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...
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