Elinor Dashwood is one of the two main characters in Sense and Sensibility.
Following the death of their father in the opening chapter, the sisters (with their mother) are reduced to near-poverty by the selfishness and cruelty of their sister-in-law, Fanny. Their half-brother, Fanny's husband, inherits their father's entire estate by law. Although their father made him promise to 'take care' of his half-sisters and stepmother, Fanny easily persuades him that this does not actually mean monetary assistance, leaving his stepmother and half-sisters with no dowry and very little to live on.
Elinor falls in love with Edward Ferrars , Fanny's older brother, but her reduced circumstances and Edward's reticence in wooing her do not allow her to hope for an offer of marriage. After they move to Barton Cottage on a relative's estate, Barton Park in Devon, the practical Elinor takes the initiative to make sure that they live within their means and do not overspend on luxuries.
She is compassionate and caring towards the older and grave Colonel Brandon, and pities the hopelessness of his love for Marianne. Her calmness and cool demeanor allow her to endure Mrs Jennings's teasing over her mysterious suitor, but she also has to endure Lucy Steele's confession that she and Edward Ferrars are secretly engaged. In the book, Elinor suppresses her feelings and does her best to convince Lucy that she feels nothing for Edward. She is concerned by the developing relationship between Marianne and Willoughby, thinking that impulsive, volatile Marianne is too open with her feelings and reckless about obeying social conventions. She assumes that Marianne is secretly engaged to Willoughby and is shocked when Marianne confesses that this is not the case.
In this novel, Austen analyzes the conflict between the opposing temperaments of sense (logic, propriety, and thoughtfulness, as expressed in Austen's time by neo-classicists), and sensibility (emotion, passion, unthinking action, as expressed in Austen's time by romantics). In this conflict, Elinor, a reserved, practical, and thoughtful young woman who embodies the "sense" of the title, is juxtaposed to her passionate younger sister Marianne who embodies "sensibility". Elinor may be loosely based on the author's older sister, Cassandra Austen.
Elinor is described as possessing a coolness of judgement and strength of understanding which qualifies her to be her mother's frequent counsellor, and sometimes she shows more common sense than her mother, whose judgment is shown to be flawed by her exaggerated notions of romantic delicacy. Her mother is more often preoccupied with Marianne and her problems. Although Austen writes that Elinor's feelings are just as passionate and deep as Marianne's, she knows how to govern them better, as she is more aware of the demands society makes upon women and more prepared to compromise. She is described as having a delicate complexion, regular features, and a remarkably pretty figure—although less striking than Marianne, more "correct"—which Austen uses as a good overall summary of their characters as well as their physical appearance. She is more polite than Marianne, though her repugnance towards vulgarity and selfishness is quite equal; and thus she can appreciate the rather vulgar but good hearted Mrs. Jennings, and be civil to people Marianne would be repulsed by such as Lucy Steele.