Marianne Dashwood wears her heart on her sleeve when she falls in love with the charming but unsuitable John Willoughby, ignoring her sister Elinor's warning that her impulsive behavior leaves her open to gossip and innuendo. Elinor, sensitive to social convention, struggles to conceal her own romantic disappointment, even from those closest to her. Will the sisters learn that sense must mix with sensibility if they are to find personal happiness in a society where status and money govern the rules of love?
Upon Mr. Dashwood's death the entirety of his estate passes, by law, to his son John from his first marriage, leaving his widow and daughters entirely dependent on the latter's reluctant generosity. Now mere guests in their own home, Mr. Dashwood's daughters meet visiting relative-in-law Edward Ferrars. He and eldest daughter Elinor Dashwood are drawn to each other, but Elinor learns Edward's inheritance is conditioned on his marrying well—and knows her relative poverty disqualifies her.
Marianne Dashwood attracts the attention of stoic war hero Colonel Brandon, but herself is only interested in charming and glamorous rival Willoughby; their exclusive mutual attentions convinces most that they are engaged—until Willoughby suddenly departs for London. Edward Ferrars keeps his promise to visit, but seems troubled and guarded. He stays only briefly.
In London, Willoughby acknowledges no connection to Marianne and marries wealthy heiress Grey. Elinor must hide her heartbreak when she learns Edward Ferrars is engaged to Miss Lucy Steel; when his mother learns of the engagement she disinherits him. Fortune smiles unexpectedly on both Dashwood sisters.