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John Dashwood and Edward Ferrars: Duty, Affection and Brotherhood

“You will gain a brother, a real, affectionate brother” (19). Mrs. Dashwood’s words to Marianne reveal her desire and belief that Edward Ferrars will become a brotherly figure in the family. Yes, Edward would be tied to the family through marriage, yet even more so, he would be bonded through a genuine familial affection. Although Sense and Sensibility comprehensively explores sisterly affection through Elinor and Marianne’s relationship, genuine brotherly affection is rare in the novel. John Dashwood, half-brother to the Dashwood sisters, neglects his fraternal duties charged to him by his father. Although anxious to appear a decent and respectable brother, John’s self-centered focus crowds out genuine affection for his half-sisters—his very attempts to appear selfless center around his own self-image. In contrast, while Edward Ferrars holds no inherent obligation to the Dashwood sisters, his affectionate nature gains him the status of friend, lover, and brother. Ultimately, the distinction between John Dashwood’s fickle, cold nature and Edward Ferrars’ kind, committed nature reveals the failure of duty when it lacks a foundation of affection and virtue.

John Dashwood’s affection is shallow; his sense of brotherly duty is fickle and easily manipulated. This superficial affection is revealed through John Dashwood’s interaction with his wife, Fanny: Although he originally decides to give his half-sisters each one thousand pounds, after Fanny’s manipulative prodding, John commits only to occasional “neighbourly acts” (15) towards the sisters. This single phrase gives a telling insight into how John views his half-sisters—although related by blood, he chooses merely to show the distant civility of a neighbor. Further, by committing solely to “neighbourly acts” (15), John and Fanny Dashwood in effect commit to nothing. Any future generosity is dependent on their character, and due to John and Fanny’s self-serving ways, true kindness towards the Dashwood sisters seems improbable.

To justify himself, John adopts a variety of reasons for why he doesn’t need to be quite so generous: First, as Fanny argues, they must consider “the fortune of their dear little boy” (10). Using one familial duty to combat another, Fanny appeals to their son’s wellbeing. Their son is already far more well-off than the Dashwood daughters, yet this is irrelevant to John and Fanny—their son’s future satisfaction must be preserved at all costs, even if it is at the expense of the Dashwood sisters’ livelihood. Henry Dashwood is still young, however, and for all practical purposes, the money will be at John and Fanny’s disposal. Thus, John Dashwood uses one duty to push another under the rug. Ironically, by appealing to his duty as father, Fanny manipulates John into neglecting the charge given by his own late father.

John Dashwood’s second rationale regards the fact that he is not a real brother to the Dashwood sisters. Again, Fanny wields the powers of persuasion: “What brother on earth would do half so much for his sisters, even if really his sisters! And as it is—only half blood!” (11). Fanny asserts that John is not a real, full-blooded brother to his sisters, and thus, the sense of duty is again weakened. Only blood ties John Dashwood to his half-sisters, and weakly at that—he has no foundation of affection that bonds him in brotherhood.

The third justification is perhaps the most genuine; the two previous justifications are only facades for this: John Dashwood has an intense adoration and desire for wealth. This desire has become so consuming that John equates money with the value of a human life. When learning that Mrs. Dashwood may live another fifteen years, John cries out with disgust, “Fifteen years! My dear Fanny, her life cannot be worth half that purchase” (12). Although Fanny is an expert manipulator, the sudden, emphatic nature of this statement implies that it is unprompted by her manipulation. Human lives are an investment to John; he considers marriages, connections, and gaining the favor of others through this business-like lens. Someone with great fortune is automatically a valuable investment. Someone with little fortune is worthless unless they are lucky enough to marry another of great fortune. Fanny’s manipulation in other realms succeeds because her husband’s heart, saturated by a love of wealth, can offer no resistance.

