Old Mr. Dashwood is the owner of a large estate in Sussex called Norland Park. Following the death of his sister, Mr. Dashwood invites his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood to come live with him at Norland. The younger Mr. Dashwood brings John Dashwood, his son from a previous marriage, as well as the three daughters born to his present wife. John Dashwood is grown and married, and has a four-year-old son, Harry. When Old Mr. Dashwood dies, he leaves his estate to John and little Harry, who had much endeared himself to the old man. But now John's father, Henry Dashwood, is left with no way of supporting his wife and three daughters, and he too dies one year later, leaving only ten thousand pounds for his family. Just before his death, he makes his son John promise to care for his stepmother and three half-sisters.
Mr. John Dashwood initially intends to keep his promise and treat his female relatives generously, but his wife Fanny, a narrow-minded and selfish woman, convinces him to leave them only five hundred pounds apiece. Fanny moves into Norland immediately following Mr. Henry Dashwood's death and becomes mistress of the estate, relegating John's stepmother Mrs. Dashwood and half-sisters Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret to the status of mere visitors.
Fanny's brother, Edward Ferrars, visits Norland for several weeks and develops a strong attachment to Elinor Dashwood. Edward is the eldest son of a man who died very rich; now his entire fate depends upon his mother's will. Although he is shy and not particularly handsome, he has an open, affectionate heart. His mother and sister want him to distinguish himself and earn prestige, but Edward is a simple man, who longs only for domestic comfort.
In her discussions with her mother and her older sister, Marianne Dashwood expresses her disappointment that Edward is not a more striking, artistic, poetic man. She can tell that Elinor has feelings for Edward but becomes frustrated when Elinor concedes only that she "likes" and "esteems" him; Marianne longs to hear her sister profess her passionate devotion. However, Elinor remains timid because she is still unsure that Edward reciprocates her affection; such things are not usually openly expressed until after the engagement.
Six months after Fanny installs herself as mistress at Norland, Mrs. Dashwood receives a letter from her cousin Sir John Middleton, inviting her and her daughters to reside at Barton Cottage on his property in Devonshire. Eager to distance herself from Fanny's rudeness and insensitivity, Mrs. Dashwood immediately accepts the invitation and sends three servants ahead to Barton to prepare the house for their arrival. She informs John and Fanny of their imminent departure and encourages Edward Ferrars to come visit them at Barton. Following Marianne's tearful goodbye to their home at Norland, the family sets out for Barton Cottage.
The opening pages of Sense and Sensibility are concerned with the laws of inheritance and succession that govern the fate of the Dashwood family property. According to the laws of male primogeniture effective in the mid-nineteenth century, estates went to the closest male descendant of the original owner. Since Old Mr. Dashwood has no sons, his estate is bequeathed to his nephew, Henry Dashwood. Henry, in turn, leaves the estate to his eldest son, John. However, as Austen notes, Henry Dashwood's money was far more vital to his daughters than to his son, because John was already provided for both by his mother's fortune--which he inherited as eldest son--and by the money he received by marrying his own wife. (In general, a man inherited all of his wife's money upon marriage, though the wife usually entered into the marriage with a "settlement," a legal document ensuring that some of her property would revert to her or her children following her husband's death.) In this case, the money that Mr. Henry Dashwood's late first wife brought to the marriage was settled on their son John, and therefore could not be used to help his second wife or his daughters by that second wife. Since Henry's second wife and their three daughters could not inherit any of the money from that first marriage, they are in much greater need of the money from Old Mr. Dashwood's estate.
