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Sense and Sensibility | Discussion Questions 31 - 40


In Chapter 35 of Sense and Sensibility how does Elinor rely on sense to comfort herself for her losses, and in what ways does it fail her?

Sense, or reason, tells Elinor that she's fortunate not to have to face years with Mrs. Ferrars as her mother-in-law. She's free from the woman's "caprice" and "solicitude," from her "pride" and "meanness." Reason also enables Elinor to face reality rather than living in denial as Lucy does, especially where obstacles to the marriage are concerned. Lucy simply assumes "it will all end well," and Elinor stops trying to persuade her to face facts. (Clever, determined Lucy does not seem to let facts stop her, though, and may be prepared to figure out some workaround.) Also, reason convinces Elinor that she can continue as Edward's friend no matter how suspiciously Lucy glares at her. But Elinor's sense and decency cost her later in the chapter when, because she is determined to keep Lucy's secret, she not only fails to confide in Marianne but offends her sister's sensitive heart. "I cannot descend," Marianne says gravely before stalking out, "to be tricked out of assurances, that are not really wanted." In other words, she thinks Elinor is attempting to fool her into a reassurance that Edward is not interested in Lucy. Elinor is "obliged" to hide her suffering, and can't defend herself, because she promised Lucy to keep the secret.

Analyze Anne Steele, a minor character in Sense and Sensibility, as a comic character, considering Chapters 36 through 38 in particular. Is Anne an object of satire or of pity?

Anne Steele, at nearly 30, is likely headed for spinsterhood—a hard fate for women in Austen's day. Since women depended on men for financial and social standing, and since Anne apparently has no father or brother, she needs to marry. Yet unlike Lucy, Anne is not attractive or pleasant, and even civil Elinor finds her poor company because of her social gaffes. Anne clumsily reveals Lucy's secret to Fanny, believing she will "make no difficulty about" the engagement; she can't read social clues. Anne repeats information she learned by eavesdropping on Lucy and Edward to Elinor; she doesn't understand the boundaries of politeness or gossip. Anne interrupts her comments to Elinor about Lucy's predicament with thoughts about bonnets and dresses; she's easily distracted. Anne bids for attention with her frequent mentions of "the Doctor," a man she implies is interested in marrying her, though the facts about this suitor are vague and few. Anne plays a comic role in the novel, yet underneath the light satire, she may represent unmarried women worried about finding secure homes. She seems a pathetic character, living in the shadow of her vivacious younger sister and placating herself with stories of Doctor Davies. However, Lucy's marriage to Robert and her devotion to her sister may ensure that Anne has a home, possibly as a doting aunt to Lucy's children.

How does Elinor's revelation of Edward's engagement to Lucy in Chapter 37 of Sense and Sensibility initiate a reversal of roles for the sisters and thus advance Austen's novel thematically?

Reality is a stern teacher, as the saying goes. By Chapter 37 both Elinor and Marianne have learned hard lessons that cause them to rethink their tendency to sense, in Elinor's case, and sensibility, in Marianne's. Elinor tries hard to think reasonably about Edward's engagement; even when she finally reveals it to Marianne, she does so with "emotion" but "not ... violent agitation, nor impetuous grief," with which, the narrator says, Marianne listens. Elinor must draw on "her own composure of mind" when Marianne "crie[s] excessively at the news." As the discussion continues, however, Elinor admits she suffered greatly while keeping the secret, and Marianne confesses that, engrossed in her own pain, she not only failed to see her sister's suffering but "reproached" her "for being happy." In a long, uninterrupted speech, Elinor reveals that she has maintained her composure only by "the effect of constant and painful exertion." She knows now that hiding and even denying her emotional state has cost her greatly, while Marianne finally takes the role of comforter, calling herself "barbarous" in her self-centeredness. So roles reverse to an extent: Marianne comforts Elinor, who realizes how much she's needed that comfort; and each sister moves toward a more useful and realistic balance of head and heart.

What does John Dashwood's reaction to Edward and Lucy's engagement in Chapters 37 and 41 of Sense and Sensibility suggest about how the need to secure wealth affects familial loyalties?

When John arrives to report on Fanny's condition in Chapter 37, he tests Elinor and Marianne's resolve to avoid "the least appearance of bitterness" about the engagement. Because Edward honors his commitment to Lucy, John says, Mrs. Ferrars will settle the inheritance on Robert instead. Readers today may not completely realize the significance of her decision to bypass the older son and allow the younger to take his place. Not only does it place the family's future reputation and advancement in Robert's hands, it also allows everyone in the Ferrarses' class to speculate that Edward has disgraced or offended his family and his class. Edward's decision deprives him of wealth, influence, and standing; John cannot fathom the choice. When Mrs. Jennings praises Edward's loyalty, saying "Lucy Steele is my cousin," John responds realistically. He wishes Lucy well, but "the connection" between her family and the Ferrarses is "impossible" and impermissible. "Edward has drawn his own lot," John says, "and I fear it will be a bad one." Improving the family connections should have been Edward's first concern, he thinks. When John later learns in Chapter 41 that Brandon has lessened Edward's financial distress by offering him the Delaford living, John is again astonished. This decision, too, undermines family connections by making it possible for Edward to pursue the unfortunate alliance with the Steeles, who are vulgar and poor by John's standards. Yet he holds out hope that reconciliation may occur since "Mrs. Ferrars can never forget that Edward is her son."

