Mrs. Jennings returns from a visit to her daughter and her baby with a piece of gossip she has heard from a doctor who attended the baby: Anne Steele has indiscreetly blurted out to Fanny Dashwood the news of Lucy’s engagement to Edward. Fanny has gone into hysterics with shock, and she and John have ejected the Steeles from their house. Mrs. Jennings feels exasperated by Fanny’s attitude and hopes that Lucy and Edward do marry.
Elinor keeps her composure as she tells Marianne of the news. Marianne sees Edward as a second Willoughby, and weeps excessively. Under Marianne’s questioning, Elinor has to reveal that she has known of the engagement for four months, but kept it secret out of a duty to Lucy and to her own family, whom she did not want to distress. Marianne is amazed at Elinor’s calmness. Elinor explains that although she loved Edward, she also loves others, and was glad to spare them the distress she once felt; now, she can think of him with little pain. Marianne suggests that perhaps Elinor did not feel the loss of Edward seriously, as it could so easily be compensated for by other comforts. But Elinor disabuses her of this notion: she has had to suffer being placed in the role of confidant by the person (Lucy) who was blocking her own prospects of happiness with Edward; unlike Marianne, she did not have the solace of knowing that the object of her affection was unworthy; and she had to put up with the animosity of the Ferrarses without the compensation of enjoying an actual relationship with Edward. She has been, she says, very unhappy, and her composure has been the product of “constant and painful exertion.” Marianne feels ashamed at her own behavior, especially as Elinor was comforting her (Marianne) at a time when Elinor herself was suffering.
John Dashwood calls on Elinor and Marianne and laments the terrible betrayal of his wife by the Steeles. He reports that Fanny now wishes she had invited Elinor and Marianne to stay instead. He adds that Mrs. Ferrars summoned Edward and tried to make him give up his engagement, even offering as a bribe her Norfolk estate if he would marry Miss Morton instead, but he refused. Mrs. Ferrars disinherited Edward, said she never wanted to see him again, and vowed to block his advancement in any profession. Still Edward refused to give up Lucy. Mrs. Jennings exclaims that Edward has done the right thing, but John believes that Mrs. Ferrars’ action is justified. Edward now only has a lump sum of two thousand pounds to live on. Mrs. Ferrars has decided to make Robert, her younger son, the heir to her estate.
After John leaves, Mrs. Jennings, Elinor, and Marianne join in condemning Mrs. Ferrars’ actions.
Elinor and Marianne admire Edward’s stance because they are conscious that he has sacrificed his fortune for the meager reward of the dubious honor of marrying Lucy, and the consciousness of having done his duty by her.
Marianne continues to compare herself unfavorably with Elinor for making life painful for herself and her family and friends, and reproaches herself severely.
Anne Steele encounters Elinor and discounts rumors that Edward had been planning to give up Lucy following his clash with his mother. By eavesdropping on the couple from behind a door, Anne has learnt that Edward, after considering that he would only have a modest two thousand pounds and a possible position as a church curate, felt himself honor bound to offer to release Lucy from her engagement to him. But Lucy would not hear of this, and stated that she still wanted to marry him, even in his reduced circumstances. Edward and Lucy agreed that he should take holy orders immediately, and that they will wait until he is given a living (position as a curate or rector of a parish church) before they marry.
When Elinor reports to Mrs. Jennings the substance of Anne’s story, Mrs. Jennings comments that Edward will likely only get a poor curacy, and that he and Lucy will struggle in poverty.
Elinor receives a letter from Lucy which somewhat contradicts the version of her story that Anne gave. According to Lucy, it was she who had felt it her duty to offer to release Edward from their engagement, out of consideration for his future welfare. But Edward, she writes, would not hear of it. Lucy thanks Elinor for her kindness in the past and asks her to help in looking out for a living for Edward.
Marianne is impatient to return home. Mr. and Mrs. Palmer invite Mrs. Jennings, Elinor, and Marianne to stay with them at their house in Cleveland. Cleveland is in Somerset, where Willoughby’s estate is located, so Marianne cannot bear the thought of going there, but Elinor feels it is the easiest way of making the long journey back to Devon, which is only one day’s travel beyond Cleveland.
