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Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen

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Sense and Sensibility is Jane Austen’s first published novel. It grew out of the sketch “Elinor and Marianne,” which was written in the 1790’s and was revised several times before its publication in 1811. The novel is written in the form of a comedy of manners, and in it the author satirizes the lifestyle of her characters with much humor and irony. Although it has a happy ending, Sense and Sensibility contains Jane Austen’s usual hardheadedness, which makes her fiction powerfully realistic and timeless.

The plot centers on Mrs. Henry Dashwood and her three daughters. Not much is said of Margaret, the youngest daughter. Elinor’s and Marianne’s trials as eligible young ladies are the focus of the story. Their mother, Mrs. Dashwood, has been left without much of an income, for her husband Henry has had only a life interest in his estate, which means that his wife must vacate it in favor of the new heir, her stepson, John Dashwood. On his deathbed, Henry Dashwood has made his son John promise to provide for Henry’s wife and three daughters. Unfortunately, John’s avaricious and insensitive wife, Fanny, convinces him that he has very little obligation to Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, and that they can do well on their very small income. Consequently, Mrs. Dashwood has little choice but to accept the kind offer from a relative of a cottage in Devonshire, to which she moves with her three daughters.

It is difficult for Elinor to leave her family home, since she has fallen in love with the circumspect Edward Ferrars. He is a peculiar suitor, subdued and tentative, but Elinor appreciates his mild manner and modesty, and she is willing to have their courtship proceed at an even, if extremely slow, pace. Elinor understands that Edward’s mother will probably oppose his marrying Elinor because Elinor does not have the great wealth or position that Edward’s mother seeks in a bride for her son. To Marianne, this is provoking. Why should Elinor be content with such a hesitant lover? Why should she make excuses for Edward when Marianne attacks his want of spontaneity? To Marianne, he seems neither intense nor determined enough to seek Elinor’s hand. She cannot understand why Edward is not forthright and why Elinor does not lose patience with him. Elinor finds, however, that Edward’s quiet, sober demeanor is attractive; it indicates his seriousness and steadiness. She seems to sense that he feels more than he can say and that he is deliberately checking himself for reasons he cannot disclose or that he is behaving in accordance with his shy and retiring nature.

Marianne adapts quickly to Devonshire, where she begins to receive the attentions of the flamboyant John Willoughby. He seems to be everything that Edward Ferrars is not. Willoughby is Marianne’s constant, entertaining companion, solicitous of her every mood. They become inseparable, and their friends and neighbors assume they are to be married, even though no engagement is announced, but Willoughby abruptly leaves Marianne and the Dashwood household, saying nothing about when he will return and leaving Marianne upset.

Marianne has spurned Elinor’s advice to be prudent. Elinor believes that Marianne should not give her heart to Willoughby until he has made an outright declaration of his intentions. Marianne, however, accuses Elinor of coldness and criticizes the behavior of their new friend, Colonel Brandon, who has fallen in love with her, but who represents precisely the sort of staid manner that Marianne rejects. Colonel Brandon is several years older than Marianne, and, like Edward Ferrars, he seems to be entirely too cautious.

Elinor tries to caution Marianne even as she suffers anguish over the puzzling behavior of the uneasy Edward Ferrars, for he has not visited her at the Dashwoods’ new cottage. Because of his long absence, Elinor begins to doubt his intention to marry her, even though she is still convinced that he loves her. Elinor receives another blow when Lucy Steele confides to her that she is secretly engaged to Edward. Lucy shares her news with Elinor in a taunting fashion designed to inflict the maximum amount of damage on Elinor’s hopes. Neither woman, however, openly acknowledges that this is what Lucy is doing. Refusing to be provoked by Lucy, who suspects Edward of an attachment to Elinor, Elinor calmly, if painfully, negotiates the hazards of both Marianne’s and her own affair, hiding her heartache from her sister and the rest of the family.

The lives of both Elinor and Marianne seem devastated when Willoughby drops Marianne and marries a wealthy woman, and when Edward’s secret engagement to Lucy is revealed to his mother by Lucy’s sister. All seems spoiled as Marianne falls victim to a dreadful fever and seems to be about to succumb to a wasting disease. She rallies, however, and gradually gathers strength by realizing how foolish she has been to ignore the obvious signs of Willoughby’s perfidy and Elinor’s patient, wise counsel. Still, Elinor’s own lives seems to be blighted when a servant announces the marriage of Edward and Lucy. This turns out to be a false alarm, however, for Edward appears to make an even more startling announcement. Lucy has married his younger brother Robert, leaving Edward free to marry Elinor.

