illustration of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood's faces

Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen

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What is the major conflict in Sense and Sensibility?

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The title of the book itself could be construed as representing the main conflict. Elinor is the Dashwood sister with "sense" in the story, whereas Marianne is, for the most part, a slave to her sensibility, or emotions. As well as her undivided attention, Marianne gives Willoughby a lock of her hair. The bestowal of something so intimate symbolizes the giving of Marianne's heart to her new beau. In the long run, however, once Marianne comes to her senses, she will find a suitable husband for herself instead of lavishing her attentions on the likes of Mr. Willoughby.

There are also a number of metaphors in the book which pertain to the sense versus sensibility conflict. A metaphor can be defined as a person, place, thing, or event that stands both for itself and for something beyond itself. In the scene where Mr. Willoughby assists Marianne after her accident, he's out hunting, and he's introduced to us as carrying a gun, with two pointers playing around him. Metaphorically speaking, Willoughby is hunting Marianne; she is his quarry. And just as a hunt's quarry ends up being put through a lot of pain and suffering, so too does poor Marianne suffer emotionally from her ill-advised involvement with the frightful Willoughby. In this particular case, sensibility prevails over sense.

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As the title of the novel indicates, the major conflict is between sense and sensibility. By sense, Jane Austen means reason, logic and self-control. By sensibility, she means a heightened sensitivity to emotions and feelings. Each of the title characters represents an excess of one of these poles. Elinor displays "sense," and it is through her eyes that most of the novel's action unfolds. She is the oldest of the three sisters, rational, controlled and sensible to a degree that can appear unfeeling and which shuts others out of her emotional life. Her younger sister, Marianne, on the other hand, represents an excess of sensibility, wearing her emotions on her sleeve, in need of greater restraint and self-control as she rushes headlong into assuming Willoughby will marry her, despite the fact that neither of them has much money. Austen explores the damage that both too much sense and too much sensibility can cause, but because the book is told from Elinor's point of view, its critique of sensibility is the stronger of the two: Marianne's emotionalism is often rude and hurtful, and in the end she almost kills herself from her excessive reactions to events. These two character studies illustrate the importance of finding a middle ground between effusiveness and restraint, but most pointedly show the folly of self-centered emotionalism, both to oneself and to the larger world.

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The conflict with the most scope and influence inSense and Sensibilityis wealth vs. poverty, because of its effects on so many relationships in the novel.  This conflict finds its way into the Dashwood family, forcing them to find cheaper lodging after their father's death. 

The wealth vs. poverty conflict also affects Edward's choice in whom he can marry, risking the wrath of his family were he to marry too 'low.'  Willoughby and Marianne's relationship is also subject to the poverty vs. wealth conflict, as his decision to abandon Marianne comes from his need to procure a large dowry (after having been cut off from his inheritance).  The main story line of the novel revolves around the idea of the penniless Dashwood sisters attempting to balance love and a sensible marriage without the advantage of a dowry. 

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