Sense and Sensibility

by: Jane Austen

Study Questions

1

Critics have claimed that the whole plot of Sense and Sensibility depends on the tension between what is concealed and what is shared with others--the private and the public. Do you agree with this statement?

Secrecy and concealment are very important themes in Sense and Sensibility. The attachments that form between the men and women in the novel usually begin in secrecy and only later become known to the public. For example, Lucy and Edward are engaged for four years before Lucy's older sister accidentally reveals this news to the public, and Colonel Brandon had been secretly in love with a woman named Eliza Williams before his father learned of the relationship. Marianne's relationship with Willoughby remains somewhat of a mystery because Marianne does not reveal any of the details to her mother or sister. Finally, Elinor keeps her feelings for Edward concealed beneath her cool and composed exterior. Sometimes, this concealment is warranted because of all the gossips, like Mrs. Jennings, who enjoy telling stories about others: to publicize a relationship is to expose it to catty remarks. However, all secrets are eventually revealed, whether intentionally or not. The unintentional revelations are often the most painful, as when Marianne learns of Willoughby's attachment to Miss Sophia Grey, and Elinor learns of the engagement between Edward and Lucy. The novel's crucial turns in plot occur during these moments of revelation; thus, to follow and analyze the plot is to follow and analyze these revelations. Austen's novel can therefore be seen as a weighing of the merits and disadvantages of secrecy in intimate relationships.

2

What were the advantages and disadvantages of Austen's decision to publish this novel anonymously?

The first edition of Sense and Sensibility was said only to be "by a lady." The second edition, also anonymous, contained on the title page the inscription "by the author of Pride and Prejudice," which had been issued in January 1813 (though Austen had not been credited on the title page of this novel either). Only Austen's immediate family knew of her authorship of these novels. And although publishing anonymously prevented her from acquiring an authorial reputation, it also enabled her to preserve her privacy at a time when entering the public sphere was associated with a reprehensible loss of femininity. Indeed, Austen used to write at Chawton behind a door that creaked when visitors approached; she would avail herself of this warning to hide her manuscript before they entered. Austen may have wanted anonymity not only because of her gender and a desire for privacy, but because of the more general atmosphere of repression pervading her era: Her early writing of Sense and Sensibility coincided with the treason trial of Thomas Hardy and the proliferation of government censors as the Napoleonic War progressed. Yet one must consider: perhaps if she had made her gender known, Austen could have made it easier for other women novelists to find acceptance in the publishing world; her books proved that women were intelligent, witty, and insightful just as men were. Women readers might have gained confidence to read this talented woman author. Moreover, perhaps some readers might have valued Austen's biting social commentary all the more had they known it was a woman's viewpoint; women's voices were rarely heard, and Austen was providing a first- hand glimpse into a woman's world and thoughts.


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