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When Mr. Dashwood dies, he must leave the bulk of his estate to the son by his first marriage, which leaves his second wife and three daughters (Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret) in straitened circumstances. They are taken in by a kindly cousin, but their lack of fortune affects the marriageability of both practical Elinor and romantic Marianne. When Elinor forms an attachment for the wealthy Edward Ferrars, his family disapproves and separates them. And though Mrs. Jennings tries to match the worthy (and rich) Colonel Brandon to her, Marianne finds the dashing and fiery Willoughby more to her taste. Both relationships are sorely tried. But this is a romance, and through the hardships and heartbreak, true love and a happy ending will find their way for both the sister who is all sense and the one who is all sensibility.
The Dashwood sisters are very different from each other in appearance and temperament; Elinor's good sense and readiness to observe social forms contrast with Marianne's impulsive candor and warm but excessive sensibility. Both struggle to maintain their integrity and find happiness in the face of a competitive marriage market.
Excerpted from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen Copyright © 2007 by Jane Austen. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Sense and Sensibility begins with a short history of Norland Park, the Dashwood family's estate. We learn that the late owner has bequeathed the property to his nephew, Henry Dashwood, since he himself was unmarried and without children. Describe Henry Dashwood's family. Who are its members? What is the dilemma that Henry's wife and daughters encounter upon his death?
2. The novel tells the story of two sisters who at first appear to be more different than similar. Elinor, the older sister, is governed by her good sense, whereas Marianne, the younger and less experienced sister, is ruled by a romantic sensibility. Compare the personalities of the two sisters further. To what do you attribute these differences? Are their personalities fixed, or do they change over the course of the novel?
3. In Chapter 13, Elinor is shocked to learn that Marianne allowed Willoughby to show her his house without a chaperon. Marianne defends her action by saying, "If there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong." Is this a valid defense? Does the novel, in the end, support or reject Marianne's notion of propriety?
4. Claire Tomalin has argued that Sense and Sensibility acts out a debate about behavior, in which Elinor represents discretion and privacy and Marianne represents emotional openness. Which side do you think wins this debate? Do you think the novel's attempts to resolve this debate are successful? Why or why not?
5. Over the course of the novel, both Elinor and Marianne experience romantic reversals: Elinor when she discovers Edward Ferrarsis engaged to Lucy Steele, and Marianne when she discovers Willoughby is to marry Miss Grey. What do these experiences teach Elinor and Marianne? Compare the reactions of each.
6. Sense and Sensibility presents a host of memorable minor characters, such as Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Ferrars, and Mrs. John Dashwood. Discuss the role minor characters play in the novel. What issues or ideas do they help illuminate for the protagonists?
7. In Chapter 17, Elinor says the following with regard to the notion of character: "I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes . . . in a total misapprehension of character in some points or other; fancying other people so much more gay or grave, or ingenious or stupid than they really are, and I can hardly tell why, or in what the deception originated. Sometimes one is guided by what they say of themselves, and very frequently by what others say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge." Discuss the theme of character in Sense and Sensibility. What does Elinor mean when she uses the word "character"? What, according to her, are good and bad judges of character? Does she follow her own advice? Which sort of character does the novel value?
8. Discuss the character of Lucy Steele. How would you describe her? What does she risk in telling Elinor of her engagement to Edward Ferrars? Does this seem shrewd or foolish to you?
9. At several points in the story, the characters discuss the value of "second attachments." For instance, in Chapter 17, Marianne makes plain that she does not believe a person can be in love more than once in his or her life. She says further, "At my time of life, opinions are tolerably fixed. It is not likely that I should see or hear anything to change them." Discuss the irony implicit in Marianne's statement. Does the novel itself share her views? Which characters come to have second attachments?
10. Discuss the character of Willoughby. How is he punished for his decision to marry for money, in a way that someone like Lucy Steele is not? Why might this be the case?