Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 788
SENSE AND SENSIBILITY is, as its title suggests, a study of opposites. The novel centers on two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. The first is serene and reasonable, the second impetuous and emotional; but they are devoted to each other and to their mother and younger sister. Since their father’s death and their half-brother’s succession to the estate, they all have retired to Devonshire.
There Marianne meets Willoughby, a charming but amoral gentleman. She falls ecstatically in love. He trifles with her affections, runs off to London, and engages himself to an heiress. Marianne bears her disappointment as befits a representative of sensibility: with tears, swoons, and tragic postures.
In the meantime, Elinor has her own share of love and sadness, both of which she handles in a manner markedly different from that of her sister. Elinor admires her sister-in-law’s brother Edward Ferrars, a less dashing but more scrupulous man than Willoughby. Ferrars hesitates to voice his love for Elinor because of an imprudent earlier understanding he had formed with a woman of low degree, Lucy Steele. On hearing of his secret pledge, Elinor honorably and unselfishly conceals her feelings until Ferrars’ mother discovers his unsuitable promise to Lucy and disinherits him in favor of his younger brother, who then becomes the victim of the fickle and mercenary Lucy.
Austen’s study of manners and morals ends, as her other novels do, with appropriate marriages rewarding and defining the chief characters. Elinor marries Ferrars, who has obtained a small church living that will support him and a wife of her practical sort. Marianne, who has paid the penalty of her sensibility, also gains a mate. Educated by her suffering, she realizes that Colonel Brandon, a rich, kind man who has long loved her and who has experienced romantic disappointments of his own, is a suitable husband despite his wearing flannel waistcoats and being an “ old man” of five and thirty.
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.
Moler, Kenneth. Jane Austen’s Art of Allusion. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1968. Considers the novel in relation to its literary antecedents, finding that Austen takes the conventional contrast of sense and sensibility and reworks it to show that both sides of the dichotomy have limitations. Asserts that the “sensible” Elinor is as much in need of self-knowledge as Marianne.
Mudrick, Marvin. Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952. Important early study of Austen’s style and tone. Finds in Sense and Sensibility a youthful parody of romance dissolving uncomfortably into a mature, serious consideration of personal morality. Argues that Marianne is sacrificed to the restrictions of social propriety.
Ruoff, Gene W. Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Chapters on the historical and cultural context, critical reception of the text, theoretical perspectives, and a detailed interpretation of the novel, including a section on “women’s lives and men’s stories.” A selected bibliography and index make this an especially useful and up-to-date study.
Southam, B. C., ed. Jane Austen: “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “Mansfield Park,” a Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1976. Collects the most important criticism on Austen’s early novels.
Tanner, Tony. Introduction to Sense and Sensibility. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1969. Tanner offers an important introduction to the novel, as well as valuable notes.
Wiltshire, John. Jane Austen and the Body. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Argues that the “bodily condition” of Austen’s heroines is as meaningful as their words and manners. Contrasts Marianne’s “expressive” body (her exuberant health, dramatic illness, and quiet recovery) with Elinor’s “nearly silent” body. Includes a useful bibliography.