Marianne slowly recovers, bolstered by Elinor’s report that Willoughby has visited to confess that he did actually love Marianne but foolishly abandoned her because he could not overcome a life of dissipated habits. She now realizes that she could never have been happy with him, and she accepts the suit of Colonel Brandon, who has acted as her family’s benefactor throughout their long ordeal.

Places Discussed

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Barton cottage

Barton cottage. Home of Mrs. Dashwood and her three daughters, near Barton Park in Devonshire, three days’ journey from London in southwest England, that is under the control of a distant relative. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters move into the cottage after her stepson, John Dashwood, marries and his new wife makes it clear that they are no longer welcome in the home that she now manages. The women make the cottage comfortable and are resigned to the social gaucheries of Sir John Middleton and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Jennings, who apparently are to be their main social resources.

The novel’s central romantic entanglements are introduced at the cottage, where the daughters begin receiving gentleman callers who represent prospective husbands. One caller, Edward Ferrars, who gives Elinor hope that her affection for him may be returned, is partial toward the cottage because he prefers the seclusion and quiet of country life to the social bustle of London. Eventually the two older daughters find happiness with the lovers of their choice.

Norland Park

Norland Park. Sussex home of the widowed Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters that is inherited by her stepson, John Dashwood. Mrs. Dashwood fondly remembers it as her former home, Marianne remembers it for its elegance, and Elinor remembers it as the place where she and Edward became fond of each other.

Berkeley Street

Berkeley Street. Exclusive London neighborhood where Elinor and Marianne are the guests of Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother, for an extended winter visit. At a party there, Marianne is stunned by the appearance of her former lover, Willoughby, and his efforts to snub her.


Cleveland. Somersetshire home of Mr. and Mrs. Palmer, Mrs. Jennings’s other daughter, that serves as a convenient stopover for Elinor and Marianne on their return from London to Barton Cottage. Here, primarily from self-neglect, Marianne contracts an infectious fever, giving Colonel Brandon the chance to serve her by going after her mother. A drunken Willoughby appears, having heard that Marianne is dying, to beg her forgiveness for his marrying for money and to insist that he loves only her. Marianne recovers and comes to appreciate Colonel Brandon’s devotion.


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Jane Austen is the first great female English novelist and has been acknowledged as such in countless articles and books. An avid reader, she built on the tradition created by Samuel Richardson (1689-1761), whose novels Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-1748) focus on female characters with their own distinct problems and sensibilities, and also on the work of earlier female novelists such as Fanny Burney (1752-1840), who perfected the novel of manners. Jane Austen went beyond these authors, however, in giving her female characters a new level of maturity and self-awareness. They are sharper and shrewder, more prone to criticize society even as they uphold its basic values.

Jane Austen’s style has been the model for countless writers, male and female. In recent years, her complex vision of society has been increasingly appreciated. Her earliest critics thought of her as modest, a miniaturist of society who did not deal with the large issues that concern male novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), William Thackeray (1811-1863), or Charles Dickens (1812-1870). This view, however, has been challenged by later critics, many of them female, who see her as being much more actively involved with broader social issues—even if the social contexts of her novels seem narrow. Her recent biographers have abetted this critical trend, showing how acute Austen could be on the issues of her day and how political her sensibility and style actually are.

Historical Context

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Social Classes in the English Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries
Jane Austen was a member of the professional class. The men in the professional class were expected to pursue a profession, either the army, navy, clergy, law, or medicine. The women were excluded from these professions and were expected to marry. Elinor and Marianne are representative examples of young ladies of the professional class. In Sense and Sensibility, they socialize with and marry into the landed gentry, the next higher social class. Social assimilation and upward mobility of this sort is a major theme in many of Austen's works.

Members of the landed gentry were largely idle. They lived off the wealth of their estates. For leisure, the men hunted and the women gathered in the parlor. They lived in country estates and were completely separated from any squalor of the big city, London, and remained unaffected by economic hardships caused by the war with France. In order to ensure that a family's wealth did not diminish by being split up excessively, the concept of primogeniture was obeyed: the eldest son inherited the majority of the estate and the younger sons were left to join the professional class, in which they actually needed to earn a living in a profession. Although Colonel Brandon is not the eldest son, his brother died early, leaving him in the position of the eldest. When she learns that her son, Edward, intends to marry a woman beneath him in social rank, Mrs. Ferrars disinherits her eldest son in favor of the younger fop, rake, and coxcomb, Robert.

