The opening discussion of money and marriage immediately establishes the important role that ordinary economic concerns will play in Austen's novel. Unlike the authors of Gothic and sentimental novels fashionable in her day, Austen refuses to romanticize; she recognizes that material realities constrain love and marriage. Nonetheless, she allows some of this sentimentality to seep into the novel, and the tension between reasonable economic concerns and overly romantic dreaming will constitute an important theme in the novel.
Indeed, this tension is already apparent in the characters of Elinor and Marianne, between the older sister's "sense" and the younger sister's "sensibility," the duality which the novel's title refers to. Elinor, age nineteen, is described as having a "strength of understanding" and "coolness of judgment", as well as the ability to govern and control her feelings. She modestly states that she "greatly esteems" Edward Ferrars, a remark typical of her rational, sensible attitude. In contrast, her younger sister Marianne, who more closely resembles their mother, is "everything but prudent." She longs for a man with taste, grace, spirit, and fire in his eyes, and considers her sister cold-hearted in her calm and tempered regard for Edward Ferrars. Their younger sister Margaret, age thirteen, also shares Marianne's excessive romanticism. Elinor thus stands out in her family as the only sensible and rational woman.
The sensibility of Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood manifests itself in their excessive mourning over the deaths of the two men, in contrast to Elinor's more silent grief. Not only are they overcome by sadness at the loss of first Old Mr. Dashwood and then Henry, but they then carry on dramatically about having to leave Norland and move to the smaller cottage. Before departing, Marianne wanders the grounds of Norland uttering a histrionic elegy: "Dear, dear Norland... Oh! happy house... And you, ye well-known trees!" Elinor, however, experiences a far more subdued depression--though she is leaving behind not just her home but also a man she has grown to deeply care for and admire.
The early chapters also display the wry irony for which Austen is so famous as a novelist. She is unsparingly critical of the characters she dislikes, but conveys her criticism with a pointed subtlety, which makes it all the more forceful. For example, in the opening chapter, Austen sketches the character of John Dashwood in three masterful sentences, achieving a biting acerbity: the author begins elliptically with a double negative, only slyly to refute it: "He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold-hearted and rather selfish is to be ill-disposed..." She then ends the paragraph by explicitly skewering both John and his wife: "Mrs. John Dashwood was a strong caricature of himself; more narrow-minded and selfish." Austen thus relies on understatement and irony to reveal her feelings towards her more disagreeable characters.