Colonel Brandon visits. In private conversation with Elinor, he says he has heard of Edward’s predicament and judges Mrs. Ferrars’ behavior as cruel in the extreme. He wants to offer Edward a modest living in Delaford, which is on his estate, and asks Elinor to convey this offer to Edward. Colonel Brandon says that the parsonage is small and feels that the income from the living can only stretch to making Edward comfortable as a bachelor: it is not enough to support a wife and family. Elinor, on the other hand, expects that Edward and Lucy will be able to marry now.
Mrs. Jennings eavesdrops on the conversation between Elinor and Colonel Brandon, and she hears just enough to convince her that Colonel Brandon has proposed to Elinor. This misunderstanding leads to a conversation at cross-purposes between her and Elinor, from which she concludes that Elinor and Colonel Brandon want Edward to perform the marriage service after he has taken holy orders.
Elinor is pondering what to write in her note to Edward when he arrives. He is due to go to Oxford the next day. Elinor tells him of Colonel Brandon’s offer of the living in Delaford. Edward is surprised at Colonel Brandon’s generosity, and feels that Elinor must have persuaded him into such a kindness, but she corrects him. Edward seems less than thoroughly overjoyed, but sets off to call on Colonel Brandon in order to thank him.
Mrs. Jennings returns, and Elinor is able to make her understand the true situation regarding Colonel Brandon. Mrs. Jennings knows the parsonage, and says that though Colonel Brandon describes it as small, it has five sitting-rooms on the ground floor.
Elinor pays a duty call on Fanny Dashwood, Mrs. Jennings and Marianne having refused to visit her. A servant tells Elinor that Fanny is not receiving visitors, but at that moment, John Dashwood comes out of the house and invites her in. He asks Elinor if it is true that Colonel Brandon has given a living to Edward. When Elinor confirms it, John can hardly believe that Colonel Brandon has passed up a chance of selling the living on the open market for a good price. He asks Elinor not to talk to Fanny about the living, as it would upset her. Mrs. Ferrars as yet does not know that Edward’s marriage to Lucy has been brought forward, or that he has been given the living. Elinor cannot understand why Mrs. Ferrars would care, since she has cast off Edward, but John is certain that consciousness of an imminent marriage would affect her very much.
John reveals that the Ferrarses now expect Robert to marry Miss Morton. He tells Elinor that Mrs. Ferrars would have been happier to see Elinor marry Edward than Lucy. Robert Ferrars enters, and seems happy with his new status as Mrs. Ferrars’ favorite son. He derives great amusement from the idea of Edward being a clergyman. He has told Mrs. Ferrars that if Edward marries Lucy, he will never see his brother again. He dismisses Lucy as “The merest awkward country girl.” He believes it is right that Edward be “starved” by being disinherited in punishment for marrying against his mother’s wishes.
Fanny Dashwood is brought in by her husband, and makes more of an effort than usual to be polite to Elinor.
Elinor and Marianne set off with Mrs. Jennings, the Palmers, and Colonel Brandon on the journey to the Palmers’ house in Cleveland. At this point, Mrs. Jennings and John Dashwood expect Elinor to marry Colonel Brandon.
On arriving at Cleveland, Marianne is painfully conscious that they are only thirty miles from Combe Magna, Willoughby’s estate. She decides to go for regular solitary walks to a mound in the grounds from which she can gaze over the hills in the direction of Combe.
Elinor finds Mrs. Palmer kind, and Mr. Palmer a perfect gentleman with the visitors, albeit he is rude to his wife and her mother.
Marianne’s habit of taking long walks leads to her catching a heavy cold, which worries Colonel Brandon.
Marianne’s illness worsens, and a doctor pronounces that she has an infection. On the advice of her mother, Charlotte Palmer takes her baby and goes to stay with a relative of her husband. Mrs. Jennings resists Charlotte’s entreaties to go with her, refusing to leave Marianne when she is ill. Elinor is forced to put off their departure for home, as Marianne is too sick to travel. The next day, Mr. Palmer leaves, unwillingly, to join his wife. Colonel Brandon talks of leaving, too, but he is persuaded to stay by Mrs. Jennings. Eager to give him and Marianne the chance to be together, Mrs. Jennings claims that she needs him to keep her company while Elinor is nursing Marianne.
