Sample Questions

1. Discuss the importance of secrecy and deception in "Sense and Sensibility".

Concealment, secrecy, and deception form a thematic pattern in Sense and Sensibility. Austen has included numerous incidents of people hiding things from others, both in justifiable and reprehensible ways. Firstly, there is the concealment practiced by Elinor. She hides her feelings in order to be polite to others and deceives people into thinking that she agrees with them when in fact she does not. For instance, when Robert Ferrars praises cottages in a manner which shows he knows nothing about rural living, Elinor, "agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition" (p. 255). Austen shows that this is a necessary deception by revealing what happens when people make no attempt to hide their feelings when circumstances require it through her portrayal of Marianne.

Elinor and Marianne both suspect the other of secrecy. Elinor is unsure whether Marianne and Willoughby are engaged or not; if they are, then Marianne has kept this from her. Elinor, knowing her sister's open nature, cannot think of a reason why she should have concealed an engagement from her family, but, on the other hand, she cannot see their behaviour as anything other than that of an engaged couple. Society only recognises affection in the context of the channels it has invented to contain it: hence two people who appear to love each other must be engaged, or else there is no way of classifying their relationship. Everyone who has seen Marianne and Willoughby together assumes that they are engaged; Elinor cannot be so sure. In fact, Marianne has never been engaged to Willoughby; she concealed nothing from anyone, but acted in such a way as to make everyone misread her situation. Even with Elinor, she has not been as open as she prides herself on being. She checks all the letters that arrive at Mrs. Jennings's house, and is clearly anxious to receive one, but when Elinor asks her about it, she is evasive. Elinor reproaches her with having "no confidence" in her; Marianne retorts that she has nothing to conceal, and that Elinor herself is keeping something from her:

"'Our situations then are alike. We have neither of us anything to tell; you, because you communicate, and I, because I conceal nothing.'" (p. 184)

This is, of course, true. Elinor is concealing the secret of Lucy and Edwards' engagement, which has itself been a secret for the last four years. In the world of Sense and Sensibility, there is a great deal going on under the surface and as the novel progresses Austen reveals more and more of what has been long hidden. There is Willoughby's seduction of Eliza Williams and Colonel Brandon's involvement with her and her mother, then Willoughby's engagement to Miss Grey, then Lucy and Edwards' engagement. As well as these big secrets, Austen shows that hidden motives flow beneath the surface of polite social discourse. Sir John's kind offer to the Dashwoods of Barton Cottage is a way of securing company for himself; Mrs. Ferrars is rude about Elinor's painting as a way of being rude about Elinor herself; Anne Steele's assertions that there is nothing between her and Doctor Davis are really meant to invite contradiction; beneath John Dashwood's hope that his step-sisters will marry well lies his guilt that he did not provide for them better.

Austen shows that some forms of secrecy are necessary and correct, while others are damaging. Sense and Sensibility contains the full range, from Elinor's polite social deceptions to Willoughby's concealment of why he deserted Marianne until the very end of the novel. Pride and Prejudice has a similar structure, with Wickham's true conduct concealed until Darcy reveals it to Elizabeth. Such revelations are always turning points in the plots. Breaches of the social code that are kept secret are the heroine's biggest threat, because, as with Marianne, they may be taken in by the deception and thrown off the path to a suitable marriage.

2. Explore the theme of observation and judgement in "Sense and Sensibility".

Elinor says of Marianne that,

"'A few years however will settle her opinions on the basis of common sense and observation; and then they may be more easy to define and justify than they are now, by any body but herself.'" (p. 86)

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