Sense and Sensibility

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Wealth, Class, and Greed Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Love and Marriage Theme Icon
Character, Sense, and Sensibility Theme Icon
Women in Society Theme Icon
Society and Strategy Theme Icon
Wealth, Class, and Greed Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Sense and Sensibility, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Wealth, Class, and Greed Theme Icon

Austen’s novel is a thorough portrait of English society, but only of a narrow slice of it—the privileged, wealthy upper class. All of the main characters in Sense and Sensibility are very well-off, but having plenty of money doesn’t seem to stop them from worrying about finances. They are generally very concerned with money, to the point of greed. The novel opens with the issue of the inheritance of Norland and questions of money, as Fanny persuades her husband John not to give any money to the Dashwood sisters, even though he can easily afford to. John wants to think of himself as generous to his family, but is easily persuaded by Fanny to keep his fortune to himself.

The novel’s wealthy characters have warped standards for what qualifies as a comfortable life. They worry over how many maids or servants one needs to live comfortably, for example, not considering whether their maids or servants themselves can live “comfortably”. For most of the novel’s characters, concerns of wealth, money, and socio-economic class trump love when it comes to the institution of marriage. Mrs. Ferrars does not care whether Edward (or, for that matter, Robert) loves Lucy. She only cares about her sons entering into marriages that will advance their family’s position in society. And Willoughby, despite his affections for Marianne, marries Miss Grey solely for money. Marianne and Elinor resist this greed and materialism to some extent, but not entirely. They are still concerned with the financial prospects of their respective husbands.

At the end of the novel, when Elinor ends up with Edward, the man she loves, their story is not completely concluded until they secure financial security through Mrs. Ferrars’ forgiveness of Edward. Even for this couple, money seems to be in some respects their ultimate, final concern. Perhaps the only character who really steps outside of the novel’s society of greed is Colonel Brandon. In the novel’s biggest gesture of generosity, he gives Edward the property of Delaford to live at. However, even this grand gesture is an act of generosity directed simply to an already privileged, wealthy individual. While Austen negatively depicts the extremes of greed that can be found in upper-class society, her characters never really get outside of their own limited social class and she does not go so far as to critique the wealthy society as a whole that almost exclusively populates her novel.

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Wealth, Class, and Greed Quotes in Sense and Sensibility

Below you will find the important quotes in Sense and Sensibility related to the theme of Wealth, Class, and Greed.
Chapter 3 Quotes

Some mothers might have encouraged the intimacy from motives of interest, for Edward Ferrars was the eldest son of a man who had died very rich; and some might have repressed it from motives of prudence, for, except a trifling sum, the whole of his fortune depended on the will of his mother. But Mrs. Dashwood was alike uninfluenced by either consideration. It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality. It was contrary to every doctrine of hers that difference of fortune should keep any couple asunder who were attracted by resemblance of disposition.

Related Characters: Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor Dashwood, Edward Ferrars
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:

A potential romantic interest is developing between Elinor and Edward Ferrars. Far more than in modern times, such a relationship in this milieu was not to be private and limited to the two people involved: instead, it was to be quickly wrapped up in broader economic and social questions involving the entire family and even other members of the community. Here we learn that Edward Ferrars could potentially be rich, but his wealth will depend on his mother's wishes. Austen often describes marriage as a kind of strategic game, and here the strategy of a mother would depend on her appetite for risk. 

Mrs. Dashwood, however, is described as lacking any sense of strategy in marrying off her daughters, instead preferring that love guide the way. In a way, Mrs. Dashwood is thus shown in a more positive light than other mothers who care about nothing other than climbing the social ladder. But this novel is also skeptical that love and "resemblance of disposition" alone is enough in arranging a marriage, which, after all, would be the main way by which a woman in particular could ensure stability at this time and place. Mrs. Dashwood's lack of prudence means that Elinor will be on her own in attempting to play the game of class-based social relationships. 


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Chapter 37 Quotes

All that Mrs. Ferrars could say to make him put an end to the engagement, assisted too as you may well suppose by my arguments, and Fanny's entreaties, was of no avail. Duty, affection, every thing was disregarded. I never thought Edward so stubborn, so unfeeling before. His mother explained to him her liberal designs, in case of his marrying Miss Morton; told him she would settle on him the Norfolk estate, which, clear of land-tax, brings in a good thousand a-year; offered even, when matters grew desperate, to make it twelve hundred; and in opposition to this, if he still persisted in this low connection, represented to him the certain penury that must attend the match. His own two thousand pounds she protested should be his all; she would never see him again; and so far would she be from affording him the smallest assistance, that if he were to enter into any profession with a view of better support, she would do all in her power to prevent him advancing in it.

Related Characters: John Dashwood (speaker), Fanny Dashwood, Edward Ferrars, Mrs. Ferrars, Miss Morton
Page Number: 249-250
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Ferrars is absolutely hysterical upon learning of her son Edward's engagement with Lucy Steele, and here Marianne and Elinor learn, through John Dashwood, just how far Mrs. Ferrars will go to try to convince Edward to act according to her wishes. In close detail, John Dashwood describes exactly which financial and social rewards she dangles in front of her son, as well as the economic punishments that will ensue if Edward persists in marrying Lucy.

Mrs. Ferrars is acting according to her own understanding of what is proper for a particular social class. Lucy is far below Edward in both rank and income, so while her marriage to Edward would represent a step up for her (and a way to gain greater stability, of course), for Edward it can only represent a social failure. Mrs. Ferrars, however, takes something that is socially common at this time - a concern for class differences - and takes it to its absolute, absurd extreme. Edward, meanwhile, may no longer be in love with Lucy, but his sense of honor prevents him from breaking his engagement with her. Society of course respects honor as well, which is why some people will respect Edward's choice; for others, however, the economic and social clash represented by their engagement is simply too much to stand, so Mrs. Ferrars can only be in the right.

Chapter 49 Quotes

One question after this only remained undecided, between them, one difficulty only was to be overcome. They were brought together by mutual affection, with the warmest approbation of their real friends; their intimate knowledge of each other seemed to make their happiness certain—and they only wanted something to live upon. Edward had two thousand pounds, and Elinor one, which, with Delaford living, was all that they could call their own; for it was impossible that Mrs. Dashwood should advance anything; and they were neither of them quite enough in love to think that three hundred and fifty pounds a-year would supply them with the comforts of life.

Related Characters: Mrs. Dashwood, Elinor Dashwood, Edward Ferrars
Page Number: 343
Explanation and Analysis:

Edward knows that he cannot expect much of an income from his mother, since she is most likely still angry at him about his former engagement to Lucy. As readers, we are meant to look down upon Lucy's openly social-climbing behavior - and yet the novel does not embrace love and romance as wholeheartedly as that tone might suggest. After all, while the narrator has sought to portray the poles of sense and sensibility as relatively balanced options, the scales have always been tilted towards the side of sense.

In a society in which marriage is not just a declaration of love but a contract that can be enormously significant in terms of social and economic status and mobility, it is not something to be treated lightly, according to the novel. Nor is an emphasis on practical matters like income to be considered anti-romantic: indeed, love and mutual affection is only possible, the novel argues, when there is a strong base of stability undergirding it. Financial stability, then, is valued even as full-throated greed is looked down upon, and love is able to coexist with an interest in material comforts rather than remain as a sphere apart.