Sense and Sensibility: Analysis of Characters & Themes

Fanny (Harriet Walter) & John Dashwood (James Fleet) in the '95 feature film
Fanny (Harriet Walter) & John Dashwood (James Fleet) in the ’95 feature film adaptation


The Dashwood Family:

He [John Dashwood] was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted  himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties.  Had he married a more amiable woman, he might  have been made still more respectable than he was; he might even have been made amiable himself; for he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife.  But Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish.

Right after the funeral of Mr. Dashwood, John arrives with his family to take possession of Norland.  This is his right, but shows lack on kindness for his step-mother and half-sisters.

Mrs. John Dashwood  had never been a favourite with any of her husband’s family: but she had had no opportunity, till  the present, of shewing them with how little attention  to the comfort of other people she could act when occasion  required it.  

So acutely did Mrs. Dashwood feel this ungracious  behaviour, and so earnestly did she despise her daughter-in-law  for it, that, on the arrival of the latter, she would have quitted the house forever, had not the entreaty of  her eldest girl induced her first to reflect on the propriety  of going, and her own tender love for all her three children  determined her afterwards to stay, and for their sakes  avoid a breach with their brother.

Description of Elinor:

Elinor, this eldest daughter whose advice was so  effectual, possessed a strength of understanding, and  coolness of judgment, which qualified her, though only  nineteen, to be the counsellor of her mother, and enabled  her frequently to counteract, to the advantage of them  all, that eagerness of mind in Mrs. Dashwood which must  generally have led to imprudence.  She had an excellent heart; her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings  were strong: but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn, and which  one of her sisters had resolved never to be taught.

Description of Marianne:

Marianne’s abilities were, in many respects, quite equal  to Elinor’s.  She was sensible and clever; but eager in  everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no  moderation.  She was generous, amiable, interesting: she was everything but prudent.  The resemblance between her and her mother was strikingly great.

Edward (Dan Stevens) & Elinor (Hattie Morahan) in the '08 miniseries
Edward (Dan Stevens) & Elinor (Hattie Morahan) in the ’08 miniseries

Edward Ferrars:

Edward Ferrars was not recommended to their good opinion by any peculiar graces of person or address.  He was not handsome, and his manners required intimacy to make them pleasing.  He was too diffident to do justice to himself; but when his natural shyness was overcome, his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart.  His understanding was good, and his education had given it solid improvement.  But he was neither fitted by abilities nor disposition to answer the wishes of his mother and sister, who longed to see him distinguished — as– they hardly knew what.  …But Edward had no turn for great men or barouches.  All his wishes centered in domestic comfort and the quiet of private life.

Marianne’s early opinion of Edward:

Edward is very amiable, and I love him  tenderly.  But yet, he is not the kind of young man —  there is a something wanting, his figure is not striking —  it has none of that grace which I should expect in the  man who could seriously attach my sister.  His eyes want all that spirit, that fire, which at once announce virtue and intelligence. 

Elinor’s opinion of Edward:

…I venture to pronounce that his mind is well-informed, his enjoyment of books exceedingly great, his imagination lively, his observation just and correct, and his taste delicate and pure.  His abilities in every respect improve  as much upon acquaintance as his manners and person.  At first sight, his address is certainly not striking; and  his person can hardly be called handsome, till the expression of his eyes, which are uncommonly good, and the general sweetness of his countenance, is perceived.  At present, I know him so well, that I think him really handsome; or, at least, almost so.

The Middletons:

Description of Sir John:

Sir John Middleton was a good looking man about forty.  He had formerly visited at Stanhill, but it was too long ago for his young cousins to remember  him.  His countenance was thoroughly good-humoured; and his manners were as friendly as the style of his letter.  Their arrival seemed to afford him real satisfaction, and their comfort to be an object of real solicitude to him.  He said much of his earnest desire of their living in the most sociable terms with his family…

 …Sir John’s satisfaction in  society was much more real; he delighted in collecting about him more young people than his house would hold, and the noisier they were the better was he pleased.

Description of Mrs. Jennings (mother-in-law of Sir John):

Mrs. Jennings, Lady Middleton’s mother, was a good-humoured,  merry, fat, elderly woman, who talked a great deal, seemed very happy, and rather vulgar.  She was full of jokes and laughter, and before dinner was over  had said many witty things on the subject of lovers and  husbands; hoped they had not left their hearts behind  them in Sussex, and pretended to see them blush  whether they did or not. 

