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Sense and Sensibility | Discussion Questions 11 - 20


In Elinor and Willoughby's conversation about Barton Cottage in Chapter 14 of Sense and Sensibility, how do comic details serve to contrast the personalities of Elinor and Willoughby?

The conversation about the cottage becomes a verbal sparring match between analytical Elinor and romantic Willoughby. Elinor points out practical issues such as the cottage's small size and less-than-convenient floor plan; Willoughby gushes about how "dear" the place is and how the smallest alteration to it would hurt his feelings. Comic details in Elinor's speech and exaggeration in Willoughby's, as Elinor pushes him to ever grander defenses of the cottage, highlight her intelligence and his tendency toward the extreme. When Willoughby exclaims, for instance, that the cottage is "faultless," Elinor wryly mentions the "dark narrow stairs" and "kitchen that smokes." When Willoughby says that if he had the money, he would tear down the mansion at Combe Magna and "build it up again in the exact plan of this cottage," Elinor suggests, with a touch of sarcasm, that "even under the disadvantage of better rooms and a broader staircase," Willoughby might find happiness. Willoughby returns to his claim that Mrs. Dashwood should not change the cottage's "simplicity" by any "imaginary improvement," but Elinor's sharp comments demonstrate how impractical and self-centered his requests are. Willoughby wants everything to suit his needs—in this case, he wants to freeze in time a place where he is happy. Thus he insists the Dashwoods live in a cramped house with a kitchen that doesn't vent properly and hazardous stairs even though he knows as well as Elinor that Norland and Combe Magna are better homes. Austen's trademark irony suffuses this scene.

In Chapter 15 of Sense and Sensibility Mrs. Dashwood accuses Elinor of "lov[ing] to doubt where you can." What evidence in this and previous chapters supports Mrs. Dashwood's claim?

In Chapter 15 Elinor's tendency to doubt reflects her suspicion that Willoughby hasn't behaved honorably toward Marianne. Willoughby is secretive; he takes liberties with Marianne that Mrs. Dashwood interprets generously but that worry Elinor. His influence on Marianne's behavior has so far been disgraceful: She has flaunted their relationship, gone against propriety by going with him to Allenham, and joined him in taunting Brandon. Yet because she also wants Marianne's happiness, Elinor is willing to wait for evidence that Willoughby's intentions are good. What Mrs. Dashwood sees as a love of doubting is, from Elinor's point of view, reasonable caution. Elinor knows people often withhold the truth to get what they want. Where Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne assume pure intentions, Elinor looks for mixed motives. She has already shown how she analyzes the marriage market: Elinor knows that Edward's mother expects him to increase the family's wealth through marriage, so she doubts his freedom to love. She is realistic about Willoughby's finances, too. And while Mrs. Dashwood hasn't given up on saving money, Elinor assures Willoughby in Chapter 14 that Mrs. Dashwood will "never have money enough to attempt" her improvements to the cottage. Elinor's capacity to observe and to wait for evidence is a trait of her sense. That Mrs. Dashwood sees this capacity as a fault is a mark of her emphasis on sensibility and her willingness to deny facts that threaten her dreams for Marianne.

How does sensibility inform Mrs. Dashwood's explanations of Willoughby's and Marianne's behaviors in Chapter 16 of Sense and Sensibility? Why might her explanations prove risky for Marianne and her sisters?

Mrs. Dashwood can find "explanations whenever she want[s] them" for Willoughby's and Marianne's behaviors, but Elinor considers the explanations unsatisfactory because they gloss over inconvenient details or grasp at unlikely circumstances. Why hasn't Willoughby written to Marianne? Mrs. Dashwood says "the post pass[es] through Sir John's hands," and Willoughby is worried about keeping the engagement secret. Why won't Mrs. Dashwood ask Marianne about the engagement? Mrs. Dashwood doesn't want to cause "distress" if "they are not engaged." She "know[s] Marianne's heart" and doesn't want to "forc[e] ... a confession" out of Marianne's "sense of duty"; she "know[s]" Marianne will tell her when "circumstances make the revealment of it eligible." Why must Marianne maintain secrecy about the engagement? The information must, for reasons Marianne knows, remain "unacknowledged to anyone"; Mrs. Dashwood's "romantic delicacy" persuades her to trust her young, sheltered daughter, not "common sense, common care, common prudence." Sensibility informs these explanations as it does Marianne's thinking about Willoughby. Mrs. Dashwood knows her daughter well, but she knows little about the young man she calls "dear Willoughby." Readers today might say that she goes with her gut where Willoughby is concerned, and her gut, as readers learn, is wrong. Not only may his behaviors, such as courting Marianne with an odd mix of suspicious secrecy and immodest openness, ruin her reputation so that other families will reject her as a possible wife for their sons, but her ruin may reflect on her family, limiting Margaret's and Elinor's options. (This happens in Pride and Prejudice when Lydia Bennet's elopement with George Wickham threatens to tar her sisters with the same brush of scandal. In that instance, it is Darcy who saves the Bennets.)

What do Marianne's, Elinor's, and Edward's comments about the relationship between money and happiness in Chapter 17 of Sense and Sensibility reveal about the financial pressures on young people?

