Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Debbie Notari
In this lesson, we will get to know the Dashwood family of Sussex, England. They live in comfort and luxury at their home, Norland, until the death of Mr. Henry Dashwood. His wife and three daughters suddenly lose almost everything. Although Elinor and Marianne, the two eldest daughters, are opposite in every way, they find love even in the midst of adversity and loss.


At the beginning of the story, we see the Dashwood family right at the loss of Mr. Henry Dashwood. He leaves behind a wife and three daughters, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, a younger sister of 13. As English law of the day dictates, women could not inherit property, and so all that the girls have known is bequeathed to Mr. Henry Dashwood's son from his first marriage, Mr. John Dashwood. John is fairly good-natured, but easily manipulated by his 'narrow-minded and selfish' wife. The three girls inherit a thousand pounds each, but they are dependent on John to provide for them any additional money they might need. However, John's wife, Fanny, slowly manipulates him into giving the girls very little on which to survive.

Elinor and Love

Elinor is a calm individual of 19. She is described as 'possess(ing) a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment' even more than her own mother. We see Elinor as the anchor in this storm of ill events. While the girls and their mother remain at Norland, Elinor gets to know Fanny's brother, Edward Ferrars. Although not seen as handsome, he is described as having an 'open affectionate heart.' 'All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life.' While the Dashwood women are still at Norland, he and Elinor begin to be interested in each other.

It is regarding Edward that we first get to know Marianne's character. Marianne, age 17, sees Edward's calm stability as boring. She would like to see more passion in his personality. Marianne describes Edward as having 'no real taste,' and feels he should show more aptitude and interest in the arts. When she asks Elinor how she really feels about Edward, Elinor replies that she 'greatly esteem(s) him.' Marianne scoffs at Elinor's lack of true feelings and passion, accusing her of being 'cold-hearted.' One characteristic of Marianne is that she has no filter when it comes to expressing her feelings about almost anything, especially love, whereas Elinor shows restraint and lets love take its course.

Barton Cottage

Fanny soon makes it abundantly clear that she intends to see her brothers, Edward and Robert, marry well, and to Fanny, someone like Elinor would never be a suitable match. The tension between Fanny and Mrs. Dashwood thickens, when rescue comes in the form of another living situation for the Dashwood women. A relative, Sir John Middleton of Devonshire, offers a cottage to the women. They take it gladly, but in taking it, Elinor and Edward are separated before any engagement or understanding can be clarified.

Barton Cottage is described as 'comfortable and compact,' but it lacks decor and is much smaller than Norland. Sir John and his mother, Mrs. Jennings, a gregarious woman, kindly welcome the Dashwoods, but there are adjustments to be made.

Colonel Brandon and John Willoughby

Colonel Brandon, a friend of John Middleton's, is a grave man who is between 35 and 40 years of age. He falls in love with Marianne, who views him as old and boring. One day, Marianne and Margaret go on a walk, and Marianne falls and twists her ankle badly. At that moment, a young man, John Willoughby, is out hunting and comes to her rescue. He picks her up and brings her home, and Marianne sees in him the romantic hero she has been longing for.

Willoughby pursues Marianne, and their romance is fast and wild. He loves music and dancing, and both he and Marianne seem to dote on the same books and even 'passages' in those books. Although Colonel Brandon still pursues Marianne in his simple, quiet way, Marianne doesn't notice; she is enthralled with Willoughby, who is 25, and everything she has dreamed of in a relationship.

One day, Colonel Brandon leaves mysteriously, and everyone wonders where he has gone, although Marianne hardly cares. In the meantime, Mrs. Dashwood and the girls expect a proposal from Willoughby at any time. However, instead of proposing to Marianne, Willoughby unexpectedly announces that he is going to London, where he will be away for some time. Marianne's heart is broken.

Edward and Lucy

Throughout all this time, Elinor still loves Edward, but they have not been in contact. In fact, an unexpected complication has developed. One day, Edward comes to visit. He seems troubled, and of course, Marianne peppers him with questions about his reticence.

Edward soon reveals that he is in conflict with his family's wishes regarding his career. Edward is not overly ambitious. He is a peaceful man who really longs to be a vicar. That career choice seems too humble for Edward's family. Edward leaves, and Elinor still holds hope that something may develop between them. But she meets someone who will thwart those hopes, Lucy Steele, who confides in Elinor that she and Edward have been secretly engaged for four years. Crushed, Elinor keeps her feelings to herself and carries on, as always.

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