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Elinor is Jane Austen's ideal woman, possessing good looks, good breeding, good sense and a good heart. She is almost too good to be true. Thus she is either liked by others or envied by them. Those who are able to appreciate goodness, like Edward, John Middleton, Mrs. Jennings and Colonel Brandon, admire her, but women like Lady Middleton, Fanny Dashwood, Mrs. Ferrars and Lucy, who are shallow and not intelligent, envy her.
Elinor is sensitive, but she is in control of her emotions. She likes Edward, but does not exhibit her feelings openly. She feels hurt by the cold behavior of Lady Dashwood and Mrs. Ferrars but does not get angry with them. Lucy's confessions and Mrs. Jennings' crude remarks irritate her, but she does not despise them for it. Her generous heart forgives Edward's lapses and even Willoughby's deceit.
Elinor is a pillar of strength to her family. Mrs. Dashwood is highly sensitive. She gets provoked easily, jumps to conclusions and makes decisions impulsively. It is Elinor who guides her mother, since Elinor possesses the added qualities of foresight and idealism. Elinor understands her mother, and she acts as a soothing balm to her sister's agitated feelings, inspiring her to come to grips with her situation.
Elinor is an embodiment of prudence and patience. She analyzes people and situations before making judgments. She is able to appreciate the finer qualities of men and women. She gives her opinion of people only after observing them carefully. She is able see through Lucy's pretense and thus does not rely on what Lucy says. Her prudence and patience pay in the end. Her faith in Edward and her genuine love for him are eventually rewarded.
Marianne, the other protagonist of the novel, embodies sensibility. An otherwise sensible and sensitive girl, she often acts impulsively and commits blunders. She is indiscreet, and on many occasions, causes embarrassment to those dear to her. When Willoughby offers her a horse, she accepts it readily without giving a thought to the financial implications. Only after Elinor reasons with her does she realize her mistake. Fed on romantic novels and poems, she makes a secret trip to Allenham with Willoughby. She fails to understand the impropriety of her action.
Marianne displays extremes of emotions. She is easily transported to the realm of bliss, and she is just as easily thrown into the depths of despair. In the company of Willoughby, she is extremely excited and reveals her joy to everyone. She displays her affections for him openly and shows herself as a woman blessed by the goddess of love. However, when Willoughby deserts her, she is inconsolable. She indulges in self-pity and broods over her plight for days. She shuns others and becomes infuriated with those who offer her sympathy.
Marianne is highly prejudiced and opinionated. She considers Colonel Brandon as an uninteresting person and unsuitable as a match for her because he does not fit the image of a romantic hero. She dubs Mrs. Jennings as a heartless gossip-monger without recognizing the old lady's goodness and generosity. Marianne is often unable to distinguish between appearance and reality.
Edward Ferrars is the fortunate one, chosen by the charming, intelligent and sensible Elinor. He does not possess the typical attributes of a hero. He is not handsome, dashing or chivalrous. He is educated, refined and respectable. He is a man of few words and is slow to display his emotions openly. Elinor is attracted by his reserve and sincerity of feeling, while Marianne is put off by his sober nature.
In his youth, Edward gets carried away by his sensibility and falls for the superficial charms of Lucy. He gets secretly engaged to her. Later, he repents for his action. When he meets Elinor, he admires her subdued charm, good sense and refined tastes. He is attracted to Elinor but in order to fulfill his commitment to Lucy, he agrees to marry her.
Edward is not as confident as Elinor. He lacks conviction. In fact, the male characters are not as impressive as the female ones in this particular novel. They make good villains and comedians, but they are not effective heroes.
Mrs. Henry Dashwood is as indulgent a mother as Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. She adores her daughters and is extremely proud of them. She gives them freedom to choose their partners and encourages them to enjoy life. However, she is very protective of them. When Marianne is deserted by Willoughby, Mrs. Dashwood's heart goes out to her daughter. She consoles her with tender words. When the same daughter falls sick, she travels to Cleveland post-haste to provide her the necessary moral support. When Elinor looks miserable after hearing the news of the wedding of Lucy to Mr. Ferrars, Mrs. Dashwood feels sorry for her eldest daughter. She also experiences pangs of guilt for having neglected Elinor for so long.
Mrs. Dashwood is like Marianne in temperament. She is sensitive, emotional and imaginative. She is easily influenced by the events of her life. After Willoughby deceives Marianne, she condemns his behavior and points out his flaws. After Colonel Brandon proclaims his love for Marianne, she holds him in high esteem and highlights his assets. Thus, Mrs. Dashwood's love for her children is reflected in her attitude towards others.
Willoughby fulfills all the requirements of a romantic hero, and Marianne therefore approves of him. He is handsome, chivalrous, charming and outspoken. He makes a dramatic entry into Barton and also makes his exit dramatically. He first meets Marianne as a chivalrous knight and rescues his damsel in distress. Then he wins her heart through attention and affection. He woos her with passionate words and takes her out on adventurous trips. He overwhelms her with unreasonable gifts and impresses her with emotional proclamations. However, he breaks her heart as easily as he captures it. Without a word of apology or excuse, he discards her. His behavior is ruthless and cruel. To please himself, he exploits the innocence of a girl and manipulates her emotions. When he encounters a rich heiress, he forgets Marianne and marries Miss Grey. Willoughby is a selfish man. When his wife turns out to be shrew, he regrets having married her. He is rightly punished for his actions.
Colonel Brandon is the silent, suffering hero. Like Elinor, he is endowed with good sense and a generous heart. He is able to overcome the hardships of his life and achieve his goal through patience and fortitude.
In his youth the Colonel had loved a girl but was denied her affection. After her death, he takes the responsibility of becoming her illegitimate daughter's guardian. When Willoughby toys with the girl, the Colonel goes to rescue her and helps her to get settled.
Colonel Brandon takes a liking to Marianne as soon as he casts eyes on her because she resembles Eliza Brandon, the girl he had loved in the past. He admires Marianne from a distance but feels hurt when she ignores him and showers her affection on Willoughby. He is disturbed when Willoughby deserts her. When Marianne falls sick, he anxiously observes her progress and volunteers to fetch her mother from Barton. His kindness and patience are rewarded when Marianne accepts him as her husband. Colonel Brandon is the epitome of benevolence and fortitude.
Mrs. Jennings provides the much needed comic relief in the novel. She creates humor and lightens the gloomy atmosphere. Most of the scenes in which she is present are amusing. She is a merry old woman who enjoys life and tries to make the life of others enjoyable. She attends parties and entertains guests. She invites the Dashwood girls to London so that they can have a change of scene and provide her company. She tries to link them with eligible bachelors and hopes to see them settled comfortably in life. She likes to tease young women like them about their love interests but also makes an effort to share their sorrow when they are rejected. Mrs. Jennings is kind and generous. She wants to help men and women in distress. Elinor appreciates the goodness of Mrs. Jennings, while Marianne is critical of her gossipy nature.