2011 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner High School Division
Wealth of Happiness: Reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility
“What have wealth or grandeur to do with happiness?”
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility1
When Elinor says that wealth has much to do with happiness, she is probably thinking as much about the general condition of her society as about her own personal life. In English society in the Eighteenth Century, wealth is undoubtedly a great power which, defined either negatively or positively, has strong impact on every one’s life. A lack of wealth would result in serious problems, as the opening pages of Sense and Sensibility show clearly. The loss of their secure income due to the death of their father has changed the life of the Dashwood sisters significantly—they are expelled from their grand estate. Comparing their “expulsion from paradise” to the story of Eden, Alistair Duckworth points out that “through factors over which they have little or no control,” the Dashwood sisters find themselves suddenly “excluded from ‘a state of happiness’” (11-12). The loss of estate and change in social position indeed affect the Dashwood sisters’ state of mind at a profound level. Before they leave Norland Park, Marianne cries: “Oh! Happy house, could you know what I suffer in now viewing you from this spot, from when perhaps I may view you no more!” (40).
In Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen obviously does not intend to depict a rosy picture of English society; and the novel makes it clear that the social environments in which the Dashwood sisters have to survive are vulgar and money-thirsty. “Nothing is more noteworthy,” Duckworth observes, “than the incisive ways in which economic motivations are exposed” (83). The unfeeling people who force the Dashwood sisters out of their home estate are actually their stepbrother John and his wife Fanny, who have become wealthy through marriage and inheritance. John is “cold-hearted” and Fanny even “more narrow-minded and selfish” (23). The couple’s desires to amass wealth exclude any regard for the welfare of others. Fanny dissuades her husband from honoring his promise of financial support to his stepmother and half sisters, because, as she argues, "when the money is once parted with, it never can return" (26). Although Fanny’s self-interest deserves nothing but disdain, her argument rings true in a society which, in general, gives little relief to hardship.
Elinor dislikes her brother and sister-in-law; and as the situation becomes increasingly unfavorable, she and her mother decide to move the family to a small cottage at Barton. “It was not a plan which brought any charm to her fancy” (38), but with reduced financial recourses, Elinor fully understands that they have little freedom of choice. With a strong sense of duty, Elinor helps her mother manage the limited family finances, disposing of their carriage and reducing the number of their servants. After they settle down at Barton, their economic situation cannot be worse; and money naturally becomes a major concern that occasionally appears in their conversation. Their mother, Mrs. Dashwood, who feels the cottage is too small, often says that she would carry out her improvement plan, if she had “plenty of money” (42). Elinor, as the eldest daughter, cannot help but calculating their future life in economic terms. As John Willoughby comes into the circle of their life, his gallantry immediately captivates Marianne’s heart, but not Elinor’s mind. It is his financial background that catches Elinor’s attention, as she keenly notes that “though Willoughby was independent, there is no reason to believe him rich” (74-75).
The two sisters’ different attitudes towards Willoughby enable the reader to view the question of happiness from different perspectives. For Marianne, Willoughby is a dream lover who “was exactly formed to engage” her fancy (57). During his stay at Barton, he almost becomes a symbol of tangible happiness that gives Marianne sensual pleasure and passionate gratification. Elinor, by contrast, is cool-headed. She is concerned as much about the economic prospects of their courtship as about Willoughby’s self-indulgent character—his estate is rated only at “about six or seven hundred pound a year; but he lived at an expense to which that income could hardly be equal” (75). Elinor’s concern makes perfect sense in English society during that period of time, because with few opportunities for earning money, women need a guaranteed source of income before they can make life-time commitment to family and children. Although it is morally despicable for any one, male or female, to marry solely for money, happy marriage should strike a balance between emotional gratification and financial security. In view of her social context, Elinor’s insistence on the necessity of a moderate wealth for marriage seems unanswerable.
What is most interesting about Elinor’s argument, however, is its implied paradox—although wealth has much to do with happiness, happiness does not depend excessively on wealth. On this point, Marianne and Elinor are more alike than they are different: Happiness cannot be bought; and “money can only give happiness where there is nothing else to give it” (90). Wealth might be used as a means to attain happiness, but happiness should not be sacrificed to obtain wealth. Moreover, although a lack of wealth may bring forth unhappiness, wealth cannot guarantee a happy life, and the pursuit of wealth won’t automatically lead a person to an assured destination of happiness. After he deserts Marianne for a wealthy, bad-tempered heiress, Willoughby, for instance, has gained money, with which he could create substitute enjoyments—dogs, horses, grand houses, and fast carriages, but they are only a pale imitation of happiness, and true happiness is beyond his reach. “The world had made him extravagant and vain,” as Elinor remarks; “extravagance and vanity had made him cold-hearted and selfish” (276). Selfish and vain, he is incapable of any happiness except his immediate pleasures.
