Chapter 31 is the aftermath of disclosure and Marianne comments negatively on Mrs Jennings’ kindness whilst Elinor is, perhaps, too harsh on Marianne although she does show herself very foolish in her reaction to the letter, finding Mrs Jennings guilty of cruelty rather than mere love of gossip. She is rude and prejudiced about Colonel Brandon’s “intrusion on others” because she, herself, is miserable but he demonstrates through his broken sentences and strong language of sympathy, to be sensitive towards her plight. His language becomes more fluent when he tells his narrative although the story is somewhat disjointed: he did have reason for his visit and his revelations are intended to help. The tale is somewhat melodramatic and poses questions of credibility, coming from such an apparently staid source and he points out the irony in Willoughby’s censure of him when “he was called away to the relief of one, whom he had made poor and miserable.” The use of language is an important theme in the novel and his is powerful and full of moral indignation, becoming more articulate as he proceeds to condemnation of Willoughby, though without any easily scornful or unscrupulous denouncement of a rival: his words: “expensive [extravagant], dissipated, and worse than both” have been morally justified. By speaking of the degradation Willoughby has caused elsewhere, he implies that Elinor need not have feared about Marianne’s mere folly in social behaviour: she was not disgraced and her friends are sympathetic. Yet the chapter is difficult to assimilate and Jane Austen’s control has lapsed a little: we cannot truly equate the evil Willoughby in this account with the man we have seen any more than we can fit its tone and content to the earlier restrained Colonel. The story concerns second-hand figures from a novel of sentiment (the ruined girl and the illegitimate offspring of a dissolute gentleman) and dislocates, in its length, the main narrative although that depends on it. It is also hard later to reconcile the repentant Willoughby with this villainous figure.
The story does alter Marianne’s mood in Chapter 32 when she settles “in a gloomy dejection” but the truth should heal and was well-intended. Secrets have been exploded but both sisters are downcast as a result. The mother is practical and unselfish and Marianne also reacts with altruism to the suggestion of a move. Everyone is sympathetic here and Sir John’s comic indignation over the puppy leads us to hope for a happy outcome, as does Mrs Palmer’s contradiction in refusing to speak of Willoughby whilst telling people that he is a “good-for-nothing.” No-one criticises Marianne’s past behaviour and Elinor’s anxieties were needless. Lady Middleton, though irrational, is calm and doctors the situation. Elinor welcomes Colonel Brandon and even Marianne softens towards him. Elinor uses tact in informing Marianne of the marriage and Miss Steele appears worse than ever: frivolous and vain whilst Lucy is more thoughful. Their presence reminds us how similar is Elinor’s situation (though we do not suspect Edward of being capable of truly dastardly conduct) and how strong are the parallels and patterns in the plot.
Marianne is persuaded to go out in Chapter 33 and they instantly run into an example of a different kind of exaggerated sensibility in the person of the – at present – unknown man buying a toothpick-case with frivolous and misapplied attention to detail: the vignette also indicates a future happy ending as it is so inconsistent with the tone of melodrama over Willoughby’s past. Juxtaposition is the tool used to signal this conclusion. John Dashwood shows his transparently mercenary approach to love and, in that, represents a calculating extreme of sense. Both men are at opposite and despicable ends of the spectrum. Yet the suggestion that Elinor and Colonel Brandon are suited has truth in it and no-one in the novel escapes financial considerations over a prospective marriage. John Dashwood also damages Nature in the form of the old walnut trees in favour of a greenhouse and is ruder about Mrs Jennings and Marianne than anyone else. The satire is cruder than in Chapter 2 and authorial comment (as well as Elinor’s rebuke) is needed to ensure that we realise that John Dashwood is “atoning for his own neglect” in trying to find a fortune from elsewhere for the family. In the next chapter (34) Lady Middleton and Mrs John Dashwood are compared but the reader may find the former marginally more likeable than the latter. Elinor’s ambivalence towards a visit from Edward is neatly expressed: she is “pleased that he had called; and still more pleased that she had missed him.” Lucy did not, earlier, seem to be keen to be an “object of irrepressible envy” to Elinor and so the portrait is inconsistent but Mrs Ferrars is subjected to the kind of irony we find throughout the later novels: “not a woman of many words: for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas …” This verbal irony continues: “no poverty of any kind, except of conversation” although it is, perhaps, more direct than in the maturer Jane Austen. The society is so vapid and stifling: “Want of sense, either natural or improved – want of elegance – want of spirits – or want of temper” that we sympathise with Marianne when she declares that she has no opinion to give over the height of the children. All those discussing the matter behave in character and the conversation becomes nastier over Elinor’s screens which, by metonymy, come to be emblematic of her. Marianne shows true sensibility towards the slighted Elinor as does Colonel Brandon to them both whilst the name of Miss Morton with her fortune is prominent.
