116 pages 3 hours read

Sense and Sensibility

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1811

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Summary and Study Guide


Sense and Sensibility (1811) was the first published novel of British writer Jane Austen (1775-1817). Still a widely read author today, Austen published six complete novels and became famous for documenting the interior lives of young women in addition to the social mores of her time. She developed a distinctive form of narrative voice that oscillated between omniscient narration and free indirect discourse, which employs a third-person perspective but closely mirrors the consciousness of individual characters. Sense and Sensibility’s continual presence in the cultural imagination is evident in numerous film and T.V. adaptations of the book, including the award-winning 1995 version directed by Ang Lee and starring and adapted by Emma Thompson.

This study guide references the Penguin Classics Illustrated version for Kindle.

Plot Summary

In late 18th-century England, the dying Henry Dashwood extracts the promise that his son John, the sole heir of Norland Park, will generously provide for his stepmother and three half-sisters. However, on the entreaties of his wife Fanny, John hoards the estate’s wealth and gives his sisters no more than the scant inheritance indicated in the will. This results in a lowered standard of living for his stepmother and half-sisters, and damages their marriage prospects.

The sisters bear this change in fortune differently. While Mrs. Dashwood and her second daughter Marianne exacerbate their misery, the sensible eldest daughter Elinor attempts to make the best of the situation. Elinor ensures that the family lives within their means, sacrificing luxuries such as carriages. Mrs. Dashwood delays moving into another property when she observes an attachment between Elinor and Fanny’s brother Edward Ferrars. While Marianne encourages Elinor's romance, Elinor is guarded, feeling that there is something holding Edward back and that she cannot be certain of his feelings towards her. Fanny also observes the attachment, and clearly voices her mother’s wish that Edward will marry a woman of fortune.

Insulted by the accusation that Elinor is trying to trap Edward into a disadvantageous marriage, Mrs. Dashwood removes her daughters to live at Barton Cottage in Devonshire, on the estate of Mrs. Dashwood’s relative, Sir John Middleton. Sir John and his mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings are generous and invite the Dashwood sisters often to their home, Barton Park. There, the Dashwood family meet the Middleton’s friend Colonel Brandon, 35, whom Marianne dismisses as a confirmed bachelor.

Marianne is far more attracted to Mr. Willoughby, a man who rescues her from a fall during one of her walks. The two begin an open courtship and others begin to think they are secretly engaged. One day, however, Willoughby announces that he will leave the county, and is uncertain of when he will return. Marianne is shocked and devastated.

Edward visits the Dashwoods but given his inconsistent behavior, Elinor still cannot be sure of how he feels about her. Later, Elinor meets Lucy Steele at Barton Park, a young woman who confesses that she has been secretly engaged to Edward for four years. This crushes Elinor’s hopes, but she keeps the news from her mother and sister for fear of disappointing them.

Mrs. Jennings invites Elinor and Marianne to spend the winter season with her in London. Marianne eagerly accepts, hoping to see Willoughby there, and Elinor reluctantly accompanies them. In London, Willoughby does not call on them despite Marianne’s multiple letters to him. When they see him at Lady Middleton’s party, he treats Marianne like a stranger. The next day, he delivers a letter apologizing for leading Marianne on and confessing that he has been long engaged to a wealthy Miss Grey. Marianne becomes sick with anxiety and Elinor learns that she and Willoughby were never engaged, leaving Marianne vulnerable to social humiliation. Colonel Brandon visits Elinor. He tells her that the reason for Willoughby’s sudden absence was that he was summoned to take responsibility for seducing and impregnating Colonel Brandon’s ward Eliza Williams. Elinor is moved by the colonel’s tale, as well as by his growing affection for Marianne. However, when she shares the news with her sister, Marianne finds it difficult to give up her idea of Willoughby’s good character.

Meanwhile, Lucy Steele comes to London and gains the affections of Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars who she hopes will be her future sister and mother-in-law. While Lucy brags about her conquest to Elinor, Fanny throws Lucy out of the house when she discovers the truth about her secret engagement to Edward. As Edward feels obliged to honor the terms of his engagement, Mrs. Ferrars cuts him off from his independent living. While Edward intends to eke out a modest income in the church, his fortune will be transferred to his younger brother Robert. Meanwhile, Colonel Brandon hears of Edward’s plight and engages Elinor to deliver the news that the parsonage at Delaford is available.

The Dashwood sisters aim to make their way home via Cleveland, the estate of the Palmers, Mrs. Jennings’ daughter and brother-in-law. After many solitary rambles through the damp grounds, Marianne falls seriously ill. Elinor sits at her bedside while Colonel Brandon summons Mrs. Dashwood. One night, Elinor is surprised to find that Willoughby has come to explain himself and defend his actions. At the end of the interview, Elinor is moved by his enduring love for Marianne, yet still judges his character to be deficient. When Mrs. Dashwood comes to Cleveland and is reassured that Marianne is recovering, she confesses to Elinor her hope that Marianne will marry Colonel Brandon.

Back at Barton Cottage, Elinor is devastated to hear a report of Edward’s marriage to Lucy. However, a visit from Edward reveals that the marriage that has taken place was between his brother Robert and Lucy. Lucy switched her affection between the brothers, as Robert was the wealthier and more like her in temperament. Edward is relieved at being released from his old engagement, as it enables him to enter into a new one with Elinor, the woman who has long replaced Lucy in his affections. The couple get married and settle at Delaford Parsonage. Eventually, on the strong recommendations of her mother and sister, Marianne consents to marry Colonel Brandon.

Related Titles

By Jane Austen