Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
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.
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Barton cottage. Home of Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, near Barton Park in Devonshire, three days’ journey from London in southwest England, that is under the control of a distant relative. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters move into the cottage after her stepson, John Dashwood, marries and his new wife makes it clear that they are no longer welcome in the home that she now manages. The women make the cottage comfortable and are resigned to the social gaucheries of Sir John Middleton and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, who apparently are to be their main social resources.
The novel’s central romantic entanglements are introduced at the cottage, where the daughters begin receiving gentleman callers who represent prospective husbands. One caller, Edward Ferrars, who gives Elinor hope that her affection for him may be returned, is partial toward the cottage because he prefers the seclusion and quiet of country life to the social bustle of London. Eventually the two older daughters find happiness with the lovers of their choice.
Norland Park. Sussex home of the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters that is inherited by her stepson, John Dashwood. Mrs. Dashwood fondly remembers it as her former home, Marianne remembers it for its elegance, and Elinor remembers it as the place where she and Edward became fond of each other.
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Jane Austen is the first great female English novelist and has been acknowledged as such in countless articles and books. An avid reader, she built on the tradition created by Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), whose novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-1748) focus on female characters with their own distinct problems and sensibilities, and also on the work of earlier female novelists such as Fanny Burney (1752-1840), who perfected the novel of manners. Jane Austen went beyond these authors, however, in giving her female characters a new level of maturity and self-awareness. They are sharper and shrewder, more prone to criticize society even as they uphold its basic values.
Jane Austen’s style has been the model for countless writers, male and female. In recent years, her complex vision of society has been increasingly appreciated. Her earliest critics thought of her as modest, a miniaturist of society who did not deal with the large issues that concern male novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), William Thackeray (1811-1863), or Charles Dickens (1812-1870). This view, however, has been challenged by later critics, many of them female, who see her as being much more actively involved with broader social issues—even if the social contexts of her novels seem narrow. Her recent biographers have abetted this critical trend, showing how acute Austen could be on the issues of her day and how political her sensibility and style...
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Social Classes in the English Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries
Jane Austen was a member of the professional class. The men in the professional class were expected to pursue a profession, either the army, navy, clergy, law, or medicine. The women were excluded from these professions and were expected to marry. Elinor and Marianne are representative examples of young ladies of the professional class. In Sense and Sensibility, they socialize with and marry into the landed gentry, the next higher social class. Social assimilation and upward mobility of this sort is a major theme in many of Austen's works.
Members of the landed gentry were largely idle. They lived off the wealth of their estates. For leisure, the men hunted and the women gathered in the parlor. They lived in country estates and were completely separated from any squalor of the big city, London, and remained unaffected by economic hardships caused by the war with France. In order to ensure that a family's wealth did not diminish by being split up excessively, the concept of primogeniture was obeyed: the eldest son inherited the majority of the estate and the younger sons were left to join the professional class, in which they actually needed to earn a living in a profession. Although Colonel Brandon is not the eldest son, his brother died early, leaving him in the position of the eldest. When she learns that her son, Edward, intends to marry a woman beneath him in...
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Original Conception and the Didactic Genre
Sense and Sensibility was first drafted as an epistolary novel—that is, a novel in the form of letters between characters. It is likely that Austen was imitating the format of Samuel Richardson, an author whom she grew up admiring who presented heroine-centered domestic fictions. At some point in her writing, Austen dismissed the idea of an epistolary novel and instead drafted what would eventually become the didactic novel, a form that was popular in the 1790s. Critic Marilyn Butler explains: "The didactic novel which compares the beliefs and conduct of two protagonists—with the object of finding one invariably right and the other invariably wrong—seems to have been particularly fashionable during the years 1795-1796." Seen in this light, Austen's first published novel, right down to the duality in the title, is a perfect example of the didactic novel. In fact, it is so much so that critics are apt to dismiss it as formulaic in comparison with Austen's later, more mature works. Butler asserts that Sense and Sensibility is "unremittingly didactic," and she adds, "All the novelists who choose the contrast format do so in order to make an explicit ideological point."
Presentation of Dichotomous Ideologies
The duality that Austen presents is the contrast between Elinor's sense and Marianne's sensibility. This duality implies much more than the mere definitions of the two...
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Compare and Contrast
1800s: Women in the class to which Jane Austen and the Dashwood sisters belong are not allowed to work. They depend upon suitable marriages or the generosity of their male relatives for financial support and have virtually no economic freedom.
Today: While women still face discrimination in the workplace, such as unequal pay, women are free to enter any profession they desire and can be found in leadership roles both in the business world and in the government.
1800s: As well as being denied economic freedom, women are also not allowed much social freedom. They are not allowed to travel alone even a short distance from their homes, and unmarried women cannot keep unchaperoned company with men who are not their relatives for fear of ruining their reputation and thus their chances of a suitable marriage.
Today: Because of economic independence, women have the freedom to purchase property, to live alone, to travel alone, and to move about freely without fearing for their reputations.
