Persuasions #2, 1980 Page 20
THE THEME OF CONTINGENCY IN MANSFIELD PARK
by Gene Koppel
Mansfield Park has always been Jane Austen’s “problem novel.” Much of the controversy about the book has centered on its conclusion: many critics have argued that the feeling of “rightness,” of suitability and inevitability, that should accompany the marriage of the hero and heroine at the end of a domestic comedy is largely missing from Mansfield Park. My thesis is that the author intended that the reader should be partially frustrated at close of Mansfield Park. The narrator explicitly informs the reader that the novel could have ended differently (and perhaps more satisfyingly) than it did. Further, a close reading of the text reveals that the contingency of events is emphasized throughout the work. The reader is always made aware that events will be determined by unique individuals acting in unique circumstances – not by fictional stereotypes plodding through standard situations for predetermined outcome.
One of the results of this emphasis on contingency is the stressing of Jane Austen’s traditional theme of personal responsibility: one must always strive to be a responsible, humane member of society, and to meet one’s obligations both to oneself and to others. Fulfillment depends on one’s determination to carry on this struggle in ordinary day-to-day living. In Mansfield Park the battle is constant and difficult – and the outcome is usually in doubt.
The theme of contingency also is related to the basic spiritual vision of the book. Modern theologians such as Leslie Dewart have argued that the universe is basically contingent – that God does not control the working out of history. God offers himself to man (according to Dewart), but man has the choice of building history (or individual lives) with or without His challenging, fulfilling presence. Such a world view can be seen to be quite similar to Jane Austen’s. Both Dewart and Austen demand a unified response to life; rather than deciding for or against religious faith through “feeling” (subjective) or analysis (objective), one must experience the world as a whole, and make one’s judgment accordingly.
The emphasis on contingency in Mansfield Park, especially at the conclusion of the work, prevents the reader from arranging the events of the novel into a comfortable, “inevitable” form. Thus Jane Austen’s “problem novel” is likely to remain just that. There will be no general agreement among critics on a final, narrow range of interpretations.