Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703
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 Coleridge. This scrutiny reveals Fanny’s agonies of self-consciousness and humiliation, sometimes brought on by the depredations of her Aunt Norris and cousins, sometimes occasioned by her own humility, jealousy, and cowardice. Hence, Fanny’s judgments may be right, but her behavior is not always admirable.
Still, Fanny increasingly comes to influence the other characters, particularly as they succumb to the enchantments of shallow display and artifice. Her education has endowed her with the knowledge of the importance of responsibility and charity toward others, claims associated with the evangelicalism of the day, and all of her cousins and both the Crawfords are better people when Fanny is around, although her withdrawing nature puts the burden on them to listen to her, which they do not always undertake, to their ultimate sorrow.
Mansfield Park also has social ramifications. The title denotes a grand country house owned by a pillar of society, a member of the legislature. This is the heart and strength of England. Sir Thomas’ prosperity, however, is dependent upon slave labor in the West Indies, which he must personally address early on, when Tom’s gentlemanly embarrassments encumber the family. A question raised by Fanny about slavery, a topic of great public and religious concern in these years which was openly identified with evangelical abolitionists, is, significantly, not answered. There were no easy solutions to the problem.
Moreover, education is a theme. There are false and proper tutors in the novel as well as true and spurious subjects and opportunities. Here are six well-to-do youths who will inherit the kingdom’s governance, and, lacking obligations, they fill their days with selfish and shallow enterprises, either in the absence of adult guidance or with the misguided approval of equally weak elders. Nothing in the upbringing or home lives of these well-heeled young people has turned them outward from their own interests toward social or public affairs, while in contrast, Fanny and William, her naval recruit brother, are obvious models of rectitude and duty. Furthermore, the Prices lead directly to a vision that Austen develops in Mansfield Park of activist clergy and gentry classes that share the village life of their communities and tend to their concerns rather than maintain indolent absentee stewardships, conducted or, more often, ignored from the capital’s sophisticated salons. Thus, Fanny disdains the suit of mostly truant landlord Henry for marriage with Edmund, the resident country parson. In short, Austen draws upon topical issues of personal, national, and international import to substantiate what appears at first to be a mere fairy tale.
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