PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.30, NO.1 (Winter 2009)

Willoughby’s Apology



C. Durning Carroll


C. Durning Carroll (email: will be defending his dissertation, “Inventing Individuals: Apologies, Social Contracts, and the Making of the Romantic Self,” at the City University of New York Graduate Center this fall.

But one grand truth women have yet to learn. . . . In the choice of a husband they should not be led astray by the qualities of a lover.

Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of The Rights of Woman (249)


Sense and Sensibility presents a conflict between two opposite ways of approaching the world.  Both sense and sensibility are necessary for a complete life, but in this novel Jane Austen demonstrates that the pain and vagaries of living require a greater use of sense than of sensibility.  Although the definitions of these two abstract nouns repeatedly shift meaning, the reader quickly comes to understand that Elinor and Edward Ferrars represent “sense” and Marianne and John Willoughby are the book’s representatives of “sensibility.”1  Much of the dramatic tension in Sense and Sensibility comes from the fact that both main suitors in the novel—Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby—conceal prior romantic engagements from the women they’ve chosen to court.  These concealed engagements, though initially unknown to the heroines, are eventually uncovered, and apologies from both men ensue.  Austen uses the difference between the two men’s apologies to draw fundamental distinctions between their characters.  Willoughby’s apology, though long and apparently sincere, will not alter his reputation as a libertine; Edward’s, closer in tone to an excuse because it will essentially deny his responsibility for any harm, will serve as confirmation of his moral virtues as a potential husband. 

Willoughby’s apology begins unexpectedly.  In Cleveland, the house where Elinor and Marianne have been staying, Marianne has fallen critically ill, but the doctor has said that the main risk has passed and Marianne will recover.  Elinor anxiously awaits the return of Colonel Brandon with her mother when she hears a carriage approaching and assumes their arrival is imminent.  Elinor descends to the drawing-room and to her shock finds “only Willoughby” (316).  Her sense of disappointment at seeing Willoughby here is palpable; Elinor’s intense reaction reminds readers that we too are to find Willoughby’s appearance deeply distasteful.2  She is so disturbed by his presence that even before he begins speaking she tries to leave the room, but Willoughby stops her by blocking the door.  Evidently he feels he must speak to her.  “‘Miss Dashwood, for half an hour—for ten minutes—I entreat you to stay’” (317).  Although she doesn’t believe that he can want to talk to her, he insists, “‘My business is with you, and only you’” (317).  Willoughby first begins by enquiring after Marianne’s health, and then, hearing she is out of danger, he pointedly asks Elinor, “‘Tell me honestly . . . do you think me most a knave or a fool ?’” (318).  She replies, “‘Mr. Willoughby, you ought to feel, and I certainly do—that after what has passed—your coming here in this manner, and forcing yourself upon my notice, requires a very particular excuse.—What is it, that you mean by it ?’” (319).

“I mean”—said he, with serious energy—“if I can, to make you hate me one degree less than you do now.  I mean to offer some kind of explanation, some kind of apology, for the past; to open my whole heart to you, and by convincing you, that though I have been always a blockhead, I have not been always a rascal, to obtain something like forgiveness from Ma—from your sister.”  (319)

Elinor replies, ‘“If that is all, you may be satisfied already,—for Marianne does—she has long forgiven you’” (319). Yet this grant of forgiveness seems not to satisfy him:  “‘Has she! . . .Then she has forgiven me before she ought to have done it. But she shall forgive me again, and on more reasonable grounds.—Now will you listen to me?’” (319).

The curious thing about this scene is that, although Marianne was the only person harmed, Willoughby chooses to apologize to Elinor.  Surprisingly, Willoughby wishes to speak just to her.  His insistence on apologizing to Elinor is an implicit acknowledgement that any forgiveness from Marianne is illegitimate.  Yet if the only wronged party has forgiven Willoughby before the apology begins, then the ostensible aim of the apology has disappeared, and the true reason for this apology cannot be forgiveness.  Several pages after Willoughby has finished his explanation Elinor concludes, “‘The whole of his behaviour, . . . from the beginning to the end of the affair has been grounded on selfishness’” (351).  If indeed Willoughby is judged as utterly selfish even after a sincere and heartfelt apology, then what is the real purpose of his apology?