Elinor rationalises over her own concerned attitude to Mrs Ferrars in Chapter 35 whilst Lucy is decribed as “blind” at the same time as the all-important eyes betray her pleasure. When Edward enters, the scene is comic in its social embarrassment but we feel that it should be Edward who deals with the awkwardness, not Elinor. He does seem cowardly, having merely “courage enough to sit down” whilst Elinor demonstrates “high-minded fortitude”, heroic in a non-heroic world. Marianne’s pleasure is painful to Elinor and the dramatic irony is obvious, though the verbal irony later is misplaced when Marianne’s “admirable discretion” is outlined as she does show herself warm and open even if those qualities are innocently inappropriate here. Elinor’s secrecy is unappealing even if she does feel obliged to remain silent as we may feel she could have yielded a little in her replies to Marianne without giving much away. The scene is uncomfortable on different levels as Marianne’s liberality of spirit, where there are so many secrets, causes social difficulties and is displeasing to Lucy. It also puts Edward in a plight of his own making and is painful to Elinor, though none of this is her fault. Lady Middleton’s view (Chapter 36) that the sisters must be “satirical” because they are fond of reading points to another problem of the serious-minded unmarried woman in society as does their apparent indifference to her children. They are detached from the fawning and trivial nature of the gossip around them and Miss Steele shows how she only wishes to be teased about the doctor to be happy, giving backing to Mrs Jennings’ belief that that is what girls want. The chapter is littered with judgements on and examples of weaknesses of character particularly when the toothpick-case buyer turns out to be Edward’s brother. This ends the original Volume 3 and so some movement towards a denouement is expected.
Chapter 37 shows Mrs Jennigs as garrulous and fussy, though still kindly, as her rambling revelation of Edwrad’s engagement is amalgamated with diagnosis of red-gum in the baby to the dissatisfaction of the curious. Elinor finds herself in the ironic situation of being the “comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in thiers” and does show herself emotionally courageous and dutifully controlled. The geometry of the plot is emphasised although the deceptions of Willoughby and Edward are not exactly similar. Whilst Elinor is generous and unselfish towards the engagement, she is still irrational in assuming that Edward did believe her superior to his future wife: she has, however, no reason for self-reproach and is not a romantic in believing that there is only one lover for anyone. Ironically, it is Marianne – who does feel this – who will be married off to a seemingly second-best whilst Elinor will achieve her first desire, although her suffering meanwhile is made clear. Marianne’s attempts at discretion are somewhat unfairly treated with slight mockery as she only “moves from one chair to another” when Lucy is praised and Mrs Jennings shows her outspoken moral sense when she bursts out against John Dashwood’s account of the affair and in her liberality when she offers to house Edward. There seems no good reason for Elinor’s rather patronising “smiling” at this as Mrs Jennings has stout common sense in general and in particular when she declares that she would not “make one son independent, because another had plagued [her].” This is another chapter in which what we are shown and what we are told or apparently expected to feel militate against each other.
At the start of Chapter 38 there is an uneasy paragrah in which we may find Elinor too saintly towards Edward in glorying “in his integrity” and Marianne too forgiving. We do wonder if Edward shows this quality as he had tried to escape from the engagement and Lucy has trapped him by proving loyal in being prepared to be poor with him. Miss Steele is the height of trivial superficiality and sneaky behaviour and Elinor is sharp in her reply: “You have got your answer ready.” Lucy’s letter, described by Mrs Jennings as “a pretty letter as ever I saw, and does Lucy’s head and heart great credit” strikes the reader similarly: it is faithful, honest and warm. The note of comedy is present again in Chapter 39 with Mrs Jennings’ implausible description of her life without the girls: “Lord! we shall sit and gape at one another as dull as two cats.” Her subsequent misunderstanding of the Colonel’s offer is also light and suggests the future course of the story, though possibilites of dramatic irony are curtailed when she quickly finds out the truth. Elinor is now less saintly in contemplating her role in passing on the good news, experiencing “minor feelings less pure, less pleasing” though these are hastily suppressed in favour of admiration for the Colonel who now appears kind, benevolent in a practical manner though unromantic. There is an authorial attempt to polish his image ready for Marianne’s acceptance.
The humour in Chapter 40 over the misunderstanding requires explanation as Elinor has suffered and the outcome is not yet certain. It shows the reality of everyday life, that Mrs Jennings would think the Colonel had proposed to Elinor when he had, in fact, offered a chance for Edward to further his career and relationship with Lucy, but it is stretched out and trivialises the main affair in the novel. His entry and behaviour are described in somewhat mocking terms when they both sit down together “in a most promising state of embarrassment” and the Colonel emerges as “perfectly the gentleman.”