2006 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
In Mansfield Park, the Crawfords figure as a corrupting intrusion that disturbs the serenity of Mansfield Park. On the overt level, Fanny Price’s reserved and moral nature acts as a foil to the manipulations and extroverted manners of the Crawfords. However, Fanny Price’s character raises troubling issues about morality and righteousness. While on the surface she appears to be the marginalized and unappreciated character that wins out in the end, Austen’s treatment of morality complicates that interpretation. Moments of irony occur in the narration, and consequently Fanny Price’s “innocent” role is darkened by the questions that are raised for the reader. Ultimately, the reader faces the knowledge that Fanny’s rise to recognition in the novel occurs at a cost to others, and that Fanny is less “pure” than she appears, thus challenging the reader’s sympathies.
From the beginning, Fanny Price’s marginal status at Mansfield Park engages the reader’s sympathy, and raises our expectations for her rise and recognition in the social world of the novel. However, when this finally occurs a moment of irony challenges that victory. In regards to Lady Bertram, “ […] Susan remained to supply her place […] Susan could never be spared. First as a comfort to Fanny, then as an auxiliary, and last as her substitute […] ” (320). Susan effectively becomes an object, used for “comfort” and then finally as a replacement for Fanny. Consequently, Fanny’s own rise in the novel is not only is predictable, but her replacement by Susan in her initial position at Mansfield Park suggests that the entire process is replicable. This in turn calls attention to the expected arc of the novel and Fanny’s role as the savoir, as a representative of “the consciousness of being born to struggle and endure” (321). As attention is continuously drawn to the machinations of plot, the reader’s ability to read her as a heroine in the classic sense is ultimately challenged.
During the course of the novel, the reader’s sympathies incline (or are encouraged to incline) towards Fanny and her affection for Edward. However, Fanny’s displacement of Mary Crawford in Edward’s affections is also given an ironic turn, and thus the reader’s sympathies are undermined even as they are called upon. The narrator says, “I only entreat every body to believe that exactly at the time it was natural it would be so, and not a week earlier, Edward did cease to care about Miss Crawford, and become as anxious to marry Fanny […] ”(319). Consequently, even while the reader’s natural response is to feel relief at Edward’s final recognition of Fanny as a romantic interest, the narration subverts the purported propriety of the whole affair. The fact that Edward “ceases” to care about Mary and “becomes” anxious about Fanny only at appropriate times challenges the reader’s credulity. Since human affections in real life rarely follow timelines imposed by moral standards, this calls attention to the fact that it is indeed a novel and thus fictitious. Consequently, the reader is not comforted but rather invited to suspect that Edmund should “learn to prefer soft light eyes to sparkling dark ones” (319). While on one hand Mary Crawford’s “sparkling dark” eyes suggest bewitchment, the “light” that Fanny represents is ultimately problematic.
As a contrast to Edmund’s “perfect” change of affections, we are given Henry Crawford’s own failed romantic endeavors in regards to Fanny. He stalls in his pursuit in order to meet Mrs. Rushworth, and ultimately finds himself
[…] regretting Fanny, even at the moment, but regretting her infinitely more, when all the bustle of the intrigue was over, and a very few months had taught him, by force of contrast (emphasis mine), to place a higher value on the sweetness of her tempter, the purity of her mind, and the excellence of her principles. (317-318)
Here, Henry represents impulse in contrast to Fanny’s reserve; his impulsiveness thus ultimately results in his failure to find happiness after his prior misadventures. Yet, his “loss” of Fanny remains dubious. We are told “[w]ould he have persevered, and uprightly, Fanny must have been his reward” (317). The word “must” calls the entire claim into doubt, since “might” or “would” are more appropriate, whereas “must” only underlines that it never happened at all. Furthermore, the suggestion of an alternative narrative also further underlines the machinations of the “correct” one that we are presented as readers, wherein Edmund marries Fanny. Ultimately, just as by “force of contrast” Henry Crawford recognizes Fanny’s “value,” the reader values a certain outcome of the narrative over another. Yet, because we are inclined—and taught to be inclined—to prefer the triumph of the “good,” that preference is itself is called into question.
