Sense and Sensibility

by: Jane Austen

Chapters 33-36

Commentary

Austen's biting wit is quite evident here: as the omniscient narrator, she makes direct comments about her characters, and, within the story, she has some of her characters commment on other, less favorable figures. The first, more direct display of her wit is exemplified by her comments about the dinner party, hosted by Mr. and Mrs. John Dashwood:

John Dashwood had not much to say for himself that was worth hearing, and his wife still less. But there was no peculiar disgrace in this, for it was very much the case with the chief of their visitors, who almost all laboured under one or other of these disqualifications for being agreeable: want of sense, either natural or improved; want of elegance, want of spirits, or want of temper.

She passes judgment on her characters by pretending to cast their most negative attributes in a positive light: John Dashwood has nothing to say for himself, but there is "no particular disgrace" in this because his company is just as insipid as he. Usually, these acerbic observations are presented through Elinor's eyes, but here Austen, at her cruelest, satirizes her characters directly.

The more indirect display of Austen's wit is exemplified by the personality and behavior of Mr. Palmer. Just after the lengthy and elaborate debate between doting mothers about the relative heights of their children, Austen informs her readers that Mr. Palmer, the father of a newborn son, did not find his child to be different from any other newborn infant, "nor could he [Mr. Palmer] even be brought to acknowledge the simple proposition of its being the finest child in the world." Rather than informing her readers directly that Fanny Dashwood and Lady Middleton are irrational in their motherly affections, she accomplishes this through the character of Mr. Palmer, whose objectivity and indifference enable her to indirectly mock the mothers' excessive sentimentality.

From Fanny's dinner party to Mrs. Dennison's musical party, these chapters underscore the extent to which a seemingly endless series of invitations governs the lives of the women in Austen's novel. The Dashwood women travel to Barton at the invitation of Sir John; Elinor and Marianne travel to London at the invitation of Mrs. Jennings; Marianne visits Willoughby's estate at Allenham at his invitation. Indeed, formal invitations to others' homes structure the social lives of all of Austen's heroines, and thus, although they travel frequently and widely, the wills of others circumscribe their mobility. In contrast, the men of the novel have agency in addition to mobility. They can come and go as they wish regardless of the invitations and expectations of others: Willoughby proclaims unexpectedly that he must go to Devonshire on business; Colonel Brandon suddenly interrupts the outing to Whitwell because he has urgent business in London; Edward comes and goes in no particular pattern. While the plot of the entire novel is structured around the physical movement of characters, only the male characters fully control their travels.