Summary and Analysis
Mrs. Dashwood called on Lady Middleton the next day, and the two ladies took to each other at once. The Dashwoods invited the Middletons, Mrs. Jennings, the Dashwood sisters, the Steele sisters, and Colonel Brandon to dinner.
Elinor was very curious to see Edward's mother, Mrs. Ferrars, who was also to be at dinner. She feared that Edward himself would be present and "hardly knew how she could bear it!" But Lucy Steele assured her that Edward had written he would not be there.
"Mrs. Ferrars was a little, thin woman . . . serious, even to sourness." She made a special point of being rude to Elinor, whom she was determined to dislike, and ironically transferred her attentions to the Steele sisters. After dinner, when Fanny showed her mother some screens painted by Elinor, Mrs. Ferrars was so rude that Marianne, with her usual fervency, flew to Elinor's defense. Then she burst into tears, exclaiming "Dear, dear Elinor, don't mind them. Don't let them make you unhappy." Mrs. Jennings and Colonel Brandon tried to help. Sir John, enraged anew against Willoughby's behavior, took a seat next to Lucy Steele "and gave her, in a whisper, a brief account of the whole shocking affair."
This chapter is a tableau of ironic criticism. The insipidity of the female characters juxtaposed against each other is accentuated by the fact that they like each other. Fanny finds Lady Middleton "one of the most charming women in the world! Lady Middleton was equally pleased with Mrs. Dashwood." Then the author lists the qualities which each finds in the other — selfishness, lack of compassion, and insipidity. The shallowness of their lives is expressed in their conversation, for when the men leave the room after dinner, they can talk of nothing but the relative heights of Harry Dashwood and William Middleton. Austen places a lot of stock in interesting conversation, and we can usually tell her attitude towards a character by her description of what he talks about. Thus Lady Middleton, Fanny Dashwood, and Mrs. Ferrars are all described as having little to say, while Lucy Steele, her sister, and John Middleron are all replete with inanities.
Marianne's honesty, which has heretofore been improper, seems barely adequate in this setting, for her warmth of heart, her loyal affection for her sister's feelings, is a welcome contrast to this icy group.