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Sense and Sensibility | Themes

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Head and Heart

The dominant theme of Sense and Sensibility is hinted at in the novel's title. Which should determine how people think, act, and speak—reason or emotion, restraint or passion, modesty or desire? Elinor is the model of sense (head) and Marianne of sensibility (heart). But other characters, too, develop this theme. Readers might expect one approach or the other to be vindicated by the end, but Austen's treatment of the theme is more subtle than that.

If sense (reason, logic) and sensibility (emotion, passion) are considered opposite ends of a spectrum, then the spectrum must have a middle. Neither extreme, Austen suggests, is advisable. Elinor and Edward are sensible young people who, by obeying the dictates of reason, honor, and social expectation, nearly abandon their genuine affection for each other. Marianne and Willoughby, infatuated with romance and pleasure, damage their happiness (and in Willoughby's case, other people's lives) by rejecting restraint. Still other characters seem to err on the side of cold logic (Brandon) or effusive emotion (Mrs. Jennings) but gradually prove themselves to be more moderate—and therefore more successful—in dealing with life's challenges.

Trust and Truth

Sense and Sensibility's plot takes unpredictable turns because so many characters are keeping secrets, hiding their histories, or misrepresenting their feelings. Some characters conceal their thoughts for commendable reasons. Elinor in particular works hard not to upset others unnecessarily and to keep the secrets entrusted to her, and her reluctance to express her true feelings for Edward is dictated by her sense of propriety. Yet even these good reasons for withholding the truth present problems. By not admitting her feelings she seems to deny her own happiness.

Willoughby's lack of transparency is rooted in his desire to escape the consequences of his actions. Because Marianne's heart is open, naïve, and easily swayed by charm and a handsome smile, she trusts Willoughby, and he plays his part so well that Mrs. Dashwood and even Elinor are fooled. That is until Willoughby disappears and Colonel Brandon reveals what he has been keeping secret (also for what he thinks are good reasons) about Willoughby's past.

Characters rely on rumors, make assumptions based on appearances, and adhere to or betray those who trust them. A few speak their mind (Mr. Palmer, for example). The novel provides ample opportunity to examine how outright deception, mistaken assumptions, and even well-intentioned discretion affect interpersonal relationships.

Sibling Relationships

Austen explores the contrasts in sibling relationships. Not only are Elinor and Marianne different in Elinor's adherence to sense and Marianne's to sensibility, but other siblings display even greater differences. The open, friendly, generous Mrs. Palmer could hardly be more different from her chilly, greedy sister, Lady Middleton. Similarly, Edward Ferrars is reserved, honorable, and self-sacrificing, while his brother, Robert, is extroverted, self-centered, and superficial.

However, Elinor and Marianne also share a similarity: they are both kind and honest. Their genuine goodness is what enables them to recognize and admire strengths in one another and ultimately join head and heart. The Steele sisters also share common qualities: pettiness and a certain degree of viciousness. These qualities do not allow them to grow and mature.

Working the System

The female characters in Sense and Sensibility inhabit a fictional world that, like Austen's real world, offers women few chances for autonomy and self-determination. With a few exceptions (heiresses such as Miss Grey) the women in the novel are at the mercy of fathers, brothers, sons, and husbands. Many of these men uphold their obligations in the social bargain that places them in authority. Sir John, for instance, takes in his distant relatives when Mrs. Dashwood is widowed, providing not only Barton Cottage but also a social circle in which the Dashwood sisters can make connections. Others let these social obligations slide. John Dashwood not only reneges (at his wife Fanny's instigation) on the promise he made his father to support his half-sisters and stepmother, but later actively tries to push marriages on his half-sisters simply to get them off his financial ledger and conscience.

Women of the landed gentry had almost no respectable alternatives for generating income and little say in their futures. (One option was writing, a source of income increasingly practiced by women throughout the 1700s. Austen was one example; others included authors Frances Burney, Mary Lamb, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Dorothy Wordsworth.) Austen's characters, although a match for the men in terms of intelligence, desire, and ambition, learn to work the system, sometimes manipulating it through the men in their lives. Lucy's schemes provide a perfect example of this approach. Other women work to create alliances and play people off each other, as Fanny attempts to do with the Steele sisters (and as Lucy does). Women with some wealth of their own (usually widows) wield it to shape the men who stand to inherit it, as Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars do. Interestingly neither Elinor nor Marianne sets out to work the system; in the end Marianne does very well for herself, but Elinor has placed happiness in love well ahead of material gain.

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