We learn that Mrs. Jennings’ late husband had been in trade (in a not so fashionable part of London).  He became quite wealthy, so his family advanced in status.  Lady Middleton and Mrs. Palmer (Charlotte) were educated in good schools (for girls of that time).

Col. Brandon (David Morrissey) sees Marianne for the first time in the '08 minseries
Col. Brandon (David Morrissey) sees Marianne for the first time in the ’08 minseries

Colonel Brandon:

The first reference to Col. Brandon comes from Sir John, who is one of his oldest/closest friends:

They would see, he said, only one gentleman there besides himself; a particular friend who was staying at the park, but who was neither very young nor very gay.

He was silent and grave.  His appearance, however, was not unpleasing, in spite of his being in the opinion of Marianne and Margaret an absolute old bachelor, for he was on the wrong side of five-and-thirty; but though his face  was not handsome his countenance was sensible, and  his address was particularly gentlemanlike.

John Willoughby:

Willoughby’s entrance into the story is heroic:

Elinor and her mother rose up in amazement at their entrance, and while the eyes of both were fixed on him with an evident wonder and a secret admiration which equally sprung from his appearance, he apologized for his intrusion by relating its cause, in a manner so frank and so graceful, that his person, which was uncommonly handsome, received additional charms from his voice and expression. 

Willoughby’s description of Elinor and Marianne:

Miss Dashwood had a delicate complexion, regular features, and a remarkably pretty figure.  Marianne was still handsomer.  Her form, though not so correct as her sister’s, in having the advantage of height, was  more striking; and her face was so lovely, that when, in the common cant of praise, she was called a beautiful girl, truth was less violently outraged than usually happens. 



The story opens with talk of the Norland Estate and its entailment.  Money, as you may know, is very important in Jane Austen’s world.  At first, John wants to give his sisters 3,000 pounds.  Fanny thinks this is too much, as they will eventually marry.  She tells him to think of their son.  John asks her if 500 for each would be a fair sum.

What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters!  And as it is — only half blood! — But you have such a generous spirit!

Fanny, though cunning, selfish and vain, is also a humorous character.  Just note theses lines:

…people always live forever when there is any annuity to be paid them…

I am convinced within myself that your father had no idea of your giving them any money at all. 

Finally, John decides that he will give them 500 per year.  Fanny is very pleased to hear this. Then, she comments about the furniture and sets of china in the house.  It’ll be too fine for them to take when they move to a smaller place.

Family (particularly the bonds of brotherhood):

Throughout the novel, John acts in a manner that proves that he’s not a true brother to the Dashwood girls.  It’s not just his stinginess, it’s his tone, demeanor, and decision to go along with the wishes of Fanny.  John becomes interested in Elinor’s relationship with Col. Brandon when he learns of that gentleman’s wealth.  Later on, he’s eager for Marianne to become the colonel’s wife; it’d be a great advantage to him.

When Mrs. Dashwood sees the blossoming romance between Elinor and Edward, she is very happy.  She tells Marianne:

You will gain a brother — a real, affectionate brother.  I have the highest opinion in the world of Edward’s heart.

Another brother-figure in the book is Mrs. Dashwood’s cousin, Sir John Middleton.  He offers the ladies Barton Cottage (at a very reasonable price) without even meeting them!

He earnestly pressed her, after giving the particulars of the house and garden, to come with her daughters to Barton Park, the place of his own residence, from whence she might judge, herself, whether Barton Cottage, for the houses were in the same parish could by any alteration, be made comfortable to her.  He seemed really  anxious to accommodate them, and the whole of his letter was written in so friendly a style as could not fail of giving pleasure to his cousin; more especially at a moment when she was suffering under the cold and unfeeling behaviour of her nearer connections.

Once Edward’s fortune is transferred to his brother, Robert, Lucy transfers her affection to him as well.  Now, Robert didn’t have to pay his addresses to Lucy; Lucy is considered “unsuitable” by Mrs. Ferrars.  Also, Robert commented that she wasn’t “pretty,” as Elinor recalls to Edward.  I suspect that Robert wanted to one-up his brother by marrying Lucy.  Well, it was no loss to Edward, who had “long-regretted the attachment” (engagement to Lucy).

