The Dashwoods are surprised by the many invitations they receive in Devonshire, including several private balls at Barton Park. Marianne spends almost all of her time with Sir John Willoughby, who seems to have eyes for her alone. Elinor, however, is concerned by how open her sister is in her affections. She, unlike her sister, has no one whose company she truly enjoys, with the exception of Colonel Brandon. He, disappointed by Marianne's ardor for Willoughby, asks Elinor if her sister believes in "second attachments." Elinor must confess that Marianne's romantic sensibility seems bent on the ideal of love at first sight.
One morning, while Elinor and Marianne are out walking, the younger sister reveals that Willoughby offered her a horse, as a gift. The offer thrills Marianne, but Elinor gently reminds her sister how inconvenient and expensive the horse would be to maintain. She also tells Marianne that she doubts the propriety of receiving such a generous gift from a man she has known so briefly. Marianne insists that it does not necessarily take a long time for people to get to know each other well, though she ultimately concedes that owning a horse would be too much of a burden on their mother, who manages the household.
The next day, Margaret reports to Elinor that she saw Willoughby cut off a lock of Marianne's hair and kiss it, a sure sign of the pair's engagement. Elinor, nonetheless, warns her little sister not to jump to any conclusions.
Mrs. Jennings somehow learns that Elinor had affections for someone back at Norland. The old busybody tries to get Elinor to reveal the name of this "favourite," but Elinor insists that she had no such attachment. Finally, however, Margaret confirms that there was such a man, he was of no particular profession, and his name began with an 'F'. Elinor is extremely embarrassed by her sister's indiscretion.
The Dashwoods, Colonel Brandon, Willoughby, and the Middletons plan an excursion to Whitwell, an estate twelve miles from Barton belonging to Colonel Brandon's brother-in-law. However, just as they are about to set off, the Colonel receives an urgent letter calling him to town immediately. This disappoints the other members of the party; they encourage Brandon to postpone his trip, but he insists on leaving right away. He refuses to reveal the reason for his sudden departure, though Mrs. Jennings whispers to Elinor that she suspects he must attend to Miss Williams, whom she identifies as his natural daughter.
Since they cannot go to Whitwell without Colonel Brandon, the party instead decides to drive about the country in carriages. Marianne later confesses that during this excursion, Willoughby took her to his home at Allenham while his elderly relative, Mrs. Smith, was out. Elinor is appalled by the impropriety of such a visit, and she chastises her sister accordingly.
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.