Sense and Sensibility: Essay Q&A
1. Compare and contrast the development of the characters of Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby.
Edward and Willoughby both pose an epistemological question - that is, the question of how the truth about a person can be known. Both characters are shrouded in mystery for some part of the novel. However, the reader’s journey to greater knowledge of both characters reveals that their motivations and characters are very different (antithetical).
Initially, Edward is largely unknowable. At first he seems to care deeply for Elinor, but his subsequent coolness towards her makes her doubt this. Only Lucy’s revelation of his secret engagement to her at the end of Volume I explains his mysterious behavior. Willoughby, too, is mysterious. He appears to love Marianne, but does not declare himself to her, leading to all manner of speculation from a variety of characters.
The motivations behind such secrecy are different in the cases of the two men. Willoughby’s reticence about declaring himself to Marianne turns out to be due to his vain and shallow nature: he means initially to exploit her affection for him without sacrificing his own freedom. Finally, on being disinherited by Mrs. Smith over his seduction of Eliza Williams, he chooses money over love and marries the heiress Miss Sophia Grey.
Edward’s reticence about declaring himself to Elinor, while it also involves money and inheritance, is more honorable. Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele, like Willoughby’s attachment to Marianne, must remain secret because his mother, on whom he depends for his inheritance, would disapprove and may disinherit him. Finally, Edward sacrifices his inheritance in order to honor his engagement to Lucy.
It is significant that Willoughby is disinherited by an intensely moral woman (Mrs. Smith) because he has behaved immorally. She tries to bribe him to behave morally and marry Eliza. Edward, in contrast, is disinherited by a mercenary and selfish woman (Mrs. Ferrars) because he is sacrificing money and social connections in order to honor his promise to the fortune-less Lucy. Mrs. Ferrars tries to bribe him to behave immorally and desert Lucy. Willoughby turns against the positive influence of Mrs. Smith, and Edward turns against the negative influence of Mrs. Ferrars.
In intending to go through with his marriage to Lucy, Edward takes a leap of faith, as he has no idea how he and Lucy will survive financially. Willoughby, on the other hand, has a failure of faith, choosing his wife in calculated fashion in order to enlarge his wealth. Edward throughout acts selflessly and according to duty, putting the interests of Lucy above his own desires. Willoughby pursues his own desires from start to finish: as Marianne says to Elinor, “My happiness was never his object” (Volume III, Chapter XI). Ironically, and in line with the moral context of the novel, both characters attain their desires, though with very different results. Edward ends up attaining his desire of marrying his true love, Elinor, and is happy, while Willoughby attains his goal of wealth at the terrible price of losing his true love, Marianne, and living unhappily in a loveless marriage with Sophia.
2. Compare and contrast the characters of Colonel Brandon and Willoughby.
Colonel Brandon and Willoughby are linked by their attachment to Marianne, but their different characters make each a foil, or contrasting character, to the other. The process of unfoldment of Colonel Brandon’s character is antithetical (opposite) to the unfoldment of Willoughby’s character. Willoughby begins the novel with an ability to charm and fascinate; but later, when his secret life is revealed, it shows him to be more superficial and less interesting than he initially appeared. He begins the novel as a romantic lover, and ends it as a man who coldly turns his back on love for the sake of money. Brandon at first appears dull and uninteresting (especially to Marianne), but when the secrets of his past life are revealed, they show him to be capable of deep love and devotion to duty.
The two men are linked and contrasted by the motif (repeated theme) of rescue. Willoughby’s entrance into Marianne’s life is a romantic cliché: he is the gallant young man who comes to her rescue and literally sweeps her off her feet when she has tripped and fallen. Austen notes: “His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story.” His heroic action is public, being witnessed by the entire Dashwood family, adding to the aura of admiration that surrounds him. Colonel Brandon, on the other hand, in the eyes of Marianne, makes an unimpressive first appearance. He listens attentively to Marianne playing the pianoforte, but is the only person who does not go into raptures at her performance. Marianne excuses him on the grounds of his “advanced state of life” - his age (Volume I, Chapter VII). In Chapter VIII, she notes his “rheumatism … the commonest infirmity of declining life.” While she sees Willoughby as the dashing young hero, she sees Colonel Brandon as an old man who is past enjoyment of poetry, music, or love.
