A Critical Analysis of Femininity in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility



Many people define femininity as the state of being female. However, femininity comprises  many aspects apart from  biological factors. These aspects are typical for  females.  In other words, the characteristics, traits, and responsibilities of females are what define femininity. Also, some people believe that the gentle nature of females  is what defines femininity. 

Generally, the characteristics of femininity differ depending on a variety of factors. Specifically,  culture, socialization and location affect the understanding and  characteristics of femininity. Different cultures have different requirements for femininity. In every culture there exist  set standards that define the state of being feminine . For instance, some communities do not allow females to apply cosmetics while others do . 
Historically, the idea of femininity is rooted the biblical myths as well as  historical myths. For example, the Bible requires women to be submissive to their husbands. As for the history of ancient Greece, one may find evidence  that different characteristics and responsibilities defined the state of being male or female. 


Today the idea of femininity is being reshaped and revolutionized by changing  beliefs of people. The modern approach to femininity differs from the historical approach in terms of the requirements for  femininity. Unlike the past when they were quite restricted in public activity,  women today are increasingly occupying positions of authority in various fields.
In the eighteenth century, submissiveness of women, their softness, obedience,  reliance on men, lack of efficiency, as well as their delicate bodies defined femininity (Hitchcock, 1997, p. 43). Many communities held notion that women were inferior. Men did not permit  women to participate in leadership roles. Their role was to stay home  and follow the commands of  husbands. Boys and girls had different responsibilities and privileges depending on a community . Many practices were common in different societies. Specifically, in most communities, men inherited property from their fathers after death, and the fate of their female counterparts depended on their relationship. Next, women  could not hold any positions of power or authority. 

Throughout history, people have raised concerns about traditional approach to femininity through activism or writing. It is apparent that the issues they have raised mainly contradict the set understanding of femininity. This essay aims to critically analyze the  efforts to explain femininity. To achieve this aim, the author provides a close analysis of Jane Austen’s book, Sense and Sensibility. Specifically, the paper focuses on ideas that Austen proposes in her work and how these ideas challenge or support the notions of properly practiced femininity. Structurally, the summary of the main ideas in Austen’s book is provided first. Next, the view of  femininity is discussed.

A Brief Summary of the Content of Jane Austen’s Book

Generally speaking, Sense and Sensibility is about the family of Mr. Henry Dashwood. Mr Dashwood has  two wives and owns an estate called Norland Park. After his death, the ownership of the estate passes directly to his only son John Dashwood. John is a son of the first wife. The second wife has three daughters: Elinor, Margaret, and Marianne. Before his death, Mr. Dashwood expresses his wish to John and instructs him to mind the affairs of his stepmother and half-sisters. Henry’s death leaves his second wife and his three daughters without a permanent shelter and with meager income (Austen, 2008).
John’s wife Fanny persuades  him  that the income his father left  was enough to sustain John’s stepmother and his half-sisters. They use this idea to justify their joy . When  John and Fanny become the owners of the estate, John’s three half-sisters  become strangers in Norland Park, which makes their mother Mrs. Dashwood seek a new place to live. Edward Ferras, who is Fanny’s brother, visits Norland Park and forms a close relationship with Elinor. Mrs. Dashwood is not happy because Edward claims that Elinor is money driven. She speeds her search for a new home.
Mrs. Dashwood and her family relocate to a new residence in Devonshire that is adjacent to her cousin’s home. Her cousin John receives them warmly. John’s friend Colonel Brandon, falls in love with Marianne, but she undermines his ability to love because of his old age. Instead, Marianne admires Mr. Willoughby and his qualities after he rescues her down Barton hills in the rain. They follow each other until Mr. Willoughby leaves for  London for business purposes (Austen, 2008). This leaves Marianne a miserable woman and she falls sick.

At the same time, Elinor discovers that Edward has been having secret relationship with Lucy Steele. Mrs. Jennings, John’s mother-in-law, Elinor, and Marianne travel to London where Marianne meets Colonel Brandon. Willoughby denies that he had feelings for Marianne when the two meet again in a party. Brandon enlightens Elinor about the callous nature of Willoughby, who once seduced Brandon’s ward and abandoned her after he learnt about her pregnancy. Soon Marianne gets a letter from which she gets to know that Willoughby has got engaged to a wealthy lady Miss Grey (Austen, 2008).
Edward’s mother learns about his secret engagement to  Lucy and decides to disinherit him. She promises to give Robert Ferras all  inheritance. Marianne falls sick in Cleveland when they visit some of their family friends. Willoughby learns about Marianne’s sickness and comes to apologize for his behavior  seeking forgiveness. Elinor explains Willoughby’s story to Marianne and concludes that the two could never have been happy. After the sisters return to Barton, they learn that Lucy jilted Edward in favor of  Robert Ferras. Edward proposes to Elinor while Colonel Brandon and Marianne finally reunite.

