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Jane Austen’s books are too often reduced to simple two-sided issues, and are often seen in a narrow and restrictive light. Instead of being a novel primarily concerned with romantic attachments or the close sisterly bond between Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, however, Austen’s Sense and Sensibility can be read as a fiscally-centered creation, driven principally by an underlying concern with monetary affairs. This pecuniary understanding of the novel allows the audience to explore the complexity of inheritance issues, as well as the power dynamics that so fundamentally concerned both men and women in Austen’s epoch. While a more common reading of Sense and Sensibility focuses on the idea of female economics in the novel, it soon becomes clear that the issue of male wealth deserves a closer examination as well.
The very first paragraph of Sense and Sensibility opens with the legal concerns of the Norland Park estate, effectively setting up a vignette of a family in the midst of severe economic turmoil. It is precisely because of these convoluted legalities that Henry Dashwood’s younger family members – Marianne, Elinor, their sister and mother – are displaced from their home and sense of security. Essentially, the catalyst for the entire narrative stems from money and inheritance issues. In turn, this draws attention to the elemental importance of financial matters, not just in the novel itself, but in the broadened society of England. The esteemed Jane Austen scholar Lore Segal argues that there is a subtler, more pronounced reason as to why Austen opens her novel with financial jargon. From the very first line, she has successfully “taught her readers about the… gentleman’s relation to his money: he has to have inherited, not made, it” (Segal 252). While some readers may see the novel’s women as utterly dependent on the men in their lives for economic support, this understanding is too rudimentary and narrow. It is clear that the males of that society, too, had their own laborious customs and unique vulnerabilities in fiscal situations. With this more multi-dimensional understanding, Sense and Sensibility’s examination of wealth becomes much more rounded and altogether complex.
Segal writes that a gentleman’s “gentility is measured by his money’s chronological distance from its origin in commerce; if labor made it, he is no gentleman” (253). Authoritative dictates such as these limited the number of perceived gentlemen. Any man who had to physically work for his earnings was not considered a gentleman in English society. Even if one were to procure a great fortune, it would not be enough to buy one’s way into respectability. This idea is only exacerbated by other crucial issues, such as the placement of the firstborn and second son in any family of genteel origin. Edward Ferrars, for example, is poised to take over the family estate, so that his brother has to venture off to find a career, whether in the clergy or in the navy. This situation is complicated by the events of the novel, especially when Edward is given an ultimatum by his mother to find a more affluent and well-established wife. Upon refusing to listen to his mother, he is deprived of his entire wealth, thus highlighting the inherent vulnerability of his own position. Looked at from a wider angle, this vulnerability is telling of the issues surrounding male wealth as well. Edward is acutely “aware that there would be many difficulties in his way, if he were to wish to marry a woman who had not either a great fortune or high rank.” While he does eventually find happiness without listening to his mother, he loses his entire fortune in doing so, too (21).
Willoughby, also, is heavily dependent on his benefactress for financial security. He can only inherit his estate, Combe Magna, if he marries a wealthy woman. Though he is in love with Marianne, he tells Elinor that his affection for her was “all insufficient to outweigh that dread of poverty or to get the better of those false ideas of the necessity of riches, which I was naturally inclined to feel” (191). The rash Willoughby later comes to regret this decision, but his position, like Edward’s, reveals the fluctuating nature of wealth due to inheritance matters, even in matters regarding male wealth. Through the events that befall Edward and Willoughby – as well as the roles of their various benefactresses – the commonly-held understanding that only females like Elinor and Marianne have to worry about financial security in potential marriages is proven to be highly erroneous.
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