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It's tough to be the practical one. Always having to shoot down the whimsical, maddening urges of others, always having to chime in and say, "Well, if you consider the facts…" or "That's a nice idea, but…" can get pretty exhausting. Elinor Dashwood is consigned to this role by the three other ladies in her family, Marianne, Margaret, and their mother. She's the only one willing to hold up a cautionary hand and tell everyone to hold off for a minute – and it's a good thing she's there to do so.
Elinor is the voice of common sense in this crazy clan of excitable, romantic women, and we're not sure what would happen to them without her. She's the one who thinks about the practical stuff: where are the Dashwoods going to live? How should they best respond to their new batch of crazy neighbors and acquaintances? What happens if Marianne isn't actually engaged to Willoughby? Even her artistic expression is more measured and precise than Marianne's dramatic musical rampages at the piano – we learn that Elinor draws beautifully (and, we imagine, very neatly).
This practical outlook helps everyone in the Dashwood family get through everyday life, but leaves Elinor herself with some unresolved emotional issues. By attempting to handle her life and that of her family in a pragmatic, politely restrained, and socially conventional way, she tends to package up her own feelings in mothballs and bury them in the back of her mental closet. Which leads us to…
Despite the fact that Elinor looks like she's all business on the outside, on the inside, she's just as full of emotions as Marianne – perhaps even more so. Elinor doesn't get dramatically carried away by infatuation the way her sister does, but when she falls for someone, she falls hard (and for good reason). Her love for Edward Ferrars, which goes unannounced and unresolved for most of the book, may be hidden, but that doesn't make it any less powerful.
Elinor does her best to approach sentiment the way she approaches household matters – efficiently, quietly, and with a firm hand – but it doesn't work, and her feelings sometimes get the better of her. Though other characters mistakenly think that her businesslike approach to romantic matters means that she doesn't actually have deep feelings, they're totally wrong. In fact, Elinor's feelings are some of the deepest in the book, and when she's hurt by the outing of Lucy and Edward's engagement, it's that much more devastating and shocking to everyone.
In the end, Elinor finally reconciles her private feelings with her public persona, first by admitting her inner pain to Marianne, and then by joyously agreeing to marry Edward (huzzah!). At long last, she's able to exhibit some of what she's actually feeling on the inside to the people who matter to her most. Furthermore, the happy young couple are able to come to a practical arrangement with regards to their future plans – Elinor convinces Edward to approach his proud mother, who rather grudgingly agrees to furnish him with some money. It's enough to ensure that the future Ferrars will be able to live reasonably well, though not extravagantly, of course.