The Moral Role of Government
According to Locke, political power is the natural power of each man collectively given up into the hands of a designated body. The setting up of government is much less important, Locke thinks, than this original social–political “compact.” A community surrenders some degree of its natural rights in favor of government, which is better able to protect those rights than any man could alone. Because government exists solely for the well-being of the community, any government that breaks the compact can and should be replaced. The community has a moral obligation to revolt against or otherwise replace any government that forgets that it exists only for the people’s benefit. Locke felt it was important to closely examine public institutions and be clear about what functions were legitimate and what areas of life were inappropriate for those institutions to participate in or exert influence over. He also believed that determining the proper role of government would allow humans to flourish as individuals and as societies, both materially and spiritually. Because God gave man the ability to reason, the freedom that a properly executed government provides for humans amounts to the fulfillment of the divine purpose for humanity. For Locke, the moral order of natural law is permanent and self-perpetuating. Governments are only factors contributing to that moral order.
An Empirical Theory of Knowledge
For Locke, all knowledge comes exclusively through experience. He argues that at birth the mind is a tabula rasa, or blank slate, that humans fill with ideas as they experience the world through the five senses. Locke defines knowledge as the connection and agreement, or disagreement and repugnancy, of the ideas humans form. From this definition it follows that our knowledge does not extend beyond the scope of human ideas. In fact, it would mean that our knowledge is even narrower than this description implies, because the connection between most simple human ideas is unknown. Because ideas are limited by experience, and we cannot possibly experience everything that exists in the world, our knowledge is further compromised. However, Locke asserts that though our knowledge is necessarily limited in these ways, we can still be certain of some things. For example, we have an intuitive and immediate knowledge of our own existence, even if we are ignorant of the metaphysical essence of our souls. We also have a demonstrative knowledge of God’s existence, though our understanding cannot fully comprehend who or what he is. We know other things through sensation. We know that our ideas correspond to external realities because the mind cannot invent such things without experience. A blind man, for example, would not be able to form a concept of color. Therefore, those of us who have sight can reason that since we do perceive colors, they must exist.
A Natural Foundation of Reason
Locke argues that God gave us our capacity for reason to aid us in the search for truth. As God’s creations, we know that we must preserve ourselves. To help us, God created in us a natural aversion to misery and a desire for happiness, so we avoid things that cause us pain and seek out pleasure instead. We can reason that since we are all equally God’s children, God must want everyone to be happy. If one person makes another unhappy by causing him pain, that person has rejected God’s will. Therefore, each person has a duty to preserve other people as well as himself. Recognizing the responsibility to preserve the rights of all humankind naturally leads to tolerance, the notion that forms the basis for Locke’s belief in the separation of church and state. If we all must come to discover the truth through reason, then no one man is naturally better able to discover truth than any other man. For this reason, political leaders do not have the right to impose beliefs on the people. Because everything we understand comes through experience and is translated by reason, no outside force can make us understand something in conflict with our own ideas. Locke insists that if men were to follow the government blindly, they would be surrendering their own reason and thus violating God’s law, or natural law.
The Right to Private Property
The right to private property is the cornerstone of Locke’s political theory, encapsulating how each man relates to God and to other men. Locke explains that man originally exists in a state of nature in which he need answer only to the laws of nature. In this state of nature, men are free to do as they please, so long as they preserve peace and preserve mankind in general. Because they have a right to self-preservation, it follows that they have the right to those things that will help them to survive and be happy. God has provided us with all the materials we need to pursue those ends, but these natural resources are useless until men apply their efforts to them. For example, a field is useless until it produces food, and no field will produce food until someone farms it.
Locke proposes that because all men own their bodies completely, any product of their physical labor also belongs to them. Thus, when a man works on some good or material, he becomes the owner of that good or material. The man who farms the land and has produced food owns the land and the food that his labor created. The only restriction to private property is that, because God wants all his children to be happy, no man can take possession of something if he harms another in doing so. He cannot take possession of more than he can use, for example, because he would then be wasting materials that might otherwise be used by another person. Unfortunately, the world is afflicted by immoral men who violate these natural laws. By coming together in the social–political compact of a community that can create and enforce laws, men are guaranteed better protection of their property and other freedoms.
More main ideas from John Locke (1634–1704)