Posted tagged ‘Genealogy’

Sense and Sensibility: Getting Started

January 2, 2009

Chapter 1 of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility being not only the first chapter of said book but the first chapter I’ve read by said author, I’m paying special attention to it. I believe I’ve gathered enough information to get Sense kickstarted; ie, it is a generally satisfying first chapter. For my reading of this novel, I’m using the Wordsworth Classics edition, printed in paperback in 2000.

Plot Points

Here, Austen seems to be introducing me to the major characters, with an emphasis on the genealogy necessary to understand a potential main conflict for the novel. I feel that there is not a lot that happens; the story is given as a summary. Perhaps that is necessary, or even ultimately preferred to the alternative. We’ll see. In any event, Mr. John Dashwood is now in possession of the Dashwood inheritance, which includes the estate and monies which have been dedicated to his step-sisters. He, his wife, and young son have moved in with his step-mom and said step-sisters upon his father’s death.

Character Commentary

Now we get to the interesting pieces: the unique personalities created for this universe. The short-lived Mr. Henry Dashwood has one son and three daughters: Mr. John Dashwood, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret. I can already sense what is coming with regard to the Elinor-versus-Marianne interplay. Elinor, by Austen’s own admission, has a “coolness of judgment”; she is level-headed “though only nineteen.” Marianne “could have no moderation,” and is like her mother, Mrs. Dashwood, in this regard: “They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction.” Of note, the elder owner of the Dashwood estate at Norland Park is not given a name. He is simply the “late owner of this estate” and an “old gentleman,” the uncle of Henry Dashwood.

In Context

Clearly, 19th century social constructs and norms are incited: the Dashwood (Norland?) estate as property; male primacy (and female dependence); division of family members due to lack of blood relation. Do “Mrs. Dashwood” and “Mrs. John Dashwood” have first names? Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret do; they’re not married, I suppose.

Language: Diction & Thesaur

The word “propriety” subtly stands out in two contexts. I think I can safely infer that the alleged meaning of “propriety” among these uses is the same—each is penned by the same author and within close proximity; however, the contexts of this judgmental (as Austen is surely judging the characters in its use) word offers valuable information about the relevant characters (and possible Austen herself [or her thought process, and thus social construct?]), I submit.

In describing Mr. John Dashwood: “but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties.” Austen goes on to say that Mrs. John Dashwood is less than amiable, and thus a detractor to his respect, and that “he was very young when he married, and very fond of his wife.” Mrs. John Dashwood is “more narrow-minded and selfish” and affects her husband’s respectability thusly. For John Dashwood, acting with “propriety” is a means to respect, in which the ordinary duties he succeeds, though he acts against it to secure a familial relationship.

In describing Mrs. [Henry] Dashwood (his step-mother) three paragraphs later, Austen points out that, upon threat of leaving the estate, she is successfully convinced to stay by Elinor: “… she would have quitted the house for ever, had not the entreaty of her eldest girl induced her first to reflect upon the propriety of going … and for their sakes avoid a breach with their brother.” Although she is angry and “did … despise her daughter-in-law,” she consciously makes a decision to preserve her position (and her daughters’) for the better. She acts toward propriety to secure a familial relationship.

I think that “propriety” can be substituted for “appropriateness” in both of these cases. But, Mr. John Dashwood acts appropriately to secure respect in normal affairs; his step-mother acts appropriately to maintain a familial relationship. Is the maintenance of relationships among the “ordinary duties” for her? Surely, Mrs. Henry Dashwood has a financial reason to do so, and apparently, Mr. John Dashwood has the luxury to break propriety in the getting of his wife. I can think of a few possibilities for this discrepancy; what are their differences? Age, sex, financial status, social status, marital status, committment/dependency requirements… In any (or all?) case(s), there’s a bit of a double standard apparent through the use of this choice of diction.


A few remarks by the narrator jump out at me. As a first-time reader (a tag I don’t intend to hide behind for long), I’m not sure if some of this is sarcasm, comedy, or just akin to when a college professor told me not to talk in such “high and verbose language.”

“He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold-hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed…”

As referenced earlier: “They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction.”

Looking Ahead

Very little is said of Margaret, (“the other sister”!). Maybe she’ll come into play later, to help anchor (narratologically) some conflict between the other sisters. After reading the first chapter, my expectation is that the two (Elinor/Marianne) will do battle: the title implies as much.