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.
Women in Society Theme Icon

Set in the late 1700s, Austen’s novel takes place in a world where there are limited roles and opportunities for women in society. Austen’s female characters do not inherit property and cannot have careers. Their futures and fortunes depend almost exclusively on the men they marry and they are expected to be dutiful, upstanding ladies of society. But, Austen depicts her female characters as thoughtful, clever, ambitious, and sometimes scheming women. Even while living within a male-dominated world, characters like Lucy, Fanny, and Mrs. Ferrars are able to exert some power and agency. Lucy persistently and tenaciously chases after what she wants, even speaking of “conquests” of men, and eventually does find herself with a suitably wealthy husband in Robert Ferrars. Fanny, meanwhile, practically controls her husband, persuading him not to give any money to his half-sisters at the beginning of the novel and not to invite them to stay with them in London. And Mrs. Ferrars holds power insofar as she determines whether her sons inherit their family fortune and tries (mostly unsuccessfully) to determine their courses of action. Admittedly, these are not the novel’s most admirable characters, but they do illustrate how women can find some power and agency even within a sexist society that boxes women into limited gender roles. Other female characters, like Mrs. Jennings, also find ways of attaining some power, through orchestrating important social interactions like dances, dinners, and parties.

But despite these examples, women of the novel are often at the mercy of the male-dominated society in which they live. Eliza and her daughter (also named Eliza), who is abandoned by Willoughby, exemplify this. Without husbands, they are left in desperate situations. Elinor and Marianne are constantly confronting the threat of this kind of fate, should they be unable to find a husband. As Elinor tells Marianne, she should be thankful that her time with Willoughby did not leave her like Eliza. Only by marrying eligible men can both sisters get a guarantee of a stable, comfortable life. Austen’s novel thus presents the dangers and limited possibilities for women in a rigidly patriarchal society, while also showing how some women in such a society can still find ways of exercising certain forms of power and influence.

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Women in Society Quotes in Sense and Sensibility

Below you will find the important quotes in Sense and Sensibility related to the theme of Women in Society.
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.


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