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 other consideration. It was enough for her that he appeared to be amiable, that he loved her daughter, and that Elinor returned the partiality. (3.4)
We see two different views of marriage (or potential marriage) here – on one hand, the socially conventional tendency to view marriage as a purely economic exercise, while on the other, Mrs. Dashwood's completely sentimental, unscientific view of it, in which, as they say, all you need is love. Neither of these views turn out to be entirely correct within the framework of the novel.
Sir John was a sportsman, Lady Middleton a mother. He hunted and shot, and she humoured her children; and these were their only resources. Lady Middleton had the advantage of being able to spoil her children all the year round, while Sir John's independent employments were in existence only half the time. (6.1)
The Middleton marriage is described more like a business than like a loving, personal relationship. Marriage seems to be about practicality rather than mutual enjoyment.
"A woman of seven-and-twenty," said Marianne, after pausing a moment, "can never hope to feel or inspire affection again; and if her home be uncomfortable, or her fortune small, I can suppose that she might bring herself to submit to the offices of a nurse, for the sake of the provision and security of a wife. In his marrying such a woman, therefore, there would be nothing unsuitable. It would be a compact of convenience, and the world would be satisfied. In my eyes it would be no marriage at all, but that would be nothing. To me it would seem only a commercial exchange, in which each wished to be benefited at the expense of the other." (8.4)
Marianne's view of love and marriage (and who merits either of them) is extremely prejudiced – her attitude is what we would call ageist these days. She seems to believe that the capability to love simply dissipates after the age of 25 or so; this is a ridiculously youth-centric and ultimately rather pessimistic way of looking at the prospect of matrimony.
Mrs. Jennings was a widow, with an ample jointure. She had only two daughters, both of whom she had lived to see respectably married, and she had now therefore nothing to do but marry all the rest of the world. (8.1)
Wow – marriage is such a public thing here, that it's seemingly a fairly ordinary pastime. Mrs. Jennings may be a busybody, but it turns out that pretty much everyone else in this world is involved in the same game, whether they realize it or not.
Elinor was not inclined, after a little observation, to give him credit for being so genuinely and unaffectedly ill-natured or ill-bred as he wished to appear. His temper might perhaps be a little soured by finding, like many others of his sex, that through some unaccountable bias in favour of beauty, he was the husband of a very silly woman -- but she knew that this kind of blunder was too common for any sensible man to be lastingly hurt by it. (20.19)
So, marriage isn't always as great as everyone thinks it is after all. It turns out that sometimes it's the cause of great trouble – as in Mr. Palmer's case. At this time, there was no question of any respectable couple getting a divorce, so once you were married, it was for life.
"I am sure your mother will not object to it; for I have had such good luck in getting my own children off my hands, that she will think me a very fit person to have the charge of you; and if I don't get one of you at least well married before I have done with you, it shall not be my fault. I shall speak a good word for you to all the young men, you may depend upon it." (25.2)
Mrs. Jennings makes her mission clear once more – it's her self-declared job to find every eligible girl a husband. Obviously, marriage is a kind of communal activity among this group of friends.
His mother explained to him her liberal designs, in case of his marrying Miss Morton; told him that 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 his advancing in it. (37.23)
More than ever, we see marriage as a simple financial merger between two willing families – or, in this case, unwilling. Edward is basically fired by his mother for letting down the Ferrars corporation.
"We think now" -- said Mr. Dashwood, after a short pause, "of Robert's marrying Miss Morton."
Elinor, smiling at the grave and decisive importance of her brothers tone, calmly replied –
"The lady, I suppose, has no choice in the affair."
"Choice! -- how do you mean?"
"I only mean, that I suppose from your manner of speaking, it must be the same to Miss Morton whether she marry Edward or Robert."
"Certainly, there can be no difference; for Robert will now to all intents and purposes be considered as the eldest son; and as to anything else, they are both very agreeable young men -- I do not know that one is superior to the other." (41.15)
John makes his thoughts on marriage abundantly clear here – it's really just business, and the parties involved basically don't even have to take an interest in each other personally. We assume that this is how John and Fanny ended up married.
"It is a great relief to me -- what Elinor told me this morning -- I have now heard exactly what I wished to hear." For some moments her voice was lost; but, recovering herself, she added, and with greater calmness than before: "I am now perfectly satisfied, I wish for no change. I never could have been happy with him, after knowing, as sooner or later I must have known, all this. I should have had no confidence, no esteem. Nothing could have done it away to my feelings." (47.5)
Marianne recognizes, after hearing Willoughby's true story, that their breakup was for the best – a life forever with someone as inconsistent and untrustworthy as he is would have been ultimately miserable.
His situation indeed was more than commonly joyful. He had more than the ordinary triumph of accepted love to swell his heart, and raise his spirits. He was released without any reproach to himself, from an entanglement which had long formed his misery, from a woman whom he had long ceased to love -- and elevated at once to that security with another, which he must have thought of almost with despair, as soon as he had learnt to consider it with desire. He was brought, not from doubt or suspense, but from misery to happiness; -- and the change was openly spoken in such a genuine, flowing, grateful cheerfulness, as his friends had never witnessed in him before. (49.1)
This is marriage at its best – everything resolved, and the rightful lovers reunited. Finally, after hundreds of pages of tension and crisis, it all falls into place. This endearing scene lets us know that when it's the right thing, there's nothing better than a good marriage.