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Mansfield Park - Jane Austen
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Mansfield Park
Jane Austen

“Mansfield Park” is the most condensed and complex novel ever written by Jane Austen, and is her first novel that was conceived, written, and published at her mature years. Even though it lacks in the playful ironic humor which is so characteristic of Austen’s other novels, it is the novel that most clearly shows another aspect of the writer: her philosophical anxieties, her social concern, and her mature feminism.

   Austen seems fearful of the impact change and progress has on traditional life including its morals, beliefs, and behavior. As a result her themes revolve around change, the battle between good and evil, character, dependency, and independence. The subtle battle between good and evil is one between the moral forces of the serene Mansfield Park, and the amoral intruders whose “London values” pose a threat to the traditional ways of Mansfield.

   There is a great question, which seems to preoccupy Austen in writing “Mansfield Park”. Is character formed in relation to environment and opportunity? Or is character the innate tendencies to be “good” or “evil”, “moral” or “amoral”, “quiet” or “loud”. Most importantly, how far can one change by adapting to one’s environment. The example of Fanny Price displays the difficulty in finding definite answers to such questions.

   Fanny first appears as the poor relation from Portsmouth and is small, awkward, and shy. The absence of family identity makes Fanny a displaced person: she feels homesick wherever she is. When at Mansfield she longs for Portsmouth, and when she finally returns to Portsmouth at eighteen she discovers that Mansfield is where she belongs. She returns to find Mansfield shattered by scandal and disgrace, and to be placed at the center of what has remained of the Bertram family.

   What is striking and confusing is how the pious Fanny manages to be perfectly happy when surrounded by the misery of those close to her, while she was miserable when these same people were happily enjoying their lives. Isn’t Austen thus questioning “goodness” or at least the saintliness in Fanny’s character? The novel poses several such disturbing questions, which challenge values like tradition and stability, which it appears to praise.

   Austen doesn’t present all change as negative, but merely states that for change to be positive it must be “natural”. Fanny, the pillar of goodness and morality clearly expresses this idea: “How wonderful, how very wonderful the operations of time and the changes of the human mind”. Fanny’s philosophical ideas are an indication of her intellectual advancement, which was made possible by the opportunities she now had at Mansfield Park. Thus Austen also expresses her views on the importance of environment in shaping or even changing one’s character. However, the concept of innate individuality does not escape Austen: “when one thinks of it, how astonishing a variety of nature”. Isn’t this symbolic of the variety in the human species? One solid example is how radically different Fanny is from Mary.

   Austen is also perplexed with how some people can deviate from the most basic rules of creation: “plants differing in the rule and law of their existence”. Isn’t this a reflection on the amorality of some young aristocrats? However, as “amorality” is presented as “not natural” it cannot be eternally present in the soul of a human being. Doesn’t Henry Crawford repent? Doesn’t he show a need to be good? Even at the height of his amoral state of mind he would reflect “with something of a consciousness” when reminded of his wrongdoing. At the very least he shows signs of wanting to reform himself, even if he is too weak to do so.

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