In many ways, Fanny is the true force behind the couple’s actions; John is simply fickle enough to go along with her. Fanny states, “Your father thought only of them. And I must say this: that you owe no particular gratitude to him, nor attention to his wishes, for we very well know that if he could, he would have left almost every thing in the world to them” (14). Fanny paints themselves as the victims, discrediting Mr. Dashwood and thereby lessening John’s sense of duty towards him. With subtle manipulation, she transforms Mr. Dashwood’s parting words from a fair charge to a blatant case of nepotism. As literary critic Pam Morris writes, “ . . . [Fanny’s] language emphatically opposes ‘our’ and ‘own’ to ‘theirs’ and ‘them’ as the discursive structure of competitive, acquisitive individualism” (36). This tribalistic perspective carves away any sense of duty felt by John Dashwood: The Dashwood sisters are painted as a threat to his own self-interest. 

In contrast to Fanny’s manipulation, John’s fickleness seems like a forgivable fault. Yet Austen’s own attitudes towards her brothers indicate a different perspective. Jane Austen herself had six brothers, who all “set a high value on candour” (Honan). As biographer Park Honan writes, James and Henry Austen’s personal motto was “SPEAK OF US AS WE ARE.” Austen’s admiration for her brothers was fueled by this direct and candid manner. In the character of John Dashwood, we see the exact opposite of everything that Austen admired in her own brothers. He is easily manipulated and lacks fervent affection, traits which couldn’t be further from the Austen brothers’ protective and steadfast natures. When John converses with his half-sisters, his tone is often stilted and formal, not warm and authentic. When meeting Elinor in Mr. Gray’s shop, “their affection and pleasure in meeting, was just enough to make a very creditable appearance” (209). This emphasis on appearance reveals that John is aware of social conventions, and thus sprinkles faux affection on his interaction with Elinor. Yet this affection has no deeper foundation; it is a convention followed out of civility. Despite John’s lack of true brotherly affection, he diligently tries to make himself look like a “good” brother to Elinor. When discussing the Jennings family, he repeatedly emphasizes their “large fortune” (210) and their connection with Elinor and Marianne, as if to justify his own financial choices. John concludes, “And so you are most comfortably settled in your little cottage and want for nothing!” (210). His incessant mentions of wealth may hint at deeper mixed feelings that John harbors—he seems to be attempting to convince himself just as much as convincing Elinor.

Moving past these updates and formalities, John makes his true curiosities known: “Who is Colonel Brandon? Is he a man of fortune?” (211). Again, the immediate question about fortune reveals where John’s own desires lie. He prematurely congratulates Elinor on gaining fortune through Brandon, and wishes the fortune were “twice as much” for Elinor’s sake (211). This statement appears to be one of financial generosity and indulgence, yet it contradicts John’s actual willingness to offer financial help. His words don’t match his actions—rather, these words are a way for John to shallowly assert his generosity. Further, John’s congratulations center around wealth, not character. On the other hand, he quickly judges Marianne’s fate: “I question whether Marianne now, will marry a man worth more than five or six hundred a year” (215). His sorrow lies not in the sickness and suffering of Marianne, but rather in the destruction of her appearance and attractive qualities. If Marianne lacks beauty, she lacks marriageability. If she lacks marriageability, she lacks the potential to make a fortune. John Dashwood’s world revolves around wealth, and he sees the worlds of everyone else through this light.

