Sense and Sensibility

Sense & Sensibility Study Questions

1. Look up irony in the OED.  When do you first detect irony in Sense & Sensibility? Explain how it works as an instrument of narration. Does "instrument of narration" make sense to you as an analytic term? Choose several selections as you read and analyze Austen's irony. Try to rewrite a paragraph erasing Austen's irony.

2. What is sensibility?  What is sense?  What does taste mean?  What about picturesque?  And decorum?  And improvement?

3. Which of the senses are important?  sight?  hearing?  touch?  smell?  taste?

4. What do characters do with their time?

5. What difference does it make to you, in reading Austen, to know what "free indirect discourse is?

6. Notice references to money.  What do you make of the fact that money is such an explicit topic? How might you use Auden's "amorous effects of 'brass' to analyze Austen's novel?
    Some references to money:


7. What do people buy (or pay for) in the novel?  In what instances are there transactions for goods and services for which no payment is mentioned?  How would the novel have been different if payment for all goods and services had been noted? 

8. Keep track of references to landed property.  What are the estate problems in S&S?  How do estates shape relationships?

9. Some readers think the male characters rather than the female characters are appropriately identified with and separated by the concepts of sense and sensibility.  What do you think? 

10. What seems to constitute family in S&S?  Describe the family relationships in this novel.  How do children figure in the novel?

11. Mothers:  How does Austen present the character of Mrs. Dashwood?  How does she compare with other mothers in S&S?  How does she compare with other mothers in Austen?

12. Dependence and independence are important concepts in Austen.  How are they understood in S&S?

13. When do servants appear on the scene?

14. Early on in the novel, we learn that it was impossible for Marianne "to say what she did not believe" (17).  Is saying what one believes a virtue in Austen?  Is it ever a virtue to say what you do not believe?  Or not to say what you do believe?  Explain.

15. Bodily functions:  Do they ever come into view?  People cry.  They laugh.  Do they sneeze? What else do they do or not do with their bodies?  What kind of conclusions can you draw because of the body's functional presence or absence?  What would be unthinkable in this novel?  or in any novel of Austen's?

16. What are the ages of all the characters?

17. Can you imagine Lucy Steele as the central character of a novel?  Could Austen have written it?  What would have happened to this novel if Lucy had been a central character



Mansfield Park




Mansfield Park Study Questions
(Some of these questions overlap with previous questions.)

1. Beginnings of all the novels:

Sense & Sensibility: "The family of Dashwood had been long settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where, for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner, as to engage the general good opinon of their surrounding acquaintance."

Pride and Prejudice: "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Mansfield Park: "About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet's lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income."

Persuasion: "Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire, was a man who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage: there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect, by contemplating the limited remnant of the earliest patents; there any unwelcome sensations, arising from domestic affairs, changed naturally into pity and contempt."

What can you say about Austen's beginnings? Do the beginnings of S&S, MP invite comparison?

2. What does the following sentence from Mansfield Park convey?

"But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world, as there are pretty women to deserve them" (5).

Locate comparable sentences in other nonelse. Do the sentences seem to be doing the same sort of "work" in the two novels?

3. Contrasts and how they work:

The narrator says that Lady Bertram, "a woman of very tranquil feelings, and a temper remarkably easy and indolent, would have contented herself with merely giving up her sister, and thinking no more of the matter: but Mrs. Norris had a spirit of activity, which could not be satisfied till she had written a long and angry letter to Fanny, to point out the folly of her conduct, and threaten her with all its possible ill consequences" (6).

How does the contrast between indolence and love of directing work in the novel? Is anyone in Sense and Sensibility indolent? Is anyone characterized by "a spirit of activity"?

4. We might call the following section (Sir Thomas's objections and Mrs. Norris's response) "plot prediction and denial":

"He thought of his own four children—of his two sons—of cousins in love, &c" ().

"You are thinking of your sons—but do not you know that of all tins upon earth that is the least likely to happen; brought up, as they would be, always together like brothers and sisters? it is morally impossible. I never knew an instance of it. It is, in fact the only sure way of providing against the connection. Suppose her a pretty girl, and seen by Tom or Edmund for the first time seven years hence, and I dare say there would be mischief. The very idea of her having been suffered to grow up at a distance from us all in poverty and neglect, would be enough to make either of the dear sweet-tempered boys in love with her" (7-8).

