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Sense and Sensibility | Discussion Questions 21 - 30


In Chapter 23 of Sense and Sensibility what does Lucy's, Marianne's, and Elinor's behavior toward Lady Middleton reveal about social dependencies and about each character's goals?

Sense and Sensibility, a novel of manners (a realistic story that focuses on the customs, ideas, and values of the people in a particular social class), examines how characters live up to social standards or fail to do so. Lady Middleton is a woman of wealth and, within her home, authority. When she makes requests of (commands) her young, unmarried, poorer guests, they are expected to comply. In Chapter 23 she hints to Lucy that her daughter will be "sadly disappointed" if Lucy doesn't finish a gift she's making for her—a filigree basket—and she asks the other women, including Marianne, to play cards. Lucy complies immediately, as if nothing would please her more than to work on the gift. Lucy depends on Lady Middleton for her reputation and for access to Lady Middleton's social circle: Lucy buys into the system and uses it for her own benefit. Marianne refuses, with "her usual inattention to the forms of general civility." When she says, "Your ladyship will have the goodness to excuse me—you know I detest cards," Marianne defies Lady Middleton's authority in her own home, implies that she deserves special treatment, and suggests that Lady Middleton should accommodate her preferences. Perhaps Marianne assumes that because she will soon enjoy a higher status through marriage to Willoughby, she can refuse without repercussion. Or since the narrator calls this Marianne's "usual inattention," Marianne may be displaying her trademark frankness. As the narrator states in Chapter 21, "it was impossible for her to say what she did not feel, however trivial the occasion." Elinor smooths over her sister's social gaffe by flattering Lady Middleton's vanity about her possessions, praising her piano as the "very best tuned" instrument. Then she offers to help Lucy gratify Lady Middleton's spoiled daughter. Elinor's action is reasonable: the Middletons are the Dashwoods' benefactors; to insult them is unwise and unkind.

Compare how Elinor and Marianne present Mrs. Jennings's London invitation to their mother in Chapter 25 of Sense and Sensibility. What does each sister's argument suggest about her motives?

Elinor tells her mother that while she "think[s] very well of Mrs. Jennings' heart," Mrs. Jennings is not so well-regarded in London society as to give Elinor and Marianne "consequence." Mrs. Dashwood's stated reasons for sending her daughters to London are for them to "see [their] brother" and "have much pleasure in being in London" and for Elinor to "improv[e] her acquaintance with ... [the Ferrars] family" (that is, to work the marriage market). No one mentions Willoughby's name, but the need to find him is the unspoken subtext. Elinor is right that Mrs. Jennings, whose husband made his wealth in business rather than through inheritance, lacks elegance ("She is not a woman whose society can afford us pleasure"), but her real objection is that she doesn't want "to witness" Marianne's "pursuit of" Willoughby; in London, no one will be able to check Marianne's immodest behavior once she finds Willoughby if Elinor is not there. (Mrs. Jennings is just as likely to egg it on.) Elinor also worries Marianne, who must be forced into "tolerable politeness" to Mrs. Jennings, may be unpleasant to her hostess. So when Mrs. Dashwood explains away Elinor's "formidable obstacle" by saying that her daughters will "almost always appear in public" with Lady Middleton, Elinor can't object. She's been outfoxed because she refuses to state her real concern. Marianne also dismisses Elinor's argument. She has "no such scruples" about whether London society approves of Mrs. Jennings and is willing to bear "every unpleasantness" that might arise. Elinor notes with a smile Marianne's "display of indifference" about a woman who she has often criticized and even mocked. Marianne's urgent desire to reunite with Willoughby pushes her into this hypocritical bind and forces Elinor to go to London, if only to protect Marianne from her excesses and Mrs. Jennings from Marianne's scorn.

Which two or three events and details in Chapters 26 and 27 of Sense and Sensibility prepare readers for the dramatic moment when the sisters meet Willoughby in Chapter 28?

In Chapter 26 Marianne's brooding silence on the three-day trip to London reveals her anxiety about Willoughby, from whom she's had no letters in the two months since he left Barton Park. Marianne is hardly settled in Mrs. Jennings's house before she writes to Willoughby, expecting a quick reply. Marianne's treatment of Colonel Brandon is also dramatic: She feels "nothing but grief and disappointment" when he visits instead of Willoughby and flees without even a civil greeting. Clearly her emotions are wound up tightly. Willoughby's failure to write to or visit Marianne foreshadows her realization that he has abandoned her, and Brandon's well-wishes in Chapter 27 foreshadow the nature of the abandonment. When he accepts the likelihood of her marriage to Willoughby, Brandon wishes her well and then adds, in a "voice of strong emotion," that he hopes Willoughby "may endeavor to deserve her." He can't even finish his sentence. Brandon seems to know something that he won't or can't tell Elinor. As days pass with no word from Willoughby, Marianne withdraws her confidence from Elinor and becomes more anxious. So when at the party in Chapter 28 Elinor and Marianne see Willoughby with a "very fashionable looking woman," Elinor understands what has happened right away, while Marianne endures an "agony of impatience" and "wildest anxiety" and nearly collapses. The moment of reunion, so different from what she imagined, serves as a climax in this section of the novel and is effective because the narrator has gradually increased the tension that Elinor and Marianne—and perhaps Willoughby, too—endure.

