The dichotomy between "sense" and "sensibility" is one of the lenses through which this novel is most commonly analyzed. The distinction is most clearly symbolized by the psychological contrast between the novel's two chief characters, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. According to this understanding, Elinor, the older sister, represents qualities of "sense": reason, restraint, social responsibility, and a clear-headed concern for the welfare of others. In contrast, Marianne, her younger sister, represents qualities of "sensibility": emotion, spontaneity, impulsiveness, and rapturous devotion. Whereas Elinor conceals her regard for Edward Ferrars, Marianne openly and unashamedly proclaims her passion for John Willoughby. Their different attitudes toward the men they love, and how to express that love, reflect their opposite temperaments.
This dichotomy between "sense" and "sensibility" has cultural and historical resonances as well. Austen wrote this novel around the turn of the eighteenth century, on the cusp between two cultural movements: Classicism and Romanticism. Elinor represents the characteristics associated with eighteenth-century neo-classicism, including rationality, insight, judgment, moderation, and balance. She never loses sight of propriety, economic practicalities, and perspective, as when she reminds Marianne that their mother would not be able to afford a pet horse or that it is indecorous for her to go alone with Willoughby to Allenham. It was during the Classical period and its accompanying cultural Enlightenment that the novel first developed as a literary genre: thus, with the character of Elinor, Austen gestures toward her predecessors and acknowledges the influence of their legacy on her generation. In contrast, Marianne represents the qualities associated with the emerging "cult of sensibility," embracing romance, imagination, idealism, excess, and a dedication to the beauty of nature: Marianne weeps dramatically when her family must depart from "dear, dear Norland" and willingly offers a lock of her hair to her lover. Austen's characterization of Marianne reminds us that she was the contemporary of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Walter Scott, the luminaries of the English Romantic literary scene. Austen's depiction of Elinor and Marianne thus reflects the changing literary landscape that served as a backdrop for her life as a writer.
However, this novel cannot simply be understood as a straightforward study in contrast. Elinor, though representing sense, does not lack passion, and Marianne, though representing sensibility, is not always foolish and headstrong. Austen's antitheses do not represent epigrammatic conclusions but a starting- point for dialogue. Although Austen is famous for satirizing the "cult of sensibility," in this novel she seems to argue not for the dismissal of sensibility but for the creation of a balance between reason and passion. Fanny Dashwood's violent outbreak of feeling towards the end of the novel reveals that too little feeling is as dangerous as too much. Both Elinor and Marianne achieve happiness at the end of the novel, but they do so only by learning from one another: together they discover how to feel and express their sentiments fully while also retaining their dignity and self-control. The novel's success is not a result of the triumph of sense over sensibility or of their division; rather, we remember Sense and Sensibility as a conjunction of terms that serve together as the compound subject of Austen's novel.