I think one of the things that we ought to do more often when reading the great texts, and Sense and Sensibility is one of them, is to read closely. To not just skim lightly over the text but let its seeming incongruities stop us dead now and then. This chapter features a real head scratcher, a thought that come out of left field. In the middle of a discussion of Willoughby's failings Elinor drops this thought on us:
"One observation may, I think, be fairly drawn from the whole of the story -- that all Willoughby's difficulties have arisen from the first offence against virtue, in his behaviour to Eliza Williams. That crime has been the origin of every lesser one, and of all his present discontents."Nothing up to this point in the chapter seems to justify this oddly dogmatic assertion of Elinor's. Yes, Willoughby is selfish as she convinces Marianne—everything he does is selfish. Further, there is no reason to even suggest that Willoughby's behaviour towards Eliza Williams is anything but despicable. But how does it follow that that act was the cause of his later "difficulties" (and that is Elinor's word choice here).
This is about a clear an example as you will ever get of the differences between someone who thinks in terms of virtue and someone who thinks purely in terms of moral rules (deontology). For Elinor, and for Jane Austen, the pursuit of virtue is almost pragmatic. The best moral choices are those that give the happiest life.
I say almost pragmatic because the happy ending she proposes here is not absolutely conventional. Marianne will get the typical ending of being married to the wealthy man with the large estate but she clearly is less happy than Elinor who will get something that looks far more like what we would now describe as a conventional middle class marriage rather than her sister's more fairy-tale like ending. The greater wealth and comfort of Marianne's life will not bring equal happiness, however, because Marianne is not Elinor's equal. Even at the end as Marianne has come to recognize her own failings she is not, and cannot be, as good at being a human being as Elinor is.
Anyway, if we see things this way then my current moral choices will have a definite impact on my ability to make future moral choices. That is the gist of Elinor's remark about Willoughby and Eliza.. He was running away from his dalliance with Eliza—a dalliance that brought him sexual satisfaction but not love–when he ran into Marianne. When the consequences of that action caught up with him, he had to run away from Marianne to marry a rich woman.
What Elinor rather diplomatically leaves unsaid is that the very same could be said of Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood. They too thought only of their pleasure and not of their happiness. There is nothing wrong with pleasure from Elinor's perspective. She feels it. It is pleasure as an end in itself she objects to. Pleasure is something that can lead to happiness and Elinor would countenance no life without pleasure.
That, for those commentators who think her sexually repressed, includes sexual pleasure. If you doubt me, reread Willoughby's apology to Elinor again and notice how she reacts to his saying that Eliza wanted the sex just as much as he did. She accepts that claim at face value; she has no trouble seeing that Eliza would be moved by sexual desire because she knows herself what that desire feels like. The failing in Willoughby, strange as this may seem to us, is not a failure to respect Eliza's honour. Once she abandons that pursuit herself, he can do as he wishes sexually without any affront to her. The problem is that by doing so without regard to his own greater happiness he has committed a a failing towards himself.
This, incidentally, is straight Aristotle. In our modern ways of thinking about morality, when my desires clash with moral rules, either the rule should be changed or I should act against my desires. If my neighbour's teen-aged niece forgets to close her curtains and starts to get undressed I will either look away even though I really want to see her naked or I will convince myself that the rules against my watching are outdated and puritanical. What we moderns do not consider is that there might be something else—the desire to be a certain kind of man—that might mean even more to me than seeing a young woman naked. (And Sartre was onto something when he used the example of voyeurism to undermine moral rules: it is when we are all alone watching someone else that the rules just disappear.)
Elinor is not unaware or repressed sexually. She there is no reason to believe that she does not like, as Cyndi Lauper put it, messing with the danger zone and I have no doubt that she and Edward will make beautiful music together. But she will countenance that pleasure only if it is making a reasonable contribution to her greater happiness.
Here is how Alasdair MacIntyre puts it when discussing Aristotle:
Virtues are dispositions not only to act in particular ways, but also to feel in particular ways. To act virtuously is not, as Kant was later to think, to act against inclination; it is to act from inclination formed by the cultivation of the virtues. Moral education is an 'éducation sentimentale'.And there you have the thing that separates Elinor from all those around her. She has trained herself to feel in certain ways. She feels Willoughby's sexual power over women just as intensely as Marianne and Eliza did but she sees past it to something else she desires even more and she desires that happiness even more because she has trained herself to do so.
Elinor is, as I've said before, the greatest of Austen heroes*, which is very different from saying Sense and Sensibility is the greatest of her books. She is one of a triumvirate of characters—the other two are Fanny Price and Anne Elliot—who begin the story with all the virtue they need to succeed. The drama that follows is all about them holding out for virtue in the face of the society around them and ultimately triumphing.
Other Austen heroines are those who need a sentimental education in order to be virtuous. Eliza Bennet, for example, is a little like an Eliza Williams who doesn't screw up. The two women start their respective stories off with similar faults but one manages to acquire virtue through love and the other does not.
More of that later however.
*Autobiographical readings of Austen novels are a very dubious project but I'd bet that Cassandra is the model for, Elinor and Jane herself the model for Marianne.