illustration of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood's faces

Sense and Sensibility

by Jane Austen

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Sense and Sensibility Themes

The three main themes in Sense and Sensibility are sense, sensibility, and marriage and courtship.

  • Sense: Austen depicts Elinor’s sensible, rational approach to life as exemplary; unlike Marianne, Elinor never selfishly abandons herself to her emotions.
  • Sensibility: Marianne is initially ruled by sensibility, or passion and romanticism, but later adopts a worldview more akin to Elinor’s.
  • Marriage and courtship: The novel centers on the courtship of Elinor and Marianne by their suitors and shows the sisters’ different attitudes to love and marriage.

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The sense of the novel's title refers to the rational, sensible nature of Elinor, which Austen holds up as exemplary. Elinor suffers through various trials and tribulations, particularly after being jilted by Edward. However, she never abandons herself to her emotions and never lets her own disappointments affect her behavior toward others. In fact, she strives to keep her heartbreak to herself for the sake of social propriety and for the sake of her own family's ease. She always remains sensitive to others' feelings, even if she does not particularly like them, and strives to behave with social graciousness. She keeps the secret of Lucy's engagement to Edward to herself. En route to London, while Marianne indulges her obsession with Willoughby and ignores her hostess, Elinor holds polite conversations with Mrs. Jennings. Austen, in making Elinor the heroine of the book, shows that the sensitive approach to social interactions is superior to a selfish abandon to emotions.

Sensibility, or Passion, and Romanticism

The sensibility in the novel's title can be read as passion and refers to Marianne's emotional, romantic nature. Sense and Sensibility is largely seen as a criticism of romanticism, of which freedom of passion and emotion is an important tenet. The romantic sensibility of Marianne is portrayed by Austen as selfish and is gradually unmasked as weak and unrealistic when compared to Elinor's diplomatic and sensible beliefs. Austen's view is that a person who lives for passion is bound to be disappointed by the harsh realities of life. Marianne falls victim to her romantic notions after Willoughby jilts her. Her hysterical, inconsolable behavior is largely a result of her romantic nature. Marianne becomes physically and emotionally weak while her sister, who has suffered a similar fate but has a more sensible philosophy, can still function on a day-to-day basis. When Marianne recovers from a near-deadly illness brought on by her hysteria, she resolves to control her emotions, abandoning her more naïve romantic philosophies and adopting an outlook more akin to Elinor's—illustrating Austen's prevailing view of the inferiority of romanticism to rationality and emotional control. Marianne's eventual marriage to Colonel Brandon is practical, based on sense, not passion.

Marriage and Courtship

Sense and Sensibility describes the courtship of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood by their suitors. The importance that many families place on the wealth of a potential partner is a significant theme that runs throughout the book, playing a major part in the characters' conversations and preoccupations. Willoughby cannot consider Marianne as a spouse because she is not wealthy enough. Mrs. Ferrars pressures her sons, unsuccessfully, to marry wealthy women. The sisters' different attitudes toward love are contrasted in how they fall in love and deal with rejection. Romantic, passionate love, exemplified by Marianne's philosophies, is contrasted with the more sensible reasons for choosing a spouse, which are illustrated by Elinor's more rational approach.

Role of Women

Austen's portrait of the Dashwood sisters is an excellent example of the plight of upper-class English women without an abundance of family wealth in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These women had to marry well to remain comfortable financially. Working was not a viable option; a woman's fate was largely contingent on her husband and his standing in society, or else she remained completely dependent upon the generosity of her male relatives. Lucy Steele, the most uncouthly ambitious of all the female characters, blatantly jilts her longtime fiancé, Edward Ferrars, when he loses his inheritance, and she marries his newly rich brother. Though both Elinor and Marianne are interested in their respective men not for their fortunes but for their compatibility, they are well aware that a "suitable match" not only means finding a man of compatible nature but also of enough means to support a marriage and family.

Ideal Love

The romantic notion of one ideal, passionate love is critiqued and parodied through the behavior and views of Marianne. She criticizes Brandon for having already loved. However, after she is jilted by Willoughby, she must come to realize that human beings adapt to disappointment and learn to feel strong emotional attachments again. Marianne's fate in marrying the very man she initially belittled is further evidence of Austen's skepticism concerning the notion of ideal love.

Social Classes and Hierarchies

Austen's novel gives an accurate portrait of the professional class (Austen's own) and the landed gentry (the social class one above her own) in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England. The landed gentry characters have estates and are idle (they do not have careers and jobs in the modern sense). Many of the women in the professional class marry upwards into the landed gentry. This happens to Marianne. Wealth is passed down through inheritance and the concept of primogeniture, where the eldest son becomes the legal heir of his parents' estate. John Dashwood inherits the Dashwood estate and is left to dole out funds to his sisters as he chooses. Edward, Mrs. Ferrars's eldest son, is to be the primary heir until the scandalous announcement of his engagement to the socially inferior Lucy Steele. None of the characters in the professional or landed gentry class worry where their next meal is coming from. The "cottage" at Barton that Mrs. Henry Dashwood moves into with her daughters has quite a few rooms. Although the Dashwoods' financial situation is not bright, they are not members of the working class.

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