Sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood suffer similar reverses in appearing to lose the affection of their chosen suitors. But whereas Marianne indulges her exorbitant sensibility in her relationship with, and loss of, her suitor Willoughby, Elinor's quiet good sense enables her to bear up when it seems her suitor, Edward Ferrars, will marry another woman. Austen rewards Elinor with Edward's hand, while Marianne must be content to learn to love a steadier husband, Colonel Brandon.


Although Austen gently mocks readers' romantic interest in "the flushed cheek, hollow eye, and quick pulse of a fever" (34), she often uses medical crises to drive her plot. A twisted ankle dramatizes the dangers of Marianne's naïve, romantic sensibility, after her foolish decision to set off on a long walk under a "showery sky" and her impulsive dash down "the steep side of [a] hill" when set upon by a "driving rain" (37).

As a result of this inauspicious display of poor judgment, the dashing Willoughby literally sweeps her off her (injured) feet and the pair enter upon a series of inappropriate actions--exchanging locks of hair, visiting Willoughby's house unchaperoned, sending letters--that renders Marianne's grief more painful when Willoughby discards her for a wealthier young woman.

Austen again turns to a medical crisis--here, Marianne's prolonged illness, first from grief, and then from a nearly fatal "putrid fever" (280) brought on by melancholy walks in the wettest, wildest part of the estate. These enunciate the dangerously overwrought emotions of the jilted girl and what Elinor sees as her unhealthy indulgence of grief, and eventually propel not only her moral education but also Willoughby's contrite confession and Colonel Brandon's declaration of love.

The novel also provides a fascinating elaboration of the spectrum of "sensibility" in 1811 and its link to medical health and well-being. Austen clearly shows how Marianne's sensibility repeatedly makes her ill. This exaggerated sensibility signals the sometimes melodramatic worldview of adolescence--"her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation" (6)--which Elinor terms "romantic" (49) and tries to moderate, in accordance with early-nineteenth-century disapproval of the teary sentimentality of the previous century.

In fact, it is Elinor's "sense," which Marianne mistakenly terms "cold-hearted" (18), that approximates the older meaning of eighteenth-century sensibility in an openness to others' troubles, not a focus on one's own emotions. While Marianne's displays of emotion blind her to Elinor's woes and make her family suffer much anxiety on her account, Elinor's ability to read Marianne's suffering helps her comfort her sister, and she plays down her own disappointments in order not to upset others. Lack of sensibility altogether is not, however, a virtue; Austen condemns her least likable characters as "reserved, cold" (26) and insensible to others as subjects.


First published 1811



Place Published

New York




Ros Ballaster

Page Count