Henry Dashwood lived at Norland Park in Sussex, England, a property owned by his wealthy uncle. Henry had three daughters by his current wife and one son from a prior marriage. When his uncle died, Norland was left to Henry’s son John and John’s own son. This left Henry’s three daughters without much of a fortune, and when he died, he asked John to look after his half-sisters. John, in response, plans to give his sisters 3000 pounds each, but his wife Fanny quickly persuades him not to do this, so that their own son will have that money. Henry’s widow, Mrs. Dashwood, and her three daughters (the rational and self-controlled Elinor, the sensitive Marianne, and the young Margaret) stay at Norland for several months after Henry’s death. Mrs. Dashwood despises Fanny, but Elinor becomes close with Fanny’s brother, Edward Ferrars. Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne think he and Elinor will marry. A relative of Mrs. Dashwood, Sir John Middleton, writes to her and offers her a place to live on his property, Barton Park. Mrs. Dashwood accepts the offer, and moves to a cottage on Sir John’s property with her daughters. The Dashwoods meet Sir John and his wife, Lady Middleton, often attending dinners and balls at their home. They also meet Lady Middleton’s mother, a kind but gossipy old woman named Mrs. Jennings, who enjoys predicting and encouraging budding romances. Another frequent guest at the Middletons’ home is Colonel Brandon, a friend of Sir John and a 35 year-old bachelor. It quickly becomes apparent that Brandon loves Marianne, but Marianne thinks the idea of marrying a man so old and as lacking in taste as she thinks Brandon to be is ridiculous.
One day, The Dashwood sisters go out for a walk in the country. When it begins to rain suddenly, they run back toward their cottage, but Marianne trips and falls. A gentleman who happens to be passing by picked her up and gallantly carries her home. He introduces himself as Willoughby. Soon after, the Dashwoods see Willoughby again at dinner at Barton Park. Sir John tells Marianne that Willoughby is “very well worth catching,” and she begins to grow fond of him. Willoughby often visits the Dashwood cottage and spends much time with Marianne. They share many of the same opinions and tastes in art, music, and literature. Mrs. Dashwood guesses that they might become engaged. Marianne and Willoughby grow closer and closer, as the Dashwoods continue to attend numerous social events at Barton Park. Margaret sees Marianne give Willoughby a lock of her hair, and assumes that they are engaged. One evening at Barton Park, Mrs. Jennings asks Elinor if she had any man whom she was fond of, and Margaret lets slip that Elinor is taken by someone whose name began with an F. The next day, a large group assembles at Barton Park to make an expedition to Colonel Brandon’s brother-in-law’s property. However, Brandon receives a letter and suddenly has to leave for London, cancelling the planned trip. Everyone decides to pass the day by driving around the country, and Willoughby and Marianne go off in one carriage to his aunt’s property, Allenham, which he is likely to inherit, and they survey it together. Over the next few days, Willoughby continues to behave as though he is in love with Marianne.
However, one day Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor, and Margaret return from Barton Park to find Willoughby’s carriage outside their cottage. When they go inside, Marianne is in tears and greatly upset. Willoughby informs them that he has to leave for London indefinitely on business. Elinor is slightly suspicious of Willoughby, as no one knows for sure whether he and Marianne are actually engaged. After Willoughby’s departure, Marianne falls into extreme sadness. One day, she and Elinor go for a walk outside. They see a gentleman approaching and Marianne is sure it’s Willoughby. When the man gets closer, though, they see that it’s Edward Ferrars. Oddly, though, Edward seems ill at ease and unhappy, rather than overjoyed to see Elinor. Marianne notices a ring on his hand with a lock of hair in it. Edward says it is Fanny’s hair, though Elinor and Marianne both think it looks like Elinor’s. Elinor imagines that he had secretly gotten it from her somehow. After about a week, Edward leaves, without proposing. Soon after, the Middletons host Lady Middleton’s sister, Charlotte Palmer at Barton Park and introduce her and her husband to the Dashwoods. The Palmers know Willoughby and seem to think that Marianne and he are engaged, though Elinor is not so sure. After the Palmers depart, the Middletons have more guests: Anne and Lucy Steele, two young sisters and relatives of Mrs. Jennings. Elinor and Marianne do not particularly like the Steele sisters, who talk of nothing but their prospective boyfriends and romantic conquests. At one point, Sir John mentions that Elinor is in love with Edward Ferrars, and Anne responds that they know Edward well, though Lucy corrects her and says that they don’t know him that well. As Lucy and Elinor are walking outside one day, Lucy asks if Elinor knows Edward’s mother, Mrs. Ferrars. She explains that she is secretly engaged to Edward, and has been for four years. Because Lucy has no real fortune, they feared that Mrs. Ferrars, Edward’s mother, would disapprove of the marriage. Lucy shows Elinor a letter from Edward and mentions that she had given him a lock of hair, which he keeps in a ring.
