if an inferior or mediocre novel gives rise to a medley (or a muddle) of conflicting interpretations, no one worries. But if a work that possesses coherence, complexity, and emotional power generates roughly equal numbers of wildly differing interpretations, then one is faced with a “problem novel.” Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is such a work. So is Morgan’s Passing by America’s Jane Austen, Anne Tyler. In an earlier number of this journal I published an article dealing with the similarities of these two master-artists of the spiritual, moral, emotional, and economic lives of middle-class members of early-nineteenth-century British and late-twentieth-century American societies. Here I would like to compare and contrast their two problem novels.
Most of the controversies associated with these novels are, not surprisingly, generated by the two main characters. Austen’s novel is clearly a romantic comedy, and its heroine, Fanny Price, is judged first of all by the standards of that genre. In the earlier Pride and Prejudice and the later Emma, Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse, both lovely, vital, and bright, clearly succeed as heroines of their genre (though Emma’s arrogance has been a put-off for a minority of critics). In the case of Fanny, critical opinion is hopelessly divided. Fanny repulses as many as she attracts. On the negative side, Nina Auerbach writes:
As quietly-seeing spectator of others’ activities, Fanny’s role is as ambiguous as the reader’s own. . . . Our discomfort at Fanny is in part our discomfort at our own voyeurism, implicating ourselves as well as Fanny in a community of compelling English monsters. . . . [Home in Portsmouth] Fanny’s revulsion against food, along with her psychic feasting on the activities of others, associates her with that winsome predator the vampire, an equally solitary and melancholy figure who cannot eat the common nourishment of daily life but who feasts secretly upon human vitality in the dark. (9)
Juliet McMaster, on the other hand, sees Fanny as a true heroine, who in spite of her human weaknesses possesses strength of character, passion, and the ability to grow morally and intellectually as she matures. Indeed, when Edmund loses the vital, charming, bright—and shallow—Mary Crawford, McMaster writes that in turning to Fanny, Edmund (contrary to the arguments of Fanny’s detractors) is not being forced to settle for second-best. “[His] love for Mary and his love for Fanny grow together,” and at the end of the novel he gets the superior of the two: “Mary Crawford and Fanny, for Edmund, are a package deal; and at the end he simply discovers he has mistaken the wrapping for the gift” (36).
Unless a future age brings about a radical change in readers’ responses to Mansfield Park, variations of Auerbach’s and McMaster’s arguments will continue to appear, but few will be converted from one side to the other. Readers will continue to see Fanny either as a monster of traditional morality (and some will no doubt argue that traditional morality helped to turn her into such a monster) or as a vulnerable and erring but also a strong, loving, and sensitive young woman doing her impressive best to deserve the hero without sacrificing the high moral and religious standards of her tradition. These continuing arguments will reveal much about the writers and their times, but they will not result in a critical consensus concerning Fanny and the “success” or “failure” of her character in Mansfield Park.
Ironically, while the readers of Mansfield Park tend to condemn or exonerate Fanny Price according to their ideas of romantic heroines, and Fanny herself tries to live according to her spiritual and moral values with no thought of romantic comedy and its ideal heroines. Morgan Gower, the protagonist of Morgan’s Passing, moves through his more purely realistic context—where the influence of romantic comedy is felt, but does not dominate—thinking of himself as a romantic hero. Of course he has to admit to himself that he hasn’t always behaved like one.
He married his steady, unconditionally accepting wife, Bonnie, for her money, “which was not to say he didn’t love her” (29). This secure life as the head of a family (whose children severely disappoint him by growing up and developing lives and interests apart from him) and largely absentee manager of a hardware store (owned by his father-in-law) does not, however, fulfill his heroic aspirations. To sustain his dreams of romantic fulfillment, he keeps a closet full of costumes, each one of which goes along with a different identity. Almost every day he wanders around downtown Baltimore as a different person: Klondike Morgan, Father Morgan, Riverboat Gambler Morgan, Jungle Explorer Morgan, Eastern European Immigrant Morgan—the list goes on.
Finally, Morgan’s inconclusive explorations of life lead him to befriend a young husband and wife team of professional puppeteers, Emily and Leon Meredith. Posing as Dr. Morgan, Morgan steps in when, during an outdoor performance, Emily goes into labor, and he offers to drive them to the hospital. “Dr. Morgan” ends up delivering their baby girl when the drive to the hospital proves too long for Emily’s labor. Morgan leaves them at the hospital, but he cannot leave them alone for long. He finds where they live and, in a variety of disguises, stalks them in their daily activities.
In reality, Emily and Leon are a troubled young couple trying to find themselves, but Morgan insists on seeing them as carefree vagabonds who have broken free of the humdrum life of routines and responsibilities that Morgan despises. Over a period of several years—always meaning well—Morgan makes himself known to the Merediths, befriends them, and, finally, impregnates Emily and goes off with her. He takes her husband’s name and assumes the life of an itinerant puppeteer, a process that separates Emily from the daughter he had delivered. At the end we see him happy: “Everything he looked at seemed luminous and beautiful, and rich with possibilities” (311).
As with Fanny Price, critics are completely divided in their opinions of Morgan Gower. For example, Karin Linton sees Morgan’s final transformation in a positive light: “More responsible and attentive than before to those who depend on him, he has not, however, lost his joy in exploring the tantalizing secrets and possibilities of life” (123). And Alice Hall Petry declares that “at the very end of the novel, Morgan Gower as Leon Meredith is finally a happy man, responsible to his loved ones while honoring his true self” (166). On the other hand, Abagail Q. McCarthy asks, “Are we not living more and more in a world of Morgans—wonderful, pathetic, funny, sympathetic, but without definition?” (81). Doris Betts warns, “Though Morgan seems to come home to love Emily . . . he could easily keep passing . . . without notice a few more pages beyond the novel’s end” (34). And Joseph Voelker is harshest of all with his reference to “the sociopath Morgan Gower” (11).
