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Sense and Sensibility | Discussion Questions 41 - 50


In Chapter 44 of Sense and Sensibility what does Elinor blame Willoughby's behavior on, and how does Austen contrast the effects of Willoughby's upbringing with that of Edward?

When Willoughby finishes his confession, Elinor thinks quietly about the "irreparable injury which too early an independence" has done to Willoughby. He had "every advantage of person and talents," a pleasant personality, and an affectionate nature, yet having nothing to do and some wealth to waste caused him to become a young man of "idleness, dissipation, and luxury." He's spoiled now, in the truest sense of the word—ruined by his upbringing. His "extravagance and vanity ... made him ... selfish"; his punishment is the pain he feels at having lost Marianne, a loving and sincere young woman, and in his unhappy marriage to Sophia Grey. But Willoughby is not without responsibility; it is possible to overcome one's upbringing. After all Edward, too, was brought up to "idleness" and with the promise of wealth, though with a better education, since he couldn't suit himself to a profession. This upbringing has not led him to "evil" acts as it has Willoughby, but it has left him unhappy and unproductive. He tells Mrs. Dashwood in Chapter 19 that his own "sons will be brought up" differently "in feeling, in action, in condition," so that they will arrive at a useful adulthood. Edward regrets having reached adulthood with "no necessary business to engage" his mind and no work to provide "anything like independence." Edward isn't speaking only of financial independence but of a life outside his family's expectations—a life he chooses and makes for himself. Here and at other points in the novel, the importance of having useful work to do is highlighted.

How does Willoughby's confession in Chapter 44 of Sense and Sensibility trigger Elinor's sensibility, and how does her sense come to her rescue in Chapter 45 after he departs?

Willoughby leaves Elinor with a "crowd of ideas" in her mind; "sadness" is the main idea, especially as she contemplates sharing what she's just learned with her sister. She's surprised that the man she "abhorred as the most worthless of men" now provokes "a degree of commiseration." The intense manner in which he told his story (Chapter 44) has roused her sensibility; she now regards his absence from her family with feelings of "tenderness" and "regret." Yet sense and reason begin to reassert themselves quickly in Chapter 45. Willoughby is a wasteful, callous man who ruined one woman, broke the heart of another, and bound himself in a loveless marriage to replenish his coffers. He happens to have an "open, affectionate, and lively" way of speaking, but this is not a "merit" and shouldn't influence what Elinor thinks of him and his behavior, even though it does initially. Willoughby is persuasive in person; he's handsome and charming, and these traits bend people to sympathize with him. Elinor almost succumbs to "his still ardent love for Marianne," his good looks, and his personality, but after he leaves, her analytical, skeptical nature returns, and though she still pities him, she also condemns his actions.

Why do objects assault Marianne on her return to Barton Park in Chapter 46 of Sense and Sensibility, and what does her reaction suggest about her broken heart?

Marianne has prepared herself as well as she can for how she will feel when she returns to the places where she and Willoughby were happy. As they arrive, "every field and every tree" is attached to "some painful recollection," and Marianne, "silent and thoughtful," watches the countryside roll by. Her emotion is visible but doesn't overwhelm her; it calls forth sympathy and pity from Elinor. When they enter the cottage, Marianne looks around with "resolute firmness," attempting to "accustom herself to the sight of" things that remind her of Willoughby and forcing cheerfulness" into her comments. She sighs occasionally but then smiles in "atonement"; she's working hard to control her emotions. Yet certain objects are almost too much for her. When she sits to play the piano, she sees an opera score Willoughby bought her, with her name written in his handwriting on the cover. Gathering her strength, she puts the score aside. But playing is too painful; she closes the keyboard, complaining of "feebleness in her fingers" but promising she'll practice again soon. When she is well enough to walk, she and Elinor pass the place where Willoughby knelt to pick her up after her fall on the day she and Willoughby first met. This time Marianne feels less pain that she expected to. She announces to Elinor that she is ready to talk about what has passed. These restrained reactions show that Marianne intends to manage her sensibility more carefully and guard her heart more closely in the future.

In Chapter 46 of Sense and Sensibility what plan does Marianne tell Elinor she will follow so her sensibilities "no longer worry others, nor torture myself"? Is her plan reasonable?

Marianne has already told Elinor that she wants to be more like her older sister, and in her characteristically enthusiastic style, she sets herself a regimen. She intends to do the following: read "only six hours a day" for a year to catch up on her education practice piano more often take very long walks "imitate" Elinor's "forbearance" show her gratitude to Elinor, Mrs. Jennings, and others who assist her consider her sisters and mother "all the world to me" and "live solely" for them Readers notice that Marianne's language still tends to the extreme; her well-intentioned plans include words such as all, solely, and never. Elinor notices this, too, and feels "impatient to soothe," or calm, Marianne's fervor but restrains herself from pointing out that the terms of the plan are unreasonable. "The future must be my proof," Marianne says. But of course it is impossible for her to hold to such an extreme plan for very long. When the narrator describes Marianne's marriage to Colonel Brandon in Chapter 50, the narrator reminds readers of part of Marianne's plan: "instead of remaining even forever with her mother, and finding her only pleasures in retirement" (that is, staying away from society) "and study," Marianne becomes "a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village." She turns out to be a remarkably flexible person.