Elinor is shocked, but can’t doubt the truth of Lucy’s story. She wonders whether Edward had intentionally deceived her in encouraging her affections for him. Soon after this, Elinor takes the opportunity to ask Lucy more about her engagement after a party at Barton Park. Lucy says that she and Edward are in love, but likely will have to wait until Mrs. Ferrars died to marry. As January comes around, Mrs. Jennings invites Elinor and Marianne to stay with her in London. Elinor doesn’t want to go, as she knows that Edward is going to be in London in February, but Marianne desperately wants to go so that she can perhaps see Willoughby. The two sisters leave Margaret and their mother behind at Barton to go stay in London for some time. As soon as they get to London, Marianne writes to Willoughby, but doesn’t hear back from him. Instead, Colonel Brandon often pays visits to the Dashwood sisters. Marianne is anxious about not hearing from Willoughby, and unable to enjoy the social events they attend in the city. Elinor writes to her mother, begging her to ask Marianne clearly whether she is engaged to Willoughby or not. Finally, when Elinor and Marianne go to a party with Lady Middleton, they see Willoughby there. Willoughby is cold to Marianne and mostly ignores her. Marianne has to leave the party immediately, in despair. The next morning, a letter arrives from Willoughby, and after reading it Marianne is “almost choked by grief.” In the letter Willoughby disavows any romantic attachment to her and tells her that he is engaged to someone else. Elinor and Marianne are both deeply shocked at Willoughby’s sudden change of behavior, and Elinor tries to comfort her sister. She urges Marianne to restrain her emotions, but Marianne responds that she can’t pretend to be all right when she’s miserable.
News of Willoughby’s engagement to a wealthy Miss Grey spreads. Elinor learns that Marianne and Willoughby were never formally engaged, and that Willoughby only ever implied his love for her. Mrs. Jennings tries to cheer Marianne up, predicting that she will now marry Colonel Brandon. Having heard about the unfortunate news with Willoughby, Colonel Brandon pays a visit to Elinor one day, and passes along some news that he thinks might help Marianne. In order to explain, he has to tell Marianne about a woman named Eliza, whom he had been in love with a long time ago. Eliza and Brandon were deeply in love, but she was married against her will to Brandon’s brother. Brandon and Eliza tried to elope, but were caught. Brandon then left the country to serve in the military, and during that time Eliza was seduced by numerous men and ended up divorcing Brandon’s brother. When Colonel Brandon returned to the country, he found her confined to a house because of debt, dying of consumption. She had an illegitimate daughter, also named Eliza, whom he promised to take care of. Colonel Brandon had looked after this daughter as she grew up, but this past year she had disappeared after a trip with friends to Bath. While Brandon was at Barton Park, he received a letter that informed him that Eliza had been seduced by Willoughby, who had gotten her pregnant and then abandoned her. This was why Brandon had left Barton so suddenly. Elinor is shocked to learn this about Willoughby, but is grateful for Brandon’s honesty. She tells Marianne the news, but it doesn’t make her feel any better. Having formerly believed Willoughby to be an upstanding gentleman, she now mourns “the loss of Willoughby’s character.” Meanwhile, Colonel Brandon and Elinor talk often, and Elinor begins to value him as a friend. Mrs. Jennings concludes that Colonel Brandon will soon propose to Elinor.
Elinor finally persuades Marianne to leave the house, and they go with Mrs. Jennings to a jeweler, where they meet an obnoxious gentleman ordering a toothpick case. While at the store, Elinor also runs into her brother John, who has just arrived in town. The next day, he visits Elinor and Marianne, meeting Mrs. Jennings, Colonel Brandon, and the Middletons. He tells Elinor that he is sure Brandon is interested in her, and congratulates her. He also mentions that Mrs. Ferrars has arranged for Edward to marry a wealthy woman named Miss Morton. After John and Fanny get to know the Middletons, the Steeles, and Mrs. Jennings, they invite all them (as well as the Dashwood sisters) to a dinner, along with Mrs. Ferrars. Elinor is interested to finally meet Mrs. Ferrars, and Lucy is particularly anxious to see her possible future mother-in-law. At the dinner, Mrs. Ferrars is rude to Elinor, whom she evidently disliked, but—much to Lucy’s delight—seems very fond of Lucy. Soon after this, Marianne and Elinor go to a party with Fanny and John. There, Elinor sees the gentleman from the jewelry store, and learns that he was Edward’s brother, Robert Ferrars.
