Sense and Sensibility is Jane Austen’s first published novel. It grew out of the sketch “Elinor and Marianne,” which was written in the 1790’s and was revised several times before its publication in 1811. The novel is written in the form of a comedy of manners, and in it the author satirizes the lifestyle of her characters with much humor and irony. Although it has a happy ending, Sense and Sensibility contains Jane Austen’s usual hardheadedness, which makes her fiction powerfully realistic and timeless.
The plot centers on Mrs. Henry Dashwood and her three daughters. Not much is said of Margaret, the youngest daughter. Elinor’s and Marianne’s trials as eligible young ladies are the focus of the story. Their mother, Mrs. Dashwood, has been left without much of an income, for her husband Henry has had only a life interest in his estate, which means that his wife must vacate it in favor of the new heir, her stepson, John Dashwood. On his deathbed, Henry Dashwood has made his son John promise to provide for Henry’s wife and three daughters. Unfortunately, John’s avaricious and insensitive wife, Fanny, convinces him that he has very little obligation to Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, and that they can do well on their very small income. Consequently, Mrs. Dashwood has little choice but to accept the kind offer from a relative of a cottage in Devonshire, to which she moves with her three daughters.
It is difficult for Elinor to leave her family home, since she has fallen in love with the circumspect Edward Ferrars. He is a peculiar suitor, subdued and tentative, but Elinor appreciates his mild manner and modesty, and she is willing to have their courtship proceed at an even, if extremely slow, pace. Elinor understands that Edward’s mother will probably oppose his marrying Elinor because Elinor does not have the great wealth or position that Edward’s mother seeks in a bride for her son. To Marianne, this is provoking. Why should Elinor be content with such a hesitant lover? Why should she make excuses for Edward when Marianne attacks his want of spontaneity? To Marianne, he seems neither intense nor determined enough to seek Elinor’s hand. She cannot understand why Edward is not forthright and why Elinor does not lose patience with him. Elinor finds, however, that Edward’s quiet, sober demeanor is attractive; it indicates his seriousness and steadiness. She seems to sense that he feels more than he can say and that he is deliberately checking himself for reasons he cannot disclose or that he is behaving in accordance with his shy and retiring nature.
Marianne adapts quickly to Devonshire, where she begins to receive the attentions of the flamboyant John Willoughby. He seems to be everything that Edward Ferrars is not. Willoughby is Marianne’s constant, entertaining companion, solicitous of her every mood. They become inseparable, and their friends and neighbors assume they are to be married, even though no engagement is announced, but Willoughby abruptly leaves Marianne and the Dashwood household, saying nothing about when he will return and leaving Marianne upset.
Marianne has spurned Elinor’s advice to be prudent. Elinor believes that Marianne should not give her heart to Willoughby until he has made an outright declaration of his intentions. Marianne, however, accuses Elinor of coldness and criticizes the behavior of their new friend, Colonel Brandon, who has fallen in love with her, but who represents precisely the sort of staid manner that Marianne rejects. Colonel Brandon is several years older than Marianne, and, like Edward Ferrars, he seems to be entirely too cautious.
Elinor tries to caution Marianne even as she suffers anguish over the puzzling behavior of the uneasy Edward Ferrars, for he has not visited her at the Dashwoods’ new cottage. Because of his long absence, Elinor begins to doubt his intention to marry her, even though she is still convinced that he loves her. Elinor receives another blow when Lucy Steele confides to her that she is secretly engaged to Edward. Lucy shares her news with Elinor in a taunting fashion designed to inflict the maximum amount of damage on Elinor’s hopes. Neither woman, however, openly acknowledges that this is what Lucy is doing. Refusing to be provoked by Lucy, who suspects Edward of an attachment to Elinor, Elinor calmly, if painfully, negotiates the hazards of both Marianne’s and her own affair, hiding her heartache from her sister and the rest of the family.
The lives of both Elinor and Marianne seem devastated when Willoughby drops Marianne and marries a wealthy woman, and when Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy is revealed to his mother by Lucy’s sister. All seems spoiled as Marianne falls victim to a dreadful fever and seems to be about to succumb to a wasting disease. She rallies, however, and gradually gathers strength by realizing how foolish she has been to ignore the obvious signs of Willoughby’s perfidy and Elinor’s patient, wise counsel. Still, Elinor’s own lives seems to be blighted when a servant announces the marriage of Edward and Lucy. This turns out to be a false alarm, however, for Edward appears to make an even more startling announcement. Lucy has married his younger brother Robert, leaving Edward free to marry Elinor.
Marianne slowly recovers, bolstered by Elinor’s report that Willoughby has visited to confess that he did actually love Marianne but foolishly abandoned her because he could not overcome a life of dissipated habits. She now realizes that she could never have been happy with him, and she accepts the suit of Colonel Brandon, who has acted as her family’s benefactor throughout their long ordeal.