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Clearly evident in these chapters are Austen's satiric voice and her keen understanding of human nature, particularly when she comments on the role of Lady Middleton's son as a conversation piece between the Dashwoods and the Middletons. She writes that:
Conversation... [was not lacking], for Sir John was very chatty, and Lady Middleton had taken the wise precaution of bringing with her their eldest child, a fine little boy about six years old; by which means there was one subject always to be recurred to by the ladies in case of extremity, for they had to enquire his name and age, admire his beauty, and ask him questions which his mother answered for him... On every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, by way of provision for discourse. In the present case it took up ten minutes to determine whether the boy were most like his father or mother, and in what particular he resembled either, for of course every body differed, and every body was astonished at the opinion of the others.
Here, Austen's use of the overarching, gnomic statements establishes a piercing irony. She writes that on every formal visit a child ought to be of the party, but knows, of course, that no one really cares which parent a child more closely resembles; Austen mocks all the ludicrous and rather irrelevant conversations devoted to this question.
Austen explains that Sir John tried to invite other guests to his home to greet the Dashwoods, but it was moonlight so everyone was already engaged. (Since moonlight made it easier to travel at night, social events were frequently scheduled on days around a full moon.) During this busy social period, Sir John was unable to invite any guests beyond his mother-in-law and his good friend Brandon; this is another subtle way of telling the reader that this family is not the most interesting or agreeable company.
Austen's opinion of her characters nearly always coincides with that of her heroine, Elinor Dashwood. Like the omniscient Austen, Elinor can appreciate the nobility of Colonel Brandon's gravity and reserve. Unlike Marianne, appearances do not dazzle the oldest sister: even though Willoughby at first seems like a considerate and kind gentleman, she immediately detects and becomes suspicious of his impulsivity and lack of prudence. In these chapters, as well as throughout the book, one can ascertain Austen's opinions of her characters by examining those of Elinor Dashwood.
As Elinor comes to appreciate Colonel Brandon as a man of good sense, Willoughby is increasingly characterized by excessive sensibility. Brandon, like herself, is well-read and wise, whereas Willoughby is overly romantic and headstrong like Marianne. Ironically, both of these men are attracted to Marianne, though Willoughby has much more in common with her. Marianne's own preference for Willoughby, and its disastrous consequences, reveal the danger of excessive sensibility and the importance of looking beyond appearances when judging human character.
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