Sense and Sensibility: Novel Summary
Volume 1, Chapters 1-11
Volume I, Chapter I
Sense and Sensibility opens by introducing the Dashwood family, whose fortunes the novel follows. The Dashwoods have for many generations owned and occupied the country estate of Norland Park in Sussex, England. The recent owner, Henry Dashwood, inherited the estate from a Dashwood uncle, referred to as “the old Gentleman.” Henry Dashwood has a son, John, from a previous marriage, and three daughters from his current marriage: Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. John is well provided for by his mother’s fortune and his wife’s wealth. The old Gentleman stipulated in his will that the estate must pass directly from Henry Dashwood to John and thence to John’s son, Harry. This was in accordance with the accepted system of male-line primogeniture (inheritance by the first-born son), but also because of the old Gentleman’s favoritism towards the then two- or three-year-old Harry. Therefore, when Henry Dashwood dies, his widow and daughters are left with a modest income from a lump sum of ten thousand pounds, but no estate. On his deathbed, Henry Dashwood elicits a promise from John to take care of his wife and daughters.
Once Henry Dashwood is in his grave, Mrs. Dashwood’s house belongs to John and his wife, Fanny. Fanny Dashwood arrives unannounced with her child and servants and installs herself as mistress of Norland. Mrs. Dashwood feels so offended that she wishes to leave immediately, but is advised against it by her eldest daughter, Elinor.
John ponders how much money to give the Dashwood women. He feels at first that three thousand pounds is a reasonable amount. His wife, however, is unwilling to see her herself and her child lose any money. She takes advantage of the fact that Henry Dashwood did not specify an exact sum in order to whittle down John’s intended gift of three thousand pounds to nothing. She persuades John that Henry Dashwood intended John to give no money to the Dashwood women, and that John can discharge his duty to them, if indeed he has any, by doing them the occasional neighborly act.
Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters remain at Norland for several months, putting up with Fanny Dashwood as best they can while they look for a house to rent. Elinor dissuades her mother from choosing houses that are too expensive for their reduced circumstances. Mrs. Dashwood is still confident that John will come up with money to support them.
To Mrs. Dashwood’s joy, an attachment grows between Elinor and Edward Ferrars, the brother of Fanny Dashwood and the eldest son of a man who died rich. Edward is shy and unsuited to answer his mother’s and sister’s ambitions for him. They want him to achieve power and influence in the world, whereas he only wants a simple life. Marianne admits to being disappointed in Edward’s lack of “sensibility,” citing his unimpassioned reading of her favorite poetry.
Elinor and Marianne discuss Edward. Elinor admits that she respects and likes him, but is unwilling to say the word “love” until she knows that he feels the same. Marianne indignantly accuses her of cold-heartedness. Elinor points out that Edward is not independent of his mother, and she suspects that Mrs. Ferrars wants him to marry a rich or high-ranking woman. Marianne is amazed to hear that Edward and Elinor are not already engaged.
Fanny Dashwood notices her brother’s liking for Elinor and warns Mrs. Dashwood that Mrs. Ferrars expects a prosperous match for Edward. Mrs. Dashwood is so offended by Fanny’s rudeness that she is delighted to receive a letter from a distant relative, Sir John Middleton, offering at a reasonable rent a house called Barton Cottage on his estate in Devonshire. Mrs. Dashwood immediately accepts the offer.
Edward voices dismay that Mrs. Dashwood and her family are moving so far away. In John and Fanny’s hearing, Mrs. Dashwood pointedly invites him to stay with them in Devon whenever he wishes.
Just before they depart for Devon, Marianne bids a sad farewell to Norland, reflecting that at least the trees will continue the same, even though she and her family have gone.
The Dashwood women arrive at Barton Cottage, and find it pleasant but small. Mrs. Dashwood has plans for extending it, though does not consider how she will afford to do so, considering that she has never saved money in her life. Sir John Middleton arrives to greet them. He warmly invites them to dine at his house, Barton Park, until they have settled in. He also sends over a basket of fruit, vegetables, and meat.
The next day, Lady Middleton, Sir John’s wife, visits the Dashwood women with her six-year-old son. She is elegant but lacks her husband’s warmth. Lady Middleton is only interested in her children, who are her sole topic of conversation.
The following day, at Sir John’s invitation, the Dashwood women go to dinner at Barton Park. The sociable Sir John is delighted with his new tenants. He is pleased that they are an all-female family, as a man might hunt the birds and animals on his estate, and he wants to keep all the hunting for himself. Also present are Mrs. Jennings, who is Lady Middleton’s mother, and Colonel Brandon, who is a friend of Sir John.
Marianne is invited to play the piano. Colonel Brandon is the only person who does not go into raptures about her performance, only listening with quiet attention. Marianne excuses him his lack of ecstasy on the grounds of his advanced age (he is over thirty-five).
Mrs. Jennings, whose main interest is matchmaking, decides that Colonel Brandon is in love with Marianne, and makes jokes to them both about the marriage she expects to occur. Marianne thinks the idea that the Colonel can be in love with her absurd, as he is so old.