Marianne responds to Elinor's claim that "wealth has much to do with" happiness in her usual dramatic way: "Elinor, for shame!" She argues that money brings happiness only when "there is nothing else to give it." She hedges the claim, though, by assuming that people have "a competence"—enough money to maintain a genteel existence. Once this need is met, money "can afford no real satisfaction" to the "mere self." When Elinor asks Marianne to define "competence," Marianne names a generous figure (twice Elinor's definition) and lists the requirements of a "proper establishment": "servants, a carriage, perhaps two, and hunters" among them. Marianne is not describing the necessities of a genteel life but the luxuries of wealth. (Hunters, for example, were specially bred horses requiring expensive care.) When Edward points out some people don't hunt, Marianne blushes, no doubt thinking of Willoughby, and replies inaccurately, "But most people do." Marianne understands that outward trappings buy respectability and status. Elinor is right to assert that without sufficient funds, "every kind of external comfort" is missing. Both sisters recognize that they must secure enough wealth, through marriage, to live comfortably, but Marianne also wants the status and luxury she believes Willoughby will one day attain, perhaps because Willoughby himself wants this. In contrast, Edward—although his future financial position seems secure at this point in the novel—has "no wish to be distinguished," "no ambition" toward "[g]reatness"; he also seems less interested in the system that uses inheritance and marriage to concentrate wealth in families.

Characterize Edward Ferrars based on his words and actions during his first visit to Elinor and her family at Barton Cottage in Chapters 16 through 18 of Sense and Sensibility.

These chapters are the first in which readers get to know Edward Ferrars through his conversations with the Dashwoods. Readers learn the following: Edward is painfully shy. He sighs to Marianne that "gaiety [enjoyment of social events] never was part of my character." This shyness is a problem because, as the older son, he will represent his family socially after his inheritance and his mother's death; yet he becomes anxious "among strangers of the gentility." Edward is so uncomfortable in social settings that he risks his inheritance by defying his mother's original expectations of him leading "a public life." Edward is good-natured. He smiles over Marianne's excesses, teases her about her love of nature's "picturesque beauty," and banters easily with Margaret and the other sisters when they dream about being rich. Edward is quick to observe people and sympathetic to their feelings. He reads Marianne particularly well and regrets teasing her about Willoughby when she speaks with "earnestness and warmth" of him. Thoughtful and unassuming, Edward has sense, but his kind and sensitive treatment of other people suggests that he has something of sensibility as well.

How does Elinor's reaction to Edward's departure from Barton Park in Chapter 19 of Sense and Sensibility contrast with Marianne's reaction to Willoughby's earlier departure?

Marianne openly displays her grief over Willoughby's absence. It seems to her a romantic duty to nurture her sorrow. To Marianne, the Middletons and Mrs. Jennings add "pain to many a painful hour" because they speak of looking forward to Willoughby's return (Chapter 16). By the time Edward visits, Marianne is perplexed that Willoughby hasn't written her but still has no reason to doubt him. Yet she becomes emotional when Edward teases her about Willoughby. Her reactions are passionate, dramatic, and frank (despite her secrecy about there not being an engagement). Elinor reacts differently to Edward's departure. She makes "candid allowances and generous qualifications" that were "more painfully extorted" for Willoughby. Elinor misunderstands Edward based on sense, while Marianne misunderstood Willoughby based on sensibility. Elinor has already analyzed Edward's "despond[ency]" and blamed Mrs. Ferrars for not allowing "her son [to] be at liberty to be happy," and she looks to the lock of hair in his ring as evidence of his affection for her. After he leaves, Elinor goes right back to her daily business and "neither s[eeks] nor avoid[s]" discussing him. She avoids "shutting herself up from her family ... or lying awake the whole night to indulge meditation" although she does analyze Edward's words and gestures to find evidence whether he loves her. Yet despite her "calm" reaction to his absence, which bothers Marianne, Elinor experiences many feelings—"tenderness, pity, approbation, censure, and doubt"—but exerts "self-command" over these feelings. The narrator remarks of the sisters as they deal with the absence of their love interests, "Their means were as different as their objects, and equally suited to the advancement of each."

In what ways are Charlotte Palmer, introduced in Chapters 19 and 20 of Sense and Sensibility, and Lady Middleton foils for Marianne and Elinor?

In literature a foil is a minor character that shares similarities—perhaps of circumstances or goals—with a main character but also contrasts with the main character. Authors use foils as tools to characterize protagonists. Like Marianne and Elinor, Charlotte Palmer and Lady Middleton are sisters who are quite unalike. Charlotte smiles, jokes, and talks endlessly with her equally frank mother, Mrs. Jennings. Lady Middleton is chilly and reserved, revealing almost nothing of her thoughts except on the subject of her children. In their contrasting openness and reticence, the sisters seem to mirror passionate Marianne and restrained Elinor. But Mrs. Jennings's daughters also suggest critiques of the elder Dashwood sisters. Marianne allows her sensibility to divide her from people she deems not delicate enough, such as Sir John and Mrs. Jennings, or unemotional, such as Edward and Elinor. This weakness in her character causes her to underappreciate decent people. Charlotte, by contrast, could hardly be less like her husband but accepts him as he is and finds his cutting remarks "droll." She likes everyone, it seems, and laughs merrily at behaviors Marianne scorns. Lady Middleton, on the other hand, likes almost no one. Her reserved behavior cuts her off from most people; similarly, Elinor's desire to show "self-command" rather than draw Marianne into her confidence threatens to isolate her from her sister's affections. These foils suggest that Marianne and Elinor must seek to balance head and heart, sense and sensibility, to avoid the problems that extreme behaviors cause.

