The Pursuit of Freedom in “Mansfield Park” by Jane Austen
Jane Austen authored several novels in the course of her literary career but “Mansfield Park” is by far her most relevant work of literature. One critic observes that most of Austen’s books are characteristically “vulgar in tone, sterile in invention, imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English culture, and without genius” (Butler 225). In “Mansfield Park”, Jane Austen abandons her usual subject of the English elite and concentrates on a timid and shy heroine who is caught between the worlds of poverty and affluence. The main theme in “Mansfield Park” is social growth and how a person’s status affects this type of escalation. Jane Austen was a literary icon who covered a crucial literary period that fell between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This era is of importance to literature because it is marked by Victorian and romanticism elements.
Austen lived in Regency England and “Mansfield Park” covers events that are specific to England’s lifestyles in the period between 1780 and 1832. The novel tracks the events surrounding the life of the main character Fanny Price. Fanny Price is forced to move from her poor homestead and live with her aunt’s affluent family. Fanny’s new family consists of Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. The family has two daughters and two sons. Austen’s book revolves around the themes of social status, marriage, and societal expectations. The main character finds herself being caught up between her own convictions and the expectations that come from her affiliation with the wealthy Bertram family. Social status in “Mansfield Park” is an important aspect and it is often linked to other factors such as living conditions and familial connections. Distinctions and discriminations in “Mansfield Park” have a direct connection to the social statuses of various characters.
Austen bases her entire book on the social situation of four families. The social situations of The Bertrams, The Crawfords, The Prices, and The Rushworths are a source of both distinctions and discriminations in “Mansfield Park”. Familial affiliations are a source of the big differences in social status that apply to various characters within the book. The main character, Fanny Price, is in the middle of the social situation that dominates Austen’s book.
Fanny is from a humble family and she is rarely interested in keeping up appearances. Fanny grew up in a family where the main objective was survival. Her introduction to a family whose main preoccupation is social status leads to a big jolt in lifestyle for her. The author presents Fanny as a timid and shy girl who keeps a low profile. This type of distinction can only be traced back to Fanny’s social status. Fanny’s father is a disabled sailor who has problems with alcohol. Consequently, Fanny grew up in a home that had little connections to affluence. This fact is evident through a comparison of all the young girls who are residing at the Bertrams’ household. While Maria and Julia are concerned with their ability to find rich suitors, Fanny is at home with her newly found living arrangements.
Fanny is also a constant target of discrimination from several members of the Bertram family and this treatment can be traced to her social status. The most avid of Fanny’s tormentors is Mrs. Norris, the woman who is in charge of straightening out the Bertram household. Although the author does not explicitly reveal why Mrs. Norris discriminates against Fanny, it is clear that the estate’s caretaker considers Fanny to be an unnecessary addition to the Bertram family.
For instance, Maria and Julia are both treated with respect by Mrs. Norris. The discrimination that Fanny receives from Mrs. Norris could also be related to the fact that the latter looks down upon Fanny’s mother for not getting married to a rich man. It is safe to assume that Mrs. Norris would have treated Fanny in a different manner if she had been a primary member of the Bertram family. It is interesting to note that Mrs. Norris had engineered the plan to have Fanny live with the Bertram family. Nevertheless, Mrs. Norris was of the view that Fanny did not have the right social standing to make her a suitable suitor for the Bertram boys. At one point, Mrs. Norris vehemently declares that a union between Fanny and Sir Thomas’ sons was “the least likely thing to happen…it is morally impossible” (Austen 7).
Mrs. Norris’ assertions about the impossibility of a union between Fanny and the Bertrams are not based on her judgment of Fanny’s character but they are solely based on the girl’s social background. Further investigation into the issue reveals that Mrs. Norris is fond of making herself feel good at the expense of other people. The scheme to have the timid and shy Fanny move into the Bertram household is an example of the tactics that Mrs. Norris uses to make herself feel good. The discrimination that Mrs. Norris directs towards Fanny is cleverly disguised as a benevolent and charitable act. Mrs. Norris uses Fanny’s low social class to make herself feel valuable because she is unable to compete with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram’s affluence. This fact is evident because while Mrs. Norris addresses the Bertrams in a respectful manner her language towards Fanny is often course and disrespectful. Mrs. Norris treats Fanny in this manner even though the guest is courteous and respectful towards everyone in the Bertram household.
The discrimination that was directly connected to social status in Mansfield Park was not confined to family members but it also affected potential marriage suitors. Marriage suitors in Fanny’s society were easily dismissed on the grounds that they did not have the ‘right’ social status. There are various victims of this form of discrimination in “Mansfield Park”. The first and obvious victim of marriage-related discrimination is Mr. Price, Fanny’s father.
Throughout the book, remarks about how Fanny’s mother married beneath her social class are evident. Consequently, there is a great distinction between Fanny’s mother and her sister, Lady Bertram, who is married to a rich man. This distinction is first captured with titles. Whereas Fanny’s mother is referred to as Mrs. Price, her sister is given the title of Lady Bertram. The distinction between the two sisters can only be traced to the fact that one of them married a poor man. For instance, it is noted that both Mrs. Price and Lady Bertram grew up in an affluent household. Nevertheless, Mrs. Price is unable to maintain her social status after he marries Mr. Price. The Bertram girls are very aware of the discrimination that comes with being married to a poor man (Butler 226).