How does Colonel Brandon's offer of the Delaford living to Edward in Chapter 39 of Sense and Sensibility develop his characterization?

Colonel Brandon expresses, in uncharacteristically impassioned tones, his anger that Mrs. Ferrars would engage in the "impolitic cruelty ... of dividing, or attempting to divide, two young people long attached to each other." Edward and Lucy's situation, as Brandon understands it, echoes his own thwarted love for his cousin Eliza. Sensibility underlies his motivation; he hopes to prevent Edward from suffering loss of love as he did. Brandon may also have in mind the terrible ruin that the forced marriage brought Eliza. His memories of her decline and death are strong, and readers know that he blames his father, who—greedy for wealth—separated the lovers, and his brother, who "treated [Eliza] unkindly" (Chapter 31). Of course, Brandon does not know that Lucy and Edward are poorly matched. But Brandon doesn't act in headlong emotion. He's thought carefully about the situation. What he knows of Edward pleases him, and Edward is already set to take orders. In addition, the living at Delaford needs to be staffed. And perhaps Brandon also hopes to gain Elinor's admiration and, in time, Marianne's for his generosity. So practical concerns, too, motivate his offer. This balance of sense and sensibility is what makes Brandon a respected and successful man. He feels strongly, especially when he perceives injustice and unkindness, but doesn't let his feelings overwhelm his reason. Instead his head and heart work together.

What is the effect of Austen's use of free indirect discourse in Chapter 40 of Sense and Sensibility, when Edward learns about Colonel Brandon's offer?

Free indirect discourse allows an omniscient narrator to reveal any character's thoughts. Though the Dashwood sisters, and particularly Elinor, dominate in the narrative, the narrator also shares the thoughts of many others and occasionally, as narrator, even comments on them. In Chapter 40, however, Edward's reaction to Colonel Brandon's offer receives a curiously silent treatment. "What Edward felt," the narrator explains, "as he could not say it himself, it cannot be expected that any one else should say it for him." His facial expression reveals "astonishment," but all he can say is "Colonel Brandon!" After his initial surprise passes, Edward is able to speak again, but not much, and only in brief phrases that stumble over each other: "I feel it—I would express it if I could—" he manages to stammer. Much is communicated by Edward's eyes in this scene; throughout the novel, glances and meaningful looks sometimes suffice when words either don't flow or can't be spoken in a situation. Before Edward leaves for Brandon's London house, he gives Elinor "a look" "so serious, so earnest, so uncheerful" that the narrator describes it as stating a "wish" about increasing "the distance between" his future home and Brandon's. Perhaps by not revealing Edward's thoughts, the narrator encourages readers to do as Elinor must, to imagine how many conflicting feelings and contradictory possibilities flood Edward's thoughts when Elinor relates Brandon's offer.

Given later plot events, how do Robert's comments about Edward and Lucy in Chapter 41 of Sense and Sensibility demonstrate situational irony ?

After Robert finishes mocking Edward for deciding to be a clergyman and throwing away his inheritance, he turns his attention to Lucy, the unworthy object of his brother's loyalty. Lucy stands so poorly in his judgment that he tells his mother, "If Edward marries this young woman, I will never see him again." He describes Lucy as the "merest awkward country girl, without style, or elegance, and almost without beauty." To marry Lucy would be to make a "most disgraceful connection." Robert says he would have warned Edward and earn the family's "unanimous" disapproval. Yet he is the one who ultimately makes the "disgraceful connection." Robert is a snob, but he does adhere to social custom among the landed gentry. Lucy brings the family no wealth, advantage, or influence; she is not "worth catching," as Sir John would put it. But Robert underestimates Lucy's determination to marry well. When he appeals to her, later in the novel, to let Edward out of the engagement, she quickly ensnares him by appealing to his arrogance. She coaxes him to be "proud of his conquest, proud of tricking Edward, and very proud" of marrying against his mother's wishes, undermining all his earlier criticisms of her. Robert views Edward as "good-hearted" but "pitiable." Yet as the novel ends, Edward and Elinor live harmoniously, their greatest concern a wish for "better pasturage for their cows" (and for Marianne and Brandon's marriage), while Robert and Lucy are known for their "frequent domestic disagreements." As is typical of situational irony, the opposite of what was expected to happen has happened.