How does the section also create character?

5. What do you make of Mrs. Norris's statement that follows?

"Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world, and ten to one but she has the means of settling well, without farther expense to any body" (). How far is it true? not true? How does it function in the novel?

6. What does Fanny Price have to recommend her? What characteristics does she have or lack that make her difficult to "heroize"? What does Austen do to make us Fanny's imaginative allies?

7. Why might a writer want to create a leading figure who was somewhat difficult to make sympathetic.

(Has anyone read Samuel Richardson's Pamela? Could you compare Fanny to Pamela?) To what extent is Fanny a Ciderella figure?

8. At what points does Sir Thomas's West India estate become important? What historical information might be helpful here? Do you think historical concerns are relevant to the novel? peripheral?

9. Let's track on money again. How much did Miss Maria Ward have? What is Mrs. Norris's income? What other incomes or estates do we know about here?

10. Austen seems to me to situate her central characters in a satiric "field." Do you agree? How might you compare the satiric surroundings of Elizabeth Bennet and Fanny Price? What happens to that satiric "field" by the end of the novel?

11. The men: Sir Thomas, Tom & Edmund, Mr. Rushworth, Henry Crawford, William Price—What do you think of them? Do they compare in estate and moral character with characters in S&S?

12. Marriage:s Considering the marriages of Sir Thomas & Lady Bertram; Mr. & Mrs. Grant; the Rushworths and others in the novel, what do you think the novel's view of marriage is?

Fanny hopes her uncle will begin to feel "how wretched, how unpardonable, how hopeless and how wicked it was, to marry without affection" (). What seems to be at stake?

13. What is the status of wit in this novel? Is it admirable? What is your evidence for answering? What is opposed to wit? Can the same question be asked about S&S?

14. Characters and the narrator convey heavy disapproval of various things in the novel. Who seems to have the most refined or elaborate capacity for disapproval? What is opposed to disapproval? What is disapproval good for?

15. What do you think of the novel's treatment of Mary Crawford?

16. Fanny's home in Portsmouth is said to be "the abode of noise, disorder, and impropriety" (). Pay careful attention to details here. What do you think?

17. What are we to think of the idealization of Mansfield Park from the context of Portsmouth? (See p. )
What might we learn from a comparison of Mansfield Park and Pemberley?

18. What's wrong with acting in a play? This particular play? What do you think Elizabeth Inchbald thought of Mansfield Park? Is there anything comparable in S&S?

19. How do the Bertram sisters function in the novel? Compare Maria Bertram-Henry Crawford episode with the Lydia-Wickham episode. What does the comparison tell you about the novel?

20. "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery. I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest" (): Could this sentence be transported into P&P?

21. Is there anything in S&S comparable to the following resolution in MP?

"I purposely abstain from dates on this occasion, that every one may be at liberty to fix their own, aware that the cure of unconquerable passions, and the transfer of unchanging attachments, must vary much as to time in different people.—I only intreat every body to believe that exactly at the time when it was quite natural that it should be so, and not a week earlier, Edmund did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and became as anxious to marry Fanny, as Fanny herself could desire" ().

22. "Susan became the stationary niece . . ." (). What could we say about the novel if we used this sentence as a starting point?





Persuasion Study Questions

1.  Why is the novel called Persuasion?  If the novel teaches a lesson about persuasion, what is that lesson?

2. How does the estate--Kellynch Hall--function in the novel’s plot?

3. What does Austen imply by having an ancient family replaced by a Naval family at Kellynch Hall? At what point does Austen make the implications explicit? So what? (BTW: Notice that the book centralized at the Musgrove household challenges the one that is dominant at Kellynch Hall.)

4. In the opening scenes of the novel, Austen uses irony to convey the essential character of Sir Walter Elliot. Then she makes her judgment explicit.  Explain how you think with Austen here.

5. The Elliot family’s central problem is revealed by a phrase in the book on the Baronetage: a still-born son, Nov. 5, 1789 (46). But Austen does not make the male heir the central problem of the novel. What is the central problem of the novel, and what are the implications of Austen’s novelistic choice of de-centering the family problem?