Willoughby’s apology cannot result in his forgiveness because his behavior is intended to compare unfavorably with Edward’s.  Edward will be seen as virtuous despite his wrongs; his forgiveness is necessary because he is intended to become Elinor’s husband.  The grant of Elinor’s forgiveness is, therefore, a foregone conclusion.  Edward does not apologize for misleading Elinor until after he proposes to her and has been accepted.  Even then, his apology will admit to very little wrongdoing.  After she has accepted Edward’s sudden and unexpected proposal, he attempts to explain his former attachment:  “‘It was a foolish, idle inclination on my side, . . . the consequence of ignorance of the world—and want of employment. . . . Considering everything, therefore, I hope, foolish as our engagement was, foolish as it has since in every way been proved, it was not at the time an unnatural, or an inexcusable piece of folly’” (362–63).  Unlike the moment of Willoughby’s apology, where Willoughby will be judged by another and found largely wanting, Edward, with the minor concession to Elinor of “‘I hope,’” judges himself here and finds his own crime largely excusable:  a “folly” that was the result of a “consequence” and a “want.”

Willoughby’s reputation will ultimately be tied to how Elinor views him, but Edward is given moral autonomy:  he is permitted to satisfy primarily the dictates of his own conscience.  When, a few pages later, Elinor finally receives an explanation of the dénouement of Edward’s relationship with Lucy Steele, Austen writes, “Elinor scolded him, harshly as ladies always scold the imprudence which compliments themselves, for having spent so much time with them at Norland, when he must have felt his own inconstancy” (368).  Willoughby’s crimes are compounded because has also seduced, impregnated, and abandoned Colonel Brandon’s ward, Eliza Williams, but Elinor accepts Willoughby’s explanation for this crime and never mentions it to him again during the apology.  Instead, her primary concern remains his engagement to Miss Grey and the pain it has caused Marianne.  But while Willoughby remains “‘very wrong’” and “‘very blameable’” (329) even after his apology, Edward’s nearly parallel wrong is judged as mere “imprudence.”

Austen establishes that Elinor loves (the phrase she uses is “returned the partiality” [15]) Edward from the opening pages of the novel.  Elinor’s estimation of Edward’s virtue persists against all odds.  When she asks Edward about the hair inset in the ring he wears, he lies to her, claiming the hair belongs to his sister instead of Lucy Steele.  Even the discovery of Edward’s long-standing engagement appears not to affect Elinor’s feelings for him.  After Elinor reveals to Marianne Edward’s engagement to Lucy Steele, she declares, “‘I acquit Edward of all essential misconduct’” (263).  Tellingly this acquittal happens before Edward’s apology.  Elinor remains constant to Edward despite his continued deception and the evident pain it causes her.  The long delay between the recognition of harm he has caused and the few words of justification he provides after proposing suggests that although Austen wants us to recognize that Edward has caused Elinor pain, his immoral actions are finally of little consequence.  Willoughby’s, on the other hand, are not.

To explain the different judgments of these two men, it helps to consider how the context of their apologies is different.  Willoughby apologizes after neglecting to make an expected marriage proposal to Marianne and having married the very wealthy Miss Grey.  Edward, on the other hand, apologizes after his expected marriage to Lucy suddenly turns into a proposal to Elinor.  Given Elinor’s stated wish to be candid (impartial) in her judgment of everyone (79) and her supposed devotion to sense, it becomes difficult to account for the different judgments of Edward and Willoughby purely on the basis of the behavior that led them to apologize.  If we accept that Elinor is being swayed by her feelings for Edward, then we must conclude that she is not being candid.  In this case she would be letting sensibility get the better of her—the very thing she is supposed to stand against and for which she would condemn Willoughby.  If, on the other hand, she is being candid, then we must conclude that Edward is acquitted because he will marry Elinor and Willoughby condemned because he has married Miss Grey.  These alternative explanations help clarify our understanding of the difference between sense and sensibility and the moral values Austen tends to associate with them.

