illustration of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood's faces

Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen

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Character traits and contrasts between Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility


Elinor and Marianne, the main characters in Sense and Sensibility, are contrasting sisters. Elinor is sensible, rational, and composed, often suppressing her emotions for the sake of propriety. In contrast, Marianne is passionate, impulsive, and expressive, wearing her heart on her sleeve. These differences highlight the novel's central theme of balancing sense and sensibility in life.

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What are Elinor and Marianne's character traits in Sense and Sensibility?

Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility have some character traits in common but most of their traits are opposites. The character traits that they have in common are that they are both well educated (though not formally educated), accomplished, sincere and loving young women. There the similarities seem to stop.

Elinor is practical and dependable. Her mother relies on her to give advice and counsel during difficult transitions as is illustrated by Elinor's important role in deciding what situation to move to after their welcome at Norland Park has expired following the death of Henry Dashwood, Elinor's and Marianne's father. Elinor is also steady in her emotions and believes that prolonged violent displays of emotion do no good for individuals or situations. She believes in guiding her heart by her head, which by no means suggests that she does not feel deeply, because she does, but that there are helpful ways and unhelpful ways of demonstrating and revealing ones deeply felt emotions. Elinor is the embodiment of the sense of the title.

Marianne is more beautiful than Elinor and leans strongly toward poetry and music while Elinor, herself certainly elegantly beautiful, has talents in painting. Where Elinor is practical, Marianne is poetical. Her concern upon being required to leave Norland Park is not for finding accommodations that will fit their needs and income but for saying farewell to Norland's leaves and the wind playing through its trees. Marianne is violent in her emotions and believes that any form or degree of restrained emotion signals insincerity and shallowness of emotional feeling. She believes that heart and head are inseparable and guide a person's way by working together, without restraint of one by the other. Marianne is the embodiment of the sensibility in the title.

These traits determine the young women's behavior in the romances that drive the plot, Elinor's hidden love for inexplicably stand-offish Edward and Marianne's loudly trumpeted love for Willoughby. Elinor respects Edward's slightly strange behavior and restrains the display of her deep feelings for him, which turns out to be to her advantage as it spares her humiliation in front of Lucy, who in jealousy confides to Elinor her secret engagement to Edward, thus explaining his strange stand-offishness. Marianne dives energetically into her deep feelings for Willoughby, even to the point of making herself ridiculous and the topic of censure for ill-judged behavior like her surreptitious visit with Willoughby to Miss Smith's home.

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In Sense and Sensibility, how do Marianne and Elinor Dashwood display the characteristics of sense and sensibility?

You are right in identifying that this novel, like Pride and Prejudice, relates the two central protagonists to the states indicates in the title. The "sense" refers to Elinor, who is shown to suffer through similar trials to her sister. However, significantly, Elinor never expresses her emotions completely and does not let her own personal misfortunes and disappointments impact how she reacts towards others. She is above all a very stoical individual, who, even when she is suffering greatly after finding out about Edward's engagement to Lucy, continues to act as a friend to Lucy in spite of her heartbreak. She shows how sense rules her emotions.

By contrast Marianne represents "sensibility." Let us not forget how Marianne acts towards situations. She jumps in completely, expressing all of her emotions to Willoughby and criticising Elinor for her reserve. She displays freedom in terms of her passions and emotions, and this is depicted by Austen as being selfish compared to the stoic resolve of her sister. The harsh realities of life will definitely make living unbearable for somebody who is ruled by sensibility, as Marianne's subsequent response to Willoughby's abandonment of her shows. Marianne takes to her bed and is unable to function in everyday society, whereas Elinor continues to fulfil the various social obligations of day-to-day life. The strength of sense vs. sensibility is shown by Marianne's marriage to Colonel Brandon, which is based on common sense and not on passionate emotions.

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What's the major contrast between Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility?

Elinor and Marianne represent, respectively, the sense and sensibility of the title. Their biggest contrast lies in their respective temperaments, which really couldn't be any more different. Elinor is a cool, rational, sensible young woman, someone with a strength of understanding that allows her to offer wise counsel to her mother, even at so young an age. She is considerably more mature than her mother and prevents her from acting imprudently. Though still an affectionate young woman, Elinor is able to keep her emotions firmly in check.

This is more than can be said for Marianne. As the epitome of "sensibility" (a word that in Austen's time connoted emotional intensity), she is driven by her emotions to an alarming extent. Entirely lacking in self-restraint or the ability to control her feelings, Marianne is especially vulnerable to emotional hurt. She insists on following her heart, wherever it might lead, even when a moment's thought would've told her that it will inevitably all end in tears. That's precisely what happens when Marianne falls for the dashing but dastardly Willoughby, who cynically preys upon Marianne's emotional immaturity before casually and heartlessly discarding her.

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Compare and contrast Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility.

On the surface, both sisters are in dire straits with the death of their father, as their inheritance goes to their older brother, with minimal support due to the interference of Fanny, their sister-in-law. Both are in love with men who are, in some way, out of reach and unavailable, though Marianne does not disciver Willoughby's unavailability until later.

In contrast, Elinor embodies sense. She is in control of her emotions and is the leader of the two (in fact, the leader of the family due to her mother's intense grief). Marianne, however, is all sensibility (or as we would say, sensitivity). She in no ways endeavors to conceal her emotions and is constantly ruled by them.

In the end, as all triumphs in love, both sisters marry what may be called "safe" men. Men with good, if not extravagant income, who are pleasant though not wildly exciting and attractive. They both find happiness in marital bliss in its most coservative sense, appropriate for the late 18th century.

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