illustration of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood's faces

Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Themes and Conflicts in Sense and Sensibility

Summary:

Themes in Sense and Sensibility include the contrast between rationality and emotion, social class and marriage, and the roles of women. Conflicts often arise from characters' struggles between sense (logic and restraint) and sensibility (emotion and impulsiveness), particularly in romantic relationships and societal expectations.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the main conflicts in Sense and Sensibility?

In literature there are two main types of conflict: internal (sometimes called psychological) and external. In Sense and Sensibility, we see both types of conflict at play.

External conflicts exist between characters such as Elinor and Edward, Elinor and Lucy, Marianne and Colonel Brandon, and so on. Internal conflict is evident within Elinor as she wrestles with the divide between her head and her heart, so to speak.

Though social conflict is the primary framework Austen used, it can be argued that it is merely a front. Austen brilliantly used the constructs of her own society as a literary tool to highlight the theme and underlying conflict of her story, that is, the dichotomy of sense (what is felt) and sensibility (what ought to be felt as determined by logic). All other conflicts in the story emerge out of this primary conflict.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the main conflicts in Sense and Sensibility?

The first most obvious conflict is social conflict. People are judged based on wealth and social status and even marriage is determined by one's social ranking and wealth. Love is secondary. It can even be argued that the other conflicts in this story are all related or a result of this main conflict.

The conflicts that exemplify this social conflict are:

Marianne vs. Willoughby

Elinor vs. Lucy Steele

Edward vs. his mother

Wiloughby vs his aunt

Each of these above conflicts is stemmed from wealth and social status as a barrier to true love.  Willoughby has a conflict with Marianne because he cannot marry her since she does not have enough money. He has a conflict with his aunt because he needs to act to her wishes because he needs her money. Elinor and Lucy have a conflict over who will get Edward and who has a greater stature with his mother to be approved for marriage. Edward has a conflict with his mother who will disown him if he does not marry the appropriate social/wealthy woman. All of these conflicts deal with marriage but not because of love, but rather the conflicts are based on money.

There is internal conflict which plagues Elinor throughout the novel. She struggles with hiding her own feelings and her opwn pain to protect her family - specifically her mother and sister. She constantly struggles with what she should keep to herself and when she should become involved in her sister's life.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the main conflicts in Sense and Sensibility?

Several conflicts exist in the novel: wealth versus poverty, passion versus reasons, marrying for love versus marrying for security. The individual conflicts between characters exemplify these thematic conflicts.

There is conflict between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Elinor represents the sensible, reasonable nature, Marianne the romantic, passionate nature.

Marianne is in conflict with the Colonel Brandon who wants to marry her. However, she believes he is too old and sensible for her.

Marianne also has a conflict with John Willoughby with whom she is in passionate love but by whom she is later rejected.

Willougby also has a conflict with Elinor over the manner in which he rejects and hurts her sister. Later it is revealed that Willoughby must marry for money in order to secure his place in society, so he has not rejected Marianne for love but for financial reasons.

Elinor briefly allows herself to abandon reason and fall in love with Edward Ferrars. When she is rejected, she internalizes the conflict and chastizes herself for abandoning her sensibility. Edward, eventually, decides to follow his heart rather than his mother's wishes in finding an "appropriate" mate and returns to Elinor.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme in Sense and Sensibility?

We could also consider the following:

The main theme or message in Sense and Sensibility is basically stated in the title itself: The everyday struggle between common sense versus emotions: Sense VERSUS Sensibility.

"Sense", referring to "common sense", is embodied in the character of Elinor.Her poised and calm nature helped her not only survive her own emotional ordeals, but she also helped her sister survive hers. Her "sense" maintained the balance in the Dashwood household even at their most depressing moments (i.e. during their entailment ordeal). Hence, Elinor represents the need to maintain a clear mind and a strong heart at all times.

"Sensibility", refers to "excitability" and "emotion", and it is personified in the character of Marianne. As a foil of Elinor, Marianne let her senses overrule her common sense. As a result, she made several mistakes that led to her suffering and to her final breakdown. Marianne's ordeals are Austen's way of warning us about not letting triviality take over our mental processes. Otherwise, you will suffer unnecessarily the way Marianne did.

To support this argument, notice how there is a clear partiality in Austen's way of portraying these two characters. In the novel she openly favors and applauds Elinor's sense while while she subtlety attacks Marianne's sensibility. Elinor is the clear heroine, while Marianne is the victim of her own weakness. Austen wanted Elinor, and her common sense, to be praised and valued at all times. Contrastingly, she placed Marianne in a sickbed, depressed, and betrayed as a result of her lack of rationality.

The reader would wonder: Could this have been because Austen, herself, was an "Elinor" type who witnessed the many "Marianne's" of her generation consistently failing to make a mark in society, in their families, or in their own lives due to the silly nature of their emotional ordeals?

In conclusion, the message in Sense and Sensibility is the theme  "Common sense versus emotions " or "Sense versus "Sensibility": The struggle to keep a clear mind over the chaotic potential of strong emotions.

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme in Sense and Sensibility?

Well, in any Austen novel the theme of courtship and marriage and the complex social negotiations that they represent is a good one to explore and think through. This excellent novel is all about Elinor and Marianne Dashwood and the vexing question of who will they marry. Yet their social position is one that reduces their possibilities of making a "good match" considerably, as is the case with a number of Austen's heroines. Likewise, the way in which the favour in which a suitor is received is directly related to the amount of wealth he has. This, of course, brings great sadness to both of the two protagonists. Willoughby discards Marianne, even though he did love her, because of his need for money and her lack of it. Mrs. Ferrars uses her power as matriarch to try and force her sons to make appropriate matches based on connections and wealth.