What do Sir John's sudden actions and exaggerated language in Chapter 21 of Sense and Sensibility reveal about how he perceives himself as patron of Barton Park?

Sir John enjoys having his house full of young people; he arranges dinners and dances, and he has good things to say about everyone who visits him. He plays matchmaker to "monstrous pretty" young ladies and young men "worth catching" (Chapter 9). Hearty, full of good intentions, and equipped with the wealth to carry them out, Sir John functions almost as a surrogate father to the Dashwood sisters, the Steele sisters, and Willoughby, who are all without fathers to guide them as they enter the dicey social world of adulthood. His exaggerated language in Chapter 21 reveals how satisfying he finds his patronage. Having brought Lucy and Anne Steele to Barton Park despite Lady Middleton's misgivings, he rushes to Barton Cottage to "assure" the Dashwoods that the Steeles are "the sweetest girls in the world." He urges Elinor and Marianne: "Do come now ... pray come—you must come—I declare you shall come.—You can't think how you will like them." He claims that the Steeles "long" to meet the Dashwoods, having heard (from him) that they are "the most beautiful creatures in the world." Besides, the pairs of sisters are practically cousins, he says, wildly overstating the case. At Barton Park and later in London, Sir John brings people together in his spacious homes and nurtures relationships, though not always the ones he predicts. "Benevolent, philanthropic man!" the wry narrator calls Sir John, who ignores people's feelings in order to satisfy his sociability. He promotes people without really knowing them: Lucy is anything but sweet, and Willoughby is a thorough cad.

What opinions does Elinor form of Lucy Steele's character during their conversations in Chapter 22 of Sense and Sensibility?

Elinor learns much about Lucy while the Steeles are guests of the Middletons. Lucy is bright but uneducated. Formal education was limited at this time; even among men, only a small percentage attended college. However, through wide reading and by mastering skills, such as Marianne's music and Elinor's drawing, people improved their minds. Lucy is "ignorant" (she knows little) and "illiterate" (she can't read well), so she lacks "information [about] the most common particulars." A half hour of conversation reveals these deficits, which are clear even in her grammar, as in the phrase "my sister and me was." Lucy is nosy. She asks impolite questions about people whose business is apparently none of hers, as she does when she goes on a fact-finding mission about Mrs. Ferrars. She admits that by social standards, she is "impertinently curious," but she keeps prying, which takes Elinor aback. Lucy is overly familiar. She hardly knows Elinor yet declares that she feels "almost as if you was an old acquaintance" and therefore an appropriate confidante. Lucy is manipulative. As she explains about the engagement, she lets a detail fall: she has known Elinor and "all [her] family by description a great while." Elinor begins to grasp why Lucy has singled out Elinor for friendship. She wants to co-opt Elinor's actions and use them for her own ends. The opinions Elinor forms of Lucy foreshadow the trouble Lucy will cause Elinor throughout the novel.

How does Elinor draw on both sense and sensibility as she assesses, in Chapter 23 of Sense and Sensibility, the triangle she suspects exists among her, Edward, and Lucy?

Elinor analyzes the situation carefully, incorporating the new information she's learned and keeping Lucy's motivations in mind. She draws several logical conclusions: Lucy's claim is true. The timing and setting in which she and Edward met make sense; the engagement explains Edward's restraint toward Elinor and his recent "melancholy"; and Lucy has the miniature portrait of Edward, while he has a lock of her hair—intimate gifts that signal commitment. Lucy has been laying the groundwork for her attack on Elinor and Edward's friendship for some time, gathering information about the Dashwoods: she has "intimate knowledge... [of] Norland and their family connections." Elinor feels "resentment" and "indignation" at having briefly been the "dupe" of Edward's behavior, although she decides Edward didn't "intentional[ly] deceive her" and likely doesn't love Lucy, who is a poor match for his intelligence, education, and tastes. He is "highly blamable" for "remaining at Norland" after engaging himself to Lucy at a young age and in defiance of his family, but his "imprudence" harms himself more than Elinor. Elinor infers that Edward likely regrets the engagement now, and she allows herself to cry for him and to mourn her hopes. She imagines what his future will be like with a "heart so alienated from Lucy" and "difficulties from his mother ... much greater" with Lucy's "connections" and "fortune." Perhaps Elinor overstates the consequences of Edward's "youthful folly," but readers may know enough of Lucy to suspect that Elinor is right as she reasons out the situation and then lets its emotional impact wash over her, glad that she can spare Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood the sorrow they would feel if she told them the secret. After all, their reaction would only make her feel worse.

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