Chapter 1 Summary:
The Dashwood family is introduced; they live at Norland Park, an estate in Sussex, which has been in their family for many years. Henry Dashwood has a son by a previous marriage, who is well-off because of his long-deceased mother's fortune; Mr. Dashwood also has three daughters by his present wife, who are left with very little when he dies and the estate goes to his son. Before Mr. Dashwood dies, he asks his son to promise to help his step-mother, and John Dashwood agrees; however, his son John is also selfish, and fails to really help his step-mother and half-sisters as he promised to do.
John's wife comes far too soon to the home, giving the Dashwoods little time to grieve before they are reminded that they are to vacate the premises. Mrs. Dashwood is very angry at this lack of propriety that she almost storms out; but Elinor, her oldest daughter, persuades her to stay and keep good relations with her stepson.
Elinor is entirely sensible and prudent, able to handle people and situations very delicately; her sister, Marianne, is very emotional and never moderate, lacking some of the good sense that Elinor has. While Marianne and her mother are allowing themselves to drown in grief, Elinor is grieving too but also attending to matters at hand. Margaret, the youngest sister, is young and good-natured, and not as extreme in either sense or sensibility as the other two.
The themes of money and inheritance are of immediate importance in the novel; the Dashwood women are immediately cast into a dire situation, since none of them have money themselves, cannot inherit because they are women, and cannot earn a living either. Gender is also a deciding issue in this, since the reason they cannot keep Mr. Dashwood's property or money is because women are not legally entitled to receive or own property at this point in history. Austen contrasts the poor situation of the Dashwood women with that of his older son, who is already very wealthy, and so provides social commentary on the practices of the time; that the son become even richer, while his step-mother and half-sisters are left with nothing, is very unfair, yet is upheld by outdated laws which require this to be so.
Already, Austen finds an object of ridicule in John Dashwood; her tone is cynical and mocking when she notes that John is "not ill-disposedunless to be cold-hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed." His wife is even less kind than he, with Austen pointing this out through her tone; Austen makes note of the "indelicacy" of Mrs. John Dashwood's conduct, and derides her for showing "little attention to the comfort of other people".
The conflict of the title, between sense and sensibility, is introduced through the characters of Elinor and Marianne. Elinor restrains and tempers her emotions with good sense and careful judgment; Marianne does not restrain herself at all, and lacks Elinor's ability to act with prudence. Austen describes them in a much more positive light than she does with John Dashwood and his wife, yet her descriptions indicate that both are perhaps missing something. Marianne is intemperate, and Elinor always very cautious; they are both extremes, and will undoubtedly become more moderate by the end of Austen's novel.
Chapter 2 Summary:
Mrs. John Dashwood immediately takes over as mistress of the estate, as Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters become visitors in their former home. Mrs. John Dashwood also questions the extent of her husband's generosity; she advises her husband not to give too much lest it diminish the future inheritance of their son. She talks him down from a gift of a thousand pounds apiece, to occasionally giving them help, of a non-financial sort. Fanny reasons that they will have no expenses and more than enough money; she figures that the four of them will be better off on their five hundred pounds a year than herself and her husband, although they have many thousands at their disposal. So, John resolves to only do nice things for them on occasion, and forget any ideas of giving them money at all.
Mrs. John Dashwood, or Fanny, is revealed here as a creature even more selfish and uncaring as her husband. The coldness and selfishness of her logic is plainly exposed by Austen, as further ridicule of her greed in this situation. That Fanny Dashwood can confidently claim that the Dashwood women will be comfortably off with very little money, and their home taken from them, is obviously untrue. Fanny is certainly greedy in denying that Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters should have no need, while Fanny and her husband are depriving them of much of their former money and their home too.
That John Dashwood finds his wife's argument "irresistible" shows how he relies on his wife to confirm any miserly tendencies he may have. She is even more selfish and uncaring than he is, which helps him to justify himself when he acts much the same. It is perhaps ironic that John Dashwood's wife brings out the worst in him rather than the best, and that they can be so miserly in the face of misfortune, but this same irony is a part of human nature.