1800s: English society at the time of Austen's writing is sharply divided between the working class and the upper-class, landed gentry.
Today: Thanks to industrial developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the economic changes they brought, the middle class in Western countries, such as the United States and Britain, now makes up a significant part of the population....
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Topics for Further Study
In Vindication of the Rights of Women, a classic feminist work published during Austen's lifetime, Mary Wollstonecraft argues that because women are enslaved to their weaker sensibilities, they must become completely dependant on the more rational men to survive. Wollstonecraft believes that women can only gain their independence through the complete rejection of their sensibility in favor of a strict course of rational education. Based on your reading of Sense and Sensibility, how do you think Jane Austen would respond to this argument? Do you think she was a supporter of Wollstonecraft's views?
One of the major political movements of the eighteenth century was taking place in France during the time that Jane Austen began her writing career. The Jacobins had just taken over France from the aristocracy; their cry for individuality and personal freedom, or sensibility, was revolutionary at the time and would come to profoundly impact all of European politics. How do you see the political events in France affecting Austen's writing of Sense and Sensibility? Does she side with the Jacobins' cry for individual freedoms, or do you think Austen was more conservative and would have wanted to retain the status quo?
Sense and Sensibility is often described as a "didactic" novel, that is, a novel that pits two opposing viewpoints against each other. Didactic novels were popular at the time Austen was writing and were known...
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Sense and Sensibility was first adapted for television in 1985. This version starred Irene Richards and Tracey Childs.
A movie adaptation was produced in 1995 by Columbia/Tri Star Studios and directed by Ang Lee. The film starred Emma Thompson (who also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay), Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet.
Several abridged audio recordings of the novel have been produced, most notably a version read by Kate Winslet, produced by Highbridge.
An unabridged audio version, 900 minutes long and performed by Jill Masters, is available from Blackstone Audiobooks.
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What Do I Read Next?
Pride and Prejudice (1813), the second of Jane Austen's novels to be published, is perhaps her most famous work. Much like Sense and Sensibility, the action in this novel centers on upper-class English society, in particular the courtship of the Bennet sisters. Elizabeth Bennet, a spitfire of a character, and her equally spirited beau Mr. Darcy are one of literature's most famous pairs.
Mansfield Park (1814), by Jane Austen, tells the story of Fanny Price, an insecure girl who is brought up by her rich aunt and uncle and examines the questions of morality of the time. It has been described as unique among Austen's work in its more somber and moralizing tone.
Emma (1815), the last of Austen's novels to be published before her death, is a lighthearted story of upper-class courtship, featuring a charming heroine but nevertheless displaying Austen's razor-sharp wit and observation of her society. Emma has much in common with Marianne of Sense and Sensibility in both her spirited naïveté and her eventual growth into a more mature wisdom, an act which exhibits Austen's views of the necessity of social propriety.
Jane Austen's Letters (1997), a new edition edited by Deirdre Le Faye, is a compilation of Austen's witty and sharp correspondence, which give insight into her daily life and the inspiration she had for her novels.
A Vindication on the Rights of Women, by Mary...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Brown, Ivor, Jane Austen and Her World, Henry Z. Walck, 1966.
Burrows, John, "Style," in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 170-88.
Butler, Marilyn, "Sensibility and Jacobinism," in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, edited by Robert Clark, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 38-52.
Clark, Robert, "Introduction: Closing (with) Jane Austen," in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, edited by Robert Clark, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 1-25.
Handley, Graham, Criticism in Focus: Jane Austen, Bristol Classical Press, 1992.
Poovey, Mary, "Ideological Contradictions and the Consolations of Form," in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, edited by Robert Clark, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 83-100.
Tomlin, Claire, Jane Austen: A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 217.
Armstrong, Isobel, Jane Austen: "Sense and Sensibility," Penguin Group, 1994.
Armstrong provides a comprehensive criticism and examination of Sense and Sensibility, including the novel's social constructs and the philosophical beliefs of the characters.
Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven, 1979.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Butler, Marilyn. Jane Austen and the War of Ideas. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1987. Argues that this “unremittingly didactic” novel intends to oppose Marianne’s idealistic values with the decisive correctness of Elinor’s cautious civility. Asserts that Austen complicates this effort, however, by making Marianne too sympathetic.
Fergus, Jan. Jane Austen and the Didactic Novel: “Northanger Abbey,” “Sense and Sensibility,” and “Pride and Prejudice.” Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1983. Very good on Austen’s style and in situating her early novels in the tradition of eighteenth and early nineteenth century English fiction.
Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1987. Considered the standard biography, Honan’s work carefully explains the context of Austen’s novels, including a detailed discussion of the development of Sense and Sensibility through several drafts.
Lauber, John. Jane Austen. New York: Twayne, 1993. A good basic discussion of the novel that uses the terms “sense” and “sensibility” to interpret and evaluate the characters’ positive and negative qualities. Describes the novel as Austen’s most passionate and darkly satirical. Contains a useful chronology and a short annotated bibliography....
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