Marianne confesses to Mrs. Dashwood that she cannot understand why Edward has not visited Elinor in their new home at Barton Cottage. She also is baffled at the reserve of his behavior towards Elinor, and at Elinor’s lack of sorrow at the loss of her admirer.
Marianne and Margaret ignore signs of bad weather and go for a walk. It begins to rain, and as the girls rush home, Marianne trips and falls, spraining her ankle. An unknown handsome man who is out shooting game with his dogs comes to her assistance, scooping her up in his arms and carrying her back to the house. Mrs. Dashwood is charmed by the man, who introduces himself as Mr. Willoughby, currently of Allenham. He is given permission to call tomorrow to find out how Marianne is.
After he leaves, the Dashwood women discuss him with admiration. When Sir John visits, they ask him about Willoughby. All Sir John can say is that he shoots and rides well, has a good gundog, and shows stamina in dancing. He says that Willoughby has no property of his own but is the heir of Mrs. Smith, a distant relative who lives at nearby Allenham Court. He concludes that he is “well worth catching” for any young woman. He adds that poor Colonel Brandon will be forgotten. Marianne is offended by the suggestion that she would try to catch anyone.
Willoughby calls at the cottage the next day to ask after Marianne. The two talk, and she is delighted to find that he shares her love of music and dancing, and her passion for certain authors. After he has left, Elinor expresses concern that Marianne has told Willoughby everything about herself and that there will be nothing left for future occasions. Marianne bridles at this, believing that Elinor is rebuking her for being too open.
Marianne recovers. Willoughby continues to visit her every day, and they read, talk, and sing together. Marianne learns that he reads literature aloud with all the sensibility and passion that Edward sadly lacks. Elinor feels that he is too prone to speak his thoughts, without consideration of others or of the situation. Marianne feels that he is everything that she has always wished for in a man. Mrs. Dashwood now expects two marriages, between Marianne and Willoughby, and Elinor and Edward.
Elinor notices that Colonel Brandon’s spirits seem to be oppressed by past disappointments. Willoughby cruelly dismisses him as the kind of man “whom all are delighted to see, and nobody remembers to talk to,” and Marianne agrees. She thinks he lacks “genius” and “spirit.”
Sir John Middleton begins to hold balls at Barton Park. Willoughby and Marianne are always invited. They are completely absorbed in each other. Elinor tries to persuade Marianne to behave with more reserve, but without success. Marianne devotes herself to Willoughby and is no longer homesick for Norland.
Elinor misses Norland because Edward is there. She forms a friendship with Colonel Brandon. Colonel Brandon talks with her about Marianne’s not believing in second attachments. Elinor explains that Marianne has the romantic notion that second attachments are unpardonable, in spite of the fact that their own father had two wives and Marianne is the child of the second. Colonel Brandon does not wish to see Marianne outgrow her romantic prejudices. He says that she reminds him of a lady he used to know, who sadly was forced into a better acquaintance with the ways of the world. He breaks off his story abruptly. Elinor guesses that he was in love with this woman and that the affair ended badly.
Analysis of Volume I, Chapters I-XI
The theme of “sense” (reason) versus “sensibility” (emotion) is introduced in the characters of Elinor and Marianne. Each is a foil, or contrast, to the other. Elinor is sensible, practical, and cautious (“sense”), while Marianne is romantic and impetuous (“sensibility”). The dividing line, however, is not absolute, and the sisters do have qualities in common: both have loving hearts and intelligence. But their ways of responding to the world, to other people, and to the trials and tribulations of their lives, are different.
Both Marianne (Chapter IV) and her mother (Chapter III), being full of “sensibility,” are incapable of feeling any close attachment to a person without declaring it to be love. Marianne accuses Elinor of being cold-hearted because Elinor talks of liking and esteeming Edward. But in fact, Elinor, in keeping her feelings reserved until she is sure that Edward returns them, is showing a prudence (“sense”) that her mother and sister lack.
Marianne’s lack of prudence and care for herself is symbolized by her venturing out in uncertain weather and taking a “false step” that makes her fall over. She is rescued by Willoughby. While on one hand his actions are admirable and appear heroic to Marianne, they can also be seen as taking advantage of a young girl’s vulnerability at a moment of weakness. This is exactly what he proceeds to do on an emotional level in future chapters. He selfishly pursues the attraction he feels for Marianne without taking due care of her feelings. Marianne, lacking her sister’s practicality in relationships, takes no care to find out what Willoughby’s intentions are or whether he is free to marry her. She simply trusts to her heart’s promptings and openly returns Willoughby’s apparent affection.
Marianne and Elinor respond to emotional stress very differently. After the family’s move to Barton Cottage, Marianne expects Elinor to sink into dejection because she is missing Edward, and she also expects Edward to visit Elinor at Barton soon after the family’s arrival there. On both accounts she is disappointed, because Elinor and Edward are more cautious with their feelings than is Marianne. Elinor does not yet know Edward’s true feelings for her, and Edward holds back from making any declaration. Elinor and Edward are careful of their own hearts as well as of other people’s, in a way that Marianne is not.
