Sense and Sensibility 17-20: The Miss Dashwoods Equalized

Here are my notes for Chapters 17-22 of Sense and Sensibility.

Plot Points

Before leaving the Dashwoods at Barton House, Edward Ferrars and the Miss Dashwoods discuss wealth, personality, and Edward’s general lack of purpose. Elinor is sad when he leaves, but disguises her disapointment. The Palmers visit the Dashwoods (via the Middletons), and then the Dashwoods visit the Palmers.

Character Commentary

Edward Ferrars gives off a depressing aura, even in his sarcastic poking fun of the differences between himself and Marianne Dashwood. In talking of his professional prospects, he comments “But unfortunately my own nicety and the nicety of my friends, have made me what I am, a idle, helpless being.” He carried a lock of Elinor’s hair, but is unable to shake the alleged influence of his mother on their future, and leaves the Dashwoods with the same unshakeable hesitance that Colonel Brandon and Mr. Willoughby did: “He had no pleasure at Norland; he detested being in town; but either to Norland or London he must go.”

Elinor Dashwood is still convinced (and reassured?) that the reason for Edward’s issues is his mother. She wonders when Mrs. Ferrars would allow “her son [to] be at liberty to be happy.” Elinor seeks to get through Edward’s leaving by remaining busy, not making a show of her emotions: the exact opposite of Marianne’s reaction to Willoughby’s departure.

Mr. Palmer and Mrs. (Charlotte) Palmer appear to be an odd match. She is lively and enthusiastic; he is reserved, serious, and borderline rude. Note Mrs. Dashwood’s reaction: “‘Mr Palmer does not hear me,’ [Charlotte] said, laughing. ‘He never does, sometimes. It is so rediculous!’ / This was quite a new idea to Mrs Dashwood; she had never been used to find wit in the inattention of anyone, and could not help looking with surprise at them both.” My reading of Charlotte is that she is not only perky, but that she uses that perk to cover up the otherwise unpleasant inattentiveness of her husband.

I am interested in Austen’s use of “the opposite” to describe characters. Perhaps if the reader is familiar with a character, then saying that another is “quite unlike her in every respect”, as is done in the case of Mrs. Palmer to Mrs. Dashwood, is an effective tool.

Themes and Threads

We have seen several characters disappoint the Miss Dashwoods thus far: Mr. Willoughby and Edward Ferrars chief among them. And in these cirucumstances, Austen’s comparison of the two sisters continues. Elinor’s reaction to Edward Ferrars contrasts greatly with that of her younger sister’s: “But as it was her determination to subdue it, and to prevent herself from appearing to suffer more than what all her family suffered on his going away, she did not adopt the method so judiciously employed by Marianne… Their means were as different as their objects, and equally suited to the advancement of each.”

Here, the comparison is explicitly stated by the narrator, and is continued as the reaction of Marianne is explained: “Such behaviour as this, so exactly the reverse or her own, appeared no more meritorious to Marianne than her own had seemed faulty to her.” The two sisters are quite resolved in their opinions of how best to deal with such an event as a lover leaving town. One factor which might be taken in to account is the level to which love is possessed in each case; however, I’m not ready to say that Elinor has less of a feeling for Edward than Marianne has of Willoughby. Marianne’s view of her sister is not completely cold, though, as she sees her sister’s suppression of sorrow and affections to be a “mortifying conviction.”


“‘Elinor, for shame!’ said Marianne; ‘money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it. Beyond a competenc, it can afford no real satisfaction, as far as mere self is concerned.'”

“She came hallooing to the window, ‘How do you do, my dear?'”

Looking Ahead

The Dashwoods seem to be restricting their social capacity in rejecting the inviations for parties and visits by the Palmers and Middletons. Now that both have had a boyfriend-exit event, is there something different between them or about their situation?

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One Comment on “Sense and Sensibility 17-20: The Miss Dashwoods Equalized”

  1. Sylwia Says:

    Good observation about “the opposite”. Austen uses it often. IMO it’s more than just characterisation. Austen lived in times of a very clear social transition – from the social to the individual; from enlightenment to romanticism; from sense to sensibility. Her books are kind of moral tales without moralising, so she uses the opposites to draw the golden means.

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