Sense and Sensibility

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Themes and Colors
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
Character, Sense, and Sensibility Theme Icon
Women in Society Theme Icon
Society and Strategy Theme Icon
Wealth, Class, and Greed Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sense and Sensibility, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Society and Strategy Theme Icon

Jane Austen is often described as a novelist of manners. Her works illustrate in great detail the workings, habits, customs, and manners of high English society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This is a society that is dictated by a rigid social and economic hierarchy. People are not simply rich or poor: rather, there are very specific gradations of wealth and status. Most of the characters in Sense and Sensibility (especially including but not limited to Lucy, Fanny, and Mrs. Ferrars) are obsessed with maintaining their family’s place on the social ladder and potentially moving up the ladder through either marriage or simply associating with wealthier, higher class friends. These kinds of social dynamics are at play at the many events like dances, parties, dinners, and more casual gatherings where people can make acquaintances, develop friendships, and maybe even meet a future spouse. These events are governed by codes of behavior, manners, and proper speaking. Elinor, for example, always takes care to say the right thing, restrain her emotions, and not always say exactly what she is thinking while in the company of people like the Steeles, or even Mrs. Jennings. (Marianne, by contrast, is often unable to restrain herself, as shown by her angry outburst when Mrs. Ferrars insults Elinor’s painting.)

The high society Austen depicts is a complex, dangerous landscape through which characters have to navigate strategically. Indeed, the novel is at times like a complicated game, with all the characters like players competing with each other in an attempt to maximize their happiness and end up with the best husband, the largest fortune, or the nicest mansion. Lucy certainly approaches her social life like a game she is determined to win. The clever strategy of the novel’s characters is reflected in their witty conversations, artfully written letters, skillful persuasion, and meddling in others’ affairs. Elinor and Marianne are to some degree exceptions to this pattern. While they also participate in the same societal circles as other characters, they are less ruthless than someone like Lucy. They look out for each other and their own interests, but are less concerned with rising in society and besting others in competition for “Beaux” than they are with finding their own happiness. In the end, this strategy of mostly minding their own business and staying (to some degree) out of the games everyone else plays works out well for the Dashwood sisters, as they are at last successful in finding happy, comfortable marriages.

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Society and Strategy Quotes in Sense and Sensibility

Below you will find the important quotes in Sense and Sensibility related to the theme of Society and Strategy.
Chapter 3 Quotes

Some mothers might have encouraged the intimacy from motives of interest, for Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who had died very rich; and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence, for, except a trifling sum, the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother. But Mrs. Dashwood was alike uninfluenced by either consideration. It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality. It was contrary to every doctrine of hers that difference of fortune should keep any couple asunder who were attracted by resemblance of disposition.

Related Characters: Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor Dashwood, Edward Ferrars
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

A potential romantic interest is developing between Elinor and Edward Ferrars. Far more than in modern times, such a relationship in this milieu was not to be private and limited to the two people involved: instead, it was to be quickly wrapped up in broader economic and social questions involving the entire family and even other members of the community. Here we learn that Edward Ferrars could potentially be rich, but his wealth will depend on his mother's wishes. Austen often describes marriage as a kind of strategic game, and here the strategy of a mother would depend on her appetite for risk. 

Mrs. Dashwood, however, is described as lacking any sense of strategy in marrying off her daughters, instead preferring that love guide the way. In a way, Mrs. Dashwood is thus shown in a more positive light than other mothers who care about nothing other than climbing the social ladder. But this novel is also skeptical that love and "resemblance of disposition" alone is enough in arranging a marriage, which, after all, would be the main way by which a woman in particular could ensure stability at this time and place. Mrs. Dashwood's lack of prudence means that Elinor will be on her own in attempting to play the game of class-based social relationships. 

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Chapter 8 Quotes

Mrs. Jennings was a widow with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but to marry all the rest of the world. In the promotion of this object she was zealously active, as far as her ability reached; and missed no opportunity of projecting weddings among all the young people of her acquaintance.

Related Characters: Mrs. Jennings
Page Number: 38
Explanation and Analysis:

As the mother of two daughters, Mrs. Jennings is in the position of having to be clever and strategic, not necessarily to encourage her children to move up the social ladder, but simply because women in this society cannot possess wealth themselves and so have little other opportunity to ensure their own stability other than marrying someone who will grant it to them. Mrs. Jennings has accomplished this task, but she has obviously taken a liking to the strategic games of society marriages - enough so that she takes pleasure in pursuing this game with others unrelated to her as well. Mrs. Jenning's character is portrayed as a bit silly and obsessive, and yet at the same time it is an understandable projection of the way marriage must take place in this society.

Chapter 20 Quotes

Elinor was again obliged to decline her invitation; and by changing the subject, put a stop to her entreaties. She thought it probable that as they lived in the same county, Mrs. Palmer might be able to give some more particular account of Willoughby's general character, than could be gathered from the Middletons' partial acquaintance with him; and she was eager to gain from any one, such a confirmation of his merits as might remove the possibility of fear from Marianne.