However, the novel subtly undermines her romantic prejudices. In Volume I, Chapter XIII, Colonel Brandon suddenly has to excuse himself from the planned outing, and leaves. Willoughby snidely comments to Marianne that Colonel Brandon does not like pleasure trips, giving the impression that he is a killjoy. Willoughby, in contrast, whisks Marianne off in his carriage to see the grand house that, he encourages her to think, will be hers when she is his wife. The truth of the matter becomes clear only in time. Willoughby is trifling with her affections; and the house that he takes her to see belongs to an old lady who disinherits Willoughby when the scandal of his seducing Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza Williams, breaks. Colonel Brandon, for his part, is the genuine hero: he rides off in order to save Eliza from certain ruin after Willoughby deserts her. He does so secretly and without fanfare. While Willoughby fantasizes, Colonel Brandon gives practical help; the girl whom Willoughby abuses and leaves, Colonel Brandon rescues and supports.
Both men, at the start of the novel, have hidden and mysterious sides to them. Willoughby is the more immediately attractive and romantic. Colonel Brandon gives a first impression of being staid and uninteresting, although he tells Elinor that he once loved a woman similar to Marianne deeply, giving a strong hint of deep feelings under the surface. His true nature is revealed in Volume II, Chapter IX, when he tells the story of his love for Eliza and his guardianship of her daughter, Eliza Williams. This story simultaneously subverts the reader’s romantic prejudices about Colonel Brandon and Willoughby. As Willoughby’s hidden life is revealed in the story of his seduction and abandonment of Eliza), he loses his allure and appears increasingly sordid and unpleasant. Conversely, Colonel Brandon appears increasingly like a true lover, recognizing the importance of love over money, and taking on the duties of looking after Eliza and her daughter even though they are not, strictly speaking, his responsibility.
Colonel Brandon’s caring and responsible behavior towards Eliza foreshadows his care for Marianne. Long after Willoughby has abandoned Marianne and she falls ill, Colonel Brandon stays near her, fetching her mother when it is thought that she may die. Unlike Willoughby, Colonel Brandon does not dally with her affections, but marries her and provides her with a house and money.
Austen, through the characters of Willoughby and Colonel Brandon, show the two sides of love: the romantic appearance, and the practical reality. She leaves the reader in no doubt that true value lies in the latter.
3. Some readers think that the ending of Sense and Sensibility is the saddest of all Austen’s novels. Do you agree?
Arguments that the novel’s ending is sad center around the fact that Marianne and Willoughby, who love each other, marry other people and do not end up together. But such arguments ignore several factors that make this impossible.
Willoughby more than forfeits the right to be with Marianne because of his behavior towards Eliza Williams and Marianne herself. His seduction and abandonment of the pregnant Eliza mirrors his treatment of Marianne and foreshadows her possible fate in the event that she had allowed their relationship to progress. Even after Colonel Brandon rescues Eliza from a destiny like her mother’s (early death in the debtors’ prison) and confronts Willoughby in a duel, Willoughby does not attempt to make amends for his actions. He even excuses himself for not marrying Eliza on the grounds that she is unintelligent. Finally, he betrays his love for Marianne in favor of a marriage to a wealthy woman he does not love. Willoughby does not deserve Marianne. His repentant speech to Elinor does somewhat redeem him, in that it is clear that he did love Marianne and continues to love her, and begs Marianne’s forgiveness.
But the cool-headed Elinor points the reader, as ever, to the sensible way to respond to his tugs on the heart-strings. She feels sorry for him, but reflects that he regrets losing Marianne for her temperament, which is more compatible with his than is his wife’s. If he had married Marianne, they would be poor, which would place intolerable strains on their relationship. His concerns then would not be incompatibility of temperament but poverty, and he would soon begin to compare her unfavorably with richer women. This is not only Elinor’s view. After a period of deep reflection following her illness, Marianne agrees: “I have not a doubt of it” (Volume III, Chapter XI). Perhaps the most damning comment on the likelihood of a relationship between them working out is Marianne’s admission, “My happiness was never his object.” If she had married Willoughby, she would have had to sacrifice her own needs in a struggle to keep him happy in spite of their poverty.
