In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen introduces John Willoughby as the mysterious and dashing hero who sweeps Marianne Dashwood off her feet in both the literal and figurative sense; readers are invited to desire a marriage between Marianne and Willoughby, even as Elinor Dashwood’s more judicious perspective questions his affection. At one point early on in the novel, a conversation ensues on the many merits of the Dashwoods’ humble cottage, with Willoughby praising it from every angle, Mrs. Dashwood ceding to Willoughby’s opinions, and Elinor recognizing the house’s many faults (53-55). Throughout this passage, there is an unspoken tension about what will become of Marianne— if she will be married, what her financial status is and could be, and what her potential for change is. By enmeshing the conversation about Marianne with that of the cottage, Austen foregrounds the different perspectives at play: the motives of the speakers, the narrator, and the spoken for— Marianne. It becomes clear that the improvement of the cottage and Marianne’s improvement are one and the same.
The entire passage is a metaphor for the condition of the Dashwood girls, Marianne in particular. It quickly becomes apparent that Willoughby’s compliments towards the cottage are actually directed at Marianne, and with this context, his comments take on a new meaning. He voices his belief in the cottage’s perfection due to its “one claim on his affection, which no other [building] can possibly share”— Marianne (54). When he says the cottage is “faultless,” he means Marianne is faultless (54). However, given the knowledge readers have by the end of this novel, namely that Willoughby’s primary goal in marriage was to marry a wealthy girl who could fund his lavish lifestyle, his positive comments about the Dashwood girls’ clearly imperfect home signals his misunderstanding of his own desires; he has deluded himself in believing that he can look past Marianne’s poverty. As Elinor explains, even if the family wanted to make changes to the cottage, their mother will “never have enough money to attempt it” (54). Though Willoughby responds charmingly that he is “heartily glad for it,” prevailing societal conditions determine that this would not likely be the case for a prospective husband (54). One of the things a woman brings to a marriage is her family’s money. For girls like Marianne and Elinor, those without substantial wealth, an advantageous marriage is difficult to achieve because they can offer little money or status. Willoughby’s easy acceptance of the reality that the Dashwoods cannot afford even to extend a small cottage therefore seems too good to be true.
Even if Willoughby were not desirous of luxury in the way he is later revealed to be, he cannot relish the relative poverty of his future wife, and his high praise of a humble cottage is an indication of his delusion. Consider his claim that the cottage’s parlor offers “more real accommodation and comfort than any other apartment of the handsomest dimensions in the world could possibly afford” (55). He is not chagrined at the Dashwoods’ inability to improve the cottage, and in fact demands that it not be. He is at a moral peak here and truly believes he can be happy with Marianne in spite of her situation. As the novel later acknowledges, “Vanity, while seeking its own guilty triumph at the expense of another, had involved him in a real attachment, which extravagance, or at least its offspring, necessity, had required to be sacrificed” (243). Willoughby is a fortune-hunter at his core and thus will not marry Marianne, but he can, in the meantime, revel in his own moral superiority which is facilitated by Marianne’s poverty. He can love even a poor girl, though whether he will marry her is less certain.
Further affirming the oddness of Willoughby’s pleasure at the Dashwoods’ situation, Elinor’s acknowledgement of her family’s want of funds, her admittance that they would “never have enough money,” extends far beyond the cottage additions (54). They don’t have the money to improve the cottage, and they don’t have the money to improve their own situation. Elinor recognizes how her and her sisters’ prospects are limited by what they lack. She sees that Willoughby praises Barton Cottage to praise Marianne: “Even under the disadvantage of better rooms and a broader staircase, you will hereafter find your own house as faultless as you now do this” (54). Elinor’s remarks demonstrate that she is highly aware of the subtext of this conversation— the wife, perhaps Marianne, makes the home perfect, regardless of the home itself. Still, she does not wholly believe Willoughby’s excessive, unrealistic flattery of the cottage and therefore of her sister as well. She sees the faults of the “dark narrow stairs, and a kitchen that smokes,” and the ways in which Marianne could better herself both financially and in other less tangible respects are too obvious to Elinor for her to trust that Willoughby could be as contented as he claims to be (54).
The difference in opinion between Willoughby and Elinor regarding Marianne’s need for development is again stressed by Willoughby’s fervent insistence that the cottage should not be altered. His bold and perhaps presumptuous assertion that he will “never consent” to the cottage’s improvement is unsurprisingly gratifying to the Dashwoods, at least to Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne (54). For a man to enter their humble home and not only enumerate its positive qualities but also give his opinion on it suggests his future involvement in the family’s affairs. To a lovestruck Marianne, as well as her marriage-eager mother, there seems no reason to interpret Willoughby’s concern in anything other than a positive light. Willoughby describes the cottage as “faultless” and says that “in no one convenience or inconvenience about it should the least variation be perceptible,” a strange statement given that a man would typically want the woman he loves to better herself (54). The cottage’s role as a symbol of the Dashwood position is shown more clearly in Willoughby’s final remarks: “Tell me that not only your house will remain the same, but that I shall ever find you and yours as unchanged as your dwelling” (55). The reader comes to understand how Marianne will never be challenged to improve herself in a marriage with Willoughby. In all her faults he sees perfection. By blinding himself to her flaws, he is the most gracious, least selfish version of himself; she must remain imperfect for him to maintain this position.
