Sense and Sensibility | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Sense and Sensibility | Chapters 31–32 (Volume 2, Chapters 9–10) | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 31

Marianne's moods swing from desire to hide in her room to determination to face the world; she can't bear Mrs. Jennings. Elinor writes to her mother, explaining everything.

Colonel Brandon arrives and gives Elinor information he hopes will comfort the family. He speaks again of his cousin Eliza (the first time was in Chapter 11). They grew up friends and fell in love, but at 17, she was forced to marry Brandon's older brother and join her fortune to his family's estate; she and Brandon wanted to elope but failed. The marriage was unhappy, and Eliza had an affair that led to divorce. Her fortune remained mostly with her husband, leaving her deeply in debt and terminally ill. Three and a half years later, Brandon—who had been in the West Indies—located her; he provided for her until her death soon after and became guardian to her little girl, also named Eliza, and now 17 (Marianne's age). In the interim, Brandon's brother died and left Delaford to him. A year ago young Eliza Williams vanished. She finally wrote to Brandon—the letter that caused him to leave Barton Park suddenly—to explain that a young man had seduced her, made her pregnant, and abandoned her. He later persuaded her to name the young man: John Willoughby. Brandon reveals to Elinor that he challenged Willoughby to a duel. But since neither was wounded, the matter stayed quiet, and Brandon settled Eliza and her child in the country. He departs, leaving Elinor "full of compassion and esteem for him."

Chapter 32

Marianne listens to Elinor repeat Colonel Brandon's information about Willoughby without attempting to defend her former lover and afterwards behaves toward Brandon with respect, but her misery deepens as she thinks of what Willoughby did to Eliza and might have done to her. She feels "the loss of his character ... more heavily than ... the loss of his heart." Letters from Mrs. Dashwood urge Marianne (and Elinor) not to return early to Barton Park, where memories will assault her. Also, John and Fanny will soon be in London, and Mrs. Dashwood wants her daughters to visit them. Marianne takes some comfort in knowing that Elinor will likely see Edward then, though Elinor dreads this possibility; she endures it since staying will be better for Marianne. Sparing Marianne's feelings, Elinor listens to the Middletons, Mrs. Palmer, and Mrs. Jennings's ongoing criticism of Willoughby; visits from Brandon cause Mrs. Jennings to imagine matching him and Elinor.

Two weeks have gone by. In February Willoughby's marriage is announced, renewing Marianne's grief. Shortly afterward the Steeles arrive in London and pay an uncomfortable call on Elinor.

Analysis

Austen's novels move couples toward marriages, some happy and loving, some matters of mere convenience, some bitter but inescapable. Some get along because they tolerate, ignore, or even misunderstand each other's feelings and priorities; this may be the case with the Palmers. Often the characters that marry find they're strikingly compatible, sharing traits, enjoyments, and concerns. Colonel Brandon and Marianne—at least at this point in the novel—appear completely incompatible.

Colonel Brandon is a man of broad experience. He has loved and lost his love, served his nation abroad, seen firsthand the damage a heavy-handed father can do, sat by his former love's deathbed, raised her child, and then rescued that child from ruin. Brandon is described as serious, quiet, gentlemanly, and capable; everyone admires him except Willoughby (and Marianne, to an extent). Chapter 31 reveals Willoughby's real motivation for criticizing Brandon—a desire to discredit the man who knows the truth about him. The two men contrast starkly—one pleasure-loving and excessive (Willoughby), the other disciplined and responsible (Brandon). Brandon understands that love means putting the beloved first and preferring the beloved's happiness to his own. Willoughby thinks primarily of his own ease and pleasure, even at others' expense.

Marianne, especially while under Willoughby's influence (she joins him in mocking Brandon), seems utterly unlike Brandon. She is, of course, still young (Eliza Williams's age), and her life so far has been sheltered. Marianne lacks experience of the world. Her immodest behavior while gadding about Barton Park and Allenham with Willoughby, her often ungrateful treatment of her benefactors, and her unthinking assumption that Willoughby will ignore her poverty are all signs of immature, childish understanding. But more than that, Marianne's sensibility makes her somewhat selfish. Her emotions obscure her perception of what others are experiencing. So in Chapter 32 she finds Mrs. Jennings's attempts at comfort intolerable, claiming that Mrs. Jennings cannot feel what she feels. Marianne has a likable personality but is unreasonable. (In a moment of authorial intrusion, Austen offers the social insight that in this Marianne is "like half the rest of the world, if more than half there be that are clever and good.") She seems an unlikely match for the steady, considerate Brandon. Since the novel traces two journeys—Elinor's from the extremes of reason and Marianne's from the extremes of passionate emotion—to a middle way, readers can expect changes in Marianne and Elinor as they mature.

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