In Chapter 27 of Sense and Sensibility readers learn Lady Middleton's first name yet learn Mrs. Palmer's first name at her first appearance. What is the effect of this contrast?

Until Chapter 27, readers have known Mrs. Jennings's older daughter only as Lady Middleton, the name and status she acquired through marriage. It is often accompanied by descriptive words that evoke her chilly nature. She holds herself apart from others; she can "endure" her sister's chattiness only for a little while. Lady Middleton is not a woman likely to be on a first-name basis with many people, especially in her formal world, and is sometimes addressed merely as "your ladyship." This treatment of her name emphasizes her detachment. So Mrs. Jennings's comment that "Mary always has her own way," coming halfway through the novel, is almost jarring in its familiar tone. It's hard to imagine anyone else—perhaps even Sir John—calling her Mary. In contrast, Mrs. Palmer is called Charlotte from the time she enters the narrative. She is "strongly endowed by nature with a turn for being uniformly civil and happy" (Chapter 19); she enjoys everybody, even her stony sister. Lady Middleton rarely extends invitations (Sir John does frequently) and considers guests a nuisance; Mrs. Palmer invites the Dashwoods to visit her after having known them only a day. It's easy to think of her as Charlotte.

In Chapter 29 of Sense and Sensibility how does Mrs. Jennings's insistent belief that Marianne and Willoughby will soon marry reflect on her character and on Marianne's?

When Marianne rushes from the breakfast table, a "death-like paleness" on her face, Mrs. Jennings assumes that she's overexcited about a letter from her lover. Elinor, knowing the letter's probable content, feels "such a sickness at heart" that she trembles for Marianne, but Mrs. Jennings merely comments that Willoughby should hasten the marriage because the delay makes Marianne look "ill and forlorn." Elinor assures Mrs. Jennings that "nothing would surprise me more" than to learn of marriage plans. Mrs. Jennings objects: Didn't Elinor see how the couple behaved at Barton Park? "Don't we all know," she asks, "that it must be a match?" Anyone could tell that Marianne and Willoughby were "over head and ears in love," and the engagement is "known all over town" (thanks to the wagging tongues of Mrs. Jennings and Charlotte Palmer). When Elinor expresses concern that to spread the rumor has been "a very unkind thing," Mrs. Jennings laughs. Mrs. Jennings judges people against her own happy and loving nature. That Willoughby would court Marianne so sincerely and then not marry her is incredible to her. Later, when Willoughby's betrayal is revealed, Mrs. Jennings supports Marianne. Her fervent desire for Marianne's happiness is a credit to her; Marianne was a stranger to her not a year ago. And her insistence that Willoughby's behavior at Barton Park clearly indicated his desire to marry Marianne supports Marianne's own assumptions. She was not wrong to assume honorable intentions; everyone did except for Elinor, whose native skepticism and understanding of her sister's vulnerability to romantic gestures caused her to doubt.

How do Mrs. Jennings's actions in Chapter 30 of Sense and Sensibility lighten the mood of what would otherwise be among the darkest chapters of the novel?

Mrs. Jennings's attempts to comfort Marianne through tokens and gestures of affection oppress Marianne due to her overwrought state and her snobbish dislike of her hostess, but they add little touches of humor through their variety. Mrs. Jennings tries her best to "cure disappointment in love" by "well-meant but ill-judged attentions": speaking words of compassion for Marianne and disapproval of Willoughby walking quietly "as if she supposed her young friend's affliction could be increased by noise" making sure there's a nice fire to sit beside offering "sweetmeats and olives," wines, and "dried cherries" letting Marianne "name her own supper" (that is, tell the cook what she'd like to eat) giving her privacy "Lord! nothing seems to do her any good," Mrs. Jennings frets. She's willing to "send all over town" for anything that might help. Elinor might find Mrs. Jennings's efforts entertaining were they paid to someone else or were she not so worried about Marianne. The chapter ends with Mrs. Jennings—having written off Willoughby—listing all the advantages of Delaford, observing Colonel Brandon and Elinor, and strategizing to promote the match between Brandon and Marianne. The rapidity with which she categorizes Willoughby as a "good-for-nothing fellow" and restores Brandon to the place of suitor in her marriage fantasies adds to the comic relief she brings to this section of the novel.

In the opening paragraphs of Chapters 26 and 31 of Sense and Sensibility, why do Marianne's responses to Willoughby's departure differ so greatly?