The days pass, and Marianne grows worse. Both Colonel Brandon and Mrs. Jennings fear that she might die. In her feverish delirium, she calls for her mother. When Elinor reports this to Colonel Brandon, he rides off to fetch Mrs. Dashwood. Elinor fears that her mother may arrive too late to see Marianne alive. The doctor tries a succession of different treatments without success.
At last, Marianne is declared to be out of danger, and begins to recover. Inwardly Elinor feels extremely happy, but as usual, does not express her feelings in words or smiles.
A carriage draws up, and Elinor believes it to be Colonel Brandon arriving with her mother. When she enters the drawing room, she is astonished to find Willoughby.
As soon as Elinor sees Willoughby, she goes to leave the room. Willoughby begs her to stay, with an attitude of command rather than entreaty. Elinor agrees, but asks him to be quick. He asks after Marianne’s health, and then asks whether Elinor thinks him wicked or foolish. She does not answer. He says he wants to offer an explanation for his past behavior and obtain forgiveness from Marianne. Elinor replies that Marianne has forgiven him long ago, and he says that she has done so before she ought to have done.
Willoughby tells his story. He says that when he first met Marianne and realized that she had feelings for him, his vanity was touched. His aim was to charm her, without any intention of returning her affection. His fortune was never large, and he had always lived beyond his means. Though he was due to inherit a fortune from Mrs. Smith, her death could occur a long time in the future, so he had decided to marry a rich woman. In time, however, he came to be sincerely fond of Marianne, and decided to propose marriage to her. Before he could do so, Mrs. Smith found out about his previous affair with Eliza Williams. He regrets his treatment of Eliza, though he partially excuses himself by accusing her of being unintelligent. Elinor says that there is no excuse for his behavior towards Eliza, whom he abandoned in a desperate predicament. He claims that he was unaware of this, and forgot to tell her where he was going.
Mrs. Smith, who had lived a pure life, was shocked at Willoughby’s conduct towards Eliza. She offered to forgive the past if he married Eliza. He refused, and Mrs. Smith disinherited him. Prompted by a fear of poverty, he decided to propose marriage to the heiress, Miss Sophia Grey. He had a prior appointment to dine with the Dashwood women, so had to call on them to apologize for breaking the arrangement. He feared that if he saw Marianne again, he could not keep to his resolution. But he went, saw her, and left her in misery, when only a day before, he had felt overjoyed at the thought of marrying her. He realizes now that he abandoned everyone he loved (the Dashwood women) to live with people to whom he is indifferent.
In London, he says, when he received Marianne’s first letter telling him she was in town, he suffered great emotional pain. He was especially moved by her faith in his constancy - albeit unmerited. He became convinced that she was dearer to him than any other person, and that he was treating her terribly. But by then he had arranged to marry Miss Sophia Grey, and could not back out. He decided to avoid Marianne and her sister. The morning when he called on them at Mrs. Jennings’ house, he had watched the house and waited until they had all left before leaving his card. When he encountered Marianne at the dance and she had held out her hand to him, he was in agony.
Elinor asks Willoughby about his final cruel letter to Marianne. He explains that he was out when the letter arrived, and his fiancee saw it before he did. It was obviously from a woman, and she grew suspicious, opened the letter, and read it. She had dictated Willoughby’s reply and then snatched away all his mementoes of Marianne.
Elinor rebukes Willoughby for speaking of his wife disrespectfully: after all, he chose her. He says she does not deserve Elinor’s compassion, since she knew he did not love her when they married. Willoughby asks Elinor if her opinion of him has improved, even in the slightest. Elinor concedes that he is less wicked than she thought him, but this does not atone for the misery he has caused. He asks her to tell his story to Marianne, emphasizing that he repents, and that she is dearer to him now than ever. Elinor agrees that she will tell Marianne everything that can justify his behavior.
Willoughby explains why he came at this time, and how he heard of Marianne’s illness. The previous night, he had bumped into Sir John Middleton, who spoke to him for the first time after two months of snubbing him. Sir John told Willoughby that Marianne was dying, and Willoughby could not bear to think of her thinking ill of him in her last moments.