About two weeks later, Mrs. Jennings tells Elinor that Lucy and Edward’s secret engagement has become known. Fanny became hysterical when she learned of it, and kicked Lucy out of her home, where both the Steele sisters had been staying. The next day, John visits and reveals that when Mrs. Ferrars found out about Edward’s secret engagement she disinherited and essentially disowned Edward. Nonetheless, Edward refused to break off the engagement. A few days later, Elinor encounters Lucy’s sister Anne in Kensington Gardens. Anne says that Edward offered Lucy the chance to leave him, since he no longer has a substantial fortune, but she refused, so they were going ahead with the engagement. The next morning, Elinor receives a letter from Lucy saying that she and Edward are happy together in spite of everything and that he is going to become a priest and that, once they had an established living somewhere, they would marry.
After spending over two months in London, Marianne and Elinor finally make plans to go back to Barton Cottage, first stopping for a visit with the Palmers at their home, Cleveland. Before they leave, Colonel Brandon pays a visit and Mrs. Jennings overheard part of the conversation and thinks that Brandon is proposing to Elinor. In reality, he is telling her that he is going to offer Edward a living on his estate, Delaford. As this would allow Edward and Lucy to marry, Elinor is greatly distressed (which she hid from Brandon). Soon after Brandon leaves, Edward arrives, and Elinor tells him the news. He is immensely grateful, and leaves to thank Brandon. Mrs. Jennings returns and finally realizes that Brandon had not proposed to Elinor. Before leaving London, Elinor meets with John and Fanny, and learns that Robert Ferrars is now going to marry Miss Morton instead of Edward. Robert has received all the inheritance that was formerly going to go to Edward.
At the Palmer’s home at Cleveland, Marianne comes down with a terrible cold. She is so sick that Mrs. Jennings thinks she was going to die, and Elinor sends Colonel Brandon to Barton to get Mrs. Dashwood. Marianne finally begins to recover. As Elinor sits by her sleeping sister, she hears a carriage outside. But it turns out to be Willoughby, not Barton. Elinor tells him to leave, but he insists on speaking to her. He begs to be allowed to explain his behavior. He says that when he first met the Dashwoods, he had no intentions of finding a wife, but simply enjoyed spending time with Marianne. He was “careless of her happiness,” and didn’t have any intention of “returning her affection.” Yet he did fall in love with her. He had been expecting to inherit some wealth from his aunt Mrs. Smith, but after she learned about his affair with Eliza, she disinherited him. Now Willoughby was desperate for wealth, and a marriage with Marianne was entirely out of the question. So, he married Miss Grey for her money, even though he didn’t really love her. It pained him to ignore Marianne in London, and when he received letters from her, Miss Grey became suspicious and read them. She was upset and dictated a letter for Willoughby to send back. (So, the hurtful letter from Willoughby to Marianne was actually composed by Miss Grey.) Willoughby calls himself a fool and a scoundrel and apologizes profusely. Elinor largely forgives Willoughby and pities his situation. He leaves, and soon after Mrs. Dashwood and Colonel Brandon arrive.
Mrs. Dashwood delightedly tells Elinor that Brandon had told her on the journey to Cleveland that he is in love with Marianne, and that she approves of their marriage. Marianne recovers fully, and the Dashwoods return to Barton Cottage. On a long walk outside, Marianne tells Elinor that her illness has made her think back on her life, and she regrets her improper behavior with Willoughby, as well as her rude contempt for Mrs. Jennings, Fanny, John, the Steeles, and the Middletons. She resolves to dedicate her life from now on to her family and to keep her emotions in check. She says that she has gotten over Willoughby, and only wishes that she could know that he hadn’t always been lying to her. Elinor takes this chance to tell her what Willoughby had recently revealed. Marianne receives this news relatively calmly, and tells Elinor to tell their mother. Soon after this, Elinor learns from a servant that Lucy and “Mr. Ferrars” have married. Elinor and Marianne are both greatly upset by this news.
Colonel Brandon is due to soon visit soon, and Elinor looks forward to his arrival. Just when she is expecting him, though, someone else arrives: Edward. He tells her that he hasn’t married Lucy; his brother Robert has! Elinor cries tears of joy. Edward explains that he had foolishly become engaged to Lucy when he was too young and idle. They didn’t really love each other, and she had left him for his wealthier brother. He now proposes to Elinor, who accepts, to the delight of her sisters and mother.
Mrs. Ferrars eventually forgives Edward, returns some of his inheritance to him, and reluctantly approves of his marriage to Elinor. Elinor and Edward settle at Delaford, where Elinor’s sisters and mother often visit. Elinor, Edward, and Mrs. Dashwood all wish that Marianne would marry Colonel Brandon and indeed she gradually grows more and more fond of him. She changes her stubborn opinions about love and allows herself to learn to love Brandon. After they marry, Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters maintain close ties and a “strong family affection.” Elinor and Marianne enjoy happy marriages as well as a close relationship with each other.