PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.34, NO.1 (Winter 2013)

Mansfield Park and Metropolitan: Austen’s Morality in Whit Stillman’s Modern World

Amanda Marie Kubic

 

Amanda Kubic (email: kubic@live.unc.edu) is a sophomore Comparative Literature and Classical Civilization double major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is a co-chair of the Carolina Hunger Education and Activism Project at UNC, plays the viola in the UNC Symphony Orchestra, and is an avid reader of Jane Austen.

 

Mansfield Park has inspired its share of cinematic adaptations.  Yet one version that has largely escaped the notice of Austen critics is Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, an homage to Mansfield Park that transposes many of the novel’s themes from Austen’s English society to the “UHB” or urban haute bourgeoisie of modern New York.1  Though the relationship between the two texts is not readily apparent, Stillman strengthens the ties between his film and Austen’s novel by creating characters in Metropolitan with parallels in Mansfield Park such as Audrey Rouget, his modern-day Fanny Price, and Tom Townsend, who has a distinct connection to both Sir Thomas Bertram and Edmund Bertram.  Characters in Stillman’s film also explicitly discuss Mansfield Park and critic Lionel Trilling’s analysis of Austen’s work.  Stillman’s response to Mansfield Park is most clearly seen, however, in the way his film presents Austen’s ideas of morality—in particular, her notions of hypocrisy.  Ultimately, Stillman reworks Mansfield Park’s moral themes not only to highlight the commonalities between their two works but also criticize the hypocritical upper classes of 1980s New York and demonstrate the uncomfortable yet relevant role Austen and her morality play in such an individualistic and modern environment.

 

Many scholarly critiques have been published on the concept of morality in Mansfield Park, though little has been written about the particular notion of hypocrisy.  Lionel Trilling examines the ideals of sincerity and candor in Mansfield Park in his book Sincerity and Authenticity as well as in his compilation of critical essays entitled The Opposing Self, a work discussed in Stillman’s film by characters Tom Townsend and Audrey Rouget.  Likewise, in her book Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen, Jenny Davidson analyzes many of Mansfield Park’s moral themes, including the novel’s condemnation versus approbation of hypocrisy.  My approach to the topic of morality and hypocrisy in Mansfield Park most closely resembles Davidson’s analysis, which, in opposition to the popular literary dialogue claiming that Austen is attacking hypocrisy, argues that Austen defends hypocrisy as “a moral and political virtue in its own right” (2), supporting its good and criticizing its bad forms.2  Yet Davidson examines hypocrisy in Mansfield Park only in relation to Fanny Price and to its function in the novel as a consequence of dependence.  Further analysis is essential to understanding how Austen uses the idea of hypocrisy as vehicle for social criticism on multiple levels.

 

A fair number of critiques and interpretations of Metropolitan have been published, most comprehensively in Mark C. Henrie’s Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman.  Yet, of the scholars included in Henrie’s collection, only Mary P. Nichols extensively compares Metropolitan to Austen’s work, claiming that critics often classify Stillman’s films “as comedies of manners, and are reminded of Jane Austen” (1).3  Only R. V. Young mentions the significance of the film’s ties to Mansfield Park and analyzes the two works’ common moral themes, though he does not explicitly explore the idea of hypocrisy.4  Examining the ways in which Austen’s morality operates in both Mansfield Park and Metropolitan is crucial to understanding the way in which Stillman uses Austen’s ideas, particularly about hypocrisy, to discredit, as Trilling states in Sincerity and Authenticity, the “cynical commitment to the way of the world, to the metropolitan society which . . . [has been] denounced as the enemy of all true being” (78).

 

