Laws surrounding inheritance are what put the Dashwood women in limbo at the beginning of the novel; and their lack of money, compounded with their inability to work, means that they cannot ease their situation, except through marrying well. Money also dictates the eligibility of Elinor and Marianne, as women with larger dowries are of course seen as better prospects for marriage.
There are very definite gender limitations involved in the society Austen describes; women cannot own property, are expected to stay in the home, marry, and be polite and good company. Men can decide whether or not to pursue a career if they have enough money, and have more latitude within society in regards to their behavior and life choices. Gender dictates acceptable roles and behavior, and even in the world of the novel, there is little room to deviate.
Expectations vs. reality
This is an especially important theme with regard to Marianne and her mother, whose romantic characters lead them to expect greater drama or trauma than actually appears. But reality always tends to subvert expectations, whether in life or in art, as accidents and unexpected twists and turns happen to everyone.
For Marianne and Elinor, marriage is not a choice, but a necessity; and their need to marry expediently and well is a pressing concern in the novel, as they look for suitors. Young men may choose more freely when and whom they marry, and Colonel Brandon is even 35 and still unmarried; but even for women who have money, marriage is necessary to secure their social positions and ensure financial stability for the future.
Of the utmost importance in polite society, where it is not to one's advantage to let people know all that you think and feel. Marianne's lack of discretion leads to a great deal of gossip and a very public snubbing by Willoughby; lack of discretion in many others indicates poor manners and a lack of refinement.
Appearance vs. reality
Pertains to character especially, as many characters in the novel present themselves as one thing, and end up being another. Willoughby is the prime example of this, as he seems romantic, open, and genuine, but ends up exposing himself as vain, idle, and cruel. Also pertains to Lucy Steele, who ends up conniving, despite her innocent appearance.
Expectation and disappointment
Throughout the novel, many characters develop expectations based on sparse evidence or faulty perceptions; this, of course, leads to disappointment as reality proves very different. Joyful expectations are often dashed by harsher turns of events, as Marianne is extremely disappointed by her expectation of being married to Willoughby, and is pushed away.
Usually an indication of wrongdoing on someone's part, as is especially evident in Willoughby; his sudden unwillingness to share information with Marianne and the Dashwoods indicates mistakes made on his part. On the other hand, as with Edward, secrecy can be a sign of discretion, though when his secret is revealed it is damaging as Willoughby's is.
In interactions with other people, judgment is always at work; a person must determine who a person really is and what they want, in order to avoid those who could potentially be hurtful. These judgments can be flighty and unjust, as Marianne's appraisals of most of her acquaintance are, or blinded by kindness, as Mrs. Jennings' judgment of Lucy Steele is.
Relates mostly to Lucy Steele, and is the prime determinant of her behavior toward Elinor. Willoughby also becomes jealous of Colonel Brandon marrying Marianne, and other, petty jealousies become evident in characters. Indicates insecurity, or poor character.
Self-sacrifice and selfishness
Elinor especially is a model of self-sacrifice, deciding to go to London for her sister's happiness, and trying her best to be civil to everyone to make up for Marianne's uncivil behavior. Marianne is the opposite, caring only for herself and her feelings; she needs Elinor's help and goodwill to get by, but needs to learn how to be giving toward others in order to become her own, independent person.
A vast number of characters in the novel embody this trait to varying degrees; John and Fanny, Lady Middleton, the Steele girls, Mrs. Ferrars, and Robert, among others, tend toward hypocritical displays of self-serving flattery, vanity, and professing opinions they do not believe in for self-gain or to get ahead with others. Unfortunately, none of these characters is taught any better in the course of the novel, as hypocrisy is an unavoidable part of human nature, and almost a part of polite society as well.
Marianne must learn moderation of her emotions if she is to become independent of Elinor and become an adult; her trials serve to teach her about her excesses, and luckily, she does come to improve herself and become a much better, more caring person toward others.
Sense and Sensibility Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Sense and Sensibility is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.