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...
(The entire section is 1,000 words.)