Note too the way in which Austen presents us with two different approaches to love and marriage through the sisters and how they manage courtship and the rejection that they both suffer. Throughout the novel, sense, in the person of Elinor's rational and practical approach to romance, is contrasted with sensibility, which of course is characterised by Marianne's flighty and impulsive passions. Austen seems to be presenting us with two opposites, and pointing towards the merits of approaching the problematic issue of love and marriage with a head full of sense rather than sensibility. Tellingly, at the end of the novel, Marianne herself recognises her own faults and adopts a more practical and down-to-earth approach, as exemplified in her marriage to the Colonel.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme or message in Sense and Sensibility?

As it is stated in the title, Sense and Sensibility illustrates the clash that occurs when emotions rule our common sense. Austen presents, in a variety of story lines, that romance and social expectations could be detrimental to individuals who allow themselves to be guided merely on these two parameters. Therefore, the story aims to demonstrate that love will always manifest itself the same way to everyone. However, only the strong would survive the "curve balls" that romance throws our way. In all, Sense and Sensibility is a study of how differently people react to the different manifestations of love.

Out  several different story lines, one can definitely point out Elinor and Marianne as the ultimate representatives of sense (common sense) and sensibility (emotions), respectively.

Elinor has self-control, abides by social rules, and measures her emotional acumen. She does not allow complexity to ruin her poise. She even tolerates the likes of Lucy Steele and her engagement to Edward. She is stoic and analytical in every way.

Marianne, contrastingly, believes that romance is the essence of life. She transfers her emotional nature to her everyday existence. The result is that she ends up deceived, frustrated, and sick. Eventually, as she recovers her senses, she realizes the foolishness of not quite reading between the lines. In the end, she gets her emotions in check and opts for using her common sense to understand the veracity of the Colonel's intentions towards her.

In conclusion, Sense and Sensibility explores both sides of the spectrum: Common sense in love and emotional reaction. In the end, sense wins. However, Austen also leads us to understand that, in love, all is fair. It is up to us to determine to what point that is a possibility.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the major themes in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility?

One major theme in Sense and Sensibility is the contrast between the rational mind and emotions. Jane Austen wrote this novel as a protest against the passionate ideas found in popular works of the Romantic period. The novel teaches that it is far better to rely on sense when it comes to matters of the heart, then it is to be guided by uncontrolled emotions.

Elinor represents the theme of "sense," or the rational self. She is very perceptive and wise, and frequently advises her mother. Even though she experiences the same heartbreak as Marianne with respect to falling in love with Edward who is already engaged, she doesn't abandon herself to her emotions and even manages to keep her sorrows secret because Lucy asks her to.

In contrast, Marianne, who represents the theme of "sensibility" and passionate emotions, falls into a grief so deep that it nearly kills her. When Willoughby becomes engaged to another woman, Marianne walks out in bad weather just to see his house, giving herself a life-threatening fever.

Another important theme is ideal love. Because he is idle, Edward falls for Mr. Pratt's daughter and has to hide his engagement from his mother because Lucy is not wealthy. Edward is later ashamed of his choice, realizing that Elinor is far above Lucy in beauty, sense, and other virtues. He confesses that his attraction for Lucy was a "foolish, idle inclination" (Ch. 49). Similarly, Marianne falls for Willoughby because he is handsome, passionate, vivacious, and shares all of her tastes. But he is not as virtuous as she believes him to be and instead marries a wealthy woman because he is extravagant. Later, Marianne who once believed wholeheartedly in only violently passionate marriages, marries Colonel Brandon based on no feelings more than "strong esteem and lively friendship" (Ch. 50). In other words she marries a man who is a dear friend because she values his kindness, his virtuous mind, and his gallantry.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What are the major themes in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility?

As the title suggests, the primary theme of Sense and Sensibility is the use of sense vs. sensibility. In protest against the romantic literature of her day that praised extreme emotionalism and focused on the needs and wants of self above the common good or community, Jane Austen used Sense and Sensibility as a warning to show just how dangerous violent, uncontrolled emotions, or sensibilities, really are. Hence, Austen juxtaposes two sisters with two different philosophies.

The eldest sister, Elinor, governs all of her choices and actions with sense and even believes in controlling her emotions. Her sensibleness and her ability to think calmly and coolly make her an indispensable counselor for their mother. In contrast, while Marianne also has sense and cleverness, she prefers to be governed by her passionate emotions. As Austen describes, Marianne is "eager in everything: her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation" (Ch. 1). Even Mrs. Dashwood has a tendency to think and act like Marianne, and both encourage each other to be passionate about their emotions. Hence, when during the course of the story, both sisters become equally brokenhearted due to love, Elinor makes the conscious decision to govern her emotions while Marianne violently gives in to them, leading to a dangerous fever that nearly takes her life.

Elinor argues that it was her duty to keep her emotions in control. For one thing, she made a promise to Lucy to continue to keep her engagement to Edward a secret. Not only that, Elinor knew just how much hearing of Edward's engagement would upset Marianne and her mother; therefore, she was eager to protect them by keeping them from finding out. Marianne, on the other hand, feels it's her right to express her grief, even at the cost of hurting other people. However, she soon understands that her philosophy about unguarded emotion was wrong. She even understands that her behavior had been selfish and had nearly cost her her life, as we see in her lines:

I saw that my own feelings had almost led me to the grave. My illness, I well knew, had been entirely brought on by myself by such negligence of my own health, as I had felt even at the time to be wrong. (Ch. 46)

Hence, we see that Austen is showing us that all things must be governed by sense, even one's sensibilities, or emotions, making sense vs. sensibility the main theme.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on