The book tells the readers the story of two sisters: Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Elinor, the older one represents the sense, mostly making her decisions logically and carefully. Passionate Marianne is the sensibility, she prefers to rely on her heart and intuition, following her desires and dreams.
Their father, Mr. Henry Dashwood was a descendant of an old aristocratic family and the owner of the beautiful Norland Park manor in Sussex. Mr. Dashwood was happily married the second time, had a son named John from his first marriage and three daughters from the second: Elinor, Marianne and the youngest one, Margaret.
Mr. Henry Dashwood suddenly inherited the manor from his own uncle, who died a year before. But the cruel irony is that he was able to live with his status of a rich man for less than a year, dying himself. On his deathbed, he asked his son John to care for his stepmother and half-sisters and John promised to fulfill his last wish. He was already a rich man: John inherited a lot from his deceased mother and also successfully chose the rich bride Fanny Ferrars, multiplying his wealth. So it seemed there is no reason John shall leave his family in poverty.
But the reason is named Mrs. Fanny Dashwood, John’s wife. After the funeral, she immediately demands John to move into the Norland Park manor and immediately starts behaving like an owner of the house, showing the Henry’s widow her new place. She quickly persuades John that he isn’t obliged to help his family at all. Offended, Mrs. Dashwood Sr. decides to move immediately, no matter where, but Elinor logically explains to the mother that it’s not the best way. They have only ten thousand pounds of heritage for all four of them, this isn’t enough for such a risky step. Mrs. Dashwood listens to her daughter and, with a heavy heart, gathers all her patience to plan the strategy first.
Meanwhile, Edward Ferrars, Fanny’s brother, pays her a visit to congratulate Dashwoods with such a luxurious heritage. Staying in the manor, he notices Elinor and shows the increasing interest in her that grows to affection. Mrs. Dashwood Sr. and Marianne are gladly waiting for him proposing to Elinor, but the older sister isn’t sure. She likes Edward too, but she is afraid that Fanny and Mrs. Ferrars, Edward’s mother, will do everything to spoil their relationship - and Edward is sweet but too weak-willed to oppose both his mother and sister. Unfortunately, she is right. Seeing the danger of becoming such a close relatives with family she oppresses, Fanny becomes furious, mocking and diminishing her mother-in-law so cruelly that Mrs. Dashwood Sr. had to actually flee to the small cottage as soon as her relative, Sir John Middleton, offered her a shelter. As a petty revenge, she took everything what belonged to her from the manor, including all the tablecloth, incredibly irritating Fanny with that.
Barton Cottage appears to be nice, though modest, little house. There is enough space for the whole family to settle and Mrs. Dashwood with her daughters try to build their lives anew. They also quickly befriend Sir John Middleton himself, his reserved and very prudish wife, the eccentric mother-in-law Mrs. Jennings and four children. Also the friend of Middletons, Colonel Brandon, a kind-hearted man in his thirties, also pays frequent visits to them. It seems he is mildly interested in lively and bright Margaret, but she considers him too ordinary and old for herself, even saying her sister that at thirty-five people shall forget about love and marriage and do something more appropriate to such a senior age.
But soon their peaceful life is interrupted with a stranger. Once, walking with Margaret, Marianne falls and injures her knee, becoming unable to walk. But than a young man named John Willoughby appears from nowhere and carries Marianne home. On their way, he tells the sisters that he stays at Allenham Court, a big estate nearby. He will inherit Allenham Court after the death of his elder relative, Mr. Smith, who now lives there. At the moment they reach the Barton Cottage, Marianne is already in love with Willoughby. They spend all their time together, even if it looks inappropriate, they just don’t care. However the locals don’t object very much, already considering them almost engaged. Marianne herself does not doubt that.
But one morning Willoughby unexpectedly appears in Barton Cottage with a farewell visit: he leaves. His coldness and alienation and, most importantly, not a certain word about his return, is driving Marianne mad. She locks in her room, unable to hide her despair, grief and broken heart. The Colonel seems to know something, but keeps the grim silence.
Later, Mrs. Jennings, who is very concerned about everyone around getting married and living a happy life, tries to talk to Marianne about the Colonel. Slightly teasing her about the feelings Marianne awoke in the man, Mrs. Jennings also tells her that the Colonel had a love of his life and was involved in a huge scandal connected with Miss Williams, his illegitimate daughter from that woman.
In the meantime, Edward Ferrars also comes to see the sisters. Despite the sudden departure of Dashwoods, he still wants to have a good time with them and he manages to cheer up everyone, even the sad Marianne. Edward stays there for a week and then leaves. But Dashwoods can’t enjoy the loneliness for too long: soon after Edward’s departure two young ladies appear in Barton Park. They are relatives of Mrs. Jennings who were invited to spend the summertime there. One of them named Lucy secretly confesses Elinor that she and Edward Ferrars were engaged several years ago, secretly, to avoid the fury of Edward’s mother, Mrs. Ferrars. Elinor is shocked with that news no less than Marianne was with Willoughby’s departure, but she remains composed even after Lucy begs her new friend to help her and Edward through Elinor’s brother, John. She stoically continues to socialize with Lucy, understanding that the innocent girl doesn’t deserve her rage, but still their relationship grows colder.