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The Concept of Femininity

Jane Austen presents women as objects of submission throughout  the  book. At the beginning, she shows how forcefully John acquires his father’s property ignoring  his father’s will. Mrs. Dashwood has to look for an alternative place of residence for her three daughters. This presents two ideas about femininity. One is that male members in the family have the responsibility of making all decisions. John’s decision about ownership of the estate is irrevocable. This is a challenge to femininity because in the modern world women take part in making  decisions within a family and society . John’s  wife Fanny influences his decision to deny  the right of his half-sisters to inherit property. The fact that Mrs. Dashwood decides to move to a new place of residence shows that she does not depend on John  for her survival. It also shows that women have the power of influence and can have authority over men.
In the novel, women are agents of their own fate. Specifically, women seem to ignore the traditional concept of femininity and allow men to use it to mistreat them. They are aware of their rights and privileges but still  leave men with the responsibility of running and controlling their lives. According to Austen, it is a challenge that traditional customs and cultures dictate the fate of most women. Austen uses Marianne  to demonstrate how the eighteenth century approaches to femininity would affect the present-day woman. Elinor tries to explain to Margaret the reasons behind their  half-brother act of inheriting his father’s property.

It is implied that physical attributes and behavior of women should not be the basis of understanding femininity. Women are gentle and need to be looked after, but the world should allow them to apply sense to their lives. Austen believes that they should be agents of change in society in the new world (Benedict, 1990). She uses the difference between the two sisters to reinforce the new understanding of femininity. Elinor embodies  a woman as a reformer through his relationships with men. On the other hand, Marianne  represents the eighteenth century woman who is ready to be used by men. 
Generally, women in the novel are weak in their actions and decisions. Their environment  manipulates women’s ability to function and impacts the results they achieve. Austen’s view is that is the situation when women are obliged to always support men and discredit their fellow females is unfortunate (Looser, 1995, p. 17). It is a pity that  women  always ignore the limitations  of men due to existing inner contradictions. 

 The relationships between men and the Dashwood sisters also demonstrate the weak nature and attitude of women. Despite men’s numerous mistakes, the sisters  sympathize with the men. This is not the case with the modern approach to femininity which recognizes the right of women to gain the status of authority. Even more, the new approach to femininity renders men powerless and useless members of the society. Today women have different requirements for femininity which include their desire to own property and live in a lavish manner. This contradicts  most men’s ideas of living a comfortable life and meeting the needs of everyone. 
In the novel it is also implied that the mixture of authority and femininity adds to societal problems (Wallace, 1992). Edward is a victim of this scenario. His mother, Lucy Steele and his sister ruin his life.  Edward’s family and his female friends lack ambitions and motives in their lives, which leaves him in a helpless condition. He thinks of his life as something not worthy, and it is the reason he falls in love with Elinor. His attempts of finding someone close  in his life make him develop his love.


Femininity and authority are two often confused concepts in the modern world. Practised femininity does not necessarily imply that women have authority over men or vice versa. Inasmuch as the society needs to change its perception of femininity, there is also a need to acknowledge the challenges associated with the poor understanding of this phenomenon. There is a need to incorporate  internal differences and capabilities of men and women before adopting new approaches to femininity.
The idea of practised femininity has its strengths and weaknesses. The main strength of this approach is that women have a power of influence and are capable of existing on their own. They also have the ability to choose what is right for them and decide on what best suits them. However, this approach has a number of challenges and limitations. The main challenge is the internal nature of women and their tender and delicate bodies. . Specifically, women often ignore others unlike men who believe in teamwork and collective performance. The desire to live comfortable lives with adequate privacy is what drives the actions of men. On the contrary, earthly wishes and the desire to live the most expensive lives is the main motivating factor for women. Hence, the idea of practiced femininity is not as easy as it looks on the surface (Johnson, 1988). There is a need to consider a wide scope of ideas and events to understand femininity altogether.

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