Austen makes clear that the Marianne-Willoughby relationship is a product of excessive sensibility, or romanticism. After her illness, Marianne undergoes a change in outlook whereby she rejects that sensibility in favor of good sense. Her acceptance of Colonel Brandon as a lover reflects that change: he is sensible, practical, and puts her needs first. Just as he rescued Eliza from a ruin of Willoughby’s making, he rescues Marianne, bruised and weakened from Willoughby’s emotional abuse. There is a symmetry in the two events, and a moral justice. Colonel Brandon loves Marianne deeply, with a love that has remained constant with little encouragement. As for whether Marianne returns that feeling, at the time of their marriage, she feels only “strong esteem and lively friendship” for him. However, after their marriage, “Marianne could never love by halves; and her whole heart became, in time, as much devoted to her husband, as it had once been to Willoughby.”
In other words, Marianne’s love for her husband grows after marriage. This may seem a lackluster prospect to some Western people, particularly young people who are attracted to the romantic aspects of love. But to a large section of the population in the East, it seems as normal as it would have seemed to the English of Austen’s day. In those societies, most marriages were and are arranged. In such marriages (at least those in which the consent of the young couple is gained - leaving aside those in which force is involved), it is expected that husband and wife may not love each other at the time of the wedding. Provided that the couple like and respect each other, it is assumed that love will grow later. This is what happens with the Brandons, and it is a cause for celebration, not gloom.
4. Discuss the role of children in the novel. Margaret has only a small part in the novel. Is she at all necessary to the plot?
Children are largely presented in an unfavorable light in the novel. The characterization of Lady Middleton as an insipid and tedious woman is founded on her obsession with her children, who form her main topic of conversation. Her children are portrayed as unpleasant, spoiled, and as exercising their own kind of tyranny over the family: in Volume II, Chapter I, Lady Middleton wants Lucy to finish making a basket for her daughter in order to avoid her getting upset. In fairness to the children, the tyranny they exercise is manipulated by their parents as a way of controlling the behavior of others: the reader does not see the Middleton daughter having a tantrum; the possibility is merely floated in order to blackmail Lucy into delivering the basket more quickly.
In similar vein, Fanny Dashwood enlists her son Harry to blackmail John Dashwood into withholding any financial help from the Dashwood women: “Mrs. John Dashwood did not at all approve of what her husband intended to do for his sisters. To take three thousand pounds from the fortune of their dear little boy, would be impoverishing him to the most dreadful degree. She begged him to think again on the subject. How could he answer it to himself to rob his child, and his only child too, of so large a sum?”
It should be remembered also that Harry is the beneficiary of the old Gentleman’s (Dashwood patriarch) will, which so effectively excluded the Dashwood women from any inheritance. At the time, Harry was two or three years old, and well provided for by Fanny’s wealth. By setting the diminutive Harry next to the adult and needy Dashwood women, Austen makes the satirical point that it is unfair to leave the women destitute while adding to the existing wealth of a small child.
Margaret, the youngest Dashwood daughter, is described as having as much sensibility as Marianne but without Elinor’s sense. Her main role is indiscreetly to voice things that the adult characters are too polite, fearful, or restrained to mention. In Volume I, Chapter XII, Margaret tells Elinor that Willoughby begged and was given a lock of Marianne’s hair. She subsequently reveals to Mrs. Jennings that Elinor likes a certain young man whose name begins with “F,” adding to Elinor’s embarrassment and fuelling Mrs. Jennings’ and Sir John Middleton’s gossipy speculation. Margaret therefore adds an element of anarchy to the stiff adult world and challenges the secrecy and hypocrisy that governed the romantic liaisons of the time.