6. Austen creates what I am calling a “satiric field” around her favored characters. Explain the work the novel gets done through elements of this satiric field: Sir Walter Elliot’s vanity, for example, or Mary’s chronic anxiety about her health.

7. What does the word “connexions” mean? Trace its uses. What does Austen imply by these uses of the term? (See, for example, pp. 66, 106, 108, 161 & 169 and collect other examples).

8. What is the status of habitual, customary, traditional ways of thinking in Persuasion?  Does the novel offer ways of thinking new? Which characters are unable to think new?

9. What is the relation of the novel’s characters to the past? (See, for example, p. 94).

10. When do servants appear in this novel?  What sort of work do they do?  What do they say?

11. What does “independence” seem to mean in this novel?  See pp. 50 & 93 and be attentive to other uses.

13. What do you think of the way Wentworth made his money?

14. What do you make of Austen’s treatment of the Musgroves? See, for example, pp. 86 & 101.

15. What do you think is the “thematic” relation between Mary and Mrs. Croft? What about the relation between Dick Musgrove and Wentworth? Wentworth and Mr. Elliot? And perhaps between Louisa Musgrove and Anne?

16. Much of the novel takes place in autumn and winter. What are the signals of that? And why might it be interesting?

17. What do you think of the Harvilles? (See, for example, p. 128 & 140.)

18. What does Captain Benwick read?

19. Does it take a set of sisters like Mary and Elizabeth to create an Anne?

20. Why are the mirrors in Sir Walter's dressing room important (151)?

21. Notice that the transition to Bath is made by a mental comparison. What do you think that implies about this novel (147)?

22. What does “the unfeudal tone of the present day” seem to mean (161)?

23. Why are Sir Walter and Elizabeth delighted with Mr. Elliot, and why is Anne skeptical (160-3)?

24. Do a thought experiment and imagine this story told from Elizabeth’s point of view; from Sir Walter’s point of view; from Wentworth’s point of view; from Louisa Musgrove’s point of view. What do you learn about the novel?

25. Let’s think about “hitting the mean,” excess & deficiency. Could you make an excess-deficiency table from reading Persuasion?  What does “moderation” mean in Persuasion?  Is moderation important in S&S and MP?

26. What is Mrs. Clay’s position in the Elliot family? (See pp. 60-1, 72, 166-7.)

27. In the introduction to his The Improvement of the Estate (1971; rpt. with new introduction, 1994), Alistair Duckworth says--
Mrs. Smith . . . is important as the final embodiment of a fate that haunts all [Austen's] novels.  Here at the last is the entirely unsupported woman, reduced to bare existence without husband, society or friends.  Though she appears at the end of Jane Austen's writing life, Mrs. Smith has always existed as a latent possibility in the novelists' thought, an unvoiced threat, the other possible pole of existence.  Meeting her old friend after twelve years, Anne Elliot comes face to face with her own possible fate. . . . For this is the danger facing many of Jane Austen's heroines, that present security may become total isolation, that residence 'in the centre of their property' in the enjoyment of 'the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance ' may be exchanged for life 'in lodgings' without the money even 'to afford . . . the comfort of a servant.'"
What do you think of this interpretation of Mrs. Smith? Try pulling together all the details about her and then ask yourself how you would interpret her significance to the novel. (The evidence begins with p. 173.)`

28. Captain Benwick and Louisa Musgrove? What are we to think (185, 200)?

29. There are several occasions of overhearing: Anne overhears Wentworth and Louisa Musgrove; Anne overhears Mrs. Clay and Elizabeth and Sir Walter; Wentworth overhears Anne and Captain Harville. Why might overhearing be important?

30. Why does Anne compare herself with Mrs. Larolles? Who is Mrs. Larolles (206)?

31.  What does Mrs. Smith know about Mr. Elliot (210 ff)?

32. What are Mrs. Smith’s circumstances and how can Wentworth help her?

33. Analyze the episode in which Anne and Captain Harville talk by the window (241-244). Which details seem most to invite comment?

34. What do you make of Wentworth’s letter (245-6)?

35. What is Anne’s one regret at the end of the novel (257-8)?

36. How would you sum up the importance of the navy in this novel?