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Sense and Sensibility | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


Who and what are responsible for the financially precarious circumstances in which Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters find themselves in Chapters 1 through 3 of Sense and Sensibility?

Generally, social customs are responsible for Mrs. Dashwood's sudden fall from fortune. Because custom and law dictated that eldest sons inherit property, married women could easily find themselves mistresses of their homes one day and outcasts the next. The system of inheritance kept money and property in a family, but husbands and fathers had to take extraordinary legal steps to prevent its abuse. Mrs. Jennings, for example, has a jointure—a legal agreement that secures some of her deceased husband's wealth for her use. Mrs. Dashwood does not. In Chapter 1 readers learn that John Dashwood is already "amply provided for" by money inherited from his mother and money he gained when he married Fanny; he doesn't need the Norland estate to secure his future. Henry Dashwood worries about this but is prevented from taking action to secure his second wife's and daughters' future in two ways: first, he inherits the estate with conditions that keep him from changing its future heirs (his son and grandson will inherit the estate and majority of money); second, he isn't able to save money from the estate in the long term. Instead he trusts John to do the right thing. Henry doesn't realize what a greedy and grasping woman his son married, perhaps, but this ignorance doesn't fully excuse his failure to manage his estate and affairs and to provide for his second wife and daughters. The novel's male characters can be grouped into those who protect women from the system that can harm them and those who take advantage of the system regardless of the harm done. Henry's passivity and early death, coupled with his uncle's decision to restrict inheritance to Dashwood males for three generations; John's weak character; and Fanny's determination result in Mrs. Dashwood's loss of income and home.

In Chapter 2 of Sense and Sensibility how does Fanny use exaggeration and repetition to convince John to break his promise to support his family?

Fanny's arguments reveal her to be a greedy young woman eager to squeeze every bit of wealth she can out of her husband's inheritance. She harangues John till she wears down his resolve to share his fortune with his stepmother and half-sisters. She uses two rhetorical strategies to achieve her goal: repetition and exaggeration. Repetition: Fanny makes some points repeatedly and fervently. Their son, "poor little Harry," will be "impoverish[ed]" if his father acts generously; John will "ruin" Harry's future. They shouldn't regard his step-family ("only half blood") as real family who should share this inheritance; charity should begin at home and, as far as Fanny is concerned, stay there—and this doesn't include temporary visitors. Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters don't need help; after all, they have sufficient money for their needs—and even already have the good china. Exaggeration: More comical, though no less harmful to Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters, are Fanny's exaggerations. Sharing a small amount of the family fortune will "ruin" John and, later, Harry. When Henry Dashwood asked his son to care for his family, he was ill and "light-headed"; in his "right mind," he would never have asked such a thing. John will lose his "independence" if he settles a yearly amount of cash on his stepmother; this leads to John and Fanny discussing Mrs. Dashwood's life expectancy. Mrs. Dashwood will have "no expenses of any kind" and, indeed, may be able to give John and Fanny money. Fanny's strategies work; John decides that it is not only "unnecessary" but also "indecorous" to assist his stepmother and half-sisters in anything but insignificant "neighborly acts."

How does Elinor both "betray" herself and foreshadow trouble as she defends Edward against Marianne's criticism of him in Chapter 4 of Sense and Sensibility?

Elinor gets carried away as she defends Edward against Marianne's complaint that he responds indifferently to the things that move Marianne and in particular to Elinor's drawings. In a long speech, she praises "his sense and his goodness" and the "excellence of his understanding" (his intelligence and educational attainment). Elinor has discussed literature and other cultural matters at length with Edward and considers his thinking "well-informed," "his imagination lively," and his tastes refined. Elinor piles reason on reason to praise Edward. Finally she challenges her sister, "What say you, Marianne?" When she realizes that her uncharacteristically impassioned speech has persuaded Marianne, Elinor is "sorry for the warmth she had been betrayed into" by the discussion. Yet when later in the novel she realizes that her opportunity to win Edward's heart is past, she blames her tendency to repress or at least hide her emotions. Elinor's application of "sense" in love fails to express itself clearly—Edward is guilty of the same failing. Elinor slips a comment into her speech that Marianne doesn't respond to. She says that Marianne doesn't know Edward well. This, too, foreshadows later events in Elinor's troubles with Edward.

In what ways does John Dashwood fail his stepmother and half-sisters yet again as they prepare to leave Norland in Chapter 5 of Sense and Sensibility?