Elinor reflects that Willoughby has torn himself from Marianne against honor, feeling, and his own best interest. Now that he is married to another, he is doomed to think of Marianne constantly.
As Willoughby makes to leave, he asks Elinor if she thinks better of him than before. She assures him that she does, and that she forgives him, pities him, and wishes him well. He confesses that he dreads Marianne’s marriage, implying that if she marries Colonel Brandon, his suffering will be especially severe.
After Willoughby leaves, Elinor feels sorrier for him than he deserves, and wonders if this is due to his handsome appearance and charm.
Mrs. Dashwood arrives with Colonel Brandon. Both are overjoyed at Marianne’s recovery.
Elinor dreads telling Marianne Willoughby’s story, in case Marianne should be so affected that she can never be happy with anyone else.
Mrs. Dashwood tells Elinor that Colonel Brandon has confided in her regarding his love for Marianne. She praises his character, saying that unlike Willoughby, he is sincere. Elinor confirms that Mrs. Jennings and the Middletons have known him for a long time, and that they love and respect him. Mrs. Dashwood has told Colonel Brandon that she supports the match, but he fears that Marianne may still be too involved with Willoughby to attach herself to another. Even supposing her heart were free, he is too modest to think that Marianne would consider him.
Mrs. Dashwood claims that there was always something about Willoughby’s eyes that made her mistrust him, though Elinor does not remember her mother expressing any such reservations. Mrs. Dashwood is already planning to take a cottage in Delaford so that she can be near Marianne after her marriage to Colonel Brandon.
Marianne is soon well enough to receive a visit from Colonel Brandon. In a gesture of warm affection, she holds out her hand to him, and he holds it.
Colonel Brandon lends Mrs. Dashwood his carriage so that she can take Marianne home in comfort. Mrs. Dashwood invites him to Barton Cottage in a few weeks’ time. Marianne says a warm farewell to Mrs. Jennings, conscious of her former rudeness to her. On the journey home, Marianne seems to have gained a new composure. When they reach Barton Cottage and get out of the carriage, Elinor notices that Marianne has been silently weeping.
Marianne’s spirits continue to improve, and she forms a plan to extend her education through reading. On a walk with Elinor, she points out the hill where she fell and first saw Willoughby, and she is pleased to note that she feels little pain. She says she would be satisfied if she could know that he was not always acting a part with her. Elinor feels that Marianne is ready to hear Willoughby’s story, and tells it, holding back only on the extent to which Willoughby still has feelings for her. Marianne listens in silence, tears covering her cheeks. Then she asks Elinor to tell their mother.
Mrs. Dashwood listens to Elinor’s account of Willoughby’s story. While she feels sorry for him, she believes that nothing can make up for the suffering he has caused Eliza and Marianne.
That evening, Marianne calmly tells Elinor and their mother that she knows she could never have been happy with Willoughby. Sooner or later, the story of Eliza would have emerged, and she would have lost her trust in him. Elinor adds that had Marianne married Willoughby, they would always have been poor because of his extravagance. If Marianne had tried to rein in his spending, he would have ended up regretting marrying her. Elinor judges Willoughby as fundamentally selfish, and Marianne has to agree: “My happiness was never his object.” Elinor says that he only regrets his actions now because they have not made him happy. Currently, he does not have to worry about money, so he only thinks of temperament, comparing his wife’s unfavorably with Marianne’s. But if he had married Marianne, he would be complaining about being poor, and would value money above everything else. Marianne is convinced of this, and only regrets her own folly. Mrs. Dashwood recognizes that she too has been at fault. Elinor concludes by observing that all Willoughby’s problems stem from his treatment of Eliza Williams.
One day, the Dashwoods’ servant returns from Exeter with the news that “Mr. Ferrars” is married. Elinor turns pale, and Marianne has an attack of hysterics. The servant says he saw “Mr. Ferrars” and Lucy in a carriage, and Lucy had told him that she was now married, and sent her compliments to Elinor and Marianne. Elinor and Marianne promptly lose their appetites. Mrs. Dashwood reflects that Elinor’s attachment to Edward was deeper than she had understood, or than Elinor had expressed.
Elinor gives up all hope that the marriage between Edward and Lucy would not happen.
