Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 973
Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park explores important moral themes woven into a seeming Cinderella story of a poor girl taken in and then neglected by proud, wealthy relatives. Fanny Price is slighted by three of her four confident, energetic cousins. While they pursue their favorite activities, she is required to run endless errands and perform tedious tasks for her aunts. Having little share in the friendships of her cousins, she is happiest alone in her room, a cold, cheerless place furnished with old, cast-off things. Small, timid, and seemingly docile, Fanny does not seem to fit the image of the romantic heroine, but she grows in strength of body and mind as the novel progresses. By the end of the story, her strength of character and unshakable moral convictions win for her the praise, love, and social position she desires.
When the story opens, the unfortunate young cousin from a large, poor family is terrified by the grandeur of Mansfield Park. After she becomes accustomed to life there, she enjoys staying in the background, assisting her aunts and meekly accepting her inferior position in a luxurious household. She feels content with her place in the world. While most of her relatives think her boring and stupid, cousin Edmund, who seeks out her friendship, grows to respect and care for her. With his kind support, she overcomes her timidity to ride horseback for outdoor exercise and to speak up for herself. These instances show that Fanny is capable of a more active life when encouraged.
In fact, Fanny is the only one at Mansfield Park with convictions and character strong enough to refuse to act in the amateur play production, an activity Sir Thomas has forbidden. Her relatives, when tempted by the chance to impress or placate someone they admire, turn away from what they have been taught to believe right and thus betray the values of the family. Fanny alone remains faithful to the routines and rules of the household. Her cousins are amazed by her courage, and Aunt Norris calls her refusal to oblige the others positively wicked.
Later, Fanny is pressured by relatives and friends to accept the marriage proposal of the wealthy, charming Henry Crawford. She again shows surprising strength of character by refusing to follow the wishes of others when they go against her own values. Sir Thomas finds her decision “offensive, and disgusting beyond all common offense.” Nevertheless, Fanny prefers staying at Mansfield Park as almost an unpaid servant to marrying someone she does not care for and respect, though by marrying she could have gained approval, security, and social position. Fanny, who is usually obedient and cooperative, proves to be a strongly independent character in matters of importance.
In contrast with Fanny, her Bertram cousins, who at first appear decisive and confident, are swept along in circumstances that bring them shame and disappointment. Tom gambles until he has amassed staggering debts and becomes seriously ill. Maria ruins her marriage and reputation by eloping with Henry Crawford after she has married foolish Rushworth out of spite. Julia, because she is bored, marries a careless, frivolous friend of her brother. Thus, the seemingly fortunate cousins spoil their lives by impulsive and thoughtless actions.
Henry and Mary Crawford, the worldly London brother and sister visiting in the neighborhood, are the most intelligent, talented, and attractive characters of the novel. They glow with life and sparkle with wit, making Fanny and her cousins look dull by comparison. The Crawfords, too, understand the true worth of human goodness. Henry so fully recognizes and admires Fanny’s purity of heart and inner beauty that he wishes to marry her. Mary begins to fall in love with sincere, good Edmund and to imagine herself as his wife.
The Crawfords bewitch everyone by their charm except Fanny, who finds them dangerous. She envies the attraction the glamorous Mary exerts on Edmund, and she distrusts Henry’s flirtatious ways with her female cousins. Even more, she distrusts their opportunistic and scheming ways: Henry callously flirts with both Maria and Julia merely to discover whether he can make them fall in love with him; Mary lies to help her brother have his way and casually overlooks his seducing and ruining of Maria. Flawed as they are, Austen has sketched the Crawfords so brilliantly that they sometimes seem to dominate the story. Some readers have wondered whether Fanny and Henry would not have been excellent marriage partners, each complementing the other’s abilities. Some wonder whether Edmund would not have been made happier by vivacious Mary than by his quiet, tender cousin, Fanny.
Austen’s style and tone in this novel are generally serious and thoughtful. The themes of right conduct and integrity of personal values influence the tone of conversations as well as the delineation of the characters. Lighthearted moments often express frivolous or insincere feelings and thoughts rather than simple enjoyment. When Mary Crawford observes about a career in the navy during wartime, “The profession is well enough under two circumstances; if it make the fortune, and there be discretion in spending it,” her sentiment mocks the heroic efforts of sailors fighting against Napoleon.
The role of parents in caring for their children is of particular interest in Mansfield Park. Fanny moves from her parents’ chaotic, poverty-stricken home to the well-organized, luxurious home of the Bertrams. There Sir Thomas rigidly oversees the children’s upbringing while his agreeable wife, Lady Bertram, sits nodding on the sofa, petting her lap dog, Pug. Family life continues smoothly enough until Sir Thomas is called away on business. Left alone and neglected by their incapable mother, the children rebel against family rules in various ways that lead to pain and misfortune. Sir Thomas returns in time to witness but too late to prevent the disaster. Only Fanny is spared disaster.
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