For this paper I would like to look at Elinor Dashwood's silence in the novel Sense and Sensibility. I will do this by closely examining how her silence leads to opportunities for observation, how silence in others speaks to her, and how her silence leads to the confessions of others.
For Elinor, silence provides time to observe the actions and words of others. In the midst of dinner parties, balls, and drawing-rooms, Elinor's silence moves through the clutter of mundane conversation and wild gossip with the powerful grace of a closed mouth and open eyes and ears. Elinor overhears a conversation between Marianne and Willoughby in which Marianne is declining a horse offered to her by Willoughby earlier in the novel. After Marianne's declination, Elinor overhears Willoughby say to Marianne, "But, Marianne, the horse is still yours. . .when you leave Barton to form your own establishment in a more lasting home, Queen Mab shall receive you" (55) . Elinor observes not only the words that Willoughby says to her sister, but also that ". . .in the whole of the sentence, in his manner of pronouncing it, and in his addressing her sister by her Christian name alone, she instantly saw an intimacy so decided. . .as marked a perfect agreement between the two," and at that moment, Elinor ". . .doubted not of their being engaged to one another" (56). Though the reader will later find this interpretation of Elinor's observation to be false in that Marianne and Willoughby are not engaged, this passage shows how closely Elinor listens to and observes others. Furthermore, it is important to note that Elinor never voices this observation of or hypothesis about Marianne and Willoughby to anyone, she keeps silent about it, aware that her notions are based only on words, and therefore need more to support them than a simple conversation. This also shows how Elinor avoids and is aware of the dangers of gossip, where as we will see later on, she is a listener, never a passer-on.