illustration of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood's faces

Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen

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What does "Sense and Sensibility" teach about proper and improper behavior, and moral constraints on speech and knowledge?

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Because Austen very clearly presents Elinor as the respectable heroine of the novel, she also becomes the model for proper behavior in this time period.  Marianne is the opposite, and often does/says things that would be considered improper.  If you note Elinor's behavior in social settings, it will help you to discover the specifics of what counts as proper behavior.  Some examples are she rarely turns down invitations unless a very good reason exists, she makes it a point to continue casual conversation with visitors even when it is painful or awkward, she refrains at times from sharing her opinions if she knows they will not be well received, and she avoids being alone one on one with a man if possible.

Again, using Elinor as an examples, Austen does present the idea that there are moral constraints on what should be said, asked, or known.  Throughout the novel, Elinor is curious about Edward and his family interactions, but in many situations she refrains from asking questions because she feels it would not be right.  She keeps Lucy's secret about the engagement even when it is painful because she has given her word.  Mentally and verbally, Elinor scolds Marianne and Mrs. Jennings for being too free with their opinions and questions.  When Willoughby comes to confess towards the end of the novel, Elinor is very uncomfortable and attempts to leave several times, feeling that she should not be hearing such an open confession.

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