Ultimately, Fanny’s “goodness” is universally recognized due to this “force of contrast,” or rather its lack in others. Sir Thomas, in contemplating Maria and Julia’s education, finally decides that
something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle had been wanting […] They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. (314)
Here there are two conflicting ways of “reading” character at work in Sir Thomas’s thoughts: nature versus nurture. The notion of “active principle” thus becomes even more peculiar when as readers we recognize that Fanny’s conquest in the novel is ultimately the result of her reserved nature and her silent morality—in short, her passivity. Indeed, the very mention of religion thus invites an analogy to Christ. If Mansfield Park figures as an Eden, as it is often interpreted, which “falls” due to the Crawfords’ intrusion as Satanic figures, then Fanny’s passive presence ultimately undoes and corrects that disruption. Like Christ’s temptation in the desert, her victory is the result of her inaction. As a result, Fanny “redeems” Mansfield Park as both a place and an ideal, but that redemption can only occur via the downfall of the Crawfords. Yet, while Fanny’s character invites a martyristic reading, it does so ironically. As Nina Auerbach puts it in “Feeling as One Ought About Fanny Price,” Fanny […] has won a somewhat predatory victory, moving from outsider in to guiding spirit of the humbled Bertram family” (449-450). In turn, in the novel the Crawfords are less Satanic, but rather complicatedly flawed and self-centered—in short, human. While Fanny represents “good,” the reader is unable to label the Crawfords as “evil,” but only troubled and harmful at worst.
We see this problem of interpreting morality in Edmund’s recognition of Mary Crawford’s amorality in her reaction to Maria and her brother’s affair. Mary Crawford suggests social maneuvering and the use of her own influence to help Maria regain standing in society. Edmund is horrified at her reaction at seeing the “the dreadful crime committed by her brother and my sister” (311) as merely “folly, and that folly stamped by exposure” (309). Edmund thus deems Mary Crawford “spoilt” (308) to Fanny. Yet, Mary Crawford’s response to Edmund’s moralizing challenges that view. Edmund says, “I imagined I saw a mixture of many feelings—a great though short struggle—half a wish of yielding to truths, half a sense of shame, but habit, habit carried it” (311). Edmund’s phrase “I imagined” complicates Mary Crawford’s reaction since it calls attention to the fact it is his perception that he is relating to Fanny. Nonetheless, the “mixture” of Mary Crawford’s feelings and the “habit” of her reactions suggest not ill intent, but conflict and confusion, and the defenses established by living among complications and the requisites of proper society. When Edmund reacts to her plans, she responds, “‘[a] pretty good lecture upon my word. Was it part of your last sermon?’“ (311). While Mary Crawford’s attitude appears immoral to Edmund, it is ultimately amoral and about social politics. Edmund’s own reaction becomes an extreme in its own right, as his language of “crime” and “sin” acts as a permanent scarlet letter, which brands Maria and Henry Crawford for life. Consequently, the reader is left to question a morality that permanently exiles individuals over poor but human choices, or as Mary Crawford put it, “folly.” In addition, because Edmund brands Mary Crawford as “spoilt” we can only question Fanny’s own role as an innocent figure. Fanny’s “pain” and “delight” (308) upon hearing Edmund’s tale of Mary Crawford’s fall from grace in Edmund’s eyes underscores how as readers we must question her purity. Her delight can only derive from someone’s misfortune: Mary Crawford’s loss of status in relation to Edmund, her “expulsion into a wider and sadder world” (Auerbach, “Feeling as One Ought,” 455), and in turn Edmund’s loss of affection for Mary Crawford.
A final example of irony in the narration is the ending of the novel itself. The novel calls attention to its construction once again, and thus disrupts the reader’s ability to see it as entirely desired, positive, and “true.”
[…T]o complete the picture of good, the acquisition of Mansfield living by the death of Dr. Grant, occurred just after they had been married long enough to begin to want an increase of income, and feel their distance from the paternal abode an inconvenience. (321)
Here, the “picture of good” is altogether too perfect, with the convenient demise of Dr. Grant and the consequent acquisition of the estate. This calls attention to the fact that it is a picture; the narration calls attention to its own composition. Thus, the reader cannot read the plot “straight,” and the very death of Dr. Grant as a bonus for Fanny and Edmund only underlines the darker aspect of the irony of the narration. As readers we are ultimately left with troubling issues about morality as presented in this fictitious world, in which everything ultimately turns out for the “better,” except that we are left to challenge how the “better” is established. If a novel presented the same plot without moments of irony in the narration, it would function as an education in morality. Mansfield Park challenges that education and the reader’s relation to the text and morality presented.
In conclusion, the narration of Mansfield Park complicates reading the text as a heroine’s rise to recognition and happiness after the usual “trials and tribulations” one would expect from such a plot. While ultimately Fanny’s character presents itself as preferable to the amorality presented by the Crawfords, her success depends upon the downfall of the Crawfords. The narration calls attention to the very formula of the plot, and thus our expectations and desires as readers. While ultimately Fanny as representative of good prevails, the conclusion of the novel is really no conclusion at all. The ironies presented ultimately leave the reader with irresolvable doubts about the nature of “good” when it is dependant upon ultimately marginalizing or exiling others in turn.
Auerbach, Nina. “Feeling as One Ought About Fanny Price.” Mansfield Park: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Claudia J. Johnson. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1998. 445-457.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Claudia J. Johnson. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1998.