Edward Ferrars, on the other hand, is an enigma when it comes to appearances. Does he act as a brother? A lover? A villain, hidden beneath layers of awkwardness? At times, his shy nature makes him near impossible for the Dashwood sisters to read. As Marianne observes to her mother after Edward’s departure from Norland, “In Edward’s farewell there was no distinction between Elinor and me: it was the good wishes of an affectionate brother to both” (41). It could be argued that Marianne’s observational skills are tinted by her ideal of a romantic and passionate knight in shining armor, yet even Elinor struggles to fully read Edward’s personality. She reflects that “the longer they were together the more doubtful seemed the nature of his regard and sometimes, for a few painful minutes, she believed it to be no more than friendship” (24). If John Dashwood’s affections are shallow, Edward’s are hidden behind layers of personal turmoil and shyness. Yet Edward constantly shows a common decency that John Dashwood lacks: Even when the Dashwood sisters doubt his romantic feelings, they assume the alternative is a friendly or brotherly love felt by Edward. Although Edward takes time to warm up, “his behaviour gave every indication of an open affectionate heart” (17). Compared to John Dashwood’s cold, shallow affection, Edward Ferrars’ attitude is warm and pleasant. Edward does strive to stay somewhat detached from Elinor, conflicted over his pre-established engagement. In this way, he is notably different from Willoughby, who is charming but deceptive—Edward’s commitment to honorable behavior aligns with what Austen valued in her own brothers. Much of Edward’s personal conflict arises from his desire for openness; he is pained over his oath to secrecy. Unlike John, who creates false pretenses to justify himself, Edward longs for honesty.

Edward is secretive out of duty, not purposeful deception: He is under a vow of secrecy to Lucy Steele, and thus views it as his duty to keep the engagement concealed. When the engagement comes to light, Edward is willing to go through with it and be married, even if it means the death of his future happiness. Both Edward Ferrars and John Dashwood hold a duty towards relations other than the Dashwood sisters. Edward honors his commitment to Lucy; John honors a commitment (although an exaggerated one) to his wife and son. The difference, however, is that John Dashwood uses one commitment as a justification to ignore a more unpleasant commitment. Edward, when faced with an unpleasant commitment, chooses to uphold it. John Dashwood’s love of money and lack of affection create a sinking sand foundation; his sense of duty cannot hold firm. Even though Edward feels no affection towards Lucy Steele, his modesty and virtue enable him to carry through with this commitment. Edward is willing to sacrifice his own self-interest for an established duty, although he is released from this fate in the end.

For all of John Dashwood’s faults, he is fairly readable—amongst a cast of secretive characters, he is one of the few who truly has little to hide. His faults are clear: We are shown John Dashwood’s adoration of wealth, desire to please the wealthy, easily manipulated nature, and weak affection for his half-sisters. He is not as cunning or crafty as Willoughby; he isn’t a deceptive manipulator like Fanny. Yet arguably, John’s weak-spirited character holds a deeper flaw. John Dashwood is open because he sees no reason to hide his faults: They are not faults in his mind. His regard for wealth seems to be the most natural feeling in the world to himself, not to mention to the people that surround John Dashwood, such as Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars. He feels no stricken conscience, no remorse. In this way, John Dashwood’s nature reveals almost a worse state than concealment: At least Willoughby feels the remorse to apologize, though his apology is tainted by self-interest. John Dashwood sees no need for an apology. His lack of affection has made him cold to the trials of his own half-sisters. Perhaps he feels a hint of repressed guilt, but if so, he pushes these feelings away by playing the victim.

Circumstantially, Edward Ferrars and John Dashwood are not all that different—both are engaged to manipulative, conniving women at a young age. Edward, however, chooses moral constancy over the whims of social standing. He refuses to ignore his past commitments, even if it means a life of poverty and unhappiness. On the other hand, John succumbs to the wishes of his wife, suppressing his conscience and fraternal duties. Both Edward and John have mixed feelings about their conflicting duties and desires, yet Edward chooses steadfast virtue while John chooses moral fickleness. Yes, Edward Ferrars may be a lover to Elinor; but even more so, he provides the Dashwood family with what it previously lacked: “a real, affectionate brother” (19).

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Introduction and Notes by Ros Ballaster. Penguin Books, 2014.
  • Honan, Park. “The Austen Brothers and Sisters. Persuasions 10 (1998), pp. 59-64.
  • Morris, Pam. “Sense and Sensibility: Wishing Is Believing.” Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Worldly Realism. Edinburgh University Press, 2017, pp. 29–54.
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