Seduced by his promises that he will take care of her, a young woman gives herself over to an unknown man. At daybreak he rides off, leaving her to wonder when — or whether — she'll see him again.
At Norland Park, Mr. Henry Dashwood summons his son, John, to his bedside. John promises his dying father that he will continue to provide for his stepmother and half-sisters — Elinor, Marianne and Margaret. But John's wife, Fanny, has other ideas. Soon after Mr. Dashwood's death, it becomes clear that Norland Park isn't big enough for both Dashwood families.
Fanny's brother, Edward Ferrars, arrives to visit Norland. His grace and unassuming ways quickly endear Edward to the Dashwoods, and he strikes up a friendship with Elinor.
Observing the growing intimacy between Edward and Elinor, Mrs. Dashwood secretly hopes for an engagement. But Fanny quickly sets her straight, informing Mrs. Dashwood that Mrs. Ferrars would never approve such a match.
To spare Elinor, Mrs. Dashwood decides to remove her family immediately to a cottage in Devonshire that belongs to a distant cousin, Sir John Middleton. As the Dashwoods prepare to leave Norland, Edward comes to say goodbye to Elinor. Neither seems sure when they will meet again.
Barton Cottage is a far cry from Norland, but Elinor assures her mother and sisters that it will soon feel like home. At a welcome dinner at Barton Park, the amiable Sir John introduces the Dashwoods to his wife, Lady Middleton; her irrepressible mother, Mrs. Jennings; and his old friend, the distinguished Colonel Brandon.
From their first meeting, Brandon appears taken with Marianne. But when Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor suggest a possible match, Marianne is horrified. At age 17, she believes that the 35-year-old Brandon is far too old for her. When he arrives for a visit, she drags Meg outside for a walk to avoid him.
Soon the girls are caught in a rainstorm, and Marianne falls down an embankment. Just then, a young man on a white steed races to her rescue and carries her back to the cottage. The dashing hero is John Willoughby, and he asks to come back to check on Marianne the following day.
While Willoughby is visiting, Colonel Brandon arrives to check on Marianne's condition. Though the men know each other, their greeting is awkward, and Brandon quickly departs.
Soon, Willoughby is visiting Marianne every day, and they grow close over their shared love of romantic poetry and literature. Mrs. Dashwood and Elinor begin to wonder whether the two are secretly engaged, and Elinor wonders to herself whether she will ever see Edward again.
Brandon invites the Dashwoods and the Middletons to his estate at Delaford, but is called away at the last minute on an urgent personal matter. The group sets out for a ride anyway, and when Willoughby and Marianne return alone to Barton Park several hours later, tongues are wagging.
Finally, during one of his visits, Willoughby requests private audiences with both Marianne and Mrs. Dashwood for the following day. But the day does not bring the announcement the women had hoped for. Instead, Willoughby explains that he has been called away from Devonshire suddenly and does not expect to return for at least a year.
Edward arrives unexpectedly at Barton Cottage. The Dashwoods are thrilled to see him, but Edward seems cold and distant. He departs the next day, leaving more questions than answers.
Soon, Mrs. Jennings's nieces, Lucy and Anne Steele, come to Barton Park. After learning of their mutual acquaintance with the Ferrars, Lucy confides to Elinor that she has been engaged to Edward for four years, but that they've keep it a secret for fear of his mother's reproach. Elinor surmises that the ill-advised engagement is the source of Edward's unhappiness, but she is secretly devastated.
When Mrs. Jennings invites Elinor and Marianne to spend the winter with her in London, Marianne jumps at the chance to see Willoughby. As soon as they arrive in the city, Marianne sends him a note. Days pass with no reply. When a visitor finally calls, Marianne is crestfallen to find that it is Colonel Brandon.
When Marianne spots Willoughby at a party, she is thrilled. He greets her coolly, though, and quickly excuses himself. Soon after, Mrs. Jennings delivers word that Willoughby is engaged to the wealthy Miss Grey. Marianne is inconsolable.
Brandon calls on Elinor and shares devastating news about Willoughby that explains Brandon's coldness toward the younger man. Reeling, Elinor keeps what she knows about Willoughby's true nature from Marianne.
From John Dashwood, Elinor learns that Edward is to marry a Miss Morton, of whom Mrs. Ferrars and Fanny heartily approve. When Mrs. Ferrars finds out about Edward's secret engagement to Lucy, she threatens to disinherit him unless he breaks it off, but Edward refuses out of honor. Brandon learns of Edward's sacrifice and dispatches Elinor with an offer of a living on his estate at Delaford.
Distraught over Willoughby's betrayal, Marianne goes walking in a rainstorm and is caught outside. Brandon rescues her and brings her home, but she falls terribly ill.
As Marianne recovers, Willoughby arrives to speak with Elinor. He insists that he truly loved Marianne and had no choice but to marry for money.
Back at Barton Cottage, the Dashwoods learn that Lucy Steele has become Mrs. Ferrars. Elinor acknowledges to Marianne that Edward is lost to her forever.
At Brandon's invitation, Marianne begins to visit Delaford regularly. Soon, she tells Elinor that she has fallen deeply in love with Brandon and has agreed to marry him.
Out of nowhere, Edward arrives at Barton Cottage. He explains that after his disinheritance Lucy turned her affections toward his brother, Robert, and that the two have married. Elinor is overcome as Edward finally confesses his true feelings toward her.