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.
You've persuaded me to revisit Austen! It will be an interesting counter-balance to my current obsession: Ernest Hemingway. It would be hard to imagine two more different writers. Suddenly I'm imagining what Hemingway would have done with an Austen plot and characters, and what Austen would have done with a Hemingway plot and characters. Bizarre!
Excellent post, Brian Joseph! I read this a long time ago, and saw it as a movie as well a couple of times. The themes in Austen's work, which include marriage and money, help us to understand the age in which Austen wrote, and are important in a historical context. Certainly it's valuable to read the novels she wrote!
Excellent review of one of my favorite Austen novels. "Entertaining and meaningful" sums it up well. I have written elsewhere about the influence of Adam Smith and David Hume who emphasized the concept of sentiment in the moral writings. Austen's notions of sensibility exemplify this approach to human relationships.
A more general theme in all of Austen's works is that of "reading" other people and not being fooled by external characteristics or at first encounters. It takes time to determine what a person is really like.
I would add -- borrowing from Carol Shields' biography of Jane Austen -- that a way of viewing Austen's novels is to be conscious of women asserting themselves in subtle ways, not the least of which is what Shields calls "the glance." All modern women and all sensible modern men understand that kind of power: a woman's "glance" can render everyone else subservient (even if those being rendered subservient remain clueless and senseless about what just happened). So, words matter but those wordless "glances" often matter even more in Austen's characters' worlds.
I haven't read any Austin in a while though I've read her works many times. I didn't know this was her first published novel. I thought that Pride and Prejudice was the first, or at least the first she wrote.
It's interesting that you said the characters are less nuanced. I wonder if that is why S and S isn't one of my favorites. I'll have to read it again now.
I agree with you that Austin is worth reading even if she sings rather the same song in all her novels, her variations of that theme is so diverse. Also I just love the insight she gives by expressing the thoughts of her characters so well.
Great review, Bryan!
HI RT - As I like to compare and contrast authors you have really gotten me thinking about Austen and Hemingway.
Indeed they are very different. If I think hard enough I think that I could think of some differences.
Money and social status were such important drivers of who folks married in Austen's times. It made for such interesting stories.
Thanks James. I will look for your posts on Adam Smith and David Hume.
The theme of relying on sense, or rationality in romantic decision making is indeed a theme of this book that I barely touched upon.
Thanks Sharon . Austen really did expressed everything so well. She is so good at expresses the thoughts of fictional people.
Yes, the themes in Austen become apparent as you read through all her works. I've never tried in chronological order though - that might have to be my next reread :-)
I do plane to read Virginia Woolf in chronological order though as I have found her difficult to get into. I had a recent success with her first book, The Voyage Out, so hope this approach works for me.
The other thing with Austen, is that the depth and subtle complexity of her work becomes even more apparent with each reread. I would go as far to say that her books improve with each reread.
As usual, your analysis of the book you're reviewing is highly interesting, Brian!
I must sheepishly confess that the only Austen book I've read so far is "Pride and Prejudice". As you know from my review of it, I did not like it on my first read, nor on my second, but something almost magical happened on the third read....
When I first read this novel, I couldn't help but compare it to "Jane Eyre", and quite frankly, I much prefer the latter. However, Austen's take on the society of her time is worth reading. Her plot is more concerned with gentle satire directed at the customs of the gentry, whereas Bronte's plot is very dramatic and romantic. They're very different authors!
I love yoru comparison of Austen's development of the same themes across several books. to variations on a musical theme. What a great metaphor! And a very appropriate one, too, I would say, from your very thorough analysis.
A writer who has done much the same thing, and whose work I love, is Hermann Hesse. (There's only one novel of his I dislike -- "Steppenwolf".) He also played with the same themes, developing them through several novels. This is veryevident in such novels as "Demian", "Beneath the Wheel", and "Narcissus and Goldmund". This last one is my favorite.
I really must make a point of reading more Austen novels, if only to observe this nuanced development of the same themes in several of them.
Thanks for your intriguing thoughts!! :)
I enjoyed your review of this novel, Brian. It's been such a long time since I last read any Austen, but there is something enduring about her themes. Have you seen Ang Lee's adaptation of S and S? If not, it's worth a watch. Whit Stillman's film 'Love & Friendship' (an adaptation of an early Austen novella, Lady Susan) has just opened here, so I'm hoping to catch it in the next week or so.
Hi Brona - Though I have only read Austen novels once, I have no doubt that they can improve the second or third time around. Subtle and complex are the right words for these works. As such a one probably has to read them more then once to really get them.
I have not read Virginia Wolf but I want to. Reading her works in chronological order seems like it might be fruitful.
Thanks Jacqui - I have not seen Ang Lee's film version yet but I will try to catch it soon.
Love & Friendship sounds interesting. I do not think many people have read Lady Susan.
Thanks Maria .
It is interesting. I have written another post on this book that I will be putting up in about a week. I devout a sentence or two contrasting Jane Austen to Charlotte Bronte. I thought that Jane Eyre was a book about giant ideas filled with giant characters. Austen writes books filled with subtle and ideas about everyday occurrences and people. I think that they are each brilliant in their own ways.
I agree that Hermann Hesse is a great example of a writer who also played with variations on common themes. I also love his work. I have not read Beneath the Wheel but I want to.
Lady Susan is a great character--one of those you love to hate. I'm really curious to see what the director does with her in the film. I hope he doesn't "improve" her too much.
Hi Fred - Indeed she is a great character. It is so interesting how she is able to extinguish the embers of virtue that attempt to take fire in her husband.
Brian, your posting has been the perfect catalyst.
