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.
Wealth, Class, and Greed ThemeTracker
Wealth, Class, and Greed Quotes in Sense and Sensibility
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.
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.
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.