Installed in Norland Park, Mrs. John Dashwood (Fanny) treated her mother-in-law and sisters-in-law with "quiet civility" while determined to defeat any attempt to provide for them financially. John Dashwood, still moved by the memory of his father's death, begged them to consider Norland Park their home until they could find a suitable house.
Aghast at his proposal to give his half-sisters a thousand pounds apiece, Fanny began to offer her husband persuasive arguments to make him pare the sum down — first to five hundred pounds and finally to nothing. She first made him think of their poor son, of whom they would be depriving the money. Then, after he had divided the sum in half, she appealed to the fact that the girls really didn't need so much money — as their social life would be limited, their expenses would be negligible. When John decided on giving them only some furniture, Fanny returned with the argument that the linen and china left them by their father should amply furnish their new quarters. She finally got him to believe that he owed no gratitude to his father at all: "Your father thought only of them. . . . [W]e very well know that if he could, he would have left almost everything in the world to them." This rationale made John's ultimate decision an easy one. He decided that he need do no more for his stepmother and half-sisters than send them occasional gifts of fish and game, a very generous thought, he believed, all considered.
Some of the finest examples of Austen's ironic writing are found in the scene in which John Dashwood is persuaded not to help his relatives financially. "I would not wish to do anything mean," he says complacently — and moments later decides to give them nothing. And his wife reminds him, "They will have no carriage, no horses, and hardly any servants; they will keep no company, and can have no expenses of any kind! Only conceive how comfortable they will be!" John Dashwood needs only the excuse, which his wife happily gives him, to deprive his relations of money which they desperately need to facilitate their already desperate condition. Once he has been able to rationalize his ruthlessness with the weakest arguments possible, he easily clears his conscience of all subsequent responsibility.
Unlike contemporary novelists, Jane Austen never describes cruelty explicitly. Instead, she uses what critic Mark Schorer calls "verbal brutalities" to shock the reader into seeing the cruelty that underlies social pride. Fanny Dashwood, in this chapter, coolly urges her husband to be incredibly callous and selfish toward his stepmother and half-sisters. Although she never says so in plain words, she obviously delights in the prospect of near-penury for the Dashwoods and even begrudges her mother-in-law the china, linen, and plate that have been left to her by her husband.