See my recent posting:
Hi Brian, I enjoyed your thoughts on this one.
I've had Sense and Sensibility sitting on my shelves for too long. I need to read it, I have seen the film version. As you mention, Austen wrote about similar plots and characters in her books but I like that she wrote them in different ways and scenarios, making her books endure the test of time.
I enjoy how she added obstacles in her stories before the characters got their happily ever afters. She wrote about every day life and social expectations of her time wonderfully. Pride & Prejudice remains my favorite.
Enjoy your week!
Hi Naida - Pride and Prejudice was a great work indeed. Her characters certainly faced obstacles and some very unusual twists. Sometimes it is difficult to see how she will get to a happy ending but she does so nevertheless.
HI RT - I think that that I was unaware of your new blog. I will head over there now and add the site to my blog reader.
interesting post. would you say Austen follows the fugal qualities of Bach or the romanticism of tchaikovsky? i guess the latter would be more accurate, since that's when she lived... moral vacuity: excellent!
I would say closer to Beethoven, because they both pick very simple, straightforward themes and then very thoroughly develop them, until they reach a conclusion that is inevitable.
With both, I always find that during the work, everything that happens is the only way it could have happened.
I love this comment Brian - you are an elegant distiller of language :-)
Hi Mudpuddle and Fred - I love taking this to another level and actually comparing composers in a fun way. I would say Austen reminds me of a romantic composer. Perhaps Tchaikovsky is more dramatic then Austen? The Beethoven comparison is neat.
Thanks so much Brona.
A thoughtful review, Brian.
I was in an Austen mood a couple of years ago and then read all her novels I hadn't read yet in quick succession. It was so wonderul and I was sad when I'd finished the last.
This was the only of her novels I struggled with. I found it too long and less assured. I was also not so keen on Northange Abbey but the others are all wonderful.
She's fascinating. I also really enjoyed reading her biography.
I love Austen. I have reread all of her books at least once and some of them more than that. Have you seen the movie of this one with Emma Thompson? It's a good one if you haven't :)
I just bought a nice edition of Persuasion and I'm anxious to read it to commemorate Austen's 200th birthday anniversary. I'm looking forward to the reread. If I can only get through the book I'm reading now....it's an Edgar Allan Poe....but the story is boring even though the writing is beautiful. Slog, slog. HaHa! I'm obviously reading it for the educational value.
Austen's biography must have been interesting.
I have not read Northange Abbey. I hope to within the next year or so. It seems that folks either love or hate that book.
Hi Heidi - Austen defiantly lends herself to rereading as several of us discussed above.
Edgar Allen Poe can be a bit challenging. It seems that not a lot happens in his stories and as you allude to. he is mostly about the prose. I ended up eventually liking him a lot but it took effort for me to get into him.
Hi Stefanie - I have not yet seen the film version of this book. Hopefully I will do so soon.
I haven't read this one yet. But I like the themes Austen generally explores, the way for instance individuals need to sort out what they want for themselves vs. the social pressures and demands they face. I agree that it's worth reading more than one of her novels; not only do they approach similar themes in different ways, they can also raise some different issues.
Hi Hila - The theme of the individual verses society is also a strong one in Austen novels. Another one that we see variations on in her various works.
NIce that you are reading Sense and Sensibility again. I did a re read earlier this year and loved it. There were many aspects of the novel I didnt like in my first read. but as a mature person now, i was able to forgive and admire the imperfections in the characters. Did you know Austen was very attached to her sister and all her first few novels show the great bond between sisters? They had small fights later on and this is evident in her latter works where the bond between sisters is missing
Hi Resh - I did not know that about Austen's sister. I agree that it shows itself in her novels.
I really should learn more about Austen's live.
I only began reading Austen over the past few years. I would not have appreciated her work when I was younger.
>When combined, her brilliant writing as well as well crafted plots and characters, these novels reach the sublime despite the commonalities.
Amen! I am a huge fan of reading an author's works in the order written. I love S&S so much and I have to tell you, when I was young, I really found Marianne annoying, but the older I get the more I like her and appreciate her journey.
BTW, I will quibble with one thing you said--Edw Ferrars was courting Elinor from the day he met her, regardless of his status with regards to Lucy Steele, and therein lies the problem. I don't think Elinor misread him--she just didn't have all the facts :)
Hi Jane - Granted that Ferrars iHe was courting Elinor from a reasonable point of view. But not from his own very biased point of view. There seems to be the perception thing going again.
I think that one can view Marianne as a little annoying. With that, in real life, complicated people can sometimes be annoying. Thus this adds to the novel's realism to me.
Whilst I did read some of the classics - including this one (I think) - as a girl, alas I didn't enjoy them. Perhaps at an age where I might find more meaning in them I really should give them another try and promise myself to do so every time I read one of your posts featuring them.
Participating in a book challenge at the moment, one of the categories of which is to read a book you previously abandoned, perhaps I'll give one of the classics you have featured a go.
I hope to refresh my memory and introduce Austen and the Brontes to my husband via the films (as I know he won't read them). We already watched Rebecca in black and white and he was impressed!
Hi Harvee- If I recall the original Rebecca was a great film. So was Jane Eyre.
I need to catch up on some of the screen versions of Austen. I have seen few of these.
Thanks Brian. Nice post. I'm a bit of an Austen neophyte so I like the idea of reading them in chronological order. Makes sense to see all the little nuances etc. I like your part that "these novels reach the sublime despite the commonalities." Nicely put!
Hi Susan - I only began reading Austen myself a few years ago. This is good one to start with. I would love to know what you thought if you started reading her books.
Post a Comment