In the background, we have the cruelty of Col. Brandon’s older brother to his wife (Eliza’s mother).  Since he is a gentleman addressing a lady, Col. Brandon doesn’t go into detail with Elinor.

Esteem & Love (You can’t have one without the other!):

Marianne describes her perfect man:

I could not be happy with a man whose  taste did not in every point coincide with my own.  He  must enter into all my feelings; the same books, the same music must charm us both. 

A good relationship (friendship, partnership, marriage, etc.) must be based on mutual respect.  In Pride & Prejudice, it is obvious to Jane and Lizzie (the two eldest Bennett sisters) that their parents do not respect each other, therefore making their marriage unhappy.

“I do not attempt to deny,” said she, “that I think very highly of him — that I greatly esteem, that I like him.”  

 Marianne here burst forth with indignation —  

“Esteem him!  Like him!  Cold-hearted Elinor!  Oh!  Worse than cold-hearted!  Ashamed of being otherwise.  Use those words again and I will leave the room this moment.”  Elinor could not help laughing.  

“Excuse me,” said she, “and be assured that I meant no offence to you, by speaking, in so quiet a way, of my own feelings.  Believe them to be stronger than I have declared…”

Austen’s sly humor is to be seen in many of Marianne’s speeches.  Here is Marianne’s first impression of Willoughby- a man who fires her imagination:

His manly beauty and more than common gracefulness  were instantly the theme of general admiration, and the laugh which his gallantry raised against Marianne received particular spirit from his exterior attractions.  …His person and air were equal to what her fancy had ever drawn for the hero of a favourite story; and in his carrying her into the house with so little  previous formality, there was a rapidity of thought which particularly recommended the action to her.  Every circumstance belonging to him was interesting.  

…when she saw that to the perfect good-breeding of the gentleman, he united frankness and vivacity, and, above all,  when she heard him declare that of music and dancing he was passionately fond, she gave him such a look of approbation as secured the largest share of his discourse to herself for the rest of his stay.

Marianne has esteem (respect; regard) for Col. Brandon (because of his knowledge of music/good taste), though she doesn’t view him as a suitor from the get-go:

Colonel Brandon alone, of all the party, heard her without being in raptures.  He paid her only the compliment of attention; and she felt a respect for him on the occasion, which the others had reasonably forfeited by their shameless want of taste.  His pleasure in music, though it amounted not to that ecstatic delight which alone could sympathize with her own, was estimable when contrasted against the horrible insensibility of the others; and she was reasonable enough to allow that a man of five-and-thirty might well have outlived all acuteness of feeling and every exquisite power of enjoyment.  She was perfectly disposed to  make every allowance for the colonel’s advanced state of life which humanity required.

The first person to notice the colonel’s love for Marianne is (surprisingly) Mrs. Jennings!  She’s the one who jokes about “the mysterious Mr. F” and is eager to marry off every pretty girl in the area.  Col. Brandon is very eligible, and (especially in that society) people must wonder why he isn’t already married.

…soon after her arrival at Barton decisively to pronounce that Colonel Brandon was very much in love  with Marianne Dashwood.  She rather suspected it to be so, on the very first evening of their being together, from his listening so attentively while she sang to them; and when the visit was returned by the Middletons dining at the cottage, the fact was ascertained by his listening to her again.  It must be so.  She was perfectly convinced of it.  It would be an excellent match, for he was rich and she was handsome. 

Marianne exclaims to her mother and Elinor:

It is too ridiculous!  When is a man to be safe from such wit, if age and infirmity will not protect him?

But thirty-five has nothing to do with matrimony.

Several readers in my book club (composed of mostly single young ladies who are avid Austen fans) agreed that “when you’re young, you want the bad boy.”  Someone added that “most women have dated a Willoughby.”

“Edward is boring,” the organizer said.  Another member commented: “Edward is like the [modern-day] nerd character.  He’s quiet- the nice guy.”

I agreed with the reader who said “Col. Brandon was a real friend to Marianne.  Even though he thought she didn’t like him, he watched out for her.”  Did Marianne “settle” for Col. Brandon?  What do you think?

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