Furthermore, Elinor’s thought on the value of wealth paradoxically reflects her emphatic demand on the quality of happiness. Elinor views happiness as related to one’s well-being—it is about how one should live one’s life. While her requirement for wealth is moderate, her standard for happiness is high. Beyond the bare necessities of existence, the most important wealth in life tends to be spiritual nourishment. A person’s happiness, therefore, is not determined by how much income she has but rather by how rewarding her life is. Many characters in the story are rich, but few enjoy a fulfilling life. Lady Middleton and Fanny, the two wealthy ladies, for example, only represent a combination of enriched arrogance with impoverished personality, displaying propriety as an effect of property. Neither of them is happy nor able to make other people happy. When they sit together, as the narrator comments sarcastically, there are “a kind of cold-hearted selfishness on both sides” and “a general want of understanding” (197).
In a broad moral and social context, the novel has shown clearly that unrestrained fortune-seeking desire, instead of generating happiness, may become a wicked force in some cases to drive a person into dissolute misery. When it comes to mercenary hunting at the expense of conscience, none could illustrate the case better than Lucy Steele, whose single-minded pursuit of wealth has surpassed Willoughby’s vain pleasures. “The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair…may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune” (312). Unfortunately, this is “s a world in which Lucy Steele, mean and spiteful as she is, seems born to triumph,” as Karen Valihora notes (202). It is true that mean and spiteful people might be able to steal some advantages in their own ways, but their “triumph” would contribute nothing to mitigation of their misery.
Elinor distinguishes herself by adhering to her own standard of happiness, from which she derives much inner strength. Happiness consists only in a life of virtuous activities. Elinor never hesitates to take care of others; and she understands the importance of restraint, honor, and loyalty. When Lucy reveals her secret engagement with Edward, Elinor feels an acute pain, but her “increase of emotion” is controlled by “an exertion of spirits” (120). Although she does not “feel very compassionate” toward Lucy (122), Elinor takes a vow of silence. To keep her promise, Elinor has suffered a lot. “The composure of mind with which I have brought myself at present to consider the matter,” as Elinor later tells Marianne, has been “the effect of constant and painful exertion” (223). To achieve her goal of happiness, Elinor is willing to bear the sufferings that would only make her morally and spiritually more fulfilled. When learning Edward is eventually freed from his engagement with Lucy, Elinor “burst into tears of joy” (299)—a genuine taste of refined happiness after all her previous painful experience, which makes her love for Edward worthwhile and far-reaching.
What the novel has demonstrated in details seems to be a simple truth—probably not yet universally acknowledged: a good fortune is more or less necessary but not sufficient for happiness, because happiness must require a receptive heart full of love and care for others to achieve its full effect. Throughout the book, the sense of “wealth” has gradually changed from mercenary possessions to spiritual nourishment, as the narrative shifts its focus from the “falsehood” of transient pleasures to the “real estate” of long-term happiness. To a certain degree, Sense and Sensibility can be regarded as a “happy-ending” story, in which “the heroines marry virtuous men and in doing so, find both marital bliss and economic security” (Stohr, 379); but speaking more strictly, it should be viewed as “open-ended,” because the story has opened up a wide space for the reader to grasp and to imagine the profoundness of happiness. No less painful than Elinor’s “exertion of spirits,” Marianne has gone through the experience of inner transformation in the course of story to rediscover her happiness. In the concluding paragraphs, Marianne is not shown as an overjoyed bride together with an elated husband; but instead the narrator tells in a tone of tranquility about the multiple roles and responsibilities that she will assume in the future as “a wife, the mistress of a family, and the patroness of a village” (314). Such an ending is not supposed to delay or defuse her marital bliss but to prepare for the slow arrival of profound and deep happiness that would stay for long and for sure. Happiness, in this sense, is not merely a description of an emotional state but rather an evaluation of a life.
1. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (New York: Signet Classics, 2008), 90. Subsequent references are to this edition of the novel and are included parenthetically in the text.
Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. Introduction by Margaret Drabble. Afterword by Mary Balogh. New York: Signet Classics, 2008.
Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of The Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971.
Stohr, Karen. “Practical Wisdom and Moral Imagination in Sense and Sensibility.” Philosophy and Literature 30.2 (2006): 378-394.
Valihora, Karen. Austen’s Oughts: Judgment after Locke and Shaftesbury. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2010.