Study Guide

Sense and Sensibility Society and Class

By Jane Austen

Society and Class

Chapter 1

He was not an ill-disposed young man, unless to be rather cold hearted, and rather selfish, is to be ill-disposed: but he was, in general, well respected; for he conducted himself with propriety in the discharge of his ordinary duties. (1.7)

This description of John demonstrates how "cold hearted and rather selfish" society's requirements are – all one has to do is conduct oneself "with propriety" in everyday life in order to gain respect, regardless of one's personal qualities.

Chapter 4

He is very far from being independent. What his mother really is we cannot know; but, from Fanny's occasional mention of her conduct and opinions, we have never been disposed to think her amiable; and I am very much mistaken if Edward is not himself aware that there would be many difficulties in his way, if he were to wish to marry a woman who had not either a great fortune or high rank. (4.8)

Elinor realizes even early on that her marriage to Edward could be prevented by the intense snobbery of his family, despite their very real regard for one another, proving that social status is more important to them than Edward's actual happiness.

Chapter 13
Elinor Dashwood

"I am afraid," replied Elinor, "that the pleasantness of an employment does not always evince its propriety."

"On the contrary, nothing can be a stronger proof of it, Elinor; for if there had been any real impropriety in what I did, I should have been sensible of it at the time, for we always know when we are acting wrong, and with such a conviction I could have had no pleasure." (13.19)

This spat between Elinor and Marianne demonstrates their differing views on society, and how much control it should have over our actions. Marianne seems to believe that we should really just do what we feel like doing, whereas Elinor always thinks of the social ramifications of any action.

Chapter 17
Edward Ferrars

"My judgment," he returned, "is all on your side of the question; but I am afraid my practice is much more on your sister's. I never wish to offend, but I am so foolishly shy, that I often seem negligent, when I am only kept back by my natural awkwardness. I have frequently thought that I must have been intended by nature to be fond of low company, I am so little at my ease among strangers of gentility!" (17.6)

Edward feels himself to be at odds with high society, and can't ever get himself to fit in. This is yet another sign that he's not cut out for the dazzling career his mother envisions for him…but when will he be able to set out on his own path?

Chapter 25
Elinor Dashwood

"My objection is this; though I think very well of Mrs. Jennings' heart, she is not a woman whose society can afford us pleasure, or whose protection will give us consequence." (25.7)

After Elinor's continued defense of Mrs. Jennings, we're a little surprised at the line of argument she takes here to try and avoid going to London. Despite the fact that she cares most about people's personalities, she demonstrates her simultaneous interest in social status and advantage.

Chapter 27

Elinor found, when the evening was over, that disposition is not materially altered by a change of abode, for although scarcely settled in town, Sir John had contrived to collect around him, nearly twenty young people, and to amuse them with a ball. This was an affair, however, of which Lady Middleton did not approve. In the country, an unpremeditated dance was very allowable; but in London, where the reputation of elegance was more important and less easily attained, it was risking too much, for the gratification of a few girls, to have it known that Lady Middleton had given a small dance of eight or nine couple, with two violins, and a mere side-board collation. (27.20)

The difference in society between the town and the country is clear here – there are obviously different social rules that govern activity in the two places.

Chapter 32

Lady Middleton expressed her sense of the affair about once every day, or twice, if the subject occurred very often, by saying, "It is very shocking indeed!" and by the means of this continual though gentle vent, was able not only to see the Miss Dashwoods from the first without the smallest emotion, but very soon to see them without recollecting a word of the matter; and having thus supported the dignity of her own sex, and spoken her decided censure of what was wrong in the other, she thought herself at liberty to attend to the interest of her own assemblies, and therefore determined (though rather against the opinion of Sir John), that as Mrs. Willoughby would at once be a woman of elegance and fortune, to leave her card with her as soon as she married. (32.13)

Lady Middleton, heartless social climber that she is, proves that social status is more important to her than feelings. Even though Marianne is theoretically her friend, she'd rather throw over the Dashwoods in exchange for the acquaintance of the rich and powerful future Mrs. Willoughby.

Chapter 34

Lady Middleton was equally pleased with Mrs. Dashwood. There was a kind of cold-hearted selfishness on both sides, which mutually attracted them; and they sympathised with each other in an insipid propriety of demeanour, and a general want of understanding. (34.2)

This is a match made in heaven. Both Fanny and Lady Middleton are cold, self-centered, and only concerned with social status – in other words, they're not nice people, but they love each other (because they love themselves).