A contrast is drawn between Marianne’s two admirers, Colonel Brandon and Willoughby. While Colonel Brandon treats everyone with respect, Willoughby speaks slightingly of Colonel Brandon, apparently with a desire to amuse. While Colonel Brandon keeps his feelings for Marianne largely hidden, Willoughby admires her as openly as she admires him. At this point, Willoughby appears to resemble Marianne in being a person of “sensibility,” sharing her strong passions and opinions about music, literature, and people. It remains to be seen whether he shares Marianne’s loving and constant heart. This is a source of suspense in the novel and reflects a common theme in Austen’s work: the epistemological question of how one person can know another. (Epistemology is the study of the nature, methods, validity, and limitations of knowledge.)
What is certain at this point in the novel is that Willoughby perfectly fulfils Marianne’s fantasy of her ideal husband. She says in Chapter III, “I could not be happy with a man whose taste did not in every point coincide with my own. He must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both.” Willoughby is this man, and her enchantment with him makes her overlook the more solid qualities of Colonel Brandon, whom she characterizes as old and lacking in “spirit” and “fire” (Chapter X).
One of the major themes of the novel, primogeniture and inheritance, is introduced from the novel’s beginning. Primogeniture is the tradition by which the first-born offspring inherits the entire estate of a parent. In practice, this is usually male-line primogeniture; hence, if the offspring of a marriage are all daughters, then the estate passes to the nearest male relative. The novel reflects the extreme importance of primogeniture in the society of Austen’s time. It defined a person’s life, prospects, and choice of marriage partner. The Dashwood women are reduced to genteel poverty simply because they are female. After Henry Dashwood’s death, through the whim of “the old Gentleman” backed up by male-line primogeniture, Norland Park goes to Henry’s son John. This is in spite of the fact that John does not need more wealth and yet the Dashwood women are in severe need after the death of their father. The Dashwood women are reliant on the charity of John, which is not forthcoming because of the meanness of John’s wife Fanny. Their next hope, and the only way out of their predicament, is that the Dashwood daughters will make a good marriage.
Primogeniture also plays a large part in the fortunes of Edward Ferrars, who at the novel’s beginning is the eldest son of a rich man, and therefore a good marriage prospect. Old Mr. Ferrars left all his wealth to his wife, and Mrs. Ferrars can choose where it goes after her. Old Mr. Ferrars was evidently not influenced by the tradition of male-line primogeniture that afflicted the old Gentleman.
Although primogeniture can be liberating in that it can set a man up in wealth for the rest of his life, it can also be tyrannical and restrictive. Edward Ferrars cannot marry whom he chooses; if he displeases his mother through his choice of wife, he risks being disinherited. When Mrs. Ferrars finds out that Edward is engaged to the penniless Lucy Steele, she does indeed disinherit him. This, in principle, liberates Edward to marry whom he wishes, though in practice, it would not be possible for him to marry anyone because he could not afford to support them. Edward is only rescued by his fortunate association with his wealthy benefactor, Colonel Brandon, who gives him a living (a parish in which he is to be the clergyman).
A deliberate contrast is drawn between two parallel sets of benefactor/beneficiary relationships: Willoughby and his elderly female relative Mrs. Smith, and Edward and Mrs. Ferrars. But there is an important difference. While Mrs. Ferrars disinherits Edward from avaricious motives, Willoughby’s elderly relative later disinherits Willoughby on moral grounds, because she disapproves of his irresponsible liaison with Colonel Brandon’s daughter. Whereas Edward is liberated from the influence of a malign mother, Willoughby deserts the influence of a benign and morally upright woman. Austen appears to be suggesting that the leverage of inheritance can be used for good or evil ends, and that losing an inheritance can be spiritually liberating (Edward) or spiritually tragic (Willoughby).
Another theme of the novel is familial duty. Austen shows that relatedness does not necessarily equate with familial duty. Though it is clear that John Dashwood has a moral duty to look after his stepmother and half-sisters after the death of his father, he is easily persuaded by his selfish wife that he has no duty at all to them. As it transpires, a distant relative, Sir John Middleton, is far more generous to the women than is John Dashwood. The gap between the expectation of how a character should act from the moral point of view and how they do act is typical of Austen’s irony. The irony is underscored by the narrator’s tongue-in-cheek summary of John’s intentions at the end of Chapter II: “he finally resolved, that it would be absolutely unnecessary, if not highly indecorous, to do more for the widow and children of his father, than such kind of neighbourly acts as his own wife pointed out.” So warped has John’s moral perspective become as a result of his wife’s influence, that he is able to conclude that it would be wrong to help the Dashwood women at all.
The symbolism of hunting, which pervades the novel, is introduced in this section. The reader’s first sight of Willoughby as he appears just in time to rescue Marianne is as he is out shooting game with his dogs. Just as Willoughby hunts animals, he also hunts Marianne; while he does not kill her, he does do great harm to her emotional well-being. In hunting as in love, Willoughby is a predator.