Sense and Sensibility was Jane Austen’s first published novel. It is the story of the Dashwood family. Like other novels written by the famous author, the plot centers on the romantic entanglements and marriage prospects of the book’s characters.
Elinor is the oldest Dashwood daughter and is the central character in the book. She is levelheaded and thoughtful. Her younger sister, Marianne, is more impulsive and more apt to show strong emotion. The girls’ mother, Mrs. Dashwood, can be described as an older but slightly more empathetic and wiser version of Marianne.
Early on, Elinor and a young bachelor named Edward Ferrars seem to be drawn to one another. Likewise, Marianne and John Willoughby are apparently attracted to each other and close to engagement.
The usual themes of faulty perception are strong in this work. Initially, Elinor believes that Edward is wooing her. She later learns that he is secretly engaged to another young woman, Lucy Steele. Likewise, Marianne believes that Willoughby is in love with her. However, the young man shocks her when he suddenly turns cold and it is announced that he is engaged to someone else. In the end, it is revealed that both of these situations played out very differently from what the sisters supposed them to be at various parts of the narrative.
The balance of the plot is driven by these relationships and by misconceptions getting sorted out. The reality of the events and feelings, as opposed to the false perception of them, are revealed in detail.
At one point Elinor observes,
"I have frequently detected myself in such kind of mistakes," said Elinor, "in a total misapprehension of character in some point or other: fancying 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 other people say of them, without giving oneself time to deliberate and judge."
There are multiple characters that are shown to be of weak personality. In particular, the Dashwood sisters’ half brother, John, initially intends to act altruistically towards his family, who are in financial straits. However, he shows moral vacuity when he is easily persuaded not to assist his sisters by his malicious wife, Fanny.
As this was Austin’s earliest published novel, some of the characters seem to be a little less nuanced than in her later books. For instance, the money and status obsessed John and Fanny Dashwood have few redeeming characteristics and are a bit less complex than other Austen creations.
As I alluded to above, the themes of this novel will be familiar to folks who have read other Austen works. Obviously, the plot and characters, which center on young women and their romantic interactions, are common to other Austen books.
Though this is the first published novel from the author, I have read several other Austen books before this one. The question arises, if the underlying meaning is not all that different for the other books and the plot and characters also seem to meet a template, is it worth reading an author like Austen over the course of more than two or so books?
My conclusion is that reading multiple Austen books is a very worthwhile thing to do. I raised a similar question in regards to the novels of Philip Roth. In this post, I compared the tendency of Roth to use of similar motifs to a musical work that explored multiple variations on a musical theme. Likewise, though Austen’s messages may be similar between books, by illustrating them in different ways, she adds to the impact and nuance. A writer as skilled as Austen adds intellectual and aesthetic weight to subjects and themes by examining them from different angles. When combined, her brilliant writing as well as well crafted plots and characters, these novels reach the sublime despite the commonalities.
This classic is a must read for Austen fans. As I am beginning to see the value of reading certain authors’ works in chronological order, this would be a great first read for an Austen neophyte. The benefit of seeing how Austen’s ideas and writing developed over time should be enlightening to a reader. Like other works by Austen, this book manages to be entertaining as well as very meaningful.