5. Elinor says of Edward in Volume I, Chapter IV, “I do not attempt to deny … that I think very highly of him - that I greatly esteem, that I like him.” Are the social attitudes expressed in this statement typical of Elinor and any other characters in the novel? How well do these attitudes serve the characters who hold them?
This statement is typical of Elinor, who is somewhat reserved in feeling emotion and extremely reserved in expressing it. She consistently holds back from saying how she feels about Edward, even with her closest family. When Edward leaves Barton Cottage after his visit, Elinor does not feed her grief, as Marianne does over Willoughby’s absence: Elinor “did not adopt the method so judiciously employed by Marianne, on a similar occasion, to augment and fix her sorrow, by seeking silence, solitude, and idleness.” She remains busy and outgoing, “and if, by this conduct, she did not lessen her own grief, it was at least prevented from unnecessary increase, and her mother and sisters were spared much solicitude on her account” (Volume I, Chapter XIX). It is significant that Elinor, separated from Edward and apparently without hope of marrying him, neither falls ill nor plagues her family with her sufferings - unlike Marianne.
Elinor’s statement about Edward implies that she is preventing her feelings from running away from her. Her comment in Volume I, Chapter XVII, perhaps justifies this type of reserve: she says that her first impressions of people have often been wrong, implying that she now uses more caution. This is shown by the events of the novel to be a wise attitude, given such devious types as Willoughby, whose treachery takes time to appear. She does not allow her feelings for Edward full rein until she is certain he returns her feelings and that he is free to marry her.
Another benefit of Elinor’s reticence is that it somewhat protects her against gossip. It also preserves her public dignity and the chaste reputation that was considered so important for women of Austen’s time. The expressive Marianne, in contrast, exposes herself to scandal by going on an outing with Willoughby unchaperoned and other such social mistakes. Elinor is not widely expected to marry Edward after his disappearance from the scene. In fact, Colonel Brandon is considered the more likely prospect.
Edward too is described by Marianne as “reserved” (Volume I, Chapter XVII). It transpires that at least some of his reserve is due to his secret engagement to Lucy. The rest is the natural tendency of his character. Indirectly, Edward’s reserve does benefit him: by keeping a certain distance from Elinor while he is still engaged to Lucy, he prevents either himself or her from being hurt and publicly shamed.
Colonel Brandon, who is described as dull by more than one character, may perhaps be more positively called reserved. His reserve undoubtedly benefits him, since it enables him to wait patiently for Marianne’s attachment to Willoughby to burn itself out. Like Elinor and Edward, he does not embarrass himself or Marianne by any effusive declarations of love before she is ready to hear them.
The closest that Austen comes to showing reserve in a negative light is when the Dashwoods’ servant tells Elinor that Lucy and “Mr. Ferrars” (which Elinor understands to mean Edward) are married. Elinor’s silence and loss of appetite convince Mrs. Dashwood that “she had erred in relying on Elinor’s representation of herself; and justly concluded that every thing had been expressly softened at the time, to spare her from an increase of unhappiness, suffering as she then had suffered for Marianne” (Volume III, Chapter XII). Thus she fears that she has been inattentive to Elinor. However, it is clear that Austen believes that the benefits of reserve have in this case outweighed the disadvantages. Elinor, unlike Marianne, has escaped the destructive process of having her grief fed and augmented by her mother’s “sensibility,” and gives no suggestion that Elinor felt lonely and unsupported in her grief. On the contrary, by maintaining social habits, Elinor has enjoyed the love and support of those around her.
There is no doubt, however, that to modern readers in particular, Marianne’s spontaneous personality is more sympathetic than Elinor’s reserve. Thus more readers identify with Marianne than with Elinor. Social conventions have changed since Austen’s day, and openness about one’s feelings is now valued more than reserve. Another factor in Marianne’s popularity as a character is that Austen is widely considered to have based Marianne on herself and Elinor on her older sister Cassandra. While Austen undoubtedly meant the novel to be a eulogy of Cassandra’s good sense, and a cautionary tale and ‘mea culpa’ (Latin for “I am at fault”) about her own romantic sensibility, she could not help putting more of herself into the character of Marianne, thus making that character come alive for the reader in a way that Elinor does not.