In Chapter 42 of Sense and Sensibility how does Elinor's assessment of Mr. Palmer's behavior at his home, Cleveland, offer a critique of the behavior of men of wealth?

On the one hand Elinor is pleased to see that Mr. Palmer is less acerbic in his own home. He's "perfectly the gentleman" to his visitors and "only occasionally rude" to Mrs. Palmer and Mrs. Jennings. Mr. Palmer, in fact, is able to be a "very pleasant companion"—when he cares to be. On the other hand his habit of considering himself "much superior to people in general" and to his wife and mother-in-law in particular promotes rudeness. Mr. Palmer, in addition to having married into wealth, is an important man who acts the part. Despite Mrs. Palmer's wealth, she is his inferior because of her gender, intelligence, and character. Mr. Palmer's other habits strike Elinor as typical of someone of "his sex and time of life." He has the following characteristics: He is "nice" (that is, picky) about his food. He is "uncertain in his hours" (keeps an irregular schedule). He is reluctant to show his affection for his son. He is idle when he could be productive. Mr. Palmer is a wealthy man whose employees run his house and estate. A man without wealth, in Georgian times as in others, lived on someone else's schedule, didn't turn his nose up at food, and worked daily or almost daily—as do the Palmers' household servants, and as will Edward, once he takes the living at Delaford. Wealth allows Mr. Palmer, in Elinor's observation, to fritter away his days pridefully.

How does Marianne's illness test the limits of Elinor's devotion to sense in Chapter 43 of Sense and Sensibility?

Elinor's confident reasoning that Marianne is suffering from a "heavy cold" (Chapter 42) causes her to wait too long to send for their mother, although she "adopt[s] Mrs. Jennings's advice, of sending for the Palmers' apothecary," Mr. Harris. Certainly, Mr. Harris's optimism that Marianne will recover bolsters Elinor's assumptions, but Elinor "really believe[s]" that the illness will pass quickly. Even as Marianne becomes "more... restless, and uncomfortable," Elinor doesn't revise her opinion. But when Marianne becomes delirious, Elinor feels "terror" and "alarm," and acts quickly. She decides to send "instantly for Mr. Harris," get "a messenger to ... her mother," and ask Colonel Brandon to help. Elinor, though competent in many ways, is only about 19 years old and is not trained as a nurse. Reason leads her to trust Mr. Harris's diagnosis; later, she panics. Colonel Brandon steps in to assist Elinor. With "the firmness of a collected mind," he makes "every necessary arrangement with the utmost dispatch" and leaves for Barton Cottage. Brandon assumes, and has assumed, that Marianne's illness could become quite serious quite quickly, so he's ready to act. After he leaves, Elinor takes up her vigil by Marianne's bed again and continues to watch her sister closely, feeling "most cruel anxiety" and no longer confident that she can predict the illness's course. In an example of situational irony, the one time Elinor is not skeptical and doubting leads her to a serious miscalculation about her sister's well-being. Of course, it is reasonable for her to rely on the apothecary's professional opinion; it would be less so to be swayed by feelings of anxiety as are Mrs. Jennings and, to some extent, Brandon.

In Chapter 44 of Sense and Sensibility how does Willoughby attempt to shift blame for his actions toward Eliza, Mrs. Smith, and Sophia Grey?

Willoughby interrupts Elinor's bedside watch to offer "some kind of explanation, some kind of apology," yet unsurprisingly he lashes out at others rather than accepting the blame for his actions. When Elinor says that he can never "explain away" his "guilt" in the "dreadful business" with Eliza, Willoughby blames Eliza, in angry words: The fact that she is "injured" doesn't mean she is "irreproachable." Eliza is to blame, as is Willoughby, with him indicating she is perhaps even more so because of "the violence of her passions," a criticism that Elinor could certainly level at Willoughby himself. (He does say he "ought to have ... respected" Eliza, who "deserved better treatment.") When Willoughby speaks of Mrs. Smith's attempts to correct Willoughby's behavior, he complains that the "purity of her life" and her "ignorance of the world" turn her against him. Yet he got an unmarried girl pregnant and abandoned her. It's not merely the "formality" of Mrs. Smith's "notions" that makes her angry with him. Willoughby scolds his wife, Sophia Grey, for jealously making him give up Marianne's tokens of affection. This is the woman whose fortune saved him, despite his being a cad; yet he still loves Marianne, so Sophia goes through Willoughby's pocketbook with "ingratiating virulence" to find Marianne's letters and lock of hair. Elinor says that speaking unkindly of Sophia is "no atonement to Marianne," pointing out Willoughby's hypocrisy. He's come to confess his guilt, yet he frames his confession in terms of wrongs done to him. He is still the self-centered young man who abandoned Marianne to chase after money. But while Elinor is unconvinced that others are to blame, it is clear to her that Willoughby did and continues to have feelings for Marianne, and her "heart ... soften[s] again." This effect is not so much due to his rhetorical strategy but rather occurs in spite of it.

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