Aside from Willoughby and Elinor’s involvement in this scene, which is primarily driven by their dialogue, the passage suggests a narrator that is as willing to assign goodwill to Willoughby’s behavior as Mrs. Dashwood. As the narrator avows, Willoughby “seemed more than usually open to every feeling of attachment to the objects around him…he warmly opposed every alteration of a place which affection had established as perfect to him” (53-54). The narrator sees only the best in Willoughby’s forthcoming dialogue, as she has already determined his intentions to be pure. It seems as if the narration is somewhat focalized through Mrs. Dashwood’s eyes, and it reveals just how badly she desires the match between Marianne and Willoughby. Mrs. Dashwood even acknowledges that she would forgo change to maintain Willoughby’s affection: “I would not sacrifice one sentiment . . . of yours . . . for all the improvements in the world” (54). Mrs. Dashwood is a romantic like Marianne, and Marianne and Willoughby’s behavior has given her the evidence to believe that they are in love and perhaps engaged. The narrator writes that Mrs. Dashwood recognizes in Marianne’s eyes “how well she understood him” (54). Of course, Marianne does not understand Willoughby, and Mrs. Dashwood’s romanticized hope for their match clouds her perception. The commentary of the narrator, particularly as one who has chosen not to access Marianne’s consciousness, demonstrates how Marianne and Willoughby’s relationship appears to an external party. The perspective suggests that Mrs. Dashwood, even with her penchant for romanticism, is not alone in misassigning meaning to this situation. The apparent unity of the narrator’s and Mrs. Dashwood’s take on this situation illuminates the motives at play in this dialogue and that Marianne’s potential marriage is the true issue at stake in everyone’s mind.
For all the allusion to Marianne that is taking place within this scene, Marianne herself is notably silent. As the conversation turns from Willoughby to Elinor to Mrs. Dashwood, with heavy references to Marianne or even speech directed towards her, she does not say a single thing. The conversation heavily insinuates Marianne and Willoughby’s marriage, and each promise made to him to leave the cottage unaltered feels like an acceptance of a proposal on Marianne’s behalf. For instance, when Mrs. Dashwood “again assured him that no alteration of the kind should be attempted,” this is understood as a declaration that Marianne is his in whatever way he wants her (55). Marianne is directly addressed only once in this passage, when Willoughby asks her, “Must it not have been so, Marianne?” and still she says nothing (55). At the end of the dialogue, the narrator notes that “the promise was readily given” by Mrs. Dashwood, with no mention of Marianne’s feelings on a situation which intimately concerns her if one takes her marriage to be the subtextual topic (54). She is in love with Willoughby and would consent to marry him, but it is still odd how entirely absent she is from the conversation. This dialogue centers on how everyone else sees Marianne. Whether or not she views herself as perfection or aspires to improve is not clear in this scene, but she has nothing to benefit from contradicting Willoughby’s positive characterization of her in this moment. She is defined by others and carries their expectations.
In spite of Willoughby’s requests, Marianne improves herself in every aspect in which he wants her to remain the same. She may not get her first love, and to see her in a more passionate marriage would be more gratifying to the reader, but she grows as a person through Willoughby’s deceit. Giving in to Colonel Brandon’s affection, Marianne finds herself “submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties, placed in a new home, a wife” (279). It would be better for her to choose than to submit, but she improves, nonetheless. Marianne ultimately triumphs over Willoughby by moving out of the cottage entirely and into Delaford, her own mansion house. “Instead of falling a sacrifice to an irresistible passion, as she had once fondly flattered herself with expecting,” she finally has the opportunity to understand fully the options before her and to consent to the one she desires with “calm and sober judgement” (279). Willoughby believes that to change the cottage “would rob it of its simplicity by imaginary improvement” (55); her improvement is anything but that. In the most literal sense, she now has a large home, much grander than the cottage or Combe Magna, and in a more figurative sense, she has learned greater reason and from it gained some agency and a sense of duty through financial security.
Marianne’s potential for change is one layer beneath the surface of a conversation about the Dashwood family cottage. Each comment made about the cottage’s positive qualities, its faults, its alterations, and how each person feels about these issues connects to Marianne and what each character wants from or for her. This dialogue is a clash of tensions over who Marianne can be. The cottage itself is never improved; Marianne’s development is more fundamental, as she “[discovers] the falsehood of her own opinion” and “[counteracts] by her conduct, her most favourite maxims” (279). She rebuilds herself from her foundations and moves far away from the cottage in which Willoughby would have confined her.