Consequently, both Maria and Julia do all that is in their power to ensure that they do not marry men of low social status. Mr. Rushworth is only able to impress Maria because he is wealthy. On the other hand, Maria agrees to become engaged to Rushworth even though she considers him to be a ‘boring person’. The discrimination that is related to the choice of a marriage partner also drives Mary to hop from one Bertram son to the other. Mary recognizes the prestige that comes with being a Bertram and she approaches Tom with the sole intention of becoming a Bertram. When this union does not work out, Mary reacts by moving on to Tom’s younger brother Edmund. Mary is genuinely attracted to Edmund but she is later discouraged by the fact that his suitor is interested in being a clergyman. In the eighteenth century, clergymen did not clearly belong to any distinct social class because they did not actively pursue wealth-related matters. According to Mary, clergymen “do nothing but eat, drink, and grow fat” (Austen 109).
In addition, clergymen were tasked with the responsibility of self-sacrifice related duties and this type of social affiliation did not appeal to the affluent-seeking Mary. Social status as a result of marriage unions was an inescapable aspect of life in the eighteenth century English society (Davidson 250).
Distinction and the ability to assert one’s status are two scenarios that are often repeated in Austen’s book. Achievement of distinction through self-possession is an important component of the plot in “Mansfield Park”. Fanny and Mary find themselves at the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to the distinction that is achieved through self-possession. While Fanny’s ability to possess her best qualities leads to a happy ending, Mary loses the distinction she sought to gain by asserting her social status.
The author deliberates uses demarcations and distinctions to allow the readers to make their own discriminations concerning the main characters. Fanny is distinctly presented as a self-aware character who looks inwards whenever she is resolving conflicts. This distinction is closely associated with Fanny’s social identity as a shy girl who has yet to come to terms with her own identity. In addition, Fanny does not strive to assert her status in the community. Fanny’s self-awareness comes in handy when she is under pressure from external social forces. In one instance, Fanny is not sure about her decision to refuse Mr. Crawfords’ proposal. The author notes that Fanny “begun to feel undecided as to what she ought to do…she walked round the room, her doubts were increasing….was she right in refusing what was so warmly asked…so strongly wished for?” (Austen 137).
Consequently, Fanny goes through her youth with minimal contradictions concerning her character. In another instance Fanny uses self-awareness to resist peer pressure by telling her detractors that “it is not that I am afraid…but I really cannot act” (Austen 131).
The concept of self-awareness appears foreign to most of the other young characters in “Mansfield Park”. For instance, Maria, Julia, and Mary appear to be only aware of their social expectations. In Mary’s case, her quest of marrying a rich man and living an affluent life becomes the hallmark of her self-awareness. Therefore, Mary is unable to decipher that Tom is not interested in her and she does not realize that Edmund is a viable suitor. There is no single moment of self-awareness in Mary’s life. Her pursuit of an ‘acceptable’ social status becomes the only determinant of Mary’s actions. Mary’s character is synonymous with lack of judgment and emotional insecurity. Mary’s exchanges with Fanny reveal a distinction that slowly prompts readers to discriminate between the two characters. At one point, Mary Crawford tells Fanny that “it is everybody’s duty to do as well for themselves as they can” (Austen 263).
However, Mary’s idea of finding success for oneself involves achieving superficial milestones such as marrying a rich man at whatever cost. Fanny is able to come to terms with her peculiar situation and her social status problems because of her self-awareness. On the other hand, Mary is a victim of the confusion that arises from lack of self-awareness. In the end, self-awareness plays a pivotal role in determining the fate of the two girls. The readers are able to make discriminations between the two characters although the author is in charge of this process.
Social status in “Mansfield Park” can also be analyzed using the distinctions that are made in regard to a person’s place of living. Throughout the novel, Austen uses the distinctions between life in the countryside and the city to demarcate social standings. The distinction between places of living is also a major cause of discrimination amongst the characters who are affiliated to the city on one side, and those who are rooted in the countryside on the other. The conflicts that arise from the allegiances between the city and the countryside are a major source of the conflict surrounding the situation of the main character.
Fanny Price migrates from the City of Portsmouth and moves to the affluent countryside home of the Bertrams. Fanny’s migration is an important component of the plot in “Mansfield Park”. The distinction that comes from a person’s place of living is also a source of conflict for both Fanny and her relatives. For instance, shortly after Fanny arrives at the Bertrams residence, her cousins quickly categorize her as ‘stupid’ because of her timid mannerisms. On the other hand, Fanny was perplexed by the mannerisms of Mansfield’s residents and their effects on the lives of people in the countryside. The book provides a distinction between Fanny’s feelings about the countryside and the Crawford’s fondness for city life. Fanny expresses her love for nature and the countryside through various monologues and inner reflections. At one point, Fanny expresses her deep feelings about nature and the countryside; “as if there could be neither wickedness nor sorrow in the world; and there certainly would be less of both if the sublimity of Nature were more attended to” (Austen 80).