Although the term hypocrisy was originally used in the realm of ancient Greek theater to mean “the acting of a part on the stage; feigning, pretense” (OED), The Oxford English Dictionary’s most recent definition is “the assuming of a false appearance of virtue or goodness, with dissimulation of real character or inclinations, especially in respect of religious life or beliefs,” reflecting the presence of pretense and dissimulation not just on the theater’s stage but on the larger societal stage.  In Mansfield Park Austen takes this idea of social theatricals and performing, or pretending to be what one is not, and exposes such hypocrisy in daily English life, particularly through her characterizations of individuals and of society.  In fact, she explicitly uses the word “hypocrite” in the scene where Julia and Maria Bertram find Fanny in tears after Sir Thomas leaves for Antigua.  Seeing her grief, the two sisters proceed to “set her down as a hypocrite” (38)—though it is, of course, the Bertram sisters who are more deserving of this title.  Yet Davidson claims that in Mansfield Park Austen, rather than simply using hypocrisy as a lens through which to view the vices of English society, explores the “double burden” of hypocrisy, differentiating between “good hypocrisy,” or proper manners and polite behavior, and “bad hypocrisy,” deception for the purpose of self-interest (147).  Austen is thus able to demonstrate how one kind of hypocrisy is a virtue as well as a societal tool to maintain order while the other is a vice and therefore an inherently destructive force.

 

In transposing Mansfield Park’s moral themes to Metropolitan, Stillman applies Austen’s differentiation between good and bad hypocrisy to modern elite New York society.  He primarily makes use of strong character parallels to convey these themes, also using the term hypocrite to describe characters in his film.  By linking Tom Townsend with Sir Thomas and Edmund Bertram, Nick Smith and Cynthia McLean with Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram, and Audrey Rouget with Fanny Price, Stillman not only highlights the connection between his film and Austen’s novel but also shows how Mansfield Park’s morality remains relevant in his modern world.

 

Austen explores “bad” hypocrisy—selfish vice that encourages pretense and self-deception for the sake of appearances—particularly through Maria and Julia Bertram’s relationship with their father, Sir Thomas Bertram.  Sir Thomas allows himself to have selective intelligence concerning his daughters’ dispositions and lets himself believe that Maria and Julia have all of the manners and upright morals of proper breeding and education.  Yet in reality, the sisters give themselves over to selfishness and vanity, though their vanity “was in such good order, that they seemed to be quite free from it” (Austen 40).  It becomes obvious that, in educating his daughters, Sir Thomas’s “cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition” (536).  He cares more for the cultivation of good appearances rather than internal integrity, unintentionally teaching his daughters “to make their real disposition[s] unknown to him” (535).  He deceives himself, or perhaps is deceived, as to their true natures, allowing Maria and Julia to develop hypocritical characters.  Austen thus uses this relationship as a vehicle for her criticism of upper-class English society in its value for egocentric, refined artifice over unpolished honesty.

 

In his film, Stillman reflects the bad hypocrisy of the Sir Thomas’s relationship with his daughters through the character of Tom Townsend and his discussions with Audrey Rouget concerning the value of literary criticism versus actual literature.  Stillman even makes Austen and Mansfield Park the primary topics of these discussions, perhaps as an overt acknowledgement of the connection between their works.  He is thus able to show that the same vice present in Austen’s society is also prevalent in the “preppy” society with which Tom and Audrey associate themselves.5

 


Tom and Audrey discuss Jane Austen

 

In speaking to Audrey about Jane Austen, Tom articulates a decided opinion on Mansfield Park:  “it’s a notoriously bad book.  Even Lionel Trilling, one of her greatest admirers, thought that.”  Later Tom notes, “The novel’s premise—that there’s something immoral in a group of young people putting on a play—is simply absurd.”  Yet the fact that Tom has not actually read Mansfield Park, but formed his opinion of the novel based on his misinterpretation of a single critic, Lionel Trilling, shows that he has only acquired superficial knowledge and an appearance of being well read rather than any depth of knowledge or original opinion from serious study of the work.  Tom claims, “You don’t have to read a book to have an opinion. . . . I don’t read novels.  I prefer good literary criticism—that way you get both the novelists’ ideas and the critics’ thinking.”  Yet to have an opinion on a work one has never read, especially a vehement negative opinion, and then to try and force that opinion upon a better-informed individual as Tom does upon Audrey, is blatant hypocrisy.  Tom lacks true knowledge and even denounces Audrey’s opinion when she contradicts his “expertise,” gained only through the shallow perusal of one critic’s ideas.

 

Stillman specifically utilizes Trilling’s critique of Mansfield Park in his collection The Opposing Self to further highlight the bad hypocrisy found in UHB society as well as to show Austen’s moral relevance two hundred years after her time.  Her notions of virtue and vice, which emphasize collectivity by prioritizing societal harmony over selfish, individual interest, may sit uncomfortably with modern, individualistic societies, but they have not lost their application.  Trilling’s actual arguments in The Opposing Self can thus potentially be seen as criticism of Stillman’s “preppy” world as well as of Mansfield Park.