From the window, Elinor sees a man on horseback approaching, and believes it is Colonel Brandon. But she soon realizes that it is Edward. Edward enters to an awkward silence from all the Dashwood women, which is broken by Mrs. Dashwood wishing him happiness (referring to his marriage). He mumbles an embarrassed and unintelligible reply. Elinor makes polite conversation about the weather. Mrs. Dashwood asks after Mrs. Ferrars’ health (meaning Lucy), and Edward replies that she is well. Further questioning from Elinor, however, establishes that by “Mrs. Ferrars,” Edward is referring to his mother, not Lucy. Elinor says she is referring to his wife, Mrs. Edward Ferrars. Edward looks puzzled, and asks if she means Mrs. Robert Ferrars. Elinor stares in amazement. Edward explains that Robert has recently married Lucy. Elinor rushes out of the room and bursts into tears of joy. Edward falls into silent pensiveness, and leaves without saying a word.
Edward proposes to Elinor, and is accepted. He feels happy to be released from his engagement to Lucy, whom he had long ceased to love. He grows cheerful, and friends notice the change in him. He explains to Elinor that he formed the attachment to Lucy because of ignorance of the world and idleness. If he had a profession, he feels he would have rapidly outgrown the relationship. In addition, feeling the lack of companions within his own family, it was natural for him to enjoy the company of Lucy and her family.
Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne are overjoyed at the turn of events. Elinor feels overcome with happiness. She and Edward discuss the bizarre circumstance of Lucy’s sudden marriage to Robert, who had spoken so dismissively of her. The relationship had apparently started while Edward was away in Oxford, and her letters to Edward, to the very last, were just as affectionate as ever (implying that she was hedging her bets by carrying on an affair with Robert while keeping up the act of being Edward’s fiancée). Edward shows Elinor Lucy’s final letter. In it, Lucy says that she is sure that Edward loves someone other than her, and therefore she has felt herself free to offer her affection to Robert. She has just married him, and they are on their way to Dawlish (a seaside town in Devon) for a honeymoon. When he first read the letter, Edward had felt a mixture of horror and joy at his escape.
Elinor reflects that Mrs. Ferrars, in disinheriting Edward in favor of Robert and making him independent, has effectively bribed him to disobey her wishes and marry Lucy. Edward thinks Mrs. Ferrars will be more hurt by Robert’s marrying Lucy than she would have been by his own marriage to her, as Robert was always her favorite. Elinor decides that Lucy meant maliciously to deceive in her message sent via the Dashwoods’ servant. Edward, until he received Lucy’s final letter, had always believed her a good-natured girl who was sincerely attached to him; this had prevented his ending the engagement. Now, he believes that she is capable of great meanness.
Elinor scolds Edward for spending so much time with her (Elinor) while he was engaged to another. Edward says that the consciousness of his engagement convinced him that there was no danger in spending time with Elinor. As time passed, he made comparisons between the two women, but comforted himself with the thought that he was only hurting himself.
Edward stays at Barton Cottage, and is pleased to hear that Colonel Brandon is expected too, as he feels that he must have seemed ungrateful for the living when he visited the Colonel to thank him.
Edward and Elinor have one problem. The interest on his two thousand pounds and her one thousand pounds will only bring in one hundred and fifty pounds a year, which is not enough to live on. Edward hopes that his mother might change her attitude towards him, but Elinor fears that she will also disinherit Robert, in favor of Fanny.
Colonel Brandon arrives at Barton Cottage to visit. He sleeps at Barton Park, as there is no room at the Cottage. Mrs. Dashwood tells him about Edward and Elinor’s engagement, and he is pleased that his gift of a living to Edward is benefiting Elinor too.
Mrs. Jennings writes a letter to the Dashwood women lamenting Lucy’s sly behavior, as she had given no hint as to her intentions. Lucy had borrowed all Anne’s savings before going to be married, in order to make an impression, and Mrs. Jennings had to give Anne some money.
John Dashwood writes a letter to the Dashwood women saying that Mrs. Ferrars had insisted that no one mention Robert or Lucy to her again; she would have preferred it if Lucy had married Edward. Fanny continues to be very upset. Fanny and John think that Edward should apologize to Mrs. Ferrars. Edward indignantly refuses, telling Elinor that Robert has betrayed him (Edward) as well as his mother, and that he (Edward) is happy with the outcome of the conflict with his mother. But Elinor points out that he has offended her, so he might ask for her forgiveness, and perhaps admit that his engagement to Lucy was not the best idea. He might also adopt a humble attitude regarding his engagement to Elinor. Edward agrees to go to London to ask his mother to reconcile with him.