Austen rarely mentions aristocratic characters in her work. Members of the lower social classes are only mentioned in passing. An important exception is Eliza Williams, the unfortunate woman who is seduced by Willoughby. Otherwise, the lower classes are represented by the servants, who do not play an important role in the work.

The French Revolution
The political and social unrest in France had a major effect on England. War was declared on France in 1793, resulting in economic hardship and sacrifices among the lower classes. Ivor Brown writes that "the poverty of the masses was aggravated by the long struggle with France and the scarcity of food inevitable in wartime." The landed gentry was largely immune, living the life of leisure on country estates. Officers were chosen from the professional class.

The war with France and other conflicts are not mentioned in Sense and Sensibility. Although the events in the novel take place in a very specific time, Late Georgian and early Regency England, the characters and plot are free of politics. However, although the French Revolution is not explicitly mentioned, critics like Marilyn Butler have pointed out that Marianne's "Sensibility" is an implicit criticism of the individualistic, revolutionary philosophy taking root in the era. Butler, in "Sensibility and Jacobinism" (Jacobins being the most radical French revolutionaries) writes that

Austen's version of 'sensibility'—that is, individualism, or the worship of self, in various familiar guises—is as harshly dealt with here as anywhere in the anti-Jacobin tradition. Even without the melodramatic political subplot of many anti-Jacobin novels, Mrs. Ferrars's London is recognisably a sketch of the anarchy that follows the loss of all values but self-indulgence. In the opening chapters especially, where Marianne is the target of criticism, 'sensibility' means sentimental (or revolutionary) idealism, which Elinor counters with her sceptical or pessimistic view of man's nature.

Contemporaries of Austen
Austen lived through one of the most renowned periods of English poetry, which brought us the romantics, John Keats and Lord Byron. Percy Bysshe Shelley was also a contemporary, but his work was not recognized until after his death. The poetry of these writers came to symbolize the romantic movement. Although it was not yet a movement as such in Austen's lifetime, aspects of the philosophy, including Shelley's anarchism, are criticized through the portrayal of Marianne's "sensibility."

The Position of Women
Women of Jane Austen's social class were not allowed to work, a circumstance that allowed them little economic freedom. Nor were women allowed social independence; they could not travel alone or make unchaperoned visits to men who were not their relatives. Much of Sense and Sensibility, as well as Austen's other novels, is centered around the household and parlor life, and indeed she wrote on the subject of domestic life because, as a woman without the economic or social freedom to venture very far from the home, it is the realm that she knew best.

When Austen was writing in the early nineteenth century, it was uncommon for women to write; indeed, it was still largely frowned upon in society. Austen had a great deal of trouble getting Sense and Sensibility published (it was her first book to see print). Its first printing was paid for by her brother, and the author was listed as "A Lady." Although the novel enjoyed success and Austen went on to publish several more novels to warm reception, her identity remained unknown to the public. Claire Tomlin, in her biography, quotes Austen, illustrating her anxiety toward public notice: "To be pointed at... to be suspected of literary airs—to be shunned, as literary women are ... I would sooner exhibit as a rope dancer." She would rather not receive public credit for her talent than develop a "reputation."

Austen, like the majority of her contemporaries, belonged to the Church of England, the Anglican Church. The theology is a compromise between Roman Catholicism and non-Calvinist Protestantism. Members of Austen's social class, the professional class, and the landed gentry were likely to benefit from the status of conferred positions and patronage connections. Edward Ferrars plans to "take orders" after being disinherited by his mother. Brandon, a member of the landed gentry, then offers him a rectory. Positions within the church hierarchy are often based on who one knows rather than what one's religious convictions are.

