Synopses & Reviews
Published in 1811, Sense and Sensibility has delighted generations of readers with its masterfully crafted portrait of two sisters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Forced to leave their home after their father's death, Elinor and Marianne must rely on making good marriages as their means of support. But unscrupulous cads, meddlesome matriarchs, and various guileless and artful women impinge on their chances for love and happiness. The novelist Elizabeth Bowen wrote, "The technique of [Jane Austen's novels] is beyond praise....Her mastery of the art she chose, or that chose her, is complete."
This Modern Library Paperback Classics edition contains a new Introduction by Pulitzer Prize finalist David Gates, in addition to new explanatory notes.
Jane Austen's first published novel, sparkling with wit and artistry, captures the inequities of birth, class, and marriage faced by the sisters Dashwood.
About the Author
Jane Austen was born in Steventon, Hampshire, on December 16, 1775. Her father, the Reverend George Austen, was rector of Steventon, where she spent her first twenty-five years, along with her six brothers (two of them later naval officers in the Napoleonic wars) and her adored sister, Cassandra. She read voraciously from an early age, counting among her favorites the novels of Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding, and Fanny Burney, and the poetry of William Cowper and George Crabbe. Her family was lively and affectionate and they encouraged her precocious literary efforts, the earliest dating from age twelve, which already displayed the beginnings of her comic style. Her first novels, Elinor and Marianne
(1796) and First Impressions
(1797), were not published. The gothic parody Northanger Abbey
was accepted for publication in 1803 but was ultimately withheld by the publisher.
In 1801 the family moved to Bath, where for four years Austen was able to observe the fashionable watering place that would later figure prominently in her fiction. Austen was sociable in her youth, and was briefly engaged in 1802. Two years later she began work on The Watsons, a novel that remained unfinished. After the death of her father in 1805, she lived with her mother and sister in Southampton for a few years before moving with them to a cottage at Chawton in Hampshire. This would be her home for the rest of her life, and she wrote many of her novels in its parlor. She continued to revise her earlier unpublished work, and in 1811 a version of Elinor and Marianne was published as Sense and Sensibility, followed two years later by Pride and Prejudice, a reworking of First Impressions. In the next few years she published Mansfield Park (1814) and Emma (1816).
Austen became ill in 1815, perhaps with Addison's disease, and she died on July 18, 1817. Persuasion, her last novel, and the earlier Northanger Abbey appeared the following year. Of her last days her brother wrote: 'She wrote whilst she could hold a pen, and with a pencil when a pen was become too laborious. The day preceding her death she composed some stanzas replete with fancy and vigour.' Although Austen received some praise from her contemporaries—notably Sir Walter Scott, who discerned in her work 'the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment'—her detractors included Charlotte Bronte ('very incomplete and rather insensible') and Ralph Waldo Emerson ('vulgar in tone, sterile in artistic invention'), and her books did not immediately find a wide readership. The turn in her reputation came late in the nineteenth century, and has been succeeded by an enduring popularity and widespread critical praise in the twentieth.
From the eBook edition.
Reading Group Guide
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 Ferrars is 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?