PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.29, NO.1 (Winter 2008)

“If Your Right Hand Offends You . . . ”: Anger and the Principle of Moral Regeneration in Mansfield Park



Summer J. Star


Summer J. Star (email: is a Phd candidate in English at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  Her dissertation work examines representations of aesthetic experience as moral awakening in mid-Victorian texts and how their formal techniques mirror (and meld) the ethical and aesthetic philosophies of the period.


I t is hard to dispute , at least formally, that Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park ends happily.  The long-patient, long-suffering heroine, Fanny Price, is rewarded with the love of her cousin Edmund, and indeed, all the Bertram family are left having been secured with some “comfort” of their own—whether in work, friends, marriage, or in the virtuous presence of Fanny herself.1  But can a novel that has been focused so sternly on right and wrong, sheep and goats, up to its eleventh hour truly breathe its sighing contentment in a few pages of romantic pay-off?  Is this a novel, Austen forces us at least to ask, about love?

Like Austen, I will also in the end answer “yes” to this question but will argue as well that our arrival at that answer, like the novel’s own final arrival at comfort, is only possible through a reckoning with what it shows as the sterner side of love:  the anger and, indeed, the wrath of Fanny Price.  Critics of Austen’s meek but passionate heroine, such as Claudia Johnson and Ruth Bernard Yeazell (among many others writing particularly from political and feminist perspectives), have spoken of her anger by turns as a manifestation of priggishness or moral hypocrisy or as the result of patriarchal and even colonial oppression.  On the other side, virtue ethicists such as Sarah Emsley and Alasdair MacIntyre have looked to Fanny’s temperance, her ability to balance moral duty against the personal feelings Austen shows her feeling so deeply, as the kind of virtue promulgated in the novel and the characteristic that makes Fanny, as Emsley proposes, Austen’s “contemplative heroine” (108).  Where both of these accounts seem incomplete, however, is in the lack of attention they pay to the role of Fanny’s anger as well as to its narrative and moral significance in Mansfield Park.  When we consider the narrative’s own increasing interest in Fanny’s anger as her moral situation grows increasingly complex and dangerous, it becomes clear that Mansfield Park represents that anger as neither a prop, a thing to be struggled against for toning and honing virtue, nor a symptom of failure (whether personal or social).  Indeed, such interpretations pose a danger not only of limiting the fullness of Austen’s characterization (allowing Fanny to be either “prig” or “victim” or “contemplative”) but of preventing our understanding of the very union this novel promotes:  that of agency and morality, the two parts of the notion of “active principle” that Austen cultivates at Mansfield.  As I will argue here, Austen demonstrates anger as a force deeply involved in what it means to be moral—and in the novel’s reactivation of that meaning.

Whether in praise or blame of Fanny Price, critics are largely unanimous in their pronouncement of Fanny as an arbiter; a keeper of the peace, she is also an enforcer of law.  But can we consider the nature of her arbitration, her judgments, and, indeed, her condemnations as static in the novel?  If we agree with Emsley and MacIntyre that the novel’s notion of “principle” resides definitively in the choice to discriminate between social and higher moral duty (when they converge, and when they diverge from each other) and that this discrimination begins in an active mind, it is also necessary to consider how the novel demonstrates this discernment entering active life.  What is at stake when simply thinking one’s disapproval is no longer sufficient?  How does it feel?  And what do such enactments of judgment reveal about the relation between discernment and agency?  As I will demonstrate, Austen develops the phenomenon of anger—that fusion of discernment and feeling par excellence—within her heroine as a corollary to her development as a moral agent in the novel.  Indeed, the increasingly intensified representations of Fanny’s anger and its expanding circles of influence provide an account of the novel’s central notion of “active principle”—what Sir Thomas recognizes by the novel’s close as having been “wanting within” his small dominion (463).  Yet does this allegory clarify the paradox of morality’s tentative marriage of subjective feeling and objective knowledge, or does the problematic concept of “righteous indignation” only underscore the problem of a virtue of ethics, particularly within the modern society of Austen’s novel?  Here, I seek to illuminate the contradictions inherent in the idea of “active principle” and how Austen’s use of those contradictions may have allowed her to forge a new notion of principle, as, necessarily, a “warmth” and an activity, in the body of her heroine, Fanny Price.

In his account of the foundations of virtue and morality in heroic society, Alasdair MacIntyre argues that “morality and social structure are in fact one and the same. . . . Evaluative questions are questions of social fact” (122).  This is a point MacIntyre sees supported by the lack of semantic distinction between “ought” and “owe” in epic traditions.  Perhaps at no point in Mansfield Park do we seem more assured of a very similar social and moral contingency than in the chapters presenting the excursion at Sotherton—specifically from Fanny’s evaluative position as she watches the social straying and boundary testing of the couples passing her seat in the wood.  Fanny’s solitary, fixed position overlooking the ha-ha, having been abandoned by Edmund in his pursuit of Mary Crawford, is one of dual detachment (from social engagement and, simply, from movement among the others) and strong internal activity (as listener, watcher, sympathizer, and moral arbiter).  Such is the narrative’s reflection after her engaged cousin, Maria, “smiling with all the good-humour of success,” has climbed over the gate with the assistance of Mr. Crawford:

Fanny was again left to her solitude, and with no increase of pleasant feelings, for she was sorry for almost all that she had seen and heard, astonished at Miss Bertram, and angry with Mr. Crawford. . . . She seemed to have the little wood all to herself.  She could almost have thought that Edmund and Miss Crawford had left it, but that it was impossible for Edmund to forget her so entirely.  (100)

“Sorry,” “astonished,” and “angry” introduce a connotative range both subjective and objective, of immediate and reflective reactions.  While disappointment and astonishment speak to Fanny’s position as an observer and listener in the situation, the fact that she is “angry with Mr. Crawford” tints the narrative with a sense of personal involvement.  Yet how is it that these transgressions instigate not only judgment but emotional movement in a character whose personal stakes are not involved in the action?

Entering Fanny’s internal experience of this situation, it becomes clear that her physical position in the narrative belies the way in which her own sense of self and personal claims to recognition are actively and constantly (if subconsciously) at work in the scene:  sensitizing and demonstrating to the reader the parallel between Crawford’s bad behavior (which she can objectively condemn) and Edmund’s forgetfulness (which is too full of meaning for Fanny to think fully possible, let alone censure).  In this way, Fanny’s anger seems to serve a dual function in the episode:  first, revealing the depth of the moral weave of the novel’s social context, such that the independent yank of a single thread must threaten and pain the whole; but also, secondly, showing that consciously feeling that yank—feeling that any neglect of obligation within the social network is, in effect, a personal affront to all individually—must come before the moment of objective judgment.  While critics such as Kenneth Moler, then, have argued that Fanny’s isolation from the movements of the other characters is “seriously retarding her moral development” (190), the narrative contrasts between movement and stillness, attention to self and attention to others seem to create in Fanny a kind of paradoxical “unmoved mover” of Austen’s moral world—one frustrated, doubtless, but who relocates the novel’s sense of significant movement at this point in the novel to an organically interior realm.

Yet if the concepts of principle and sympathy, judgment and feeling are so evidently self-reflexive at this nexus of moral action in the wood, the question still remains as to which side—judgment or feeling—gives initial validity to the other.  Is Crawford unfeeling because he betrays the social boundaries of Maria’s engagement, or is he dishonorable because he trifles with the oafish Rushworth’s feelings?  Are social principles predicated on the protection of feelings, or are feelings produced by the various snags in some primal weave of social obligations?  These are the kinds of questions that the notion of morality must call into play, questions made still more confounding by the event of righteous indignation.2

While Austen seems to demonstrate clearly enough Fanny’s potential moral capacity at Sotherton (her ability to be emotionally moved by a cause outside herself ), Fanny’s “duty” becomes much more difficult to discern when that cause outside Fanny’s self is herself—the respect for her own human feelings and conditions as such.  Fanny’s possessiveness of self, which seems to be at odds with her meek nature, is yet an aspect of her heroine which Austen is at great pains to reveal—and which significantly requires pain to reveal.  For even while Fanny consistently attempts to rationalize another’s disregard of her, she is never insensible to that offensiveness:  as she herself explains to Mary Crawford, “‘I was quiet, but I was not blind’” (363).  This recognition of social obligations is evident, for example, when Fanny sees her cousin Tom approaching her at a dance:  “though feeling it would be a great honour to be asked by him, she thought it must happen” (118).  Such careful language as this modal “it must” exposes the basis of Fanny’s expectation (unfulfilled though it is here):  that her right to expect comes not from her worthiness as “Fanny Price” but from the notion that any young woman sitting alone at a dance ought to be asked by her approaching cousin.3  Fanny’s self-regard thus reveals the novel’s own discernment between selfish self-interest (variously attributable to all the characters) and what Austen calls “that just consideration of others” (91), which, in its universality, also includes oneself.  Fanny’s sense of her own entitlement to a certain standard of treatment suggests that the functionality of her judgment is not limited to her observations of the exterior world.  Like the self-love of Aristotle’s good man, which is pre-requisite to his ability to love others, any good judgment she can make is the consequence of the judgment that she will be forced to apply (and the extent to which she can apply it) to herself.

Dialogues such as the one in which Crawford attempts to reminisce with Fanny about the rehearsals of Lovers’ Vows expose in miniature the progression of her emotions into action throughout the novel.  In this case, Crawford’s fond memory that there was “‘[a]lways some little objection, some little doubt, some little anxiety to be got over’” (225) ironically recalls his breach of the ha-ha at Sotherton.  Unlike her earlier position as observer, however, both at Sotherton and during the rehearsals, Fanny’s place here as a participant in the dialogue forces her censure into speech.  Yet Austen’s emphasis is not so much on the venom of Fanny’s actual words as it is upon the way in which she says them:  “[s]he had never spoken . . . so angrily to any one; and when her speech was over, she trembled and blushed at her own daring” (225-26).  The intensity that charges her speech and body marks a newness both in Fanny’s development as a character and in the development of the potential of speech as action in the novel.  Locating the dynamism of Fanny’s words in the way she speaks them and in the effect they have (rather than in their explicit rhetorical power) is as though the narrative itself has had to break to accommodate this newly-speaking voice.

