes keen observations about the way to go about attaining happiness.
The cool, rational elder sister, Elinor, falls deeply in love with her sister-in-law’s brother, quiet, reserved Edward Ferrars. Elinor’s sister-in-law Fanny regards Elinor as too poor for her wealthy brother, but he scorns his family’s expectation that he marry a rich heir. Edward loves Elinor and he avoids her only because he secretly and foolishly engaged himself to Lucy Steele. This longtime clandestine engagement pains him when he realizes that he never loved Lucy. His gentleman’s code of conduct, however, does not allow him to break his engagement, so he expects to have to marry Lucy even after he falls in love with Elinor. Elinor for her part is resigned to the prospect of often meeting Edward and Lucy as a married couple.
Lucy is a brilliantly portrayed character: a charming, intelligent, but completely heartless young woman who uses Edward to secure a position in upper-class society. As soon as Edward is disinherited by his angry mother and his brother Robert has better financial prospects, she shifts her affections and hopes to Robert.
Only because Lucy abandons honorable Edward does he become free to propose to Elinor. These lovers, who were guided by prudence and respect for social conventions, are finally united and win the happiness they desire because they honored the sensible values of society.
Meanwhile, the passionate, sensitive Marianne plunges into love with handsome, charming John Willoughby after he gallantly rescues her when she falls down a steep hill. He seems to be the perfect romantic hero. Everyone who sees them together agrees they seem perfectly matched in taste, values, and temperament. The two ignore rules of social conduct by spending many hours together and disregarding others. Marianne visits his home without a chaperone, and their ardent behavior misleads others into believing they are engaged even when they are not. After Marianne is abandoned by her seemingly ideal lover, it is long before she can accept what Willoughby did. Her first response is to become depressed and dangerously ill, and only slowly does she regain her health and will to live.
Courtship is the theme of all Austen’s novels, but in Sense and Sensibility, the young ladies and gentlemen in love face dangerous challenges. Both Elinor’s and Marianne’s love affairs are threatened by mercenary forces intent on destroying their prospects of marriage. The obstacles to a marriage between reserved, sensible Elinor and Edward are his family’s greed and pride as well as his earlier indiscretion in engaging himself. Passionate, romantic Marianne and Willoughby, after an intense attraction that causes them to ignore the barriers between them, suffer and end up bitterly regretting their behavior. Willoughby regrets having abandoned Marianne, “his secret standard of perfection in women,” while she regrets having indulged her impulsive, irrational feelings for him.
Certainly, Austen is commenting on the relative value of sense and sensibility in the face of crisis, and clearly she prefers sense. The story vindicates sensible Elinor as a thoughtful, considerate person who, even while suffering from her own disappointed love, nurses and consoles her sister. Even while suffering, she can have the satisfaction of acting correctly, whereas Marianne is forced to condemn herself harshly for her past thoughtless self-absorption, her rudeness to others, her neglect of the rules of good conduct, and her self-destructiveness. Only after coming to this realization can Marianne find happiness with sensible Colonel Brandon, a steady, rational, kind older man.
In this novel, Austen critically examines the changing social values of England in the early nineteenth century. As Great Britain’s colonial empire and Industrial Revolution created greater wealth and power in the early nineteenth century, traditional country values gradually gave way to newer, more cosmopolitan values. In the novel, plain-speaking, old-fashioned characters such as Sir John Middleton and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, seem at first rather vulgar and naïvely cheerful in their teasing about romance and enthusiasm for dinners and dances. In crisis situations, however, they prove to be good friends who care for the feelings of others and offer valued help to those in need. Mrs. Jennings’s true affection for Elinor and Marianne becomes clear when she nurses Marianne through her serious illness.
In contrast to these simple, countrified types, Edward’s mother, the elegant, sophisticated, and wealthy Mrs. Ferrars, and her daughter, Mrs. Fanny Dashwood, seem coldly calculating and cruel in their relations with others. They break promises and cast off needy relatives. Those aspiring to the wealth and sophistication of the Ferrars, such as Lucy Steele and Lady Middleton, also act in needlessly cruel and thoughtless ways. By contrasting old-fashioned manners with newer ones, Austen suggests that traditional ways are more trustworthy in times of need. She herself preferred life in a small country village and detested living in the elegant resort town of Bath, where sophisticated, leisured people gathered.
Austen’s style adds a dramatically ironic dimension to the novel. Key characters reveal themselves in crisp, natural dialogue, at the same time showing readers that they do not completely understand themselves and their own values. Early in the story, Marianne declares to Elinor, “I have not known [Willoughby] long, indeed; but I am much better acquainted with him than I am with any other creature in the world, except yourself and mamma.” Austen observes, “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate. She was born to discover the falsehood of her own opinions, and to counteract, by her conduct, her most favourite maxims.”