John, while happy that Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters have a solution to the problem of the loss of their longtime home, is happier about his own financial affairs. Throughout the novel, John thinks and talks at length about the expenses of holding and managing an estate, as well as other financial concerns. Though Fanny has persuaded him not to share his inheritance, he has been providing his step-family bed and board for months. The alternative would have been turning them out, hardly a respectable action for a young landowner. As they prepare to leave and manage on their £500 a year, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters consider how to trim costs and live simply; meanwhile John prattles on about "the perpetual demands upon his purse, which a man of any consequence ... was beyond calculation exposed to," also revealing how he views himself. Without doubt maintaining an estate is expensive, but John and Fanny have the means. The question may be whether John worries that he's not up to the task of management. Yet John owns Norland now, and anything that touches on his home—even hosting family—worries him. Money aside, John won't even help his step-family make this difficult transition, claiming that the distance "prevent[s] his being of any service to [Mrs. Dashwood] in removing her furniture." This young man, who fails to keep a promise to his dying father is, in the narrator's judgment (in Chapter 1), "rather cold-hearted, and rather selfish."

Does sense or sensibility drive the narrator's description of Barton Cottage in Chapter 6 of Sense and Sensibility?

Sensibility and sense are both the basis for the description of Barton Cottage when Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters first see it. A practical eye would note how starkly different the "four-bedroom" cottage is from the grand house at Norland. The narrator describes the cottage without romanticizing it: "As a cottage it was defective, for the building was regular, the roof was tiled, the window shutters were not painted green, nor were the walls covered with honeysuckles." It's small, there's no place to keep a horse and carriage (marks of respectability and wealth), and it has no grounds of its own, only a small lawn, which is why Sir John hospitably offers the Dashwoods access to Barton Park's grounds. But the practical perspective is overruled by sentimental description. Autumn colors adorn the cottage, the day's pleasant weather reveals the landscape around it, and the Dashwoods' servants welcome them as they pass the "neat wicket gate" and cross the "small green court" (the lawn) to their refuge from spiteful Fanny and selfish John Dashwood.

In Chapter 8 of Sense and Sensibility what concerns Marianne so deeply about the way Elinor and Edward interact with each other? What explains their "unaccountable" behavior?

Marianne complains to her mother that Elinor and Edward don't behave as lovers should. When she tried to leave them alone before the departure from Norland, Edward "most unaccountably" followed her out of the room—twice. His and Elinor's parting was "cold" and "composed" (or as Elinor would likely describe it, polite and proper), and Edward's behavior on parting was that of "an affectionate brother" to both Elinor and Marianne. Worse, Elinor hasn't cried over being parted from Edward: "Even now her self-command is invariable." Marianne expects "melancholy" and a desire for solitude, yet Elinor acts as if nothing has been lost. Her lack of emotional response to her losses bewilders and perhaps even irritates Marianne. Looking back at this chapter from later points in the novel, however, readers understand what Marianne cannot. Elinor is puzzled about whether Edward considers her a friend or a lover; without clear signals, she reasonably chooses not to make assumptions about his feelings for her (in contrast to the assumptions Marianne happily makes, and then regrets, about Willoughby). Edward, for his part, thought he could safely enjoy Elinor's company, protected from love by his prior but still secret engagement to Lucy. Since he is unable or unwilling to be honest with Elinor or himself, it's not surprising he limits their time alone together.

In Chapter 9 of Sense and Sensibility which two of Mrs. Dashwood's character traits negatively affect her daughters' abilities to marry?

First, Mrs. Dashwood is proud. She was once mistress of a fine estate but is now reduced to renting a kind relative's cottage on easy terms. Before they left Norland, Elinor had to persuade her mother to give up the idea of having horses and a carriage, an expense considerably beyond her yearly income. So when Sir John offers the use of his carriage so that Elinor and Marianne can meet other families in the area and widen their circle of potential suitors, "the independence of Mrs. Dashwood's spirit" is stronger than her desire to get her daughters out into "society" while they are young, pretty, and marriageable. The girls can meet only those few people within walking distance and those who visit Sir John (so far, only Colonel Brandon and Mrs. Jennings). Mrs. Dashwood may like to think of herself as an independent woman, but she limits her daughters' options by turning her back on the facts. Second, Mrs. Dashwood's feigned ignorance of her daughters' pressing need to find appropriate husbands works against them. Why she keeps up this pretense when Sir John speaks of Willoughby and Brandon as "well worth catching" is hard to know. Perhaps she perceives this mercenary view of marriage as distasteful, perhaps she is ashamed of their situation, or perhaps, since she's a romantic like Marianne, she believes that romantic love will naturally bring financial bliss with it. Unlike Pride and Prejudice's Mrs. Bennet, who will pull any strings and call in any favors she can to advance her daughters' chances in the marriage market, Mrs. Dashwood presents a coy attitude about her daughters' futures.

