Sense and Sensibility: by Jane Austen - Summary & Analysis

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      One of Jane Austen’s simplest novels, the story deals with two sisters, Elinor - the heroine represents a woman of sense, while Marianne her foolish foil represents a woman of sensibility.

      The shift from Norland Park to Barton: When the story opens Mr. John Dashwood the stepbrother of Elinor and Marianne has just inherited his father’s estate and inspite of wishing to help his stepmother and sisters, he cannot do so because his wife Fanny is opposed to it. When Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars begins to show an interest in Elinor, Fanny makes life miserable for Elinor, Marianne and their mother. They therefore accept the offer of their relative, Sir John Middleton and occupy a cottage on his estate at Barton.

      Elinor and Marianne fall in love: It is at Barton that Marianne rejects Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John and instead falls in love with Willoughby, a youngman visiting wealthy relatives on a neighbouring estate. Willoughby leaves without any definite promise to Marianne. Elinor herself is attracted to Edward Ferrars, who comes for a brief visit to the cottage but he does not seem to return the interest.

      Lucy Steele and her sister arrive: These two young ladies are invited by Sir John to visit his home and Elinor is stunned when Lucy reveals that she has been engaged to Edward Ferrars for four years but had to wait for Mrs. Ferrar’s consent as Edward had no money or occupation of his own.

      Elinor and Marianne invited to London: When in London to visit friends, Marianne writes to Willoughby a couple of times but receives no reply. She also finds him with another young lady at a party. Marianne is heartbroken when she receives a letter from Willoughby stating that he has long been engaged to another girl. She is comforted by Colonel Brandon, who is also in London.

      Colonel Brandon reveals Willoughby’s true Character: Colonel Brandon explains to Elinor that Willoughby was a rouge who had seduced and abandoned his (Brandon’s) ward — the daughter of his brother’s divorced wife. Marianne is distressed on learning of this from Elinor and is kindly looked after by Brandon who is in love with her.

      Edward loses his inheritance: John Dashwood, his wife Fanny and later Lucy Steele and her sister all arrive in London. Edward’s mother learns of the engagement between Edward and Lucy and angrily disinherits him giving everything away to her other son Robert. Elinor arranges with colonel Brandon for Edward to become a curate on his estate, as Edward is left with no means of support.

      Elinor and Marianne visit Cleveland: On their way home to Barton Park from London, Elinor and Marianne visit Cleveland, where Marianne becomes ill with a heavy cold. While Colonel Brandon goes to fetch her mother Mrs. Dashwood, Willoughby visits and apologises to Elinor for having ill-treated Marianne. As he had been disowned by his wealthy relative after his misbehaviour with Colonel Brandon’s ward, he had married a wealthy girl and renounced Marianne.

      Return to Barton Park: After Marianne recovers from her illness, they return home, where Elinor tells Willoughby’s story to Marianne. Marianne sorrows for him but is no longer in love with him.

      Edward Marries Elinor: Edward appears at their cottage and tells Elinor that the unscrupulous Lucy had ditched him in favour of his brother Robert who had inherited the family fortune. He proposes to Elinor and Elinor consents to marry him. Edward is reconciled with his mother Mrs. Ferrars and Elinor and Edward after their marriage, move into the parsonage given by Colonel Brandon.

      Colonel Brandon marries Marianne: Colonel Brandon continues to quietly woo Marianne and they get married. Elinor and Marianne are once again near each other in the same estate and Mrs. Dashwood is delighted at the good fortune of her children.

Critical Analysis

      The Double Theme of the Novel: From one point of view the novel can said to be an exploration of the double theme of sense and sensibility. It conjures up a double heroine (Marianne — Sensibility and Elinor - Sense) and a double plot the moral of which seems to be that it is wise to behave sensibly while it is foolish and even dangerous to have an excess of sensibility.

      Elinor and Marianne as Allegorical Characters: On the didactic (moral) or allegorical level Elinor represents sense while Marianne represents sensibility. This contrast between the sisters is established in the opening chapters. Marianne is as clever as Elinor, but what she suffers from is an excess of sensibility. Her sorrows and joys have no moderation and she lacks prudence. Elinor on the other hand is cool and commonsensical. She has feelings too, but knows how to moderate them, how to govern and control them.

      The parallel plots: The first volume of the book has a symmetrical pattern and a clear parallel is drawn between the two romances - Edward Ferrars and Elinor, John Willoughby and Marianne. True to Elinor’s cool, sensible nature the relationship between Edward Ferrars and her is conducted on the level of the mind, with both displaying hardly any emotion. The theme of sense is thus exemplified through their relationship. On the other hand Willoughby who enters Marianne’s life as a true romantic hero having carried her home when she sprained her ankle, exemplifies the theme of sensibility in his relationship with Marianne.

      The Contrasting reactions of Elinor and Marianne: Both suffer from unhappy love. Willoughby marries another girl while Edward is engaged to Lucy Steele, but they differ vastly in their reaction to the disappointment in love. Marianne impetuous and irrational is given to extremes of grief and even falls sick with a putrid fever. Elinor on the other hand can go to the extent of even helping Edward and Lucy by securing him a parsonage in Colonel Brandon’s estate.

      Ironic Symbols: While the moral seems to illustrate the superiority of sense over sensibility there is an ironic twist in the plot whereby Elinor and Marianne virtually interchange their positions. Marianne gradually acquires sense and in fact makes a sensible and very prosaic marriage with Colonel Brandon, while Elinor the sensible one becomes increasingly sensitive as the book progresses and makes a marriage of love (not of convenience) to a far from wealthy clergyman. Thus Elinor and Marianne are not merely allegorical figures representing simply sense and sensibility, but are ironic symbols who have dimensions beyond the terms of the title. Sense cannot solve every problem. Elinor has to face misery and despair just as her sister does; only she is able to bear them with a greater composure. Similarly, while we may criticize Marianne for her excessive emotional responses we cannot but love her.

      The Contrast between Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby: Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby parallel Elinor and Marianne. Edward Ferrars is the sensible man who makes the romantic gesture - Inspite of being disowned by his mother, he is willing to honour his promise to Lucy and marry her but when she elopes with his brother he sensibly proposes to Elinor who accepts. Willoughby on the other hand who appears as the archetypal romantic hero is the one who makes the worldly gesture. Having been disinherited, he rejects Marianne and marries a woman of fortune.

      Conclusion: The novel is not very successful for we are unable to sympathize completely with Elinor. She seems too cold and sensible - even willing to further the marriage of the man she loves to another woman. While Jane Austen seeks to glorify sense, the reader seems to be sympathetic to Marianne’s sensibility. The dual plot, the split theme and the eventual ironic twist whereby Marianne acquires some sense and Elinor's sensibility - prevent the novel from being as artistically satisfying as her other novels.

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