Chapter 3 Summary:
Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters stay at Norland for a few months, because it is difficult to find a new home which they can afford with their small income. She knows of John Dashwood's promise to his father, her late husband, and this reassures her; neither she nor her husband were certain of John's sincerity, but he has been kind to her and her daughters, which means that he feels some sort of obligation at least. However, she does not like Fanny Dashwood at all, and would have left Norland sooner had it not been for the friendship developing between Elinor and Edward Ferrars, Fanny's brother.
Edward is very shy, but is a pleasant and kind person once people become familiar with him. Mrs. Dashwood is glad at the attraction between him and Elinor, more because he is nice and good-hearted than the fact that his family is very wealthy. Although his mother and sister have great ambitions for him, he is a very retiring sort, and wants a quiet life and peace instead. Mrs. Dashwood grows to admire him, and believes that the affection between him and Elinor will lead to marriage. However, Marianne does not approve so much, as she finds Edward less dashing and charming than is ideal. Marianne requires a man who is far more passionate yet has all of Edward's virtues; she despairs that she will never find such a man, though her mother reassures her.
Money again becomes an issue, as it will be a determining factor in how well the girls marry. Although Mrs. Dashwood believes that money will not prove to be much of an obstacle if a couple is in love, reality is that money does and will play a part in the Dashwood girls' hopes for marriage. Mrs. Dashwood is perhaps too hopeful and idealistic in her appraisal that there are no financial barriers to Elinor and Edward's relationship; for in Austen's time, women of good family but little money would certainly not be able to acquire a match with a wealthy, high-born gentleman like Edward.
Austen's dry, witty tone is evident in her description of Edward coming into Mrs. Dashwood's favor; Austen states that Mrs. Dashwood only began to take notice of him after Elinor stated how different he was from his sister, and this "recommended him most forcibly" to Mrs. Dashwood. This sort of comment epitomizes the combination of understatement, a wry tone, and sharp observation which marks Austen's appraisal of an often ridiculous society and its less pleasing members.
The contrast between Elinor and Marianne is highlighted through their ideas of a suitable man. Elinor's model of a suitable man is Edward, very virtuous, kind, though rather sedate. Marianne wants someone more dashing, artistic, and passionate, to coincide with her own interests and qualities. However, that she also says she would like a man with all of Edward's virtues foreshadows that she may end up with a man who is more sensible than she expects, and likely more tempered in his passions than she is.
Chapter 4 Summary:
Marianne questions Edward's taste in drawing; Elinor is perfectly content that he is not as obviously passionate about art as Marianne should hope, though she knows that this is one of Edward's failings with Marianne. Elinor says she is perfectly happy with his tastes and education, and even Marianne cannot find fault with his good nature and kind heart. Marianne says she would like Edward even more if he were to get married to Elinor; Elinor knows that her sister and mother believe that there is an attachment between herself and Edward, but does not wish to confirm it because she is not sure of feelings being exactly mutual.
Elinor also admits that there is something in Edward which suggests he does not love her as much as she loves him. She believes that it might have something to do with the expectations and overbearing nature of Edward's mother, though of course Elinor cannot be sure. Fanny is especially displeased by this attraction, and comments to Mrs. Dashwood about how there are high hopes for Edward, and he must marry a woman of high birth and much wealth.
Fortunately, Mrs. Dashwood then receives a letter from a relative of hers, offering her a cottage on his property very cheaply. The letter is very friendly and urges Mrs. Dashwood to come to Barton Park, his estate in Devonshire, to have a look at the nearby cottage and see if it is suitable. Since Mrs. Dashwood is ready to escape from Fanny, she accepts; Marianne and Elinor approve the proposal, though Elinor does not want to be separated from Edward.