Edward’s virtue derives primarily from his proposal to Elinor and his loyalty to his former engagement to Lucy.  Had Lucy not left him, we are told, he would have married her even though he claims he has long ceased loving her.  On the other hand, the hair in the ring, Edward’s many visits to Longstaple after he’s ceased being a boarder there, the length of his engagement, and Lucy’s initial resistance to his advances all suggest that this claim is false—a form of retroactive rhetorical justification.  These facts, and the abruptness of his proposal to Elinor argue that he is motivated less by any genuine feeling for her, than simply because she is available.  Though Austen suggests elsewhere (say in Elizabeth Bennet’s rejection of Mr. Collins’s proposal) that love between couples is essential for a happy marriage, in this instance Edward’s loyalty to a promise has become more important than any feelings of love he may have for Elinor.  Yet Elinor, though presented as a paragon of sense, chooses to love Edward without any real evidence that her love will be returned.

Edward’s supposed privileging of loyalty over love makes concealing his engagement forgivable.  But if loyalty should take precedence over love, then how can the cautious and sensible Elinor love Edward from the opening pages of the novel, before she has any knowledge of his loyalty?  The comparison to Willoughby is illuminating, for Willoughby’s own commitment to Sophia Grey—his fulfillment of his engagement promise to her—remains the primary source of his problems.  As we learn, Willoughby has not proposed to Marianne, he has simply created the expectation that he should do so.  Unlike Edward, he has not lied.  Loyalty clearly matters, but apparently only when this loyalty is to Austen’s own heroines.  Edward’s loyalty to Lucy is made into a moral virtue not because it is a principle in and of itself, but simply because that loyalty is finally transferred to Elinor.

Willoughby’s apology is also a trial—a trial of the sensibility that he and Marianne are supposed to represent.  In this trial Elinor has been confirmed as the sole judge.  Willoughby’s trial is intended to illuminate the novel’s central conclusion—one formed in almost syllogistic fashion:  first Elinor, because she is impartial, is competent to be a fair judge of Willoughby’s actions and properly decide whether a philosophy of sensibility leads people to perform immoral actions.  Second, Willoughby’s decision to apologize and his choice of Elinor as its recipient are taken together as a self-evident proof of the first claim—that the sort of sensibility demonstrated by him does indeed result in immoral behavior.  By linking these premises in the performance of the apology, Austen attempts to draw a conclusion for the reader—that sensibility, at least as Willoughby has displayed it, is objectively immoral.  In other words, to choose sense over sensibility when making a moral choice is the same as making that choice fairly and without bias.  Such a choice is fair and unbiased because it is based on reason—understood here as Elinor’s own dominant quality of sense.  When weighing a decision in the scales of justice, the moral person—e.g., Elinor herself—will always choose her purportedly unbiased way of sense.

Austen’s dramatic gesture of having Willoughby apologize cleverly limits our ability to question her equation of sense with moral virtue or point out that such an unalterable belief in the virtues of sense might itself display a bias against sensibility.  Willoughby’s long and sincere explanation, followed by the stinting forgiveness that Elinor provides him, makes her look merciful and conceals the fact that once Willoughby has made his choice of Elinor to apologize to, the apology is in a sense finished, even before it has begun.  The moral superiority of sense over sensibility that Willoughby’s apology is intended to demonstrate is embodied neither in Willoughby’s words nor in the performance of his apology, but in the choice of Elinor as its recipient. Willoughby’s apology is the demonstration of his fault; the apology is proof of how wrong he really is.

Absent here are the objective grounds upon which Willoughby is to be judged.  By not providing those grounds of judgment, Elinor can conclude that Willoughby is wrong even as she admits that he has in fact proved himself less culpable.  As Mary Poovey has explained, Elinor’s emotions—her sensibility—and not her reason, tell her that Willoughby remains morally wrong.3  Indeed, in Sense and Sensibility objective reason in moral matters is impossible.  Such reason would have to be universal and would need to acknowledge the striking similarity between the crimes for which Edward and Willoughby apologize.  This acknowledgment of similarity, however, would fail to draw the crucial distinction Austen wants to make between lovers and husbands or between the sensibility of Willoughby and the sense of Edward and Colonel Brandon.  As Robert Hopkins has explained, the relationship characters will come to have with the heroines—not the moral status of their actions—determines how they will be viewed (144).