Literary Style

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Original Conception and the Didactic Genre
Sense and Sensibility was first drafted as an epistolary novel—that is, a novel in the form of letters between characters. It is likely that Austen was imitating the format of Samuel Richardson, an author whom she grew up admiring who presented heroine-centered domestic fictions. At some point in her writing, Austen dismissed the idea of an epistolary novel and instead drafted what would eventually become the didactic novel, a form that was popular in the 1790s. Critic Marilyn Butler explains: "The didactic novel which compares the beliefs and conduct of two protagonists—with the object of finding one invariably right and the other invariably wrong—seems to have been particularly fashionable during the years 1795-1796." Seen in this light, Austen's first published novel, right down to the duality in the title, is a perfect example of the didactic novel. In fact, it is so much so that critics are apt to dismiss it as formulaic in comparison with Austen's later, more mature works. Butler asserts that Sense and Sensibility is "unremittingly didactic," and she adds, "All the novelists who choose the contrast format do so in order to make an explicit ideological point."

Presentation of Dichotomous Ideologies
The duality that Austen presents is the contrast between Elinor's sense and Marianne's sensibility. This duality implies much more than the mere definitions of the two words; the sisters personify conflicting philosophies and ideologies. Critics have grappled with one another to define and re-define exactly what Elinor's sense and Marianne's sensibility signify. Various critics have attributed Elinor's sense to humble Christian values and a conservative nature. Austen's portrayal of Marianne, conversely, is often viewed as an indictment against various literary and political philosophies then in style. The two most obvious targets in the negative portrayal of Marianne are romanticism and the egocentric philosophy of the revolutionaries in France. Much like German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did in The Sorrows of Young Werther, Austen presents a character with a weak, romantic philosophy who becomes unhinged by strictly adhering to its precepts. Seen in this light, Marianne's oversensitive, passionate nature is a criticism of the egotistical nature of romanticism (while it may not have been deliberately so, romanticism as a movement was still ill-defined, it certainly encompasses the weaknesses of the developing movement), especially when contrasted with Elinor's classical nature. Elinor's behavior also alludes to the weaknesses in the individualistic philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau, whose work influenced the French Revolution.

Butler feels that Austen eventually grew bored with the didactic nature of the work. The novel advances according to a strict formula. The heroines are courted and jilted by men who they see as indicative of their corresponding philosophies. However, late in the novel, after the sisters have accompanied Mrs. Jennings to London, Austen's authorial talents loosen the constrictions of the didactic novel; she presents events more ambiguously, and minor characters like Lucy Steele play increasingly important roles, particularly after Marianne, jilted and hysterical, is removed from the central action of the novel. The categorical assumption implicit in the didactic genre that one philosophy is right and the other is wrong is weakened by Austen's allowing Marianne to live. Butler writes that "it is remarkable how the harsh outlines of the ideological scheme are softened. Often the changes are small ones, such as turning the jilted heroine's near-obligatory decline and death into a feverish cold caught, plausibly, from staying out to mope in the rain." In short, Austen's talents are too abundant and her observations too precise to be restricted by the formula she chose. Critics feel that the work is more stunted and constrained than her later writings, which were not hindered by this genre choice.

Narrative Voice
In order to portray the contrasting ideologies, Austen employs the third-person narrative technique; the narrator is not part of the action in any way. However, the tone of the narrator is closely aligned with Elinor's beliefs and value system. Elinor is constantly described in flattering terms, while Marianne's behavior is presented in an unflattering light. So, although the narrative is presented in the third person, it is not exactly neutral. There is a scathing quality to this narrative voice that, although it preaches moderation and diplomacy in behavior, is quick to describe greedy, vacuous, insipid minor characters in blunt, terribly unflattering terms. One need only look at a description of Mrs. John Dashwood (Fanny), Mrs. Ferrars, Lady Middleton, or Robert Ferrars to realize that the narrator is often not acting with the same restraint that she preaches.

John F. Burrows writes, "Jane Austen's letters make it clear that she and her family were keenly interested in the niceties of usage and amused by solecisms [grammatical mistakes] of every kind." Austen delights in conveying the dialogue of Lucy Steele verbatim, with plenty of grammatical errors alluding to her poor social standing and lack of education. However, in spite of this exception, dialogue is not an important aspect of the work. This is because, as Butler writes, "the heroine is not so much in doubt about the nature of external truth, as concerned with the knowledge of herself, her passions, and her duty." Sense and Sensibility is an introspective novel that need not rely on dialogue to convey Elinor and the narrator's convictions.

Compare and Contrast

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1800s: Women in the class to which Jane Austen and the Dashwood sisters belong are not allowed to work. They depend upon suitable marriages or the generosity of their male relatives for financial support and have virtually no economic freedom.