Further, these negative critics could borrow Nina Auerbach’s attack on Fanny Price for use against Morgan. He is obviously a stalker, a voyeur, and in several places he is tied in with vampires: the first instance, which is narrated in language that could have come from a Stephen King novel, occurs when Morgan is stalking the Merediths, and they sense his presence: “Coming home from a shopping trip at twilight, they’d been chilled by a kind of liquid darkness flowing in and out of alleyways behind them. Emily had been frightened. Leon had been angry, but with Emily next to him and Gina in his arms he hadn’t wanted to force anything” (57-58). And during his last visit to his home after his breakup with Bonnie and later after his return to Emily, there are several references to bats in his former home, which he means to warn Bonnie about, but never does (305-08; 331-32).
Fanny Price and Morgan Gower are products of different centuries, different societies, and different circumstances. They can be compared and contrasted only in very general terms. Both usually mean well and, in their own ways, try to be good people. Both have serious self-doubts. Fanny’s are usually disguised from herself by a transformation into Christian humility:
It was her intention, as she felt it to be her duty, to try to overcome all that was excessive, all that bordered on selfishness in her affection for Edmund. To call or to fancy [Edmund’s supposed coming marriage to Mary Crawford] a loss, a disappointment, would be a presumption; for which she had not words strong enough to satisfy her own humility. (264)
Morgan’s feelings of inferiority are more directly felt and expressed:
[Standing on a bus, his hand gripping the back of a seat, Morgan] became convinced that his hand, which gripped the seat in plain view of these two women, was so repulsive to them that they were babbling utter nonsense just to keep from thinking about it. . . . [He] saw exactly how his hand appeared to them—its knuckly fingers, wiry black hairs, sawdust ingrained around the nails. He saw his whole person, in fact. What a toad he was! (54)
Interestingly enough, Morgan’s dramatic ability and his drift into the role of homewrecker represent a personality trait and a fate that in Mansfield Park fall not to the main character but to her first suitor, Henry Crawford, whose dramatic reading of Shakespeare transports even the reluctant Fanny out of herself:
She could not abstract her mind five minutes; she was forced to listen; his reading was capital, and her pleasure in good reading extreme. To good reading, however, she had long been used; her uncle read well—her cousins all—Edmund very well; but in Mr. Crawford’s reading there was a variety of excellence beyond what she had ever met with. The King, the Queen, Buckingham, Wolsey, Cromwell, all were given in turn; for with the happiest knack, the happiest power of jumping and guessing, he could always light, at will, on the best scene, or the best speeches of each. . . . It was truly dramatic. His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again. . . . (337)
And similar to Morgan’s courting of Emily Meredith, when Henry falls into the role of the returned lover of Maria Rushworth, he has not the internal strength to abandon his imaginary persona before he has done irreparable harm to those who trust him and depend on him.
The final irresolvable question: Are Fanny and Morgan well-meaning, but self-deceiving weaklings who pervert any positive values they think they stand for? Are Henry Crawford and Morgan attractive but hollow individuals who easily “play” other persons, but unfortunately have no real inner characters or strength of their own? Are all three of them emotional vampires who must nourish themselves by feeding off of the strength and integrity of those around them? Or perhaps these negative descriptions are not valid for all three. One could easily argue that Fanny is a warm, passionate young woman whose shyness and feelings of inferiority are only relatively tiny flaws that should not be allowed to distract from the basic integrity and goodness of her character; Henry Crawford acts weakly with Maria Rushworth, but the reader earlier saw his character strengthening, and (as Mary Crawford claims) if Fanny had accepted his proposal, his salvation would have been assured. Morgan, too, is weak in his conduct with Emily, but he recovers to dedicate himself to his new wife and son, and to continue his search for new experience and fulfillment.
The textual worlds of Mansfield Park and Morgan’s Passing give support for all of these readings. This could mean that the works are flawed, that ultimately they lack coherence. Or one could argue that since life also lacks ultimate coherence, these two problem novels of Jane Austen and Anne Tyler offer a truly modern view of human existence. Finally, one could construct a positive or negative interpretation and defend it against those who will demonstrate how misguided (and even foolish) it is. How much closer to the intellectual reality of modern life can literature bring us?
Auerbach, Nina. “Jane Austen’s Dangerous Charm: Feeling as One Ought About Fanny Price.” Persuasions 2 (1980): 9-11.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield Park. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1954.
Betts, Doris. “The Fiction of Anne Tyler.” Women Writers of the Contemporary South. Ed. Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: UP Mississippi, 1984. 23-37.
Koppel, Gene. “Jane Austen and Anne Tyler, Sister Novelists Under the Skin: Comparison of Persuasion and Saint Maybe.” Persuasions 15 (1993): 164-69.
Linton, Karen. The Temporal Horizon: A Study of the Theme of Time in Anne Tyler’s Major Novels. Uppsala: Acta Universitatib Upsaliensis, 1989.
McCarthy, Abigail Q. “The Hollow Man.” New York, 10 March 1980, 81.
McMaster, Juliet. Jane Austen on Love. ELS Monograph Series 13. Victoria, British Columbia: English Literary Studies, U Victoria, 1978.
Petry, Alice Hall. Understanding Anne Tyler. Columbia: U South Carolina P, 1990.
Tyler, Anne. Morgan’s Passing. New York: Knopf, 1980.
Voelker, Joseph C. Art and The Accidental in AnneTyler. Columbia: U Missouri P, 1989.