 

Tom Townsend, a recently assimilated “preppy,” has only a partial understanding of Trilling’s critique.  Tom’s dislike of Austen’s work hinges on two main points:  the silliness of the theatricals as the center of the plot, and the un-likability of Fanny Price as a heroine.  Regarding the theatricals that Tom deems so absurd, Trilling states that the danger of such a scheme lies in the “fear that the impersonation of a bad or inferior character will have a harmful effect upon the impersonator, that, indeed, the impersonation of any other self will diminish the integrity of the real self” (192).  One can see this very sentiment demonstrated in Tom’s initial portrayal of himself as an astute literary mind and in his playing of a socialite.  He really is neither, but he impersonates what he formerly regarded as an “inferior character” by dressing up and going out with the preppies.  His “real self,” so averse to such society and much more sincere in his passions for philosophy than for deb parties, is compromised in his acting and really all but lost as UHB society consumes him.  Moreover, Trilling critiques Mansfield Park’s characters on the grounds that their way “of dealing with the world [is] by condemning it . . . and shutting it out, by making oneself and one’s mode and principles of life the very center of existence” (185).  Again, the parallel here to Stillman’s characters is striking.  All of the UHB are jaded, disillusioned youths who deal with their ostensible worthlessness by “condemning” the world around them.  They criticize people in and out of their own circle, economy, city, and way of life.  Only they are important in a world full of falsity and stupidity.  Each character is the center of his own universe, and each derives his morality from nothing more than his own whims and desires.  Thus, in voicing Trilling’s critique of Mansfield Park, Tom unknowingly accepts a critique of himself and of his own society; if he were to look carefully at his own conduct, the critique would reveal him as quite the hypocrite.  By incorporating Trilling’s ideas into his film, Stillman essentially holds up a mirror through which one can see Austen’s notions of morality reflected in modern society, slightly distorted and yet distinctly recognizable.

 

Further exemplifying his role as a bad hypocrite, Tom uses “Jane Austen” in his discourse as an act of name-dropping, a tactic the characters employ throughout the film to appear intelligent and superior to their peers.  Austen is just another name that can be dropped, alongside “Charles Fourier,” “Luis Buñuel,” or “Friedrich Nietzsche,” to prove his intellectual prowess.  Stillman thus again uses Austen as a tool to highlight the appearance of refinement and superiority in his film’s characters and to morph the Bertram’s façade of gentility in Mansfield Park into Tom Townsend’s façade of literary or philosophical knowledge.  Moreover, the discussion surrounding Charles Fourier in Metropolitan is yet a further indication of Tom’s hypocrisy.  Fourier, a French social theorist, was best known in the early 1800s for his theories concerning the reconstruction of society.  His ideas are commonly associated with socialism and Marxism and, like those ideologies, focus on finding a way to distribute wealth equally among the masses (“Charles Fourier”).  How ironic then that Tom, who espouses the doctrines of Fourier, initially even declaring himself a “Fourierist,” lives the life of a privileged bourgeois youth.  He associates with and eventually becomes part of the class of wealthy individuals denounced by Fourier and his followers, yet he still claims to believe in the doctrines his conduct contradicts.  In other words, Tom is a bad hypocrite and serves as a representative for the entire hypocritical UHB society.

 

Stillman creates other parallels between characters in Metropolitan and Mansfield Park to further convey Austen’s themes of morality and hypocrisy in his film.  Indeed, he creates a distinct link between Tom Townsend and Edmund Bertram, another of Austen’s bad hypocrites, in order to criticize the world his film portrays and show the relevance of Austen’s morality in that society.  In Mansfield Park, Edmund displays bad hypocrisy in his initial refusal to take part in the playacting of Lovers’ Vows and in his eventual acquiescence as a result of his “selfish inclinations” (Austen 185) and Mary Crawford’s charms.  Though Edmund still claims to be morally opposed to the theatricals, he nevertheless participates in them, claiming that his decision is a “‘means of restraining the publicity of the business, of limiting the exhibition, of concentrating our folly’” (181-82) rather than a means to be close to Mary.  He “arms himself with a battery of justifications, . . . ready to disguise his self-interest as a matter of public good” (Davidson 159).  Fanny Price, Austen’s paradigm of moral excellence, subsequently condemns his actions. Edmund’s hypocrisy is therefore destructive in that it undermines the respect moral characters like Fanny originally have for him as well as the respect he should have for himself and his own conscience.  Instead of maintaining his “moral elevation” (Austen 185), he falls prey to vice in the form of dissimulation motivated by nothing more than self-interest.