Today: While women still face discrimination in the workplace, such as unequal pay, women are free to enter any profession they desire and can be found in leadership roles both in the business world and in the government.

1800s: As well as being denied economic freedom, women are also not allowed much social freedom. They are not allowed to travel alone even a short distance from their homes, and unmarried women cannot keep unchaperoned company with men who are not their relatives for fear of ruining their reputation and thus their chances of a suitable marriage.

Today: Because of economic independence, women have the freedom to purchase property, to live alone, to travel alone, and to move about freely without fearing for their reputations.

1800s: English society at the time of Austen's writing is sharply divided between the working class and the upper-class, landed gentry.

Today: Thanks to industrial developments of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the economic changes they brought, the middle class in Western countries, such as the United States and Britain, now makes up a significant part of the population.

1800s: It is uncommon and frowned upon for women to undertake serious artistic endeavors such as writing. Jane Austen, though her work is received warmly, maintains her anonymity until her death for fear of developing a scandalous reputation because she writes novels.

Today: Women, though still facing an uphill battle for equal recognition across the arts, are now recognized as major contributors to literature. For example, although the majority of Nobel Prizes for Literature have been awarded to men, women such as Toni Morrison (1993) and Wislawa Szymborska (1996) have recently been recognized.

1800s: The protection of an unmarried woman's chastity is of utmost importance in making a suitable marriage. Women such as Miss Eliza Williams in Sense and Sensibility, who become pregnant out of wedlock, are doomed to a life of shame and economic hardship, as are their children.

Today: With the development and acceptance of a variety of birth control methods, women today can have complete, independent control of their sexuality. Also, an increasing number of women are opting to have children outside of marriage.

Media Adaptations

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Sense and Sensibility was first adapted for television in 1985. This version starred Irene Richards and Tracey Childs.

A movie adaptation was produced in 1995 by Columbia/Tri Star Studios and directed by Ang Lee. The film starred Emma Thompson (who also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay), Hugh Grant, and Kate Winslet.

Several abridged audio recordings of the novel have been produced, most notably a version read by Kate Winslet, produced by Highbridge.

An unabridged audio version, 900 minutes long and performed by Jill Masters, is available from Blackstone Audiobooks.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Brown, Ivor, Jane Austen and Her World, Henry Z. Walck, 1966.

Burrows, John, "Style," in The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, edited by Edward Copeland, Cambridge University Press, 1997, pp. 170-88.

Butler, Marilyn, "Sensibility and Jacobinism," in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, edited by Robert Clark, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 38-52.

Clark, Robert, "Introduction: Closing (with) Jane Austen," in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, edited by Robert Clark, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 1-25.

Handley, Graham, Criticism in Focus: Jane Austen, Bristol Classical Press, 1992.

Poovey, Mary, "Ideological Contradictions and the Consolations of Form," in Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, edited by Robert Clark, St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 83-100.

Tomlin, Claire, Jane Austen: A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 217.

Further Reading
Armstrong, Isobel, Jane Austen: "Sense and Sensibility," Penguin Group, 1994.
Armstrong provides a comprehensive criticism and examination of Sense and Sensibility, including the novel's social constructs and the philosophical beliefs of the characters.

Gilbert, Sandra, and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic, New Haven, 1979.
Gubar and Gilbert are two of the most important feminist literary theorists of recent times. This seminal work brings to light the psychological anxieties faced by women writers throughout the history of English literature, caused by their inferior status in society.

Harding, D. W., Regulated Hatred and Other Essays on Jane Austen, edited by Monica Lawlor, Althone Press, 1998.
Harding, a significant literary critic of the twentieth century, considered Austen one of his favorite authors. Written over a span of sixty years, the essays in this collection examine a range of aspects of Austen's writing, from its historical context to the psychology of her characters.

Jenkins, Elizabeth, Jane Austen, Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1949.
Jenkins provides a seminal biography of Jane Austen.

Monaghan, David, ed., Jane Austen in a Social Context, Macmillan Press, 1981.
This collection of essays examines Austen's contemporary social context and the way it is exhibited in her writing.

Neill, Edward, The Politics of Jane Austen, St. Martin's Press, 1999.
This contemporary collection of essays on Austen's major work defends the position that Austen was a subtle political writer.


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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.

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