The clash between sense and sensibility is again shown in this discussion between Elinor and Marianne, and what their views on Edward and Elinor's relationship are. Elinor, with all her sensibility, does not allow herself to get carried away; she knows that Edward's affections might fall short of hers, and that there is no promised attachment between them. Marianne surveys the situation with a more romantic eye, assuming that he must love her equally well, and is bound to propose soon. That romantic notions lead Marianne to assume more about the situation than is true shows the failing of sense; sense is far from exact, and belief and hope often fall short of reality.
Elinor's confession to Marianne foreshadows some secret of Edward's; he must have a reason for sometimes acting reticent around Marianne, if his affection is as genuine as it seems. Another obstacle is, of course, the approval of Edward's mother, who has great hopes for Edward's advancement and certainly would not look favorably on a less-than-ideal match. Fanny's insinuations to Mrs. Dashwood indicate that any match between Elinor and Edward would be harshly opposed by the Ferrars family, and this foreshadows further obstacles to Edward and Elinor being united.
Chapter 5 Summary:
Mrs. Dashwood announces that they are to leave soon, and take the cottage in Devonshire; Fanny Dashwood is pleased of course, though Edward seems surprised that they are moving so far away. Mrs. Dashwood takes pleasure in the arrangements, and sends their furniture ahead to the house; she invites Edward warmly, hoping he will come to visit them there. Mrs. Dashwood's former hopes that John Dashwood might assist them in some way come to naught; indeed, he starts to comment on the expenses of his housekeeping, indicating that his generosity only extended to keeping them at Norland for those few months.
Although John Dashwood's wish to be of service to the Dashwood women is heartfelt at one point, unfortunately it does not last; he is proved unfailingly selfish, as he joins his wife in making frequent comments to hurry the Dashwood women's departure. Edward's reaction to the announcement of their departure seems to confirm his affections for Elinor, although her doubts about his love are certainly not settled on this occasion.
Marianne's thoughts before leaving show her unfailingly romantic thoughts, through high-flown diction and a very emotional tone. She is a master of overstatement, as she states that she could never feel at home anywhere else; but likely she will feel at home in Barton Cottage, though it is not as grand as Norland. Although Elinor's suffering at leaving remains unaddressed, Marianne's tendency to feel too keenly, and to express this overabundance of feeling freely becomes clear.
Chapter 6 Summary:
The Dashwoods are melancholy on setting off, but as they get closer to Barton Cottage they become more interested in this new area and the new home they are to inhabit. They find Barton Cottage a bit small and comfortable, though not as romantic as a cottage is thought to be. The valley and countryside around it is very pleasant, and helps them to think well of their new place. They make do as well as they can, though Mrs. Dashwood wishes to make improvements to the place in the future.
Sir John Middleton, their landlord and Mrs. Dashwood's cousin, soon comes to visit; he is very kind, and glad to see that they are there, and somewhat settled. He invites them up to dine at Barton Park until they are more at home, and insists that they visit him often there. Lady Middleton comes to visit them the next day; she is Sir John's wife, very elegant, though far more cold and reserved than her very friendly husband. After her visit, they are invited to Barton Park the next day, and accept the invitation.
This chapter highlights the theme of expectations vs. reality, for although Marianne expected to miss Norland terribly for a long time, and her mother expected their diminished circumstances to be very trying, both are able to cope admirably with their new circumstances. Adapting does not seem so hard as they had expected, especially with as kind a landlord and host as Sir John Middleton is.
Still, this is a transition phase for the family, as they must accept a reduced income along with a reduced social standing. However, their tone remains relatively upbeat, as does Austen's when describing their new home and situation at Barton Cottage.
Chapter 7 Summary:
Barton Park is a very open and elegant home, and Sir John and his wife are never without a good many guests. Sir John's sole occupation is hunting, and his wife's is raising their children; they have guests and travel to otherwise entertain themselves. Sir John is genuinely fond of the Dashwood girls, since they are pretty and "unaffected," as he calls them; he is kind to them out of the goodness of his heart, and enjoys their company.