Mrs. Ferrars relents and accepts Edward back into her favor. Edward then tells her about his engagement to Elinor. She tries once more to persuade him to marry Miss Morton, but he refuses, and she finally consents to his marriage to Elinor. She gives him ten thousand pounds, the same amount that she gave Fanny for her dowry. This is more than enough for Edward and Elinor to live on.
Edward and Elinor marry in the fall, and move in with Colonel Brandon until the parsonage is renovated. They have a succession of visitors: Mrs. Jennings, Mrs. Ferrars, and John and Fanny Dashwood. John is impressed with Colonel Brandon’s property, and suggests to Elinor that she should try to encourage a marriage between the Colonel and Marianne.
Lucy successfully exercises her skills in flattery on Mrs. Ferrars, who is reconciled to her and Robert.
The story of how Lucy became involved with Robert is told. He first visited her to persuade her to give up Edward. Lucy had given him hope that he might persuade her in time, at each visit suggesting a further one. She showed an interest in hearing Robert talk about himself, which had charmed Robert into wanting to marry her. Robert was pleased to have tricked Edward and proud of going against his mother’s wishes. Lucy had persuaded Robert to ask Mrs. Ferrars’ forgiveness; he had done so, and she had granted it.
Gradually, though Lucy’s flattery, Mrs. Ferrars comes to view Lucy as indispensable, while she views Elinor as an intruder. Although Fanny and Lucy are prone to jealousies and ill-will towards each other, Lucy is also on good terms with John Dashwood’s family. Robert and Lucy often argue, but on the whole, they live in harmony with their extended family.
Mrs. Dashwood works hard to bring Colonel Brandon and Marianne together. Marianne overcomes her prejudices against second attachments and grows to respect Colonel Brandon and to view him as a friend. She agrees to marry him, and grows to love him as much as she loved Willoughby. His spirits are restored to cheerfulness.
Mrs. Smith forgives Willoughby, and he is left to wonder whether if he had married Marianne, he might be both rich and happy. But even Willoughby, for all that he repents his conduct, is not entirely unhappy. He enjoys hunting, his horses, and his dogs, and his wife is not always bad-tempered. Marianne, however, remains his ideal woman.
Sir John Middleton and Mrs. Jennings transfer their matchmaking activities to Margaret, who is approaching the age to have admirers.
Elinor and Marianne, living with their husbands respectively in the parsonage and manor house at Delaford, remain as close to each other geographically as they are in affection.
Analysis of Volume III, Chapters I-XIV
Marianne’s amazement at Elinor’s calmness over losing Edward to Lucy underscores the difference between their two approaches to life - Elinor’s “sense” and Marianne’s “sensibility.” Elinor explains that Edward is not the only object of her love, and she was happy to be able to spare them from having to share her distress. Austen presents Elinor’s response as the least destructive to herself and others. Elinor, unlike Marianne after Willoughby’s desertion, does not become unwell or involve other people in her misery. Far from suffering as a result of keeping her feelings under wraps, she recovers well from her trauma: “Now, I can think and speak of it with little emotion.”
Marianne’s illness is a direct result of her excessive “sensibility.” She goes for long, solitary walks with the aim of catching sight of Willoughby’s estate from a distance, and catches cold from the repeated exposure. While a cold is in itself not usually serious, her lowness of spirits (also due to her brooding over Willoughby) weakens her, so that she comes close to death. Elinor’s reponse to her sister’s illness and recovery is typical of her “sense,” which never gives way to “sensibility.” While she is deeply worried about Marianne, her actions are practical and useful: she watches over and nurses her sister. Marianne’s recovery “was an idea to fill her heart with sensations of exquisite comfort,” but it “led to no outward demonstrations of joy, no words, no smiles.”
