The narrator describes the Dashwood family, who lived at Norland Park in Sussex, England. The owner of the property was a single man and he invited his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood to live with him at Norland. Henry had a son by a previous marriage and three daughters by his current wife.
The opening of the novel establishes the importance of ties established through family and marriage.
Henry Dashwood’s son, John Dashwood, had a substantial fortune from his mother’s family, which he increased through marriage. Thus, Norland Park was of more importance to John’s half-sisters, who had less secure fortunes, than it was to him. Nonetheless, when the owner of Norland died, he left his property to John and John’s young son.
The novel is immediately interested in questions of wealth, property, and inheritance. As women, the Dashwood sisters cannot make their own fortunes and must rely on inheriting or marrying into wealth.
Henry Dashwood passed away only a year later, and on his deathbed asked John to look out for and help his daughters. The narrator says that John lacked the “strong feelings” of the rest of his family, but was nonetheless deeply moved by Henry’s dying request. John promised “to do everything in his power to make them comfortable.”
John agrees to help his sisters out of familial love. The narrator is very precise about John’s character. He lacks the same “strong feelings” of the rest of his family, but can still be deeply moved in extreme circumstances.
John decided to give his sisters 3000 pounds each, and was pleased with his own generosity. Right after Henry’s funeral, John’s wife moved into Norland Park immediately without giving Henry’s wife Mrs. Dashwood any notice. John’s wife Fanny “had never been a favourite with any of her husband’s family,” and now her “ungracious behaviour” did nothing to change this.
Marriage unites families, which—as with Fanny and Mrs. Dashwood—can lead to a clash between very different characters. In her greedy eagerness to move into her new estate, Fanny disregards the feelings of her mother-in-law.
Mrs. Dashwood was offended by John’s wife Fanny and thought of moving out, but her eldest daughter Elinor persuaded her not to. The narrator says that Elinor “possessed a strength of understanding, and coolness of judgment” in addition to “an excellent heart.” Elinor’s younger sister Marianne was similarly “sensible and clever,” but was “eager in everything” and lacked a sense of moderation.
Mrs. Dashwood tends to be impulsive and make decisions based on her feelings. Fortunately, she is counterbalanced by her prudent daughter Elinor. Marianne is clever like Elinor, but lacks moderation in her feelings, like her mother.
Marianne and her mother indulged in extreme grief and unhappiness at the recent turn of events: “they gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow.” Elinor, by contrast had more moderation in her behavior. The youngest of the three daughters, Margaret, was “good-humoured” and “well-disposed.” She had some of Marianne’s romantic sensibility but without her modicum of sense.
Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood, exemplifying the trait of sensibility, indulge fully in their feelings of grief, whereas Elinor moderates her sorrow with good sense. Margaret’s character is precisely defined in relation to her sisters. She is more on the side of sensibility than sense.