 

In Metropolitan, Stillman places Tom Townsend in a situation strikingly similar to Edmund’s.  Initially, Tom holds the “preppy” society of 1980s New York in contempt, much preferring to study the philosophy of Fourier and attend his classes at Princeton.  Yet when Tom goes to his first deb party, he enjoys himself quite enough for Audrey Rouget to ask, “In your letters you expressed a vehement opposition to deb parties, and to conventional society in general.  I take it you’ve changed your mind?” to which Tom replies, “No, I’m just as much opposed to them as I’ve ever been.”  From the beginning, Tom’s actions contradict his words.  Then, increasingly drawn into UHB society by the glamor, the parties, and the occasionally stimulating company, Tom becomes a fixture of the very “rat pack” he scorned at the beginning of the film.  The motives behind Tom’s change of heart are not as immediately clear as Edmund Bertram’s.  Tom may be tempted by the possibility of occasionally seeing his old girlfriend Serena, who can be viewed as a parallel character to Mary Crawford.  Maybe he is trying to compensate for his family’s loss of wealth.  Or, perhaps it is simply vanity that leads him to abandon his old opinions as he becomes used to being noticed and to associating with well-known individuals.  Either way, Tom’s hypocritical behavior is motivated by self-interested inclination rather than a desire to achieve collective harmony among the UHB.  Tom’s initial internal morality, quite opposed to the frivolous and lavish UHB life, is not strong enough to prevent him from contradicting all of his former protestations by aligning himself with the preppies.  The bad hypocrisy Tom displays ultimately destroys the integrity of his character; he is, in the words of his UHB acquaintance Charlie Black, “a terrible phony, and when he’s not . . . a phony, he’s a bastard.”  Others’ respect for Tom and Tom’s assumed self-respect are thus significantly diminished as he succumbs to the same vice of self-interested hypocrisy as Edmund Bertram.

 

Through his portrayal of the relationship between UHB socialites Nick Smith and Cynthia McLean, Stillman further emulates in Metropolitan the bad hypocrisy Austen depicts in Mansfield Park through Henry Crawford’s declarations of love to Fanny Price and his subsequent affair with Maria Bertram.  In Mansfield Park, Crawford professes during his courtship that “‘it is ‘Fanny’ that I think of all day, and dream of all night’” (398), claiming that “she had created sensations which his heart had never known before, and that every thing he had done . . . was to be placed to the account of his excessive and unequalled attachment to her” (348).  Henry is eventually separated from Fanny by her removal to Portsmouth but even then comes to visit her after four weeks explicitly for the purpose of seeing her and expressing his devotion.  Although Fanny remains opposed to the idea of marrying him, Crawford leaves Portsmouth seemingly just as in love with Fanny as before, his last words to her communicating affection and tender concern.  It is only a few weeks after this visit, however, that Crawford runs away with Maria, completely defying his previous declarations to Fanny.  Crawford ignores his inner moral guide, directing him to a girl superior in nature, in anticipation of immediate physical pleasure and the gratification of his vanity through Maria’s affections.  His self-interested, hypocritical actions not only serve as the final blow to the already discordant and unstable marriage between Maria and Mr. Rushworth, but they also ruin any remaining chance of attaching Fanny.

 

Stillman reworks the hypocrisy of Maria and Henry’s affair through his portrayal of Nick and Cynthia’s clandestine sexual relationship.  At one of the “rat pack’s” parties, Nick vehemently expresses his contempt for Cynthia, who, he claims, is a “slut” sleeping around with debauched men like Rick Von Sloneker.  Yet, later in the film, when the characters participate in a truth-telling game, it is revealed that Nick and Cynthia, despite their objections to each other, have had sexual relations.