Marianne’s illness has a cathartic effect on her character. When she recovers, she is calmer and more reflective. She realizes where her excessive sensibility has led her, and rejects it. This is clear in the exchange between her and Elinor in which Elinor asks her, “Do you compare your conduct with his [Willoughby’s]?” and she replies, “No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours” (Chapter X). This is a clear indication of Austen’s stance on the different approaches to life espoused by the two sisters: even Marianne, the champion of “sensibility,” here judges it as flawed and embraces her sister’s “sense.” Only when Marianne has remade her character to become less dominated by sensibility is she rewarded with a happy marriage.
It is fitting, given Marianne’s growth and maturation throughout her illness, that Willoughby arrives at that time to give a penitent account of himself (in Chapter VIII) that to some degree reconciles Marianne to his behavior. It also vindicates her conviction that he did love her and, indeed, intended to marry her. Thus her “sensibility” was an accurate guide to his feelings (he loved Marianne), though it was not an accurate predictor of his final choice of action (he married Sophia). Willoughby’s account uses angelic imagery for Marianne (“beautiful as an angel”) and imagery of the devil for Miss Sophia Grey (“jealous as the devil”). He describes them as being on either side of him, like a traditional Christian image of man between God and the angels on his right side, and the devil or Satan on his left. In deciding to marry Miss Grey, Willoughby is portrayed as weak, in that he turns away from sacred love and sells his soul to the devil - for the sake of money. The scene is an iconic morality tale.
The Ferrars’ plan to have Robert marry Miss Morton after Edward rejects her reflects the lack of autonomy that many young people enjoyed over their marriages. Marriage was often seen as a way to advance the financial or social status of a family. Elinor comments wryly on Miss Morton, “The lady, I suppose, has no choice in the affair,” but her remark could equally apply to Robert, who is being pressured into an alliance without his own wishes being considered.
The revelation to the Ferrars family of Edward’s engagement to Lucy, and its dramatic effects, is one of the great ironies of the novel. The Ferrarses have been so assiduous in preventing Elinor from marrying Edward that they have missed the real threat, Lucy. Lucy, as a person of lower social status than Elinor, is certainly a far worse prospect. The moral lesson appears to be that attempts to control other people for one’s own ends are doomed to failure.
There is great irony in Lucy’s final desertion of Edward for Robert, the new Ferrars heir, in spite of her prior judgment of Robert as a “coxcomb” and his prior judgment of her as “The merest awkward country girl, without style, or elegance, and almost without beauty.” The message that emerges from Lucy’s action is that a greedy person is easily led by money, even into marriage with a man she does not appear to respect. The message that emerges from Robert’s action is that, despite his carping about Edward’s foolishness and ignorance of the world, he himself is such a fool that he allows himself to be captivated by a mercenary and cold-hearted woman. Austen’s portrait of Lucy herself is completed in this section: she is seen calculatedly keeping up her seeming engagement to Edward at the same time that she is luring Robert to propose. The implication is that she is hedging her bets so that if Robert fails to deliver a proposal, she can return to Edward. As if that were not enough to condemn her morally, she effectively robs her sister of her savings in order “to make a shew [impression] with.”
In Chapter XIII, after Elinor learns that Lucy has married Robert, she reflects that Mrs. Ferrars, in disinheriting Edward in favor of Robert, “has brought upon herself a most appropriate punishment.” She notes the irony of the situation: “The independence she settled on Robert, through resentment against you, has put it in his power to make his own choice; and she has actually been bribing one son with a thousand a-year, to do the very deed which she disinherited the other for intending to do.” Thus Mrs. Ferrars’ attempts to control her sons with money rebounds upon her, foiling her mercenary ambitions.
In the comic tradition, the first part of the novel (Volumes I and II) is characterized by the rise of the antagonists (Lucy, Willoughby, Mrs. Ferrars, and John and Fanny Dashwood), as they are able to prevent the happy marriage of the protagonists, Elinor and Marianne. The final part of the novel (Volume III) shows the antagonists’ loss of power. This does not come about by any heroic action on the part of the protagonists; their role is simply to wait patiently while events work themselves out. The antagonists Willoughby and Lucy are removed from their positions of power by their own venal ambitions. They follow the money, which leads them away from Marianne and Edward, leaving those characters free to marry according to better sense (in the case of Marianne) and more loving sensibility (in the case of Edward).