What makes Willoughby's lengthy critical remarks about Colonel Brandon in Chapter 10 of Sense and Sensibility an example of dramatic irony, given what is later revealed about Willoughby himself?

Willoughby recites a long list of accusations about the colonel. In retrospect, readers can identify hypocrisy in Willoughby's claims. His critique seems almost a preemptive excuse for his own poor financial choices and scandalous behaviors. Twice, Willoughby expresses the idea that Brandon is the sort of man "everybody speaks well of, and nobody cares about." Brandon has respect, but he's boring. Willoughby, of course, is anything but boring; later his disgraceful actions become a favorite topic of gossip. Attacking respectability as boring is a tactic Willoughby uses to shore up his shaky standing in polite society. Willoughby complains that no one should be glad to have the esteem of people like Mrs. Jennings and Lady Middleton. Brandon should, like Willoughby, disdain such friendships. Elinor discerns that Willoughby is "prejudiced and unjust" toward these women; perhaps because these women have nothing Willoughby wants, they don't matter to him. Willoughby criticizes how Brandon manages his wealth. Brandon has "more money than he can spend" and buys "two new coats every year." Willoughby knows, though Elinor and Marianne do not, that Brandon is not a vain man who only spends his money on his appearance; he's supporting Willoughby's abandoned lover and their child, so this criticism is particularly hypocritical. Also, Willoughby's wasteful use of his own income contributes to heartbreak and remorse later in the novel. Willoughby likely hopes to prejudice Elinor and Marianne against Brandon so that if Brandon later reveals the truth about Willoughby, the sisters will be less inclined to believe him.

In Chapters 12 and 13 of Sense and Sensibility how does Willoughby and Marianne's inappropriate behavior jeopardize Marianne's social standing?

One inappropriate behavior is the couple's exchange of tokens of affection. In Chapter 12 Willoughby gives Marianne a horse, akin today to giving someone a high-maintenance car. What Marianne gives Willoughby is free but culturally significant: people might keep a lock of a family member's hair, but between a courting couple, a lock of hair implies intimacy. Margaret also sees Marianne take her hair down so that Willoughby can cut the lock. At this time, a modest young woman kept her hair up in public; only her husband saw her with her hair down. Marianne and Willoughby also buck custom when he uses her first name without using "Miss" in front of it, as if they were family or very close friends. In Georgian England, even spouses might refer to each other as "Mr. Smith" and "Mrs. Smith" when in the presence of other people. A young man could use a young woman's first name, implying an intimate relationship, after they were engaged. Finally, in Chapter 13 Marianne and Willoughby tour Allenham unchaperoned. Willoughby calls Allenham Marianne's "more lasting home" in Chapter 12, and after her tour Marianne describes Allenham to Elinor in the proud tones of the estate's mistress—as if she and Willoughby were already married. These events cause other characters to assume an engagement, tease the couple about jumping ahead of the game, and look askance at their presumptuous behavior. For Marianne the stakes are high. If Willoughby doesn't marry her, she may be regarded as unmarriageable—as damaged goods—despite her sexual innocence.

In Chapter 12 of Sense and Sensibility Elinor says that Marianne knows very little about Willoughby. How does Marianne respond, and how does her sensibility color her response?

Throughout the novel, knowing who people really are is a challenge. Various characters hide the truth of their lives, sometimes to protect themselves, at other times to protect others. Practical Elinor is aware that people will mislead or deceive others for their own purposes and is alert to discrepancies in stories and unwillingness to be forthcoming. But Marianne, in keeping with her romantic notion of human nature and love, is easily misled. When Elinor questions whether is it proper to accept a grand gift from a man "so little, or at least so lately known to her," Marianne objects strongly. She admits that she hasn't known Willoughby long but claims that knowledge isn't a result of "time or opportunity" but of "disposition alone." Having lived in the same home with their half-brother, John, for years, she knows him very little because they are not alike. Because Willoughby is like her, Marianne's opinion of him "has long been formed." Readers today might say that Marianne believes she has found her soul mate. Her heart's desire is romantic love; Willoughby loves her romantically, with gifts, praise, and attention. When Marianne learns later in the novel how thoroughly Willoughby duped her, her heartbreak is doubled because she grasps that he violated not only her love but also her trust—both her heart and her mind.

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