One day while visiting Barton Cottage, Willoughby proclaims his utter fondness for the little house and makes Mrs. Dashwood promise that she will never change a single inch of stone in the structure. The Dashwood women invite him to come to dinner the next day, and he agrees. However, when Elinor and Mrs. Dashwood return home that afternoon, they discover Marianne in tears and Willoughby on his way out the door. Willoughby informs them that he has been sent to London on business and will probably not return to Devonshire for the rest of the year. Mrs. Dashwood, suspecting that he and Marianne are secretly engaged, tries to convince herself that Willoughby had to leave so that Mrs. Smith would not learn of the attachment, but Elinor remains more skeptical and reminds her mother that they do not know if there is any such understanding between the two. Marianne, meanwhile, remains overcome by grief and cannot speak or eat.
Elinor and Colonel Brandon's discussion of "second attachments" is ironic in light of the eventual developments of the novel, for nearly every character except Elinor will ultimately fall in love more than once: Marianne has fallen for John Willoughby but will grow to love the more sensible and constant Colonel; the Colonel loves Marianne because, as we will soon learn, she reminds him of a woman he loved before; Edward Ferrars will marry Elinor only after a long engagement to Lucy Steele; John Willoughby professes his devotion to Marianne but then marries the wealthy Miss Sophia Grey; and even Mr. Henry Dashwood had two wives. In her discussion with the Colonel, Elinor seems to have no problem with second attachments, yet it is only she who marries the very first man she knows and loves.
When Marianne uses the term "attachment," she is referring to the deeply individualized, subjective feeling of falling in love, a term closely linked to the novel's notion of "sensibility." The counterpart of this term is "connection," which refers to a public bond that also entails an emotional "attachment," and is closely linked to the notion of "sense." Marianne's relationship with Willoughby is described as an "attachment," whereas, when Elinor speaks of her relationship to Edward, she points out the lack of any formal "connection" between them.
As in all of Austen's novels, marriage here is closely bound up with financial considerations. When reflecting on her sister's relationship with Willoughby, Elinor realizes that "marriage might not be immediately in [the pair's] power." This preoccupation with money in relation to marriage was highly warranted in Austen's day; marriage was for life, and insurance and social security did not exist; a couple needed a guaranteed source of income before they could settle down together. Jane Austen understood this problem personally. Her older sister Cassandra's engagement stretched on for several years because the marriage was postponed for lack of money.
Although Willoughby ultimately marries for money, he seems oblivious to all practical concerns in the early days of his relationship with Marianne. He offers her the gift of a horse even though, as Elinor reminds her sister, there is no way the Dashwoods can afford its upkeep. The horse is named Queen Mab, a reference to the fanciful "fairies' midwife" from Romeo and Juliet (Act I Scene 4), who supposedly rides her chariot across lovers' brains to create their magical dreams. These dreams, however, according to Shakespeare's Mercutio, are "begot of nothing but fantasy" and are "more inconstant than the wind," just as Marianne's dream of owning the horse can never come true and her Willoughby will prove a mercurial and inconstant lover. Given Willoughby's unfaithfulness, it is ironic that he insists that Mrs. Dashwood promise never to alter a single stone in Barton Cottage; a man who abandons one lover for another has hardly the right to demand that a building remain unchanged.
These chapters serve as a lens through which to study one of the most important themes in the novel, the role of appearances in the assessment and judgment of character. Elinor consistently and fiercely refrains from judging other characters on the basis of appearances alone. Although Mrs. Jennings claims early on that Colonel Brandon is interested in Marianne, Elinor is not convinced of this fact until Brandon approaches her directly to discuss Marianne's romantic proclivities. Similarly, although Mrs. Dashwood and Margaret conclude that Marianne and Willoughby are engaged, Elinor remains skeptical so long as the two refrain from formally announcing their engagement. Her discussion with her mother about Marianne's relationship to Willoughby in Chapter 15 reveals that while Mrs. Dashwood readily bases her faith on looks and gestures, Elinor requires that feelings be explicitly articulated. Mrs. Dashwood draws conclusions based on appearances alone, while Elinor suspends judgment until these appearances are confirmed by words. This is yet another example of the dichotomy in the novel's title.