Because both men apologize, Austen’s novel also leaves open the possibility that Edward’s apology is ironic—that he is really much more like Willoughby than the divergent evaluation of their apologies suggests.  In this view, while Willoughby may be immoral, Edward is insincere.  Elinor’s “sense” may be less reliable than that suggested by any simple opposition between sense and sensibility; the difference between husbands and lovers may not be as clear as the action of the novel leads us to believe.  Viewed in this way “sense” and “sensibility” become largely equivocal terms, and Elinor’s own moments of sensibility mistakenly lead her to draw a greater distinction between the behavior of the two men than is actually warranted.  Although Elinor’s moments of sensibility may lead her astray in judging Edward’s moral virtue, this capitulation to feeling also helps make her more human.  If we allow the novel this element of irony and human error, it becomes a more subtle work than I am suggesting.  Instead of an ideological text whose aim, at least in part, is to guard against male infidelity, it becomes instead a work about the universal human struggle to balance sense and sensibility.  This tension is, in fact, suggested by the “and” in Sense and Sensibility.  Reading the novel ironically is certainly more appealing than the more ideological reading I am arguing for, but I believe we have too little evidence that Elinor has made a mistake or been misguided in forgiving Edward to make such a reading plausible.

As Austen shows repeatedly throughout her novels, a man without economic means faced significantly worse prospects in the marriage market than a woman without such means.  Elizabeth Bennet, for example, is not wealthy; she can offer the fabulously rich Darcy only a reasonable beauty and a facility with words.  Willoughby offers these same qualities to Marianne, but the characteristics that are virtues in Elizabeth become vices in Willoughby.  Though Lucy Steele and Willoughby are both criticized for marrying for purely economic reasons, Austen’s criticism glosses over her conviction that some women who marry up the income scale and all men who do so are immoral.  In Austen’s novels no poor man could ever fall in love with a rich woman and be rewarded with wealth and happiness.  Without the wealth of a Darcy, the evil Wickham cannot grant Georgiana Darcy or even Lydia Bennet the economic well-being either requires, and so in Austen’s moral calculus his only option would be to remove himself from the marriage market altogether.4  Willoughby successfully accomplishes with Sophia Grey what Wickham cannot with Georgiana Darcy, but that very success requires that he apologize and feel remorse for respecting the same economic imperative that drives Austen’s heroines.

Austen’s novels frequently paint wealthy men as moral and poor ones as immoral.  Throughout her novels she tries to argue that these differences in moral behavior derive from clear observation and sound moral principles.  In fact, in a world in which middle class women could not really work, the association between a man’s wealth and his moral virtue was a necessary fiction, extremely useful for social climbing.  A poor woman who wanted to marry a rich man needed, understandably, to believe that he was moral.  Austen should, therefore, be forgiven for presenting her readers with such a fiction.


1. Keeping the definitions of “sense” and “sensibility” straight is a notoriously difficult task. See Williams (280-83).

2. As Celia A. Easton has pointed out, the replacement of the person who is expected with the unexpected one who arrives is a frequent and powerful narrative device in Sense and Sensibility.

3. Mary Poovey comments on this moment as representative of a kind of “moral anarchy.”  Her thesis is that the intense emotion of Willoughby’s apology scene is an essential part of Austen’s perspective on morality:  “Austen attempts to bend the imaginative engagement [emotion] elicits in the reader to the service of moral education” (187).  Elinor’s emotional vacillation, however, shows the problems with assuming Willoughby to be without redeeming qualities.

4. Note that such a removal from the marriage market is exactly what Captain Wentworth in Persuasion is made to do.  Wentworth’s initial proposal to Anne Elliot is rejected because he is too poor.  In the intervening seven years between the first proposal and his return to Anne’s social circle he has made his fortune.  His persistence in loving Anne and his newfound wealth combine to make him one of Austen’s most heroically moral men.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane.  Sense and Sensibility.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  New York: Oxford UP, 1933.

Easton, Celia A.  “Sense and Sensibility and the Joke of Substitution.”  The Journal of Narrative Technique 23 (1993): 114-26.

Hopkins, Robert.  “Moral Luck and Judgment in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.”  Nineteenth Century Literature 42 (1987): 143-58.

Poovey, Mary.  The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer.  Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Williams, Raymond.  Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.  Rev. ed.  New York: Oxford UP, 1983.

Wollstonecraft, Mary.  The Vindications: The Rights of Men, The Rights of Woman.  Ed. D. L. McDonald and Kathleen Scherf.  Peterborough, ON: Broadview P, 1997.

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