Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Novels for Students)

Social Classes in the English Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries
Jane Austen was a member of the professional class. The...

(The entire section is 981 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Original Conception and the Didactic Genre
Sense and Sensibility was first drafted as an epistolary novel—that is, a novel...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1800s: Women in the class to which Jane Austen and the Dashwood sisters belong are not allowed to work. They depend upon suitable...

(The entire section is 399 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

In Vindication of the Rights of Women, a classic feminist work published during Austen's lifetime, Mary Wollstonecraft argues that...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

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


(The entire section is 86 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Pride and Prejudice (1813), the second of Jane Austen's novels to be published, is perhaps her most famous work. Much like Sense...

(The entire section is 438 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

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

Burrows, John, "Style," in The...

(The entire section is 355 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.