In Chapter 26 Marianne responds to Willoughby's sudden and unexplained departure from Barton Park dramatically, motivated by what sensibility tells her to do when parted from one's lover. She feels torn away from Willoughby but seems to enjoy a sweet sorrow, which to her is evidence of the depth and truth of their love. She mopes, has sleepless nights, and walks alone, nursing her sorrow, but she never doubts that Willoughby loves her, was forced from her side, and will return as soon as he can. She has the luxury of naïve and excessive sorrow in this chapter because she doesn't know the real reasons Willoughby left. But in Chapter 31 Marianne grieves with a fuller understanding (though still not complete) of who Willoughby is and why he left Barton Park. Hard reality and painful facts leave no space for nursing sorrow; this sorrow is real and permanent. Rather than simply missing her lover, Marianne now suffers shame because Willoughby fooled and betrayed her; she dreads the social repercussions as well. When her mother's letter arrives with its words about her "conviction of their future happiness in each other," the timing causes real pain that Marianne would gladly escape rather than indulge in.

What do the histories of Eliza and her daughter, revealed in Chapter 31 of Sense and Sensibility, suggest about how Brandon views women's moral fortitude?

When Colonel Brandon explains his thwarted love for his cousin Eliza, he says he had "hoped that her regard for me would support her under any difficulty" and is disappointed that it did not. He blames his father's decision to grab Eliza's wealth through marriage and his brother's "unkindness" but is not surprised by Eliza's failure to accept her arranged marriage, given her situation: "Can we wonder that, with such a husband ... and without a friend ... that she should fall?" Brandon "depended on her fortitude," but her mind was "so young ... so inexperienced" that she succumbed to misery. As for her daughter Eliza, Willoughby easily dupes her when her friend's father, to whose care Brandon briefly entrusted his ward, proves "not a quick-sighted man" and allows her to socialize with Willoughby at Bath. After years of Brandon's careful provision for his ward, a careless man and his daughter allow a cad to ruin Eliza. In both women's cases, Brandon—a good and responsible man who provides a moral voice in the novel—assumes that they were too weak to withstand temptation without the close supervision of the men around them. In Brandon's mind, women, such as the elder and younger Eliza Williams, cannot be expected to stand fast on moral ground on their own; they must be protected from other men and from their own weak natures. Marianne, without a father's care, could be vulnerable to the same ruin that overtook Eliza and her daughter. This assumption about the moral weakness of women in general is a flaw in Brandon. Not all women would be so easily taken in; Elinor, for instance, would prove his theory incorrect.

How does Austen provide a critique of wealth and marriage through the characters of Robert Ferrars and John Dashwood in Chapters 33, 34, and 36 of Sense and Sensibility?

Austen uses the characters of Robert Ferrars and John Dashwood to show the corrupting influence of wealth and social status. Robert displays his self-importance at the jeweler's, where he places such a picky order that it not only inconveniences other customers but also calls attention to his perceived expertise and taste. Robert feels he deserves to be the center of attention. In Chapter 36 his pompous monologue on the advantages of cottages reveals that he considers himself an expert on any topic whatsoever and that he expects others to listen deferentially merely because he has wealth. Elinor sees through his grandiosity and withholds "the compliment of rational opposition." Robert has nothing of kindness, intelligence, or civility to offer and doesn't care as long as people respect his money and rank—even before he inherits it. John feels something like affection for his half-sisters, but he assesses people based on their present value and future potential. Thus he's glad that the Middletons are fine hosts to his stepfamily not because Sir John is kind but because "they are people of large fortune." He's enthusiastic about Colonel Brandon marrying Elinor not on the grounds of affection or compatibility but because the arrangement would be "exceedingly welcome to all parties," as Brandon would likely assume some responsibility for Elinor's mother and sisters, responsibility John has shirked, and moreover, the marriage would remove Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny's fear of Edward marrying Elinor. He worries not that Marianne has been ill but that illness has robbed her of marketable beauty. John constantly tots up the costs and profits and seems oblivious to how he devalues people in his quest for wealth and connections.

How does the narrator's description of Mrs. Ferrars's appearance, behavior, and speech in Chapter 34 of Sense and Sensibility shape readers' opinions of her?

Mrs. Ferrars's appearance contrasts sharply with Mrs. Jennings's plump, comfortable, matronly one. A "little, thin woman, upright ... in her figure," she has "sallow" skin and "small" facial features. Her wrinkled forehead suggests "pride and ill nature." Her language, too, is meager and reflects how little she thinks. When she does speak, she ignores Elinor in order to wound her, unnecessarily complimenting Miss Morton and heaping "graciousness" on Lucy, ignorant of Lucy's threat to her plans for Edward. In nearly every line about Mrs. Ferrars, the narrator persuades readers to dislike this woman and to group her with her selfish daughter, Fanny, and her imperious son Robert. Readers also see, as Elinor does, how incompatible such a woman's desires for her older son must be with Edward's own hopes for the future. The narrator's description of Mrs. Ferrars prepares readers for the rupture between mother and son that occurs later in the novel.

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