 


The UHB play the truth-telling game

 

When Nick drunkenly confesses to having slept with Cynthia, Charlie Black responds, “After all that about what a terrible slut she was?” to which Nick replies, “But a very attractive slut.”  Charlie declares, “So you’re just another hypocrite,” to which Nick answers, “That’s not hypocrisy.  It’s sin.”  Nick transforms bodily transgression from hypocrisy to a straightforward sin.  Giving himself over to sin indicates a loss only of physical control, a temporary transgression of the flesh.  Conversely, to admit to hypocrisy would mean to lose mental or moral control—a much more important aspect of his existence and identity.  By refusing to accept the label of “hypocrite,” Nick rejects the notion that his essential moral character has been compromised and that he has lost control of the identity he labored to cultivate among the UHB. Instead, “sin” conveys that it was only his body and not his mind that transgressed in sleeping with Cynthia.

 

Stillman indicates, however, that this qualifying statement is a moment of self-delusion for Nick.  Nick is just as much like Edmund Bertram as he is like Henry Crawford:  just as Edmund blinds himself to his real motives for acting in the Mansfield theatricals, Nick blinds himself to his true motives for sleeping with Cynthia.  This self-deception only strengthens Nick’s hypocrisy and his connection to Edmund by creating a kind of justification on which Nick can rely while continuing to act against his intrinsic sense of what is right.  Both Nick and Cynthia are thus “bad” hypocrites, each opposed to the character and principles of the other, but nevertheless choosing to sleep together for the purpose of immediate selfish gratification, thereby compromising their personal integrity.  Like Henry Crawford and Edmund Bertram, they display a kind of inconstancy in their words and their actions—an inconstancy that, despite their attempts to justify it, stems from the divide between what they know to be correct behavior and their actions based on selfishness and self-delusion.

 

Stillman further conveys Austen’s ideas of morality in his own film by emulating the way in which she manipulates the notions of playacting and dissimulation on the stage of society, transforming the “theatrical stage” into a realm where artifice is stripped away rather than assumed.  For Austen, the mask one wears for society and the mask one assumes for theatricals ultimately negate each other, thus exposing one’s true character.  The amateur playacting in Mansfield Park of Lovers’ Vows—a piece filled with “excessively familiar dialogue and scenes” (Young 54)—and the truth-telling and strip poker games in Metropolitan—Stillman’s indirect emulation of the Mansfield theatricals—serve as a means for characters to express emotions and display behaviors that would not normally be condoned in society, providing the young men and women with occasions for what Young deems “improper familiarity and moral and physical exhibitionism with serious consequences” (54).

 


The UHB play strip poker

 

For example, during the acting of Lovers’ Vows, Maria Bertram’s obvious preference for Crawford over her own fiancé, for whom she usually feigns affection, is nearly brought to public attention through her and Crawford’s constant indiscreet rehearsals and her own lack of consideration for Mr. Rushworth.  Stillman echoes this conflict in Metropolitan, where the truth-telling game the debs play reveals hidden attachments and opinions that ought to have stayed private but are nevertheless forced out into the public.  During the game, Tom confesses to a continued attachment to Serena Slocum, injuring Audrey’s feelings, and Nick and Cynthia admit to having slept together, thus harming both of their reputations.  In both works, idle social games meant to counteract boredom ostensibly free the youths from societal constraints and place them in an unusual realm where the societal prudence of everyday reality is gone and the liberality of private life can almost be realized.  Their societal masks are gone, eliminated by the masks they attempted to assume for the theatricals, leaving their true faces exposed to the public eye.

 

Stillman applies Austen’s critique of the danger of such theatricals to his own work in order to reinforce Austen’s position concerning the virtues of good hypocrisy.  Davidson states that in Austen’s world, “both manners and politeness exist in dangerously close proximity to the less attractive quality called hypocrisy” (147).  Indeed, in Mansfield Park Austen prizes good hypocrisy, or continuing to act one’s proper part in society, as a way to “lubricate the machinery of political and domestic life” (Davidson 147) and avoid the dangers that can accompany excessive openness and self-interested, unrestrained action.  Thus Fanny Price, Mansfield’s pillar of morality, refuses to take part in the theatricals, just as in Metropolitan Audrey Rouget, Fanny’s parallel, does the same.  Fanny and Audrey wisely do not risk the excessive frankness or the uncomfortable exposure that accompanies playacting, instead choosing to retain the masks they assume for public life.  Through their choice to engage in good hypocrisy, Audrey and Fanny become the virtuous, ostensible keepers of society, ensuring that order is maintained, prudence observed, and that individual feelings are not maimed by thoughtlessness.