The technique is further developed in Fanny’s defiant encounter with Sir Thomas as he communicates Crawford’s offer of marriage.  Here, after a long passage devoted to his premature congratulations, the narrative interrupts Sir Thomas by stating simply that “[t]here was a look, a start, an exclamation, on hearing this, which astonished Sir Thomas” (314).  Capturing his reaction rather than the outburst itself, Austen heightens the almost otherworldly nature of Fanny’s vocalized, if inarticulate, reaction to her uncle.  A jump-cut in the narrative progression, it is also a kind of lightning bolt through the predicated consistent “self” that Fanny has known and been known by at Mansfield.  A moment of judgment, of interruption, the reaction is more visceral than reflective and yet enacts a division-making between appearance and actuality based on principle and on Fanny’s more-than-immediate memory of Crawford’s disregard of it.  Thus, as Fanny’s anger violently disrupts her own consistency, it takes on an almost biblical authority in its embodiment of the extent of moral judgment—severing moral appearance from a practical knowledge of moral order, demanding that Fanny cut off, one might say, her own offensive right hand for the sake of her moral body.

Following the development of Fanny’s anger, then, and of the correlating moral investigation of Mansfield Park, we see a kind of double movement taking place.  On the one hand, Fanny’s growing social role within the novel’s plot demands an externalization and activation of her judgment into speech and action.  Yet, on the other hand, the direction of her judgment, taking on concerns of her own personal and moral interest rather than the observed interests of others, becomes impelled increasingly inward.  Between her unspoken anger at Crawford’s trifling with social boundaries and her refusal to become complicit in the truly self-jeopardizing obligation to his offer, the novel demonstrates the “activity” of “active principle” to be based not only in personal participation within social workings but also in the acknowledgment that one’s self is personally at stake in the interpretation and enactment of principle within a social system.  In this sense, we might say that, in the novel, judgment only can be pure—only can have correspondence with a cause outside one’s individual interest—if it is a warmly realized part of personal consciousness.

If Mansfield Park can indeed be read as a development of the movements and events that build and create character, however, there is nevertheless something incongruent between the very idea of development and what seems to be the function of morality and anger in the novel.  Within her conceptual, interiorized moral experience at Sotherton; within the moment of conviction’s movement into speech and action; in the separation between semblance and selfhood that Fanny enacts on her own person—all of these experiences, while increasingly intensified instances of moral division-making within the novel, seem to denote a phase of initiation, perhaps only of intervention.

Austen begins her final chapter with the invocation, “Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery.  I quit such odious subjects as soon as I can, impatient to restore every body, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” (461).  Yet the narrator seems to forget this “impatience” just as quickly.  Instead, the final chapter describes a long convalescence, particularly in the case of “poor Sir Thomas, a parent, and conscious of errors in his own conduct as a parent, [who] was the longest to suffer” (461).  Mansfield, one has the sense, is like a deeply pruned-back rose tree:  while the narrator begins to draw our eyes to the promising spurs of green that will develop, our minds have been so long focused on the necessity of bareness, that the spare black form of justice is still all too present to be sensibly brightened with “comfort.”  Where is the line between morality’s threat and salvation, the image seems to ask, or between fury and love?  Razing the boundary between feeling and principle, through the phenomenon of anger, Mansfield Park’s search for “active principle” strips the matter down to what it seems to demonstrate as the quick of moral life:  a readiness for the moment of initiation and the capacity for change, as Sir Thomas sees, not only within the sphere of one’s authority but “within” the grounds of the self.


1.  The word comfort appears fourteen times in the novel’s last chapter.  Sarah Emsley also remarks on the prevalence of this word and on the moral questions it poses for interpretation:  is it the comfort of peace or the comfort of ease?  This question is essential to Emsley’s argument for Mansfield Park as a novel about understanding and discriminating the nature of one’s moral habits, whether they are kept because they are good or because they are easy.

2.  For more on the place of social experience and interaction in moral development in Austen’s novels, see Hina Nazar’s reading of “propriety.”

3.  See Zelda Boyd for the first delineation of the relationship between grammatical structures and morality in Austen’s novels.


Austen, Jane.  The Novels of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-69.

Boyd, Zelda.  “ Jane Austen’s ‘Must’: The Will and the World.”  Nineteenth-Century Fiction 39 (1984): 127-43.

Emsley, Sarah.  Jane Austen’s Philosophy of the Virtues.  New York: Palgrave, 2005.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel.  Chicago: UCP, 1990.

MacIntyre, Alasdair C.  After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory.  3rd ed.  Notre Dame: UNDP, 2007.

Moler, Kenneth L.  “Miss Price All Alone: Metaphors of Distance in Mansfield Park.”  Studies in the Novel 17 (1985): 189-93.

Nazar, Hina.  “The Imagination Goes Visiting: Jane Austen, Judgment, and the Social.”  Nineteenth-Century Literature 59 (2004): 145-78.

Yeazell, Ruth Bernard.  “The Boundaries of Mansfield Park.”  Representations 7 (1984): 133-52.

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