Seeing that both of the sisters aren’t feeling good, Mrs. Jennings invites them both to visit her London house to cheer up in a big city a bit. Marianne gladly agrees hoping to see Willoughby there, Elinor doesn’t object to accompany her sister. But the only regular guest of them is Colonel Brandon who bitterly looks at the Marianne’s sufferings unable either to confess his feelings or tell the truth that burns his heart.
Marianne secretly sends letters to Willoughby, but receives nothing in return. Later, when they accidentally meet on a ball, Willoughby is cold again, he is courteous but distant. After saying a few words of small talk, he steps away from Marianne to his new young companion. Marianne leaves the ball, unable to hide her despair again. The next day a letter from Willoughby finally comes. It is painfully formal up to the brink of offence. He returns to Marianne all her letters and even a lock of her hair she sent to him.
Seeing that, Colonel Brandon is unable to be silent anymore. He talks to Elinor, revealing the true biography of Willoughby: it turns out that the man seduced Miss Williams, the daughter of the Colonel, and then left her, disgraced, with a newborn baby. Then he met Marianne but, luckily to her, Willoughby found another young woman, a rich heiress, Miss Gray, who he married to get her possessions. Elinor promises to talk to her sister when she will be ready to listen to her.
But the fate of Elinor herself isn’t much easier. She accidentally meets John in the jewellery store and reconciles with her brother. Elinor and Marianne start to visit his London house, where Elinor meets Lucy again. But Lucy’s sister Anne ruins everything by herself: she is naive enough to announce her sister’s engagement with Edward. Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny learn about it the very next day and Lucy is shunned from John’s house with shame. Edward, in his turn, is deprived of his inheritance by his mother. But even now he feels obliged to do what a honest man has to do and marry Lucy, despite his feelings to Elinor.
Elinor talks to Marianne about her feelings for the first time and it is also the first time Marianne is distracted from her own suffering. She berated Elinor for being too cold and logical so many times without even noticing that her older sister suffers as much as she does. This sad point in their life, thus, become another way to strengthen their relationship.
Colonel Brandon, being the embodiment of nobility and unselfishness in the book, offers Edward to live in his estate in Delaford for a while, until he finds a way to support himself and his wife-to-be Lucy. But he even doesn’t know him in person, so he asks Elinor (who told him the whole story) to tell Edward that he can be his guest. The Colonel doesn’t know about Elinor’s feelings towards Edward - she rarely shares her feelings with anyone at all - so he doesn’t have a clue about how much pain he causes with this proposal. However, faithful to her duty, Elinor tells Edward what she has to and leaves London, completely disillusioned, hoping she will cope with her broken heart alone, just far from Edward.
On their way home, the sisters stay in Cleveland for a while, in Mrs. Jennings’ house. Unexpectedly, Marianne falls seriously ill: she has a fever and her life is endangered. Elinor cares for her with all devotion and tenderness she is capable of. One day when Marianne finally feels slightly better and the crisis seems to be over, Elinor hears a carriage stopped near the house. Believing that is Colonel Brandon she goes to the hall to open the door, but to her shock and disgust it is Willoughby.
Agitated and worried, Willoughby asks about Marianne’s health and calms down a bit only after he hears that her life is out of danger now. He tries to explain himself and excuse for what he has done to Marianne and to Colonel’s daughter. It appears that he loved - and loves - her for real and just didn’t understand before how much he would suffer without Marianne. He reveals to Elinor his sorrow, sufferings, romantic dreams and hopes that he will be forgiven by her sister. Elinor is not impressed at all. Willoughby leaves, and Elinor thinks about the man, finally deciding that she feels pity and sympathy towards him, because now he is forever cut from her family and his love, though Elinor understands he doesn’t deserve neither pity nor sympathy.
A few days later, walking with Marianna around the Barton Park, Elinor finally decides to tell Marianne about the night visit and unexpected Willoughby’s confession. Now Marianne is ready to hear what she has to hear, accept and understand it. Elinor’s story just helps her to put an end to her lovesick dreams and sufferings. Marianne finally agrees she has to move on.
When both sisters are home and Marianne fully recovers, Colonel Brandon finally talks to her about his feelings. He understands that Marianne has just been heartbroken and is ready to wait patiently as long as it is needed. Elinor, in her turn receives a message that Mr. Ferrars has married Miss Lucy Steele. She hides her pain as usual until Edward appears near Barton Cottage in person, explaining that Lucy married not him but his younger brother Robert Ferrars, who now is the only heir. He comes to say Elinor that he is free to make her a marriage proposal now. Elinor happily agrees and they get married soon.
In the meantime Marianne warms up to Colonel Brandon, learning to love him back and seeing his true selfless, caring and noble nature behind his age. Eventually she agrees to marry the Colonel too, also moving to his estate, where Elinor and Edward already live. Both couples live happily ever after, remaining close friends.