How do Austen's revelations about Lucy in Chapters 49 and 50 of Sense and Sensibility contribute to her characterization and her role?

Lucy has attempted to manipulate Elinor since the two met, sharing her engagement to bind the honorable Elinor to secrecy and pushing Elinor to ask John Dashwood to help Edward. Elinor sees through these ploys, but Lucy finally (temporarily) fools Elinor by making it appear to the Dashwoods' servant that she has married Edward. In the novel's final chapters, readers learn that Lucy practiced her wiles on Edward when they were younger, "appear[ing] everything that was amiable and obliging." In the manipulative letter she sends Edward at Oxford, she blames him for the failure of their engagement, writing that she has "long lost his affections" and therefore thinks herself "at liberty" to marry someone else. Elinor and Edward wonder, in Chapter 49, how Lucy captured Robert, who earlier in the novel spoke scathingly of her, but that ploy is revealed in Chapter 50. Lucy flatters him into marriage by appealing to his arrogance. Then she goes to work on Mrs. Ferrars through "perseverance in humility of conduct" till she becomes her "favorite child." Some readers may predict that Lucy will continue to complicate the lives of her in-laws, Edward and Elinor, despite their being settled in Delaford now, especially once a new generation of potential heirs is born to the couples. Lucy may be uneducated by Elinor's standards, but she's smart. She works the system diligently till she is "crowned" with "prosperity."

In Chapter 50 of Sense and Sensibility how does John Dashwood insult Elinor after her marriage, and how is this in keeping with his earlier behavior toward her in London?

Various family members visit Elinor and Edward at Delaford. Marianne, Margaret, and Mrs. Dashwood make frequent happy visits, and even Mrs. Ferrars grudgingly comes to "inspect the happiness which she was almost ashamed of having authored." John's visit, though, reflects his usual mercenary concerns. As he and Elinor walk near Delaford House, he says that he's not exactly "disappointed" for Elinor; disappointment is too strong a word. She is "one of the most fortunate young women in the world, as it is," to find herself married to Edward and at home in the parsonage. But that tag phrase—"as it is"—adds the sting to his comments. Elinor could have done so much better, monetarily speaking. John admires Delaford and had hoped "to call Colonel Brandon brother"—to join his wealth and influence to the Dashwood family's. John is unhappy that Elinor squandered her marriage on a shy man of little note—even though her husband is also John's wife's brother and he once had a greater value on the marriage market than Elinor—when she could have married strategically, to John's benefit. But John has a new fallback plan, in which he attempts to enlist Elinor's help: to engineer Marianne and Brandon's marriage. John doesn't know that Brandon has long loved Marianne and that Mrs. Dashwood thinks they are suited, and he wouldn't care if he did know. Only the alliance of wealth and influence that such a marriage would produce matters to him.

What role does gossip play in the plot and characterization of characters such as Mrs. Jennings in Sense and Sensibility?

Characters in Sense and Sensibility keep secrets, scheme to get what they want, withhold information, and misrepresent themselves, complicating the plot and leading to revelations that either grieve or relieve themselves or others. In addition the characters belong to a class of people who spend little time in actual labor and many hours conversing, picking up bits of information they can later use, pass on, or keep to themselves as suits their goals. Gossip matters in this setting, and several characters excel in it, Mrs. Jennings among them. When Colonel Brandon leaves Barton Park for London, for example, she reveals what she's heard about his "love child," a titillating piece of gossip that is not accurate but sets up the later revelation that Brandon has taken the responsibility of raising his cousin Eliza's daughter. Mrs. Jennings has more opportunity to gather and pass on misinformation and incomplete information when she's in London. Here she causes Marianne pain by reporting rumors about her engagement to Willoughby until Elinor urges her to distrust these rumors. Mrs. Jennings then ferrets out the facts about Willoughby's engagement to Miss Grey, confirming Marianne's fears. However, when Mrs. Jennings overhears Brandon and Elinor speaking privately and assumes that he has proposed, she asks permission to carry that bit of gossip to her daughter. When Elinor asks her to refrain, thinking the gossip is about the Delaford living, she does. This is remarkable: Not only does Mrs. Jennings enjoy gossip, but it gives her importance in her circles. She cares for Marianne and Elinor more than she does for that sense of importance.

Discuss Austen's presentation of the responsibilities of parents and surrogate parents to marriageable young people in Sense and Sensibility. Who fulfills these responsibilities, and who fails to do so?