 

Austen suggests that a significant underlying force of the bad hypocrisy found in Mansfield Park’s younger characters is the absence of strong parental figures from their lives.  She intimates that a lack of adult supervision frees the youths from certain restraints and gives them more liberty to engage in the inane or illicit activities of their own will.  For example, Sir Thomas Bertram is absent when the young persons of Mansfield enact the morally questionable theatricals.  Moreover, the Crawfords, arguably the novel’s most hypocritical characters, as evidenced by Mr. Crawford’s conduct with Maria and Miss Crawford’s “‘faults of principle, . . . of blunted delicacy and a corrupted, vitiated mind’” (528), are entirely without parents.  At Mansfield, not only the physical absence but also the absence of parental interest encourages Julia and Maria Bertram in their bad hypocrisy.  The strong influence of Sir Thomas is absent in his daughters’ education, and thus “principle, active principle, had been wanting” (536) in their upbringing.  Lady Bertram is similarly absent from her children’s lives, for as Young notes, she “lacks the energy and concern . . . to guide the youth of the family in prudent courses” (54).  Parents, as the generally agreed-upon teachers of morality in the domestic sphere, are needed to encourage their children in these “prudent courses.”  They are the ultimate censors, punishing the wrong and encouraging the right.  In lieu of their presence, a sort of moral experiment ensues where youths may choose either to completely disregard the boundaries between right and wrong or to engage in a kind of self-censorship.  Fanny Price is Austen’s model for this kind of voluntary suppression of unacceptable behavior.  When removed from her parents at Portsmouth and relocated at Mansfield, a place void of substantial parental authority, Fanny continues to possess virtue and dignity when faced with moral choices as well as “mental superiority” (545), sensibility, and ethical integrity.  She censors herself not only for the sake of her own character but also in the hope of providing some semblance of moral order at Mansfield.

 

In Metropolitan, Stillman uses Austen’s ideas about absent parents and self-censorship to criticize UHB society.  Indeed, there is a notable a lack of mature adults in the majority of the film’s scenes.  Yet, in the scenes where adults do appear, Young notes that “they are largely ineffectual,” without much influence on the scene’s proceedings (49).  Young argues that this lack of parental authority in Metropolitan makes the UHB youths “morally disoriented” (50), for they have ostensibly been abandoned by parents who chose to forego their duties as caregivers so that they might indulge in their own selfish whims.  Left without any visible adult influence or guidance, the UHB youths are allowed the same moral experiment as the youths of Mansfield Park, free to gratify their own pleasures and defy moral and societal expectations, since the fear of reprimand or punishment at the hands of their would-be authority figures is nonexistent.

 

The two parents who are slightly present in the action of the film belong to the two characters who are, or were at one time, arguably exempt from the bad hypocrisy of UHB society.  Tom’s original ideals and uncompromised notions correlate directly with his relationship to his mother.  At the beginning of the film, when he has yet to render himself a hypocrite by constantly associating with those whom he professes to condemn, Tom spends much of his time at home, living with his mother.  As he plunges deeper into world of the debutantes, Tom’s distance from home increases, and the parental influence over him decreases.  Audrey’s mother also makes an appearance in the first scene of the film, and there is no evidence to suggest that their relationship changes in any way.  Perhaps this shadow of maternal constancy is enough to separate Audrey from her companions and give her a stronger set of principles, which then keep her from partaking in the bad hypocrisy the other debs exemplify and which instill within her an appreciation for the virtues of good hypocrisy.

 


Audrey and her mother

 

Audrey thus serves as Stillman’s embodiment of Austen’s ideas of morality.  Even with this shadow of parental guidance, Audrey, like Fanny, actively censors her actions.  Perhaps Audrey compensates for the vices of the UHB by maintaining an unerring sense of virtue, despite the fact that some then label her a “prude.”  This kind of moral behavior is obvious at the end of the film when Tom and Nick “rescue” Audrey from Rick von Sloneker’s home at the Hamptons, where all of the youths have been drinking and engaging in sexual activities—all of the youths that is, except for Audrey.  She retains both her sobriety and virginity, not just out of interest for her own reputation but, arguably, as an example to the rest of the UHB youths and to reinstate moral standards in her society.