Related Characters: Elinor Dashwood, Marianne Dashwood, John Willoughby, Charlotte Palmer
Page Number: 110-111
Explanation and Analysis:

Elinor has taken it upon herself to arrange her and her sisters' social affairs and invitations, since Marianne is too distraught over Willoughby and their mother is too flighty to be of much help. Here, she thinks strategically about which invitations to accept and which to avoid, as well as whom she might be in touch with in order to gain greater knowledge about Willoughby for Marianne's sake. In a society where friends might not see each other for weeks or months, and news traveled more slowly than it does today, people - especially women, who were less free to travel around alone - had to plan at greater length how to find out what they wished to know about people's characters and past lives.

Indeed, Elinor, while troubled by Marianne's feelings, takes the more pragmatic approach of attempting to figure out exactly what kind of a man Willoughby is, rather than of simply waiting for him as Marianne seems to be doing. Although Marianne might scorn Elinor's attitude towards romantic relationships, she remains unaware that her sister's practical, sensible mindset may well work in her favor.

Chapter 28 Quotes

Marianne, now looking dreadfully white, and unable to stand, sunk into her chair, and Elinor, expecting every moment to see her faint, tried to screen her from the observation of others, while reviving her with lavender water.

Related Characters: Elinor Dashwood, Marianne Dashwood
Page Number: 168
Explanation and Analysis:

Willoughby has done all that he could to avoid Marianne, and finally speaks to her coldly: she is absolutely shocked and hurt. Immediately, Elinor steps into disaster mode. She knows that Marianne is not only stricken with grief, but will not be able to hide anything that she is feeling, and if she cannot help her sister to "revive," then the entire party will soon know or guess just what has happened between Marianne and Willoughby. While Marianne is so sensitive that she can only deal with her own feelings, Elinor is well aware of how serious it would be for all of London's social scene to know about their private lives. As young women who are relatively vulnerable, lacking fortune or even paternal care, the two sisters cannot afford to have society scorn them, and Elinor wants to avoid this at all costs.

Chapter 37 Quotes

All that Mrs. Ferrars could say to make him put an end to the engagement, assisted too as you may well suppose by my arguments, and Fanny's entreaties, was of no avail. Duty, affection, every thing was disregarded. I never thought Edward so stubborn, so unfeeling before. His mother explained to him her liberal designs, in case of his marrying Miss Morton; told him she would settle on him the Norfolk estate, which, clear of land-tax, brings in a good thousand a-year; offered even, when matters grew desperate, to make it twelve hundred; and in opposition to this, if he still persisted in this low connection, represented to him the certain penury that must attend the match. His own two thousand pounds she protested should be his all; she would never see him again; and so far would she be from affording him the smallest assistance, that if he were to enter into any profession with a view of better support, she would do all in her power to prevent him advancing in it.

Related Characters: John Dashwood (speaker), Fanny Dashwood, Edward Ferrars, Mrs. Ferrars, Miss Morton
Page Number: 249-250
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Ferrars is absolutely hysterical upon learning of her son Edward's engagement with Lucy Steele, and here Marianne and Elinor learn, through John Dashwood, just how far Mrs. Ferrars will go to try to convince Edward to act according to her wishes. In close detail, John Dashwood describes exactly which financial and social rewards she dangles in front of her son, as well as the economic punishments that will ensue if Edward persists in marrying Lucy.

Mrs. Ferrars is acting according to her own understanding of what is proper for a particular social class. Lucy is far below Edward in both rank and income, so while her marriage to Edward would represent a step up for her (and a way to gain greater stability, of course), for Edward it can only represent a social failure. Mrs. Ferrars, however, takes something that is socially common at this time - a concern for class differences - and takes it to its absolute, absurd extreme. Edward, meanwhile, may no longer be in love with Lucy, but his sense of honor prevents him from breaking his engagement with her. Society of course respects honor as well, which is why some people will respect Edward's choice; for others, however, the economic and social clash represented by their engagement is simply too much to stand, so Mrs. Ferrars can only be in the right.

Chapter 49 Quotes

That Lucy had certainly meant to deceive, to go off with a flourish of malice against him in her message by Thomas, was perfectly clear to Elinor; and Edward himself, now thoroughly enlightened on her character, had no scruple in believing her capable of the utmost meanness of wanton ill-nature.

Related Characters: Elinor Dashwood, Edward Ferrars, Lucy Steele
Page Number: 341
Explanation and Analysis:

As Edward tells Elinor of his childhood infatuation with Lucy, a relationship that went on far longer than it should, she begins to understand better why Edward acted the way he did. As Edward grows in Elinor's esteem, Lucy falls correspondingly. Elinor had always been careful to remain kind and friendly to Lucy, even though she never lost her feelings for Lucy's fiancé, but now she recognizes that Lucy was constantly scheming and was far more conniving than she believed. In some ways, Lucy's behavior makes sense for a woman in a vulnerable social situation, determined to climb her way up in the world. But the novel is unequivocal about condemning the sneaky, deceptive way in which Lucy, for instance, does so. With Lucy's character now firmly in the open, Elinor can take solace in the fact that she need not feel sorry that she can now be with Edward.