Fathers, responsible or otherwise, are few in Sense and Sensibility. Henry Dashwood dies in the first chapter, having failed to provide legally for his widow and daughters. The Steele sisters and the Ferrars children also have no father, and readers learn nothing about Willoughby's parents. Some fathers, such as Colonel Brandon's father, arrange disastrous marriages that disregard young people's needs and desires. However, various adults step up to advance the young people's fortunes: Sir John takes the Dashwoods in and makes sure that Marianne and Elinor have social opportunities. Mrs. Jennings cares for Elinor and especially Marianne while they are in London and at Cleveland and tries to help the girls meet eligible men. Colonel Brandon provides for his cousin Eliza's daughter, Eliza Williams, and then for her baby, too. He also helps Edward get established in his profession, in contrast to Mrs. Ferrars, who threatens to hinder her son's career in the church. Mrs. Ferrars fulfills the role her late husband would usually take aggressively and successfully with Fanny, but less so with her sons. John Dashwood, now the patriarch at Norland despite his youth, tries to promote marriages for his half-sisters, though mostly to relieve himself of the guilt of breaking his promise to support them. Mrs. Dashwood is a curious exception. She knows what she should be doing in her husband's absence to provide for her daughters, yet she passively leaves the task to others, especially to Sir John, in part because she is proud, in part because her financial and social resources are limited, and in part because she believes that romantic destiny will prevail.

How do secrecy and lies threaten the happy endings characters in Sense and Sensibility hope for?

The plots of Austen's novels swirl around marriages and end, in many cases, in multiple marriages. In some, the marriages are happy and loving, with spouses well matched (for example, Darcy and Elizabeth as well as Jane and Bingley in Pride and Prejudice and Elinor and Edward as well as Marianne and Brandon in Sense and Sensibility). Other marriages reflect convenience and gain more than love (for example, Charlotte and Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice and Lucy and Robert in Sense and Sensibility). But seldom does a marriage occur in Sense and Sensibility without other characters attempting to scuttle it through lies and secrets. Edward and Lucy's secret engagement is a good example. Edward and Elinor are clearly well matched in temperament and interests. She can't decide whether Edward loves her, though, not only because he's shy but because he has a secret that he thinks will protect him from falling in love. Instead his secret causes Elinor great suffering and leaves her open to Lucy's machinations. Willoughby's lies and secrecy utterly undermine Marianne's happiness until late in the novel. He keeps secret his affair with Eliza Williams, to whom he also lies when he says he will return to marry her; this allows him to carry on apparently sincere courtships with Marianne and Sophia Grey, to whom he lies, in turn, about his lately discovered real love for Marianne. This plot line is further complicated by the fact that Colonel Brandon, who knows about Eliza Williams and the baby, withholds that important information from the Dashwoods even as Marianne is clearly falling in love with Willoughby. Only his cryptic remark that he hopes Willoughby will "endeavor" to deserve Marianne hints at what he knows. Readers must guess why he doesn't reveal this information in time to spare Marianne some pain; perhaps he is attempting to protect Eliza from further harm, but perhaps he feels guilty about having failed to protect her. She herself tells only as much truth as she must and only when she's desperate.

In Sense and Sensibility how does the need for a place to call home motivate characters and drive events?

"Dear Norland!" Marianne says in Chapter 5, mourning over the gracious home where she grew up and from which she has been cast out by her father's untimely death and her half-brother's marriage. Homes in Sense and Sensibility are symbols of security and of a character's place in society. The two routes to a home are marriage and inheritance, the goals that drive the plot. John inherits Norland, perhaps before he is ready to manage it; expenses dominate his thoughts. Fanny marries into John's inheritance of Norland, bringing £10,000 of Ferrars wealth, and moves quickly to oust Mrs. Dashwood, Norland's former mistress. Mrs. Dashwood adapts readily to being the mistress of a cottage rather than a large estate; at least she is in charge in her tiny new domain. Lady Middleton marries into Sir John's Barton Park, with its grand house and grounds, and develops immediate house-pride. Guests are a nuisance to her—except that without them, who would admire her possessions? Marianne tours Allenham, which Willoughby expects to inherit, and imagines herself mistress of the estate. Later she can hardly bear to look at the estate and its village, and she dreads even being near Combe Magna, Willoughby's home, while at the same time angling for a tantalizing glimpse of it from the gardens at Cleveland. She later finds herself, through marriage to Brandon, the "patroness" of Delaford and its village, with responsibilities to her tenants. Given her open and affectionate nature, she may prove a beloved mistress. The parsonage at Delaford suits Elinor and Edward well. They are able to "direct everything as they liked" there, laying out gardens and refurbishing the small house to suit their quiet and retiring natures. They have "nothing to wish for," the narrator says, beyond "better pasturage" for their livestock. Various homes suit various characters, but as the novel ends, most characters are settled, and the homes described often fit the characters' desires and aptitudes.

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