One quick note: I don't know how your chapters are numbered in your copy. Some editions use the numbering from the original publication, which was in three volumes, and so these first two chapters would be listed as "Volume I, Chapter I" and "Volume I, Chapter II." Other editions just number them sequentially entirely, from 1 to 50. Because it's the easiest, I'm using the latter method for these post titles, even though the annotated copy I'm reading uses the former system. I hope it won't be too confusing for you if they're numbered differently from your copy, as we get into later chapters! But now, you at least understand how I'm numbering things.
Okay. On to the good stuff.
First, what a dismal way to open a novel! Death, more death, and terrible disappointment. Also, enter one of the meanest Austen characters almost at the very beginning. I feel like this is Austen's darkest novel, and that darkness doesn't come on gradually. Rather, we start off in the darkness and move forward through more darkness until we finally find some light at the end.
A bit of background info on this book: Austen was nineteen herself when she wrote the first version of this, called Elinor and Marianne at the time. That's how old Elinor Dashwood is in the story, and some people think she's far too self-possessed for someone who's only nineteen. But I was pretty self-possessed myself at that age. As a matter of fact, that's how old I was when I met my husband. And Austen's having conceived of this character and written the first version of her when she was also that age makes me feel like those critics were just immature at nineteen and don't believe someone couldn't be the most adulty adult in the room at that age because they weren't that way themselves.
This was the first novel Austen had published. Like Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, it's an exploration through fiction of some more abstract ideas, such as how personality and behavior affect not only our own lives, but those around us. Once in a while, the characters do behave a bit more like archetypes than real people, more the side characters than the principals, I think.
It's really interesting to me that the whole first chapter is entirely exposition. The only moment of any sort of dialog is John Dashwood telling himself how much money he's going to give his step-sisters. And then the second chapter is almost entirely dialog, just page after page of Fanny Dashwood convincing her husband not to give his step-sisters the money he decided to give them in the first chapter. Anyone here have a strong urge to slap Fanny Dashwood? ::raises hand:: What a selfish, conniving, smug person. Blech.
It also interests me that Austen flat-out tells us what her characters are like. Elinor has "a strength of understanding, and a coolness of judgment," and "an excellent heart." "Her disposition was affectionate, and her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them" (p. 8). We don't learn that by watching her interact with people, we know this going in and get to see how these characteristics affect her and those around her, as well as the events of the book.
Likewise, we get told that Marianne is "sensible and clever, but eager in everything; her sorrows, her joys, could have no moderation" (p. 8). And we see right away how she and her very similar mother let their emotions rule them, reveling in their grief, in a way. "They encouraged each other now in the violence of their affliction. The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again" (p. 8). My annotated edition talks about how, at the time this was written, there was almost a "cult of sensibility" in the culture -- feeling things deeply and showing your emotions to the world was a sign of being very sophisticated. Restraint and calmness weren't very fashionable, and this gave rise to Romanticism, with its emphasis on instinct and feeling over rational thought.
It's pretty clear from the start which sister Austen thinks has the wiser and healthier temperament. I myself thinks that Elinor also carries things a little too far, maybe in a reaction to her mother and sister's own excesses. We'll see as we read if I still feel that way this time through the book.
1. Why do you think Austen straight-up tells us what the sisters are like instead of letting us get to know them through the story?
2. Do you find it credible that the Dashwoods' uncle left everything to a little boy? Or is that just a convenient plot device to make them poor?
3. Which of the three Dashwood sisters is your favorite?