 


Audrey and Cynthia at Von Slonekerís house in the Hamptons

 

Stillman again draws on Austen’s themes of morality to indicate that, just as in Mansfield Park, in Metropolitan doom or decay may be the result of practicing bad hypocrisy and failing to recognize the virtues of good hypocrisy.  Like Austen, Stillman recognizes that his world formulates its own demise by fostering individuals whose self-interest is based in moral corruption and deception.  In Mansfield Park Austen portrays a pervasive sense of decay in the Bertram household, symbolically represented by Sir Thomas’s dealings in Antigua and the trouble he presumably finds on his plantation with his slaves.  The financial and economic structure of Mansfield is slowly crumbling, just like the morality and integrity of its inhabitants.  Such corruption, in the estate’s physical as well as spiritual well-being, can only lead to its demise.  In Metropolitan, Stillman responds to this notion of moral disintegration through characters who constantly talk about the UHB society being “doomed” to fail.  In particular, Charlie Black exhibits what Young calls a “melancholy obsession with what he assumes will be the inevitable downward mobility of this privileged class” (59) and with the ultimate failure to which he suspects all of the debs are doomed.  Their impending destruction lies in the fact that the core of their society is composed of individuals riddled through with bad hypocrisy.  Thus, if, as Charlie says, “generally speaking, people from this sort of background [UHB] are doomed to failure,” it is the UHB’s own doing. A society built upon persons with imprudent characters, disingenuous appearances, and no certain depth of understanding in matters intellectual or moral, cannot continue to stand.

 

Stillman intimates that the youths of Metropolitan must learn to embrace Austen’s brand of morality and good hypocrisy if they wish to avoid the “downward spiral” (Metropolitan) and ultimate doom foreshadowed as their destiny.  The challenge that this solution poses for the UHB is in accepting the emphasis on community and collective good central to Austen’s kind of virtue.  Thus, Audrey Rouget becomes Metropolitan’s pillar of hope, since she embodies Austen’s ideas of moral excellence.  Like Fanny Price, who serves as Mansfield’s paradigm of manners and morality and as such their potential savior, Audrey is exempt from the bad hypocrisy of her world, void of the vices that characterize the majority of her peers, and effectively practices good hypocrisy.  Stillman intimates that she would be capable of maintaining societal harmony and well-being among the UHB, if she indeed chooses to become that society’s new moral standard.

 

Stillman comes to a different conclusion than Austen, however, concerning the success of his heroine in revitalizing her community.  In Austen’s work, one sees Fanny gradually take over Mansfield as a moral force, particularly after Aunt Norris and her two cousins move away.  After she marries Edmund, the couple’s “acquisition of Mansfield living” (547) places her exceptionally close to her old home; by choosing to remain at its physical center, she not only can, but will become the moral center of the estate.  On the other hand, Stillman suggests that Audrey plans on going abroad in the near future, effectively removing her from the morally corrupt society in which she lives.  Stillman thus implies that, while Audrey certainly has the potential and the necessary degree of virtue to save UHB society as its new moral guide, perhaps she will not do so, and perhaps the UHB do not deserve to have her do so.  The UHBs must first become aware that they are part of a greater whole and that the needs of that whole must come before the desires of the individual.  In other words, they must recognize the value of Austen’s interpretation of morality, vice, and virtue, as well as its applicability—even necessity—in their self-centered world.

 

In a modern society where it may seem that, in the words of Tom Townsend, “nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is near ridiculous by today’s standards” and that individual freedoms are prized above the needs of the general public, the value that Austen places on the stability and harmony of society, often at the expense of individual interest, might appear out of place.  Yet Stillman’s Metropolitan demonstrates the decidedly relevant role that Mansfield Park’s messages of morality have in a contemporary context.  By creating characters in Metropolitan who have distinct parallels in Mansfield Park and by responding not only to the social critiques in Austen’s novel but also to criticisms of that novel, Stillman reworks Austen’s themes of morality and hypocrisy in such a way that reminds modern-day viewers of the collective benefits of good hypocrisy as well as the destructive nature of bad hypocrisy.  He turns the tables on his turn-of-the-century audience, reminding them of the harm that can come from consistently putting “I” and “Me” before “We.”  Ultimately, Stillman uses Austen and her work as a means to call viewers to re-examine their moral priorities and to rediscover the importance of social stability over individual interest.

