“Sense and Sensibility,” published in 1811, is Jane Austen’s first published novel. It follows the lives of the Dashwood sisters, Elinor and Marianne, as they navigate love, heartbreak, and societal expectations in 19th century England. Austen’s narrative delves into the contrasts between reason and emotion, hence the title, exploring how the sisters embody these traits and how their paths to happiness are influenced by their differing dispositions.

Comprehensive Plot Summary

The Dashwood family had long been established in Sussex, residing at Norland Park. This large estate had been home to several generations of respectable Dashwoods, earning them the good opinion of their neighbors. The latest owner, an elderly bachelor, had lived there with his sister until her death. Following her demise, he invited his nephew, Henry Dashwood, and his family to live with him, intending to bequeath the estate to Henry upon his own death.

Henry Dashwood had one son, John, from a previous marriage, and three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, with his current wife. Although John was well-provided for through his mother’s inheritance, the same could not be said for the Dashwood daughters. Their future prospects heavily relied on their father inheriting Norland Park. However, the old bachelor’s will, while not disinheriting Henry, tied the estate to John’s young son, leaving Henry powerless to provide for his daughters and wife.

After Henry’s sudden death, John Dashwood’s promise to his father to look after his half-sisters was quickly overshadowed by his wife, Fanny’s, influence. She persuaded John to limit any financial help to mere gestures. As a result, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters were left in a precarious position. Feeling unwelcome in their own home, they accepted the invitation of a distant relative, Sir John Middleton, to move to Barton Cottage in Devonshire.

The move was a significant change for the Dashwood women, but they were greeted warmly by Sir John and his wife, Lady Middleton. The Middletons’ sociable and somewhat noisy household was a stark contrast to the serene Norland Park. The Dashwoods soon became acquainted with Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John’s, who took a particular interest in Marianne. However, Marianne, full of youthful fervor and emotion, found herself captivated by the charming and dashing John Willoughby.

Marianne and Willoughby’s mutual attraction was evident, and their relationship blossomed quickly. Willoughby’s sudden departure to London without any clear explanation left Marianne heartbroken and bewildered. Meanwhile, Elinor faced her own romantic trials. She had developed a deep affection for Edward Ferrars, Fanny Dashwood’s brother, who had visited Norland before the Dashwoods’ move. Elinor’s hopes were dashed when she discovered that Edward had been secretly engaged to another woman, Lucy Steele, for several years.

As winter turned to spring, the Dashwoods’ lives became increasingly complicated. Mrs. Jennings, Sir John’s mother-in-law, invited the Dashwood sisters to London. Marianne eagerly anticipated seeing Willoughby again, but their reunion was disastrous. Willoughby, now engaged to a wealthy heiress, coldly disregarded Marianne, revealing his true nature and leaving her devastated. In the midst of Marianne’s despair, Colonel Brandon confided in Elinor about Willoughby’s past, including his seduction and abandonment of Brandon’s young ward, Eliza.

Elinor’s stoic demeanor was tested further when Lucy Steele revealed their secret engagement to her. Despite her personal anguish, Elinor maintained her composure, striving to protect her family from additional distress. During their stay in London, the Dashwoods also encountered the Steele sisters, who were staying with the Middletons. Lucy’s duplicity became evident when she switched her affections to Edward’s wealthier brother, Robert Ferrars, freeing Edward from his engagement.

Marianne’s emotional turmoil took a toll on her health, leading to a serious illness. The gravity of her condition prompted Willoughby to visit and express his regret, but Marianne, realizing his true character, rebuffed him. Through her recovery, Marianne began to appreciate the steadfast and honorable Colonel Brandon. His unwavering support and genuine affection helped her find a more mature and stable form of love.

Elinor’s resilience was finally rewarded when Edward, now free from his engagement to Lucy, came to Barton Cottage to declare his love for her. Elinor’s joy was profound, and she accepted his proposal. Edward and Elinor’s union, though not marked by wealth, was rich in mutual respect and affection.

The two sisters’ journeys, marked by their distinct personalities—Elinor’s sense and Marianne’s sensibility—ultimately led them to find happiness in their respective ways. Marianne married Colonel Brandon, embracing a love that combined passion with prudence, while Elinor and Edward’s marriage was a testament to their enduring patience and emotional fortitude.

The Dashwood family’s trials and tribulations underscored the importance of balancing sense with sensibility. They learned that true contentment often requires a blend of both reason and emotion, as well as the courage to face life’s challenges with resilience and grace.

Main Characters

  • Elinor Dashwood: The eldest Dashwood sister, embodies sense and rationality. She is composed and responsible, often putting others’ needs before her own.
  • Marianne Dashwood: The middle sister, represents sensibility and emotion. She is passionate and expressive, often acting impulsively based on her feelings.
  • Edward Ferrars: Elinor’s love interest, a kind and honorable man who values integrity over wealth. His secret engagement to Lucy Steele causes significant heartache.
  • Colonel Brandon: A steady, honorable man in love with Marianne. His quiet strength and unwavering devotion eventually win her heart.
  • John Willoughby: Marianne’s initial love interest, charming but ultimately revealed to be unscrupulous and self-serving.
  • Lucy Steele: A cunning and manipulative young woman engaged to Edward Ferrars, but ultimately marries his wealthier brother.

Themes and Motifs

  • Sense vs. Sensibility: The novel explores the tension between reason and emotion, embodied by Elinor and Marianne, respectively. The sisters’ journeys reflect the need to balance both traits.
  • Social Class and Marriage: Austen critiques the social structures and marriage market of her time, highlighting the limited options available to women and the importance of financial security.
  • Love and Betrayal: The novel examines the complexities of love, including unrequited love, deceit, and the painful but necessary growth that comes from heartbreak.
  • Family and Duty: The responsibilities and sacrifices made for family are central to the characters’ decisions, particularly seen in Elinor’s selflessness and Edward’s moral dilemmas.

Writing Style and Tone

Jane Austen’s writing style in “Sense and Sensibility” is characterized by her use of free indirect speech, allowing readers to intimately understand her characters’ thoughts and feelings while maintaining a third-person narrative. Her prose is elegant and precise, with a sharp wit and keen observations of social manners and human behavior. The tone shifts between irony and earnestness, effectively highlighting the absurdities of societal norms while fostering deep empathy for her characters’ plights.

Austen’s masterful use of irony and social commentary is evident throughout the novel, as she subtly critiques the rigid class structures and gender inequalities of her time. Her dialogue is particularly effective in revealing character and advancing the plot, capturing the nuances of conversation and the unspoken tensions between characters. Overall, “Sense and Sensibility” showcases Austen’s skillful blend of humor, romance, and social critique, making it a timeless classic in English literature.

Opinions are my own and not the views of my employer (if any)

When I am not working/watching movies/reading books/traveling, you can reach me via my Twitter/LinkedIn or you can contact me here

Categories: Book Summary