Mansfield Park is considered by critics to be Jane Austen’s “problem novel” and the first work of her second and mature phase of development. Misled by correspondence identifying her next topic as “ordination,” scholars long attempted to wrestle the novel into a contemporary evangelical framework until it was realized that Austen was referring to the next subject in her letter, not that of her novels. Nevertheless, religion and morality play crucial roles in the meaning of the novel.
Critics have also much remarked upon the opening of the book as a variation on the Cinderella story: Small, plain Fanny Price is whisked far away from her loving parents to labor beneath the hostile inspection of near but not immediate female relations, until she is transformed into a desirable match for an eligible young bachelor. More to the point, however, is the effect of Fanny’s relocation to Mansfield Park on her and on the estate’s residents. She is the novel’s moral center—other characters are revealed as essentially moral or immoral as they accord with her.
The narrative voice is not, however, uniformly approving of Fanny; Austen’s characteristic irony maintains a balanced and honest presentation. Although Mansfield Park is narrated in the third person, the focus is on Fanny, and Austen’s free, indirect discourse frequently and clearly reproduces Fanny’s mental workings to the virtual exclusion of anyone else’s. In these scenes, Austen’s concentration on the individual mind as the determinant of reality aligns her art with that of the prevailing Romantic aesthetic of the times, which is more often associated with poets such as William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor...
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