Sense and Sensibility (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)
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...
(The entire section is 788 words.)