When the Dashwoods arrive, they meet two people at Barton, which is much fewer than Sir John would liked to have had; one is Mrs. Jennings, Sir John's mother-in-law, who is a merry, somewhat vulgar older woman, who delights in jokes and general merriment. They also meet Colonel Brandon, one of Sir John's old friends; he is a gentleman and a bachelor, and although rather silent and serious, is not unpleasing to them. Marianne plays for the party after dinner, and is pleased at Colonel Brandon's silent attention, compared to the blabbering of Sir John and his mother-in-law, and the pretenses of Lady Middleton.
Sir John Middleton seems to symbolize the best of upper class society, while his wife represents the usual rich person. While Sir John is genuinely kind and enjoys having guests and socializing, his wife is more preoccupied with elegance, planning suitably impressive gatherings, and being generally polite company. Lady Middleton is dull and plain, like many of the upper class; she may be polite, elegant, and refined, but as Austen observes, she also seems to have had the life polished out of her. Sir John, while more of an anomaly, manages to combine the riches and pursuits of the upper class with real friendliness and personality; he might represent what this class of people could be, if not preoccupied with vanity and appearances to an overwhelming extent.
It seems very strange that Marianne and Elinor regard the 35-year-old Colonel Brandon as being an old bachelor; but, it is easy to forget that they are 17 and 19 respectively, and that life expectancy was shorter back then. Marriages were usually made at a younger age as well, at least for women. But, Marianne regards Colonel Brandon's age with such exaggeration that it makes Marianne look quite silly and naïve. She comments to herself on Colonel Brandon's "advanced state of life" as if he were a man of sixty or seventy, and Austen's wry tone in communicating this thought makes Marianne's misjudgment quite humorous.
Chapter 8 Summary:
Mrs. Jennings is a widow with two married daughters, with leaves her with no other occupation, Austen says, than to try and marry off everyone else. She is convinced that Colonel Brandon is in love with Marianne, and decides to get them together, since she believes they are an agreeable match. Marianne soon perceives Mrs. Jennings' intent, and is taken aback that Mrs. Jennings thinks that such an old man would be a good match for her. But Marianne is distracted from this issue by thoughts of Elinor and Edward's attachment; he has not yet visited them, which makes Marianne fear that he is not well. Marianne and her mother question Elinor and Edward's behavior when they parted, which indicated nothing more than friendship between them; they suspect that something might have come between them, though Elinor of course refuses to talk.
Mrs. Jennings is a portrait of the busybody aristocratic woman, who, having no hobbies and no occupation, must amuse herself with social interests. Austen's tone ridicules this preoccupation of Mrs. Jennings', and her completely unfounded opinion that Colonel Brandon is in love with Marianne. Mrs. Jennings is a younger parallel to Austen's Emma in her choice of entertainment and her quickness to jump to conclusions, and also because both women take up their duties as much for self-gratification as for a wish to help couples get together.
Once again, Marianne poses her impulsive, ill-informed attack on Colonel Brandon's age; since she herself is a passionate romantic, it is ironic that she thinks someone who is only 27 would no longer be able to feel passion. Marianne's belief that Colonel Brandon is old and must be unhealthy is excessive and not fully considered; as usual, she says exactly what she thinks, and does not pause to weigh and censor her comments as cautious Elinor tends to do.
Chapter 9 Summary:
The family is now settled at Barton Cottage, and much happier there than they were at Norland after Mr. Dashwood's death. The Dashwoods keep busy and are usually about the cottage, though Sir John visits often and offers them the use of his carriage to make social calls. The girls especially like to go walking about the beautiful countryside, and one day Marianne and Margaret decide to go walking despite the threat of rainy weather. When it does start to rain heavily, they begin to run back toward home; however, Marianne stumbles and twists an ankle and cannot walk. A man who sees the accident comes to their rescue, and carries Marianne home while Margaret follows.
Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood are startled by his sudden appearance, but he is charming and handsome and quickly wins them over. Mrs. Dashwood thanks him, and despite her invitation to stay, he insists he must leave; he says his name is Willoughby, is staying at the nearby estate of Allenham, and will call the next day to inquire after Marianne's condition. Sir John visits and is told of the incident and of Willoughby; he can tell them little of his personality, but informs them that he is staying with his aunt at Allenham and is set to inherit the whole estate. Sir John assures them that he is a good man and well worth "catching," despite Marianne's assertions that she isn't trying to catch anyone. Still, Sir John is sorry for his friend the Colonel, since he deserves a good wife like one of the Dashwood girls, and already he is being ignored as a suitor.
At this point, Willoughby is little more than the stock "romantic stranger" character thrown into some novels; he appears conveniently, and nothing is known about him. But, the fact that Willoughby appears to be the perfect romantic figure also foreshadows that he will of course have failings; he has to be too good to be true, or else he cannot be a realistic character at all.
Mrs. Dashwood's insistence that her daughters are not out to "catch" their husbands is disingenuous and somewhat ironic, given that finding husbands is truly their greatest concern. The appearance of Willoughby highlights the theme of marriage in the work; it is an economic and social imperative that Elinor and Marianne get married in the near future, and that each eligible man in the novel so far is discussed in terms of suitability as a marriage prospect highlights the necessity and urgency of this concern. Elinor and Marianne must be on a constant lookout for a suitable husband, lest they end up impoverished and unattached later in life. Sir John's comments about Col. Brandon are foreshadowing here; the fact that he is thoroughly decent and worthy means that he will probably be better regarded in the long run as a desirable suitor.
Chapter 10 Summary:
Willoughby calls again the next morning, and the family are again convinced of his charms, as he comes to admire them, and Marianne in particular. Marianne sets about asking him about books, music, and dancing, and is pleased to learn that they have similar tastes and passion for the arts. Marianne and Willoughby are already at ease with each other after this first meeting, yet Marianne is reminded that perhaps she should not have been so forward with her views and affections on this first visit.
Willoughby, however, admires Marianne very much and enjoys her family's hospitality; he begins to visit them everyday, as his attachment to Marianne deepens. Mrs. Dashwood thinks very well of him, although Elinor perceives a lack of discretion in his behavior and judgment that he should possess. Elinor is upset when Willoughby proceeds to slight Colonel Brandon, when Elinor knows that he is a good, kind man behind his reserve; Marianne and Willoughby underestimate him because he is older, more experienced, and reserved, although Elinor sees these as assets rather than hindrances, and continues to defend his character.
Marianne showing "neither shyness nor reserve" in her conversation with Willoughby is in keeping with her character, but asserts the importance of discretion in personal relations. Discretion is a theme which proves to be of some importance in society; revealing one's self too quickly or completely can lead to disappointment, embarrassment, or heartbreak, as Marianne is to learn all too soon.
The disagreement of Elinor and Marianne on the subjects of discretion and decorum shows them to be the pure embodiments of sense and sensibility, respectively. Marianne lacks the prudence to be able and limit herself where she knows she should, and Elinor in turn lacks the boldness and passion to express her own feelings with confidence. Both would be better off developing a few of the other's qualities, learning how to temper passion with reason, and caution with emotion.
Willoughby's outburst on the subject of Colonel Brandon foreshadows the discovery of some sort of bad blood between them. Willoughby's disregard for Colonel Brandon, like Marianne's, is impetuous and childlike in nature, but Willoughby's greater dislike indicates that there might be more to his slighting of Colonel Brandon than is readily apparent. Marianne and Willoughby's distaste for the Colonel is ironic, in view of their own failings; they might do better to imitate some of his reserve, rather than to spend time mocking it.