Throughout the book, the author does not address the situation in the city as openly as she talks about the countryside. Consequently, this form of distinction makes talk about the city to appear as a taboo in “Mansfield Park”. The reader only learns about the specifics of the city life through the conversations that Maria and Julia have concerning their desire to visit London. None of the main characters in “Mansfield Park” has deep inner considerations about the city and the reader is only expected to ‘overhear’ how various people think about the city. The author implies that the city is inhospitable to morality and good manners. Therefore, the readers can make clear discriminations concerning the quality of life that can be provided by either the city or the countryside. Although Fanny originally came from an urban setting, there is a distinction between her new countryside abode and her perceptions about London.
Furthermore, Fanny uses London as her measuring yard when she is making considerations about life in other places. Life in Fanny’s hometown of Portsmouth is dominated by the lifestyle of working class citizens. Portsmouth is also dominated by the poverty of its residents. Fanny’s initial feelings about the countryside are informed by the fact that she considers the rural setting to be a place of little pressures. The countryside of eighteenth century England was a place of “honesty and virtue, without vice, but it was later corrupted by the city, and became a place where improvement of character was necessary and virtue was questionable” (Ferguson 120). The distinctions between country and city life are also revealed in a conversation between Mary Crawford and Edmund Bertram. During this conversation, Mary remarks that “the metropolis, [she] imagines, is a pretty fair sample of the rest” (Austen 66).
Mary’s considerations about the superiority of city life are a testament of her oblivion and ignorance when it comes to the moral fabric of the society. Edmund replies to Mary’s curiosity by telling her that morality is most likely upheld in the countryside;
“Not, [he] should hope, of the proportion of virtue to vice throughout the kingdom. We do not look in great cities for our best morality. It is not there, that respectable people of any denomination can do most good” (Austen 66).
The connection between social statuses and places of living is a distinction that has been carried from the eighteenth century English society up to the modern times. The modern society has similar distinctions when it comes to morality and urban and rural-based livelihoods. The Mansfield’s residents who have traveled reveal the distinctions that accompany the quality of life in various locations. Mansfield Park introduces Fanny to new social practices. For example, Fanny’s role as a woman in Mansfield Park is solidified by new social practices such as “coming out to the society” and acting “quiet and modest” as a girl (Austen 36).
Consequently, upon Fanny’s return to Portsmouth, she sees things differently and even advises her sister to change her mannerisms. Interestingly, Fanny’s hometown is discriminated against owing to its lack of affluence. Therefore, Fanny’s return to her hometown is considered as a punishment because of her refusal to accept a marriage proposal from a rich man. The discrimination that is directed towards Portsmouth is based on nothing else but the prevalent class and the town’s lack of distinctive practices. When Fanny refuses her sure entry to an enviable social class by turning down Henry’s marriage proposal, she is sent back to Portsmouth “a place of poverty and negative experiences” (Davidson 244). Discrimination against places of living also extends to their residents. However, it appears that even though Fanny has lived in Mansfield for the most part of her life, she is unable to shake-off her Portsmouth identity.
Prior to Fanny’s repatriation to her hometown of Portsmouth, she is not allowed to forget that she is a stranger to the lifestyle and social class of Mansfield Park. Various people including Mrs. Norris take it upon themselves to remind Fanny that she is not part of Mansfield Park. On one occasion, Mrs. Norris accuses Fanny of lying around in a sofa and implies that she does not have the right to do so owing to her lowly social status (Austen 52).
At the Bertram household, Fanny assumes the hybrid position of servant and family member. Therefore, Fanny is constantly excluded in various Bertram family activities and she is also required to stay back and wait on Lady Bertram while the other Bertrams go out on social events. The distinction between Fanny and the Bertram girls is further expounded by the fact that they are allowed to be idle while she is not. Fanny is expected to be busy with family chores around the Bertram estate. It is evident that Fanny is discriminated against by members of the Bertram household due to her humble origins (Ferguson 118). For instance, all the family members freely interfere with Fanny’s choice of marital partner. This form of interference is not witnessed when Maria, Julia, and Mary are choosing their husbands.
“Mansfield Park” is a rather dull novel because Jane Austen dwells too much on the theme of social class. The author surgically pinpoints how social class is both a cause and an effect of distinction and discrimination in Mansfield Park. Each character is assigned a social status that prompts other characters and readers to make subsequent distinctions and discriminations. The distinction between the Bertrams and the Prices revolves around the elements of order and disorder in the two households. On the other hand, several characters are discriminated upon as a result of their past, current, and future social statuses.
Austen, Jane. Mansfield park, New York: Archipoche, 2007. Print.
Butler, Marilyn. “Jane Austen and the war of ideas.” The realist novel 6.2 (1975): 224-232. Print.
Davidson, Jenny. “A Modest Question about Mansfield Park.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 16.2 (2004): 243-264. Print.
Ferguson, Moira. “Mansfield Park: Slavery, Colonialism, and Gender.” Oxford Literary Review 13.1 (2001): 118-139. Print.