 

 

Notes

 

1. Stillman coined the term “UHB” in the film Metropolitan.  Character Charlie Black claims it is a more accurate identification for the elite, “debutante” social class than other terms like WASP, P.L.U. (People like Us), and “preppy.”

 

2. Davidson considers the arguments made by authors like Austen for the dual nature of hypocrisy and thoroughly examines the nature of Fanny Price’s supposed hypocrisy as a “legitimate manifestation of female dependence” (3).  Her emphasis on Fanny’s subservient status within the system of patronage present in Mansfield Park serves as the foundation for her argument that such a position not only excuses but moreover encourages “self-command and self-concealment” (12), or a kind of politeness and reserve often viewed as a more positive form of hypocrisy.

 

3. Joseph Alulis and Lauren Weiner also examine themes of morality in Stillman’s films.  Weiner argues that the most effective agents of irony in Stillman’s work are the most conventional characters, whom Stillman views as being driven by a kind of sincerity in their steady adherence to their respective societal creeds (22).  Weiner notes that sincerity in fact “may be the cardinal virtue in [Stillman’s] moral universe” (22).  Alulis also studies the nature of morality and virtue in Metropolitan, arguing that in order to be successful in “UHB” society, one must possess the traditional intellectual and moral virtues of “practical wisdom and temperance” (64).  Alulis also makes connection between Metropolitan and Jane Austen’s writing, although he references Persuasion, not Mansfield Park, as a point of comparison.

 

4. Young focuses on the ways in which the absence of authoritative parental figures in both Mansfield Park and Metropolitan relates to the lack of morality among the youths of both works.  He examines the theatricals enacted by both sets of characters, and how those theatricals serve as a reflection of the deterioration in ethics caused by a lack of adult supervision and guidance.  While Young does suggest that vice in Metropolitan has a relationship to impropriety in Mansfield Park, he does not examine the nature of this corruption other than its origins in adult absence.

 

5. Although the term “UHB” is more accurate term for describing the set of youths depicted in Metropolitan, the term “preppy” is also used by the film’s characters when referring to their own society.  Yet “preppy” connotes a more innocent, retrograde form of upper class status than “UHB,” which more appropriately refers to a society characterized increasingly by sexual promiscuity and intellectual pretense.  This less-familiar term could be seen as Stillman’s nod to the film’s context in post-sexual revolution America.

 

 

Works Cited

 

Alulis, Joseph.  “In Defense of Virtue: Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan.”  Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays in the Films of Whit Stillman.  Ed. Mark C. Henrie.  Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2001.  63-83.

Austen, Jane.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. John Wiltshire.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005.

“Charles Fourier.”  Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica Online.  Encyclopedia Britannica, 2013.  25 Feb. 2013.  http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/215092/Charles-Fourier

Davidson, Jenny.  Hypocrisy and the Politics of Politeness: Manners and Morals from Locke to Austen.  New York: Cambridge UP, 2004.

Metropolitan.  Dir. Whit Stillman.  Perf. Carolyn Farina and Edward Clements.  New Line Cinema, 1990. DVD.

Nichols, Mary P.  “Whit Stillman’s Comic Art.”  Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays in the Films of Whit Stillman.  Ed. Mark C. Henrie.  Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2001.  1-17.

Oxford Dictionaries Online.  21 Jan. 2013.

Trilling, Lionel.  The Opposing Self: Nine Essays in Criticism.  New York: Harcourt, 1978.

_____.  Sincerity and Authenticity.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972.

Weiner, Lauren.  “Whit Stillman’s Restorative Irony.”  Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays in the Films of Whit Stillman.  Ed. Mark C. Henrie.  Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2001.  19-37.

Young, R. V.  “From Mansfield to Manhattan: The Abandoned Generation of Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan.”  Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays in the Films of Whit Stillman.  Ed. Mark C. Henrie.  Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2001.  49-62.

 

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