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...
(The entire section is 1117 words.)
Chapters 1-8 Summary
Elinor and Marianne, the Dashwood sisters and main characters of the novel, are introduced. The novel opens with a description of the line of inheritance of the Dashwood estate. Mr. John Dashwood, the half brother of the Dashwood sisters, is left controlling virtually the entire inheritance. He promises his father that he will take care of his half sisters.
Mrs. John Dashwood shrewdly convinces her husband that his promise need not include any significant financial obligation to his sisters. Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood take over the residence in Norland after inheriting the estate, leaving Mrs. Henry Dashwood and her daughters feeling like visitors in their home. Elinor, Marianne, and the younger Margaret will have to rely on their charms in securing a husband for their future comfort and security.
Edward Ferrars, the brother of Mrs. John Dashwood and a man due to inherit a significant fortune, is introduced as a love interest of Elinor. The temperaments of Elinor and Edward suit each other perfectly. Both are practical and not inclined to passionate outbursts. Marianne is not impressed with Edward. However, Mrs. Dashwood, recognizing the necessity of her daughters to marry well, is pleased with the developing intimacy between the two. Mrs. Dashwood, accepting the offer of a relation, moves with her daughters to a cottage in Barton. The move separates Edward and Elinor.
(The entire section is 330 words.)
Chapters 9-15 Summary
While out walking with Margaret, Marianne falls and twists her ankle. She is rescued by the dashing John Willoughby. Later, the Dashwoods learn that Willoughby has a good reputation and is due to come into a fortune. Willoughby and Marianne have similar, romantic outlooks on life and share the same opinions on art. Marianne, in tune with her romantic notions about life, falls head-over-heels in love with Willoughby.
Elinor believes that the relationship between Marianne and Willoughby is too intimate and that it has crossed the boundaries of decorum; they are too open with each other. The gift of a horse to Marianne is viewed as unacceptable and extravagant. Elinor, unlike her sister, finds Brandon a likeable character. The theory that humans are destined to have only one love is broached. Brandon has had his heart broken. Elinor can forgive this because she is sensible. Marianne, with her romantic notions, believes this a fatal flaw.
Brandon gets bad news in a letter, which Mrs. Jennings conjectures must contain news about an unfortunate Miss Eliza Williams. Brandon departs, and Willoughby makes mocking comments about his serious nature. Marianne and Willoughby become more and more of an item of gossip and speculation. Willoughby shows Marianne the house he is to inherit. The assumption is that Marianne will one day be mistress of this house as the future Mrs....
(The entire section is 293 words.)
Chapters 16-24 Summary
Marianne sulks over the sudden, unexpected departure of Willoughby. It is in her nature to suffer openly. Edward Ferrars appears at Barton for a short visit. The further portrayal of Edward's sensible character illustrates his suitability for Elinor. Elinor suspects that the lock of hair Edward has in a ring was stealthily taken from her during their time together in Norland.
Elinor handles Edward's departure with stoicism, in marked contrast to Marianne pining for Willoughby. The Palmers, relatives of Mrs. Jennings, appear at a social gathering. Various allusions about the unreliability of gossip as an information source are made in these chapters; for example, Mrs. Palmer "heard" from Brandon's "look" that Marianne and Willoughby are to wed. The Steele sisters are introduced during a social gathering. Elinor does not like Lucy Steele, but her sensible diplomacy forbids her from making this apparent.
Elinor learns that she has been grossly mistaken about Edward's sentiments. Lucy Steele admits that she, Lucy, is engaged to Edward, and that the lock of hair is hers. Elinor, who Lucy has taken into her confidence, bears this news silently for the sake of propriety.
(The entire section is 194 words.)
Chapters 25-36 Summary
The daughters agree to accompany Mrs. Jennings to London. Marianne is completely self-absorbed during the journey. She wants to meet Willoughby in London. Upon arrival, she writes him a note, which remains unanswered.
Brandon appears in London. Gossip abounds regarding the relationship between Marianne and Willoughby. However, Marianne is increasingly perturbed over Willoughby's failure to contact her. Finally, she meets him at a party. Willoughby, who is there with another woman, treats her rudely. Marianne is devastated. The next day, Marianne receives a cruelly cool letter from Willoughby and becomes hysterical with grief.
Brandon appears and relates to Elinor the true character of Willoughby, revealing that he seduced Eliza Williams. Brandon and Willoughby fought a duel over the incident. The reader learns, incidentally, that Willoughby has married Miss Grey, a woman of considerable circumstance. Marianne remains completely despondent.
John Dashwood appears in London. Mrs. Ferrars, the mother of Edward, also appears. Edward finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being in a room alone with Elinor and Lucy. Marianne is still so self-absorbed that she cannot discern that there is no relationship between Edward and Elinor.
(The entire section is 194 words.)
Chapters 37-50 Summary
The engagement of Lucy and Edward is unwittingly made public. Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars are all greatly upset by the socially unsuitable match. Marianne finally learns that her sister, too, has a broken heart. Mrs. Ferrars disinherits her eldest son, leaving Edward in serious financial difficulties. The goodhearted Brandon offers, in a conversation with Elinor, to provide Edward with a living. Elinor relates the offer to Edward.
The Dashwood daughters leave for Cleveland and then home to Barton. After a long walk in the rain, where Marianne goes to look on Cum Magna (the estate in which Willoughby lives), she catches a cold and soon becomes feverish. She is quite ill and there is concern as to whether she will survive. Elinor asks Colonel Brandon to send word to the girls' mother to rush to Cleveland. Willoughby appears uninvited and makes a startling confession to Elinor: he needed to marry for money and regrets treating Marianne the way he did. The final letter jilting Marianne was actually dictated under orders of his fiancé. Marianne slowly recuperates.
Mrs. Henry Dashwood arrives. Brandon admits to her his feelings for Marianne. Mrs. Henry Dashwood realizes that Brandon would be perfect for Marianne. Marianne realizes that her behavior has been bad and that her romantic philosophy is flawed. When Marianne learns of Willoughby's visit,...
(The entire section is 362 words.)